Constructing aesthetics: reassessing Vygotsky’s early works in the context of the Russian modernist theatre
Lev Vygotsky has produced a significant yet largely understudied body of work in aesthetics, which focuses primarily on theatre and literature. This work was presented in several pieces of writing composed mainly in the years between 1915 and 1924, amid the significant artistic and cultural developments of Russian Modernism. In line with the emerging ‘revisionist revolution’ in Vygotsky Studies, and in response to the lack of specialised research on the topic, this thesis examines Vygotsky’s perspective on art against the general historical and cultural developments of his time and his later theories on human psychology. The research follows an interdisciplinary approach to present a comprehensive analysis and reinterpretation of Vygotsky’s understanding of the nature and social psychological function of theatre. It engages primarily with Vygotsky’s journalistic activity, his essay on Hamlet, and his book The Psychology of Art. The thesis provides a critical analysis of Vygotsky’s methodology and of his theoretical views regarding the issues of emotion in art and the nature of aesthetic experience, with emphasis on the key term of catharsis. Moreover, it updates the definitions of these terms through the lens of Vygotsky’s subsequent work in the field of psychology. Furthermore, the thesis situates Vygotsky’s aesthetic writings within the broader cultural context of 1910s and 1920s Russia—a period that maps the passing from the Russian Silver Age to the Avant-garde and to the beginnings of Socialist Realism. It engages critically with the scientific, philosophical and psychological influences under which Vygotsky performed his investigations in aesthetics (among which, the trends of spiritualism, individualism and psychoanalysis, the scientific revolution of the 1920s and the emerging objectivist/scientific methodologies, the Modernist aesthetic paradigms, and the political developments of the time). Consequently, it highlights the impact of the passage from the pre- to the post-Revolutionary era on Vygotsky’s work; specifically, on the questions of effect of the developing theatrical styles on the changing audiences and theatre’s role in human society. Reviewing the theatrical experiments and theorisations of theatre’s effect on its audience, the research locates Vygotsky’s theory on the social purpose of theatre among the visions for the ‘new’ and ‘Revolutionary’ theatre that emerged in the aftermath of the 1917 Revolution Finally, the thesis juxtaposes Vygotsky’s approach to theatre, in general, and Shakespeare's Hamlet, in particular, to the few—yet, pivotal—Russian Modernist productions of the tragedy, with the focus on the themes and problems they highlighted; and to the theoretical views of the play’s psychological effect, as it was discussed by prominent figures of psychoanalysis. This part of the research acts as a case study to the application of Vygotsky’s perspective on the psychological effect of art on a society at a given historical time—here, within the transitions of the Russian Modernist period. The thesis evidences the capacity of Vygotsky’s theory to encompass a significant part of the spectrum of Russian Modernist thought, which was often characterised by opposition and conflict, and its ability to bridge such contradictions by adopting a unique perspective that combines a subjectivist/idealist standpoint with scientific objectivism. It also highlights the dialectical wholeness of Vygotsky’s combinative approach and indicates its depth and ability to speak to the existential meaning of art amid the deep conflicts that humanity underwent in Russia during the 1910s and 1920s. In this light, Vygotsky’s aesthetics—and his particular understanding of the social psychological function of theatre—provide a multifaceted insight to the transitions in the philosophical outlook towards art in the highly dynamic times of Russian Modernism.