Arthur Holitscher’s “Statement” on the Catalogue of the First Exhibition of Russian Art, Van Diemen Gallery, Berlin (1922)

Translated from the German by Stephen Bann.

From The Tradition of Constructivism.

(Da Capo Press.  New York, NY: 1974).

• • •

The dissolution of one epoch, the emergence and beginning of a new one, are felt and communicated more readily by the sensitive nerves of artists than by the ‘real’ power of politicians, the leaders and reformers of our economy.  (This does not apply to the great leaders, the theoretical apostles of revolution; they are true prophets, seers gifted with prophetic ability to foresee the future, like artists with their control over the elements of space).

If one examines the development of art in the last fifty years, one cannot but be surprised by the profusion and quick succession of different movements, of different schools, stormy petrels of the Revolution, premonitions of the great upheaval that has shaken the world.

It would be perverse to dismiss the struggles of these different movements and schools with slight irony simply as ‘studio revolutions,’ precisely because it was in ‘studio revolutions’ that the real initiators of the new developments in art, the leaders driven by their own vision, won over their followers.

In the new order of art, what really is new and affirms the coming of the spiritual revolution is sensed first of all, apart from the great leaders of art, by a small group of artistically precocious and recherché enthusiast-critics or poet critics.  Their discovery is shared with a circle of connoisseurs, collectors and dealers, museum directors avidly [73] in search of innovation, and with the great, insensate crowd of snobs.  Revolutionary art is thus sucked down into bourgeois society.  It immediately becomes the object of the wiles of the commercial world, of the search for something new, of social ambition; only in the rarest cases does it become the object of the pleasure and satisfaction of inner understanding.  It is, after all, only the masses who, by imitating and speculating without judgment, set the seal of success on the new in art.  It is also this element of success, of the crowd’s dull speculation, which fully or half-consciously spurs on the unsought following of every great revolutionary artist to new achievements — which, perhaps with subconscious understanding, with the knowledge of theory alone, with the fatefulness of the moment, swings the mood of the masses, once slow, now capricious.

Thus it is really revolution, both its good and bad side, that emerges from the artist’s studio, even if it does not affect the life of the masses in any way, even if it does not influence them from afar.  In general people listen more attentively to those who guide their political and economic interests than those who realize their transcendental urges and needs.  In a few glorious and isolated periods of art, in antiquity, in the Middle Ages, socially periods of enslavement for the masses, the community played a larger part in the creative work of a few contemporaries; today we no longer understand the way in which a Praxitcles, the cathedral builders, a Michelangelo or a Dürer worked.  In those distant times the great artist still had the power to change and to cast the times in the image of his own vision, of his own convictions.  Art possessed the strength to shape the political and economic aspirations of a people.

We used to believe that if once the foundations of society were shaken — that if the most far-reaching upheaval of our times came to pass — that the revolutionary artists would be the first to declare themselves with passionate enthusiasm for the new, for the untried.  They would spring to its defense and give eye, heart, or hand, give their last drop of blood to preserve it.  Yet this is only partly true.  By and large the revolutionary artist is no less shaken than the rest of the indifferent majority by the incisive effect of the Revolution and the private life of individuals in society; he is more than shaken.  Only a few, isolated people realize that the recent Revolution is at once the explanation, cause, and aim of their involvement, the enthusiasm to which their [74] life has unconsciously been attuned for so long.  These few, the select, singled out both as human beings and as artists, enter active politics and serve the destiny of the people from their inner conviction.  They forget their own individuality, which is of course only a result of the tyrannical isolation in which bourgeois society suspends its court jesters.  They attempt to link up with the masses, whom they have listened to for so long in their need and in their enthusiasm.  The ‘studio revolutionaries’ stand on the sidelines — they pretend to join in — they sabotage.  Now that the greatness of the new vision has been brought out into the open air of the streets, the squares, the bridges, and the barricades, into the vigorous atmosphere of the life of the people, they (the studio revolutionaries) crawl away frightened to death into the haze of the oil paint of their studios.  It is no longer the prophetic vision of a single man that carries art forward; now it is the gigantic choir of the people’s triumphant spirit, the national urge of the spirit to rise upward from the primeval depths toward the light of delivered humanity.  Theory, born and fostered in the studio, the theory of schools of art, theory that the passage of time has disclosed to be unclear and barely decipherable, is now banished from the purified atmosphere of the victorious Revolution.

Art conceived at such a time is worthy of consideration and study.  Its aesthetic, the analysis of its essence, does not take as its starting point the criticism of works from revolutionary epochs of artistic activity.  To criticize works of art from the time of the political upheaval, to criticize works that are truly born of the revolution, is to be like the historian who must seek to understand the time from political and economic sources.  Only those who themselves carry the fire of the Revolution should dare to approach the problems of the art of the Revolution.  The works they must consider are not to be measured by the same scale as their used for the art of protest, for the art of regeneration set up in opposition to the old-fashioned.  The art of the Revolution is revolution.  It carries forward the seed of great and total revolution.  It will create new laws for evaluation.  Pouring forth from pure springs, it will teach a new aesthetic: to subject oneself to the eternal will of world change, whose visible manifestation is social revolution.  The aesthetic of the art of the Revolution will itself mean revolution, and not a mere segment of the Revolution.  It will mean the totality of the creative forces of an epoch — not an isolated aspect of its many possible manifestations.

[From Erste russische Kunstausstellung, 1922]

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~ by Ross Wolfe on October 22, 2010.

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