But if art is a human activity having for its purpose the transmission to others of the highest and best feelings to which men have risen, how could it be that humanity for a certain rather considerable period of its existence (from the time people ceased to believe in Church doctrine down to the present day) should exist without this important activity, and, instead of it, should put up with an insignificant artistic activity only affording pleasure?

In order to answer this question, it is necessary, first of all, to correct the current error people make in attributing to our art the significance of true, universal art. We are so accustomed, not only naively to consider the Circassian family the best stock of people, but also the Anglo-Saxon race the best race if we are Englishmen or Americans, or the Teutonic if we are Germans, or the Gallo-Latin if we are French, or the Slavonic if we are Russians, that when speaking of our own art we feel fully convinced, not only that our art is true art, but even that it is the best and only true art. But in reality our art is not only not the only art (as the Bible once was held to be the only book), but it is not even the art of the whole of Christendom⁠—only of a small section of that part of humanity. It was correct to speak of a national Jewish, Grecian, or Egyptian art, and one may speak of a now-existing Chinese, Japanese, or Indian art shared in by a whole people. Such art, common to a whole nation, existed in Russia till Peter the First’s time, and existed in the rest of Europe until the thirteenth or fourteenth century; but since the upper classes of European society, having lost faith in the Church teaching, did not accept real Christianity but remained without any faith, one can no longer speak of an art of the Christian nations in the sense of the whole of art. Since the upper classes of the Christian nations lost faith in Church Christianity, the art of those upper classes has separated itself from the art of the rest of the people, and there have been two arts⁠—the art of the people and genteel art. And therefore the answer to the question how it could occur that humanity lived for a certain period without real art, replacing it by art which served enjoyment only, is, that not all humanity, nor even any considerable portion of it, lived without real art, but only the highest classes of European Christian society, and even they only for a comparatively short time⁠—from the commencement of the Renaissance down to our own day.

And the consequence of this absence of true art showed itself, inevitably, in the corruption of that class which nourished itself on the false art. All the confused, unintelligible theories of art, all the false and contradictory judgments on art, and particularly the self-confident stagnation of our art in its false path, all arise from the assertion, which has come into common use and is accepted as an unquestioned truth, but is yet amazingly and palpably false, the assertion, namely, that the art of our upper classes65 is the whole of art, the true, the only, the universal art. And although this assertion (which is precisely similar to the assertion made by religious people of the various Churches who consider that theirs is the only true religion) is quite arbitrary and obviously unjust, yet it is calmly repeated by all the people of our circle with full faith in its infallibility.

The art we have is the whole of art, the real, the only art, and yet two-thirds of the human race (all the peoples of Asia and Africa) live and die knowing nothing of this sole and supreme art. And even in our Christian society hardly one percent of the people make use of this art which we speak of as being the whole of art; the remaining ninety-nine percent live and die, generation after generation, crushed by toil and never tasting this art, which moreover is of such a nature that, if they could get it, they would not understand anything of it. We, according to the current aesthetic theory, acknowledge art either as one of the highest manifestations of the Idea, God, Beauty, or as the highest spiritual enjoyment; furthermore, we hold that all people have equal rights, if not to material, at any rate to spiritual well-being; and yet ninety-nine percent of our European population live and die, generation after generation, crushed by toil, much of which toil is necessary for the production of our art which they never use, and we, nevertheless, calmly assert that the art which we produce is the real, true, only art⁠—all of art!

To the remark that if our art is the true art everyone should have the benefit of it, the usual reply is that if not everybody at present makes use of existing art, the fault lies, not in the art, but in the false organisation of society; that one can imagine to oneself, in the future, a state of things in which physical labour will be partly superseded by machinery, partly lightened by its just distribution, and that labour for the production of art will be taken in turns; that there is no need for some people always to sit below the stage moving the decorations, winding up the machinery, working at the piano or French horn, and setting type and printing books, but that the people who do all this work might be engaged only a few hours per day, and in their leisure time might enjoy all the blessings of art.

That is what the defenders of our exclusive art say. But I think they do not themselves believe it. They cannot help knowing that fine art can arise only on the slavery of the masses of the people, and can continue only as long as that slavery lasts, and they cannot help knowing that only under conditions of intense labour for the workers, can specialists⁠—writers, musicians, dancers, and actors⁠—arrive at that fine degree of perfection to which they do attain, or produce their refined works of art; and only under the same conditions can there be a fine public to esteem such productions. Free the slaves of capital, and it will be impossible to produce such refined art.

But even were we to admit the inadmissible, and say that means may be found by which art (that art which among us is considered to be art) may be accessible to the whole people, another consideration presents itself showing that fashionable art cannot be the whole of art, viz. the fact that it is completely unintelligible to the people. Formerly men wrote poems in Latin, but now their artistic productions are as unintelligible to the common folk as if they were written in Sanskrit. The usual reply to this is, that if the people do not now understand this art of ours, it only proves that they are undeveloped, and that this has been so at each fresh step forward made by art. First it was not understood, but afterwards people got accustomed to it.

“It will be the same with our present art; it will be understood when everybody is as well educated as are we⁠—the people of the upper classes⁠—who produce this art,” say the defenders of our art. But this assertion is evidently even more unjust than the former; for we know that the majority of the productions of the art of the upper classes, such as various odes, poems, dramas, cantatas, pastorals, pictures, etc., which delighted the people of the upper classes when they were produced, never were afterwards either understood or valued by the great masses of mankind, but have remained, what they were at first, a mere pastime for rich people of their time, for whom alone they ever were of any importance. It is also often urged in proof of the assertion that the people will some day understand our art, that some productions of so-called “classical” poetry, music, or painting, which formerly did not please the masses, do⁠—now that they have been offered to them from all sides⁠—begin to please these same masses; but this only shows that the crowd, especially the half-spoilt town crowd, can easily (its taste having been perverted) be accustomed to any sort of art. Moreover, this art is not produced by these masses, nor even chosen by them, but is energetically thrust upon them in those public places in which art is accessible to the people. For the great majority of working people, our art, besides being inaccessible on account of its costliness, is strange in its very nature, transmitting as it does the feelings of people far removed from those conditions of laborious life which are natural to the great body of humanity. That which is enjoyment to a man of the rich classes, is incomprehensible, as a pleasure, to a working man, and evokes in him either no feeling at all, or only a feeling quite contrary to that which it evokes in an idle and satiated man. Such feelings as form the chief subjects of present-day art⁠—say, for instance, honour,66 patriotism and amorousness, evoke in a working man only bewilderment and contempt, or indignation. So that even if a possibility were given to the labouring classes, in their free time, to see, to read, and to hear all that forms the flower of contemporary art (as is done to some extent in towns, by means of picture galleries, popular concerts, and libraries), the working man (to the extent to which he is a labourer, and has not begun to pass into the ranks of those perverted by idleness) would be able to make nothing of our fine art, and if he did understand it, that which he understood would not elevate his soul, but would certainly, in most cases, pervert it. To thoughtful and sincere people there can therefore be no doubt that the art of our upper classes never can be the art of the whole people. But if art is an important matter, a spiritual blessing, essential for all men (“like religion,” as the devotees of art are fond of saying), then it should be accessible to everyone. And if, as in our day, it is not accessible to all men, then one of two things: either art is not the vital matter it is represented to be, or that art which we call art is not the real thing.

The dilemma is inevitable, and therefore clever and immoral people avoid it by denying one side of it, viz. denying that the common people have a right to art. These people simply and boldly speak out (what lies at the heart of the matter), and say that the participators in and utilisers of what in their esteem is highly beautiful art, i.e. art furnishing the greatest enjoyment, can only be “schöne Geister,” “the elect,” as the romanticists called them, the “Übermenschen,” as they are called by the followers of Nietzsche; the remaining vulgar herd, incapable of experiencing these pleasures, must serve the exalted pleasures of this superior breed of people. The people who express these views at least do not pretend and do not try to combine the incombinable, but frankly admit, what is the case, that our art is an art of the upper classes only. So, essentially, art has been, and is, understood by everyone engaged on it in our society.