Evald Ilyenkov about art and aesthetic abilities of man

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №6 - 2014

Author: Mareyeva Yelena, Moscow International Higher Business School MIRBIS, Russia

The first work of Evald Ilyenkov on the problems of aesthetics was published in 1960 (Voprosy estetiki, 4) under the title УO СspecifikeТ iskusstvaФ (On the СspecificityТ of art). Then there were three articles: УOb esteticheskoi prirode fantaziiФ [On the aesthetic nature of fantasy] (Voprosy estetiki 6, 1964), УK otsenke gegelevskoi kontseptsii otnosheniya istiny k krasoteТТ [Appraising HegelТs conception of the relation of truth to beauty] (in the anthology Borba idei v estetike, Moskva 1966) and УChto tam, v Zazerkalye?Ф [What is there behind the looking-glass?] (Iskusstvo nravstvennoe i beznravstvennoe, Moskva 1969). One might conclude that the problems of art were at the periphery of IlyenkovТs interests. As in other cases, Ilyenkov proceeded from the classical philosophical tradition in which the ideals of Truth, Good, and Beauty had not yet become the privilege of narrow expertise. Researching the nature of art, Ilyenkov abided by the notion of an integral personality, the abilities of which should be studied in their unity.

How does Ilyenkov explain the diversity of an individualТs aesthetic attitude to the world? In his articles on art Ilyenkov frequently quotes MarxТs Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 which he, unlike Western Marxists, never contrasted to MarxТs mature works, especially Capital. The manuscripts, discovered only in the 20th century, revealed, in IlyenkovТs opinion, the Уsource and mysteryФ of MarxТs humanism.

The historical materialism of Marx, as Ilyenkov stated, differs from other forms of materialism by the idea that all abilities of an individual, including the five main senses, are understood as a product of history, not as a gift from Mother Nature. Thus human eyesight and hearing differ from the eyesight and hearing of animals, and they do so because they are formed on the basis of communication with things made by a man for a man.

But a man differs from an animal above all by the presence of spiritual senses to which artistic taste and moral sense (conscience), the sense of the sublime, pride and love in its human spiritual meaning pertain. On the other hand, from the point of view of historical materialism, the highest spiritual senses do not presuppose additional physical organs, but rather transform and instill the highest ideal meaning into the activity of the natural senses, all the vital functions of a human organism.

The basis of vexation of mind is nothing but pain. Its essence differs, however, from a sudden heart attack. Thirst for justice differs from mere physical thirst. Someone who listens to symphonic music hears it with his ears, but he does not hear just a collection of sounds. Human senses are physically always the same. This means that the highest spiritual qualities do not presuppose different organs but different abilities of an individual which form a richer content of human life and behaviour.

According to Ilyenkov, the ability to perceive the outer world in a human mode and the ability to reason about it are formed by the life activity of an individual based on the practical transformation of this world. The elementary forms of such abilities are assimilated entirely spontaneously by the child, which can not be said about the highest forms. Following Engels, Ilyenkov emphasized that the ability of logical and especially dialectical thought demands the study of the classical philosophical heritage. The treasury of world art plays the same role in developing the ability to perceive the world in the forms of advanced human sensuality [1].

Ilyenkov frequently insisted that art Уeducates the senses.Ф Its task is to cultivate the human senses, those which express the Уessential forcesФ of an individual. He stressed that neither logical thought nor the advanced human senses could be ends in themselves. Feelings closed in themselves become detrimental, pure Уsentiments.Ф Reasoning for the sake of reasoning changes into hollow Уverbalism.Ф The ability to think and feel in a human way (i.e., to perceive and to take to heart) are equivalent means for expressing manТs creative potential. That was the lesson Ilyenkov drew from the German classics, paying special attention to KantТs and FichteТs ideas on productive imagination (produktive Einbildungskraft).

In normal speech УimaginationФ and УfantasyФ mean the ability to invent something which does not exist. However, Kant showed that the ability to imagine, i.e. to refer freely and arrange images, is the common root of the senses and the intellect. In FichteТs teaching, productive imagination becomes the basis of all human abilities, down to reading a newspaper: words are constructed from letters and then the words are УremoldedФ again into visual images. It should be noted here that these ideas of the German classics found their experimental confirmation in Soviet psychology in the works of L.S. Vygotsky, A.N. Leontyev, V.V. Davydov. VygotskyТs concept of interiorization of objective actions in the process of formation of higher psychic functions can in a certain manner be seen as a confirmation and advancement of FichteТs initial idea.

As for Ilyenkov, he clearly saw and was able to prove the methodological unity of classical philosophy and the cultural-historical school in psychology. In the clamorous discussion of the 70Тs between the so called УphysicistsФ and УlyricistsФ Ilyenkov relied on Fichte and Hegel to argue for the generality and universality of imagination as the source of our abilities. Time and again he stressed that an arrogant attitude towards art as a superfluous УlyricsФ which only disturbs scientific and technical progress was quite typical of mediocre scientists. Serious theoreticians, on the contrary, often emphasized the connection of creative intuition, which every scientist applies, with the imaginative flair cultivated by art.

In the persistent striving of scientists Уto verify harmony by algebraФ Ilyenkov saw not only a sign of individual narrow-mindedness, but the evidence of the crisis of culture in general in which positivism had become the standard of the 20th century. He explained the spread of positivism into science, philosophy, and mass consciousness by the extreme intensification of the division of labour in industrial society, which brought about the displacement of the classic ideal of an integral personality by the concept of a УprofessionalФ in command of details only. Under those very circumstances reason began to rule the mind, Benefit became preferable to the Good, Convenience to Beauty.

The situation, however, was exacerbated by the fact that one extreme is supplemented, as a rule, by another. In effect, while advocating the essential role of intuition in science, Ilyenkov at the same time had to argue against attempts to contrast it to reason as an irrational and even mystical ability. In his works on aesthetics he shows that the ability to penetrate directly to the essence, starting with the phenomena only, or to espy the whole on the basis of just a part, is not a unique talent of a genius, but a principle common to all rational action.

It is the world of culture, Ilyenkov stressed, that forms the human senses which do not merely perceive but also understand the perceptible. This УgraspФ of the essential in an object, and intrinsically of its social meaning, is based on the personal and collective experience of the transformation and purposeful inquiry into the world. Thus, taking HegelТs side in the latterТs quarrel with Schelling on the nature of intuition, Ilyenkov insists that the immediacy of intuitive attainment of truth is but the surface under which the mechanism of УcondensationФ of Homo sapiensТ historical experience is concealed.

In this context it is evident that aesthetic perception is not a redundancy but on the contrary mankindТs greatest achievement enabling the sensory grasp of the essence of surrounding reality in the form of beauty. In a first approximation, beauty is the perception of harmony as a kind of wholeness, external and internal, the wholeness of nature and of the human spirit. In this aspect, the sense of beauty is akin to a moral sense orienting a man in his deeds. Wholeness of a qualitatively different kind is meant here, which, in the dialectic tradition coming from Hegel and Marx, designates an organic wholeness or УtotalityФ (Totalität) that shows itself first to advanced aesthetic sensibility and then to the theoretical mind.

Thus art initially appeals to the senses, above all to the highest moral senses of man; and if art ignores the sense of beauty and the other higher senses, then art is in crisis as is classical culture as a whole. In such a critical situation, Ilyenkov stressed, the productive imagination itself is degraded, it is broken into its elementary parts, one of which is a predilection for clichés and another is sheer arbitrariness [2].

These are the philosophical foundations of IlyenkovТs criticisms of modern art in the 20th century. In this regard he was completely at one with M.A. Lifshits. Ilyenkov characterized the УlogicsФ of the development of modern art from cubism and abstractionism to pop-art in his article УWhat is there through the looking-glass?Ф written under the impact of his visit to an art exhibition in Vienna in the autumn of 1964. He writes ironically that by ignoring the immediacy of the sense of beauty as an atavism, modern art starts УanalyzingФ the world, deconstructs it into dimensions, planes, cubes, triangles, lines, and points. The result of such УanalyticalФ activity is the same pop-art which brings us back to the immediacy of perception in its most primitive and unaesthetic forms. It is evident that as soon as substantial ties in society are perverted or destroyed art undergoes destruction as well. Ilyenkov was convinced that quirks in art were the expression of quirks in real life. In this case genuine beauty might seem redundant, irritating, and even unbearable.

In his time K.G. Jung wrote about the Уattractiveness of ugliness:Ф certain social conditions mixing the sinister and the sublime, assuming the relativity of everything, discrediting the notion of the ideal are needed for the cult of ugliness to take form. Thus, even in the most УunrealisticФ works of art of the 20th century.

Let us return to the nature of beauty, without which, as Ilyenkov thought, art ceases to be art. In my opinion, the central idea is that IlyenkovТs aesthetic views display a certain Уpoint of growth.Ф Both in his explanations of the nature of beauty and in the solutions he proposes to the problem of the ideal, IlyenkovТs position is not similar, but antithetical to that of M.A. Lifshits.

It is natural to suppose that the beauty in art more or less depends on the beauty in the objective world outside us. Being a materialist, Ilyenkov searches for such objective sources of beauty in Nature, not in God. He proceeds from a well-known statement of Marx in his Manuscripts of 1844 according to which man, unlike the animal, is able to form the material of nature according to its own measure and thereby Уaccording to the laws of beautyФ [3].

In his article УOn the aesthetic nature of fantasyФ Ilyenkov explains that in the process of labour man has to distinguish the Уpure formsФ of natural things, their common forms and laws, from forms that are characteristic of primeval nature. The Уpure form and measure of a thing,Ф on which our activity is based, turns out to be its aesthetic form, in other wordsФ the form of beautyФ [4].

Here is another example of the close connection between IlyenkovТs and LifshitsТ positions. For the latter, nature comprises things which mirror many phenomena, are an expression of their universal meaning.

It is clear that for such a position the laws of beauty coincide with the laws of nature. Still, even in УOn the Aesthetic Nature of Fantasy,Ф much of what Ilyenkov writes contradicts such an univocal treatment. In the light of the criticism of modern art, which led the Marxists Ilyenkov and Lifshits to join forces in opposition to it, their emphasis on the creative imagination as the ability to reproduce the essence of the world is quite understandable. Nevertheless, the situation looks much more complicated as soon as the notion of УbeautyФ is viewed in connection with the notions of the УsublimeФ and even the Уtragic.Ф In this case, art appears as something excessive and in that meaning redundant.

Kant, as is well known, writes about the УsublimeФ as the domain where aesthetics comes into contact with the ethical domain. It is there that art conjoins the measure of nature and the measure of man. Man is obviously too small in comparison with the infinite power of nature, but this fact could evoke fear and despair if it were not for the creative efforts of man himself. The latter elevate man despite his finitude but this provokes the contradictory feeling of the sublime.

It is clear that such abilities cannot be acquired through education and the reproduction of natural measure. Making a needle and an axe primitive man tried to extract Уpure formsФ of nature, but by inventing a computer and artificial materials modern man not only extracts and purifies but in a special way synthesizes natural processes. Present-day technological processes actualize not just the hidden essence of nature but also its formal possibilities. In this context, the following words of Ilyenkov have a very special meaning: УHuman activity in nature is productive, that is, it produces, brings about something which did not, and cannot exist in nature as suchФ [5]. Labor, Ilyenkov writes in the same book, is Уthe only СsubstanceТ of all Уmodes,Ф Уof all particular images of human cultureФ [6]. Here the treatment of the laws of beauty goes beyond LifshitsТ own works. To avoid seeing the highest achievements of artistic culture as a Уminor productФ restricted to manТs exploration of the outer world, it is necessary to go beyond the Уpure formsФ of nature to the laws of beauty. Extraction of such Уpure formsФ is the starting point and the УcellФ of the aesthetic attitude to the world, not its final output. To be more precise: the ideal of beauty should be deduced from the transformation, not from the reconstruction, of natural processes.

In the article УThe problem of the ideal in philosophy,Ф Ilyenkov notes that it is impossible to extract a concept of the aim of human existence either from mathematics or from physics, physiology, or chemistry [7] Later he agrees with Kant and Fichte that there is no such Board of Weights and Measures in the Уouter worldФ where the measure of human being could be stored [8].

All this means that the ideal, as the law and measure of human being in every man, is not given to him from the outside as an absolute divine or natural measure. Arising within the ideal dimension of human existence, it is a derivative of the Уobservation reflexФ of our activity. Thus, when we act the hand is corrected by the eye, and in more complicated action by a fancied image of a final product. But man differs from the animal because his actions are guided by his notion of the Good or Justice, and not only by the eye and the image of the fancied aim.

Though born in the transient world of culture, the ideal does not lose its absolute content, and that is probably the most paradoxical side of human existence. When we say that Уmanuscripts do not burnФ we do not mean that they are made of material which is not combustible. Here we speak instead of the content, not the form, namely about some (ideal) meaning of the work of art. In the world of culture, contrary to its progenitress Nature, anything that carries in itself the aforesaid ideal content is eternal (in the manner of a universal). A special question is how this eternal absolute content (i.e., the universal) is represented in a singular work of art or as an individual. Here we have the highest product of the world of culture, in which the mortal and the eternal coincide. A moral deed is also paradoxical, for in this case, when giving we do not lose but acquire; and even unequal exchange is fair in joint creative work, as everyone benefits from the exchange of ideas and abilities.

Indeed, the mentioned paradoxes are evidence of the irreducibility of human measure to natural measures. They confirm that the laws of beauty are ideal as contrasted with material laws of nature. Ilyenkov, in whose works this idea has became theory, was frequently called an idealist. Still, one for whom ideals are objective reality in the world of culture is an idealist of a very special type. In all his works idealism actively assists the ideal principles of human life.


1. Ilyenkov, E.V., Iskusstvo i kom-munisticheskij ideal [Art and the communist ideal], Iskusstvo, Moskva 1984, p. 215.

2. Ibid., p. 249.

3. Cit. Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich, Iz rannykh proizvedenij [From the Early works], Politizdat, Moskva 1956, c. 566.

4. Ilyenkov, E.V., Iskusstvo i kommunisticheskij ideal p. 259-260.

5. Ibid., p. 257.

6. Ibid., p. 172.

7. Ibid., p. 126.

8. Ibid., p. 131.

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №6 - 2014

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