RUSSIAN AVANT-GARDE – A SHORT STORY TO TELL
Any Avant-garde expresses itself in one of two maxims: either “all that there is, all art, the whole culture finishes in us, we are its acme and completion”, or “all that there is yet to become, begins in us, we are harbingers of the golden age to come”. The first maxim can be easily traced to Friedrich Nietzche, the second to Georges Bataille. The Russian Avant-garde from the very start was future-oriented – hence its strong utopian moments (particularly in poetry, painting, and architecture). All though the Russian Avant-garde shared many features of the French and particularly the Germen Avant-garde of the post-war period, it remains essentially Russian not only because of its background in Russian culture and particularly literature of the 19-th and the beginning of the 20-th c., but first of all because it was the Russian Revolution that determined its four main specific features.
The first feature, which appeared to have been the central didacticconstructive principle of the Russian Avant-garde: art ought to appeal to everyone. This doesn’t mean that art should be understood by everyone or, least of all, be made understandable to all. From this follows that art must be stronger than its common and, by definition, quite uninformed reception. At the same time, this also implies that it is from the revolutionary energy of the people Avant-garde derives its energy which it gives back to the people, but already translated into images and symbols of art (note that the Russian Avant-garde adopted some aesthetical and ideological principles of Russian symbolism of the beginning of the 20-th c.). The second feature: since the Revolution had upturned the whole stratification of Russian pre-revolutionary society, a great number of various well cultured, mainly young, people were propelled onto the surface of society and began to form within themselves some highly elitist artistic circles and groups. This predetermined the markedly elitist character of Russian avant-garde aesthetics and of the whole avant-garde ideology.
The third feature of the Russian Avant-garde was its very strong .tendency to identify itself with the political power of, then still young Soviet state (for which it would have to pay a very high price later). Very soon, unfortunately, this tendency degenerated into sheer artistic and cultural statism often verging on political opportunism. The four~aesthetically and philosophically most prominent feature of the Russian Avant-garde was its experimentalism also undoubtedly inspired by the Revolution. The great leaders of the Revolution themselves claimed that theirs was an experiment with history, the first in human history. The champions of the Russian Avant-garde, even those alien or hostile to the Revolution, thought that the Revolution befell them as their destiny, and cleared an immense terrain for them to experiment with new n: a new society and a new state. It is this idea of novelty and radidal change that fed n their energy and excited in them a very strong feeling of importance 0 their art and themselves. In the final analysis it was this experimentalist excitement which served as a powerful instrument in the propaganda of the avant-garde works and ideas. It is shown in famous monuments with slogans on the Palace Square in St-Petersburg executed by N. Altman, in the first performances of “revolutionary theatre” in the early plays staged by Meyerhold, in Mayakovsky’s poem “About it”, and in the paintings of Filonov. It is from the avant-gardes experimentalism and its idea of itself as of an “absolute novelty”, that its conception of time was derived. Its own, contemporary time the Russian Avant-garde considered historically exceptional, literally “exempt from history”.
The great avant-garde artists, such as Shostakovich, Filonov, and Malevich thought of themselves as working at the cutting edge as if it was the moments before the world Revolution or the end of the world. – However, the main effects of the avant-garde experimental ism should be seen in its creation of some totally new concrete ways and methods of combination of various kinds of art in one art of whatever kind – music with theatre, poetry with music, painting with architecture, theatre with painting etc. But in the Russian avant-garde synthesis it was, of course, literature that played definitely the most important role, and it is from the Russian literature that one of the central avant-garde ideas, the idea of all arts as one art was borrowed. Their idea of one art has two different aspects. In the first aspect, purely aesthetical, it was assumed the existence of a pure non-sensual and non-representational images and forms considered the basis and core of any art and art in general. Later this forms and images were called “eidetic”. In the second aspect, psychological, all various arts were regarded as issued from one intentionality, the same for all of them.
The limit of that absolute monist conception of art could be seen in the idea of one perfect and all-encompasing work of art which concentrates in itself all energies of all arts taking together. Furthermore, it is one art and one future. Thith to there were many “pasts” and many “futures”. Now, on the threshold of New Era, there is only one “present”, revolutionary, which getting rid of all its” asts”, is merging with the future of one non-historical classless human/kind, But ~ of course, the real situation of the twenties cannot be reduced to a few ideological platitudes. For in Marxist terms the time in question was still a transitional period of “temporary” intensification of class-straggle, and the Avant-garde, more often than not, did not fit in with the current political situation. Nevertheless, towards the middle of the twenties, due to an extraordinary concentration of highly talented people working in practically all varieties of art, there appeared in Moscow and particularly Leningrad unique atmosphere of artistic creativity and excitement.
It is by this atmosphere that such geniu’i”” as Shostakovich, Meyerhold, Mayakovsky, and Malevich were charged with powerful creative impulses which persisted long after the Avant-garde in Russia ceased to be a living force. We hear a metaphysical optimism and vitality of the Avant-garde resounding in patriotic soviet hits of Shostakovich and in his “Moscow Cherernushki” decades after the whole Avant-garde was struck ()ff the list of themes and items of soviet “cultural discourse”. And one merely historical circumstance peculiar to the Russian Avant-garde: the broader was becoming a gap between its artistic elites and the general public and the sharper a contrast between the aesthetic principles and values of the former and the average cultural level of the latter, the more became the Russian Avant-garde thematically focused on the reality of contemporary every life. Its art not only endeavoured to find out the senses hidden under the surface of this reality, but to transform it into other reality, a kind of super-reality; with threat converted into promise and hope merging with despair. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that here the Avant-garde aesthetics verged on surrealism.
However, the Russian Avant-garde, as well as the Avantgarde in general, was not oriented to reality as such, to the “raw” reality, so to speak, but only to the Russian reality which had already been changed into a paradox or nonsense by Russian literature or destorted and perverted by the changing political conditions of the twenties. It may be said that in its relation to the reality of the twenties the Russian Avantgarde played with the public, with the society, and with the state, not understanding that it played the game in which the last throw will be its own existence. Blinded by social optimism, Shostakovich and Meyerhold, Maykovsky and Malevich could not see the curtain falling. Now, in an almost century long retrospective, the Russian Avantgarde is present to our eyes not only as a great feast of creative artistic energy, aesthetic perfection and elegance. Far more than that. It was a melting pot of new ideas about art, ideas ranging from most abstract to concrete and even technical. And was a rich source of intellectual inspiration. For, starting from its foundmg fathers, such as Kandinsky and Malevich, it was not a mere art . om~fl(r,-but an extraordinary selfexpressing and self-explaining cultural event. Summing ‘up the whole “metaphysical arsenal” of the Russian Avant-garde we may single out four most general conceptions.
– Since the world around us has ceased to be stable, fixed in its contours, forms, colours and sounds, the main function of art – a reflection and representation of the world – become unproductive, and the aesthetics based on this function became obsolete and trivial. Moreover, the very ideal of art as “true to nature” seemed to have become senseless, because nature itself cannot any longer be conceived in terms of permanent, firmly established laws (note that the Avant-garde was strongly influenced by the revolutionary discoveries in physics at the beginning of the 20-th c.)
– Having lost its representational function, art has become autonomous in its relation to material things it was supposed to be reflecting and representing. At the same time, art has become independent from its own inner laws, inherited from the past, when they were still strictly functionally determined and formulated.
– The future art will not be bound be compulsory concreteness of its own works. Because, what we call “abstract”, “concrete”, “figurative”, etc. are in fact various inner intentionalities of art itself and not objective qualities of things produced or reproduced by various arts (Malevich said: “comrades, arise, free yourselves from the tyranny of objects”). The real world is objectless and purely platonically abstract.
– The great masters of Avant-garde were quite ambivalent in their attitude to historical time. While denying the past as useless and incomprehensible, and laying claim for the future, as their own domain, they identified themselves with the present (“we alone are the true face of our time” – said Mayakovsky).
– The real art is unpragmatic par excellence. No work of art, least of all, art in general, ought to have any practical application or be useful to an individual or the society. As Malevich said: ” … for the true artist all utilitarian values will be subordinated to forms that derive from merely formal, inner laws of art” .
It would be also important to stress here the outright hostility of the Russian Avant-garde not only to any previous art but to the whole established way of perception b the general public . In other words, the Russian Avant-garde, at least in its self perception, wa against the whole modem culture and particularly against all varieties of so called “modernism”. Wherefrom its uncompromising rejection of constructivism. In ilierffirst manifesto, “A Slap For Public Taste”, the futurists said, “we are in perpetual flux, moving ahead of time, tomorrow we will. be totally different from what we are now”. The core of the movement – Burlyuk, Larionov, Malevich, Mayakovsky, Khruchenykhlived by great hopes and expectations which won’t come true. With the end of “promised land” of beauty and freedom, the very life-principle of the Russian Avant-garde was extinguished. But even now we are able to feel the undying charm of its brillian ~ elegance. Young Shostakovich was an honoured guest at this feast and to the end of his life carried in himself the sparks of the creative energy of Russian Avant-garde.