Art as the Cognition of Life

On Art

This essay has two parts: “I. Intuition and Technique” and “II. Removing the Veils”.

Voronsky explains that, as with science, the sensitive artist approaches something hitherto undiscovered about reality with their intuition. He uses the character of Mikhailov the artist from Anna Karenina as an example, and cites extensively from Tolstoy’s novel. He then elucidates the process of art criticism, that is, the translation of sensual imagery into abstract logic.

I. Intuition and Technique


The process of creativity is far from a somnambulistic state… the peculiarity of creativity lies only in the fact that it doesn’t proceed in the usual way that logical reflections do. …An artist’s intuition begins its work much earlier, with the perception and gathering of material.

He explains, using Mikhailov as an example (p.206):

…Mikhailov’s… artistic sense, quite apart from consciousness and unnoticed by the artist himself, gathered and perceived material. This process occurred intuitively. In doing this, Mikhailov did not gather material indiscriminately. He secreted away in his closet less than everything. He unconsciously absorbed things, but at the same time chose only those things which might be useful. He noted Anna’s soft light, and with Vronsky he noted the cheekbones, in particular…

Man’s ideas about the world develop from impressions received from the external world and reworked in accordance with the frame of mind and character of the given person. He perceives only what attracts his attention, and his attention is determined by interests dependent on his class milieu. The peculiarity of the artist lies only in the fact that he unconsciously separates out and notices only the typical; and this typical is not abstract, but concrete. It is an object and exists in the form of images.

…scientific creativity also rests to a significant degree on… intuition. …The majority of scientific discoveries are made at first intuitively. The axioms in mathematics originated intuitively. An intuition may be true, or it may be false.

…even in art intuitive truths can also be confirmed or refuted with the assistance of analytical reasoning. Criticism is nothing but the translation of a work from the language of intuition into the language of logic. The first critic of a work is almost always the artist himself. …In short, intuition is present both in the artist and the scientist, but with the scientist it occupies a subordinate position, and with the artist a dominant one.

Voronsky advises serious artists to develop not only new forms, tricks, and devices, but to also sharpen their intuition (p.210):

A modern artist who honestly intends to combine his talent with the strivings of the most advanced class in our times must not only study the ABCs of politics, and not only develop his powers of analytical and critical judgment; he must not only invent devices, but develop all his intuitive and instinctive capabilities in order to discover the newly unfolding future and the new life which is already upon us. …This is not easy. Our feelings and intuition lag behind the spirit of the times far more than our reason. To be intuitively permeated with this spirit is more difficult than to assimilate it consciously. For this, one must become entirely used to and enter into this new society both with one’s heart and mind. The rest—techniques, style, form—will follow.

Technique and technical mastery are not enough, and most artists instinctively know this. Here Voronsky cites a passage from Anna Karenina:

In spite of his elation, this remark about technique grated painfully on Mikhailov’s heart, and, glancing angrily at Vronsky he suddenly frowned. He often heard the word “technique” mentioned, and did not at all understand what was meant by it. He knew it meant a mechanical capacity to paint and draw, quite independent of the subject matter. He had often noticed—as now when his picture was being praised—that technique was contrasted with inner quality, as if it were possible to paint well something that was bad. He knew that much attention and care were needed not to injure one’s work when removing the unwrappings that obscure the idea, and that all wrappings must be removed, but as to the art of painting, the technique, it did not exist. If the things he saw had been revealed to a little child, or to his cook, they would have been able to remove the outer shell from their idea. And the most experienced technical painter could never paint anything by means of mechanical skill alone, if the outline of the subject matter did not first reveal itself to his mind. Moreover, he saw that if technique were spoken of then he could not be praised for it. In all he painted and ever had painted he saw defects that were an eyesore to him, the results of carelessness in removing the shell of the idea, which he could not now remedy without spoiling the work as a whole. And in almost all the figures and faces he saw traces of wrappings that had not been entirely removed and that spoils the picture.

Voronsky writes on the process of translating art from the language of sensual imagery into the language of logic—art criticism. (p.212)

…a bifurcation helps us logically to evaluate a work from various points of view. First of all, we pose the question: what idea is expressed in a given work and what is its relative social weight? Secondly, we then try to answer the question of how it is expressed, fully or incompletely, using what devices, and so forth. In this way we divide a work into content and form. But in making such a division, we must not forget for a moment about its conditional nature. A work of art is concrete; it is inherently indivisible. In the sphere of analytical, critical evaluation, and in the interests of such an analysis, we view this indivisible unity from two sides: from its inner side (content) and from its outer side (form), but each point of view deals with a unified work. In speaking of form and content, we are considering one and the same thing, only from differing points of view.

Voronsky refutes those who say that objective appraisal of art is an impossible or otherwise fruitless task (p.213):

Works of art are products of the social consciousness of a given social class. In translating a work of art from the language of images into the language of logic we are clarifying for ourselves, as G.V. Plekhanov correctly put it: “what precise aspect of social (class) consciousness is expressed in this work.” And this has colossal significance in the social struggle.

End of part 1, “I. Intuition and Technique”.

II. Removing the Veils

Voronsky begins the second part of his essay with the following passage on the work of artists who choose to engage with reality. I suspect it will rub many modern artists the wrong way: what about the “legitimacy” (because we are not allowed to say “value”) of unrealistic art, or those works based not on reality but on other works of media (that is, fan art)? What about imagination and making up things and creating ideals and idealistic worlds and models and so-on. That is not what concerns Voronsky. (p.213)

For Tolstoy the basic task for an artist lies not in notorious technique, but in his special gift of inside. Only one who sees with his own eyes and hears with his own ears what is unique and particular in his surroundings is a genuine artist. And these special insights reveal themselves only to him. He realist-writer does not dream up, invent, or create fantastic worlds; he doesn’t engage in free play of the imagination, nor does he seek embellishments for their own sake. It is as if he were reading the secret code inherent in things, people, and events. The goal of the artist is not to describe or tell a story masterfully and wonderfully. …he will be an unproductive artist… if he doesn’t have the ability to read this secret code in his own way, if he doesn’t look at the world in his own way and see something which no one has seen before him.

Voronsky cites another passage from Anna Karenina illustrating this from Mikhailov’s perspective (p.214):

About his picture, the one at present on the easel, he had at the bottom of his heart a firm opinion: that no one had ever painted anything like it. He did not consider his picture better than all Raphaels, but he knew that what he wanted to express in that picture had never yet been expressed by anyone.

Voronsky notes:

…for the artist this is an expression of the fact that he sees the world and passes on what he has seen in his own way. …Mikhailov saw Anna only a few times, but he observed with the special eyes of an artist and discovered in her what Vronsky had never noticed.

For Voronsky, the artist, like the scientists, adds to the human body of knowledge. Scientific discovers nature in proven theories, and artists discover the world by painting reality as it really is.

A genuine scientist discovers the laws of nature, otherwise he is a narrow pedant, or in the best case a gatherer of facts; but the artist, too, makes such discoveries. Mikhailov discovered a new face with Anna, whereas Vronsky had never discovered anything in her. Darwin discovered and explained the origin of species. L.N. Tolstoy discovered Platon Karataev, Eroshka, Anna, Natasha, Pierre, and Kutuzov. Each [scientist and artist] acted as a genuine innovator, but one proved while the other showed. The true artist, like the true scientist, always adds to what existed before him, otherwise he either repeats what has been established, or he simply describes things.

The artist devoted to reality occupies a passive role in relation to their subject—they do not try to change anything about it, or dress it up. (p.217)

…the imaginative expression, “removal of veils”, given all of Tolstoy’s naïve realism, is the most appropriate approach to his creativity. In all his works, Tolstoy was primarily involved in removed veils. His genius was directed at revealing life. With Tolstoy, you don’t notice any artificiality, any writer’s licence, any desire to impress the reader with some kind of affect. His great hand stripped away the veil, and the reader is greeted with life which he has seen a thousand times, but is also seeing for the first time. Tolstoy always proceeded from the complex and multifaceted to the simple and integral. It is no accident that they called him the great simplifier. There is something childlike in Tolstoy’s perception…

The clarification of objective truth in both art and science bring one closer to reality than they are in the day-to-day existence. Voronsky cites Vissarion Belinsky’s article “The Poems of M. Lermontov” (p.218):

Reality is beautiful in itself, but it is beautiful in its essence, in accordance with its elements and its content, and not according to its form. In this form, reality is pure gold, but unrefined, lying amidst heaps of ore and earth; science and art refine the gold of reality, and refashion it into exquisite forms. Consequently, science and art are not engaged in thinking up a new and unforeseen reality. They take from that which was, is, and will be, ready material, ready elements, in short, ready content, and give them proper form… Therefore, both in science and art, reality resembles reality to an even greater degree than in reality itself, and the work of art, based on invention, is higher than any fact.

Voronsky explains the conditions under which this reality is truthfully revealed or distorted:

A person’s conceptions about reality develop in dependence on the social milieu in which he lives. …An artist’s attitude to reality in class society is consequently determined by class contradictions. …in depicting the reality of life, the artist sees this reality through the prism of the thoughts and feelings of his class. Objectively he introduces the ideas of his class, and nearly always does so unconsciously. Under the influence of these thoughts and feelings he reproduced the reality of life only to the degree that these thoughts and feelings allow him to. There are instances when the reality of life is rendered very one-sidedly, there are times when it is completely distorted, and there are times when this reality emergency sharply and clearly. The last instance usually happens if the artist reflect the thoughts and feelings of a class which is flourishing, or a class which is on the rise, in short, of a class which at a given historical moment most sharply expresses the general interests of society as a whole, of a movement forward.

Having established that art has a definite class character, (p.219)

The artist who has understood the truth about the class character of art must explain: in the interests of what class does he create his art? …If he is additionally convinced that his feelings and thoughts are on the side of the proletariat, then he must ask the question: how can he best “remove the veils” from surrounding reality in the interests of that class?

Concerning the objective content of art, Voronsky cites G. V. Plekhanov’s essay “Art and Social Life” (p. 220):

I do not think there is, or can be, an absolute criterion of beauty. People’s notions of beauty do undoubtedly change in the course of the historical process. But while there is no absolute criterion of beauty, whilst all its criteria are relative, this does not mean that there is no objective possibility of judging whether a given artistic design has been well executed or not. Let us suppose that an artist wants to pain a “woman in blue”. If what he portrays in his picture really does resemble such a woman, we shall say that he has succeeded in painting a good picture. But if, instead of a woman wearing a blue dress, we see on his canvas several stereometric figures more or less thickly and more or less crudely tinted here and there with blue colour, we shall say that whatever he has painted, it certainly is not a good picture. The more closely the execution corresponds to the design, or—to use a more general expression—the more closely the form of an artistic production corresponds to its idea, the more successful it is. There you have an objective criterion.

Voronsky on the cultural growth arising from the October Revolution and the unevenness of the new, burgeoning art (p.221):

Never before in Russia have so many novellas, stories, and poems have been written as today. This is a welcome symptom. …A significant number of the manuscripts are written in a literary, literate, and even style, endowed with knowledge of the latest technical devices. …They are writing battle sketches from the Civil War period, and they are recounting surprising and unusual incidents, most often from the epoch of revolutionary struggles; here we find shootings, and the Cheka, and White Guardists, and kulaks, and generals of the White armies. What they forget is that art does not yet exist in the simple description of episodes or in engaging tales… An episode, event, fact, or adventure becomes an artistic fact only when the artist, in accordance with the profound and apt comment by A. K. Tolstoy, having “caught but a line of the form, or a sound, or a word… brings the whole creation along with it into our astonished world.” In separate parts, in details, in separate paintings one must be able to uncover this whole; then the part, the trifle and the incidental become typical for the whole, and we become amazed. We perceive this as something new.

Voronsky writes about those circles and schools of artists that cripple their members with “group self-satisfaction and self-promotion”, and other artists who take inspiration from this or that school or style, without ever having been directly inspired by life. (We can see this sort of insular art flourishing today.)

Finally, he speaks of a solitary type of artist:

…These writers are free from group inspiration, but they too are not inspired directly by life, but by flaccid, overly subjective feelings which are distant from living reality. They have created their own petty and closed little worlds and assume that everything revolves around them. They do not hear the powerful voices of life, they do not see how the new is being born amidst the agony, sorrow, and joy, under an insane degree of tension. They write for themselves, for dozens or for hundreds, whilst hundreds of thousands neither understand nor know them, nor want to know them.

Voronsky contrasts Tolstoy’s conflicting views of art, between Tolstoy-the-artist (as Mikhailov in Anna Karenina) and Tolstoy-the-thinker (in What Is Art?). The latter argues that art is not the removal of veils, but a way of communications by means of feelings. (p.224)

By defining art as a means of emotional infection, Tolstoy acted to the advantage of his own religious and metaphysical views. He wanted to subordinate art to religion, for religion, too, is a means of emotional infection, particularly in its latest stages. Here Tolstoy spoke not as a realist and an artist, but as a thinker and an idealist. …Tolstoy’s defitinion given in his theoretical book… is thoroughly permeated with a religious spirit.

Basing ourselves on what has been said, we have good grounds for asserting that the distinguishing feature of art is that it cognises and expresses the reality, life, feelings, and thoughts of people not abstractly however, but in the form of images. And to this we shall now add that the main organ through which art functions is intuition: artistic cognition is intuitive.

This mirror’s George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s comment on art’s content and form (excerpted from The Encyclopaedia Logic, Hackett Publishing Co., 1991):

“A work of art that lacks the right form cannot rightly be called a work of art, just for that reason. It is not a true work of art. It is a bad excuse for an artist as such to say that the content of his works is certainly good (or even excellent) but that they lack the right form. The only genuine works of art are precisely the ones whose content and form show themselves to be completely identical. We can say of the Iliad that its content is the Trojan War or, more precisely, the wrath of Achilles; in saying this we have said everything, but also only very little, for what makes the Iliad into the Iliad is the poetic form into which that content is moulded. Similarly the content of Romeo and Juliet is the ruin of two lovers brought about by strife between their families; but by itself this is not yet Shakespeare's immortal tragedy…”