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Chapter Twelve— Into the World of Names and Out of the Museum
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Bursting the Boundaries of Being

Mathematical speculation appears to have given rise to much of Russian avant-garde aesthetics. Many Russian artists of the period were fond of producing artworks that belonged to more than one art form. The arts in Russia seem to have plunged headlong into an examination of their own ontological boundaries by constantly testing the traditional limits. The tremendous number of paintings containing printed words shows the most common attempt in this era to break down the barriers between two art forms. The effect is to make the reader-viewer wonder exactly what sort of object a particular artwork is and why. El Lissitzky's "narratives," formed from a combination of pictures and words and gathered into a book, force us to ask not only what the nature of El Lissitzky's painting-books is but also what the nature of painting is and what the nature of books is.

One document from this era assigns clearly extraliterary values to the constituent parts of words. An untitled section of the almanac Sadok sudei (Hutch for judges), signed by David and Nikolai Burliuk, Elena Guro, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Ekaterina Nizen, Khlebnikov, Livshits, and Kruchenykh, proposes "principles of artistic creation," including this: "We understand vowels as time and space, . . . consonants as col-


oring, sound, smell." In fact, the entire document represents an attention-getting attempt to destroy traditional notions about language, writing, and literary texts. "We characterize nouns not only as adjectives . . . but also as other parts of speech, such as individual letters and numbers," they say at another point in their proclamation. They go on to say that an author's erasures and doodlings are an inseparable part of a literary work.[7] This text, of course, is not unique. Almost all the manifestos published in the period of the Russian avant-garde contain similar statements. Many appear to be motivated solely by a desire to shock the reader. But it is no accident that the mode of being of artworks is one of the primary subjects that are chosen for their shock value.

If artists of all sorts in this era thought that mixing up genres and forms was shocking, they clearly thought it was even more shocking to mix up art and life. Larionov and zaumnik Il'ia Zdanevich published a manifesto in 1913 called "Why We Paint Ourselves." And paint themselves they did. Larionov and Zdanevich were not the only ones. There is a famous photograph of David Burliuk dressed in formal attire, complete with top hat, and sporting on his right cheek a painting of a bird in a tree. The point was to break down the barrier between art and life, something that would become commonplace later in the twentieth century, when artists started displaying latrines in museums alongside the other objets d'art . The artists of the Russian avant-garde, however, were more interested in taking art out of the museum than they were in bringing life into it. A young man in public with a painted face—isn't that the perfect way to show that art and being-in-public are really the same thing? And so Larionov and Zdanevich proudly proclaim, "We have joined art to life. After the long seclusion of the masters, we loudly called out to life and life made an incursion into art, now it is time for art to make an incursion into life. The painting of faces is the beginning of the incursion."[8] As the avant-garde movements continue, we find more and more expressions of the desire to take art out of its separate space and put it into "real space." The sculptor Vladimir Tatlin made a special point of working with real space, using recognizable materials from ordinary life to make artworks that would inhabit that space. The whole concept of the object becomes increasingly problematic in the work of artists who were as concerned as these artists were with the margins of aesthetic thinghood. El Lissitzky and Il'ia Ehrenburg (1891–1967), who was to become a central figure in Soviet literary life, founded a magazine in 1922 called Veshch/Gegenstand/Objet (Russian, German, and French, respectively, for "thing" or "object"). The purpose of this publication


was to promulgate the aesthetics of Constructivism, a movement devoted to producing industrial, real-world, material artworks. The object side of an art object was of primary importance to the artists of this movement; hence the title of their journal.

The Constructivist movement had a political purpose, too. Art in the immediate postrevolutionary era was seen as having a social function: the more concrete, the closer to life it was, the better it could reach out to the masses. The art-into-life aesthetic, which was proposed with such vigor in the years before World War I, ended up serving the postrevolutionary culture in a most convenient way. After the revolution the idea was to bring art to the masses. What better way to do this than to bring them art that didn't look like art, art that no longer lived in its own private, privileged space inside a museum (or a book, for that matter) but lived in their ordinary, prosaic, proletarian space and looked just as drab as they and the things in their world did?

I have given only a few isolated examples of a trend that was so large as to overshadow almost everything else in the cultural scene of the years right after the revolution. I'm not interested here in the social and political role of art. I mention the trend because the artists involved in this kind of activity, wild, obstreperous, and unruly as they all were, were showing their own peculiar ontological perspective on art. Their concern with the space not only of truly spatial arts like sculpture but also of nonspatial arts like poetry is a strong indication that they were wondering precisely about the mode of being of art, that they were asking the same questions as the ones I brought up in chapter 10 when I talked about the professional philosophers in the twentieth century who have written about aesthetic ontology.

El Lissitzky wrote about these matters in the 1920s in a number of writings having to do with a familiar subject of ours, the book. In one such writing he muses about the "book-space" and how it must correspond to the content of the book.[9] In another, titled "Our Book," he gives a kind of capsule history of printed books and then surveys the avant-garde movement in Russia. He talks about the linking of painting and poetry in the publications of Futurist poets and painters. He tells how the revolution led to the bursting of the bounds of the traditional book. "The traditional book," he says, "was torn into separate pages, enlarged a hundred-fold, coloured for greater intensity, and brought into the street as a poster." At the end of his essay he says that the book is becoming "the most monumental work of art" because it is reaching out to the masses in an unprecedented way. Illustrated weekly magazines


prove this, and so does the rise in publication of childrens' books. For some reason, Lissitzky feels that these books are fundamentally changing the way people relate to the world, and he adopts a quasi-ontological language to express a thought that started out being political: "By reading, our children are already acquiring a new plastic language; they are growing up with a different relationship to the world and to space, to shape and to colour; they will surely also create another book. We, however, are satisfied if in our book the lyric and epic evolution of our times is given shape."[10] Is this just an extravagant way of saying that new books are filled with new ideas that will change the lives of their readers? Given the era when Lissitzky was writing, I don't think so.


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