Lajos Kassák’s “Back to the Workbench” (1923)
Translated from the Hungarian by John Bátki.
From Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes,
1910-1930. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 2002).
• • •
The artist always draws on himself. Which is to say, each and every productive act of the artist is an additional surplus, something extra added to existing facts and figures. Creation is not making a replica of something already existing, but the formation of the picture, the subject itself, out of the unknown, into a unified whole that is a law unto itself. The work of art is the conscious expression of the artist’s subconscious surplus. It is a state of equilibrium. It is not a mad rush toward some external goal, but rather a rest stop in the constant rush of power and energy. It is both the living out of life and the possibility of new life.
The creative law of the artist is identical to the law of general manifestation. The artist, the inventor, or the construction engineer all represent the same mathematical and ethical values. They create, each in his own field, according to his gifts, expressing himself through his own unique mix of life. To compare them with each other, to weigh their relative values is therefore an impossible task. Creation is a unique specialty.
Philosophers, politicians, and economists have outlined a new society whose development will be in the hands of specialists. However, to be a specialist in some field does not mean being deaf and blind in other areas of life. That would be equal to living an egocentric life divorced from the world at large. Man today lives under the sign of collectivity, or at least would like to. This active, new type of human being is the collective individuum. Only simpletons, paid demagogues, or naive romantics refuse to recognize in the present prevalence of dictatorial tendencies man’s striving for recognition of his individuality. In place of wanting to imitate something, in place of the irresponsibility of following the herd, the man of today, conscious of his responsibility, has moved into action against everything that stands in the way of his growing awareness of his emotions and self. Political revolution expresses our general discontent, as does any advance made by the engineer, and the artist’s will to elemental self-expression without relying on any external themes.
The world is visibly developing in a constructive direction; in the field of creative work, in the wake of the destructive schools beginning with Impressionism, Constructivism has now offered visual art a direct line of advance.
The question is this: what is the most direct path to the total self-realization of Constructive art?
The horrors of the world war and the romantic slogan of the revolutions have sidetracked man from his native, natural ability to act. The first task of the propagandist, and also of the creative forces of science and art, is to lead man, lost and straying, back to himself. But in order to accomplish this, we must have a clear notion of the distinctions between productive and non-productive work. From our point of view, art is a productive, and politics a non-productive, field of work. Art creates and produces whereas the politician merely expropriates. Therefore it would be nonsensical to want to direct any kind of creative work along the tines of any political (that is, external) disciplines.
The fate of the war was decided by specialists in strategy and technology, and the success of the revolutions can only be vouchsafed by the specialists of politics, science, technology, and the arts. By now we have learned that one person attempting to work in all areas can only lead to the most harmful dilettantism. We need specialists to see the revolution through to a successful conclusion. If a creative individual today, in exchange for an opportunity to prophesize, renounces the chance for creative work, he is in fact resigning his revolutionary stance. See what would happen to the Red Army if its specialist engineers abandoned work on perfecting the airplane and decided to  go to war against the splendid French air force by delivering dilettantish orations at mass-meetings. And what would happen to the living values of human culture if today’s young creative people chose to forget about their opponents on the frontlines of science and art, and decided to cater to the tastes of the culturally underprivileged masses, thereby breaking the back of contemporary art, which could otherwise exert such a powerful fighting force?
Artistic creation, like any primary creative work, can only be defined by its own inner laws, vitality, and constructive unity. There is only one kind of art. There cannot be an art that serves political ends and an art that is utilitarian in purpose — just as there can be no politics with a goal in art, or a utilitarianism with art as its aim. If such a dual-purpose hybrid still crops up in some specialized branch of the struggle for life, it implies a lack of purity in the creative character, and amounts to decadence.
Constructive artists are, given the current possibilities, the most social forces in the field, and have already recognized the untenability of political disciplines. They are right, as far as that goes. But beyond that point they too have strayed from the direct path; to the extent they have liberated themselves from the service of political movements, they have subjugated themselves to another yoke, that of utilitarian tendentiousness, by falling from the trap of political romanticism into the pit of technological romanticism.
For the benefit of the most rabid demagogues we would like to emphasize here that we are not speaking of l’art pour l’art — that is not what we want. We want to give ourselves in art, as individual members of human society, as man, who envisions, registers, lives to the utmost the life of today.
The Constructivist movement has arrived at a crossroads at an earlier point in its history than any other art movement. It faces two possibilities: either it will remain on its current course, in which case sooner or later it must drown in a sea of speculative, engineering dilettantism, or else it will find the way toward itself, becoming once more able to give pure expression to its creative nature. Having renounced political alignments they must now renounce the practical mindset. For just as there can be no artistic activity with the preordained purpose of political agitation, in the same way no art can be created with the utilitarian purpose of being lived in. Both viewpoints mistake the aim for the consequence. Today’s art, by virtue of the creative individual’s nature tends to be constructive, therefore social, and architectonic, therefore realistically stable.
The manner in which the constructive and architectonic nature of the new art may and indeed must be utilized by society is not primarily the concern of the artist as creator. This work is of a political nature and is expropriative. Such expropriative work should not necessarily have to be done by the artist who, as the producer, has already paid his dues to society. It would be utterly inane, for instance, to consider an apolitical person who has invented a method of mining that liberated a portion of humankind from having to descend into underground mines, as any less of a revolutionary, and a less useful human being than a representative in parliament or in a Soviet council. If the improved mines continue to be possessed by capitalists, and the workers themselves continue as miserable beasts of burden, the responsibility for this rests on the shoulders of politicians, the expropriators who are incapable of expropriating extant values in the best interests of humankind.
In the course of the five-year revolutionary period we have had occasion to realize that the serious leaders of the workers’ movement must consider as their main task not the making of revolution but the consolidation of the results of revolution, the stabilization of its results and the resumption of production. The era of destruction and putsches is over, replaced by communism, the new constructive ideal taking the leading role in the revolution.
The new slogan is specialize for the fight, in the fight.
In Russian cities special military schools have been established — but at the same time they have not forgotten “that village schools must first of all become specialized in the area of agricultural sciences.”
Today we are in the midst of a new preparatory stage of the revolution.
The next successes of the revolution are to be expected not in the realm of destruction but from the new constructive forces.
Politically and ethically the value of the working class lies in the extent to which it can create a new equilibrium for a disjointed, disoriented humankind.
The new art will prove its value by creating a new spiritual order for humanity.
The order of our lives has been disrupted; that is why everything hurts us and we hurt all over.
We want order.
We want the order of our own blood and spirit!
We know that everything depends upon us, individual human beings, who make up the masses.
We know that the time of empty speeches and threats daubed in red paint on the walls is over.
And that “we are rabble,” not “Thank God”!
We have recovered from the “childhood illnesses” of the revolution.
We want to build!
We need specialists!
Back to the workbench!
Engineers design time machines and open up the caverns of labor and misery!
Scientists, conquer the elements!
Artists, give form to the new human spirit!
Politicians, expropriate for us the possibilities of life!
[Originally published as “Vissza a kaptafához,” in Ma Vol. 9, No. 1 (September 15, 1923)]