Mieczysław Szczuka’s “Art and Reality” (1927)

Translated from the Polish by Klara Kemp-Welch.  From Between

Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes,

1910-1930.  (The MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 2002).

• • •

A characteristic feature of evolution that has occurred in the sphere of art in the period of modern capitalism, is the far reaching separation of the activist i.e. the artist from everyday life.  This separation is particularly pronounced in the plastic arts.  Before we [667] go on to explain the reasons for this separation, it will be necessary to mention the methods and working conditions of artists in past times.

The artist in previous centuries, adapted to an economic system based on small-scale production, remained in a certain harmony with it.  The boundaries of artistry were, as is well known, broader than they are today.  In some sense, nearly every craftsman producing functional objects, whether a joiner, an ironworker, a carpenter, or a goldsmith was an artist.  Having plenty of time, he decorated the objects he was producing with relatively primitive tools, according to certain established canons which were not too far-reaching; neither did they change abruptly — often surviving several generations.  Nonetheless, he was left with some initiative within the framework of this canon, allowed by his tools, materials and artistic sensibility.

These relations changed radically as small-scale craft production was replaced by capitalism with its boisterous tempo of development, rapid technological changes, unregulated market — and, above all, mass production in all spheres.

The so-called plastic arts remain directly dependent on architecture which to the greatest extent combines utilitarian content with aesthetic aspect.  It is architecture which is most adapted to the living conditions of those for whom it serves as shelter or workplace.  Architecture is indicative of the state of their material “standard of life,” the range of the demands and requirements of everyday life, culture, and class status.

The harmonious conformity of household utility objects (furniture, kitchen utensils etc.) with the form of the building itself, influences their external qualities (in the aesthetic sense).  It is in this way that “style” (i.e. a system of the aesthetic combination of forms) is fashioned.  Economically (and thus also culturally) privileged classes create their own architecture — (residential, government buildings, religious, office buildings etc.] where, thanks to the means at their disposal, they can develop the aesthetic aspect to the highest degree, along with comfort and practical function.  The emergent style of the privileged class is imposed on the whole of society — regardless of whether other classes had the makings of their own styles (e.g. in our country, so-called folk art).

The tempo of the development of modern capitalism has not allowed for the accommodation, in the artistic sense, of the forms of the everyday objects produced (apartments, houses, furniture, textiles, plates, spoons etc.) to the new materials, the new technical means and the new living conditions.  Every craftsman, since the times of prehistoric man, has attempted to give a beautiful form to the objects he has produced — and the client would choose an object which, apart from its practical aspect, would give him aesthetic pleasure.  Also the producer [of mass manufactured goods] has grasped the significance of the aesthetic “bait” on the market.  In order to procure this “bait” he employed the easiest, and most importantly, the cheapest method.  He reached for models which could be put to use immediately.  These models were provided by the past, along with modern “exotic” art, and sometimes our folk art.  These sources are then fully exploited, “aesthetic” ornaments are stuck to an often fundamentally different content.  The pseudo-classical and the pseudo-gothic are brought back to life, pseudo-Chinese and pseudo-folk styles are imitated, etc.  In this way the public’s taste is fashioned and the means of production adapted.  The interior, beginning with the apartments of the barons of industry, bankers and the like, and ending with the apartment of the petty-bourgeois, is a store, in which a great many (depending on the degree of its owner’s affluence) useless knickknacks are chaotically accumulated.  Products for [668] the working masses that are supplied are even worse and shoddier because cheaper and, of course, there are less of them.  “Art for the masses” is represented by the reproduction of a pastoral scene or a battle, with patriotic or religious content, intended for workers’ dwellings or the premises visited by them.

The development of the plastic arts in the 19th century is undoubtedly influenced by the character of the class which everywhere came to power in this period.  The European bourgeoisie has emerged from the so-called “third state,” “from the people” as a new, politically and economically privileged, class.  On its one side it had the “people,” the petty-bourgeoisie and the proletariat, clamoring for its privileges, and on the other, the already formed privileged groups, the feudal lords, whom it was attempting to join — with success, after a short period of ferment and battle.  However, it should be noted that as a matter of fact the great-bourgeoisie’s battle with the feudalists was never a relentless one.

This social situation, this cowardly sneaking one’s way into the ranks of the privileged, results in the great-bourgeoisie having a deeply parvenu attitude to art and life.  Typically parvenu is its fixation with all things past, with all kinds of “styles,” with outdated fashions, its searching for beauty in that which is old, which has lost all utility value, and its feeling ashamed of those real, utilitarian values which it has brought in.  Hence those aesthetic theories which separate beauty and utility — beautiful is only that which has no longer, or never had, any use (the cult of old ruins etc.).  The division between that which is “beautiful” and that which is useful had never before reached such horrifying dimensions.  On the one hand imitations of outdated styles, on the other hideous brick barracks, built with no regard for hygiene (dwellings, factory premises).  The concern is not for the people but for the maximum profit for the owner: in building a factory, a covered enclosure is erected for machines, materials and goods produced — little thought is given to the people who are going to work there.  In building dwellings the elementary rules for creating at the very least bearable living conditions for residents are not taken into account.  Tenement houses in which every cubic meter must bring profit, are becoming the main type of urban building.  State institutions and office premises, wealthy people’s houses, are built in a seemingly luxurious way since it pays off: it attracts the buyer, and ensures the grandeur.  Luxury manifests itself especially in external trimmings: cornices, columns, friezes and the like, which cover the façades of buildings with their “stylish” assortment — and do not cost much.  Rooms are better and more comfortable.  Here and there can be found greenery and some thought is given to provide natural light.  All these appearances fall completely by the wayside in buildings in poorer districts, in rooms for servants’ and caretakers’ rooms, in basements and attics — where conditions are terrible.

[669]

The influence of these determinants: the characteristic traits of capitalism, the psychology of the ruling class, has been increased by the failure of artists to accommodate to higher expectations.  The artist, stuck in the old methods of his “creative work,” and particularly the artist with initiative, is too slow to keep up with the tempo of developments.  He can also be too expensive.  As we have noted above as far as architecture is concerned its “aesthetic” aspect remains at the service of speculative considerations.  The artist has “pure art” for his consolation.  All this cannot be comprised within the framework of “division of labor.  “ The artist is moving increasingly further away from life, practicing “pure art,” “art for art’s sake.”

There were other causes of this “cleansing” of art of earthly elements.  The artist of the past worked, almost as a rule, for a known recipient: whether it were a town, an association, the church or a private individual.  Later, this type of recipient is replaced.  The artist now works for an unknown recipient — he sends his work out to the market, to an exhibition, to an art dealer.  This unknown recipient, however, is still not completely anonymous: he must be a person sufficiently well-off to afford a work of art.  This is the only point of orientation — besides this there rages the uncontrollable element of the market into which the artist is plunged just as every small-scale manufacturer of luxury goods is.

This market has been fairly receptive: the rapid increase of surplus production, at the expense of the working masses, created whole new categories of recipients, such as connoisseurs; it created the basis for the development of these hitherto unknown relationships.  In the past, just as the artist knew the recipient, the recipient also knew the artist.  This point of contact has now been broken.  Just as the artist is faced with elemental and chaotic market, with a varying degree of self-confidence depending on his popularity, so the “consumer” is faced with the riddle of a completely unknown expression of “artistic creativity.”

The artist, irrespective of the tools of his trade: whether poet, painter or sculptor, is now in the position of the high priest, in possession of mysterious powers, to a far greater degree than ever before.  His position, in relation to the aesthetically conscious mass of recipients, is somewhat similar to that of the alchemist in the Middle Ages.  Part scholar, part charlatan, he separates himself off, with a sweeping and proud gesture, from those matters in which he cannot feel himself a “master” and high priest, matters which he cannot understand, such as the workings of the market.  With the same gesture he separates himself from the “crowd.”

Here are the roots of Individualism in art (individualism with a capital I, naturally).  Various components manifest themselves here.  Besides the reasons mentioned above, the desire to fence oneself off from one’s competitor — the battle for one’s own piece of the market and for one’s own adulating recipients, listening and watching with rapt attention, also comes into play.

Let us also recall the phenomenon of the so called bohemia which in the 19th century, it would seem, was a permanent feature of all “broader” manifestations in art.  This was a kind of school of life, a necessary preparation in order to become a “real” artist.  Bohemia undoubtedly had a de-socializing effect in the preparation of “pure” artists.

City life undoubtedly created the conditions for just this sort of understanding of art, and contributed to the development of certain tendencies.  The nostalgia for nature that is characteristic of the city-dweller and is a typical product of the urban environment (lack of healthy conditions, air, sun etc.) finds its expression in landscape painting, in the calm of “still lives,” and in genre painting.

[670]

The middle classes, suffocating in the city, looked for the source of the force of “rebirth” in the primeval robustness of the “people” or in primitive peoples — hence [the interest in] popular art, the exotic and the primitive.

The rapid pulse of contemporary life, the sudden and profound changes in the formation of social forces on the one hand, and, on the other, the relative ease of propagating the achievements of artistic technique (unavoidably linked with [their] vulgarization) — all this has had effect on the speed and profundity of artistic breakthroughs.  In a relatively short period of time a series of breakthroughs has occurred in art: Classicism, Romanticism, Naturalism, Impressionism.  In the 20th century, these changes take on a positively merry-go-round pace.

This remains in close relation with technical progress.  The need for portraits, landscapes, history and battle painting, illustration of current events etc. are satisfied by photography and film, which are unrivaled in terms of accuracy, speed, and cheapness, as compared to the work of the artist satisfying these needs in the past.  The ground is being removed from under the artist’s feet, and whole areas of work slip away from him.  What remains is formal problems in which he becomes increasingly involved.

First Impressionism — the first movement to emerge in a “purely” bourgeois atmosphere — introduced to art the problem of the analysis of light.  Later, comes the period of adulation of the machine.  Instead of the expression of individual moods, of dubious value, or the content of the “soul,” however poor, in individual artists — often immature, embittered, lacking in even the modest general knowledge — there comes a reaction: the admiration for the wonders of technology (though short-lived).

Work on formal problems makes headway: plastic art liberates itself from the supremacy of naturalism, literary anecdote etc.  A period of the collective search for forms ensues, the period of laboratory working methods, endeavoring to build a work of art for its own sake, not expressing anything, existing completely self-sufficiently.

Easel painting has objectively become a luxury, and let us add, a commonplace luxury, imposed on the exhibition market, which has been bringing increasingly poor results.  The exhibition, accessible only at certain specified times, has now been surpassed by magazine reproduction.

As we have already noted above, the artist had to, and did, make his existence dependent on the affluent classes, by whom he was variously treated, generally as a cultural luxury, fulfilling a not particularly necessary function, sometimes respected and sometimes outright laughable.  Condemned to practice art for its own sake, pure art, the artist nonetheless lived and acted in “society” (meaning the materially and culturally well placed spheres).  Hence the artist had, in his work, to give expression to the interests of his clientele.  Naturally, this did not preclude the fact that the attitude of individuals to these issues might be different.  But we are here concerned with artists as a social group.

[671]

Naturally, it is no accident that the breakthrough in the attitude of artists to social problems occurred parallel with the ideological and technical crisis in art.  The same tendencies are expressed here as in other spheres of contemporary life.  Progress in mechanization and technological development have rendered absurd and overturned the existing methods of the working of society and its organization.  Technological development has exceeded the strength of the present framework of social organization, hence at every step the absurd contradictions in both ideology and in everyday practice.  The modern artist, seemingly in isolation (considering his social position, which we have discussed above), without having clearly grasped these contradictions, has generally followed the path of formal investigation, the path of contributing new values to the achievements of previous generations.  Having enough time (lack of practical application) he has been developing formal problems, seeing in them the sense of his labors.  The path before him is actually a well beaten track: following the line of the least resistance, satisfying the tastes of people who do not have the time to think over the artistic problems, but have the material means to provide a living for the artist.  This is not, naturally, the path for more ambitious, richly endowed, perhaps more conscientious natures.  These people rebel, they break out of the established boundaries, and carry the assumptions of the formal experiment right through to the end, thus rendering absurd the fiction of “art for art’s sake,” “pure art.”  Disinterested (in the sense of lacking application) work on formal problems (Cubism, Futurism, Suprematism and others), the search for new materials, the awareness of new methods of production, the dependence of the character of the oeuvre on the material used (yes, for this, too, had once been a mystery), all these revealed the monstrous fiction contained in the slogans of “pure art.”

The realization of the fact that 19th century art actually had no practical application in life, comes through in slogans — though rather undefined — put forward in the last dozen or so years by artists, such as “art out onto the streets,” “art for all.”  These slogans, proclaimed in the so called new art, were easier to proclaim than to put into action.  Consumer society, demoralized by existing practice, saw nothing more in it than an innocent desire for a “new thrill,” and at most a reflection of a certain ferment pervading the intelligentsia.  What is worse, and what stripped these slogans of their value, was that it was in just this way that a great many artists understood them.  The scandals by which the Futurists showed off in the circles of snobbish consumers, testify to this.  The nature of the conflict was hidden and was to remain misunderstood for a long time.

The lack of [the artist’s] participation in the society contributed to this.  The artist, the writer, the intellectual in general (having gone through the experience [with the market] of which we have already spoken), became accustomed to sending “pure art,” “pure poetry,” “pure thought” and generally only pure cultural goods, out into the uncertain market.  But these cultural goods served only a limited number of recipients.  This was all right as long as the hitherto existing relations remained unchanged.  War and the resulting economic crisis devastated the lower and middle bourgeoisie, which had been the main recipient of the current artistic production (the great bourgeoisie, industrial magnates and landowners, generally bought for their collections the works of old, deceased artists of established reputation).  The market became considerably narrower.

A new recipient has come to the fore — the proletariat, which, in time, would make its presence increasingly felt.  But this recipient demanded a particular product — he did not want a “pure” product, he demanded utilitarian qualities.  Disoriented by the hitherto reigning chaos, he did not define his demands sufficiently clearly, but was, nonetheless, orientated by instinct as to his needs.  This instinctive orientation should be stressed.  The formation of the modern proletarian consciousness is a unique process [672] in history — its development is hard and complicated by different influences.  In the political sphere, the strivings of the working class manifested themselves, as a matter of course, in the way we know, as a result of the urgent necessity of defending itself against the ruling classes.  In the sphere of art, as well as in the spheres of many other cultural issues, there was no such urgent necessity.  Hence the reigning chaos and absence of a program.

This happened not only because the immediate political struggle — in which almost the whole energy of the working class was absorbed — took precedence and will continue to do so for a long time.  It is also necessary to take into account here, that the leading element of the working class grew up and was educated within the framework of bourgeois culture and therefore often considers the products of this culture as supreme phenomena, impossible to surpass.  The sharp and deep-reaching criticism of a bourgeois politics and economy disappears, ceasing to be an adequate description of phenomena when applied to the realm of bourgeois culture, art and literature.  In a word, revolutionary tendencies in politics are often linked with bourgeois tendencies in culture.  Hence tendencies which might be defined as cultural-labeling expansion.  This means efforts are made that any typically bourgeois product has a proletarian label applied to it, in the form of a few slogans, some vague call or tendency.  Products, particularly of this sort, so long as they are made to order, combine intrinsic bourgeois overtones with shoddy execution.  One can in all seriousness find, among proletarian activists, people, in whose minds proletarian is unavoidably linked to shoddiness.

These phenomena could, in a more flowery style, be described as the dirty froth of the oncoming proletarian wave.  For this reason, in these matters, it is better to rely upon the instinct of the masses than the existing theories reasoned out in this spirit, which are inadequate because of the incurable bourgeois attitudes of their creators.  The proletariat needs art, not as a stucco ornament for special occasions, but an art for everyday.  There has to be an end to the division resulting from the bourgeoisie’s parvenu shame — the division separating production from life and cultural matters and resulting in the deceptive fetishization of all manifestations of human activity, and horrible lies sticking to everything, beginning with the stock exchange, government institutions and parliamentary democracy, and ending with the most minute, day-to-day matters.  This has to disappear as a typical lie of the capitalist world: “art for art’s sake.”  It has to disappear not only in theory, for today hardly anyone would admit to lie, but also in practice.

The artist has begun to think.  He has realized the emptiness of his position on social issues.  The artist is breaking out of the confines of today’s system, he desires and searches for practical goals, a practical application of his work.  He does not want to be an empty “ornament” of society, he wishes to participate in the organization of life.  The capitalist system will not, and cannot give him all this.  Even there where it appears to offer a chance of such work, it turns out to be illusory.  Even there where the egoism of individuals, subjecting millions to their will, seems to cede into the background, it always turns out to be a matter of cowardly compromise, the abandoning of some important stance in order to better defend the more remote.  Only the new social system will make possible the full use of technological progress, the possibilities now smothered or used wrongly by today’s lords of the world.  It will facilitate the emergence of new conditions for the human activity which we call art.

[Originally published as “Sztuka a rzeczywistość,” in Dźwignia, No. 4 (1927)]

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~ by Ross Wolfe on October 22, 2010.

2 Responses to “Mieczysław Szczuka’s “Art and Reality” (1927)”

  1. […] Szczuka, Mieczysław. “Art and Reality.”  Translated by Klara Kemp-Welch.  From Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European […]

  2. […] Szczuka, Mieczysław. “Art and Reality.”  Translated by Klara Kemp-Welch.  From Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European […]

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