Mikhail Ovsyannikov

p The artistic image is the central concept of aesthetic theory. Nevertheless in recent years there lias been a tendency in bourgeois aesthetics to renounce the analysis of this concept on the grounds that thinking in terms of artistic, images is not a specific characteristic of art. The existence of mm figurative, i.e., abstract or, more precisely, non-objective art is quoted in support of this argument. Instead of the analysis of the artistic image, bourgeois aestheticians put forward the problems of the structure of a work of art (phenomenology, existentialism), artistic or aesthetic, language (neo-posilivism, semantics) or the creation and perception of artistic works (neo-frcudism and the modern forms of experimental psychological aesthetics influenced by information theory). This rejection of the image as the decisive feature of art is partially determined by the development of artistic construction. The urge to demolish the demarcation line between art as a form of social consciousness and an industrial product has found wide support abroad (and echoes of it may be found in Soviet writing on aesthetics). This involves the attempt to see even the machine as a form of artistic reproduction of reality (it is stated that the machine is also a work of art). Others maintain that imagery is not an essential distinguishing characteristic of art. Such an interpretation naturally docs away with the ideological significance of art and with its commitment to class and party.

p In short, the problem of the artistic image has become a most controversial one. If we accept that the artistic image does not determine the nature of art, it follows that the question of realism ceases to have any significance, 215 and that any form of non-objective art has the right, even the pre-emptive right, to call itself “new” or "the latestform of art”, because it allegedly gives fullest expression to the dynamics of the new age and its technological and scientific progress, and opens up a new “view” of the world in the light of mathematical, physical and cybernetic data.

p Can one really accept the view that modern art has made a radical break with imagery and should be based on new principles? The experience of the last fifty years provides the answer to this question. How many different versions of “non-figurative” art we have been offered: expressionism, symbolism, tachisme, optical art, kinetic art and so on and so forth. But all these “isms” have burst into nothing like soap bubbles. The emergence of pop-art was a reaction against non-objective art, but it is not capable of solving the problem of imagery, or “ figurativeness” as it is referred to in the West. One really cannot be expected to accept the extremes of the popartists as art.

p The attempt to do away with imagery has been going on for fifty years which has led to a deterioration of art. Art is incapable of renouncing imagery because imagery is its very soul, its essence and its main characteristic. Art loses its essence to the extent to which it ceases to constitute the comprehension of the real world through artistic images. True art capable of reflecting the infinitely complex changing patterns of the modern world must be figurative. The process of thinking in terms of images has developed over many centuries, and its cultural achievements are indestructible no matter what form of attack may be launched against them.

p For a variety of reasons bourgeois aestheticians have given way to the dangerous tendencies of modernism, treating all the latest gimmicks with the utmost seriousness. It must be mentioned, however, that a considerable number of bourgeois specialists are beginning to be concerned about the future of modern art. They have witnessed the disappearance of aesthetic criteria and their replacement by a form of artistic charlatanism. It is unfortunately the case that in seeking to justify the dehumanisation of art bourgeois aestheticians themselves lose any sort of criterion.


p However, new forces are growing up in bourgeois so ciely, opposed to this process of the de-humanisation of art. The working class and progressive intellectuals are doing a great deal to save artistic values in conditions where rampant commercialism and reactionary politics are prepared to destroy all that is human for the sake of the mercenary interests of a small clique of money– grubbing individuals.

p The arguments which rage over highly abstract aesthetic problems turn out to be of an intensely political nature. More than half a century ago Lenin expressed this idea in his book, Materialism and Empirio-criticism. where he analysed the epistemological discussions of the beginning of the twentieth century.

p The problem of the artistic image must be considered in strictly defined philosophical terms. It would be a grave error to isolate it from general philosophical problems.

p Marxists solve the problem of the artistic image on the basis of the theory of reflection. This theory is often presented to the foreign reader in distorted form. For this reason it appears relevant to say a few words about it here.

p The theory of reflection is the dialectic materialist theory of cognition. It is based on the premise that matter has an objective reality independent of our consciousness, thinking or senses. Lenin wrote, "Our sensation, our consciousness is only an image of the external world, and it is obvious that an image cannot exist without the thing imaged, and that the latter exists independently of that which images it."  [216•1 

p Consciousness is secondary in relation to reality on two counts: firstly, it is the product of development and a property of matter, and secondly, it is reality which forms our sensations, perceptions, ideas, etc. This epistemological premise is applied by Lenin to the analysis of social consciousness. "Consciousness reflects—this is the basic premise of all materialist philosophy,” he wrote.

p The process of reflecting the external world is an active, dialectic one. From the elementarv forms of the reflection 217 of reality, sensations and perceptions, man proceeds by means of working on this sense data to the formulation of scientific concepts, laws, categories, etc. Cognition is the infinite process of approaching absolute truth. The nature of human thought is such that it is capable of providing us. and docs in fact provide us. with absolute truth which is the product of the sum of relative truths. Each stage in the development of science adds new grains to this sumtotal of absolute truth, but the frontiers of truth in each scientific premise are relative, sometimes extended and sometimes compressed by the growth of knowledge. From the point of view of the theory of reflection the extent to which our knowledge can approach objective, absolute truth is historically conditioned, but the existence of this truth and the fact that we arc approaching it is unconditional. Consequently, the reflection of reality does not mean a passive reproduction of it. Lenin emphasised: "The reflection of nature in man’s thought must be understood not ‘lifelessly’, not ‘abstractly’, not devoid of movein c n t, not without contradictions, but in the eternal process of movement, the arising of contradictions and their solution.”  [217•1  In this connection Lenin drew attention to the tremendous importance of imagination, which is necessary not only for the poet but for the mathematician as well. Imagination is present in simple, primary generalisations. But it must be grounded in reality, i.e., it must be a specific form of the reflection of reality and not rise above it.

p Man apprehends reality as a social being. For this rea son his consciousness cannot be a dead mirror passively reflecting the real world. In his apprehension of reality man strives constantly to influence the course of its development. He takes his stand on the side of this or that class or social force. Thus the process of apprehending shows the altitude of this or that theoretician or spokesman to class and party.

p According to the theory of reflection, the basis, aim and criterion of knowledge is the social, historical experience of mankind.


p These are the, basic, premises of the theory of reflection. They are the initial philosophical and methodological prc requisites for the solving of aesthetic questions. Seen in the light of the Marxist-Leninist theory of reflection, aesthetic feelings, tastes, ideals, theories of art, etc., are all different forms of the mastery of reality.

p Since aesthetic consciousness is a specific form of the apprehension of the real world, we are justified in speaking of its truth or falseness. Here again the criterion is social, historical experience. Here, in specific form, we sec progression from awareness derived through the senses to generalisation. Imagination plays a highly significant role in this process. The aesthetic consciousness is active since it is linked with the needs and aspirations of certain classes and social groups. The closer a person is linked to life, reality and the progressive forces in history, the richer is his aesthetic consciousness.

p What is the relevance of these general philosophical premises to the understanding of art as a whole and the artistic image in particular?

p From this point of view art is a specific form of the reflection of reality. This reflection will assume a different aspect in realistic, romantic and naturalist art, but will remain a reflection. It will also differ in poetry, sculpture, architecture, painting, dancing and acting, but again il will be a reflection.

p The reflection of reality is a basic characteristic of art. At the same time, however, it is similar to the reflection of reality in the sciences.

p It is often argued that the difference between the image and the idea lies in the fact that the former is concrete and the latter abstract. This distinction is not a valid one, however, since it is not the idea alone that is abstracted from many aspects of reality. The artistic image is also an abstraction of certain features of reality. It is not, and never can be, an exact repetition and an absolutely complete replica of reality. It inevitably reproduces only certain aspects of reality. This explains the futility of the naturalists’ feeble attempts to compete with reality itself in their efforts to give an absolutely faithful portrayal of it.

p As Hegel remarked, this would be like a worm trying to catch up an elephant. There is yet another aspect to this 219 question. The fact that the artistic reflection of reality may attain maximal concreteness does not mean that the idea is entirely abstract. Scientific concepts also possess a certain degree of concreteness.

p It follows that there is no absolute distinction in the degree of concreteness between the image and the idea, although the image is, of course, characterised by a comparatively greater concrclcness than the idea. This higher degree of concreteness results from the aims and methods of selecting the aspects of reality reflected.

p The principles of such a selection are characterised by the fact that the aspects chosen relate to the sensual qualities of the given phenomenon, visual or audile, with the result that these aspects, which act on the senses, are capable of giving a stronger impression of real, integral life, than those aspects reflected by the idea. It is precisely Ihis "sensual note" that is so important in the image. But again this should not be seen as an absolute. Scientific concepts arc also capable of acting upon man’s senses (viz. certain concepts in Marx’s Capital).

p The image is distinguished by the fact that it does not make use of theoretical, logical, experimental, statistic and the other forms of scientific thinking in the reflection of reality, but reproduces the essential, general traits through the medium of the senses.

p A photographer or reporter can also depict certain aspects of life and convey them through the medium of the senses, but here the product will not be an artistic image because we are dealing with a photograph of reality, and the artistic image is a subjective image of the objective world. In the artistic image objectively real objects and phenomena, seen in their typical environment and at the same time individualised, embody certain essential, important ideas, feelings, aspirations and aims of the given class, society and age. The photograph or essay may be said to approach the artistic image to the extent that they embody a subjective approach on the part of the photographer or writer. Without this subjective element the artistic image does not exist, otherwise we should have to regard any photograph as a work of art.

p The illustration is not an image either. It is always subject to that which is general and, for this reason, may 220 always be easily replaced. The individual element is not of importance.

p This is not the case with the artistic image in which the general is expressed through the individual. The essence of the image lies in the fact that it expresses the unity of the general and the individual in the form of the particular, whereas the idea expresses this unity in the form of the universal. Two important corollaries arise from this distinctive feature of the artistic image:

p a) Whereas any scientific theory may be expounded in any form without its content being distorted, the artistic image exists only in the given form, namely, that which was conferred on it by the artist. It is possible to express the ideas contained in Capital in a different form, but not to express say Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin in prose, or Tolstoi’s War and Peace in poetry, without destroying the artistic image. The image exists only as the given, unrepeatable whole. This explains the importance of the selecting of detail in the process of creating the artistic image. (Thus the following detail is of importance: in Eugene One gin Lensky has already arrived at the spot where the duel is to take place, whilst Onegin is still calmly resting at home. The writer uses this small detail to convey the difference in their characters.) Each individual artistic image is valid only in the given complex of images. It is impossible to conceive of Onegin appearing in War and Peace, for example, or Vronsky in And Quiet Flows the Don;

p b) A well-known artistic image cannot become outmoded. A scientific theory may become outmoded, that is, be replaced by a more advanced, broader scientific concept or become a single factor or aspect of a more advanced concept. The relative nature of this or that scientific premise is clearly apparent. Thus, the Russian mathematician Lobachevsky incorporated Euclid’s geometry in his new theory of geometry. The artistic image is not capable of being incorporated in this way. Gogol did not supersede Pushkin, just as Tolstoi did not supersede Goncharov, nor Balzac—Shakespeare or Dante, etc.

p Consequently, although both art and science reflect reality to a relative extent, this relativity is concealed or veiled in the case of art, and not direct as in science. And so, 221 in the process of the development of art earlier forms, like the Iliad and Odyssey, The Lay of Igor’s Campaign and Divine Comedy, do not become single factors in later, more advanced art, but remain vital and significant in their own right and exist side by side with modern works of art and continue to give us aesthetic pleasure. Theories become outmoded, but this is never the case with true artistic images.

p The most important characteristic of the image lies in the fact that it is liable to different interpretations. This is a point to which Kant drew attention in his efforts to overcome the limitations of the rationalist aesthetics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This aspect of the image was turned into an absolute by the romantics, Schelling in particular, who saw the image as the finite expression of the infinite. According to Schelling the image possesses an infinite number of meanings and it is impossible to say which of them is inherent in it.

p If we discard the unacceptable agnosticism of the romantics, we are bound to acknowledge that the artistic image is, in fact, liable to different interpretations. In a book entitled The Fundamentals of General Psychology the Soviet psychologist S. Rubinshtein illustrates this point by reference to the metaphor: "My day is done”. This elementary image can be interpreted in the following ways:

p a. It clearly refers to something important in the person’s life.

p b. This important event is a fatal one which has taken place as it were independently of his own will.

p c. The speaker is expressing a feeling of bitterness in relation to that which has taken place.

p The artistic image gives the impression of reality itself by appearing as a slice of life. In this sense it is manysided, just as life itself is many-sided and inexhaustible.

p This is what makes it possible to interpret the artistic image in different ways. Uobrolyubov, for example, drew conclusions from Oblomov of which Goncharov himself was not aware. Russian democratic criticism interpreted The Inspector General in a way which would have been unacceptable to Gogol.


p The true realistic image reproduces life in all its complexity. It reflects not only the general hut the particular which appears to be random, that which lies on the surface of a phenomenon and gives it the appearance of life itself. The random in art is not, of course, the same as the random in life: in art it is the individual expression of natural laws, it is selected by the artist and its purpose is to help to highlight that which is basic and essential (a gun must be fired in the last act if we have already seen it in the first act, said Chekhov).

p Only the realistic image is many-sided. In other schools of art this aspect is limited. Moliere’s miser is only miserly as opposed to Shakespeare’s Shylock. Thus the nature of art finds its fullest expression in the realist method and it is for this reason that we base our theory of art on realism.

p Every scientific premise or concept is the expression of essence and, for this reason, liable to a single interpreta tion only. In addition to reflecting that which is general, as mentioned above, the artistic image reproduces, as far as this is possible, direct reality, its random facets, lines and aspects, the totality of which forms a single phenomenon. And although the image is the product of abstraction it takes on the form of reality itself with all its various aspects, facets, properties, characteristics and qualities. It is quite understandable why the realistic image should give a certain scope for different interpretations within limits, of course. Examples of this are Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Goethe’s Faust, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

p A true work of art is, as it were, a whole world in miniature. Homer’s poems, for example, give one a picture of the economy, social structure, aesthetic views and morals of the ancient Greeks.

p It follows that the view that artistic images simply convey abstract ideas through the medium of the senses is a false one. This view was held among others by Plckhanov and led him to an incorrect assessment of Ibsen, in whose work he saw not the reflection of reality, but the embodiment of philistinism. Such an approach turns images into copies of copies which, in Plekhanov’s case, was connected with his dogmatic interpretation of the theory of cognition.


p It is common to both the image and the idea that they do not claim to repeat reality. Like the image, the idea also discards certain features of the object in question. This only serves to emphasise the impossibility of producing a naturalistic copy of reality. The distinguishing feature of the image is that it not only excludes certain features of the object, but introduces new ones, that is, ones which the object does not, in fact, possess. The idea always draws its content from the properties possessed by the object in question. It must be said, however, that this distinction between image and idea is not an absolute one. In science the juxtaposition of cognizable objects often brings together that which is dissimilar and unidentical. For example, conclusions by analogy.

p By portraying phenomena without slavishly reproducing them art succeeds in penetrating deep into the essence of reality. Thus Lessing and Hegel admitted the possibility of anachronism in the depiction of historical events provided, of course, that this served to give a more profound revelation of the logic of history. New features may he added to the object in question only to the extent that they facilitate a more correct, profound reflection of the world, and a more convincing exposure of the essential features of reality in all its complexity, contradiction and constant development.

p A few words must be said in this connection about the problem of exaggeration, metaphor and typification.

p A. Exaggeration 

p Hyperbole is characteristic of art alone. In science and everyday life it is inappropriate, if not positively harmful. If a scout sees three enemy soldiers and then reports that he lias seen 300 or 3,000 this could have extremely unfortunate consequences. In art, however, exaggeration is not only possible, but natural and frequently employed. In this connection Dosloyevsky wrote: "All art is a certain measure of exaggeration, the limits of which, however, must not be exceeded. Portrait painters are highly aware of this. Say, for example, that the original has a rather large nose. In order to produce the most striking likeness the nose must be made just a little longer. But after this the slightest exaggeration will lead to caricature.”

p Examples of exaggerations are abundant in folk poetry. 224 It is a device used by writers, painters and composers. Rabelais uses hyperbole to express the idea of Ihe limitless potential of man: his wriling is lull ol titans, not ordinary people. Gogol exclaims: "It is a rare bird that will ily to the middle of the Dnieper”. Mayakovsky made wide use of hyperbole for satirical emphasis. We see it also in Goya’s painting and even in music, in the works ol Shostakovich, tor example.

p Exaggeration is jusliliable only when it serves as a means of giving a true reflection of the natural laws of reality and when it strengthens the emotional impact of the artistic image.

p It always plays a subordinate role and should never be used purely for its own sake. There was a time when hyperbole was considered to be practically the only means of typificalion and its role was widely exaggerated in Soviet art. It was employed indiscriminately and the result was the distortion of reality.

p B. Metaphor 

p The metaphor is not only a figure of speech which consists in juxtaposing two similar phenomena as, for example: "A bee flies from its wax cell for a tribute from the fields”. This expression is used figuratively. The metaphor is essentially a concealed comparison in which the second element oi the things compared is preserved. The use of metaphor in science is not permitted. Logicsees the use of metaphor as a violation of clarity and reasoned argument. What use are such expressions to science as "The lion is the king of beasts" or "The eyes are the windows of the soul”. Art, on the other hand, is inconceivable without the use of metaphor. There are even whole works of art which consist of one long metaphor, such as Pushkin’s famous poem "The Three Springs”.

p The metaphor is an organic part of the artistic arsenal of means and devices.

p One characteristic feature of the artistic image is its aesthetic measure. Creating in accordance with the laws of beauty means mastering things and phenomena in conformity with their general and specific nature and with the inherent objective regularity of their development, taking them as they are. It is therefore natural that in works of art we are concerned with such categories as 225 rhythm, harmony, symmetry, grace, melody and so on. Aesthetic measure is a characteristic feature of the artistic image in that it constitutes an essential ingredient of all aesthetic mastery of reality.

p As a rule the image contains the element of appraisal, whereas the idea simply establishes that which is general and natural. It is, of course, also true that science sometimes provides an appraisal; Capital does not merely reflect the law of the development of capitalism, but expresses Marx’s altitude towards capitalist society. The idea, however, does not lose its scientific importance if it does not contain this critical element, whereas the image ceases to be artistic when it fails to pronounce a verdict on reality.

p This criticism need not be given direct expression by the artist. It may be carefully veiled, but it is always there.

p Criticism in the image takes the form of aesthetic categories and is always of an emotional nature. The image stirs us, gives us aesthetic pleasure and appeals not only to our minds but to our emotions. Scientific theories may also give emotional pleasure, but it is not essential that they should do so.

p An image which makes no appeal to the emotions is not an artistic one. The educative role of art lies in the fact that it makes everything positive from a moral and political point of view appear elevated, heroic and magnificent, at the same time as portraying everything negative from the point of view of the social ideal as aesthetically unacceptable.

p The artistic image propagates this or that idea indirectly. It is not openly didactic (if one excludes such specific genres as the fable, for example). Art which becomes didactic ceases to be art in the strict sense of the word. Art portrays the ideal as something which actually exists, something real. And the more convincing this portrayal, the stronger the effect of the work in question on the mind and feelings of man.

p We have dealt with but a few of the aspects of the artistic image. We have not dealt, for example, with the problem of artistic generalisation or typificalion. Without typificalion, of course, the image cannot be realised. The image always conveys that which is general, natural and essential through the particular and individual. We have 226 not given detailed consideration lo the problem ol individualisalioii.

If the general is not conveyed through the particular, the artistic image also ceases lo be artistic. Since neither of these questions generally gives rise to argument, we have concentrated on those aspects of the problem which have received less atlenlion. 11 should be clear from the above that the artistic image is an integral quality of true art and thai Hie decline of art is first and foremost the disintegration of the arlisic image. This is where we Marx isls stand, and experience shows thai we are right.

* * *


 [216•1]   V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 14, p. 69.

 [217•1]   Ibid., Vol. 38, p. 195.