Nikolaj Chernyshevskij on the Autonomy of the Artist

Andrew M. Drozd, University of Alabama

Among Western Slavists Nikolaj Chernyshevskij has the reputation of an art-hating ideologue who showed little respect for the autonomy of the individual artist. Chernyshevskij is routinely described as someone who argued that art must be subordinated to the demands of ideology (Berlin, Gleason, Terras, Wellek, etc.). Even those who have written lengthy works on Chernyshevskij (Woehrlin, Pereira) generally share this assumption.

A examination of what Chernyshevskij actually wrote reveals a very different picture, however. Chernyshevskij's works reveal that far from demeaning the autonomy of the individual artist, he defended it consistently and often. First, I will introduce some of Chernyshevskij's more famous statements that are often cited in support of the thesis that he denigrated art ("Art is inferior to reality") and demonstrate how these have been taken out of their polemical context and misinterpreted. Then I will turn to other passages in Chernyshevskij's writings that leave little doubt as to his views on the autonomy of the artist. For example, in his review of Tolstoj's early works (Childhood, Boyhood) Chernyshevskij defends Tolstoj from the accusation that he failed to introduce social questions into the work. Likewise, in a review of Shcherbina's work Chernyshevskij argues that a poet must resist any attempt to constrain his talent and declares that autonomy is the supreme law of art.

Based upon this and other evidence I will argue that Western Slavists have seriously misunderstood Chernyshevskij on this point and call for a reevaluation of conventional thinking on the issue.