Art, Popular Nature of

Art, Popular Nature of


(narodnost’ iskusstva), one of the basic concepts of Marxist-Leninist aesthetics, signifying the bond between art and the people; the dependence of artistic phenomena on the life, struggles, ideas, feelings, and aspirations of the working people; the expression in art of the ideals, interests, and psychology of the popular masses.

In the course of history, art’s relationship with the people has assumed various forms. In the primitive communal structure, artistic creation had not yet become an independent sphere of activity; as something directly “interwoven” with the social practices of the collective, it served all of society. Art’s initial, primitive ties with the people constituted the starting point for the development of folk art, that is, art produced directly by workers in class societies. With the subsequent division of labor and the gradual isolation of professional art as a special form of intellectual culture, a process that reached its culmination only in the epoch of capitalism, new popular elements of artistic culture arose.

In ancient society, slaveholding democracies provided the foundation for the development of an art that expressed the ideals and interests of the free citizens of the classical polis. Under these conditions, the producing class—the slaves—remained virtually outside the development of the aesthetic consciousness of society. The artistic ideology of medieval feudal society, particularly in its early stages, had as its basis the aesthetic consciousness of the peasant commune and, later, of the working people of cities, as well. This was the foundation of the popular nature of medieval art.

The Renaissance marked a new stage in art, a time when art freed itself from the traditional primitiveness of the Middle Ages. This reflected the advent of the masses as an independent historical force. At the same time a new contradiction arose. In the Renaissance, folk art for the first time visibly parted company with “learned” art, which is addressed to the “educated” upper stratum of society but retains the potential for aesthetic progress. As a result, the masses grew alienated from professional art, which became less and less accessible to the people. This often gave rise to protest against the artistic achievements of the period, for example, the attacks of Savonarola, Carlstadt, and the Dutch “iconoclasts.”

However, since that time, folk art, which directly reflects the consciousness of the working masses and their aesthetic taste, has constituted the most important stratum of artistic culture and has often served as the source for professional art. There are also tendencies in art that do not directly express the aesthetic consciousness of the working people yet still, in the interests of the people, reflect their struggle and convey the mood of the masses. Such tendencies are directly or indirectly linked with the democratic liberation movement. Often contradictory, they express the ideals and related real interests of the working people but not their mass consciousness. Such tendencies were expressed in the works of G. E. Lessing, F. Goya, R. Burns, P. B. Shelley, L. Beethoven, H. Heine, V. Hugo, A. Daumier, N. A. Nekrasov, L. N. Tolstoy, I. E. Repin, M. P. Mussorgsky, Lu Hsün, and R. Tagore.

Popular elements were also manifest in the work of those artists who were not associated with the democratic liberation movement but, owing to the depth and truthfulness of their work, managed to express the most essential aspects of the life and needs of the people. Such artists sensed the significance of the people’s historical role. The inner unity of realism and the popular nature of art can be clearly traced to those great national poets without whom the social self-awareness of various nations would be unthinkable (for example, in Italy, Dante; in England, Shakespeare; in Germany, Goethe; in Russia, Pushkin; in Georgia, Rustaveli).

The democratic movements of the bourgeois revolutions made it possible to comprehend for the first time the popular character of art and its link with the life of the people, with the character of each nation, and with the masses’ struggle for freedom. The theory of the popular nature of art arose during the Enlightenment. For example, G. Vico, J. G. von Herder, and W. von Humboldt pointed out “learned” art’s association with popular thought, the figurative and metaphorical character of popular language, the folk epic, and mythology. The idea of the popular nature of art is central to the aesthetics of romanticism, which organically links the concept with the problem of nationality in artistic creation. However, most representatives of the romantic school, including W. Wackenroder, L. J. von Arnim, and C. Brentano in Germany and S. P. Shevyrev in Russia, emphasized the primarily traditional character of folk art. They contrasted this allegedly unconscious and natural art to professional art, which they viewed as being artificial and individualistic. The realistic writers A. S. Pushkin, N. V. Gogol, and Stendhal had a deeper understanding of the popular nature of art and saw its basis in the people’s life and in their “spirit,” which they viewed as the reflection of the historical experience of a given nation.

The most comprehensive pre-Marxist theory of the popular nature of art was developed by the Russian revolutionary democrats, particularly V. G. Belinskii and N. A. Dobroliubov. Criticizing the romantic, conservative views of the Slavophiles on the subject, they were able to link the popular nature of art not only with the life and interests of the masses but also with the liberation struggle of the working people. The position of revolutionary democrats was far from the sentimental idealization of petit bourgeois aesthetic consciousness of P. J. Proudhon, for example. The revolutionary democrats maintained that only through the enlightenment of the people and their liberation from serfdom could artistic achievements be understood by the broad masses. In this way the restriction of professional art to the milieu of the “educated classes” could be ended. L. N. Tolstoy severely criticized art’s alienation from the people.

Analysis and criticism of the contradictions of capitalist civilization were the point of departure for the Marxist understanding of the popular nature of art. Marx and Engels not only clearly demonstrated the popular basis of a number of artistic phenomena, including ancient mythology, medieval folk poetry, and Shakespeare, but they also revealed the reasons why the popular masses had been excluded from the arts in bourgeois society and showed that the way to overcome these antagonisms is socialist revolution. While criticizing the simplistic and distorted understanding of the link between art and the interests of the “lower classes” (critique of E. Sue’s novel Mystères de Paris and of the poetry of “true socialism”), Marx and Engels showed that the basis of art’s ties with the people is an objective, deeply truthful artistic perception of reality. Whereas bourgeois sociology recognizes the popular nature of art only in those works of art that portray the condition of the people, Marx and Engels repeatedly emphasized the role of realistic art as a tool for arousing and revolutionizing popular consciousness.

The theory of the popular nature of art reached its highest development with V. I. Lenin. On the basis of the experience of socialist revolution and the initial stage of the building of socialist culture in the USSR, Lenin recognized the dialectic by which art is transformed into general public property to be one of the central factors of cultural revolution. He emphasized that only under socialism and with the liquidation of the antagonistic division between artistic culture and the millions of working people is the process of returning artistic values to the people completed. Lenin considered the popular nature of art to be the decisive criterion for evaluating all questions concerning both aesthetic theory and artistic policy.

Bourgeois aesthetics has proved incapable of showing how to overcome the contradictions of aesthetic consciousness born of the antagonisms of class society. These contradictions are resolved in practice in the course of building socialist culture when one particularly follows Lenin’s precept that “art belongs to the people. Its roots should be deeply implanted in the very thick of the laboring masses. It should be understood and loved by these masses and must unite and elevate their feelings, thoughts, and will. It must awaken and develop the artistic instincts within them” (K. Tsetkin, Vospominaniia o Lénine, Moscow, 1959, p. 11). This proposition, which sets the policy of the CPSU toward literature and art, is embodied in practice in socialist realism, which may be characterized as the consistent realization of the principle of the popular nature of art.


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