The Third International after Lenin

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Cognition of life

A chapter from Foundations of Marxist Aesthetics

Art and Cognition

The founders of Marxism-Leninism set great store,by the limitless cognitive potential peculiar to art, to which they referred on numerous occasions, by its role jn the enrichment of man’s knowledge of life. In this connection Marx made sympathetic note of Balzac’s comment that he was a doctor in social sciences. Also of interest in this respect is Engels’ reference to the informative content of La Comedie Humaine, which enabled him to reach a deeper understanding of contemporary society, even when it came to economic details, than any specialised works by economists or statisticians. Marx held an equally high opinion of works by English novelists of the nineteenth century such as Dickens, Thackeray and Charlotte Bronte. He maintained that their writings included far more socio-political truths than the works of contemporary politicians, historians, ethnographers, etc. The superiority of Balzac and these English novelists, as indeed that of all progressive art, over the historical writing of the past can to a certain extent be explained by the fact that, prior to the appearance of Marxism, socio-political thought was based on an idealist interpretation of history. As a result it could not probe to the essence of the historical process. Art, meanwhile, due to its all-embracing reproduction of reality, its truthful and realistic reflection of real phenomena, was able to penetrate accurately and profoundly to the nature of social relations.

Of course not all forms of art provide the same picture of life. There are specific features peculiar to the cognition of life to be made through every form of art. There are some forms in which the cognitive element is more prominent, and others in which the primary principle of artistic creativity founded in labour, the creation of artistically executed utilitarian objects, is paramount. It is clear that literature for example belongs to the first group and that applied art or architecture belong to the second. These differences are most important. Disregard for the specific features peculiar to various art forms and the confusion, for instance, of the nature of painting with that of applied art lead to major distortions in aesthetic analysis of art. At the same time it is also ill-advised to lay too much stress on the above-mentioned differences, for all art forms are specific means of expressing artistic culture. Even those art forms which do not possess any 48 directly utilitarian function play a definite role in our understanding of reality. This applies to music, for instance, as opposed to literature. It goes without saying that music is not equipped to shed light on economic relations or living conditions. Yet despite this, a French philosopher is known to have said that if he had been Foreign Minister, Moussorgsky’s music would have helped him understand the implications of the despatches sent him by the French ambassador in St. Petersburg. This is clearly due to the fact that music can give expression to the spirit and moeurs of a people, its hopes and fears engendered by a particular way of life.

Stefan Zweig once pointed out that if civilisation had .suddenly perished, and together with it all cultural monuments, books, photographs, documents, but the engravings and drawings of Frans Masereel had remained intact, it would have been possible to ascertain from his works how men lived in our age, and to sense the spirit of twentieth-century life.

It is no coincidence that references have been made to music and drawing. Obviously in such intellectual art forms as literature, drama or the cinema we are given a fuller and broader representation of the real world in the diversity of its direct and indirect connections than in certain other forms of artistic creativity. Yet this does not imply in the slightest that art as a whole does not possess ;any cognitive significance, and only isolated forms do.

All art forms have a cognitive function, yet the knowledge which we glean from each of them covers a distinct, concrete sphere of real phenomena and finds expression in a specific form. The knowledge of life which we can obtain from music, for instance, is first and foremost knowledge of an emotional kind, but it does not follow from this that music is not an intellectual art form or that it is in any way inferior to other forms of artistic creativity. On the contrary, his emotional response to : music is one of the loftiest spheres of man’s intellectual ^activity.

The fact that art enhances our cognition of the world 49 means that it has something in common with science. Despite all the differences which exist between those two forms of social consciousness, art like science telescopes the experience of the precipitous flow of life and broadens man’s horizons, giving him varied knowledge of men’s lives at different periods and in different countries, shedding light on the essence of phenomena taken from real life and singling out in the latter such aspects which remain beyond man’s grasp in the ordinary circumstances of his life experience. Art is always revelation: even when it comes to familiar aspects of our everyday lives it can spotlight facets of life which enable us to see the familiar in the unfamiliar and unfamiliar in the familiar.

The subject and form of the knowledge of life acquired from art differ from the subject and form of such knowledge to be gleaned from science; this does not, however, imply that scientific knowledge and knowledge attained through art are diametrically opposed to each other. It is difficult to accept the methodologically misleading premise of certain aestheticians to the effect that "scientific objectivity and artistic objectivity move in opposite directions" [49•* as the Swiss aesthetician Robert Hainard comments in his article, "Science and Art". By way of “proof” the author refers to Shakespeare, saying that when confronted with any of his works, the reader gleans less profound, less complete knowledge of the age in which the particular work is set than he would do from relevant scientific research. Naturally, Shakespeare’s tragedies cannot and indeed do not provide the knowledge found in a history text-book. But, conversely the knowledge to be gleaned from Hamlet or King Lear could not be found in a history text-book.

Art, unlike historical science, does not present us with historical facts in chronological order and does not always keep strictly to documented evidence; it does not formulate the laws underlying the historical events it treats. Yet historical science, in its turn, cannot shed light on the fate of a people through individual destinies in the way that art can, in the way that the fate of English society is brought home to us through the lives of Hamlet or Lear, or confront us with universal problems with the same impact as the plays of Shakespeare.

In a review of a 1962 Moscow Art Theatre production of The Cherry Orchard in New York, Howard Taubman, the American drama critic, remarked that this play, transposed to the stage from the world in which Chekhov lived, explained better than any historical analysis why that world was soon to undergo radical change. To say that a play achieves such revelation better than any historical analysis reflects the other extreme view. It is important to remember not only that those phenomena of life which cannot be revealed through art are investigated by scientists; but also that artists often bring us to marvel at their profound analysis of such phenomena, which prove beyond the grasp of the scientist. In this respect Taubman’s words are also relevant: Chekhov explained the world in a way that no scientist could have done. In the present age of world-wide homage to the power of science, it is particularly remarkable that leading scientists acknowledge the impossibility of reproducing a universal picture of the world through science alone, or indeed with the help of art alone. They supplement each other and are mutually indispensable. The well-known Soviet physicist E. Feinberg in his article in Novy Mir magazine (No. 8, 1965) wrote that "literature and art as a whole are an infinitely subtle and wise instrument of mankind, capable of observing what great philosophers lose sight of, an instrument which can understand and explain what cannot be understood and rationally explained by science”.

From the above it follows that art and science provide two different forms of cognitive activity. Equally important to bear in mind is the fact that the transmission of knowledge is a vital and objective function of art. Max Born, the celebrated German physicist, wrote that in 1921 he was convinced, as were the majority of 51 contemporary physicists, that the scientific method was to be preferred to all other, more subjective, means of constituting a picture of the world, such as philosophy or poetry; later, however, he had come to regard his former conviction that science was superior to other forms of human thought, as self-deception.

To overlook the cognitive significance of art cannot but lead to negation of its other function—the ideological and educative function. [51•*

When starting out from the fundamental tenet of Marxist-Leninist aesthetics (according to which acknowledgement of art’s cognitive content and cognitive significance is the direct and logical consequence of applying the theory of reflection to analysis of the nature of art) it is essential to bear in mind that the epistemological problem has become one of the most important factors in the ideological struggle within the field of aesthetics.

Nowadays certain “Marxists” come out against the epistemological concept in aesthetics using by way of a pretext the idea that epistemological considerations are supposedly an alien addition to Marxism, out of keeping with its essential nature. In recent years, criticism of the epistemological conception of art has come to occupy a prominent place in revisionist literature, in particular in the numerous statements and writings of Roger Garaudy. It was he who maintained that in order to substantiate contemporary aesthetics it was essential above all to “ liberate” Marxism from the epistemological interpretation of the essence of art. By presenting creativity and reflection as two quite separate things Garaudy would have us believe that art is a purely creative activity, and the artist is exclusively concerned with projection and design. Of course, artistic insight is a vital function of great realist art, and it has always been essential to the creative work of all major artists. Yet Marxism never presented artistic cognition and art’s active involvement in life as opposites; on the contrary, the substantiation of their indivisible 53 unity is one of the vital tenets of Marxist-Leninist aesthetics.

Some Marxist writers acknowledge that art has some cognitive content although they do not regard this as art’s distinctive feature. A stand of this Sort is to be found, as a rule, in any Marxist work whose author sees art first and foremost as an ideological phenomenon, as a specific form of the creative, active relation of the individual to the world. Of course, the epistemological interpretation alone is not enough to explain art. The cognitive content of art does not exist beyond its creative nature, but still less can the creative essence of art be revealed without reference to its cognitive potential. Art has many facets, but precisely its epistemological aspect can enable us to pinpoint all its other sides and principles. And, therefore, the fact that within the scope of any materialist conception we cannot avoid an interpretation of art as artistic cognition is extremely important. Rejection of such an interpretation of art can have serious consequences.

It was precisely in such a rejection that the profoundly mistaken and revisionist conceptions of Garaudy and Fischer originally manifested themselves. It is in Garaudy’s works that we find the most blatant presentation of the above-mentioned artificial and concocted choice between art as a form of social consciousness or creative activity, as a reflection of life or a creation of new reality, as a form of knowledge or of labour. By ignoring the many-faceted nature of art and insisting that art be approached as creative activity and none other, Garaudy frees himself of the need to bring out the social essence and significance of artistic creation. As far back as 1964 he was to write that "art is a form of labour, and in no way a form of knowledge". For him art includes a certain cognitive element precisely as a form of labour, or, in other words, it possesses some cognitive content only in so far as the creative activity of the artist demands it. In Garaudy’s conception one-sided preoccupation with the labour (or creative) essence of art is linked with a refusal to apply the principle inherent in Lenin’s theory of reflection to 54 analysis of the nature of artistic creativity in all forms of art.

As for modern idealist aesthetics, its methodological weakness (when it comes to solving the epistemological problem) lies as a rule not merely in the rejection of art’s cognitive significance. There are two trends to be observed. The first really does consist in a direct rejection of the epistemological aspect of art. The second, on the contrary, finds expression in view of art as almost the only form for the cognition of life. For all intents and purposes these two trends are versions of one and the same anti-scientific methodology. The French neo-Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain, for instance, holds that the trend towards growing importance of the cognitive element in art is leading to its destruction. He maintains that if art were a means to knowledge then it would rank much lower than geometry. A similar stand is adopted by the German aesthetician Nicolai Hartmann, initiator of so-called "critical ontology", J. A. Richards, well-known English critic and author of the semantic conception of art, and the celebrated American aesthetician James K. Feibleman who interprets art from a behaviourist position, etc.

Side by side with this fundamentally anti– epistemological approach, there exists a special, as it were, negative epistemology, which found expression in the philosophy and aesthetics of intuitivism, a rejection of the cognitive potential not of art, but, on the contrary, of science. The intuitivists declared rationalist thought to be inconsistent, reason bankrupt and science incapable of investigating the nature of the world around us and the essence of man; art they saw as almost the only true means to reaching an understanding of life, thanks to the uncommon, mystical inspiration with which the artist is endowed. Artistic intuition possesses enormous advantages over scientific abstraction in the eyes of the intuitivists. They see it as destined not to penetrate universal laws but to express all that is individual, which in fact represents the ultimate goal of cognition in the context of this theory.

Of course both these tendencies are metaphysical: both science and art are regarded not as two qualitatively different forms of cognitive activity, but as two fundamentally incompatible phenomena. For this reason the correlation between them is expressed in the form of an alternative: only science or only art can possess cognitive significance.

In the light of the above it becomes quite clear that Garaudy’s conception is an eclectic combination of the above tendencies. In his efforts to uphold his anti– epistemological standpoint Garaudy, in the footsteps of many others, wrote that in order to understand this or that particular epoch, we turn not to works of art, but to historical investigation and he then adds that even the most brilliant work of art does not provide the knowledge which can be gleaned from a historical tract. By contrasting myth and knowledge and asserting that the artist-creator assumes the role of myth-creator and prophet, which in his opinion is the essence of great art, Garaudy turns back to his theory of self-expression in its lowest form. He maintains that the question as to what a picture depicts can only be answered in one way: "The artist who created it.”

This mythopoeic concept of art was not of course evolved by Garaudy, nor has it been elaborated in any original way in his writings. In his approach to all great works of art as myths and in his conviction that their meaning is to be sought in their capacity to provide symbolical insight into the future Garaudy is merely repeating the familiar arguments of E. Cassirer and S. Langer.

As was justly pointed out by the Bulgarian Marxist philosopher Todor Pavlov, myths played not merely a negative role in the history of knowledge, but also exerted some positive influence. However I would accept wholeheartedly this viewpoint to the effect that any substitution for the artistic idea, which is the subjective image of the objective world, by myth-creation leads to phenomenologism and other idealist tendencies, that reduce the process of cognition to the subject’s self-contemplation, to an act of “pure” consciousness.

It was Ernst Fischer, none other, who, in 1958, when he was still a Marxist, in his article "Mystification of 56 Reality" dismissed attempts to designate as myth the singling out of features of the universal in the particular as "terminological slovenliness". If such a path be taken, Fischer pointed out, then Hamlet, King Lear, Faust, La Comedie Humaine, Tolstoy’s Resurrection, Gorky’s Mother can all be declared myths and all that will result is that the concept of the mythical will lose all definite meaning and be fused together with the idea of the essential. [56•* However, at the beginning of the sixties he began to view the making of myths as an essential function of artistic creation and in certain epochs even the decisive one. To summarise—the true significance and real content of Fischer’s and Garaudy’s efforts to propagate the conception of myth-creation lie in their rejection of the theory of reflection and consequently of realism in art. These conceptions also reflect fear in face of history, in face of historical progress and revolutionary cataclysms. They cutlivate mysticism and disregard controversial questions of social life in favour of a world of the fantastic and subconscious.

The anti-Marxist wave of de-epistemologisation of art is intrinsically bound up with efforts to separate art from ideology; both are aimed at refuting the fundamental tenet of Marxist-Leninist aesthetics according to which the social nature of art is inextricably bound up with its ideological functions.


[49•*] Robert Hainard, "Science et art" in Dialectica, 1960, Vol. 14, No. 2/3, p. 189, Neuchatel, Switzerland.

[51•*] Definition of the nature of artistic cognition demands at least two conditions: first, acceptance of certain common ground for artistic and scientific knowledge and rejection of any attempt to present the differences between them as insuperable. It is no coincidence that works of art frequently incorporate conjectures and ingenious finds which are very close to science. Second, it is important not to lose sight of the specific nature of artistic cognition and how it differs from scientific knowledge not on account of language or means of expression, or the depth of understanding involved, but in view of its subject and content. When this latter circumstance is ignored by opponents of the epistemological concept this is usually not a mere sin of omission, but a ploy used, in effect, as an argument against the cognitive content of art. It is extremely important, given the similarities between art and science, to start out precisely from the fact that art apprehends and discovers things other than those which science apprehends, that it has different aims and goals. This is by no means always remembered.

By way of an example we might do well here to look at G. Volkov’s article "The Three Faces of Culture", published in Novy Mir magazine (1972). It is rich in vivid, concrete information and serious observations. The author regards art, philosophy and science as three steps in man’s cognitive activity. Art is seen by Volkov as something in the way of cognitive reconnaissance which gives voice to insights and conjectures; philosophy lends these insights the form of hypotheses or theories, while finally science transforms them into fundamental knowledge. "It is common knowledge that the exact sciences provide the spring-board for the development of techniques and technology, opening up new paths and new possibilities for the practical transformation of the world. However theoretical discoveries in the sphere of natural science are often anticipated by philosophical or speculative hypotheses and schemes. Philosophy—when viewed from an historical angle—in its turn only follows after art in its mastery of new ways for comprehending the world, new facets, angles and aspects of its vision, of new thought patterns." The author raised the question of the possibilities inherent in art, but his answer to the question was in my opinion a one-sided one. Without dwelling on the conception behind the article as a whole, we would do well to ask what destiny is allotted to art, if, in comparison with philosophy and science, it represents merely an earlier and essentially less perfect stage of cognition. If this is so then why do works of art retain their relevance in their initial form after their cognitive content has been lent more correct and precise expression in science. Is not the point at issue here the fact that art differs from science not in the degree of cognition involved or simply its character but because it bears within itself some content not to be found in philosophy or science.—Author.

[56•*] See: Ernst Fischer, "Die Mystifikation der Wirklichkeit", in Sinn und Form, 1958, Erstes Heft, p. 84.

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