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Lenin's gOwn Wordsh(Part One: On Art and Culture)

1. Theory of Art

Class Society and the Artist

gThink of the pressure exercised on the development of our painting, sculpture and architecture by the fashions and moods of the tsarist court, as well as by the taste, the fancies of the aristocrats and bourgeoisie. In a society based on private property the artist produces goods for the market, he needs buyers. Our revolution has listed the pressure from this most prosaic state of affairs from the artists.h (Clara Zetkin, Reminiscences of Lenin, Modern Books Ltd., p. 13)

As a Marxist, Lenin grasped art in terms of being part of the gsuperstructureh of the socio-economic system -- that is, as something that emerges from and reflects a particular historical system. Seen from this perspective, art and culture cannot be separated from the historical society in which they emerge. In class society, therefore, art is influenced by gthe taste and fancies of the aristocrats and bourgeoisie.h In modern capitalism, based on private property, art is also gcommodified,h and this results in its own particular distortion and vulgarization. Ultimately artists are dependent on the general conditions of the market. Since the gdemandh for the commodity of art is based on the rich -- the bourgeoisie -- art necessarily reflects their tastes and psychology. Lenin criticized class society which degrades art and he saw the Russian Revolution as freeing artists from this sort of gprosaic state of affairs.h Of course, however, social development in Russia after the revolution did not truly free artists so that they could freely create according to their own thought rather than relying on someone else -- but this is a separate problem.

On So-Called Modern Art

gWe must retain the beautiful, take it as an example, hold on to it, even though it is eold.f Why turn away from real beauty, and discard it for good and all as a starting point for further development, just because it is eold.f Why worship the new as the god to be obeyed, just because it is ethe newf? That is nonsense, sheer nonsense. There is a great deal of conventional art hypocrisy in it, too, and respect for the art fashions of the West. Of course, unconscious! We are good revolutionaries, but we feel obliged to point out that we stand at the eheight of contemporary culture.f I have the courage to show myself a ebarbarian.f I cannot value the works of expressionism, futurism, cubism, and other isms as the highest expressions of artistic genius. I donft understand them. They give me no pleasure.h (Clara Zetkin, Reminiscences of Lenin, p. 13.)

Lenin did not care for so-called gtrendyh things. He pointed out that among those gultra-revolutionariesh who gtotallyh reject the past, there is an old-fashioned, shallow philistine quality. The goldh cannot be thrown out just because it is gold.h Within the goldh there are beautiful things which must be studied and which people can make their own, and this forms a starting point. In her conversation with Lenin, Zetkin gadmittedh that she lacked the faculty to be moved by gultra- revolutionaryh art, and could not understand why gthe artistic form of a nose should be a triangle, and that the revolutionary pressure of facts should change the human body into a formless sack placed on two stilts and with two five-pronged forks. Lenin laughed gheartilyh and said, gYes, dear Clara, we two are old. We must be satisfied with remaining young for a little longer in the revolution. We donft understand the new art any more, we just limp behind it.h (Ibid. p. 13)

Lenin referred to himself as a dilettante who was not specialist in art, but he was skeptical towards gtrendyh art and made many ironic and critical comments about it.

Art Belongs to the People

gOur opinion on art is not important. Nor is it important what art gives to a few hundreds or even thousands of a population as great as ours. Art belongs to the people. It must have its deepest roots in the broad mass of workers. It must be understood and loved by them. It must be rooted in and grow with their feelings, thoughts, and desires. It must arouse and develop the artist in them. Are we to give cake and sugar to a minority when the mass of workers and peasants still lack black bread?h (Clara Zetkin, Reminiscences of Lenin, p. 13)

Lenin is saying that art and working people must be brought closer together. Up to that time, art had generally been intended only for a small minority -- that is the ruling class. In Russia, where the bulk of the population had been illiterate, this was particularly the case. Still, there were great works of art (e.g. Tolstoyfs War and Peace) that in some form or another had come closer to the masses.

We should note Leninfs comparison. Lenin contrasts gblack breadh to gcake and sugar.h This comparison does not mean that gblack breadh alone is sufficient for the masses, but that at that moment even gblack breadh was a luxury. Of course, gblack breadh does not necessarily represent poor art, and gcake and sugarh represent great art. gBlack bread,h despite having defects and an unrefined state, can represent art that is connected to the masses and healthy, while gcake and sugarh can refer to art that is decadent, saccharine, and limp. This is Leninfs general advice to people who pursue art.

Taken by Music

gI know nothing greater than the Appassionata, Ifd like to listen to it every day. Itfs beautiful, super-human music. I always think proudly -- it may be naive -- what marvelous things people can docBut I canft listen to music too often, it affects the nerves, makes you want to say kind, silly things, to stroke the heads of the people who, living in a terrible hell, can create such a beauty. Nowadays you mustnft stroke anyonefs head, youfd get your hand bitten off, youfve got to hit them over their heads, without any mercy, although, ideally, wefre against the use of force. Hfm hfm, our duty is infernally hard!h (Maxim Gorky, Lenin, Oxford University Press, pp. 44-5)

This refers to an evening concert Lenin attended at the home E.P. Peshkova in 1919 or 1920. Here Lenin is commenting on the well-known and loved Appassionata composed by Beethoven.

Lenin says he gcanft listen to music too oftenh since he cannot bear the contrast between the beauty of art and the terrible state of reality. A person such as Lenin could not tolerate himself or other people losing themselves in the beauty of art to the point of forgetting the dirty, stupid, and hypocritical state of reality. And the more beautiful that art is, the greater the danger of this occurring. Lenin thus thought that it was necessary to hit the heads of people who were caught up in such enchantingly beautiful things, rather than stroking them -- that is awaken them to the gvile hellh that surrounds them. For Lenin this was what made the task ginfernally hard.h But Lenin could not set aside this gduty.h This is because, above all, he was a revolutionary determined to fundamentally change this gvile hell.h

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