The  Crisis  of  Art


The  Crisis  of  Art

(1918 – #14,1)

  Art has survived many a crisis over its history. The transitions from antiquity to the Medieval and from the Medieval to the Renaissance betoken such profound crises. But that, which is occurring with art in our epoch, cannot be termed merely one crisis in a series of others. We are present at a crisis of art in general, amidst the deepest tremours within its thousand year old foundations. The old ideal of the classically beautiful art has become ultimately tarnished, and there is a feeling for a return to its images. Art has convulsively striven to go beyond its limits. The borderlines have shattered, such as distinguish one art from another and indeed art in general from that, what yet already is not art, from what is higher or lower than it. There has never yet been so acutely put the problem of the relation of art to life, of creativity and existence, never yet has there been such a thirst to pass over from the creativity of producing art to a creativity of life itself, new life. There is awareness of an impotence of the creative act of man, a lack of correspondence between the creative task and the creative realisation. Our time knows simultaneously both an unprecedented creative boldness and an unprecedented weakness. The man of the utmost final creative day wants to create something never before existing and in his creative rapture oversteps all the bounds and all the limits. But this finalistic man fails to create any yet so perfect and beautiful products, such as were created by the more unassuming man of former epochs.

From opposing ends there is to be noticed a crisis of the old art and the search for new paths. In modern art can be discerned strivings synthetic and strivings analytic, currents diametrically opposite. Both the strivings towards a synthesis of arts, towards their confluence into a single mystery, and the opposite strivings towards an analytic dissection within each art, tend simultaneously to shake the bounds of each art, and simultaneously also they signify a profound crisis of art. The synthetic strivings have been noted already with Mallarme. And in a very vivid decorative setting there was the musical drama of R. Wagner. The Symbolists were the bearers of these synthetic strivings. Certain of them wanted to lead art out of the crisis through a return to the organic artistic era. The arts — are a product of differentiation. They — are derived from a temple and cultic origin, they developed from a certain organic unity, in which all the parts were subordinated to a religious centre. Many of the Symbolists of our generation and the generation before dreamt about restoring to art a significance both liturgical and sacral. The sacral art of the ancient world and of the Medieval world, the most vividly organic epochs within the history of human culture, remained for them enticing and captivating, and the call of the past for them was stronger than the call for the future. We are living out the end of the Renaissance, we are experiencing the final remnants of that epoch, when the human powers were set free and their bedazzling unfolding begat beauty. At present this free unfolding of human powers has passed over from regeneration into degeneration, it no longer still creates the beautiful. And there is an acute sense of the inevitability of a new direction for the creative powers of man. Man has become too much free, too much the release from his empty freedom, too much the exhaustion from the prolonged critical epoch. And man has come into an anguished yearning within his creativity for organicity, for a synthesis, for a religious centre, for mystery.

A very brilliant theoretician of these synthetic-organic strivings amongst us is Vyacheslov Ivanov. To the Futurists he would seem very archaic. His preaching of sobornost’-communality in art is oriented backwards, to the ancient sources of art and culture. He — is eternally the Alexandrian as regards his outlook, and like an Alexandrian, he experiences the sobornost’, the organic and sacral aspect of the ancient and archaic Greece. When Vyach. Ivanov preaches a theurgic art, his preachings then bear reminiscences and reflections of the old cultures. The theurgic idea is great. But a theurgic foundation for contemporary art could easily come to be transformed into a norm thrust on from the outside, a residue from the remote past. The sobornost’ aspect with V. Ivanov is not at all something immanent for our times, rather instead is quite transcendent for it. V. Ivanov himself — is a remarkable poet, but his theoretical strivings in our epoch, lacking in an awareness of sobornost’, can prove dangerous for the autonomy of art. In the art of painting, Chiurlenis has represented an expression of synthetic aspirations. He goes beyond the bounds of painting as a distinct and autonomous art and seeks to synthesis painting with music. He attempts within a musical painting to express his own cosmic feeling, his own clearly evident contemplation of the complexion and construct of the cosmos. He is both remarkable and interesting as regards his strivings. But the painting of Chiurlenis is inadequate to his visions, it is an incomplete transformation of them into a different language, as it were. He is picturesquely helpless, the painting insufficiently elaborated and the history of painting unenriched by new norms. The painting of Chiurlenis — is a very characteristic example of what, as synthetic strivings, can have destructive effects upon art, and in any case, would express a profound deficiency for art: the striving towards a synthesis of the arts and the subjoining of mysticism to art can be destructive of the artistic form. Immeasurably more powerful is another expresser of synthetic strivings. I have in mind the revolutionary genius of Scriabin. In modern art I know of no one else, in whom there has been such a rapturous creative outburst, devastating the old world and laying the foundations for a new world. The musical genius of Scriabin is so great, that in music he has managed adequately to express his own new and catastrophic world-sense, to extract from the dark depths the existence of sounds, which the old music had ignored. He wanted to create a mysterium, in which would be synthesised all the entirety of art. And the mystery he conceived of eschatologically. It should have to be the end of this world. All the creative values of this worldly aeon, towards which we approach, would enter into the mystery. And this world would end, when there resound the sounds of this finalative mystery. The creative vision of Scriabin is unprecedented in its boldness, but scarcely is it likely that he will bring it to realisation. And yet he himself is an astonishing phenomenon of the creative path of man. This creative path of man makes art obsolete in the old and seemingly eternal sense of the word. The synthetic searchings give a pull towards mysterium and by this they go out beyond the bounds not only of the separate arts, but also of art in general. What however happens with art in its modern analytic aspirations?

The positings of a verymost profound crisis of art are not the result of the synthetic searchings, but of rather the analytic searchings. The searchings for a synthesis of art, the searchings after a mysterium, the attempts at a return to an art liturgical and sacral has as its representatives remarkable thinkers and creative people, but in them there is much preserved from the old and eternal art, and it is not ultimately shaken down to its foundations. In the strivings towards synthesis nothing is dissociated, the cosmic winds do not carry off the artist-creators and the artistic creations from those age-old spots, which are prepared for them within the organic structure of the earth. Even within the revolutionary art of Scriabin there is to be noted not so much a dissociation and dissolution, as rather the conquests of new spheres. But with Scriabin there was even too great a faith in art, and his bonds with the great past were not sundered. An altogether different nature and different sense obtains in those phenomena, which I term as the analytic aspirations in modern art, shattering and sundering every organic synthesis both of the old natural world and of the old art. Cubism and Futurism in all its manifold hues appears an expression of these analytic strivings, shattering all organicity. These waftings of a final day and final hour of human creativity ultimately disintegrate the old beautiful embodied art, always connected with antiquity, with the crystalising forms of the flesh of the world. The most remarkable results of this tendency obtain in painting.

A genius-endowed representative of Cubism is the artist Picasso. When one gazes upon a picture by Picasso, one then tends to think belaboured thoughts.1  “The happiness of an embodied life under the sunlight has vanished. The wintry cosmic wind has stripped away the veil behind the veil, all the flowers and the leaves have become scorched, stripping away the skin of things, all that was clothed has fallen away, all the flesh, manifest in images of incorruptible beauty, has dissipated. It comes to seem, that never will ensue the cosmic Springtime, never will there be the leaves, the greenery, the beautiful veilings, the embodied synthetic forms. It comes to seem, that after the terrible Winter of Picasso the world will not yet blossom forth, as before, that in this Winter will fall away not only all the veils, but likewise all the objective corporeal world will become unhinged down to its very foundations. There transpires as it were a mysterious coming apart of the cosmos. All more and more it becomes impossible to posit a synthetically-whole artistic apperception and creativity. Everything analytically is dissolved and dismembered. By means of such an analytic dismemberment the artist intends to get down to the very skeleton of things, down to the solid forms, hidden behind the softening veils. The material veilings of the world have begun to disintegrate and shred apart and there is the searching out of the solid substances, hidden behind this softening. In his searching out of the geometric forms of objects, the skeleton of things, Picasso has arrived at a stone age. But this — is an illusory stone age. The gravity, the solidness and welding together of the geometric figures of Picasso only seems so. In actuality the geometric bodies of Picasso, assembled from the cubic skeletons of the corporeal world, fall apart from the slightest shake. The final layer of the material world, revealing itself to Picasso the artist after stripping away all the veils, — is illusory, and not real. Picasso — is a merciless exposer of the illusion of an embodied, materially synthetic beauty. Behind the captivating and alluring feminine beauty he sees the terror of disintegration, dissolution. He, in his sharp-sightedness, sees through all the veilings, the covering cloths, in layers there also, in the depths of the material world, he sees its own deposits of the monstrous. This — is the demonic grimacings of the fettered spirits of nature. To go still further in depth, and for there still to be no sort of materiality, — there already is the inward structure of nature, of the hierarchy of spirits. Painting, just like all the plastic arts, had been an embodiment, a materialisation. The highest upsurges of the old painting provided a crystalised and formalised flesh. Painting was connected with a firmness of the embodied physical world and stability of formal matter. But now at present painting is experiencing an as yet unprecedented crisis. If one penetrate the further into this crisis, then it becomes impossible to term it otherwise than as a dematerialisation, a disembodied sort of painting. In painting is transpiring something, it would seem, quite opposite the very nature of the plastic arts. Everything already as it were has become exhausted within the sphere of the embodied, materially-crystaline painting. In modern painting there is no spirit that becomes embodied, becomes materialised, and matter itself becomes dematerialised, becomes disembodied, and loses its solidness, its firmness and sense of form. Painting submerges itself into the depths of matter and there, in the very final layers, it finds there already no materiality. With Picasso the boundaries of physical bodies become unsteady. In modern art the spirit as it were tends to wane, and flesh to be dematerialised. This — is a very deep jolting for the plastic arts, and which shakes the very essence of the plastic form. The dematerialisation in painting can produce the impression of the ultimate collapse of art. It would seem, that in nature itself, in its rhythm and cyclic-turns, that something irreversibly has fractured and changed. The world has altered its veilings. The material veilings of the world were merely temporary coverings. The age-old attire of being has rotted and fallen away”.

All the firm delineations of being have shattered, become decrystalised, stretched apart, pulverised. Man passes over into the state of an object, objects pass over into the human state, one object passes over into another object, all the layers get jumbled, all the planes of being get confused. This new sense of world life attempts to find its expression in Futurist art. Cubism was but one of the expressions of this cosmic whirlwind, sweeping everything from its place. Futurism in all its manifold variations goes even further. This — is a sequential shattering of the features of the settled state of being, the vanishing of all the definitely delineated images of the objective world. In the old, the seemingly eternal art, the image of man and the human body had firm contours, he was distinct from the images of other objects in the world, from minerals, plants and animals, from rooms, houses, streets and cities, from machines and from the infinitude of the worldly expanse. In Futurist art there are erased the boundaries, separating the image of man from other objects, from the enormous mechanical monstrosity, called the modern city. Marinetti proclaims in his manifesto: “Our bodies enter into the couches, upon which we sit, and the couches enter into us. The autobus is transformed into the houses, alongside which we drive past, and in their turn the houses rush at the autobus and pour off from it”. The human image vanishes in this process of a cosmic stretching apart and pulverisation. The Futurists wanted as though with pathos to kill away and reduce to ashes the image of man, always reinforced by the image of the material world separate from him. When the material world is sent reeling to its foundations, the image of man also is sent reeling. The world in its dematerialisation penetrates through into man, and man having lost his spiritual stability dissolves away in the diluted down material world. The Futurists demand a transferring of the centre of gravity from man over to matter. But this does not mean, that they can be called materialists in the old sense of the word. Man vanishes, as vanishes also the old matter, with which he corresponded. “To abolish the “I” within literature, i.e. to abolish all psychology” — thus formulates Marinetti one of the points of his programme. “Man does not represent any sort of absolutely greater an interest. And thus, expunge him from the literature. Chalk him up finally as matter, the essence of which it is necessary to grasp by bursts of intuition. Discern through his free objects and capricious motorings of breathing the sensation and instincts of metals, stones, trees, etc. Eliminate the psychology of man, henceforth empty, with a lyrical impulse of matter”. “Of interest to us is the solidity of the steeliness of the plastic art per se, i.e. the non-conceptual and non-human union of its molecules and electrons, which resist, for example, the pull of the nucleus. The warmth of a bit of gland or of wood is more exciting for us, than the smile or the tears of a woman”. “It is necessary, moreover, to catch the gravity and smell of objects, which up to now they have disdained to do in literature. To strive, for example, to convey the landscape of smells, perceptible by a dog. To hearken to motors and reproduce their utterances. Matter always has been investigated by an absent-minded and cold I, excessively concerned with itself, full of prejudicial wisdom and human impulses”. The hostility to man, to the human “I” is clearly apparent in the Futurist manifesto of Marinetti. And herein lies concealed a fundamental contradiction of Futurism. The Futurists want to have the growth of an accelerated dynamic and yet they deny the wellspring of the creative dynamic — man. There is no lever, by which the Futurism could flip over the world. There is no genuine dynamism within Futurism, the Futurists are situated in the grip of a certain worldwide whirlwind, not knowing the meaning of what is occurring with them, and essentially, remaining passive. They are obsessed with a certain sort of process, they spin round in it with an ever growing acceleration, but actively creative they are not. They are situated in the grip of a disintegration of the material world. Futurism possesses an enormous symptomatic significance, it indicates not only a crisis of art, but also a crisis of life itself. Regretably, the agitational manifestos of the Futurists take precedence over artistic creativity. In these manifestos they express their own altered sense of life. But they are incapable to adequately express this new sense of life in the fashionings of art. This creative incapacity is especially to be sensed in the Futurist poetry and literature. What happens is a decrystalisation of words, a flattening down of words, sundering words apart from any sense of the Logos. But a new cosmic rhythm, a new sense of harmony the Futurists fail to detect. The problem with Futurism consists in this, that it is too oriented backwards, negatively attached to the past, too concerned with settling accounts with it and not at all with a passing over to a new creativity in freedom. It is merely a transitory state, moreso the end-point of the old art, rather than the construction of a new art. The Futurists perceive only on the surface the quite profound processes of change in human and world life. But they dwell in a verymost profound spirit of ignorance, with them there is no sort of spiritual knowledge of the meaning of what is occurring, not that intensive spiritual life, which would have made visible not only the disintegration of old worlds, but also the arising of new worlds. A philosophic approach towards apperception is needed within Futurism.

Where is one to seek out the vital sources behind the Futurist outlooks and Futurist currents in art? What has transpired within the world? Of what sort is the fact of being having begotten a new sense of life? There was some particular fateful moment in human history, the point from which there began to fall apart all the stability and crystaline aspect of life. The tempo of life has accelerated infinitely, and the whirlwind, caused by this accelerated pace, has seized hold and sent spinning both man and human creativity. Near-sightedly one would not have seen that in the life of mankind there has transpired a changing point, after which over the course of a decade there would happen such transformations, as earlier occurred only over the course of a century. In the old beauty of human existence and human art something from this critical moment radically collapsed, from this revolutionary event. Architecture tended to perish — that finest expression of every organic artistic epoch. Modern architectural creativity is marked by the construction of enormous rail-stations and hotels. All the creative energy of man tends to go into the planning and construction of automobiles and aeroplanes, upon the discovery of means of accelerated transportation. The beauty of the old manner of life was static. The church, the palace, the rustic country-house — were something static, they relied upon the stability of life and upon its slow tempo. Now however everything has become dynamic, everything statically stable is undone, swept up into the rapidity of mechanical motion. But a new dynamic style has not been fashioned, and there appears doubt of the possibility of the fashioning of such a style. Decadence was an initial stage of this process. But it was oriented backwards, in it there was a debilitating and total languor over the accepting of a process of life, destructive of beauty. The Decadents — are aesthetes. Futurism — is the final stage of this process, it seeks to be oriented forwards, in it is a delighted acceptance of this process of life, a total devoting of oneself to this process. And the Futurists — are anti-aesthetic. What happened, where did it all come about from?

The machine came out victoriously into the world and shattered the age-old harmony of organic life. This revolutionary event changed everything in human life, and it affected everything. It is impossible to sufficiently appreciate this event quite highly enough. Its enormous significance — is not only social, but also cosmic. The growth of the importance of the machine and of the mechanical within human life tends to signify the entry into a new world aeon. The rhythm of organic flesh within world life has been broken. Life has been ripped away from its organic roots. Organic flesh has been replaced by the machine, in the mechanism is to be found the organic developement of its root. Machinisation and mechanisation — are a fateful and inevitable cosmic process. It is impossible to hold back the old organic flesh from ruin. But only to the superficial glance does the machinisation represent materialisation, in the which spirit perishes. This process is not a transition from a more complex organic over to a simpler non-organic. At a deeper glance the machinisation has to be conceived of as a dematerialisation, as a pulverisation of the flesh of the world, a stretching apart of the material composition of the cosmos. The machine itself per se cannot kill spirit, it rather moreso enables the liberation of spirit from its bondage to organic nature. The machine is a crucifixion of the flesh of the world. Its victorious arrival betokens the eradication of all organic nature, it bears with it death to both plant and animal, to forests and flowers, to everything organic and by nature beautiful. The romantic grief over the perishing beautiful flesh of this world, for flowers, for trees, for pretty human bodies, beautiful churches, palaces and rustic dwellings is powerless to halt this fatal process. Thus is fulfilled the fate of the flesh of the world, it moves on towards the resurrection and to a new life through death. Futurism is a passive reflection of the machinisation, the disintegration and the crumbling of the old flesh of the world. The Futurists sing out about the beauty of the machine, they are delighted by its noise, and inspired by its movements. For them the charm of a motor has replaced the charm of a feminine body or flower. They are fascinated by the machine and the new sensations, connected with it. The miracle of electrification has replaced for them the miracle of divinely-beautiful nature. Other planes of being, concealed behind the physical trappings of the world, they do not know and do not want to know. The denial of other-worldliness — is one of the points of the Futurist programme. And therefore they but reflect the process of disintegration on the physical plane. In their creativity they are open only to the splinters and chips of the old flesh of the world, they reflect a confusion of planes, not knowing the meaning of what is transpiring.

Only the spiritual apperceptivity of man can comprehend the transition from an old and disintegrating world to a new world. Only the creatively-active attitude of man to the elementally occurring process can beget a new life and a new beauty. The generation of the Futurists of every shade all too passively but reflect this elemental process. In such quite latest trends, as Suprematism, there is incisively posited the long since already considered task of an ultimate liberation of the pure creative act from the grip of the naturo-objective world. And the painting from a purely graphic element would have to recreate a new world, totally dissimilar to all the natural world. And in it there should have to be neither mature, with all its images, nor even man. This is not only a liberation of art from the here and now, this — is a liberation from all the created world, a creativity propped up upon nothing. But is such a radicalism possible for the Futurist consciousness? I tend to think, that with the Futurists this is merely a powerless creative gesture and its significance but symptomatic. Futurism as regards its sense of life and its consciousness is nowise radical, it — is merely a passing fancy, moreso the end of the old world, than the beginning of a new. The level of awareness of the Futurists remains superficial and it never penetrates down into the depths of the cosmic changes. They see only the surface level of what changes and stormy world movements are happening. That, what is occurring in the depths, remains hidden for them. They are too servilely dependent on the processes of the disintegration and stretching apart of the old flesh of the world, its material trappings, in order for them to be able to create a new world not dependent upon the external process enslaving them. They are situated under the grip of the process of mechanisation, and their creativity is full of this machine-like objectness. They are liberated from the human bodies, from trees, from the seas and the hills, but they cannot liberate themselves from motors, from the electric light, from aeroplanes. But indeed this is likewise part of the object-oriented world. It is from this that the Futurists create, and not from the creative nothingness of the human spirit. The creative spirit is denied by them, they believe more in motors and electric lamps. The Futurists, given the condition of consciousness in which they are situated, create under the power of the motor and reflect the changes, wrought by the motor in world life. There is no wellspring of the dynamic with them. The Futurists are very shrill in their expressions, but in essence they are hopelessly unassuming and dependent upon the outward world. And to the Futurists must be opposed an immeasurably greater radicalism and creative daring, going out beyond the limits of this world. Passivity is powerless to contend against Futurism. To return to the old art, to the old beauty of the embodied world, to the classical norms, is impossible. The world has become disembodied in its trappings, reincarnated. And art cannot be preserved in its old embodiments. It has to create the new, the bodies not yet material, it has to carry over into another plane of the world. The true meaning of the crisis of the plastic arts — is in the spasmodic attempts to penetrate beyond the material trappings of the world, to discern a more subtle flesh, to surmount the law of impenetrability, and this is a radical severing of art from antiquity. In the Christian world the Renaissance proved that everything is still possible, with its orientation towards antiquity. The forms of the human body have remained enduring. The human body — is a thing of antiquity. The crisis of art, in which we are at present, is evidently a final and irreversible severing from all classicism.

Futurism obtains moreso in painting, than in literature. Literary Futurism has manifested itself most of all in manifestos. It is short on artistic creativity. There are a few poets of talent, and with them are some verses of talent. But a singularly noteworthy Futurist in artistic prose there is perhaps by name of Andrei Bely. He belongs to the generation of the Symbolists and he has always confessed a Symbolist faith. But in the artistic prose of A. Bely can be discerned images of an almost of genius Futurist creativity.2  This is to be sensed already in his symphonies. “With A. Bely there belongs uniquely to him an artistic sensing of a cosmic crumbling and stretching apart, a decrystalisation of all the things of the world, the breaking up and vanishing of all the firmly established boundaries between objects. With him the images themselves of people tend to get stretched and decrystalise, the borders get lost, such as separate one man from another and from the objects round about in his world. One man passes over into another man, one object passes over into another object, and the physical plane — into the astral plane, the cerebral process — into the existential process. There occurs a displacement and jumbling together of various planes. It began to seem to the hero of “Peterburg”, that both he, and the room, and the objects in that room were re-embodied momentarily from objects of the real world into mentally-posited symbols purely logical in construct: the room dimensions became confused together with his lost awareness of body in the general existential chaos, termed by him the universe; the consciousness of Nikolai Apollonovich, separated from the body, became directly united with the electric light of the writing table, and termed “the sun of consciousness”. This fragment can be termed totally Futurist as regards the expression in it of the sense of life. It is characteristic for A. Bely as a writer and an artist, that with him there begins a spinning about of words and interactive sounds and in this word-combination whirlwind that being itself tends to stretch, sweeping away all bounds. The style of A. Bely always in the final end passes over into a frantic circular motion. A. Bely sensed the whirlwind motion within cosmic life and found for it an adequate expression in his whirlwind word-combination. This — is a direct expression in words of the cosmic whirlwinds. In the whirlwind intensification of word-combinations and sounds there obtains an increase of vital and cosmic intensity, an impulsion towards catastrophe. A. Bely stretches and pulverises the crystaline aspect of words, the solid forms of a word, seemingly eternal, and by this he expresses the stretching apart and pulverisation of the crystals within every thing of the objective world. The cosmic whirlwinds as it were break free and tear apart, pulverise all our settled and solid crystaline world. The creativity of A. Bely is also Cubism within an artistic prose, in style akin to the painting Cubism of Picasso. With A. Bely there are torn loose whole veilings of the world’s flesh, and for him there are no already yet salubrious organic images. In him there perishes the old, crystal-like beauty of the embodied world and there is born a new world, in which there is as yet no beauty. In the artistic prose of A. Bely everything likewise gets dislodged from its old, seemingly eternal place, just as with the Futurists. A. Bely belongs to a new era, when the integral perception of the image of man has been jolted, when man has gone through a fragmentation. He submerges man into the cosmic infinitude, betrays him to being torn apart by the cosmic whirlwinds. Lost are the boundary-lines, separating man from the electric lamp. There opens forth an astral world. The firm boundaries of the physical world have on the other hand safeguarded the independence of man, his particular firmly set boundaries, his crystaline features. The contemplation of the astral world, of this intermediate world betwixt spirit and matter, erases the boundaries, and decrystalises both man and the world surrounding him. All these whirlwinds — are astral whirlwinds, and not whirlwinds of the physical world or of the humanly-emotional world”. The Futurist world-sense and Futurist creativity of A. Bely radically is more distinct from other Futurists, in that it is connected for him with a great spiritual knowing, with a contemplation of other planes of being. From spiritual life A. Bely catches sight of a process of a cosmic disintegration and changing of all the cosmic order, and not from a dissolution itself of the materiality of the world. Here is why he detects a new cosmic rhythm, and in this is his virtue as an artist. The art of A. Bely is tormentive, it does not directly gladden, just as also with modern art. He does not permit of an artistic catharsis. But A. Bely moves on to other worlds, at a time when the Futurists in their blindness move on within an empty gaping void. It is necessary to admit of Futurism, to grasp its significance and move on to a new creativity. For this however there is inevitable a transition to another path, to another plane, outside that line, along which modern art is developing.

Art has to be free. This — is an axiom very elementary, something not worth breaking a spear over. The autonomy of art has forever been affirmed. Artistic creativity ought not to be subjected to norms external to it, whether moral, social or religious. But the autonomy of art does not at all signify, that artistic creativity can or ought to be torn asunder from spiritual life and from the spiritual developement of man. Freedom is not a void. Free art emerges out from the spiritual depths of man, as a free fruition. And only profound and valuable is that art, in which there is sensed this depth. Art reveals freely all the depth and encompasses by itself all the fullness of being. But those, who are too frightened of heteronomous principles in art and its subordination to external norms, think to save the autonomy of art moreso, than they would by forcibly consigning it to an existence superficial and isolated. This is also what I tend to call spiritual illiteracy. A man, cast stranded on the surface, a man with an “I” disintegrated core, torn asunder into mere moments and shreds, cannot create powerful and great art. Art inevitably has to emerge from its shut-in and isolated existence and pass over to the creativity of a new life. And in this has to be admitted the truth of the synthetic strivings in art. Theurgy, about which have tended to dream the finest Symbolists and heralds of a religious art, — represents the ultimate limit of human creativity. But the paths to theurgy are complex, tortuous and tragic. There is the danger of too prematurely and externally conceived a theurgic art. Art cannot and ought not to be subordinated to any sort of an external religious norm, to any sort of norm of spiritual life, which would transcend the art itself. By such a path would be created merely a tendentious art. In a truly however theurgic art the spiritual life of man would shine forth from within, and his religiosity would be but totally immanent. R. Wagner believed too much in the sacralness of the old culture, and V. Ivanov too much believes in this. Theurgic art in the strict sense of the word would be already an egress beyond the bounds of art as spheres of culture, as unique from cultural values, would be already a catastrophic passing over to the creativity of existence itself, of life itself. The path to it lies not through the safe-guarding of the old art and the old culture, not through a return to the past and not through a restoration of the sacral art of the ancient world and the Medieval world; the path to it lies through a sacrificial firmness of resolve to go forward through this process of fragmentation, distention and disintegration, the symptoms of which we see within Cubism and Futurism, and to survive this cosmic whirlwind with faith in the indestructibility of the creative spirit of man, of the core “I”, called to creative work in the new world epoch. The Futurist machine aspect is but an external expression of a profound metaphysical process, an altering of all the cosmic harmony, begotten of a new cosmic rhythm, which proceeds from the depths. The new theurgic creativity, which is not something artistically to be anticipated, lies along another line, within the spiritual plane. When the new painters verymost current begin to set in their pictures newspaper clippings and bits of glass, it runs along the line of a material dissociation to the point of an abject renunciation of creativity. At the end point of this process there begins to be a falling apart of the creative act itself whereby the creative daring gets replaced by a bold negation of creativity. Man is not a passive tool of the world process and of everything happening from its deterioration, he — is an active creator. The cosmic pulling apart does not abolish the personal spirit, does not exterminate the “I” of man, if the human spirit makes an heroic effort to persevere and create within the new cosmic rhythm. The cosmic distention can only but enable a making apparent and reinforcing of the true core of the “I”. The human spirit is being liberated from the old grip of organic matter. The machine with its claws tears out the spirit from the grip of matter, it destroys the old consolidating together of spirit and matter. In this — is the metaphysical meaning of the appearance of the machine in the world. But the Futurists do not understand this. They situate themselves moreso on the perishing of matter, than on the liberating of spirit. The new art will create no longer still in the forms of physical flesh, but in the forms of another, a more refined flesh, it will pass over from material bodies to bodies soul-like.

The pathos of Futurism — is the pathos of speed, a rapture of rapid movement. “We declare, that the magnificence of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed”. Thus declaims Marinetti. But speed is not something devised by the Futurists. The Futurists themself were created by the aspect of speed. The world indeed has entered into an era of rapid movement. But the Futurists conceive of and express merely the outward side of this rapidity of temporal motion. The inward motion, the inward speeding up as it were remains for the Futurists something hidden. But for a pervasive view it is clear, that the unprecedented motion and the unprecedented speeding up are begun within the depth of being and that the wellsprings of this motion and rapidness mustneeds be sought for within spiritual life. The apocalyptic prophecies speak about an accelerated aspect of time. The accelerated time, in which there developes an unprecedented and catastrophic motion, is an apocalyptic time. Futurism also can be conceived of as a phenomenon of apocalyptic time, although by the Futurists themselves this is something altogether inconceivable. But within apocalyptic time the greatest possibilities are combined with the greatest dangers. That which transpires with the world in all its spheres, is an apocalypsis of the whole enormous cosmic epoch, the end of the old world and the preliminaries of a new world. This is both more awesome and more abstract, than the Futurists themself realise. In the whirlwind jostling of the world, in the accelerated tempo of motion, everything gets dislodged from its place, breaking the material chains of old. But in this whirlwind there can perish also the greatest values, it can be, that man should not persevere, should be torn to shreds. There is possible not only the arising of a new art, but also the perishing of all art, of every value, of all creativity.

The present world war was initiated by Germany as a futuristic war. The Futurism from art passed over into life and in life gave more grandiose results, than within art. The futuristic exercises in conducting the war were prescriptions by Germany for all the world. The present war — is a machine war. It — to a remarkable degree is the result of the growing power of the machine within human life. This — is an industrial war, in it the machine replaces man. The military might of Germany, now intimidating all the world, is a might first of all that is industrially mechanical, technical. In the present-day war the Futurists of the Marinetti type should be able to discern the new “magnificent world, the beauty of speed”. The Futurist militarism has no respect for the great values of the old world, the old beauty, the old culture. We, as Russians, are least so the Futurists in this war, we are least so capable of its machine demands, its speed, its whirlwind motion, and we have most preserved both the old emotional virtues and the old emotional sins and vices. We are all given to being extensive, but not intensive. In this is the wellspring of our weakness. Within German militarism the futuristic machine aspect and the futuristic rapidity of movement have gotten to the point of supreme virtues, of frightening futuristic virtues. England and France strive to outstrip Germany in this, and they too make new discoveries. Thus the whole world is drawn into a military futuristic whirlwind. And the age-old barbarism of man, ingrained deeper than all culture, helps bring out this Futurism in life. But the sources of the world war, assuming such a futuristic guise, lie deeper, within the spiritual plane, where it begins and where it ends. In cosmic life indeed a spiritual war is being waged and a struggle made for the greatest values. And only by the spiritual war can mankind and the nations be saved for a new life. The material warfare is but a manifesting forth of the spiritual warfare. And all the whole task consists in this, that in this worldwide whirlwind there should be preserved the image of man, the image of a people and the image of mankind for an higher creative life. This task stands there in art, the same as this task stands there also in life. It stands contrary to futuristic life and Futurist art. Its fulfilling cannot be attained by any sort of appeals to the past, nor by a safeguarding of this past. Futurism has to be passed through and surmounted both in life and in art. The surmounting is possible however through a deepening, through movement along a different measure, a measure of depth, and not along a flat plane, through knowledge, not abstract knowledge, but rather a living knowledge, cognitive-being.

We approach the final problem, which the crisis of art presents, a problem, which has tremendous significance for all our culture. I speak about the interrelationship of barbarity and decline. Human culture at its summits has an insurmountable tendency towards decline, towards decadence, towards an exhaustion. Such it was in the great culture of antiquity, which, essentially, is the eternal wellspring of all culture, and so also in the culture of the modern world. Culture constantly becomes separated from its vital and existential wellsprings, and at its summit it opposes itself to life, to being. There then ensues an epoch of late cultural decline, a very refined and beautiful culture. This — is a beauty of fading blossoms, an autumnal beauty, knowing the greatest contradictions, losing its integral wholeness and spontaneity, but discovering a sagacious knowledge not only of itself, but also of that contrary to it. Epochs of cultural decline and cultural decay become likewise epochs of intensified awareness. Such epochs are to the utmost degree capable of an enfeebling, but also at the same time of an enriching of reflection, with a splintering and fragmenting, egressing beyond the borders of all organic givenness. Epochs of refinement and decline are not without fruition for the human spirit, and in them is its own glimmering of light. The decadence of culture makes for enormous proficiency and provides an opening ever so slightly to the unknowable. The typically impotent decadence can make assertions only from a certain delimited and relative point of view. But from a deeper point of view the decadence of the culture of antiquity, reaching the point of dead exhaustion, was profoundly fruitful and provided much for the spiritual life of the new, the Christian world. NeoPlatonism can be termed a philosophy of cultural decline for an entire world epoch. But NeoPlatonism played an enormously positive role in the spiritual life of mankind and plays it still also at present. Christianity was a salvific spiritual barbarism in regard to the cultural decline of the ancient world. But by mysterious paths the elements of decline passed over into this regenerating and renewing barbarity, without which the world would ultimately have perished. The barbarism of spirit and the barbarism of flesh and blood, welling up powers from the deepest dark wellsprings of being, drawing forth vigour from the dark roots of all life, from the not as yet enlightened nor transformed culturally unfathomable, in a mighty torrent had to flood upon human culture, when in it decline and exhaustion sets in. Christianity had to seem barbarism to the cultured peoples, such as were under the sway of the decline of the ancient world. And yet, this is but a limited pole of perspective. In actuality, Christianity was a revealing of light, drawn forth from the deepest depths of being, to which the ancient world had been unable to attain to. It was verymost a transformation of darkness into light, as ever the world did know. With the Gnostics there occurred a combining synthesis of all the old revelations of the ancient cultures together with the new Christian revelation from its depths of being. The Gnostics see not one thing only, but also another, they know in a light of wholeness and a light of disparateness, they unite together the revelations of “barbarism” and the revelations of “decadence”. In this is the eternal sagacity of the Gnostic spiritual type. And this applies also for our era.

Every new culture in a fatal manner tends ultimately towards decline and exhaustion. The end of the XIX Century at its heights of culture generated the poisoned blossoms of decadence. These blossoms do not flower for long, they rapidly fade off. The Latin race, which also had produced the foundations of the old European culture, in which there was never any decisive breaking of its connections from antiquity, underwent a great stagnation, and in it ensued an exhaustion of vital powers. The French decadence was a final beautiful fruition of the cultural creativity of this great and very old race. The Germanic race in comparison with the Latin race was barbaric, in it there was not that ancient connection with antiquity, it had not those old traditions. In the culture, created by the Germans, there was a new depth, but there was not the subtle refinement nor the diversity, obtaining for the sagacity of a late setting. The Germans also were those barbarians, who once upon a time flooded upon Rome, upon the ancient world and renewed the blood of the old cultured races. With the Germanic race, having preserved in its blood even up to the present a certain barbarity, there is not so acutely the problem of the relationship of barbarism and decline, as with the Latin race. Oh, certainly, in German culture would be involved decadence in the process, and this is to be sensed in the present-day war. The whole of European culture at its summits had to have sensed exhaustion and decay with having to seek out a reinvigoration of its powers in barbarity, which in our era is perhaps moreso inward, than outward, i.e. moreso deep a stratum of being, not yet transformed into culture. But world culture has gone out so far distant and so drained itself, that it cannot itself per se be of a strength for transforming that flood of darkness, which engulfs from the depths of being. At the summit heights of culture, which finds itself all more and more to be worldwide, there is discovered an ultimate barbarity. Culture is shewn to be but a very delicate layer. This is most of all perceived in the Latin race, the cradle of all European culture. Futurism had to have its birth in Italy, staggeringly bent beneathe the weight of its own great cultural past, sapped of strength by this past greatness: Futurism likewise is a new barbarism upon the summits of culture. In it there is the barbarian coarseness, the barbarian wholeness and barbarian ignorance. This barbarism should have effected a change in the decline. But it transpired from a not very great depth. The culture is rending its own particular veils and discovers a not very deeply buried layer of barbarity, and here hence resound loudly the barbarian cries of the Futurist literature from the fissures, formed from the crisis of culture and art. And there is almost no hope, that the eternal normative culture, deriving its classical forms from antiquity, will vanquish these barbarian cries, these barbarian gestures. It begins to feel, that the trappings of culture, of the eternally classical culture, of the canonical culture, is sundered forever and cannot be reborn in the old sense of the word, which was always a return to antiquity. The sundering of the trappings of culture and the deep fissures in it is the symptom of a certain profound cosmic process. The world is changing its attire and trappings. Culture and art as an organic part of it is merely a set of attire of the world, merely the trappings of the world. I speak about the culture of which I am myself aware and construe as distinct from being, from life, and which sets itself in opposition to being, to life. Culture has transformed the initially given barbarian darkness of being into a certain bright realm, in which it has isolated itself and in which it takes pride as being self-sufficient. But culture in this its classical sense is not the sole path of the transformation of darkness into life, it is not the sole path of giving form to chaos. Through culture lies a path upwards and forward, not backwards, not to a pre-cultural condition, and this — is the path of the transformation of culture itself into new bring, into a new heaven and a new earth. Only upon this path, bursting forth into culture, can the barbarian shouts and the barbarian gestures be harnessed to the new cosmic harmony and the new cosmic rhythm. Not only art, but all human creativity also will perish and plunge into the primordial darkness, if it does not become a creativity of life, a creativity of the new man and his spiritual path. The cultured and the decadent are situated in a condition of impotent fragmentedness, whereas the barbaric Futurists are situated in a condition of coarse wholeness and ignorance. For the new life, for the new creativity, for the new art there need to break through those Gnostics of the new type, who know the secret of integrality and the secret of dividedness, they know both the one and they know the other, opposite to it. Such a sagacious knowledge ought to help overcome the great conflict of barbarism and decline, which has many an expression, and which is but the manifestation moreso of the profound tragic conflict of the creativity of life and the creativity of culture. The emergence from this can be only through a passing over into a new world aeon, in the which all creativity would already become a continuation of God’s Creation of the world. This transition is impossible to understand outwardly, and the inward understanding of the fate of art ought not to be transformed into a norm inwardly binding upon it. Art, just like all the spheres of culture, has to deal with its own existence and ultimately experience its own fate. In the world they will still create verses, pictures and musical symphonies, but in creativity the inner catastrophe will accelerate and from within glimmer through. Everything will turn out proportionate to the spiritual growth of man and the world. There exists now in world life however a variable growth and it is impossible from the outside and in terms of art to anticipate it. It has been said, that in the end-times people will get married and wed, will buy and trade. And in the upper spheres of cultural creativity much inwardly as it were remains as of old, inwardly however all will be engulfed by the flames. And those, who have sensed and have perceived the workings of these flames, bear a great responsibility and have to work at the spiritual regeneration of man and the inner enlightening of all his creative activity.

N. A. Berdyaev.


© 2005  by translator Fr. S. Janos

(1918 -14,1 – en)

KRIZIS  ISKUSSTVA. Published originally as lead article to Booklet (Kl.#14) entitled “Krizis Iskusstva, Sbornik statei” [“The Crisis of Art, a Collection of Articles”], Moscow, 1918, G. A. Leman and S. I. Sakharov, 47 p. In this anthology, the second article is reprint from 1914 (Kl.#174; 14,2), — “Picasso”; the third and final article is reprint from 1916 (Kl.#233; 14,3), — “An Astral Novel: A. Bely’s “Peterburg””.

Berdyaev’s “The Crisis of Art” article has subsequently been reprinted in tom 2 of the 1994 Liga Moscow Russian text, “Philosophia, tvorchestva, kul’tury i iskusstva”, c. 399-418.


1  I am citing here from certain places of the article about Picasso, which follows further on. For the construction of my “Crisis of Art” text, Picasso is necessary by way of example, and by which I develope my own thought about art. Paraphrasing myself however I consider bad form.
2  On the same basis, by which I quoted from certain places in the article about Picasso, I here quote certain places from an article, concerning the “Peterburg” of a. Bely.