The Crisis of Modern Art
Nicholas Berdiaev’s Prophetic Critique
by Heinrich Stammler
In 1931 there appeared in the Zeitschrift für Aesthetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft an article entitled “The Historicity of Art.” The author was a young assistant professor of Philosophy, Helmut Kuhn, who later made a name for himself as a Platonist philosopher, aesthetician, and specialist in problems of ethics. In his essay Kuhn was concerned with the question of the degree to which art is either subject to the laws of historical change or exempt by virtue of its intrinsic qualities—thus in some way transcending the perishability of all earthly things.
Paradoxically, the historicity of art becomes manifest in its very origin in a given present. This origin at a distinct point in the flux of history establishes a special relationship of the work of art to the specific situation of that moment. And so, the degree to which art is involved in the institutional life and public concerns of a given age is an indicator of the degree to which the arts are an integrated part of the life of a society. On the other hand, even the degree to which the arts are withdrawn from public concerns reflects a judgment of the time upon itself. Kuhn wished to emphasize that art cannot be regarded from a purely formal-aesthetic, phenomenological point of view; it must be seen, at least in some essential characteristics, as a sign of the times, and therefore expressive of them, either in assertion or denial.
Since the days of the Renaissance, and particularly the great age of European classicism, renewed attempts have been made to determine the specific aesthetic, moral, and even religious properties of a given period by the art forms in which it seemed to express itself. The name of Winkelmann springs to mind, who believed he could define the aesthetic and moral essence of classical antiquity on the basis of the character of its artistic creations. This was a belief that was to have a tremendous influence on the contemporary mind, being shared by authorities such as Goethe, Schiller, Keats, Pushkin and the entire neo-classicism of the age of the Empire, until toward the end of the nineteenth century, when Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Jacob Burckhard, Renan and others shattered this belief beyond all recognition.
From the Middle Ages to the age of impressionism, as long as these varied interpretations were preferred within the framework of an art, which was representational, pictorial, and objective, and for which the aesthetic values of classical antiquity and the Renaissance could be to some degree, tacitly assumed, they were not devoid of a certain plausibility—especially when formulated by ingenious, empathetic, and well-informed critics.
But in view of the jumble of confusing phenomena in the arts of our present, which seem to defy rational description, painting, sculpture, music, even writing, have appeared to break away from all established canons of taste. What began to dawn upon a startled world with cubism, fauvism, futurism, expressionism, abstractism and atonality, was tantamount to all-out iconoclasm, a nihilistic destructiveness. The artists resolutely turned their backs on the natural shapes and contours of the cosmos. All form, the human image included, was ruthlessly subjected to dissection and disintegration. The canons of beauty bequeathed by antiquity and revived and enriched by the Renaissance, were neglected or set aside. The very concept and ideal of beauty was consigned to obsolescence.
But this was not all: Art increasingly became inaccessible. It ceased to be the expression of a consensus regarding what is beautiful, harmonious, well-proportioned and pleasing to the senses. Thus, what we are accustomed to call “modern art” became “unpopular,” a stigma that it has not been able to live down even to our day. It became an art for artists and trendy critics. And art criticism, where it was not dominated by purely commercial interests, tended more and more to turn into a dialogue between “experts.” The general public was excluded from the lucubrations of the connoisseurs. The ordinary art lover saw himself relegated to the benches with the ignoramuses and the philistines.
It could also be said, in more philosophical terms, that art, with its centuries-old Western tradition of striving for ever regenerated visions of beauty, fell out of the platonic trinity of the True, the Beautiful, and the Good. Now, so it seemed, art had divorced itself from the world of meaning, shutting itself up in a realm of an arbitrary formalism devoid of all human content.
This was the situation which the illustrious Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset came upon during the 1930s, not long after the publication of Helmut Kuhn’s article, when he penned his famous essay about the “Dehumanization of the Arts.” Far from chiming in with the chorus of the contemners of modern art, he tried to explain this phenomenon to his more perceptive contemporaries.
Ortega believed that he was able to discover in its line, rhythms, and spasms a new vitality, a joyous departure to new shores of expression. He saw in it a fresh reaffirmation of the character of art as, above all, an unrestrained play of the pure imagination released from all pre-established forms and conventions. He saw in it a force now gloriously emancipated from all service to the community, civic virtue, morality, religion, patriotism, social purpose, pure sentiment, and in general from all purposive edifying or exhortatory concerns and demands. With satisfaction he observed similar manifestations of modern art all over the globe, “Thereby giving ample proof that modern art is a unified and meaningful movement.” And if art thus has forfeited much of its former seriousness which ultimately derived from its ties with the Platonic trinity, it has also won much in terms of a playful self-assertion of the original homo ludens (i.e., man exercising his creativity spontaneously, like a child yielding to the natural urge to play).
However, to the attentive reader there will not escape a subdued note of apprehension in Ortega’s spirited advocacy of modern art. Too much a son of the Mediterranean landscape, so rich in natural, organic forms and the greatest monuments in all branches of the arts, he could not but note with some alarm the destructive, quasi-nihilistic elements in modernism. Would it not be possible by means of a philosophical analysis of its art, to diagnose, amidst the bewildering phenomena of the twentieth century, the dangers, fevers, and uncertainties besetting the age? And so the following worrying questions suggested themselves to him:
Yet at this passage, just when the reader is becoming really curious about what this astute observer might be able to tell him about the destiny of his own culture, the canny Andalusian pauses. Did his inborn Latin realism at this moment warn him against launching into further predictions? He simply dismisses the reader with the tantalizing sentence: “This is the moment prudently to lay down one’s pen and let a flock of questions take off on their winged course . . . .”
Among thinkers and critics less cautious stands the celebrated Russian philosopher, Nicholas Berdiaev. He was one of the first to discern in the art of the twentieth century unmistakable indications for the universal crisis which ceaselessly agitates the contemporary consciousness and conscience.
In contrast to other philosophers of our time Berdiaev has not been much in evidence as an aesthetician; rather he is known as the outstanding representative of a specifically Russian philosophy of existence. He is one of the first Russian philosophers who, shortly after his expulsion from his homeland, made a name for himself in the West in the twenties. And he gained recognition not only in France and Germany, but also in the English-speaking world. Cambridge even bestowed an honorary degree upon him, strange to say, at the same ceremony when also Sir Bertrand Russell, his very antipode in the world of thought, was so honored.
In his youth Berdiaev was a Marxist, but around the turn of the century, after an intensive study of Kant and under the influence of the great Russian metaphysician Soloviev, and Nietzsche also, he developed in the direction of neo-idealism an ethics and metaphysics inspired by Christian thought. His philosophy is most intensely concerned with the primacy of Freedom before Being, freedom as uncreated being; the creative character of knowledge, spiritual endeavor and moral striving; an ultimately spiritual or religious commitment as the only way to convey a transcendent meaning to human existence, which otherwise would be senseless, a cruel joke of unfeeling providence or aimless evolution.
Naturally, a brief description like this cannot do justice to the wide range of Berdiaev’s spiritual and intellectual interests, but it shows the focus of his efforts. And whatever Berdiaev was—a philosopher of history and religion, a Christian existentialist, a metaphysician and moralist—never was his attention exclusively focused on problems of aesthetics. So it is significant that he should have devoted some paragraphs concerning the arts in one of his best known books, The Meaning of History. Conceived in the twenties and translated into English in 1936 (and since republished several times) this book deals with one of Berdiaev’s central problems: Does history have a meaning? And if it does, is this meaning immanent to the historical process, or does it transcend it? What is the role and function of human creativity in the process? Which manifestations of civilization can serve as an indicator of how far man has succeeded or failed to render God this assistance?
It is in this context that Berdiaev makes the following rather terrifying statements about the character of modern art:
What at first glance appears to be a random observation meant to throw light on certain symptoms of disease in the fabric of modern civilization, reveals, on closer inspection, quite a historical background. This brief paragraph inserted in the book Meaning of History turns out to be, in the light of remarks made almost twenty years earlier, the fruit of mature reflection pursued with the steady purpose of diagnosing the crisis of Western civilization. For in 1918 there appeared in Moscow amidst the turbulence of the Revolution, a slender volume from Berdiaev’s pen entitled Krizis iskusstva (The Crisis of Art), very rare nowadays and, to my knowledge, never reissued, being the only publication by Berdiaev entirely devoted to questions of art and aesthetics.
The volume contains three essays, one which gave its name to the whole, namely “The Crisis of Art,” originally a public lecture delivered in Moscow on the first of November, 1917, on the eve of the Bolshevik takeover. The second one deals with the art of Picasso and was at first published in the philosophical journal Sophia in 1914 shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. These two articles, as the author himself warns his readers, overlap in many respects. For what the philosopher expounds in the first essay regarding the crisis of art and its precarious place in modern civilization he then sees corroborated by examples furnished by one of the most typical and significant of the modernist painters, especially in his cubist period.
The third and last essay in this book, or rather brochure, contains reflections on Andrey Belyj’s famous novel Petersburg. With regard to the substance of this work, Berdiaev lays bare the theosophical and occult elements secretly or overtly permeating many chapters of this peculiar novel. But with regard to its technique and style he discerns an affinity to modernistic painting, declaring that “one could call Andrey Belyj a cubist in literature.” He would even add: “Belyj is just as nightmarish and eerie an artist as Picasso.”
Berdiaev recognizes that art in the course of its history had to contend with repeated crises. The transition from Classical Antiquity to the Middle Ages, and from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance was, in every individual case, marked by events and phenomena which must be perceived and interpreted in terms of crisis.
But what nowadays happens with art can no longer be classified as merely one in a series of such crises. Mankind today finds itself in the presence of a crisis of the arts, with the most far-reaching shocks aimed at its thousand-year-old foundations. The ancient ideal of an art striving for the classically beautiful is fading away, and it seems that there may be no return. The creative impulse animating all human endeavor in the field of the arts seems to be exhausted. It is as if modern man in his creative frenzy desires to transgress all previous boundaries and limits and call into life the unprecedented.
In this context Berdiaev mentions certain schools or trends in the world of the arts which strove to combine modern experimentation with traditional artistic standards and values, such as Romanticism, Richard Wagner’s musical drama, or European symbolism in its various manifestations. Since they endeavored to arrive, in a sort of Hegelian dialectic, at a synthesis of the old and the radically new, he calls them synthetic.
He is, however, much more alarmed, and at the same time fascinated by what he calls the analytic trend in modern art. This can be defined in terms of a willed dislocation of any synthesis of art and organic nature. Cubism and futurism in all their numerous variants exhibit these analytic tendencies. These currents definitely and irrevocably decompose the old ideals of the Beautiful. Picasso once said: “I paint the world not as I see it, but as I think it.” Thus, modern art is the excogitated yield of thought processes—precisely what Berdiaev called the “analytic” streak. But this peculiar intellectualism is haunted by fears and apprehensions. For the world painted not as seen but as thought by the artist reveals more infernal shapes than all the hellish phantasmagorias of a Hieronymus Bosch taken together.
Here it may be well to keep in mind that in those days of the spectacular rise of modernistic art in painting, sculpture, music, the theatrical arts, and even poetry, Russia was by no means a provincial backwater. Quite to the contrary. The new art had won many converts and devotees there. St. Petersburg and Moscow were seething centers of the most daring experimentation. It was not merely coincidental that the Italian high priest of futurism, Marinetti, should have undertaken his celebrated journeys to Russia and also been raucously welcomed by modernists and self-styled futurists à la russe. Nor was it fortuitous that a genius like Stravinsky appeared in Russia, or that artists and philosophers of art like Kandinsky or Javlensky should have become in Russia and Germany, leaders and inspirers of expressionists and the adepts of budding non-objective art. Taking into account the literary nineteenth-century antecedents of modern art and writing, one could even assert with the Russo-Yugoslav critic and philosopher, Mihajlo Mihajlov, that “the twentieth century was born in Russia.”
Thus, there is nothing strange or extravagant in Berdiaev relying on Picasso as his crown witness. Exhibits of Fauves, expressionists, cubists, and futurists, local or foreign, were an everyday affair, and the exchange of artistic ideas, suggestions and modernist manifestoes between Paris, Munich and Moscow or St. Petersburg worked like a weaving shuttle, enormously accelerating the process of Russia’s full cultural integration into the general European scene.
So Berdiaev was quite well exposed; and with regard to Picasso he was quite prepared to recognize the genius in him, but a genius of gloom, cruel parody, and disintegration, a process spelling radical and painful changes, if not doom, for Western civilization. This is the way in which he describes meeting Picasso in his works:
But it is not only the question of veils and garments falling off. Even behind them nothing becomes visible. One could argue that in a world stripped of all sensuous illusions, however beautiful, naked authentic Being would then emerge with so much the greater force. What we encounter, however, is the total loss of Being which has been described with so much insight by Martin Heidegger.
According to Berdiaev, the futurists would even go farther. What happens is tantamount to a total destruction of the inhabitable zone of civilization. It spells the disappearance of all definitely outlined images of the objective world. Together with these images there also disappears the image of man, not only in the aspect of his physical existence, but also of his moral and spiritual being. “Let us annihilate the ‘I’ in literature,” “let us do away with all psychology,” as Marinetti proclaimed. “Man does not arouse our interest any more . . . What interests us is the hardness of a steel plate as such, i.e., the incomprehensible and totally non-human alliance of its molecules and electrons. . . . The warmth of a piece of iron or wood excites us more than a smile or the tears of a woman. . . .”
Berdiaev was able to see even behind these cultural blasphemies an intimation of far-reaching cultural and moral changes on a world scale. Of course it was inevitable that these changes should find their expression in artistic representation. Still he could not but chide the futurists for their superficiality. They remained, with all their vociferation, in a spiritual and intellectual limbo, not being aware of the fact that their iconoclastic attacks on man and man’s spirit would, if generally successful, have the gravest consequences for civilized mankind. The problems envisaged by the futurists could not be solved by childishly provocative and noisy manifestoes, but only by intense metaphysical and moral reflection.
Thus, Berdiaev focused his attention on possibly the most decisive cultural factor which, since the end of the eighteenth century, has increasingly determined the course of Western and global civilization, namely the advent of the machine. Modern machine technology rapidly upset the seemingly everlasting order of things and put an end to the older organic development. Mechanization seems a fateful, irreversible process. The organic beauty of the world, the flowers, trees, handsome human bodies, beautiful churches, palaces and manor houses, perishes. And romantic sorrow and nostalgia are powerless to arrest the process.
Futurism is but the passive reflection of mechanization dissolving the aging flesh of the world. The futurists sang the beauty of technology, intoxicated by its noise and rapid movement. They found themselves overpowered by machinery and the new sensations offered by it. They did not know other levels of being, and they denied a transcendent realm. They reflected the dislocations in the layers of being, but they failed to penetrate into the meaning of what was happening to the world.
For Berdiaev, however, the cult of the machine as celebrated by futurism, is but an external expression of a more profound metaphysical process: the change of the entire cosmic order the emergence of a new cosmic rhythm. When the latter day artists decorate their painting with pieces of torn up newspapers, trash, and splinters of broken glass, they follow the line of material disintegration at the end of which the very creative act begins to disintegrate, creative daring turns into a brazen rejection of creativity itself. Man set free from the ancient power of organic matter dissolves the original interlinkage of spirit and matter. Potentially, this is the metaphysical meaning of the entrance of technology into the world.
The vast majority of the moderns, however, do not understand this. Thus far they are more at home with decomposing matter than with the spirit striving for release from ancient bondage. A truly new art, if ever one appears, will not create any longer in images of physical flesh, but in images of another, more refined flesh—progressing from material bodies to bodies spiritual.
Berdiaev, however, raises a warning sign: This potential may never be realized. Fallible man may miss what he is called upon to do in this critical hour. The nihilism of futurism with its destructive fury and irresponsible enthusiasm for the externals of technology may remain dominant over hidden potentialities. For this incendiary futurism has two faces: One indeed heralds a future as fashioned by technology; the other, however reveals the features of the ancient barbarity which always lurks beneath the ostensibly durable cover of civilization and well-ordered society. Berdiaev believed he could descry in the horrors of the World War an outburst of this barbarity, now terribly reinforced by the hitherto undreamed of powers of technology.
Here Berdiaev raises a final problem in connection with the great rebellion in the arts—that of decadence and barbarity. Human civilization on the very summits of its development again and again evinces an inclination towards decadence and exhaustion. That was the case with the culture of the classical Mediterranean world, and similar phenomena can again be observed in modern societies. Civilization gradually becomes divorced from its vital wellsprings. On its heights it opposes itself to life and concrete being. At the end of the nineteenth century modern culture brought forth the poisonous flowers of decadence.
And at the same time the face of a future barbarity began more and more to take shape. This became most noticeable with the Latin nations, the cradle of European civilization. It was by no means accidental that futurism appeared in Italy bent under the weight of its great cultural past. Futurism, thus, is the dawn of the new barbarity, distinguished by barbarous crudity, barbarous one-dimensionality, and barbarous unawareness.
Berdiaev sees in these phenomena a symptom of some deep-reaching cosmic process in which man is enmeshed. And so it might seem that the irruption of barbarism is something inevitable and inescapable, something that cannot be domesticated, changed or purified, but only endured with resignation.
Berdiaev, however, with his religiously inspirited idealism and his will to creativity would not resign. Rather he reminds us that civilization transformed an initially barbarous darkness of being into some brightly lit kingdom, in which it is now shutting itself up, taking pride in it as in something self-sufficient. How sad!
But civilization in this classical sense is not the only way to transform darkness into light, not the only way to introduce order into chaos. Unless human creativity is turned into the creation of a new man through a rebirth of the Sprit, not only art but his creativity in its entirety will sink back into primeval darkness. The way out of the tragic conflict in modern civilization can only come through a transition into a new eon in which the creative act appears to be a continuation of God’s creation of the cosmos. These are grand prospects for a renovation of the world through the rejuvenating power of the Spirit.
A closer look, however, will not fail to detect with how many buts and ifs Berdiaev hedges his hopes. It is as if at times he doubted whether a minority of discerning minds would be able to settle satisfactorily the struggle between a effete decadence on the one hand and a new barbarity on the other, or to overcome the onslaught of a futurism drunk with dreams of technocracy: omnipotent mechanical power, unbridled iconoclasm, and calculated soullessness. So the question very much remains whether this generation and its next descendants will witness a world renovated by a hoped-for rebirth of the Spirit. The crisis is not yet resolved.
Heinrich Stammler, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Soviet and East European Studies at the University of Kansas, Lawrence.
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