Art as the Cognition of Life

Art as the Cognition of Life, and the Contemporary World
(Concerning Our Literary Disagreements)

“What is proletarian art?”
“Is there such a thing?”
“What is the duty of the artist loyal to the proletariat?”
“How do we combat the influence of the bourgeoisie in our art?”

These are the sorts of questions that were being fiercely debated in 1923 as part of the wider question of the social, political, and cultural tasks of the working class, in the wake of the Civil War and the New Economic Policy. In the literary debate, artists and critics from numerous circles were involved, including the journal LEF, the Formalists, and the Futurists, though much of the fire in that discussion was exchanged between Voronsky and the editors of the newly founded journal On Guard.

This is the second of the three essays written by Voronsky that year on these questions published in this volume. The first of these is “Sharp Phrases and the Classics”. The third is “On Proletarian Art and the Artistic Policy of Our Party”.


Like science, art cognizes life. Both art and science have the same subject: life, reality. But science analyses, art synthesises; science is abstract, art is concrete; science turns to the mind of man, art to his sensual nature Science cognises life with the help of concepts, art with the aid of images in the form of living, sensual contemplation. …as [literary critic Vassarion] Belinsky previously wrote [in his 1839 essay “Woe from Wit” (Gore ot uma)], “…poetry is the same as philosophy, the same as thinking, because it has the same content… The poet thinks in images; he does not prove the truth, but shows it.”

The genuine poet, the genuine artist is the one who sees ideas. Belinsky gives us an inspired description of this essence of artistic creation [in his article on Nikolai Gogol] which stands unto this day:

“The creations of the artist are still a secret for us all. He has yet to take pen in hand, and already he sees them clearly, already he can count the folds of their dresses, the furrows on their brows which are creased with pain and sadness, and already he knows them better than you know your own father, brother, friend, your mother, sister, or beloved sweetheart. He also knows what they will say and do, he sees the entire thread of events which will wind around them and bind them together.”

The artist cognises life, but does not copy it… he embodies it “with the all-seeing eyes of his feelings.” …he does not see everything; he must omit, not notice, whatever has no cognitive value, whatever is accidental, uninteresting, well-known. …The true work of art always strikes one with its novelty; it excites one profoundly, it is always a discovery. The life which surrounds us flows by from day to day in a familiar and accustomed channel… our feelings invariable and inevitable lag behind in their development… we are still in the power of what has been before. …in the dizzying whirlwind of life, the true artist, with his artist’s eye, grasps what we pass by… From small, insignificant details he synthetically creates the large, the great; he enlarges objects and people in his artistic microscope, passing by what is known and cognized. He raises life to a “pearl of creation”; properties and traits, which are tossed and scattered about, he brings together, extracting what is characteristic. Thus what is created in our imagination is a life which is condensed, purified, sifted…

That is why the artist must have his own eyes; that is why he must see and hear not as people usually see and hear. This is the individuality of the artist.


Cognition is also in a certain sense an act of volition. …The scientist or the artist controls and audits what is given in his perceptions and thoughts with what is given outside himself. …the artist or scientist focuses his attention on one thing, not wiching to notice anything else. Volition enters into the act of cognition as an indispensable element. This act in no way resembles blissful contemplation, or an aimless stare.


Literature and art undoubtedly serve one or another class in a society which is thus divided. But it by no means follows that what is given or achieved as a result of artistic experience is lacking objective value.

Voronsky explains that a sociological analysis of an artwork—that is, the examination of a work’s development in class society—is only half the work of the Marxist critic. This is not enough to determine whether the artwork artistically corresponds to objective truth. The second half of the critic’s work is: (p.120)

the need to aesthetically evaluate a given work of art. The aesthetic evaluation in art corresponds to logical evaluation in science. The aesthetic evaluation as we understand it is not… the savouring of beauty for the sake of beauty, or aesthetic appreciation in the name of aesthetic appreciation. To evaluate a work aesthetically means to determine the extent to which the content corresponds to the form; …the extent to which the content corresponds to objective artistic truth. …the image… must correspond to the nature of what is portrayed. …A false idea, a false content cannot find a perfected form, i.e., cannot aesthetically move us in a profound manner, or “infect” us.

Voronsky demonstrates the absurdity of the On Guardists who complain of the “almost caricatures” of communists in recent artistic works, with this or that figure or personality described with this or that mundane (or perhaps in their minds, unflattering) details, such as their freckles, the patterns of their glasses, their hair. These same critics neglect to ask what relations and contradictory thoughts and feelings these personalities have about the International, this new society. They don’t think deeply about these burning questions, and what they demand are not images of real people, but of steely, flawless ideals. (p. 134)

No, according to [On Guard editor Semian A.] Rodov, the Siberian partisans must have stood only for the International, they should not have onsidered land to be the moving force, and all the Peklevanovs must be tall, strapping fellows.

(p.135, footnote 11):

…in [Ilya] Erenburg’s novel there is no living, talking, misbehaving, suffering, and celebrating conglomeration, in whose name the Communist Party struggles with the old world. Nor does this mass exist for Kurbov; with its own interests, pain, work, and love of life, this mass brings the ideal of communism down to earth, gives it flesh and blood, makes it earthly, and links the “formula” to the “chicken”, the ideal to the real. …the party is not simply a guillotine, nor a dynamo, nor a formula, but a living, impassioned collective of people, welded together by the “intoxicating warmth” of life.