The Sixth Sense of the Avant-garde
'To be is to sense, to feel; in that sensing and feeling, to know, to be aware. All sensing is movement.' Uit de inleiding van: The Sixth Sense of the Avant-garde: dance, kinaesthesia and the arts in revolutionary Russia, een nieuwe publicatie van Irina Sirotkina & Roger Smith.
A young woman jumps, leaps, takes to the air. We do not know her name, only that she flies in the free dance studio of Vera Maya in Moscow, perhaps in 1927. She indeed flies free, even if the photographer carefully sets up the shot from a low angle to give the flight height. It may well be that dancer and photographer rehearse over and over again to get the effect they want. The exact place is not important; but it is essential that the flight is in the open air – in nature, as people say.
This is not a lady at a ball but a woman setting out to be her ‘natural self’.
She shows the surprising capacity of the human body to lift off. We see this in the back-flip of the high-jumper and the somersaulting spring of the acrobat, and we see it in the arts of dance. We also see it in animals.
The eminent physiologist C. S. Sherrington, fascinated by the magic of a falling cat turning to land upright on its four paws, examined the nervous system in order to understand just such feats of bodily organization. In leaping, flight or free fall, a person – or cat – for a brief moment attains the unattainable, life in the air, elevated, higher, ‘trailing clouds of glory’, inspired, closer to perfection, if not indeed to heaven. The woman aspires to be yet higher. Her stretched and extended limbs show the force which she puts into the effort. The wind of movement catches her hair and tunic. The force creates the illusion that she flies, and because she creates the force, it is no illusion that her spirit flies. Mind and body transcend what language and philosophy so often keep separate. To achieve this, a person, if not the falling cat, has to train the body, attain bodily skill not mental reason. But the leap questions these categories: the woman feels with the body and there is knowledge.
The woman holds the artificial and the natural in forceful tension: posed picture and free leap.
If mind is to culture as body is to nature, this leap is close to nature. Yet it is cultivated, as it is the art of a studio, and, moreover, the studio is in a large city, Moscow after the Revolution, transforming with chaotic haste. The leap is a modern one, which the woman’s dress, or relative undress for Russia at this time, her gymnast’s costume and flowing tunic, confirms.
Eighty, ninety years later, the photograph has become well known, having appeared in exhibitions on modernism and physical culture and the covers of books. The woman has a public. Yet the image still has the power to undermine and to transcend description. We might be tempted to think that there is no need to say anything: this is a moment of beauty and liberation, performed not stated. The dancer’s jump, however, leads us to a number of large claims, the themes of our book, themes at one and the same time historical and philosophical. Our conclusions must be tentative, especially in a short book of large scope. Nevertheless, we aim to focus attention on and advance discussion of a number of related issues.
First and foremost, we make a large claim for kinaesthesia, the sense of movement, as both a source of personal knowledge and a resource for innovation in the arts and wider culture. We show this was the case in the personal lives and in the public achievements of the artists, poets and performers of the Russian avant-garde at the beginning of the twentieth century. Further, we set the historical culture we describe in the context of a larger discussion, currently very much underway in the performance arts, dance most obviously, and in philosophy and physiology, about the primacy of movement and the movement sense in knowing and expressing being human, being alive. As some others have done, we name the sense of movement ‘the sixth sense’, intentionally alluding to the associations of this name to intuition, to a ‘sense’ that goes beyond the senses. <…>
Modernist art movements were international; indeed, the way innovations broke through the borders of national cultures was intrinsic to modernism. Many Russian artists lived and worked in, or at least travelled to, Paris, Munich, London. Fewer artists made the journey in the opposite direction, though some did, and Isadora Duncan did with great effect. The Russian impact in Europe and North America was well recognized, most spectacularly with the debut in Paris, in 1909, of the Ballets russes. After 1918, there was a strong Moscow-Berlin connection, fostering Constructivism in art, design and architecture. Vladimir Nabokov wrote his first reflexively literary novels, and Viktor Shklovsky his Formalist compositions, de-familiarizing the everyday world, in Berlin. Our Russian story is thus part of a larger epic.
The Russian experience also gives us the sources to develop a large claim about why the movement sense has been regarded, as we argue it has, especially around 1900 and now, as the highest, most significant and most authoritative, sense.
From ancient times, and in many cultures around the world, there is evidence of a human longing to gain knowledge transcending the everyday senses, senses so apt to deceive.
In mystical religious practices, in dreaming, in the life of the imagination, in philosophical reason, there is a long history of search for intuition, sometimes called a sixth sense, to ground knowledge in a higher realm than the one revealed by the mundane, material senses. In Russia, utopian longings, linked to worldviews rich in imagination for the place of humans in the cosmos, were of special importance. We argue that this search for a higher sensibility, at least in part, transformed in the modern age into a range of beliefs about kinaesthesia as a higher sense. It is in this context that we find significance in the belief that the movement sense gives both unmediated expression to being-in-the-world and unmediated knowledge of the world. The sense has been held to transcend the separation of subject and object and to realize the ancient hope ‘to know’ by rendering the knower part of the larger whole, not an outside observer of it. This, we suggest, is a modern recreation of intuition, insight and belief in higher, or most profound, knowledge. The modern dancer is its personification, its celebrant. The belief holds that knowledge is in the body, and the body the vessel of truth.