Art as the Cognition of Life

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

What can we learn from the art of the bourgeoisie? What about the fellow travellers? According to the On Guardists, nothing—they are of an alien class and so any cultural work they produce is of an alien character to the working class. Here Voronsky objects to this throwing of the baby out with the bathwater (p.83):

Does this mean, however, that [artworks of the bourgeoisie] are lacking any objective value…? This would be true only if our classics were exclusively subjective in art, if the objective element in their works was completely absent. …genuine art consists in thinking with the aid of images. Such thinking can be just as objective as scientific, discursive thinking with the aid of concepts. Such true art takes its material from reality. It is by no means the truit harvested from the play of poetic fantasy… it has nothing in common with subjective “making it up as you go along”. …It is fundamentally realistic and it always must be true; that is, it must correspond to one degree or another to reality.


…in their minds [of the editorial board of On Guard], a sufficiently critical attitude means not to examine bourgeois-gentry literature dialectically, that is in connection with the growth, development, and fate of the bourgeoisie and gentry in order to force one to study and then assimilate the brilliant works of the great masters. Rather, it means to toss everything together into one great trash heap in order to completely finish with both the form and content of the supposedly dead art of past epochs (the “granite monument”).

Concerning the oppositional heritage of the literary masterpieces written by the Russian propertied classes, Voronsky cites Rosa Luxemburg’s 1918 essay “Life of Korolenko”, which was printed in the second issue of Red Virgin Soil for 1921 (p.91):

Russian Literature emerged suddenly, as an indisputable member of European literature; in its veins flowed the blood of Dante, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Byron, Lessing, and Goethe. With the bound of a lion it made up for what had been missed during the previous hundred years, and it became a full-fledged member in the family circle of Western literature.

What is most characteristic about [it]… is that it was born in opposition to the existing social structure, and infused with a martial spirit. …In no other country and in no other epoch was literature such a social force as Russian literature during the epoch of tsarism. It remained at its post for an entire century until it was replaced by the real face of the popular masses, until word was transformed into flesh.