Art as the Cognition of Life

Notes on Artistic Creativity

Voronsky’s notes on two major works, the three-volume memoir My Life at Home and at Yasnaya Polyana by Tatiana Andreyevna Kuzminskaya, and theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanivslaski’s autobiography My Life in Art. Kuzminskaya’s memoir was published in English in 1948 under the title Tolstoy as I Knew Him: My Life at Home and at Yasnaya Polyana.

Tatiana Andreyevna Kuzminskaya was the younger sister to Leo Tolstoy’s wife, Sofia Andreyevna Tolstaya. Though largely unknown outside the Russian-speaking world, she is an accomplished memoirist who authored the most complete literary source on Tolstoy’s domestic and artistic life. Many of her manuscripts were edited by Tolstoy himself.

I. Tolstoy’s Realism

Voronsky contrasts Tolstoy’s realism with the semifantastic works of Nikolai Gogol (Dead Souls, Taras Bulba) and Fyodor Dostoevsky (The Idiot, Crime and Punishment). It is worth referring back to Voronsky’s 1925 essay “On Art” and his remarks on Tolstoy’s “naïve realism”. (p.268)

[Tolstoy] followed different paths from, let us say, Gogol or Dostoevsky. In their works Gogol and Dostoevsky merely moved away from life and reality. They placed their heroes in semireal, semifantastic surroundings. They did so because reality oppressed them and left them unsatisfied. They were not in tune with reality. Since they occupied a special, semifantastic world, their heroes seemed to take on characteristics which were not true to life, but, of course, which were still artistically truthful. …Where and when has anyone ever seen in real life a Pliushkin, Khlestakov, or Nozdrev, much less a Raskolnikov, Smerdyakov, Svidrigailov or Karamazov? …neither Gogol’s nor Dostoevsky’s heroes exist in real form. They are conceivable only in the artificial milieu in which they are placed by the artist’s will.

Voronsky asserts that the progressive artist must combine the genuine, sensual realism of Tolstoy and the oppositional idealism of Gogol and Dostoevsky. (p.271)

There is no doubt that Tolstoy portrayed “accurately” the world of Natasha, the Bolkonskys, Dolly, and Anna Karenina, since he didn’t want to tear himself away from that world for even an instant: at that time it was dear to him and interesting. Where as Gogol’s and Dostoevsky’s heroes lose their lustre in real every day life, and become clearly visible in artificial and often semidelirious circumstances, the heroes and personages of Tolstoy’s novels can only be imagined in their real-life setting. …Tolstoyan realism with its “accurate” portrayals of people and events is nourished in art by a pagan love of life and love of the real world. Following the Tolstoyan path in art are people who eagerly and joyfully “accept the world” and love the “sticky spring leaves” without cracking up, without handing over their ticket, without immersing themselves in fear and suffering.

Which way is closer to us today as we search for the new city: Tolstoy’s way of “accurate” portrayal, or the way pursued by Gogol and Dostoevsky, which is filled with fabrication and denial? One must assume that our modern-day artists should seek a synthesis of both methods in art. Tolstoy is both near and dear to us, since, like him, we firmly love the flesh of life, the earth, its joys and delights… but far from everything in the reality which still surrounds us is to our “liking”. As new and decisive transformers of reality, we cannot remain in the happy physical and spiritual state of equilibrium which Lev Nikolaevich enjoyed when he was writing War and Peace.

End of “I. Tolstoy’s Realism”.

II. The Secret of Artistic Reincarnation

Voronsky describes his concept of “artistic reincarnation”, which is (p.273):

“the artist’s ability to re-embody himself, to become thoroughly accustomed to another person, to think his thoughts and experience his feelings. Lev Nikolaevich possessed the power of reincarnation to the highest degree. Kuzminskaya notes: “He was able to understand and sympathise with people of every age.” “He stared at me intently, and I felt that his eyes were looking right through me and reading all my secret throughts without any hindrance.” “Liovochka knows everything…” “He holds too much.”

The period immediately following the emancipation of serfs in 1861 was a period of social upheaval and creative efflorescence. A new generation of the intelligentsia emerged in the 1860s, the raznochintsy, the “sons” who rebelled against the “fathers” of the 1840s and 1850s. The raznochintsy authors came from the lower classes, wrote about the lives of broader sections of the Russian populace, and refused to romanticise peasant life (and thus argue for serfdom). As Rose L. Glickman explains:

“the young intelligentsia had grown reluctant to accept the milieu depicted by the writers of the 1840s and 1850s as the only one worth writing about. The literature of earlier decades had mirrored the lives, dilemmas, and aspirations of the gentry. The new intelligentsia deeply resented the narrow focus which excluded from literature the problems of a broader cross section of the Russian population. This was, then, a call to write about the masses—the narod—not as idealized though ancillary figures embellishing the preoccupations of the upper classes, but as people in their own right.”

Tolstoy reacted to these new writers and their new literature very negatively. He was one of the “fathers”, and he emerged from a completely different social background (p.274):

‘What was most important in life’ during those years at Yasnaya Polyana were wife, children, relatives, and well-being. For us—a generation of different social origin which grew up in a fiety revolutionary social milieu—it is now difficult, even almost impossible to imagine the life at Yasnaya Polyana of those times. That is because the social in us has so completely subordinated and pushed into the background anything personal and familial: the family is something quite different for us. One is amazed by this way of life, where everything is adapted and times to coincide with the family most of all; where everything was permeated and filled with wife, children, and cooking. In its own way this was a very strong and happy life, but very narrow, very egotistical, stagnant, protected from the surrounding world by a high wall, and indifferent to everything happening beyond this wall. It had its own wealth of joys and sorrows, and in its way was unique and unrepeatable, for it will hardly ever be restored even in somewhat altered forms.”

Voronsky outlines the conditions necessary for an artist to be capable of “artistic reincarnation” (p.276):

It is, of course, true that our young writers often approach their heroes schematically and dryly, but I think that our artists never will be able to show their heroes in their personal and family life with such captivating and miraculous power because the kind of family and personal life recorded by Tolystoy has long since been forgotten; and besides, it is now more obscure for anyone’s purview, even one close to it. …for the time being we only have to note the following: The gift of artistic transformation is a gift from nature, but it only develops when certain favourable conditions are at hand. One of these conditions, for instance, is an active imagination. Another no less and perhaps more important condition is a “jealous love” or a sense of hatred on the part of the artist, or in general the presence of strong feelings towards those he is portraying in his works. No matter how diverse and abundant the thoughts and feelings of the artist, it is impossible for him to transform himself with a feeling of cool indifference; it is impossible to do this as well if the artist does not receive powerful, loving, and sincere support from those whom he layer is to portray “accurately”… The creative act is an act in which both the artist and the model of his work participate.

End of “II. The Secret of Artistic Reincarnation”.

III. On Technique, and the Response of Contemporaries

Voronsky talks about the high standards that Tolstoy set for himself, as recalled by Kuzminskaya (p.278):

“Sometimes authors submit what are nearly rough drafts The usual appeals—we have no aristocratic estates like Yasnaya Polyana—are justified, but not convincing. They are only ‘pitiful words’. When a reader opens a book, he doesn’t care if the author… didn’t have a study, was starving, and didn’t have enough time to finish his work. He needs high artistic qualifications. He might say, ‘I am prepared to help the writer, to join him in fighting for and attaining the betterment of his material and legal status, but when he gives me his book for judgment, then every word must be weighed and verified.’”

Voronsky elevates the value of praise in artistic criticism, in being encouraging and comradely towards the artist. He begins with another excerpt from her memoirs, Kuzminskaya recalls when Tolstoy sent her brother to fetch the latest issue of the Russkii Vestnik (Russian Herald) in advance, where he expected a review:

“He was anxiously awaiting it, and when my brother was lingering a bit, Lev Nikolaevich hurried him along, saying, ‘Don’t you want to be a general in the infantry? Yes? Well I want to be a general in literature! Run along and bring me that newspaper!’

“Tolstoy wrote at that time to his wife: ‘It is dangerous when they don’t offer praise, or when they lie, but it is useful when you feel that a strong impression has been made.’

“Here our modern-day attitudes come to mind over and over again. Why is it now acceptable to think that it is harmful to praise a ‘promising’ artist? …it is better and more useful for the artist to help and encourage him, rather than score critical points. This is also better for the reader, since it teaches him to be attentive toward the artist and to find what is positive and valuable in his work. …the monopolistic position of the communist press obliges us to be particularly careful, particularly responsible, and compels us moreover to remember Tolstoy’s words: ‘It is dangerous when they don’t offer praise.’

End of “III. On Technique, and the Response of Contemporaries”.

IV. The Need to Work Hard; Sand and Stone

Voronsky moves onto the Stanislavsky’s conversational autobiography, My Life in Art (p.280):

“The true artist is obliged to work tirelessly without being satisfied for an instant with the results achieved—this is what Stanislavsky’s book tells us most of all. Talent is talent, and one’s inner core is important, but both talent and one’s inner being demand assiduous polishing and the most painstaking work. Stanislavsky’s book is permeated with blood and sweat.”

Voronsky previously (on p. 279) quoted writer Maxim Gorky, “An artist can learn mastery only from another artist.” Voronsky agreed, with qualifications: the evaluations of other artists are “usually very subjective and one-sided.” In Stanislavski’s autobiography we can see another example of this, of the necessity for artists to copy masters in order to learn, but in the process, unfortunately imitating their masters’ shortcomings (p.281):

“Stanislavsky tells about one prominent actor of the time: despite all his merits he had one shortcoming, he nodded his head. Those who followed his talent also forced their students to nod their heads. ‘Whole graduating classes of students left this school with nodding heads.’

Voronsky warns that artists who lack the sufficient creative powers to create an honest, good artwork are “forced to resort to artificial and false devices; from this circumstance the usual defects in the actor’s performance become even more noticeable. ‘When people strike a false note under their breath, it is unpleasant, but if they strike a false note when shouting at the top of their lungs, then the unpleasant effect becomes even greater.’

Voronsky cites one last obstacle facing the artist that Stanislavski mentions in his book (p.282):

“it is playing ‘in general’; such performances ‘in general’ which are lacking individuality, uniqueness, vivid characterisation, and details which are closely bound up with copying and blind imitation. Instead of a concrete, vivid image, this leads to schematic abstract clichés and hackneyed attempts at acting.”

Voronsky notes that this particular obstacle is one of the biggest facing an actor:

“In a writer’s creative endeavours, or in sculpture or in painting, the artist can set his work aside and wait for another, more inspired moment. The actor, however, performs on specific days at specific times; his schedule is precisely set and he cannot refuse to go onto the stage or say that he is not in the right mood. …The entire ‘system’ developed by the creator of the Art Theatre—we will soon be discussing this system—aims at assisting the actor in being able to transform himself at specific times.”

End of “IV. The Need to Work Hard; Sand and Stone”.

IV. Once Again on Transformation

Again, as Hegel noted, content and form are, in a genuine work of art, one and the same. Voronsky writes (p.283) that “An inner state demands external expression, or a sign; only with the help of these signs can it be shown and transmitted to another person.” He cites incidences recalled by Stanislavski in his autobiography (p.283):

“He [Stanislavski] spent an agonisingly long time trying to find how the role should be played, and although he didn’t find the needed image, an incident came to his assistance: ‘one line in the make-up lent a lively and comic expression to my face, and immediately something somewhere inside me turned over.’ The external feature helped the artist discover an image, find the correct tone and proper movements, and become inspired with the role. Stanislavski speaks of the ‘fortunate coincidence’ in another passage as well. ‘My next work was the role of the broker, Obnovlensky, in Fedotov’s play, The Ruble… Like Sotanville, after long sufferings the role succeeded due to an accident during make-up. In his haste, the barber glued the right side of my moustache higher than the left. From this mistake my facial expression toon on an air of cunning and boorishness. In addition to the moustaches, I drew my right eyebrow higher than the left… and everyone understood that my Obnovlensky was a crook.’ …Real art is the art of minor characteristic details, the path of direct depiction, the way or corporeal, material expression. Whether Stanislavski wants to or not, he confirms what is for us Marxists an indisputable fact: art always has reality as its object, and it is materialistic. Idealist, mystical tendencies in art always lead into an impasse, because supernatural, otherworldly realms, and transsensual moods cannot find external and material formulation on our ‘sinful planet’; they cannot find the ‘fortunate coincidence’ which Stanislavski describes. The creative act of transformation is a material act, expressed in the fact that the artist finds typical external traits, details, lines, and qualities. An actor who is unable to find the ‘fortunate coincidence’ replaces genuine acting with the artificial, empty, lifeless, or bombastic utterance of words, and the waving of hands. The same thing applies to a writer. …It is possible to write hundreds of pages with detailed descriptions of the spiritual states of various heroes, and they will not move or even reach the reader, but find one ‘line in my make-up’, one feature—some kind of pestle lost in the garden by Mitya Karamazov, some kind of ribbon which was wrapped around a packet of money for Grushenka, some kind of scene with the doll in Natasha Rostova’s nursery, some kind of ‘passionate rags’ in Babel’s story—and this will tell us ten, one hundred, or even a thousand times more about peoples’ inner moods and feelings than these hundreds of uninspired pages.”

On the other side of this is the danger that the “external” side of an artwork is overemphasised, obfuscating its inner content (p.284):

“Our imagism, both in poetry and prose, a fascination with the image as an end in itself, inevitably leads to a situation where the image organically has no connection with the content and lives its own independent life. …one cannot limit the tasks of the artist to external realism alone; artistic truth lies in the combination of external and internal realism.”

Voronsky discusses at length the “creative mood” raised by Stanislavski. The artist—regardless of medium—must become distant to themselves and to their own everyday reality, and yield themself to feelings outside of themselves. He cites writer Alexander Pushkin (p.286):

‘one must turn away from one’s common, everyday mood and become infected with the creative mood; one must neglect “the cares of everyday life”, cast off “cold dreams” and renounce the “world’s amusements”.’ …In this there is nothing supernatural or ascetic. Everyone knows of instances when artists shed tears over their inventions, when they weep or rejoice with their heroes, or fear for them. The same feelings are experienced by readers if they are ‘carried away’ by a novel, novella, short story, or painting. In rejecting everyday moods and becoming infected with the creative mood, the artist seemingly frees himself from anything accidental, borrowed, and superfluous… Stanislavski is justified in noting that there are actors—and writers, we might add—that are in love with themselves, in everything they see only themselves. ‘They need Hamlet and Romeo the way a fashionable young lady needs new make-up.’

By externalising these inner qualities via artistic reincarnation, Voronsky argues that (p.287):

“artists see ‘vices’ more clearly and are better at being certain of ‘virtue’. They therefore help both themselves and the reader condemn what is considered evil and approve what is socially positive in a given epoch. In the wonderful words of [Romanian writer] Panait Istrati: ‘Art wages war against our vices.’

Despite the lack of immediate relation to everyday, earthly concerns or living, artistic creativity has, as with all other feelings and thoughts experienced and expressed by man, its origins in matter, a material birthplace. Thus given aesthetic moods and creations bear the imprint of the epochs in which they developed (p.287):

“The aesthetic emotion, as a psychological state, lacks any immediate utilitarianism, pragmatism, or ‘earthly concerns’. From this it b no means follows, of course, that a feeling of the beautiful has some otherworldly or supernatural origins. On the contrary, the entire history of art is clearly and sufficiently convincing in showing that our concepts of the beautiful are strictly dependent on and conditions by economic, political, historical, and social conditions…”

End of “V. Once Again on Transformation”.

VI. K.S. Stanislavski’s “System”

Stanislavski outlines his “system” of invoking the creative mood—they must commit their entire self to the artistic truth, forget the existence of reality and permit no distractions. Stanislavski places importance on fixing one’s attention on one’s bodily sensations (p.288):

“I understood [i.e., I felt] that creativity is primarily the full concentration of one’s entire spiritual and physical nature. This embraces not only sight and hearing, but all five human senses. Moreover it includes one’s body, thoughts, intellect, will, feeling, memory, and imagination. One’s entire spiritual and physical being must be focused during creativity on what is happening in the soul of the character being portrayed.”

Though we may witness happy accidents that raise to the light hidden truths, the fact remains that we may witness anything and everything, but sight alone is not enough to make an artistic discovery. The artist must have the power of intuition (p.289):

“Earlier we introduced Stanislavski’s accounts about ‘fortunate coincidence’, but the comprehension of the inner content of a work of art when aided only by an external character trait is indeed always fortuitous; it becomes secure only when the artist and reader possess the gift of intuition.”

This again drives the artist’s unconscious sieving of material, gleaning kernels of truth from material reality. Voronsky cites this account by Stanislavski (p.290):

This, personally, brings to my mind the obsession with “photorealism” in CGI (particularly in the video game industry), and the photorealist painting movement. There is an obsession with technical mastery here—and while impressive, it may be simply very hollow. At times it borders on artifice…

“The second and third fingers of my hands would stretch forward for greater emphasis, as if I were trying to thrust my feelings, words, and thoughts into the very soul of the listener. All these needs and habits appeared instinctively, unconsciously. Where did they come from? Later I accidentally figured out their origin: several years after playing Stockmann, when I met a scholar in Berlin whom I had known earlier from a Vienna sanitorium, I recognised that my fingers in Stockmann came from him. It is highly probably that they unconsciously came to me from this living example. And from a famous Russian musician I recognised my manner of stamping my feet à la Stockmann.”

Voronsky laments the mysticism which Stanislavski seems to have accepted as the source of artistic intuition, and advises the reader to not be put off by the metaphysical leanings of Stanislavski’s work as it is a valuable contribution to the understanding of artistic cognition (p.291):

“…in any work of art there is an emotional dominant, a general world view, and a general sensing of the world, people, and events; the roots of this basic feeling penetrate deeply into the core of the unconscious, instinctive, and intuitive. …the task of the artist is to uncover this fundamental, unique, and individual sensation, but here there is nothing unreal, nothing emanating from a ‘World Soul’… In our times, in the epoch of revolutions and of the sharpened struggle of workers against mysticism and the ‘trans-sensual’, which have become the centres of all that is reaction, such expressions as ‘the World Soul’ and others may drive many readers away from the book. That is all the more lamentable, because, fundamentally… Stanislavski’s book is a healthy, realistic, and profound work.”

End of “VI. K.S. Stanislavski’s ‘System’.

VII. Politics and Artistric Truth. Conclusion.

Stanislavski recounts in his biography the electrifying response the Moscow Art Theatre’s staging of An Enemy of the People had on its audience in 1905, during the disastrous Russo-Japanese War and the year of the failed February revolution. Tendentious applause broke out when the artists were not expecting it, and at the end of the performance, audience members clamoured to shake Stanislavski’s hand, and even jumped up on stage to kiss him. “For us, Stockmann was not a politician, not an orator before mass crowds, but only an intelligent, honest, and truthful person.”

Voronsky warns that it is unwise for an artist to maintain such blindness to current social affairs: “We can’t demand that the artist become a professional politician, but nevertheless, like every citizen he must keep the social and political side of things in mind as he works.” But in defence of the artist, he also comments that the current tendency amongst younger artists and art critics is to replace all artistic assessment with a “prosecutorial investigation”, to judge the value of a work on “correct” political pedigree (“Does the author belong to the petty-bourgeoisie?”) and taking confused, problematic, or incorrect statements without even looking at the artistic merits of the work (p.295):

“Our people often treat an artist as if, like a politician, he only thinks about how his play or work will be interpreted in a social and political light. The social and political assessment is in actual fact decisive and fundamental, especially in our times. But it must be made without ever forgetting one extremely important circumstance, that the genuine artist is primarily seeking the truth of artistic depiction, and that is one of the peculiarities of art. Actors in Ibsen’s play did not ask themselves how their performance of Ibsen’s play would sound socially, because they primarily were thinking and worrying about the artistically truthful production of the Norwegian writer’s drama. …whilst evaluating a given work of art sociologically, we must ask the question: To what degree is reality portrayed in an artistically truthful and sincere manner, and how does this truth sound from a social and political perspective in the given performance?”

End of “VII. Politics and Artistric Truth. Conclusion.”