Mr. -Bov and the Question of Art

[Since I’ve decided Frank’s book would be perhaps four volumes instead of five if Russian names weren’t so long, from now on, Dostoevsky is going to be D.  Nonetheless this entry of mine is quite long – I hope you’ll indulge me.  I just had one of those experiences where a book speaks to you through the ages, as it were…  Maybe it will speak to you as well.]

Upon his return to St. Petersburg, in 1860, D founded a literary magazine – Time.  The historical details of this magazine, its editorial staff, its various ideological allegiances and polemics are apparently quite complicated.  I have just spent a couple of days reading several pieces D wrote as editor – including a 40+ page “Introduction” to the magazine.  It’s amusing to think how a magazine would fare today if its first number included a 40+ page editorial introduction.  After all of this reading, and reading what Frank has to say about it, I can report I’m really no clearer on who’s who, who’s on the center left, the radical left, the center right, and so on.  So much of these essays were couched in the allusions and references of 1860’s Russia that it was just too much.  But one essay stands out – “Mr. –bov and the Question of Art.  D wrote this essay partly as a response to this Mr. –bov (I’m still not clear on his real name or why D uses a pseudonym to identify him).  At any rate, Mr. –bov was apparently an adherent to a sort of crudely utilitarian theory of art.  The purpose of art, at least according to D’s characterization of –bov, was to serve the progressive cause of ending serfdom and bringing about genuine social, political and economic equality in Russia.

But D really has two targets in this essay – the one is the –bov’s “utilitarian theory of art,” and the other the more aesthetic purity-minded ars gratia artis set.  What’s interesting about this essay is that while, on the one hand, it’s a very historically rooted polemic, it also has undeniable value as a work on aesthetics that speaks to (my) present-day concerns.  In fact, my reading this essay reminded me of several conversations and arguments we had on this very blog a few years back.

The question raised by D in this essay is essentially this – what is the value of art?  Is it a utilitarian one, a purely aesthetic one, both, or something else entirely?  D. himself admits that this is hardly a new question – of course not.  But it found particular urgency on the Russian left at the time, since the questions of lower-class literacy, the liberation of the serfs, and the proper role of the intellectual and the artist in all of this were swirling in the air.  Now, for myself, since I’ve never taken a proper aesthetics course, what follows may all be exceedingly naïve – nonetheless it spoke to me.

What most jumped off the page was D’s savage review of an apparently widely appreciated piece of utilitarian art: “one Marko-Vovchock’s first story-Masha” (D’s Occasional Writings, trans. David Magarshack, 109).  D quotes this story at length.  It’s one of those hackneyed, pseudo-profound accounts of the poor, like it could have been in Freedom Writers, Dangerous Minds or one of the “Dickensian” newspaper pieces from The Wire‘s Baltimore Sun season 5 series:

“But,” Masha insisted, “why is everybody standing up for the lady?”

“She is a lady,” her aunt kept telling her.  “She has the right to do what she likes.  She has lots of money.  That’s how it’s always been.”

“I see,” said the little girl, “and who is standing up for us?”

The old woman and Fedya exchanged glances.  What was the matter with her?

“You’re just a silly little thing,” her aunt said.

“Who’s for us?” the little girl kept asking.

“We’re for ourselves,” her aunt replied.  “God is for us.” (Magarshack 112).

D’s task of demonstrating the lesser quality of such a story (and this is really just the tip of the iceberg, if you read the entire excerpt D provides) is really just shooting fish in a barrel, but his outrage and frustration really shine through:

Mr. –bov asserts that after the appearance of this story, people who still believed in the inviolability of serfdom were greatly shocked and that the story tells about the “natural and indestructible development of love for independence and horror at slavery” in a young girl.  We can’t help feeling strange when we hear about people believing in the inviolability of serfdom being shocked, etc.  We don’t understand what kind of people Mr. –bov has in mind and how many such people he has seen.

Having felt this very frustration, almost to the word, on so, so many occasions, such as while watching Law and Order, the above-mentioned movies, reading the various racial-tolerance-themed novels I was forced through in junior high, and so on and so forth – I definitely heard in D a fellow-traveler.

Just the same when he raises the objection –bov and his partisans raise to D’s line of argument (and he’s quoting one of them here:  “A Fantasy! An idyll!  Dreams of a golden age!” the practical people of humane views but with a secret sympathy for serfdom (i.e., D and his partisans) shouted on reading this story (Magarshack 119).

And how many times have I too had this argument!  I say something like “that movie was totally unbelievable and not compelling, could not possibly have advanced any progressive cause whatsoever” and my interlocutor says “what, you don’t think poor people could really do that?”  OF COURSE I DO – I just don’t think the picture of them doing that we are shown, 99% of the time, bears any connection to reality whatsoever.  “Some people rise above,” my interlocutor often continues.  Well yes – they do, but not like that, and that story’s just been told in such an absurd fashion that, if anything, its embrace of naïve exceptionalism has done more to reaffirm the dominant power structure than a straightforward apology for it might have.  It’s the exception that proves the rule – and so on.

As D writes:

Distaste for serfdom could of course develop in a peasant girl, but would it reveal itself in this form? Why, she is a kind of side-show heroine, a kind of bookish invention and not a woman.  All this is so artificial, so thought-out, so pretentious that in some places… we just could not help burst out laughing.  But is that the impression that this passage in the story should create?  (Magarshack 118).

D suggests a preferable alternative:

Just imagine if, instead of the side-show puppet Masha, the author of these stories had depicted a strikingly true character so that you could have an once seen in real life what you were arguing so heatedly about—would you have rejected the story simply because it was artistic?  Why, such a story would have been a thousand times more useful (Magarshack 123).

Thus runs D’s main thrust against the utilitarian theory of art.  He seems not really do disagree with the idea that art might serve a social function – even a cursory reading of his novels would disabuse you of that notion.  No – what he’s arguing is that, in a way, embracing the “art for art’s sake” ethos stands a better chance of inspiring social change than embracing crude utilitarian propaganda styles.

But something else D adds to this line of argument is that an artist cannot have their social end in view – the artist should create with unrestricted freedom.  Good art will affect the course of history, D argues, but not in a predictable way.  As he writes, “we do not know for certain the ways in which art is useful… we are much too keen to obtain direct and immediate use” (Magarshack 130).  This reminds me of something I read David Simon say in a slightly different context.  He was talking about selecting songs for soundtracks on The Wire, saying that you really need the song you pick to intersect the action of the scene at a “perpendicular” angle – it has to feel relevant but not directly applicable.  You cannot insert a heavy-handed song whose lyrics agree 100% with the sentiment of the character being shown, because them you destroy the emotional resonance of both (pace the creators of Gray’s Anatomy).

You need to create interesting interactions that perhaps you do not understand but only feel, or perhaps only suspect.  An attempt to control the sort of moral you are creating will probably make you fail at achieving that one, and also foreclose your reader/viewer/listener from reaching their own conclusions, since they will break out laughing as D reports having done in the case – they will recoil, resist the imposition of obvious moralizing.  [By the way – this sort of bad soundtrack was parodied hilariously by Flight of the Concords’ “Hurt Feelings”]

As D puts it quite succinctly – “the important thing is that Mr. –bov is quite satisfied with the absence of artistic qualities so long as the right things are discussed.  This last wish is of course praiseworthy, but it would be more agreeable if the right things had been discussed well and not just anyhow” (Magarshack 107, emphasis added).  How many times have I watched one of Jack McCoy’s expositional speeches and thought just the same thought!

What that means though – “the right things discussed well” – that’s obviously another can of worms.  D takes a couple of swipes at describing what he has in mind, or at least, what it feels like when he experiences it.  One that really resonated with me was as follows:

Talent is given to a writer for the sole purpose of creating an impression.  One can know a fact, one can see it a hundred times oneself and still fail to get the same impression as when someone else, a man with special gifts, stands beside you and points out that fact to you, explains it to you in his own words and makes you look at it through his eyes.

I thought just image was just perfect – a good artist is one who stands beside you and shows you a fact, one you may already be well aware of, but shows you that fact in a startling way.  Again, D writes, “even today the Iliad sends a thrill through a man’s soul” (Magarshack 127).  And somehow that thrill, that startling sensation of seeing something through another’s eyes, squares the circle between the utilitarian and the purely aesthetic theory of art.  That is the sort of “idea-feeling” that D talks about in his journals and letters.  Something is most socially effective precisely when it’s been pursued and achieved without the aim of immediate social effectiveness.  It feels correct as art and as social statement.  Otherwise, it’s either overly precious (D talks about seemingly self-indulgent odes to Grecian urns, and so on) or, on the other hand, pedantic and crude propaganda (The Matrix 2) that fails to achieve its purpose.

This leaves me with a final question, however – what is that “thrill”?  Isn’t this just an appeal to irrationalism, a sort of “you know it when you see it” theory of art?  Maybe the best one can do at the level of theory (as opposed to actual artistic production) is just to show what isn’t good art.  The rest is left to the artist.

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5 Responses to Mr. -Bov and the Question of Art

  1. David says:

    Great stuff. You write: “Something is most socially effective precisely when it’s been pursued and achieved without the aim of immediate social effectiveness.” I’m struck by the thought that this a recurring theme in criticisms of utilitarian theories of X. It shows up, for example, in Bernard Williams’s criticism of what he calls Sidgwick’s “Government-House Utilitarianism,” according to which the goal is to maximize happiness and the most effective way of realizing that goal is to ensure that individuals aren’t going around trying to maximize happiness.

  2. David says:

    By the way, I also think it’s worth pointing out that utilitarian justifications of the value of art are bound (it seems to me) to de-value art, in the sense that any social goods we can accomplish through art are likely more effectively accomplished through other means. Art becomes something like an inferior instrument for social change–some justification of its value!

  3. Nates says:

    Apparently, –bov is Nikolay Dobrolyubov, an obscure literary critic and activist.

    I suspect we all agree with Dostoevsky in disapproving of this sort of superficial utilitarian view of art. (And it amazes me how pervasive it continues to be — is there no progress?) But I find it interesting that D was always starting novels with social ambitions and then seemingly undermining these goals out of some sort of obligation to aesthetic truth. So, for example, the Underground Man was meant as a reductio of modern intellectual trends, but ended up serving as an existential hero. Likewise, in Crime and Punishment and Brothers Karamazov, the portrayals of nihilism end up looking more convincing than those of redemption. At any rate, that was the impression I had when I read these novels in my mid-20s. Perhaps I’d see things differently now.

  4. Josh says:

    Nates – that’s an interesting way to look at it – scaly motivated novels turn into aesthetic investigations that at times undermine the original social purpose. But that’s also consistent with the account of art presented here. Maybe it’s like a scientist who sets out to find one thing and then finds another. It’s how a lot of important insights are gained, provided the investigator is open-mind enough to see it.

  5. Josh says:

    * socially

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