Ernő Kállai’s “Correction (To the Attention of De Stijl)” (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).

• • •

Constructivism views itself as the triumph of the spirit permanently liberated from the individualist pathos generated by the accidents of nature and tragic instincts.  From the outset it has proclaimed the principle of collectivity.  As an extreme that brooks no compromise, it aimed to document this collectivity in the form of the purest and most [437] explicit manifestations.  Although it never intended mechanical stereotypes, it nonetheless demanded that the inclusion in the finished picture or sculpture of expressive acts not fully comprehensible be kept to a vanishingly small portion of the whole, if not entirely absent.  For as soon as we liberate something from the whim of intuitive realizations that are exclusively singular in occurrence, and thus elevate it into the world of rational events, it immediately becomes unambiguous for everyone.  It was this unambiguous objectivity that Constructivism recognized as the one and only requirement of collectivity.

However the collectivity of the creative act in art and its reception, unless we intend to totally deprive art of its quiddity as residing in manifestations of human life, is different from the uniformity of judgment among mathematicians and geometricians who agree on a set of objective givens.  Were we to reduce the unanalyzable factors of a work of art to an infinitesimal portion, we could still only vouchsafe the congruence of sensations and demands arising vis-à-vis the art if the psycho-physical components producing the indissoluble underlying factors of a painting or sculpture existed in identical forms and played identical roles in different viewers.  However, while this qualitative uniformity of psycho-physical determinants indeed exists in the human consciousness as regards mathematical, geometric, and purely logical truths, the psychological determinants of art are spread out over a myriad-hued scale of velleities and essential differences.

And everything hinges on this.  The essence of art lies, not in some ultimate truth independent of time and space and without any reference to human consciousness, but in its physiological usefulness and dynamic power.  It is natural that, depending on the given combination of human mental processes that give rise to art as a biological desideratum and upon which, in their capacity as receptive subject, art is able to exert an effect, there are extraordinary numbers of gradations in artistic quality.  No such multiplicity is known in the case of scientific truth.  The relationship to basic principles and the requirements of methodology and systematization bring about states of knowledge that are perfectly equivalent in their scientific value, regardless of what psychological, biological, and existential events befall the researcher.  The practical usefulness and social significance of science is not our concern here, although we may be certain that the validity of scientific truth does not depend on its utility in individual and social biology, but vice versa.

An artistic creation does not possess an abstract or objective, essential core.  Its social and economic functionality does not alter this fact; on the contrary, it underscores it.  Art in its totality, with all of its implied conceptual problems, is tied to the psychological and biological laws governing the organism that creates it.  Therefore if we are trying to pinpoint the collective nature of art we must look for actual factors; not an objectivity that excludes all subjectivity, but rather the psychological and biological makeup of the creating and receiving subjects.  We should look for a mental process that is present all around us in a society-wide, intertwined multiplicity.  We may settle for the individual awareness of a central determinism which in our days still exists in isolated forms, but which, we are convinced, may become, and must become the foundation of social claims on life and the unfolding of a social art.  In any case we cannot expect to find an accessibility that universally applies to the community in a sphere that is so remote from our subjectivity that this distance vouchsafes a sovereign independence and self-contained, objective self-sufficiency for art.  A work of art may be self-contained in every direction, but it must remain open to the subjects that create it and react to it in a positive way.  Otherwise it is stillborn.

We need to point out these fundamental truths in order to set a limit to the pretensions of Constructivism.  Constructivism purports to be the collective art of today or tomorrow, embedded into the totality of the life of the individual and society, while [438] it intends to shake off the ties that bind it to its origins in psychology, its birth in and dependence upon vital human intellect.  It would aspire to be an objective form, an uncontaminated view, in contrast to the merely expressive subjectivity of Expressionism.  However, just as Expressionism is able to express something only because, albeit minimally, it still articulates, shapes, selects, and arranges, even so Constructivism is only able to build relatively self-contained, autonomous pictorial systems, because it chooses to project these into the world where otherwise they would have not a trace of presence.  For Constructivism does not involve the analysis or replication of existing realities but posits new realities and demands. Demands can only be made by the will, never by cognition itself.  And the will is the backbone of the human life pattern, both individual and social.  It is thoroughly embedded in depths and interrelations that cannot be further analyzed or explained.  Thus it is an irrational buttressing of demands on life that may be mystical or may be rational.  But under no circumstances is it a contemplation, still less the object of contemplation, but rather the living, indissoluble complex of ends that direct and determine contemplation.  Thus Constructivism presents the simplest and most conclusive facts (Tat-Sache) to confront the wild chaos of contemporary life.  The more it claims that these serene facts ought to provide the spirit incarnate, the bread and wine of life for man caught in the hustle and schizophrenia of our days, the more it resembles a sword cutting the Gordian knot or a fist slamming down on a tabletop.  It turns into an innovating, stubborn determination and will to act, that is, by no means contemplation or demonstration, but expression — documenting the projections of human subjectivity.

But an objectivity that is self-contained and devoid of every subjective quality has never been and can never be the ultimate medium of any kind of human collectivity. The extreme objectivization found in the traditional religious systems is ascribable either to the inconceivable vastness of the human soul and nature, or to fictional concepts, or to a slew of legends made accessible and socially palatable by anthropomorphism.  Unless Constructivism is willing to settle for a unanimity such as that which makes, for proletarian and millionaire alike, an automobile an automobile and not a tractor or some other practical object, it must give up the notion of striving for communityness by way of objectivity and perfection — that is, seeking it in a sphere where things arrive, if ever, only after the culmination of organic life processes evolving through the ages.  Such an culmination is a metaphysical problem and Constructivism rejects any kind of metaphysics.

Let us suppose that one were to nonetheless set up such long-term claims by proclaiming the dominion of the perfectly rational human intellect in place of Christianity’s ideal of perfect goodness.  It is unlikely that the kingdom of such a Constructive human being would arrive before the end of time.  Thus at best it is in infinity that we may conceive the point where the parallel tracks of the insane inanities of historical existence intersect each other in the unity of a rational harmony.  Unless we intend to condone this Constructivist eternity’s giving free rein to every current infamy and negativity — as in fact the Christian Church has, in the name of an otherworldly salvation — we must transpose the center of gravity of the Constructivist collective from the sphere of autotelic, self-contained objectivities to the battle ground of ongoing subjective givens.  But an objectivist utopia that transcends all subjectivities has never been and can never be human community.  In other words, even while reserving its ultimate ideals in infinity, at any rate switching from the domain of an ordered totality to the travails of a partial, fragmentary history.

Constructivism will have to make this material and conceptual turnabout as soon as it has glimpsed even the barest outlines of the promised land of objectivity and perfection, where man will no longer be constrained to a community that is subordinated to goals and necessities, and human life will resemble that of the lilies of the field, or of [439] angels.  Yet we are clear enough about our ultimate demands to at least attempt their conversion into historical values.

If Constructivism remains what it is today, the embodiment of objective harmony subjugated to pure reason, it has two alternatives.

If it insists on objective harmony as the collective demand from life, then it must consent to its approximation via finite ways, within historical conditions, by reacting to existing human and natural imperfections, and by giving up the exclusivity it has hitherto maintained.  Its pure cultural profile must change into a cultural-political one.  It must take an unmistakable stand first of all with regard to the left, and then vis-à-vis the extent that this turnabout signifies a conscious response and reaction to the total historical sum of interconnections.  In other words, we must see if Constructivism indeed represents a human completeness that is able to unite the infinitely long-term demand for objective self-sufficiency with the goal-oriented service of momentary actualities, by joining political movements.

If Constructivism evades this consequence, then its works are not human and ethical demands but aesthetic reports.  But that undermines Constructivism’s claim of superiority over other art movements.  For then Constructivism becomes only one among the many movements, one more detour in the general confusion.  And it has no right whatsoever to claim that its aesthetic status is more significant than any of the “isms” or academies that proliferate today.  In view of the endlessness of human misery, my choice of an aesthetic alignment is irrelevant; to turn such a choice into an ideological issue would be to create the most grotesque of academies and the most mendacious of dogmas.

But Constructivism’s overdue confrontation of the problems presented by history and society will also mean another kind of restriction.  If Constructivism sees more in itself than mere aesthetic games, it can only mean that it would have human life attain the same degree of equilibrium, harmony, and ethics without pathos that is claimed only by its forms today.  But everyday life at present, society’s as well as the Constructivist artist’s, is anything but rational.  Therefore we either recognize that the formal objectivization of today’s degraded life is necessary, for its mission is to awaken and to disturb — and this would mean sacrificing Constructivism, the isolated cult of future life, to the cult of today’s life, where an insistence on demands and guidelines would not provide exemption from responsible acknowledgement of the totality of historical interconnections.  This would mean embracing the entire complex of dialectical relations with artistic manifestations from other movements, in order to dig the channel for the progress of art in the direction of the envisioned ideals.  Or else we refuse to justify the life-resonance of art and insist only on a theoretical demand for perfection, which would mean the end of Constructivism, for the one-time realization of perfection would constitute a fulfillment after which anything else would be mere academic rumination.  But if Constructivism is still alive and developing, it could only mean that it has not yet emerged from the complicated process of historical and psychological dialectics.  If we possess universal viewpoints, in respect of the above dialectics we cannot allow ourselves to take refuge in the cocoon of the principle that everyone can keep on playing their little games.

How can we shoulder the pathos implied by the demands for collective validity if we do not strive to bring our superciliously proclaimed theories into fruitful cultural political contact with existing conditions and people? How can we speak of intellectual objectivity of such a degree of perfection that compared to it even the classless society of communism is a mere preparatory stage, when we are not engaged in making every effort to ensure the speediest and most thorough groundwork for communism “at least”? Ethical demands and goals for a way of life are not mere technical details in the sense that a design engineer’s work is in relation to the factory workers’.  These are central [440] issues and as such require the totality of human perspectives: from theoretical conceptions and the framing of demands to the economic, political, and psychological preparation of the roads leading to their realization, if possible through the proletariat’s revolutionary party structure as the uniting instrument of propaganda.  Departure from ultimate abstractions and arrival at the concrete fact of the road to be taken.  All of this as the documentation of the human community to which most artists have thus far at best offered only utopist objective tokens while refraining with elitist disdain from actual, subjective contributions to its practical development.

What is at risk here is the human meaning and ethical justification of Constructivism.  Therefore we must not demean it to the level of an aesthetic fashion for the sake of certain predictions in formal theory or for stylistic perfections.  Let us embark on the task of correction while it is not too late, before a dislike that is still only aesthetic drives us into the hopeless treadmill of ever newer aesthetic trends.

• • •

Even an exclusive Constructivism deems it necessary to speak of the community.  Its pictures and sculptures however show us an unconditional, purely rational harmony.  Each work is a self-enclosed, serene perfection.  Its forms do not rest on a foundation of terrestrial gravity and natural origins.  They either fill, with an articulation equally intelligible from all sides, the quadrangular framework meted out to them (De Stijl) or else they hover in unlimited free space (Suprematism and its descendants).  But in neither case do they contain any reference to things that could exist outside them, either in space or in time.  They evince only a multiplicity of numbers and a systematic articulation within a shared structure.  Therefore if Constructivist theory speaks of collectiveness, then the “multitude” necessary for a collective may be provided only in the consubstantiality of form manifesting in a systematic but not evolutionary structure.

But what kind of community is one that has been cut out of temporality, and turned into timeless space? It can only be the objetivization of a self-contained and self-fulfilled ideology, positing no demands, and subsisting without any aggressiveness or struggle.

Such a degree of objectivization is only possible in the realm of metaphysics, but not here on earth.  Such a systematic constructivity can only link together mathematical deductions, logical proofs or parts of an engineering design, but is not capable of linking people together into a society.

I could postulate a rational, worldwide social order with a perfect harmony of all geological, meteorological, geographic and ethnographic, economic and intellectual, racial and individual, physiological, and psychological functions, so that all problems of life would vanish, and the human fate of unknown origins and destiny would float like some beautifully arranged magic garden in the sky.

Doubtless such a theoretical human/world construction, as indeed any final consummation of anything incomplete, could be subject to as many interpretations and demands as there are ontologies under the sun; as many teleologies, so many self-contained viewpoints, or at least ones that are justifiable as facts of will.  Ontology and teleology both imply metaphysical constructs, even if one were to imagine the final consummation of universal human existence as occurring still here on earth.  Now an exclusive Constructivism, if we wish to glimpse in its pictorial systems the first intuitions of a new social order, implies a permanent, radical break with the unknowable human lot of causality, destiny and evolutionary continuity, past and future.  By fixing the formal factors into a closed and easily surveyable system it would evoke an existence where all events, including birth and death, would exert themselves, along with all their consequences, as parts of a qualitatively and quantitatively perfectly balanced, lasting state of communal existence.  And this is in fact a teleology.

[441]

But let us suppose that we are not bothered by that lunatic absolutism, that infinite variability which belongs in essence to any kind of teleology.  Say we accept as our sole salvation the neo-rationalist teleology that follows as the logical necessity based on the visual art products of an exclusive Constructivism.  We are doing this, I repeat, supposing that the rationality so often evoked by Constructivism would bring the greatest benefit, truth, beauty, and power attainable by human society in earth.  It should be obvious that at this perfect and spontaneously arranged degree of human togetherness, free of any failings, the fact of collectivity, regarding the interaction of individual human beings making it up, would mean little by way of demands, restrictions — ethics, in other words — just as the fact of self-identity does not constitute an ethics.  The individual functions making up the community in a utopia evoked by a Constructivist teleology would follow as directly and naturally from the psycho-physical makeup of its individuals as does, say, breathing.

The tensions created by Constructivist art do not contradict this supposition, for they are not ethical tensions. Ethical tension can exist only in the struggle against a causality unknowable in its nature and events, meted out by fate — as long as this struggle is fought in the name of the categorical imperatives ruling over the instincts.  The system of tensions implied by exclusive Constructivism is not based on this kind of struggle.

By disconnecting the impulses it sets up the exclusive sovereignty of rationalism, and this from the outset ignores the role of inhibitions that go hand in hand with the possibility of actions that are fully their equivalent.  Thus there can be no ethical struggle in a situation where the lineup of opposing forces is a foregone conclusion, their relative strengths and positions clear at every point, so that the outcome, the attainment of an unexceptionable equilibrium, is a given stasis of forces that are equal on the whole.  Ethics can never be a stasis.  Ethics implies a vertical upthrust against destructive horizontal and diagonal forces, a ceaseless movement and striving through various phases to attain a goal.  As soon as we reach that goal and restore the ethical equilibrium, the given problem ceases to exist along with our ethical striving on behalf of the given task, and the state we then reach is not ethics.  At most it might contain a disposition for further exertions.  And not even this instant of fulfillment between two expenditures of energy, this transition without rest, leading to new activity, must be allowed to become the obvious motivation for the active and inhibitive components of the ethical struggle.  For the struggle is ethical only if it is conducted without any regard to the outcome.

It is a part of the Constructivist life formula that the equilibrium maintained by the mutual interactions of immanent tensions is not an incidental source but the essential prerequisite for the system and is therefore permanently identified with it.  This Constructivist equilibrium is, in spite of its most vehement dynamics, motionless and timeless with regard to the entirety of the life of the community, and therefore because of this timelessness cannot be ethical, that is, social.  The battles of opposing forces that constitute ethics are never abstract controversies but psycho-physical agitations occurring in time.

Its amoral nature disqualifies exclusive Constructivism from playing a social role in an ideological sense.  We have no use for a utopian society allowing a maximal flourishing of human beings without ethics, when we can ensure this flourishing in our given conditions, under more modest circumstances to be sure, only in a society that has to defend itself with ethical maxims against the destructive effects of individualism.  This brings up the most ticklish issue of exclusive Constructivism, namely, how does a Constructivist teleology propose to lead humanity out of the present chaotic whirl of all of its uncontrollable immanent and transcendent conditions and bases of existence, into the tranquil ocean of universal fulfillment, timelessness and equilibrium.  Even if there were a way of accomplishing this societally, there is no way metaphysically. And [442] yet the ultimate particles of society, the individual psycho-physical organisms, could only be reconstructed by reaching into the metaphysical history of their descent, in order that the elements of a Constructivist social equilibrium be included from the outset in the structure of individual human units.

These are the absurd consequences if, obeying the theoretical promptings of an exclusive Constructivism, we attempt to draw the outlines of the social order supposedly anticipated by its visual works of art.  If Constructivism claims to have social significance, then its world and way of life could only be as we have described above.  We would be confronted by a fully realized teleological obsession, a system in which each human being would revolve in a predetermined orbit, secure in the consciousness of a superior rationality and the pleasant awareness that all is preordained, nothing can go wrong, there is no need to struggle, and one can relax without reservations in a life regulated by technological precision.  This newfangled pre-stabilized harmony would run human lives as smoothly as a toy electric train, without collisions or catastrophes.

And also without community. For in any human coexistence where the entire web of interpersonal relations, with all of its interdependence, lies in a constellation determined once and for all, there can be no shared fate — for lack of a fatedness — nor emotive communities.  People whose minds in their form and content are entirely devoid of unconscious impulses and lie perfectly clear to be read by themselves and others are incapable of unions that are more than alliances for practical aims or momentary couplings.  Their relations, for lack of any tragic possibilities and any past, can only be mechanical and superficial.

The people inhabiting the Utopia of exclusive Constructivism are linked neither by ethical tensions nor by intuitive attractions or repulsions.  Their societal organizations are devoid of any organic nature, any willed tendencies.  For lack of any moss psychology, numbers of its individual units can align themselves in associations mostly administrative in character, unmenaced by any external or internal threat, and are for their entire lives exempt from the compulsion or spontaneity of caring for each other’s petty problems or tragic complications.  They are free of joy, empathy, love, hatred, pity and competition.  The utopian society envisioned by an exclusive Constructivism hovers in timeless space, free of economic, political, or humanitarian constrictions.

Exclusive Constructivism is characterized by an absence of self-denial and self-sacrifice, and by an inability to empathize and dialectically fructify, or to accept the emotions and ways of thought of people dwelling in other layers of consciousness and living out other fates.  What we have here is a composite of the supercilious mind games of intellectuals, a sophisticated utilitarianism, and the Romantic philosophizing of a few grotesquely faithful hearts.  The spirit of exclusive Constructivism harbors a splendid isolation, a measured correctness, and a selfish, rationalist objectivity — an aesthetic paraphrase of modern industrial capitalism with its single-minded concentration on economic and technological (that is, objective) concerns.  Actually only a partial paraphrase, for industrial capitalism, in addition to its technological objectivity and economic rationalism, is in fact the primary motivating force of the national and international mass psyches.  Played out on its world stage of cultural politics are turbulent dramas abounding in props and sets, heroes and extras, crowds and armies, accompanied by every cheap and expensive effect of pathos, monumentality, haloes and rhetorics.  Quite a difference from the picky, aesthetic approach of exclusive Constructivism that builds bit by bit its otherwise most valuable and important material structures.

For Constructivism is significant; in contrast to the unbounded effusions and sentimentality of Expressionism it has pointed out the psychic possibilities of conscious analysis and an inexorably straight linearity.  Beyond this psychic and aesthetic concentration it has brought us closer to certain vital demands of our times: the perspectives of objective [443] realistically textured work, economy of organization, the tempered and disciplined heart.  Surely these values are tremendously important from the point of view of social revolution, with regard to the directing and focusing of mass movements, and the raising of their cultural political level.  But exclusive Constructivism, in reaction to Expressionist ecstasies and volatile enthusiasms and in the name of the aesthetic harmony of a superior intellectual self-mastery, serene equilibrium, and clearly defined edges has shut itself away from the life of society and from all the actualities of the proletarian revolution, the resonance of which would have disrupted this harmony.  While rejoicing in the pleasures of the aesthetic worship of an absolute perfection, it has failed to notice that along with the content of psychological imperfections and imponderables, tragic instincts and volitions it has also thrown out the material of which the historical, that is, actual life-construct is made, with respect to society.  This is not the realm of timeless eternity and an amoral, pre-stabilized harmony, such as in the exclusive constructions of visual art, the problematic bliss of a perfectly surveyable system.  The constructs of history are born in the bed of fast-flying time, contingencies, doubts and catastrophes.  The mass organizations of human coexistence grow to greatness in the struggle of impulses and ethical imperatives, sacrifices and cool calculations.  They are imperfect and problematic but biologically feasible and necessary.  There can be no rational teleological concept or societal utopia that, no matter how perfect, could empower us to abandon unsystematizable history.  Yet that is what we do when, as does exclusive Constructivism, we posit demands that are impossible to fulfill, with respect to the life of the individual and of society.  This impossibility degrades exclusive Constructivism into a merely aesthetic concern, with all of its vitality condemned to fuel pictorial systems.  And this is how things will remain until exclusive Constructivism establishes a mutual dialectical interaction with the entire range of historical and societal problems.  This is the only way that these fruitful components of social revolution and communism, that is, of actual European life, can, if need be through stylistic modifications, be preserved for a greater and more human art of the future.

[Originally published as “Korrektúrát (a ‘De Stijl’ figyelmébe)” in Ma vol. 8, no. 9-10 (January 7, 1923)]

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~ by Ross Wolfe on October 22, 2010.

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