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The Aesthetics of Mikhail Lifshits and Modernity

A lecture, delivered in the Aleksanteri Institute Cultural Forum,
University of Helsinki, 2010. See also the presentation

Mikhail Aleksandrovich Lifshits (1905-1983), a full member of the Academy of Arts, was a philosopher who worked mainly in the fields of aesthetics and literary criticism. He was born in the year of first Russian revolution in the small southern town Melitopol. The October Revolution of 1917 became the seminal event of his youth. In 1922 Lifshits arrived in Moscow with the intention of becoming a painter. One year later he entered the VHUTEMAS (Higher Artistic and Technical Workshop), a stronghold of Left revolutionary art, much like Weimar’s Bauhaus.

Very soon, however, Lifshits turned into an aesthetic counter-revolutionary, having declared that the classics surpass the avant-garde. Continuation of his studies had become impossible. Lifshits then studied German, collected all judgments about art in the writings of Marx and Engels, and prepared to publish an anthology designed to prove that the founders of Marxism had their own, genuine aesthetic theory, though no one had ever noticed it before. Needless to say, this theory vindicated the classical ideals of Antiquity and Renaissance. In such a way Lifshits acquired allies against which nobody could argue in those years. And in a short time, avant-garde art was crushed in the Soviet Union – Stalin began to establish his own socialist pseudorealism.

Lifshits once again found himself in opposition. By his side were several like-minded persons: Vladimir Aleksandrov, Vladimir Grib, Igor Sats, Elena Usievich and, finally, the famous Georg Lukács. The latter settled down in Moscow in the thirties and worked together with Lifshits in the “Office of the Philosophy of History” within the walls of the Institute of Marx and Engels. They expound their views in the journal “Literary Critic.”

The attitude of the journal, especially the conception of realism by Lukács, was not welcomed by Aleksander Fadeev, the marshal of Soviet literature. After a short and scathing “discussion,” the journal was closed. In 1941 Lifshits went to the front as a volunteer. Soon he was wounded, but he was lucky enough to survive and break out of encirclement. He ended the war with the rank of captain.

After Stalin’s death Lifshits engaged in a new battle with his literary creatures; this time it was the author of “Leniniana,” Marietta Shaginian. Lifshits’s pamphlet in the “Novy Mir” caused a sensational scandal.

But even more scandalous were his attacks against Modernism in the sixties. This was a time when one interpreted any criticism at the avant-garde art as a resurrection of Stalinism. The Soviet liberal intelligentia (intellectuals) unanimously condemned Lifshits. Solzhenitsyn called him “a fossil Marxist.” Lifshits humorously replied: “there are useful fossils, too.”

Lifshits generally watched with irony over the angry ferment of the liberals (he called them “protestants”). He carefully put the articles by his critics into a folder labelled “Chorus of the unhatched chicks.” As Dmitry Gutov notes, all these debates, certainly “must have appeared to him as childish babbles” in comparison to the controversies of Stalin’s times, when, to cite Lifshits’s own words, “argumentation resembled the sound of falling mine – hello from hell.”

An article “Why am I not a Modernist?” was written in 1963 for the journal “Estetika” (Prague), and in Russian it was published only in the Autumn of 1966 in “Literary Gazette.” The title of the article parodied Bertrand Russell’s famous pamphlet “Why I am not a Christian?”

Lifshits characterises Modernism as the “Gospel of a new barbarism.” At the heart of modernistic art, he writes, are “a cult of force and a taste for demolition,” and its main, final aim is to “squash the worm of consciousness.” Genuine art, on the contrary, should clarify consciousness, expressing the real world in its own real forms, as Lifshits insists.

He makes the reservation that he appreciates “sultry Matisse, tender Modigliani, and morose Picasso,” but, historically, the very trend they embody does great harm to art. Instead of truth about life, Modernism invents a myth, thereby lying to people, and dimming the mind. “Among the modernists there occur persons of exceptional inner purity, martyrs, even heroes. In a word, there occur good modernists, but there is no good Modernism.” To Lifshits, happening and pop‑art are direct and legitimate heirs of 19th century impressionism, following “the logic of the decay of art.”

To this logic of myth is opposed the logic of things themselves – realism. With the latter, reality is an acting subject, and thought is just an ideal function of reality, an expression and reflection of reality in itself and by itself.

“Events make philosophers.” These words Lifshits addresses to himself, too. “It always became clear to me that I am a function or the voice of a certain situation, of certain circumstances,” – he said in an interview, having in mind, first of all, the “situation” of the October Revolution. “Grandiose events do not pass without leaving their mark. Once he has lived through them, a man ... is no longer in a position to change his perspective later.”

Probably this rebellious spirit made Lifshits criticize the avant-garde in its own workshop, or to deliver lectures and to write articles on the realism of Russian icon-painting later (1938), when churches and monasteries were being destroyed. It might seem strange that Lifshits preferred orthodox icons to canvases of the revolutionary avant-garde. And after that, he would still consider himself a foster child of the October Revolution?

Lifshits expands the scope of this paradox, showing that both fathers of the proletarian revolution, Marx and Lenin, were also notable for their conservative predilections in art. It is a well-known fact that Marx placed Aeschylus and Shakespeare above all contemporary writers. Lenin acknowledged that he did not like and did not even understand avant-gardist art. How do they generally conform to each other – a revolutionary spirit in politics and a deep-rooted conservatism in art?

One of the official leaders of Soviet literature in the twenties, academician V.M. Fritsche, discovered a “law of primacy in the field of art of that country, to which primacy in the field of economics belongs.” The more developed economic relations are, the higher the art is.

Lifshits, for his part, refers to Marx’s manuscript “Einleitung zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie.” It appeared that Marx himself had meditated upon the same problem. Why is it that Greek art is still “appreciated as a norm and unattainable example,” if in a material respect modern civilisation has made such great strides?

The eminence of ancient art, according to Marx, is a direct expression of those “unripe social conditions under which it arose, and could alone arise.” Antiquity is the “historical childhood of humanity.” Every succeeding epoch admires the naïve sincerity of ancient art, while striving “to reproduce at a higher stage the truth inherent in the child.”

It clearly follows from this consideration that Marx sees the aim of art, if not its essence, in expressing by artistic means the truth of life, the “natural truth” (Naturwahrheit) of a given epoch. This, too, is the credo of Lifshits’s aesthetics. He calls the art, that participates in truth, realistic. The concept of realism in Lifshits is extremely broad. It is not simply one of the historical trends in art 1. Any true art is a realistic one.

Lifshits treats truth in a Hegelian sense as a plenitude, a completeness of being, or as the correspondence of a phenomenon to its own nature. Truth is a perfection, an ideal. “We call somebody ‘a true friend’ or a ‘true patriot,’ meaning that they represent the personification of a certain perfectio or ideal, in contrast to false friends and sham patriots.” 2

The classical definition of truth is too abstract. Not just any correspondence of thought to the facts of experience makes a given thought true. What matters is what these facts are in themselves. Some facts express the core of a thing, its very nature, and other facts are accidental and inessential for the thing; they are introduced from without due to the influence of things having an entirely different nature. True (= realistic) art is able to discern and show the essential and valuable in the variety of life phenomena. This feature distinguishes it from naturalism.

Lifshits considers the naturalistic literature of the end of 19th century as the beginning of decomposition of the true artistic form and as the first step toward Modernism, in spite of his respect for the forefathers of naturalism (Zola, Goncourts, Holz, Hauptmann). “Naturalism makes a merit of exactly what was a defect from the standpoint of the former art, namely the absence of higher appraisal, elimination of any sympathy and antipathy towards the depicted phenomena, the rejection of an internal norm, of separating good from evil, and of beautiful forms from ugly ones. From the viewpoint of naturalism, all these distinctions have become obsolete.” 3

In contrast, a fairy tale or icon, for all the irreality of their plots, may have “a deeply real sense,” if they grasp the vital values of human being. Realism is not just an exactness of depicting the outer world. It is the true estimation of reality, expressed in the sensual forms which are derived from reality itself: “representation of life in real images of the senses,” as Lifshits formulates it.

A confusion of the beautiful and ugly, good and evil, and, all the more so, removal of the border between them, are the typical features of bad, false art. Even if this art operates with the most real images. “Despite all catchwords of our century, absolute beauty exists, just as absolute truth exists,” – the young Lifshits postulated 4. He conceives these absolutes as the sums of all relative truths and beautiful images. Lifshits sharply condemned any relativisation of the concepts of truth and beauty. “Relativism is a dialectics for stupid.”

Every work of art, even the most abstract one, reflects something in reality. The concept of reflection in Lifshits, and generally in Marxism, is a materialistic version of Hegel’s category Reflexion. According to Hegel, mind reflects itself in the external, material world, whereas for Marxism it is nature that reflects itself by means of the human mind (“nature” in an ultimate sense, including people, human society). Art is one of the forms of this reflection of nature in itself. An artist, like an actor, must be a “voice” or “herald” of the very nature of things, Lifshits asserts.

One can say the same about a scientist. Hegel wrote that science demands from mind that it sink (versenken) its freedom in the subject matter and “abstain from interrupting the immanent rhythm of concepts.” 5 The striving of the mind to impose its own selfness on the subject is regarded by Hegel as “vanity, conceit”(Eitelkeit).

Lifshits rails against Modernism for the same sin. “A loving, honest portrayal of the real world was important for the old art. The personality of the artist receded more or less into the background in the face of his creation, surpassing, by that, his personal level. In the newest art matters are quite the opposite – what the artist does, is ever more reduced to a pure symbol, to a sign of his personality.” 6

Science and art perform one and the same work, they seek truth. Though, unlike Hegel, Lifshits never considered cognition in artistic images as a lower stage in comparison with logical thought. Both possess equal rights as “moments” of truth – truth being understood as the conformity of a thing’s existence with its essence, i.e. as perfection, or something ideal. Lifshits calls such a truth “substantial,” to distinguish it from “formal” truth as the correspondence between thought and the facts of experience. In Russian language, along with the word “istina” (truth), there is the word “pravda,” that means also the truth of things themselves, the highest “truth of life.”

Aesthetics is called upon to reveal the truth or falseness of a work of art. What is the reality that has found its expression in this or that work – is it genuine and profound, or shallow and “spectral,” as V.G. Belinsky (the classic of Russian literary criticism) suggested? Quite often, as Lifshits writes, “the subject matter manifests itself to an artist from the side of its petty singularity, lacking a deep connection with reality, and therefore bordering on complete disintegration, on non-being. Meanwhile, its formal side is all right, the artist’s idea is good, the execution is faultless, only one thing is missing – that supreme power which makes the work of art genuine.” 7 In Hegel’s lectures on aesthetics this supreme power was called die Macht.

Sometimes an artist loses this very power, although all his technical skills remain and are at his free disposal. Thus, Lifshits valued Solzhenitsyn’s first works extremely highly, and recommended “One Day of Ivan Denisovich” for publication with the following remark: “It is something more than literature... It would be a crime to leave this narrative unpublished.” Solzhenitsyn was an outstanding writer, as long as his hand was guided by life itself; but as soon as he began to speak with his own tongue, he became “miserable,” as Lifshits affirmed.

“There is something independent of an artist’s arbitrary will in his creative work. And as long as he speaks, whether deliberately or instinctively, in the name of this objective element, he feels within himself the blessing of this miraculous objective power, and Heaven forbid that he lose it, like Samson lost his hair.” 8

These words of Lifshits are, to all appearance, a paraphrase of Belinsky’s views in his work “A Look at Russian Literature of 1847.” From Belinsky he seems to adopt also the concept of realism as a sense of truth. “A philosopher speaks in syllogisms, and a poet speaks in images and pictures, but they are saying the same thing,” Belinsky wrote. The poet gives a true expression of life without reasoning and arguing like the scientist, he simply shows. And frequently he does not realise how he shows it, instinctively perceiving the truth of his time. And once he starts to argue logically, to philosophize, – then “he stumbles, and how he does so!.. And the mighty hero suddenly loses his strength, like Samson after losing his hair, – and he, who had been running ahead of all, is now is dragging himself along among the stragglers, in the crowd of his former enemies.”

At all times there have been weak writers who showed not so much reality as themselves, their personal “vision” of the world. The ideology of Modernism turns this imperfection into a virtue, – that is why Lifshits regards modernistic art as false. But that very illness of art reflects the ailing state of the modern world.

In the creative work of the best representatives of the avant-garde, this illness of being is expressed and refracted through their personal traumas as well as in the distinctive deformations of the artistic form. “The founders of Modernism in the past century were poets and painters of great talent, and they created artworks capable of acting strongly on the mind and senses of their contemporaries, despite the presence in their creative activity of many symptoms of disease, and partly even due to this weakness. It is enough to mention Baudelaire in poetry or Van Gogh in painting. There exists a huge difference between their peculiar art, which seemed to be hanging over an abyss, and those consequences, with which were fraught the possibilities they discovered.” 9

The late modernists transform this illness of art and of social life itself into a norm, an example of style, or a standard. Feelings of suffering and weakness are replaced now by the abstract insensibility of cubes and squares and even by a feeling of satisfaction with free “imageless” creativity.

Lifshits’s book “A Crisis of the Imageless” (1968), as Gutov aptly remarks, “called into question the whole aesthetic project of Modernity.” The avant-garde criticism of bourgeois normality is nothing other than this very bourgeois principle, just turned inside out and made into an absolute. That is the conclusion reached by Lifshits.

His train thought is very similar to the criticism of “crude communism” in the young Marx’s manuscripts of 1844. Such a communism, with its abstract negation of private property, is actually nothing else but “universal private property... So the entire world of wealth, i.e. of man’s objective essence, passes from exclusive marriage with a private owner to universal prostitution with all society.” 10

In modernist art we see the very same abstract negation of the “capital” of artistic forms, accumulated by classical art, and the equalization of the rights of all forms of the creative self-expression of personality (the “universal prostitution” of artistic style). Modernism is a “crude communism” in the world of aesthetics.

I do not know whether Lifshits had noticed this similarity. But it seems to me that he had not realised or, at any rate, had not estimated, as it deserved, the intention of modernism, peculiar also to Marx’s “advanced” communism, viz. the yearning to turn art into the active ability of each and every man. Artistic creative work cannot and must not remain forever a matter for a caste of initiates, of the select few. In the beginning, the depreciation and degradation of the high classics is inevitable, similar to the way in which the communist movement at first started with the uniforming and levelling of the individual (which has been demonstrated by the history of proletarian revolutions, starting with October).

Marx considered crude, levelling communism as a “necessary moment of the emancipation and fighting back of the human being,” and as a “necessary form and energetic principle of the immediate future,” but he also made the reservation that “as such [crude] communism is not an aim of human development, a form of human society.” 11 I think that the same ought to be said about Modernism. It is an equally false or, in the terms of Marx, alienated, reversed (verwandelte) form of the emancipation of artistic activity, but given that, it is a historically indispensable moment along the way of turning art into the personal property of every individual.

One must not, of course, regard this abstract form as some ideal or as an aim of the aesthetic development of mankind. Lifshits has done a lot to open our eyes to the nature of art, and showed quite clearly the artistic deficiency of Modernism. However, he overlooked its universal historic significance. Meanwhile, his apology for the October Revolution might, in principle, be applied to the modernist revolution in art.

“The process of forming an all-rounded and wholly developed individual,” Lifshits wrote, “proceeds in history through contradictions. An epoch of the ‘antagonism of forces’ is a transitional stage which is necessary, protracted, and full of various irregularities and regressions. The rise of the human personality is attained at great cost.” 12

For Lifshits, Stalinism is one such regression. Well, then Modernism is a similar “regressive movement” in art, the “great cost” which art is forced to pay in the course of its transformation into the property of everyone. Political revolutions, like Modernism, embrace “a cult of force and a taste for demolition,” 13 and heroes of the revolution, like pioneers of the avant-garde, differ sharply from their successors.

Lifshits treated Modernism “more as a philosophy than an art. It is the philosophy expressing the domination of force and fact over clear thought and poetic contemplation of the world. The brutal breaking of real forms means an eruption of blind, malicious will. It is revenge of the slave, his imaginary liberation from the yoke of necessity.” 14 This description perfectly characterises the initial impulse of all proletarian revolutions, too. The beautiful dream of pravda never comes true, but “revenge of the slave” and the breaking of real forms actually occur. Afterwards, somewhat later, the broken social forms are restored in a surrealistically warped or hypertrophied form (e.g. the socialist market or the Gulag).

In returning once again to the concepts of absolute truth and the ideal in Lifshits, I would note that they are, actually, closer to the Kantian tradition than to the dialectics of Hegel, as Lifshits himself believed. Hegel was least of all inclined to consider absolute truth as the sum of all relative truths. In practice this means that the absolute truth is unattainable for the finite human mind. We are infinitely approaching it, while remaining equally far from it. Such a concept of truth is not much better than relativism, the “dialectics for fools.”

Hegel considered his Science of Logic to be a strict and adequate expression of absolute truth. Logic, he wrote, “depicts the self-movement of the Absolute Idea,” which is nothing else than “truth knowing itself and the whole truth” (Hegel’s italics) 15.

And the “ideal” in Lifshits is something practically unachievable – “some limits of what our sensory perceptions show us in experience ... Such limits are an ideal gas and an ideal crystal –real abstractions, towards which things could approach in much the same way as a polygon with an infinitely growing number of sides approaches a circle. The entire structure of the Universe ... rests upon norms or patterns, which can be achieved only through infinite approximation.” 16

In other words, no one can achieve the ideal, but only approach it ad infinitum. This abstract ideal, having concealed itself from real things beyond the horizon of infinity, is awfully reminiscent of Kant’s “transcendental ideal” 17 and has nothing in common with Hegel’s dialectics of the ideal and real.

The dialectical concept of truth asserts the concrete unity of the ideal and real. It compels one to search for the concrete point of sublating (Aufhebung) the opposition of the ideal and real, to search for the ideal reality. Hegel calls for one to “distinguish this ideal reality, corresponding to the concept, from the reality which is only striving” (toward some ideal). 18

If Lifshits holds up, as an example, the abstractions –“ideal gas, ideal crystal,” then Hegel gives a rather concrete, sensual example. “Light ... is an ideal positing of the real, a positing of real ideality (das Setzen der realen Idealität).” Light is even defined as “physical ideality.” 19

And Hegel’s philosophy of history tells us about the real implementation of a social ideal – about the practical acquisition of freedom for everyone in the “German world.” And by no means about the infinite approximation towards the ideal, like in Kant’s project of “eternal peace.”

As for art, it does not search for the truth as such, but beauty. Truth is the aim of science. Yes, beauty and truth are two expressions of the same reality, but they are two different expressions of it. A work of art may be true or false, and scientific theory may be beautiful or ugly, but still there is a qualitative difference between the one and the other. In Lifshits’s aesthetics, as in Hegel’s, beauty is a particular kind of truth: “beauty is truth, truth in the form of contemplation.” 20

In my opinion, this formula is wrong. Labour, practice – here is the real substance, whose modes are “beauty” and “truth” (and also “good,” as well). Beauty and truth are two sovereign forms of expression of the nature of things in human activity, two dimensions of human labour, transforming both the external world and man himself in the course of his history. It was Marx who discerned labour as the substance and subject of world history.

In post-Soviet times, when Marx, let us say, has lost his past glory, the popularity of Lifshits, on the contrary, has gradually been increasing. Volumes of his works have followed one after the other. For the most part, these have been manuscripts (from the philosopher’s enormous archive, containing hundreds of folders) which had not been published earlier. The Aleksanteri Institute financed one of them several years ago, and one book by Lifshits was translated into Finnish in 1980.

Within the professional philosophical community, Lifshits has almost no followers, but there exist quite a few of his followers among the philosophizing art critics and painters who proudly call their gatherings in an intimate circle the “Lifshits Institute.” They have created two websites devoted to Lifshits’s legacy (mesotes.narod.ru & www.gutov.ru/lifshitz), painted a series of pictures, and Gutov has produced a documentary film about Lifshits for a German TV company.

1 “The term “realism” may be used in a wide sense, as the truth of displaying the actual world in its inherent sensible form; and there is realism as a historical phenomenon, relating to definite literary-artistic currents” (M. Lifshits. “Marx and Engels on Art,” in: Collected Works, vol. 1, p. 380).
2 M. Lifshits. Dialog with Evald Ilyenkov (The Problem of the Ideal). Moscow, 2003, p. 212-213.
3 M. Lifshits, L.Ja. Reinhardt. Irreplaceable Tradition. Criticism of Modernism in Classical Marxist Literature. Moscow, 1974. Foreword.
4 M. Lifshits. “Dialectics in the History of Art,” in: Collected Works, vol. 1, p. 233.
5 “Sich des eigenen Einfallens in den immanenten Rhythmus der Begriffe entschlagen” (Hegel G.W.F. Phänomenologie des Geistes. Vorrede).
6 M. Lifshits. “Why am I not a Modernist?”, in: Literary Gazette, October 8th, 1966, p. 2-4.
7 M. Lifshits. “Hegel’s Aesthetics and Modernity” // Problems of Philosophy, 11 (2001), p. 106 (the last, unfinished work by Lifshits).
8 Ibid., p. 108.
9 M. Lifshits. “Modernism in Art” / Collected Works, vol. 3, p. 432.
10 Marx K. Ökonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte aus dem Jahre 1844. [Privateigentum und Kommunismus].
11 Ibid., p. 127.
12 M. Lifshits. “Marxism and Aesthetic Education,” in: Collected Works, vol. 1, p. 391.
13 In revolutionary art this can be seen in the words of “The Workers’ Marseillaise” (written by the philosopher-narodnik Piotr Lavrov, it became a hymn of Russian republic after the February Revolution of 1917): “Let’s renounce the old world... Ring out, the shout of the people’s revenge... Hit and kill them, damned villains!”
14 M. Lifshits. Why am I not a Modernist?
15 “Sich wissende Wahrheit, und ist alle Wahrheit” (Hegel G.W.F. Wissenschaft der Logik, III. Die absolute Idee).
16 Ibid.
17 “The ideal is therefore the prototype of all things, which ... approximate to it more or less, though it is impossible that they can ever attain to its perfection,” (Kant I. Kritik der reinen Vernunft. Von dem transzendentalen Ideal).
18 “Diese Realität, die dem Begriffe entspricht, ist die ideelle, von jener nur strebenden unterschieden ...” (Wissenschaft der Logik, II. Das Gesetz).
19 «Das Licht ist dagegen physikalische Idealität» (Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften, II, §§ 287, 324).
20 M. Lifshits. Hegel’s Aesthetics and Modernity, p. 99.