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  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
"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."