Ewa Sutkowska

Tarkovsky in London

Andrej Tarkovskij talks about spirituality and the place of art in our lives

On many occasions over the last few years one has had the opportunity to hear Andrej Tarkovskij standing before an audience and reflecting on the issues that occupy him the most. At the end of July [1984] he was in London, where he appeared on an invitation from the Piccadilly Festival, an annual activity centering around film, theatre, music and poetry, organized by the St. James' Church, right in the middle of London. Source: This article first appeared in the now defunct Swedish film journal Chaplin, in the September 1984 issue, pp 156-157. All rights reserved by Chaplin. Translated from Swedish by Trond at Nostalghia.com.

Facing an audience gathered primarily out of interest in his movies, and possibly also due to his recent public decision to remain in the West, Tarkovskij speaks almost without mentioning his movies at all.

Instead, he analyses the current state of contemporary art, and comments on the development of modern society wherein he perceives a very tangible "lack of the spiritual."

Tarkovskij, the artist, does not take great care with semantics. His fiery temperament (in spite of the fact that he claims to be unwilling to make hasty decisions), his exposition - full of examples taken from the field of Art History - his quick punch-lines and uncompromising shrewd mind is very reminiscent of Eisenstein.

The topics of both his lectures were decided by the festival organizers, and after having introduced them as "The Apocalypse" and "The Role and Responsibility of the Artist, 1984" he then proceeds to give them a very personal and interesting twist.

What does the Apocalypse mean to him as an artist, and how does he view artistic activity, and what part does the artist play in modern society?

Egoistic Art is Sinful

The Revelation of John is to him "perhaps the greatest work of poetry ever," a collection of images containing within them an infinite number of possible interpretations, a reminder of Man's responsibility for his own life. It is not a vision with an emphasis on punishment, but rather a source of Hope, and by virtue of it being a system of images, even a rich source of inspiration.

From the point of view of an artist, the book appears as an artistically very sophisticated work (Tarkovskij marvels over the perfect image contained in the silence that descends upon the breaking of the Seventh Seal).

The Vision of John does, however, only provide the overall framework for his lecture. Tarkovskij rather choses to focus his attention on "artistic talent," which, he says, nowadays tends to be considered the personal property of the artist, a part of his personality that he can administer and lord it over as he himself sees fit.

"During the last one hundred years one has somehow arrived at the false conclusion that an artist can manage without the spiritual; the act of creating has suddenly become something instinctive! The consequence of this is that the artist's talent, or gift, does not necessarily put him in a position of responsibility. This is why we have arrived at this lack the spiritual element which characterizes contemporary art to such a large degree."

He does not give a precise definition of "spiritual," but in the second instalment of the seminar he does provides some clues as to what he means by the term.

When Tarkovskij refers to Dostojevskij as "the first author to perceive the problems associated with the loss of the spiritual" the term tends to signify "faith, the capacity to believe" and thus to the individual a means of overcoming fear. Here, spirituality stands in contrast to the purely formal art, wherein the "artist is reduced to a seeker of form, and a consumer." He continues:

"At this time we can no longer be content with the artist's attitude towards his audience or the audience's attitude towards him and his work."

The issue of personal responsibility is to Tarkovskij a supremely important one. Time after time he calls attention to the importance of Man's original free will and responsibility, values he considers practically non-existent in the development of modern society, where human relations are based on fear rather than on a will to co-exist.

Our spiritual development has not been able to, and has not had time to, keep up with the changes that have taken place. This, along with the individual's inadequate possibilities to make decisions in a collective "structured for corporate survival," are the reasons why Tarkovskij considers our civilization to be evil. He summarizes:

"I am not attempting to introduce you to concepts that you are not already fully aware of [...], but by reflecting on these issues in your presence, I have learned the significance of this process. You have offered me the opportunity of thinking about these issues, something which is not possible to do in isolation.

"During preparations for making a new film it is quite clear to me that I am not allowed to consider it to be some form of independent art, a free creation, but rather an implementation of what is perhaps pressing forth from within, where it is not a matter of enjoyment but rather of a painful, perhaps burdening, duty...

"I have never been able to understand how an artist can be in a state of happiness during the creation process. Man does not exist for the purpose of being happy. There is a much, much higher purpose to life than merely being in a state of happiness."

Even though Tarkovskij stresses the importance of not trying to project the statements of a character in a book or a film into the author itself, these words happen to be almost identical to those spoken by one of the characters in his movie Nostalghia. He adds:

"The art in which I have developed is only possible when it is not an expression of myself, but rather brings into focus what I have received from others. Art is sinful to the extent that I use it to serve my own purposes, and I would, more than anything, just cease to be of any interest."

A Fateful Deficiency

Tarkovskij's further exposition brings into focus his understanding of the various problems that have been touched upon up until now. The topics assigned by the festival organizers are dismissed with a quick remark that "one cannot demand such things of another." Instead, the conversation evolves in a more general fashion, from a quite different starting point: art and its role in our lives. Here, it is easier to follow his linguistic usage:

"Art is in the process of gradually losing its required spiritual content, its concept of what it should aim for; it seeks its goals elsewhere.... There exists no analogy between spiritual climax and social/economical climax.... We have lost our spirituality, we no longer feel any need for it... This certainly is not the right time to lose our spirituality."

The matter of commercialization of art, of certain artists' ideas regarding the necessity of adapting to "public taste" preoccupies Tarkovskij very much, perhaps more than anything else. He is not oblivious to the facts of economic reality but his awareness of these does not overshadow his opinion that "art carries with itself an enormous responsibility to re-establish spiritual awareness," the deficiency of which, according to him, is one of the causes of the current crisis within contemporary art.

Within his own field, Tarkovskij has noticed certain processes at work, which results he refers to as disastrous.

"The spectator has gotten what he wants, and has ceased going to the movie theatre. Perhaps he is no longer satisfied with what we call commercial film."

Perhaps Tarkovskij himself has to take part of the blame for what is happening? In spite of laughter from the audience he carries on and says that he obviously is guilty to the degree that all always are guilty. Besides, "I and my colleagues too often tend to forget what the real purpose of art is. Sometimes, goals are governed by twists and turns in our careers."

The Icon Painter as Role Model

The word "spiritual" reappears frequently, and an image of what Tarkovskij means by the term begins to take shape. Warning about the risk of oversimplification, Tarkovskij compares western (European) art to classic oriental (Japanese, East Indian) art, where he in our western art almost exclusively sees how the individual is preoccupied with himself, his self, his destiny, in contrast to the oriental tendency of turning inwards, concentrating on the subtle, the almost negligible.

"What I want to say us that this type of spirituality could very well be possible in western art as well. To forget oneself, to offer up, to sacrifice oneself as a creator [...] is the proper way, the correct attitude in an artist."

He exemplifies his standpoint by referring to Russian icon painting from the period 1200-1400 A.D. Signed icons do not exist, as the artist did not view himself as "an artist," but rather as a servant of God, and he was merely employing his talent to honor God:

"The element I am trying to emphasise is the lack of pride."

Even if there behind his use of the term "spirituality" appears to hide a sort of religious superstition (in response to a question, he stresses the idea of a definitive reason for everything) Tarkovskij wishes to sum up spirituality within art as simply "an interest in what is called the meaning of life." The first simple and obvious step is to even ask oneself this question. Unless the question is posed, one is merely existing on the level of a cat, even though Tarkovskij don't wish to deny that cats can be happy animals. To ask questions like "for what purpose are we alive, from where do we come, where are we going," is to be conscious about oneself, a uniquely human characteristic that is the required raw material of an artist. To not do so is to be "not an artist, not a realist, as one refuses to contemplate the most important problem: what makes a human a human."

The unfortunate trend in our time, which according to Tarkovskij involves the fact that we have lost interest in moral issues, we have lost trust in anyone but ourselves, we live in expectation of immediate financial returns as a result of our activity (for example as an artist),... this trend can, he says, not have avoided affecting art.

He has, however, a precisely defined opinion on what an artist is, or ought to be, to the People, and firmly disagrees with the view of the artist as the one who "shapes the people, as he supplies them with what is spiritual."

On the contrary, Tarkovskij views the artist as merely an expression of the inner Voice of the People itself. This works by first absorbing, and then through its medium (whatever that may be) express what the people itself lacks the capacity for expressing:

"There is - to me - no other way in which we can understand how modern society affects art."

Realistic art, where "realism" denotes "truth about humanity" and involves depicting the soul-life of Man, can according to Tarkovskij not be an art that is focused on the materialistic level. He thinks that by simply depicting the material aspects, one ignores the "very substance of humanity":

"Some tell me that lack of the spiritual is simply a manifestation of a fait accompli. This is to me unrefined, uncultured."

Finally, what is Tarkovskij's purpose in this dialog of dwelling mainly on such general issues, and referring to his movies only in passing?

"It is important to me that whose who see my films know what the problems are that concern me the most, so that we can better understand each other."  end block

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