Tendency and Tendentiousness

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Tendency and Tendentiousness


in art and literature, the artist’s ideological and emotional relation to the reality he depicts; the latent or overt attribution, through imagery, of certain meanings and values to subjects and characters. In this sense, tendency—interpreted as an organic part and value-bound aspect of the artistic idea—is inherent to all works of art except purely experimental ones. Another synonym of tendency is the spirit that infuses a work of art.

In its more common and narrow meaning, tendency is the artist’s social, political, moral, or ideological preconception, which is always overtly expressed—whether intentionally or not—in realistic works that aim toward maximum objectivity; it is expressed through idealization of the individual (the individual thus being dissolved in a principle), as well as through caricature, a calculated construction, a denouement that is unjustified by the logic of the conflict, or by other means of creating an idea out of an image. In such cases, however, some contemporary researchers speak of tendentiousness rather than of tendency. It should be noted that in practice—in literary polemics and in specific critical evaluations—the meaning and aesthetic value of tendency and tendentiousness are manifold, although the definitions given here remain the most commonly accepted reference points for Soviet critics.

The concepts of tendency and tendentiousness became acutely problematic in the mid-19th century, when realism was reaching its maturity; naturalism, which was then in its beginning stages, questioned the principle of “the ideal” in art and leaned toward the “impassivity” of the natural sciences. Writers of the realist school defended in equal measure a maximum objectivity in the depiction of reality (or of the foundations and logic of life) and an author’s expression of “the ideal” and of the “higher view” through images; but they acknowledged that artistic perfection could only be achieved by merging these ends, whereby the author’s “world view” would be present between the lines, as L. N. Tolstoy put it.

In realistic epics and dramas, overt bias, or tendentiousness (“idea expressed apart from image,” in the words of I. A. Goncharov), usually violates artistic truth, the inner movement of a conflict, and the characters’ self-discovery, even though it may not contradict the objective requirements of reality. The Russian classics, on the other hand, distinguishing between the openly tendentious and the artistic, were not afraid of verging on bias when the need arose to express painfully urgent thoughts on the burning social problems of their time—as was done by F. M. Dostoevsky in The Devils or by L. N. Tolstoy in Resurrection. This characteristic of the Russian realists has been preserved in the art of socialist realism, founded by M. Gorky with his novel The Mother.

Marxist criticism has always defended tendency in its broad sense, especially in the struggle against formalism and against art for art’s sake. In evaluating tendency in its narrow sense of tendentiousness, certain distinctions must be made: overt tendencies are natural in satire (including caricature), romantic fiction, civic poetry, science fiction, allegory, poster art, and works inspired by romanticism. In epic, dramatic, and pictorial realistic works that aim toward an objective and artistically impartial depiction, “the free course of an artist’s subjectivity,” in Hegel’s words, may be ideologically justified. It is justified, that is, if such works deal with the cardinal problems of society and if the author illuminates these problems with original and profound insights gained through experience; it is also justified if a work is neither demonstrational nor pettily accusatory—qualities that were mockingly described by Engels as falling in the domain of “low-caliber” literature (see K. Marx and F. Engels, Ob iskusstve, vol. 1, 1967, pp. 8–9). In Soviet aesthetics the concepts of tendency and tendentiousness assume the specifically ideological form of partiinost’ (party spirit) as expressed in art.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.