Andrei Tarkovsky Answers the Essential Questions: What is Art & the Meaning of Life?

“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 below, 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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Advice to Young Film­mak­ers: Sac­ri­fice Your­self for Cin­e­ma

Watch a Video Essay on the Poet­ic Har­mo­ny of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Film­mak­ing, Then View His Major Films Free Online

A Poet in Cin­e­ma: Andrei Tarkovsky Reveals the Director’s Deep Thoughts on Film­mak­ing and Life

“Auteur in Space”: A Video Essay on How Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris Tran­scends Sci­ence Fic­tion

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris Shot by Shot: A 22-Minute Break­down of the Director’s Film­mak­ing

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.

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