‘The aesthetic relation of art to reality’

Celestial Fireworks: Into Star Cluster Westerlund 2

‘As the illustrative animation begins, the greater Gum 29 nebula fills the screen, with the young cluster of bright stars visible in the centre. Stars zip past you as you approach the cluster. Soon your imaginary ship pivots and you pass over light-year long pillars of interstellar gas and dust. Strong winds and radiation from massive young stars destroy all but the densest nearby dust clumps, leaving these pillars in their shadows – many pointing back toward the cluster centre. Last, you pass into the top of the star cluster and survey hundreds of the most massive stars known.’

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‘Defence of reality as against fantasy, the endeavour to prove that works of art cannot possibly stand comparison with living reality – such is the essence of this essay. But does not what the author says degrade art? Yes, if showing that art stands lower than real life in the artistic perfection of its works means degrading art. But protesting against panegyrics does not mean disparagement. Science does not claim to stand higher than reality, but it has nothing to be ashamed of in that. Art, too, must not claim to stand higher than reality; that would not be degrading for it. Science is not ashamed to say that its aim is to understand and explain reality and then to use its explanation for the benefit of man. Let not art be ashamed to admit that its aim is to compensate man in case of absence of opportunity to enjoy the full aesthetic pleasure afforded by reality by, as far as possible, reproducing this precious reality, and by explaining it for the benefit of man.’

N.G. Chernyshevsky, ‘The Aesthetic Relation of Art to Reality’, MA thesis, 1855, in Selected Philosophical Essays, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1953, 379

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