Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 21, 1999
O. A. Krivtsun Aesthetics Moscow: Aspect Press Publishers, 1998. 430 pp. Cloth

This book focuses on the fundamental philosophical issues of art and the actual problems of modern art history. It unfurls a polyphonic tapestry of the development of art from antiquity to the twentieth century in relation to various stages in the development of European culture. However, the chief purpose of O. A. Krivtsun’s work appears to be not so much the reproduction of historical and artistic factual details as raising, and finding answers for, questions of the art process theory. The book includes eight sections and thirty-five chapters. The sections include: “Philosophy of Art History,” “General Theory of Art,” “Sociology of Art,” " Cultural History of Art," “Psychology of Art,” “Artists in History,” and others. In Russian universities, Krivtsun’s Aesthetics is now being used by humanities students as the new manual of art history.

The author looks into the instrumental factors in the evolution of art terminology and the reasons for the continuous change of forms in the arts. He also attempts to find an explanation for the loose boundary between the “classical” and the “non-classical” in art, and he examines the ways in which the common spiritual landmarks of each period acquire artistic meaning. Along with several twentieth-century experiments (Erwin Panofsky, E. H. Gombrich, Hans Sedlmayr, Arnold Hauser), Krivtsun’s endeavor concentrates on uncovering a multitude of internal and external factors that can engender new art forms. He argues that any work of art is the result of combined “outside” and “inside” influences: on one hand, an artwork embodies a culture’s notion of man and his image of the universe; on the other, an artwork epitomizes the artistic tradition as such; it speaks of the guild experience and of the inner logic that dictates changes in art language.

Typically, the numerous anthologies of literature and art history present the history of the arts as a sum total of different periods, seemingly randomly combined, to form a balanced cultural whole. What is it, then, that unites the many different art periods? Is it at all possible to detect common stimuli that encourage progress in arts, to pick out “the nerve fiber” of art evolution that pulses even through the “buttress joints” of different epochs and cultures? In response to these questions, we might look to the author’s idea of “supratemporal unity.” The realization of this idea, reckons O. Krivtsun, could eliminate subjectivity in the approach to art history. “Subjectivity” is conditioned by the researcher’s precise location in the art-historical time scale. The relation of “supratemporal unity” to the development of the history of art may be helpful in tracing man’s eternal aspiration materializing as preordained by human nature and by the dramatic unfolding of humanity’s integral meaning. The author draws a distinction between such basic notions of art history as the art cycle, the civilizational cycle, and the general culture cycle. The temporal nonconcurrence and differences of chronological scale in the development of these cycles throughout history are obvious. Art scholars have always favored the notion of the “art epoch,” yet it remains unclear which are the internal and external factors that determine the beginning and end of any cultural epoch. For example, why can we view the Renaissance as a single art period, in spite of diversity of style in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century painting and music?

Krivtsun follows Heinrich Wolfflin in using the notion of “artistic vision” extensively. Whenever an experiment with the language of painting, music, literature or architecture can be said to point in roughly the same direction as another such experiment, a new type of artistic vision is in the making. Artistic vision is expressed primarily in the form and structure of an art work. These means of expression reveal that artists’ attitudes to their subject matter and to reality are ultimately predetermined by history and are not the whims of their creators. The author’s analyses of many artists, including Giotto, Rembrandt, Bach, Caravaggio, Gluck, Molière, Wagner, Ibsen, Chekhov, and Mallarmé support his conclusion that individual deviations from more traditional language patterns indicate not so much a creator’s arbitrary logic as the way in which their thoughts have been culturally and historically conditioned.

The more advanced stages of art history are characterized by the growing “density” of stylistic development; also, in different arts, styles are manifested with increasing irregularity. Looking into these processes, Krivtsun suggests an original method of discovering the “common contact space” in language experiments in the various arts of any one period. The problem, as he sees it, is not in pinpointing the very instance of borrowing and continuity of lexical form, but in finding the many invisible ties between the art language and the cultural and historical soil from which it has sprung.

Not simply a sensuous effect produced by a musical intonation, or by an image’s composition and lexical framework, this language is capable of expressing the entire wealth of the period’s meaning. In this connection, the author suggests a concept of the basis and source of relevant art forms. Krivtsun shows how the language of music, painting, and literature in the seventeenth through twentieth centuries can exemplify the evolution of various types of artistic vision that shed light on the history of each period’s outlook, perception, and sensuousness.

The idea of cultural and artistic synthesis, which accumulates in both the internal and external mechanisms of an art form’s evolution, has prompted the author’s speculations that are summed up in the latter chapters of the book. For a long time, art theorists in Russia have been discussing the principle of drawing up art history; the majority were inclined to believe that it should rely on the study of internal processes in art, language peculiarities, and the construction in works of art. This view implies that the art-language evolution results exclusively from mutations occurring within the language itself. The emergence of new patterns was attributed mostly to the aesthetic aging of form and a need for such as “contrastive” development or novel effects.

Acknowledging that these factors do play a part, Krivtsun nevertheless describes the way in which the inner logic of language development in music, painting, or literature can be disturbed at any moment by a change in the spiritual interests of an epoch, a new way of life, or a new vision of man and the world. All this is perfectly in keeping with the theory that the sense-forming basis of any phase in art development is impossible to define on the strength of internal language mutation alone; the dominant meaning of any artistic cycle is formed at the junction between the inner art world and the period’s mentality.

This conclusion, according to the author, is borne out by the research conducted within the framework of the German art theory school in the early twentieth century (Walzel, Vossler, Korff, Hildebrand, Voll, Wolfflin), as well as the so-called Russian formalist school of the 1920s (Tinianov, Shclovsky, Eichenbaum, Jakobson). The author painstakingly examines the notions shared by art theory and philosophy that are equally important for comprehending evolutionary processes in art and culture. He classes these universal notions with the concepts of style and dramatism. The latter is not confined to drama as a literary genre, but is, in fact, an above-genre feature, a means of translating general culture contradictions into art. The concluding chapters of the book examine in detail the role of a culture’s psychological factors in the modification of the various means of artistic expression and in art-language innovation; in the evolution of the artist’s status in the European culture history.

The limited space of the review makes it impossible to dwell on every issue and strong point of this work that has clearly required the author’s encyclopedic knowledge and vast-scale thinking. This is a compelling, well-written book that provides creative impulses for readers and invites them to take part in an active dialogue. Undoubtedly, Aesthetics will help cast a new light on the complex nature of the evolutionary processes in art and on the role of the creative individual in the building of new forms of cultural vision. The publication of this monograph is an event that has made a considerable impression on universities and academic life in Russia today.

Elga Yuroskaya
Department of Ethics and Aesthetics, Saint Petersburgh State University, Russia