“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 third 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 second is “Art as the Cognition of Life, and the Contemporary World”.
The danger of succumbing to alien class interests in art is unfortunately often met with an overzealous and uncritical renunciation of all the cultural fruits of the bourgeoisie. (p.152)
Things, however, begin to go wrong when, instead of critically absorbing the cultural heritage, the tendency begins to dominate to create a new culture and a new art in opposition to the old culture and the old art, without seriously and fundamentally assimilating either one. That’s the way it almost always is. People advocate the creation of a new proletarian art and culture in a milieu which never had the opportunity to master the past heritage and which is sometimes instinctively hostile to it. To advocate such police is untimely and simply harmful.
Voronsky explains that it is not enough to point to a work of art written by a worker and say, “There it is! We have proletarian culture now!” He explains that the working class, especially the Russian working class (note that an 1897 Russian census reported a literacy rate of just 21%, an inflated figure as any adult who could write their name was counted as literate), has occupied a subordinate and oppressed role in capitalist society, has been denied both access to bourgeois culture and the opportunity to build and develop their own flourishing, growing culture. There is no proletarian art in the sense in which bourgeois art exists. (p.157)
It is absolutely true that there are bourgeois and aristocratic writers. Their works reflect the ideology of these classes. There are working class writers… and their writings reflect the communist ideology of the proletariat. But that doesn’t mean in any way that we therefore have proletarian art. Let us take, for example, L.N. Tolstoy’s War and Peace. In order to write such a work, there had to be other conditions besides the genius of the artist. The old aristocratic way of life and cultural structure had to exist and more or less have become firmly situated: aristocratic “nests”, estates outside Moscow, the palaces of Petersburg and the mansions of Moscow; house serfs, peasant serfs, aristocratic lords; quit-rent, the whole aristocratic economic, political, and family life, with all its “aromas” and customs. Above this structure, in the form of a superstructure, there arose a multifaceted complex of instinctive reactions and habits, followed by views, ethical norms, opinions, convictions, aesthetic tastes, scientific knowledge, beliefs, superstitions, doubts, and so forth. [Tolstoy’s characters] are born and bred by this milieu. …Here we are not talking about merely ideas, but about an entire interlinked and unique cultural complex. The artist dealt with an aristocratic culture which developed over centuries and reached completed form. …by culture we mean not only ideas, but the entire sum of developed instincts, habits, ways and means of thinking, ethical and aesthetic postulates, and so forth, plus the corresponding structures of economic and political life as a foundation.
…Here is what we do have: there is bourgeois culture and art, to which the proletariat has gained access for the first time. …there is the working class, and the Communist Party, striving to master this heritage for the final victory of the proletariat. Likewise, there are writer-communists. Their task should amount to mastering for this purpose the art of the past, thereby forging a weapon for the proletariat against the bourgeoisie out of the weapons the bourgeoisie uses against the proletariat. Much like in the Civil War, when the worker used artillery, machine guns, and tanks, without paying attention to the fact that they were a product of bourgeois society, the writer-communist must also use the old art in order to conquer.
Voronsky on the demands of political censorship in the transitional period (p.169):
First of all, our comrade censors must stop interfering in the purely artistic evaluation of a work, and then they must understand that you cannot demand communist ideology, much less clearly defined communist ideology, from nonparty, intermediate writers. They… must, to the fullest extent possible, avoid narrow subjectivism in their approach to the artist. They must limit themselves to one demand: that a work not be counterrevolutionary; and they must not detect a counterrevolutionary spirit in a writer’s particular deviations from the norm, in the depiction of the dark sides of Soviet life, and so forth.