N. G. Chernyshevsky

The Aesthetic Relations of Art to Reality (1855)

34 minutes | English | Art & Propaganda The Soviet Union

This text is a small excerpt that captures the general conclusions of Chernyshevsky’s 1855 Master of Arts dissertation, which he defended at the age of 27. It’s a patched-together and heavily edited document, so careful readers may want to be aware of the following:

  1. It was originally an academic manuscript written under heavy Tsarist censorship, which distorts the presentation. For example, Chernyshevsky was not allowed to make any direct references to Feuerbach in writing, so he used another writer (Vischer) as proxy.
  2. A complete English edition was made available as part of a collection of his work released by the Soviet Union in 1953. This collection also contains three other interesting documents: α) a review of his own dissertation, published shortly after the original, written by Chernyshevsky himself under an alias “to explain to his readers what he had not succeeded in developing in his book with sufficient fullness,” β) a Preface to the Third Edition (1888), published much later, in which he clarifies his ideas further still, and γ) a separate document, The Poetics of Aristotle (1854), which is of a piece with the original. [1]
  3. Even the thesis just by itself is a very long document. The version here presented was edited down to an opinionated summary by James P. Scanlan for a collection of Russian philosophical essays. [2] Scanlan claims to have made corrections to the first English print by referencing the original Russian. [3]

Any reader who finds this article interesting would profit from reading all those others, which, owing to their age, are all freely available online.

The sea is beautiful; looking at it, we never think of being dissatisfied with it, aesthetically. But not everyone lives near the sea; many people never in their lives get a chance to see it. Yet they would very much like to see it, and consequently seascapes please and interest them. Of course, it would be much better to see the sea itself rather than pictures of it; but when a good thing is not available, a man is satisfied with an inferior one. When the genuine article is not present, a substitute will do. Even the people who can admire the real sea cannot always do so when they want to, and so they call up memories of it. But man’s imagination is weak; it needs support and prompting. So to revive their memories of the sea, to see it more vividly in their imagination, they look at seascapes. This is the sole aim and object of very many (the majority of) works of art: to give those people who have not been able to enjoy beauty in reality the opportunity to acquaint themselves with it at least to some degree; to serve as a reminder, to prompt and revive memories of beauty in reality in the minds of those people who are acquainted with it by experience and love to recall it. […]

Thus, the first purpose of art is to reproduce nature and life, and this applies to all works of art without exception. Their relation to the corresponding aspects and phenomena of reality is the same as the relation of an engraving to the picture from which it was copied, or the relation of a portrait to the person it represents. An engraving is made of a picture not because the latter is bad, but because it is good. Similarly, reality is reproduced in art not in order to eliminate flaws, not because reality as such is not sufficiently beautiful, but precisely because it is beautiful. Artistically an engraving is not superior to the picture from which it is copied, but much inferior to it; similarly, works of art never attain the beauty and grandeur of reality. But the picture is unique; it can be admired only by those who go to the picture gallery which it adorns. The engraving, however, is sold in hundreds of copies all over the world; everyone can admire it whenever he pleases without leaving his room, without getting up from his couch, without throwing off his dressing gown. Similarly, a beautiful object in reality is not always accessible to everyone; reproductions of it (feeble, crude, pale, it is true, but reproductions all the same) in works of art make it always accessible to everybody. A portrait is made of a person we love and cherish not in order to eliminate the flaws in his features — what do we care about these flaws? We do not notice them, or if we do we like them — but in order to give us the opportunity to admire that face even when it is not actually in front of us. Such also is the aim and object of works of art; they do not correct reality, do not embellish it, but reproduce it, serve as a substitute for it. […]

While not claiming in the least that these words express something entirely new in the history of aesthetic ideas, we think nonetheless that the pseudo-classical “imitation of nature” theory that prevailed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries demanded of art something different from the formal principle implied by the definition: “Art is the reproduction of reality.” In support of our statement that there is an essential difference between our view of art and that contained in the imitation of nature theory, we shall quote here a criticism of that theory taken from the best textbook on the now prevailing system of aesthetics. [4] This criticism will, on the one hand, show the difference between the conceptions it refutes and our view, and, on the other, will reveal what is lacking in our initial definition of art as reproducing reality, and will thus enable us to proceed to a more exact development of concepts of art.

The definition of art as imitation of nature reveals only its formal object; according to this definition art should strive as far as possible to repeat what already exists in the external world. Such repetition must be regarded as superfluous, for nature and life already present us with what, according to this conception, art should present to us. What is more, the imitation of nature is a vain effort which falls far short of its object because in imitating nature, art, owing to its restricted means, gives us only deception instead of truth and only a lifeless mask instead of a really living being. [5]

Here we shall observe, first of all, that the words, “Art is the reproduction of reality,” as well as the sentence, “Art is the imitation of nature,” define only the formal principle of art; to define the content of art we must supplement the first conclusion we have drawn concerning its aim, and this we shall do subsequently. The other objection does not in the least apply to the view we have expounded; from the preceding exposition it is evident that the reproduction or “repetition” of the objects and phenomena of nature by art is by no means superfluous; on the contrary, it is necessary. Turning to the observation that repetition is a vain effort which falls far short of its object, it must be said that this argument is valid only when it is assumed that art wishes to compete with reality and not simply serve as a substitute for it. We, however, assert that art cannot stand comparison with living reality and completely lacks the vitality that reality possesses; we regard this as beyond doubt. […]

Let us see whether further objections to the imitation theory apply to our view:

Since it is impossible to achieve complete success in imitating nature, all that remains is to take smug pleasure in the relative success of this hocus-pocus; but the more the copy bears an external resemblance to the original, the colder this pleasure becomes, and it even grows into satiety or revulsion. There are portraits which, as the saying goes, are awfully like the originals. An excellent imitation of the song of the nightingale begins to bore and disgust us as soon as we learn that it is not a real nightingale singing, but some skillful imitator of the nightingale’s trilling; this is because we have a right to expect different music from a human being. Such tricks in the extremely skillful imitation of nature may be compared with the art of the conjurer who without a miss threw lentils through an aperture no bigger than a lentil, and whom Alexander the Great rewarded with a medimnos of lentils. [6]

These observations are perfectly just, but they apply to the useless and senseless copying of what does not deserve attention, or to the depiction of mere externals devoid of content. (How many vaunted works of art earn this biting, but deserved, ridicule!) Content worthy of the attention of a thinking person is alone able to shield art from the reproach that it is merely a pastime, which it all too often is. Artistic form does not save a work of art from contempt or from a pitying smile if, by the importance of its idea, the work cannot answer the question: Was it worth the trouble? A useless thing has no right to respect. “Man is an end in himself”; but the things man makes must have their end in the satisfaction of man’s needs and not in themselves. That is precisely why the more perfectly a useless imitation bears external resemblance to the original, the more disgust it arouses. “Why were so much time and labor wasted on it?” we ask ourselves when looking at it. “And what a pity that such lack of content can go hand in hand with such perfection of workmanship!” The boredom and disgust aroused by the conjurer who imitates the song of the nightingale are explained by the very remarks contained in the above criticism: a man who fails to understand that he ought to sing human songs and not make the trills that have meaning only in the song of the nightingale is deserving only of pity.

As regards portraits which are awfully like the originals, this must be understood as follows: to be faithful, every copy must convey the essential features of its original. A portrait that fails to convey the chief, the most expressive, features of a face is not a faithful portrait; and when, at the same time, the petty details of the face are distinctly shown, the portrait is rendered ugly, senseless, lifeless how can it be anything but awful? Objection is often raised to what is called the “photographic copying” of reality; would it not be better to say that copying, like everything man does, calls for understanding, for the ability to distinguish essential from inessential features? “Lifeless copying” — such is the usual phrase; but a man cannot make a faithful copy if the lifeless mechanism is not guided by living meaning. It is not even possible to make a faithful facsimile of an ordinary manuscript if the meaning of the letters that are being copied is not understood. […]

We must now supplement the definition of art presented above, and from the examination of the formal principle of art proceed to the definition of its content.

Usually it is said that the content of art is the beautiful; but this restricts the sphere of art too much. Even if we grant that the sublime and the comic are moments of, the beautiful, the content of many works of art will not come under the three headings of the beautiful, the sublime, and the comic. In painting, these subdivisions do not apply to pictures of domestic life in which there is not a single beautiful or ridiculous person, to pictures of old men or old women not distinguished for exceptional beauty of age, and so forth. In music it is still more difficult to introduce the usual subdivisions; if we put marches, pathetic pieces, and so forth, under the heading of the sublime, if we put pieces that breathe the spirit of love or gaiety under the heading of the beautiful, and if we find numerous comic songs, there still remain an enormous number of works the content of which cannot be put under any of these headings without stretching a point. Under what heading are we to put sad melodies — under the sublime, as suffering, or under the beautiful, as tender dreams?

But of all the arts, the one that is most difficult to squeeze into the tight compartments of beauty and its moments, with respect to content, is poetry. Its sphere is the whole realm of life and nature. The poet’s views on life in all its manifestations are as diverse as the thinker’s conceptions of these diverse phenomena; and the thinker finds in reality much more than the beautiful, the sublime, and the comic. Not all grief reaches the point of tragedy; not all joy is graceful or comical. That the content of poetry is not exhausted by the well-known three elements can easily be seen from the fact that poetical works no longer fit into the frame of the old subdivisions. That dramatic poetry depicts not only the tragic or the comic is proved by the fact that besides comedies and tragedies the drama also had to appear. The epic, which belongs chiefly to the sublime, has been replaced by the novel, with its innumerable categories. For most lyrical poems today it is impossible to find among the old subdivisions any heading that would indicate the character of their content; hundreds of headings would not suffice, so three are certainly not enough to embrace them all (we are speaking of the character of the content and not of the form, which must always be beautiful).

The simplest way to solve this riddle would be to say that the sphere of art is not limited only to beauty and its so-called moments, but embraces everything in reality (in nature and in life) that is of interest to man not as a scholar but as an ordinary human being; that which is of common interest in life — such is the content of art. The beautiful, the tragic, and the comic are only the three most determinate of the thousands of elements upon which vital interests depend, and to enumerate them all would mean enumerating all the feelings and aspirations that stir man’s heart.

It is scarcely necessary to adduce more detailed proof of the correctness of our conception of the content of art, since although another, narrower definition of content is usually offered in aesthetics, our view predominates in actual fact, i.e., among artists and poets themselves. It constantly finds expression in literature and in life. If it is thought necessary to define the beautiful as the main or, to be more exact, the sole essential content of art, the real reason for this is that the distinction between beauty as the object of art and beauty of form, which is indeed an essential quality of every work of art, is only vaguely seen. But this formal beauty, or unity of idea and image, of content and form, is not the special feature that distinguishes art from all other branches of human activity. In acting, a man always has an aim, which constitutes the essence of his action. The worth of the act itself is judged by the degree to which it conforms to the aim we wished to realize by it. All man’s works are judged by the degree of perfection attained in their execution. This is a general law for handicraft, for industry, for scientific activity, etc. It also applies to works of art: the artist (consciously or unconsciously, it makes no difference) tries to reproduce for us a certain aspect of life; it goes without saying that the merits of his work will depend upon how he has done his job. “A work of art strives for the harmony of idea and image” no more and no less than does the shoemaker’s craft, the jeweler’s craft, calligraphy, engineering, moral resolve. “All work should be done well” — such is the meaning of the phrase “harmony between idea and image.” […]

We have already observed that the important word in this phrase is “image” — it tells us that art expresses an idea not through abstract concepts, but through a living, individual fact. When we say that art is the reproduction of nature and life, we are saying the same thing: in nature and in life there are no abstract beings; everything in them is concrete. A reproduction must as far as possible preserve the essence of the thing reproduced; therefore, a work of art must contain as little of the abstract as possible; everything in it must be, as far as possible, expressed concretely in living scenes and in individual images. […]

Confusion of beauty of form as an essential quality of a work of art, and beauty as one of the numerous objects of art, has been one of the causes of the sad abuses in art. “The object of art is beauty,” beauty at all costs, art has no other content. What is the most beautiful thing [prekrasnoye] in the world? In human life — beauty [krasota] and love; in nature — it is difficult to decide — there is so much beauty in it. Thus it is necessary, appropriately and inappropriately, to fill poetical works with descriptions of nature: the more there is of this, the more beauty there is in our work. […]

Inappropriate dilation on the beauty of nature is not so harmful in a work of art; it can be skipped, for it is tacked on in an external way; but what is to be done with a love plot? It cannot be ignored, for it is the base to which everything else is tied with Gordian knots; without it everything loses coherence and meaning. Apart from the fact that a loving couple, suffering or triumphant, makes thousands of works frightfully monotonous, apart from the fact that the vicissitudes of their love and the author’s descriptions of beauty leave no room for essential details, this habit of depicting love, love, eternally love makes poets forget that life has other aspects much more interesting for man in general. All poetry, and all life depicted in it, assumes a sort of sentimental, rosy hue; instead of seriously depicting human life a great many works of art represent an excessively youthful (to refrain from using more exact epithets) view of life, and the poet usually appears to be a very young lad whose stories are interesting only for people of the same moral or physiological age as himself. Lastly, this degrades art in the eyes of people who have emerged from the blissful period of early youth. Art seems to be a pastime too sickly sentimental for adults and not without its dangers for young people. We certainly do not think that the poet ought to be prohibited from describing love; but aesthetics must demand that he describe love only when he really wants to do so. […]

Love, appropriately or inappropriately — this is the first harm inflicted on art by the idea that the content of art is beauty. The second, closely connected with the first, is artificiality. In our times people laugh at Racine and Madame Deshoulières, but it is doubtful whether modern art has left them far behind as regards simplicity, naturalness of the springs of action, and genuine naturalness of dialogue. The division of dramatis personae into heroes and villains may to this day be applied to works of art in the pathetic category. How coherently, smoothly, and eloquently these people speak! Monologues and dialogues in modern novels are not much less stilted than the monologues in classical tragedies. “Everything in works of art must be clothed in beauty,” and one of the conditions of beauty is that all the details must develop out of the plot: so the characters in novels and plays are given such profoundly thought-out plans of action as persons in real life scarcely ever draw up. And if one of the characters takes an instinctive, thoughtless step, the author deems it necessary to justify it on the grounds of the essence of the character’s personality, and the critics are displeased with the fact that “the action is unmotivated” — as if an action is always motivated by individual character and not by circumstances and by general traits of the human heart. […] Let us, however, return to the question of the essential purpose of art.

The first and general purpose of all works of art, we have said, is to reproduce phenomena of real life that are of interest to man. By real life we mean, of course, not only man’s relation to the objects and beings of the objective world, but also his inner life. Sometimes a man lives in a dream — in that case the dream has for him (to a certain degree and for a certain time) the significance of something objective. Still more often a man lives in the world of his emotions. These states, if they become interesting, are also reproduced by art. We mention this in order to show that our definition also takes in the imaginative content of art.

But we have said above that art has another purpose besides reproduction, namely, to explain life. This can be done to some degree by all the arts: often it is sufficient to call attention to an object (which art always does) in order to explain its significance, or to enable people to understand life better. In this sense, art differs in no way from a discourse about an object; the only difference here is that art achieves its purpose much better than a discourse, particularly a learned discourse; it is much easier for us to acquaint ourselves with an object, we begin to take an interest in it much more quickly when it is presented to us in living form than when we get a dry reference to it. Fenimore Cooper’s novels have done more to acquaint society with the life of savages than ethnographic narratives and arguments on the importance of studying this subject.

But while all the arts can point to new and interesting objects, poetry always of necessity points sharply and clearly to the essential features of an object. Painting reproduces an object in all its details; so does sculpture. But poetry cannot take in an excessive amount of detail; of necessity leaving a great deal out of the picture, it focuses our attention on the features retained. This is viewed as an advantage that poetic scenes have over reality; but every single word does the same to the object it denotes. In the word (concept), too, everything incidental is left out and only the essential features of the object are retained. For the inexperienced mind the word denoting the object may be clearer than the object itself, but this clarity is only an impoverishment. […] An object or event may be more intelligible in a poetical work than in reality, but the only merit we recognize in that is the clear and vivid allusion to reality; we do not attach independent significance to it as something that could compete with the fullness of real life. We cannot refrain from adding that every prose narrative does the same thing poetry does. The concentration of attention upon the essential features of an object is not the distinguishing feature of poetry, but the common feature of all rational speech.

The essential purpose of art is to reproduce what is of interest to man in real life. But, being interested in the phenomena of life, man cannot but pronounce judgment on them, consciously or unconsciously. The poet or artist cannot cease to be a man and thus he cannot, even if he wants to, refrain from pronouncing judgment on the phenomena he depicts. This judgment is expressed in his work — this is another purpose of art, which places it among the moral activities of man.

There are men whose judgment on the phenomena of life consists almost exclusively in that they betray an inclination for some aspects of reality and avoid others: these are men whose mental activity is weak. The work of such a man — poet or artist — has no other purpose than that of reproducing his favorite side of life. But if a man whose mental activity is powerfully stimulated by questions engendered by observing life is gifted with artistic talent, he will, in his works, consciously or unconsciously strive to pronounce a living judgment on the phenomena that interest him (and interest his contemporaries, for a thinking man cannot think about insignificant problems that interest nobody but himself). His painting or his novels, poems, and plays will present or solve problems that arise out of life for the thinking man; his works will be, as it were, essays on subjects presented by life. This trend may find expression in all the arts (in painting, for example, we can point to pictures of social life and historical scenes), but it is developing chiefly in poetry, which provides the fullest opportunity to express a definite idea. In such a a case the artist becomes a thinker, and works of art, while remaining in the sphere of art, acquire scientific significance. It goes without saying that in this respect there is nothing corresponding to the work of art in reality — but this applies only to its form. As regards content, as regards the problems presented or solved by art, they are all to be found in real life, only without premeditation, without arrière-pensée.

Let us suppose that a work of art develops the idea that straying temporarily from the true path will not doom a strong nature, or that one extreme leads to another; or that it depicts a man in conflict with himself; or depicts, if you will, the conflict between passions and lofty aspirations (we are pointing to different fundamental ideas we have discerned in Faust) — does not real life provide cases where the same situations develop? Is not high wisdom obtained from the observation of life? Is not science simply an abstraction from life, the placing of life within a formula? Everything science and art express is to be found in life, and found in its fullest and most perfect form, with all its living details — the details which usually contain the true meaning of the matter, and which are often not understood by science and art, and still more often cannot be embraced by them. In the events of real life everything is true, nothing is overlooked, there is not that one-sided, narrow view from which all the works of man suffer. As instruction, as learning, life is fuller, truer, and even more artistic than all the works of scholars and poets. But life does not think of explaining its phenomena to us; it is not concerned with deducing axioms. This is done in works of science and art. True, the deductions are incomplete, the ideas are one-sided compared with what life presents; but they have been made for us by geniuses; without their aid our deductions would be still more one-sided and meager. [7]

Science and art (poetry) are manuals for those beginning the study of life; their purpose is to prepare the student to read the original sources, and later to serve as reference books from time to time. It never occurs to science to conceal this; nor does it occur to poets to conceal it in their offhand remarks about the point of their works. Aesthetics alone persists in asserting that art is superior to life and reality.

Connecting everything that has been said, we get the following view of art: the essential purpose of art is to reproduce everything in life that is of interest to man. Very often, especially in poetical works, the explanation of life, judgment of its phenomena, also comes to the fore.

The relation of art to life is the same as that of history; the only difference in content is that history, in its account of the life of mankind, is concerned mainly with factual truth, whereas art gives us stories about the lives of men in which the place of factual truth is taken by faithfulness to psychological and moral truth. The first function of history is to reproduce life; the second, which is not performed by all historians, is to explain it. By failing to perform the second function the historian remains a mere chronicler and his work serves merely as material for the true historian, or as reading matter to satisfy curiosity. By performing this second function the historian becomes a thinker, and as a consequence his work acquires scientific merit. Exactly the same must be said about art. History does not set out to compete with real historical life; it admits that the pictures it paints are pale, incomplete, more or less incorrect, or at all events one-sided. Aesthetics must admit that art, too, and for the same reasons, must not even think of comparing itself with reality, much less of surpassing it in beauty. […]

Defense of reality as against fantasy, the attempt to prove that works of art cannot possibly stand comparison with living reality — such is the essence of this essay. But does not what the author says degrade art? Yes, if showing that art stands lower than real life in the artistic perfection of its works means degrading art. But protesting against panegyrics does not mean disparagement. Science does not claim to stand higher than reality, but that gives it nothing to be ashamed of. Art, too, must not claim to stand higher than reality; that would not degrade it. Science is not ashamed to say that its aim is to understand and explain reality, and then to use its explanation for man’s benefit. Let not art be ashamed to admit that its aim is to compensate man, in case he lacks the opportunity to enjoy the full aesthetic pleasure afforded by reality, by reproducing this precious reality as far as possible, and by explaining it for his benefit.

Let art be content with its fine and lofty mission of being a substitute for reality in the event of its absence, and of being a manual of life for man.

Reality stands higher than dreams, and essential purpose stands higher than fantastic claims.

[1] Nicholas G. Chernyshevsky, Selected Philosophical Essays, Moscow, 1953, pp. 364-377, 379. [web] 

[2] J. P. Scanlan, 1965. Russian Philosophy, Vol. II: The Nihilists; The Populists; Critics of Religion and Culture. [web] 

[3] Nicholas G. Chernyshevsky, Esteticheskiye otnosheniya iskusstva k deystvitelnosti, Moscow, 1955, pp. 108-125, 128-129. 

[4] Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics, published in 1835. 

[5] Loosely quoted by Chernyshevsky from Part III of Hegel’s Introduction to his Vorlesungen über die Aesthetik (pages 54-55 in the Berlin, 1842, edition). — J. S. 

[6] Another loose quotation from the same work (pp. 56-57) — J. S. 

[7] Not everyone agrees about the debt we owe genius. See, The Banality of Genius (2013) by S. B. for a counterpoint. [web] — R. D.