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Anti-artistic positions # 1: Art is wrong


Turgenev's Bazarov

"The other day I noticed that he was reading Pushkin," Bazarov continued. "Explain to him, please, how absurd that is. He is no longer a boy, and ought to throw all that nonsense to the dogs. Who in our days is interested in romanticism, in poetry? Give him something sensible to read."
"What should I give him?" asked Arkady.
"You could begin, I think, with Büchner's Stoff und Kraft, for example."   
 [p. 53]

"We act in view of what we recognize as useful," added Bazarov; "today it seems to us useful to deny – and we deny ––"
"What? Not only art, poetry, but even . . . I hesitate to say it . . ."
"Everything," repeated Bazarof, with indescribable calmness.
Pavel Petrovich stared at him; he had not expected such a reply; Arkady blushed with pleasure.
"But allow me, allow me," interrupted Nikolaj Petrovich; "you deny everything, or to put it more precisely, you destroy everything . . . But it is also necessary to rebuild. . . ."
"That is not our business . . . We must first clear the ground."    
 [p. 58]

[Pavel Petrovich:] "I am told that in Rome our artists don't even visit the Vatican. Raphael they regard as a fool, because, of course, he is an authority; and these artists are themselves disgustingly sterile and weak; their imagination can soar no higher than the 'Girl at a Fountain' – and then even the girl is abominably drawn! But you have these fellows in high esteem, I suppose?"
"To me," replied Bazarov, "Raphael isn't worth two kopeks, and these artists aren't worth any more than he."    
 [p. 64]

Ivan Turgenev: Otcy i Deti, 1861 (Chapter 10). [Translations based on Eugene Schuyler's Fathers and Sons (New York: Leypolt & Holt, 1867) and Constance Black Garnett's Fathers and Children (New York: Collier, 1917). Page numbers from the 1867 translation.]

He himself was a poet, and had a wonderful facility for writing most musical verses; indeed, I think it a great pity that he abandoned poetry. But the reaction against art, which arose among the Russian youth in the early sixties, and which Turguéneff has depicted in Bazaroff ("Fathers and Sons"), induced him to look upon his verses with contempt, and to plunge headlong into the natural sciences.

Peter Kropotkin about his brother Aleksander. In: Memoirs of a Revolutionist. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1899. [Ch. 2 (The Corps of Pages), sect. III.]

[...] one day [...] he asked me what I thought of Bazaroff. I frankly replied, "Bazaroff is an admirable painting of the nihilist, but one feels that you did not love him as much as you did your other heroes."
"On the contrary, I loved him, intensely loved him," Turguéneff replied, with an unexpected vigor. "When we get home I will show you my diary, in which I have noted how I wept when I had ended the novel with Bazaroff's death."
Turguéneff certainly loved the intellectual aspect of Bazaroff. He so identified himself with the nihilist philosophy of his hero that he even kept a diary in his name, appreciating the current events from Bazaroff's point of view. But I think that he admired him more than he loved him.

Peter Kropotkin about Turgenev. In: Memoirs of a Revolutionist. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1899. [Ch. 6 (Western Europe), sect. VI.]


Boris Kushner

[p. 167:] In the bloom of its strength the bourgeoisie scorned wisdom, victory and alchemy. Amid the glitter of power and glory it was tormented by an insatiable greed, by an eternal mania for acquisition and accumulation. [...] The bourgeoisie acquired. Everything that became its property bowed to it.
But suddenly on its fabulous path of advance, it came across a certain obstacle. It could not buy nature, the invisible world, the world in its immensity, the sky, the stars, eternity. They are not available for personal posession, they are not transferable into private property. [p. 168:] And a feeling of dissatisfaction, of a cold vacuum, stole into the sensitive heart of the bourgeoisie. It was consumed by a feeling of insatiable hunger. Tormented by the grief of the property owner who has been unjustly insulted, tortured by the bitter disappointment of the industrialist who has realized that his business cannot encompass everything, the bourgeois sought ways to oblivion. Narcotics became a necessity. Refreshing illusion was required.
They thought of a surrogate, of their own creation of genius, of their favorite Wunderkind of industrial ingenuity. [...] They decided to prepare a surrogate for the universe. And so, to this end, a very chic and remarkable theory was made and elaborated that saw the real and unreal worlds, the visible and the invisible worlds, as incarnated in the divine work of art. Aesthetes and poets [...] dressed up the artist in the dunce's cap of the medieval magician, wizard, and alchemist. They forced him to perform a kind of sorcery, a supernatural divination, a magic transubstantiation. [p. 169:] And an ulterior force was ascribed to all the things that were made by this kind of duped artist. They asserted and professed conscientiously: "The eternal harmony of the builder of the universe is reflected in the eternal beauty of artistic forms. Works of art reflect the world, the outer, material, inner, spiritual, and ideal nature of things, the essence and latent meaning of things."
This splendid theory was elaborated beautifully by the great experts. [...] It did not occur to anybody that this was not the genuine article, but merely a surrogate, a jolly good fake. The highest goal of bourgeois aspirations had been attained. [...] The right of private property had been extended to the extreme limits of eternity. It crawled all over the planets, all over the stars near and far. It flowed throughout the Milky Way. Like sugar icing, it glossed all over the belly of eternity. An unprecedented, world-wide achievement had been wrought. The bourgeoisie had colonized the "ulterior world."
Step by step we are depriving the imperialist bourgeoisie of its global annexations. Only so far the proletariat has not lifted its hand against this most miraculous annexation of the spirit. Because the bourgeoisie put this valuable and prosperous colony under the lock and key of mysterious, mystical forces – and even the revolutionary spirit of our time retreats before them.
It is time to shake off this shameful yoke. [...] [p. 170:] Socialism must destroy the black and white magic of the industrialists and merchants. [...] To the socialist consciousness, a work of art is no more than an object, a thing.

Boris Kushner: "Bozhestvennoe proizvedenie." Iskustvo Kommuny, no. 9 (February 2, 1919). English translation ("The divine work of art") in John E. Bowlt (ed.): Russian Art of the Avant Garde. Theory and Criticism, 1902–1934. London: Thames and Hudson, 1988, pp. 166–170.

Ingenieur-Konstrukteure, dass sind die Erfinder der Dinge, Organisatoren von Materialien, Arbeiter an der Form. Das Gebiet ihrer Tätigkeit ist im Prinzip dasselbe wie das der bildenden Künstler.

Boris Kushner: "Die Organisation der Produktion", 1922. [German translation: B. Groys & A. Hansen-Löve (eds.): Am Nullpunkt. Positionen der russischen Avantgarde. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 2005, p. 468.]

Aleksej Gan

Die Kunst ist am Ende! Sie hat keinen Platz im menschlichen Arbeitsapparat. [...] Vor den Meistern der Kunst-Arbeit ersteht die Aufgabe: Sie müssen sich von ihrer spekulativen Tätigkeit (der Kunst) losreißen und Wege zum realen Tun finden, indem sie ihr Wissen und Können um der echten, lebendigen, zielgerichteten Arbeit willen einsetzen. Die intellektuell-materielle Produktion stellt Arbeitsverhältnisse und Produktionsverbindungen mit Wissenschaft und Technik her und weist der Kunst, die sich ihrem Wesen nach nicht von Religion und Philosophie lösen und aus dem Teufelskreis der abstrakten, spekulativen Tätigkeit ausbrechen kann, ihren Platz zu. [pp. 331/332]

Unser Konstruktivismus hat der Kunst einen unversöhnlichen Krieg erklärt, denn die Mittel und Eigenschaften der Kunst sind nicht mehr imstande, die Gefühle des revolutionären Milieus zu systematisieren. [...] Unser Konstruktivismus ist kämpferisch und unversöhnlich: Er führt einen harten Kampf gegen die Podagriker und Paralytiker, gegen die rechte und linke Maler, kurzum gegen alles, was auch nur irgendwie die spekulative künstlerische Tätigkeit der Kunst verteidigt. FÜR DIE INTELLEKTUELL-MATERIELLE PRODUKTION DER KOMMUNISTISCHEN KULTUR KÄMPFT UNSER KONSTRUKTIVISMUS. [pp. 354/355]

Aleksej Gan: Konstruktivizm. Tver', 1922. [German translation by Annelore Nitschke: "Der Konstruktivismus." In: B. Groys & A. Hansen-Löve (eds.): Am Nullpunkt. Positionen der russischen Avantgarde. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 2005, pp. 277-365.]

Anti-artistic positions # 2: Art is passé

Art is replaced by philosophy


"Art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past." [p. 11]

"At this highest stage, art now transcends itself, in that it forsakes the element of reconciled embodiment of the spirit in sensuous form and passes over from the poetry of imagination to the prose of thought." [p. 89]

G.W.F. Hegel: Introduction to Aesthetics: The Introduction to the Berlin Aesthetics Lectures of the 1820s.
[Quoted from the English translation by T.M. Knox (Oxford University Press, 1979)


L'objet d'avant-garde, aujourd'hui, est essentiellement théorique: sous la double pression des politiques et des intellectuels, ce sont les positions (et leur exposé) qui sont aujourd'hui d'avant-garde, non forcément les œuvres. (...) Encore faut-il préciser que la "théorie", qui est la pratique décisive de l'avant-garde, n'a pas en soi un rôle progressiste: son rôle – actif – est de révéler comme passé ce que nous croyons encore présent: la théorie mortifie, et c'est en cela qu'elle est d'avant-garde.

Roland Barthes in response to questions by Claude Jannoud: "Roland Barthes contre les idées reçues",
Le Figaro
, July 27, 1974.


Art has died

Marius de Zayas

Art is dead. Its present movements are not at all indications of vitality; they are not even the convulsions of agony prior to death; they are the mechanical reflex actions of a corpse submitting to galvanic force.

Marius de Zayas: "The Sun Has Set." Camera Work, 39:17 (July 1912).
[@ Arthur C. Danto: The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1986, p. 81.]

Aleksej Gan

Tod der Kunst! / Sie entstand natürlich / entwickelte sich natürlich und / gelangte natürlich zu ihrem Verschwinden.

Aleksej Gan: Konstruktivizm. Tver', 1922. German translation by Annelore Nitschke: "Der Konstruktivismus." In: B. Groys & A. Hansen-Löve (eds.): Am Nullpunkt. Positionen der russischen Avantgarde. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 2005, pp. 277-365. [pp. 298/299]


Art has accomplished its mission

Arthur Danto

Echoing Joseph Kosuth (and parodying Hegel as well as Greenberg), Arthur Danto has proposed a simple teleological model of the dynamics of art history: art was a cultural tradition with a definite aim, which was: to understand the nature of art. Obviously, this aim was achieved when artists and audience first understood that art is a cultural tradition which aims at understanding its own nature. Supposedly, this historical event occurred in 1964, when Andy Warhol first presented his Brillo Boxes – or perhaps in 1974, when Arthur Danto first explained this. (Or perhaps in 1914, when Marcel Duchamp bought his Bottle Rack?)


We have entered a period  of art so absolute in its freedoms that art seems but a name for an infinite play with its own concept: as though Schelling's thought of an end state of history as "a universal ocean of poetry" were a prediction come true. Artmaking is its own end in both sense[s] of the term: the end of art is the end of art. There is no further place to go. [...] Having reached this point, where art can be anything at all, art has exhausted its conceptual mission.

Arthur Danto: "Art, Evolution, and the Consciousness of History." In: The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986, pp. 187-210. [p. 209]

Duchamp (the imaginary), Rodchenko (the real), and Mondrian (the symbolic), among others, all believed in the end – they all had the final truth, all spoke apocalyptically. Yet has the end come? To say no (painting is still alive, just look at the galleries) is undoubtedly an act of denial, for it has never been more evident that most paintings one sees have abandoned the task that historically belonged to modern painting (that, precisely, of working through the end of painting) and are simply artifacts created for the market and by the market (absolutely interchangeable artifacts created by interchangeable producers). To say yes, however, that the end has come, is to give in to a historicist conception of history as both linear and total (i.e., one cannot paint after Duchamp, Rodchenko, Mondrian; their work has rendered paintings unnecessary, or: one cannot paint anymore in the era of the mass media, computer games, and the simulacrum).

Yve-Alain Bois: "Painting: The Task of Mourning." In: Exhibition Catalogue Endgame – Reference and Simulation in Recent Painting. Boston Institute of Contemporary Art, 1986. Reprinted in: Yve-Alain Bois: Painting as Model. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1990, pp. 229-244. [p. 241]


  More about Philosophy as Art as Philosophy

  More about Life as Art as Life

  More about the Aesthetics of Reality

Further readings

Jean Gimpel: Contre l'Art et les Artistes. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1968.

Peter Weibel: "Der Ausstieg aus der Kunst als höchste Form der Kunst." Kunstforum 98 (Jan./Feb. 1989).