Hans Arp and El Lissitzky, The “isms” of art (1924)

Monoskop recently posted a scan of El Lissitzky and Hans [Jean] Arp’s Kunstismen (1924), translated roughly as The “Isms” of Art. It is reproduced here in its entirety, page by page, or in
full-text pdf format.

The original text runs in three parallel columns separated by thick dividers, very much in a constructivist style. Each column is in a different language: first German, then French, then English. Originally, I was planning on pasting the text from these in the body of the post. But I decided against it because, upon further examination, the translations are simply awful. German might have been a natural second language for Lissitzky; French and English were clearly not his strong points.

So instead, I’m posting an article that came out shortly afterward by the Hungarian art critic Ernő [sometimes Germanized as Ernst] Kállai, translated by John Bátki. Kállai’s work is not well known in the Anglophone world, though I did rely on one of his articles fairly extensively in an article on architectural photography. Here he summarizes the rapid succession of “isms” in art from 1914-1924 and astutely observes that this period ferment was then drawing to a close.

The twilight of ideologies

Ernő [Ernst] Kállai
“Ideológiák alkonya”
365 (April 20, 1925)

Translated from the original Hungarian by John Bátki.
Between Two Worlds: Central European Avant-Gardes,
1910-1930. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 2002).

Kunst kommt von Können. [Art comes from ability.]

The saying is very old and a commonplace, and has even acquired some ill repute; still, it is high time we pay heed to it and, more important, put it to use.

The age of ferment, of “-isms,” is over. The possibilities of creative work have become endless, but at the same time all paths have become obstructed by the barbed wire barriers of ideologies and programs. It takes a man indeed to try and fight one’s way from beginning to end, across this horrible cacophony of concepts. Not that all of these theoretical skirmishes, manifestoes, and conclusions for the record were not indispensable for the evolution of ideas, or were incomprehensible. Even the wildest flights of pathos, the most doctrinaire stylistic catechisms had their own merit. It was all part of the ferment caused by Impressionism, and the infighting of the various expressive, destructive, and constructive schools.

But all of this turmoil is now finally over. Our awareness of the diverse possibilities has at last been clarified, so that today we are witnessing a time of professional consolidation and absorption in objective, expert work. This holds true for the entire front: the areas of political, tendentious art and Proletkult as well as those of Cubism, Expressionism, Constructivism, Neoclassicism, and Neorealism — and also in criticism. The most extreme, most exacting measure of individual vocation and achievement is that which is being employed by each and every school or camp toward its own. The process of selection has begun, and its sole essential guiding principle is this: what is the artist capable of accomplishing in his own field, through his own particular means and message.

What this message consists of, what the artist intends or would like to say not only today but also tomorrow and the day after until, if possible, the end of time at the highest and furthermost extension of utopian perspectives — this we are only too familiar with. We have all participated in the defining of aims and goals, in their exposition and propagation. Now at last, the question of “how” becomes all-important. We have discovered that an endless variety of trumpets may be sounded and they all make fine music, if the player knows his business. Therefore let us see the masters. Those who would play the primitive, or work in unconsciously primitive modes, as well as the most self-aware constructivist equipped with the possibilities offered by modern technology must alike be masters in their own m. tier. This is the only thing that counts. And even if one turns his back on all of art as a bourgeois product and chooses to serve the proletarian tendencies, he will still have to face the requirement of know-how, in the interests of the success of revolutionary agitation acting on the masses. Even among those using the illustrative or caricaturing arsenal of everyday political agitation the most effective ones are those who work at the highest levels of originality and professional accomplishment.

The perfection of stylistic details and workmanship is decisive not only within the artist’s particular school. In the competition among the various fully formed, clearly defined stylistic types it is always one quality versus another, in deciding which style survives.

To date, this struggle has by no means been decided by the “triumph” of one or another of the various “-isms.” In actuality, each style can only be judged on the basis of its inner needs and not by weighing it against external, incompatible, formalist criteria.

I fully realize that this viewpoint means the surrendering of theories. But only of those theories that purported to apply their own narrow aesthetics and ideologies to the entire gamut of human experience. By espousing, in the name of stylistic and professional perfection, the relativism and free-market democracy of the various schools of art, I am merely acknowledging certain facts that I had previously, along with many others, chose to obstinately ignore.

The artistic monopoly of Constructivism or any other school, or of architecture, film or drama, over all of human existence is an ideological castle in the air, mere utopian fiction. It is confronted by the thousand-faced reality of psychological and objective determinants. It is even questionable whether the new social order that succeeds the decline of the middle class will be able to end this dizzying, chaotic condition. There will still remain the dualism of intellect and emotion, technology and nature, functional efficiency and freedom of impulse. No aesthetically one-sided school will be able to eliminate this dualism; it will perhaps one day be overcome by the evolution of human life itself. In face of the manifoldness of today’s psyche the militant, one-sided camps may have possibly catalyzed the process of evolution, this much may be said with certainty. Nonetheless they cannot prevent the multi-layered, conflicted reality of the present from having its own live, suggestively expressive artistic record.

We must once and for all give up seclusion in any of the “-isms” unless we are able to uproot our entire bodily and psychic apparatus, together with its complex of instincts and transpose it into the image of one single ideology, so that it becomes an organic function of that ideology. Therefore only one critical viewpoint can rule over the entire multifaceted spectrum of living art, and that is the viewpoint of quality, embodying the requirements of stylistic and professional perfection.

What good are the ideological perspectives of Proletkult, Constructivism, functionalism, or Neoclassicism? In place of the great ultimate interconnections that would theoretically project into the skies their monolithic, monumental harmonies, we must decide for each individual work on its own merits whether it is alive and suggestive, today.

We have no illusions regarding the social implications of this struggle. We are aware that the field is littered with the belated, brief efflorescence of retrograde or progressive bourgeois individualism. Only aesthetic narcotics stray consciously among the ambitious aims and great ideological perspectives. But as long as we are inseparably, for better or worse, at one with art, enslaved by a passion or weakness, then any fleeting evidence of life, no matter how infinitesimal, and never mind how abstract or socially conscious, is preferable to any rigid theory bright with promise for a future that may never come.

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