The Art of Truth

A renowned artist reflects on the role of creative expression in the world

Maxim Kantor video placeholder
“If art is real, if art is responsible, it has to pronounce true words.”

Maxim Kantor is the portrait of a character from a well-crafted Hollywood political drama: an artist, writer, and philosopher whose early work went largely unnoticed in Cold War Russia because it did not conform to the tastes of the Soviet regime. Kantor emphasizes human suffering overcome through solidarity and love, a perspective that was out of touch with the prevailing socialist realism of the time. He developed his craft under circumstances most Western artists would find appalling, even if Kantor himself now qualifies them with a touch of nostalgia.

“ … Resistance was romantic.”

“It was an interesting time, when all was forbidden,” Kantor recalls. “Soviet power was dying. It wasn’t as cruel as during Stalin’s times, of course, but it wasn’t pleasant. They didn’t allow us to exhibit works, or even to buy paint. It made life interesting, and resistance‚Ķ” he paused, searching for the right term, “was romantic.”

And instructive. For Kantor, the lack of early recognition in his career crystallized an independence that marks his work to this day. He says he learned early on not to rely on praise from critics or the public at large. Yet after a breakthrough showing in 1982, his works were discovered by Western critics and recognition followed, including, eventually, in Russia. While perhaps best known for his large cycles of big oil paintings, he also created three important portfolios of etchings and prints since 2000—Wasteland. Atlas (2001), Metropolis. Atlas (2004), and Vulcanus. Atlas (2010)—that offer a moral interpretation of massive political shifts in the 20th century. His work is featured in galleries and museums worldwide, including the Vatican, the British Museum in London, and University of Notre Dame’s Snite Museum of Art.

Kantor was awarded the Russian National Literature Award in 2006 for his novel Drawing Textbook. His critical essay collection Democracy Slow Jaws (2008) followed, focusing on the evolution and historical ideals of democracy, imperialism, human rights, totalitarianism, “democratic war,” and the development of democratic society.

Clearly, the relative anonymity of his early career has given way to prominence and a platform from which Kantor makes rather bold proclamations about his purpose and work. Kantor seeks nothing less than to use art as an instrument to fight the oppression and human suffering his work often conveys. His art is pointed, and often sharply political, weighty in content and tone. When asked if he ever doubts his ability to fully convey his intended message, Kantor matter-of-factly responds.

“Twice a day.”

Art is a place for aesthetics, to be sure, but Kantor challenges himself and those who commit themselves to the craft to communicate something much deeper than surface-level attraction: truth. For him, art is not just a place where eyes or ears can be amused; it’s also a place where the mind can be challenged and the spirit uplifted.

For him, art is not just a place where eyes or ears can be amused; it’s also a place where the mind can be challenged and the spirit uplifted.

“If art is real, if art is responsible, it has to pronounce true words,” Kantor intimates. “It has to be evidence of what’s going on. It has to leave us a certain ground of truth on which people must stay.

“This is something that is the difference between art and propaganda. Art says, ‘There is morality.’ Which is not from today. Which is from eternity.”

His rigorous pursuit of truth is part of what led to his selection as a director’s fellow at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Advanced Study (NDIAS), a strategic area for Notre Dame Research committed to augmenting the life of the mind on campus, and beyond, through research, scholarship, and creative endeavor. This is where scholars, scientists, and artists of all kinds pursue their respective research and creative projects as members of an interdisciplinary intellectual community in residence and where they bring knowledge into service of the common good.

Specifically, NDIAS asks its fellows to explore the relationship between the world as it is and the world as it should be, with a charge to improve the human condition through discovery, applied research, or in Kantor’s case, creative expression. Many of Kantor’s pieces focus on the rise of fascism in the 20th century, and he urges people to be wary of history repeating itself. For Kantor, “the world as it should be” is a world in which people have learned from the grave mistakes of the past and avoid the terrible consequences associated with them. It is equal parts intellectual inquiry and social commentary, rooted in a clear perspective of right and wrong that often puts him at odds with scholars in Europe.

“Most of the time in Europe we think in terms of postmodern thinking, which makes all relative. That makes us cynical or very close to cynical. But here at Notre Dame you are brave in making statements of good, which is a very positive feature, and quite rare.

“ … In critical situations, this positive way of thinking is something that may save the world.”

“Some people may say that it leads to a rather simplified character, of still dividing the world in black and white, good guys versus bad guys. But in critical situations, this positive way of thinking, is something that may save the world.”

He offers his work as a way to bring a voice to the human toll of rapid political movements and conflict of this sort, so that his audience may be informed and moved accordingly.

“We all thought that fascism was historically placed,” Kantor says, “but now, today, we are witnesses that fascism is something that is not only an event of the 20th century, it is a kind of disease, which appears from time to time, and there is not a single place that is protected.”

Moreover, he believes the academy has a solemn responsibility when it comes to instruction in this regard.

“I do believe universities should make precise lectures about historical events, how it all went, why it happened like this. Young people should know more and should know precisely, what happened, not only now, but also [in the] last century to be able to compare it,” he says, and by extension, work to choose a path that considers the moral implications of an ever-shifting geopolitical landscape. Should they want for a perspective on these issues, Kantor vows his continued expression.

“I will continue to paint. I will continue to draw. I will continue to write,” he says. “I hope to live long enough and productively enough to defeat fascism and see results of my work.”