“An artist never works under ideal conditions,” says Andrei Tarkovsky, who, even under his own set of less-than-ideal conditions, managed to make movies like Solaris, The Mirror, and Stalker. (Watch them free online here.) “If they existed, his work wouldn’t exist, for the artist doesn’t live in a vacuum. Some sort of pressure must exist. The artist exists because the world is not perfect. Art would be useless if the world were perfect, as man wouldn’t look for harmony but simply live in it. Art is born out of an ill-designed world.”
Tarkovsky calls that the central issue of Andrei Rublev, his earlier historical drama about the titular 15th-century icon painter, footage of which we see in the clip at the top. It comes extracted from the documentary A Poet in Cinema, essential viewing for those seeking to understand the mind behind all these singular cinematic visions. Tarkovsky used film in an art form in a way that no other director did before or has quite done since, which will raise a certain curiosity in any of his viewers: how, then, did he conceive of art itself?
Just before the beginning of the clip above, a disembodied voice put the question to him directly: “Andrei, what is art?” Tarkovsky, looking even more pensive than usual, declares that “before defining art — or any concept — we must answer a far broader question: what is the meaning of Man’s life on Earth?” An ambitious topic, certainly, but he, in his own way, embodied the very concept of the ambitious filmmaker. “Maybe we are here to enhance ourselves spiritually. If our life tends to this spiritual enrichment, then art is a means to get there. Art should help man in this process.”
Rejecting the idea “that art helps man to know the world like any other intellectual activity,” Tarkovsky made films from his lack of belief in the “possibility of knowing. Knowledge distracts us from our main purpose in life. The more we know, the less we know. Getting deeper, our horizon becomes narrower. Art enriches man’s own spiritual capabilities, and he can then rise above himself, to use what we call ‘free will.'” Those who subscribe to these views of the world and of art will find that his work still serves this purpose. Even many of those who don’t accept Tarkovsky’s austere philosophical premises have to admit that, if a perfect world doesn’t contain his movies, we’d probably rather not live in it.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.