Wednesday, 12 January 2011


Emma Bovary was defeated by village life.  But what if her ideals had been greater, and the enemy bigger and far more concrete?  Like a large town or city?  No!  Like the modern state.

The artists hung their own works in the Manège building.  Several of them worked throughout the night.  Then they waited.  The building was cordoned off by security men.  The gallery was searched.  Windows and curtains were checked.

The entourage of about seventy men entered the building.  Khrushchev had no sooner reached the top of the stairs than he began to shout: ‘Dog shit!  Filth!  Disgrace!  Who is responsible for this?  Who is the leader?’

A man stepped forward.

‘Who are you?’

The voice of the man was scarcely audible. ‘Bilyutin,’ he said.

‘Who?’ shouted Khrushchev.

Somebody in the government ranks said: “He’s not the real leader.  We don’t want him.  That’s the real leader!’ and pointed at Neizvestny.

Khrushchev began to shout again.  But this time Neizvestny shouted back: ‘You may be Premier and Chairman but not here in front of my works.  Here I am the Premier and we shall discuss as equals.’

To many of his friends this reply of Neizvestny’s seemed more dangerous than Khrushchev’s anger.

A minister by the side of Khrushchev: ‘Who are you talking to?  This is the Prime Minister.  As for you, we are going to have you sent to the uranium mines.’

Two security men seized Neizvestny’s arms.  He ignored the minister and spoke straight to Khrushchev.  They are both short men of about equal height.

‘You are talking to a man who is perfectly capable of killing himself at any moment.  Your threats mean nothing to me.’

The formality of the statement made it entirely convincing.

At a sign from the same person in the entourage who had instructed the security men to seize Neizvestny’s arms, they now released him.

Feeling his arms freed, Neizvestny slowly turned his back and began to walk towards his works.  For a moment nobody moved.  He knew for the second time in his life he was very near to being lost.  What happened next would be decisive.  He continued walking, straining his ears.  The artists and onlookers were absolutely silent.  At last he heard heavy, slow breathing behind him.  Khrushchev was following.

The two men began to argue about the works on view, often raising their voices.  Neizvestny was frequently interrupted by those who had by now reassembled around the Prime Minister.

The head of the Security Police: ‘Look at the coat you’re wearing – it’s a beatnik coat.’

Neizvestny: ‘I have been working all night preparing this exhibition.  You men wouldn’t allow my wife in this morning to bring me a clean shirt.  You should be ashamed of yourself, in a society which honours labour, to make such a remark.’

When Neizvestny referred to the work of his artist friends, he was accused of being a homosexual.  He replied by again speaking directly to Khrushchev.

‘In such matters, Nikita Sergeyevich, it is awkward to bear testimony on one’s own behalf.  But if you could find a girl here and now – I think I would be able to show you.’

Khrushchev laughed.  Then, on the next occasion when Neizvestny contradicted him, he suddenly demanded: ‘Where do you get your bronze from?’

Neizvestny: ‘I steal it?’

A minister: ‘He’s mixed up in the black market and other rackets too.’

Neizvestny: ‘Those are very grave charges made by a government head and I demand the fullest possible investigation.  Pending the results of this investigation I should like to say that I do not steal in the way that has been implied.  The material I use is scrap.  But, in order to go on working at all, I have to come by it illegally.’

Gradually the talk between the two men became less tense.  And the subject was no longer exclusively the work on view.

Khrushchev: ‘What do you think of the art produced under Stalin?’

Neizvestny: ‘I think it was rotten and the same kind of artists are deceiving you.’

Khrushchev: ‘The methods Stalin used were wrong, but the art itself was not.’

Neizvestny: ‘I do not know how, as Marxists, we can think like that.  The methods Stalin used served the cult of personality and this became the content of the art he allowed.  Therefore the art was rotten too.’

So it went on for about an hour.  The room was very hot.  Everyone had to remain standing.  The tension was high.  One or two people had fainted.  Yet nobody dared interrupt Khrushchev.  The dialogue could only be brought to a close via Neizvestny.  ‘Better wind it up now,’ he head somebody in the government ranks say from behind his ear.  Obediently he held out his hand to Khrushchev and said he thought that perhaps they should stop now.

The entourage moved across to the doorway on to the staircase.  Khrushchev turned around: ‘You are the kind of man I like.  But there’s an angel and a devil in you,’ he said.  ‘If the angel wins, we can get along together.  If it’s the devil who wins, we shall destroy you.’

Neizvestny left the building expecting to be arrested before he reached the corner of Gorky Street.  He was not arrested.  (John Berger, Art and Revolution)

An extraordinary passage, in a remarkable book.  Neizvestny’s talent, according to Berger, is his ability to portray endurance; the heroism of the 20th century, the citizen’s only resistance to the inhuman power of its war machines. 

His theme, it appears, is also his character: art and life are one, the artist a man of stone grinding against the granite cliffs of an adamantine bureaucracy.  But how explain this fight, and his limited success?  The war provides part of the explanation; the near-death experience removing the fear of mortality, and with it the state’s power.  The matter-of-factness about his own fate the turning point in the confrontation above.  However, he needed something more.  He needed a vision for which he could sacrifice his life.  A vision that could both support him and gain general respect; transforming an individual with petty interests into an idealist, serving society. And the society will reciprocate, recognising these ideals, and the value of art itself; a value that is enough to restrain, on occasion, even the worst tyrants.[i]  If Khrushchev, who at some level must have shared these values, thus Neizvestny’s success in justifying the exhibition, had destroyed the artist he would have to answer to both himself and the Soviet Union.[ii]  There would have been resistance to his will and he'd find it just a little harder to exercise it.  This is the strange power of art, inside Neizvestny like steel rods in reinforced concrete; giving him the strength to rise above his situation, and to withstand these extraordinary pressures.  The contrast with Madame Bovary is striking: she is sensuous, physical, and utterly self-centred; with nothing to lean on when her life collapses.  Indeed, those rampaging desires removed all of her culture, to leave only the unappeasable instincts; and a longing for the mind’s oblivion.  She gave too much love and acquired too many goods, those pretty silk knickers and lace petticoats flimsier than her own character; the latter eventually reduced to a body craving its own appetites.  She ceased to be a proud and beautiful woman.  Her reputation faded away, and her distinctive personality, that sense of being untouchable, was lost; until in the end she became defenceless before the bailiff and the prurient eye.  She needed a cause greater than herself to save her; but she was not to find it.

Geoff Dyer, in his study of John Berger, continues Neizvestny’s story.  After winning a prize to build a monument at Aswan he became popular with the Soviet technocrats, but not with the art administrators; the most ideologically committed of the establishment, and thus the most aesthetically rigid.[iii]  His struggle with the Soviet state continued until an opportunity arose for him to migrate during the 1970s.  But when he moved to the USA, Dyer writes, he produced art of the utmost crassness: it became gigantic and overblown.  Dyer argues, and I think convincingly, that Neizvestny needed to be restrained by the state, that his art required that he push against its limits, so as to allow his most creative insights, and his original artistic theme, to emerge.  Forced to work within these narrow bounds his creativity was stimulated, and, perhaps more crucially, it honed his central vision: the individual’s endurance against the modern bureaucracy.  So much energy needed a strong casing to contain it.  Remove that casing, and with all restraint gone there is simply a bomb blast of energy; and the core vision is lost.

Neizvestny required a powerful society to control him; to channel his immense personality into the smaller dimensions his art required.  Madame Bovary may have survived in a community that was more permissive.  The weak fantasist needed an open society; the strong willed artist a closed one.  Can this be possible?  It seems to confound at least a hundred years of thinking on the topic.  Is it really possible that the artist, who worships freedom, and is prepared to fight for it, is actually better off in a community that is politically and ideologically unfree?  Of course, as always, it depends on our definitions.  In this case what precisely do we mean by the ideals of artistic and political freedom?  Though often conflated, they are not the same.  The one is essentially about the distribution of rights and power.  The other is stranger and more nebulous.  In part it is about the space to practice one’s art, which can be constrained by politics and economics.[iv]  But it also includes the satisfaction of the inner vision, and the resonances of the work itself; its reception in the public realm.  An artist needs an audience.  These freedoms may be at odds, one against the other.  There are extremes, of course, which destroy everybody, peasant and intellectual alike.  The fanatic repressions of a Mao or Stalin, and their aftermath in the proceeding generations, or the neo-liberal reforms in Russia following the collapse of Communism, that pauperised the population,[v] where the money or the audience for the arts ceased to exist.  More generally, few independent artists and intellectuals can live easily in a completely closed or a completely open society – the conformist pressures are too great.  But setting aside these extremes it is possible that artists may instinctively prefer a closed society, for it provides both a meaning and a stimulus to their creative work.  It can give their art a wide significance, a public importance, as it both echoes and resists the official ideology; providing an emotional charge; a sense of belonging and purpose, which is less powerful in a market orientated society, where art is simply entertainment; and intellectuals are just the “chattering classes”.

What is a closed society?  It is best described by contrast:

In the Habsburg empire, there was an especially acute form of the conflict between what one might call the adherents of Gesellschaft (society) and of Gemeinschaft (community).  The former term conveys the notion of an open society of anonymous individuals, related by contract rather than status, engaged in a free market both of goods and ideas, freely pursuing their own aims, and having a light and provisional commitment to cultural background, whether gastronomic, dialectical, sartorial or religious.  In contrast with such liberalism, there was a romantic mystique of a closed community, whose members found fulfilment in its very idiosyncrasy and distinctiveness, and in the affectively suffused, highly personal even if hierarchical relationships which it sustained.  This opposition pervades nineteenth- and twentieth- century thought, and was thought with particular acuteness in Central and Eastern Europe.  (Ernest Gellner, Reason and Culture)

Compare this passage with Schopenhauer’s quote about genius, with their endless searching for single objects of contemplation; the restlessness; and the overwhelming physical absorption in a perception; and its recreation in the artwork.  These single moments have intense meaning; which the artist wants to capture and convey to others - Aldous Huxley once called the greatest artists the greatest teachers; and this is true, if we think of teaching in its widest sense.[vi] But teachers also want to be listened to seriously. They too need a captive audience.  Idiosyncrasy, distinctiveness and highly personal relationships; these are psychological traits of the artist’s psyche; which thrives on the stimulus of creative response.  If Gellner is right, these psychological characteristics can be best supplied by a closed society.  On this view the liberal reforms of the latter 20th century have been a disaster for the artistic community.  This is reflected in the intellectual history of the last two centuries, where many artists have been anti-liberal; whether on the Left or the Right.  This response is perfectly understandable within a society that rejects them, as Gellner’s quote only too clearly indicates: the meaning and importance of the artist is irrelevant to its needs.  It doesn’t care about them.  The worst thing imaginable for an artist.  Of course, in all societies, because they are not essential to its basic needs, most artists are poor and unrecognised, usually living on its fringes; their self-image that of the outcast.  However, in a closed society, think of Russia in the 19th century, there is a subtle difference.  In a repressive society the meaning of the artwork has more importance.  Even if unknown the work will have a certain value, for it can have an impact beyond itself.  Irrespective of its content it has a political and ideological significance; it is a concrete symbol of the repressions and political poverty of the state.  This sense of a public meaning is part of the artist’s cultural upbringing; to them it is natural and right that they should be actors on a social stage, their work of national importance.  This doesn’t mean they will act in such a way, but the potential exists, and most importantly it gives them a belief in themselves; an essential part of the artist’s ego.  Thus the arts and intellectual life generally have a role greater than the work itself, which is not the same in an open society.  Today in the West fame fills this deficit.  There’s a fortune to be had in being an artistic celebrity; but can serious people really be satisfied with just that?

Ernest Gellner considering Freud analyses these changes.[vii]  He argues that while Freud’s theories helped liberalise the West they almost certainly did so based on a misunderstanding.  The core of Freudian theory is our dominance by irrational drives; they are our true nature; and they cannot be controlled rationally.[viii]  If this is true a liberal society that tries to dis-empower these drives may increase their ill effects; for they need a more emotive, meaning-saturated, life in order to flourish, and be satisfied.

Neither participation in a free and egalitarian community, nor acquisition of wealth or of gratifications, really appeases or gratifies the psyche.  Ironically – given its hostility to Freud – it is the recipes of the new romantic, illiberal Right, the restoration of hierarchical, inegalitarian, ritualistic, emotive and violent politics, which really meets the true human requirements as revealed by the new vision of man.  Mainly for racialist reasons, this kind of Right does not invoke Freud; in as far as it troubles to appeal to philosophical authority at all, it is liable to invoke the name of Nietzsche.

Gellner goes on to write:

The Western liberal intelligentsia, which does recognize Freud, and which has adopted his language and ideas as the standard idiom for the handling of the human psyche and personal relations, has not embraced such political conclusions under his influence.  On the contrary, the adoption of Freudian ideas is combined with, and even somehow used to justify, an extremely permissive moral liberalism.  Roughly speaking, the modal use of Freud can be expressed by the formula ‘Freud has shown repressions to be bad, therefore restrictions on conduct should be removed.’  Though there is no warrant for this in the Master’s doctrine or words, this is how he has been interpreted and applied. (Ernest Gellner, Reason and Culture)

Artists appear to have a higher than ordinary emotional charge; which a liberal society will tend to dissipate – there is little for these feelings to hit up against.  This may account for much of the utopian thinking of artists against the liberal republic.  They want the warm cuddliness of a closed society, [ix] or the tensions of a highly-strung family, where feelings are closer to the surface; and there are emotional barriers to be overcome; producing stimulants to work; and to creativity.  When many artists from Eastern Europe seemed to lose inspiration after emigrating to the West it wasn’t so much that they had lost their subject; the usual explanation.  Rather, they had lost an injection of emotional energy; which resistance to the Communist regime had generated.  Liberal society was too weak and dispersed to provide these points of conflict, to spark off new discoveries, or to illuminate strange horizons.[x]  There was a dulling of their energies, allowing the prison guards of old habits to lock them up inside stale routines and weak narratives.  Freedom had imprisoned them.

[i] One of the explanations for the survival of Boris Pasternak was that Stalin may have believed him a sort of holy fool – he was the crazy artist with special powers.  While his treatment of Mandelstam and Akhmatova suggests a relative “leniency”, because of their artistic quality.  See Ronald Hingley, The Nightingale Fever, for more comment.
[ii] We know the power of the great tyrants of the 20th century.  But now that the accounting is over perhaps we need to concentrate on the restraints, both cultural and psychological, on that power.
[iii] Yet another example of the propensity of intellectuals to be the most indoctrinated within their societyA forthcoming post will deal with this in much more detail.
[iv] Too often we forget that economics is power too.
[v] See Joseph Stiglitz’s foreword to Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation: 50% in poverty as a result of the reforms.  For a wider view on the reconstruction of Russian society, and its devastating impact see Perry Anderson in the LRB.
[vii] One of the weaknesses of Gellner is that he doesn’t explore the differences between intellectuals and the general population; which results in an underestimation of the modernity of modern lifeI hope to explore this later.
[viii] Of course, he had a technique that could overcome these irrational drives.  However, the history of its effectiveness is in dispute, and even its very nature may not be clearly understood.  For example, is it really the case that the re-patterning of a person’s psyche, through the understanding of their condition, is the key to the therapy’s success?  It is more likely to result from the personal relationship between therapist and client: the emotions engendered during the therapeutic session a recreation of the parent-child relationship; of absolute trust because of absolute submission.  That is, far from Freud offering a rational solution, through his therapy, to our power drives, he provided an irrational one; predominantly based on our feelings.  (This may be a weakness in Gellner’s book, The Psychoanalytic Movement: he treats this aspect too intellectually).
[ix] For further discussion see Art and Life.
[x] They not have quite enough energy; unlike the greatest artists and intellectuals, who seem to live independently of the world around them.  An external stimulus is thus needed, which a repressive society can provide.  This need must even greater with dissidents, who recently released would have come to rely on these strong stimulants.
            There is also the wider cultural-historical background of Central and Eastern Europe, alluded to by Gellner above; and which in part explains the nature of these Communist regimes, and the relationship of the dissident intellectuals to them.

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