Not by wrath does one kill, but by laughter.
— Friedrich Nietzsche
One of the many gifts social media has presented us with is a new wealth of opportunities to appreciate the sick burn — a reply to a tweet that is meant to render its recipient silent, impotent, and publicly shamed — or butthurt, as they say.
The sick burn as an art form must be as old as language itself. No one, I think, would be surprised if anthropologists discovered that the first words that came out of human mouths were “fuck you,” immediately followed by the ur-riposte, “No, fuck you!” But within the longue durée of the spiteful taunt and the sneering comeback, some extraordinary moments stand out. One of those occurred about 350 years ago, at the edge of a battlefield on the plains of what is now southern Ukraine. It is a moment that inspired one of the world’s most famous and misunderstood history paintings, a sort of Oath of the Horatii – but different, and better, and Russian.
It took Ilya Repin eleven years to complete the painting, which he did in 1891. Known in the West by the ungainly title, Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire, in Russia, it is known simply as Запорожцы, or The Zaporozhians. It is as important in Russia as, say, Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware is here in the United States. Each image conjures a based-on-a-true-story legend, a defining moment in a national creation myth, a tale of imminent victory over an existential threat. Each image is etched into the collective, national mind.
Repin’s painting is not historically accurate, but no history paintings are. Instead, history paintings, for all their realism and detail, are essentially abstract paintings. They are not simply descriptions of grand events. They are expressions of a collective metaphysics — abstract qualities of identity and being that define some celebrated aspect of a nation’s character. Each history painting is an assertion of civic virtue, of common moral qualities that have the power to transform individuals into citizens, and countries into nations. Histories describe a country’s events and politics, history paintings describe a nation’s soul. Through The Oath of the Horatii, Jacques-Louis David tells us about the honor of the French moral ideal of fraternité, Leutz does the same for American resolve. Repin shows us the Russian happy warrior.
Repin’s painting depicts a rough bunch of exuberantly mustachioed Cossacks crowded around a rough-hewn wooden table, displaying a species of fraternité somewhat less refined than David’s, and displaying far less dread than Washington’s men do as they row their boat. The year is 1678, the location is the Ukrainian steppe. Hatless heads are shaved but for topknots, and the scene teems with detail: swords and muskets, powder horns and bayonets; these men are armed to the teeth, which appear to be missing in some cases. One is shirtless, some are cloaked in brocade (that’s Taras Bulba, Gogol’s fictional Cossack hero, decked out in red), still others in rags. A war-dog glowers, hunched on the ground. Playing cards are stacked on the table, and a bandura rests on one warrior’s lap. Despite the Ottoman invasion swirling around them, these men don’t seem to have a care in the world. Vodka is out, the men are smoking, and all of them are in various stages of laughing their asses off. One of them looks out to us, in mid-guffaw, and points back to the horizon and the gun-smoke where the rest of the Cossack army is busy crushing the Sultan’s invaders.
Near the center leans Ivan Sirko, leader of the Cossacks, pipe in hand, caught in a moment of a vicious contemplation. The fight against the Ottoman army is going quite well, but in the midst of it, as the story goes, he received a peculiar letter from the Sultan. It read:
I, the Sultan, son of Muhammad, brother of the sun and moon; grandson and viceroy of God, sovereign of all kingdoms: of Macedonia, Babylonia and Jerusalem, of Upper and Lower Egypt; king of kings; ruler of all that exists; extraordinary, invincible knight; constant guardian of the grave of Jesus Christ; trustee of God Himself; the hope and comfort of Muslims; confusion and great protector of Christians, command you, the Zaporozhian Cossacks, to surrender to me voluntarily and without any kind of resistance, and don’t permit yourselves to trouble me with your attacks!
— Turkish Sultan Mohamed1Linguist Victor A. Friedman’s translation available here.
Sirko is composing his reply to the Sultan’s demand for total surrender, dictating it to a runaway seminarian, pressed into service, no doubt, because his pen and letters, in this circumstance, are a mightier — or at least a more entertaining — weapon than Sirko’s sword.
Sirko and his men replied to the Sultan with this:
You Turkish Satan, brother and crony of the accursed Devil, scribe to Lucifer’s himself. Your army gobbles the Devil’s shit. You call yourself a knight, but you couldn’t kill a hedgehog if your life depended on it! You couldn’t rule over the sons of Christ if you tried! We don’t fear the likes of you, and we’ll fight you anywhere, land or sea. You Babylonian busboy, you Macedonian tinker, you Jerusalemite beerboy, you Alexandrian goatfucker, hogherd of Upper and Lower Egypt, you Armenian swine, you Tatar buggeree, hangman from Kamenets, Podolian bandit, spawn of the Evil Snake, fool of the entire world, and underworld as well. Idiot before God! Hog’s nose, mare’s asshole, slaughterhouse dog. Take your heathen’s unchristened brow back home and go fuck your mother!
There’s your reply, numbnuts! We don’t care what day it is, and the year is in God’s hands, but today the same sun shines on us as it does you, so what are you waiting for, come on and kiss our Cossack asses!
— Chief Hetman Ivan Sirko and the entire Zaporozhian Cossack Host.2There are several versions of this letter floating around, some expurgated, others not. I’ve relied on Victor A. Friedman’s analysis available here, and Russian and Ukrainian versions, wordlists and translation tips easily found online, but any faults with this translation are mine. Friedman’s translation is, of course, scholarly and literal, but my goal here was to offer a more colloquial and conceptual translation that captures the snide, insulting, and profane character of the Russian/Ukrainian original. (Although the whole tale is apocryphal, there really is no “original.”) I hope to have captured the full Cossack spirit of the letter, taking into account all versions as the letter morphs its way through time.
It’s a Western art historical commonplace that Repin’s quote-unquote Realism is a sort of late, out-of-step ripoff of French Realism that began fifty years earlier, as if the Russians couldn’t have creative ideas of their own and resorted to stealing the Western idea of Realism just as it was going out of fashion with the sophisticates in Paris. This is an idea that pervades Western art history and persists to this day.
Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth, and this Cossack painting can be read — was meant to be read — as a reply to this sort of Western arrogance and cultural narcissism.
Repin, Ukrainian by birth, was a prominent member of a group of intellectuals, artists, academics, ethnologists, archaeologists, folklorists, critics, and poets who rejected Western influence on Russian culture. Beginning in the 1830s, the Slavophiles were determined to define a Slavic culture radically distinct and separate from Western Europe, and they looked to history and prehistory, folklore, the Russian’s relationship to the Earth and land, church architecture, and especially Orthodox Christianity for models and moral values from which to mold a Slavic worldview. Politics, as they say, runs downstream from culture, and in the mid-nineteenth century, the Pan-Slavic movement materialized — a political and ideological effort to unite all Slavic people under one, gigantic Slavic nation — decades before the Soviet empire was imagined. Panslavist politics rose as the Ottoman Empire was in slow decline, in the shadow of the losses of the Crimean War, and in reaction to Western interventions and during a period of domestic unrest. As they turned away from the West, Russian Slavophiles were at the vanguard of radical identity politics, which, like any identity politics, is a kind of nationalism of the mind.
Amidst the tumult of the late nineteenth century in Russia, the Slavophiles found refuge and fellowship at Abramtsevo, a country estate, retreat, and artists’ colony located forty miles north of Moscow. The estate was owned by a railroad magnate named Savva Mamontov and his wife, Elizaveta, both fierce patrons of the arts. Abramtsevo was more than just an artists’ colony. It was a cultural engine, an artistic DIY enterprise that flourished for decades and attracted not only writers like Gogol and Tolstoy, but Slavophiles of every stripe: scholars, writers, craftsmen, and artists. Generations of artists flocked to Abramtsevo, exchanging ideas and providing cultural continuity as new generations of artists emerged. The entire late nineteenth century and fin-de-siècle Russian artistic pantheon came though at one point or another and made Abramtsevo a hive of creation. Repin was a frequent visitor, and he completed several major paintings while visiting there. The Slavophile nationalism of the mind was put into cultural production. Things were made. Painting, crafts, music, theater, literature, poetry, Orthodox theology, politics and architecture converged in this corner of the Russian countryside, and amazing things happened. The radical strategies of the Russian avant-garde actually formed here in Abramtsevo through continuity with the past and a turn from the West, not, as it is commonly taught in the West, born in the crucible and rupture of revolution.3The two-volume undergraduate art history textbook/manifesto, Art Since 1900, written by Rosalind Krauss, Benjamin Buchloh, David Joselit, and Hal Foster would be Exhibit #1 in support of this very American view of Russian culture.
In this Slavophile milieu, Repin met fellow Ukrainian Dmytro Yavornytsky, a now-famous historian, ethnographer, antiquarian and folklorist who was, and, through his work, still is, the foremost authority on the Zaporozhian Cossacks. He dedicated his life to the study of this culture, he wrote a four-volume history, suppressed under both the Czar and the Soviets as the work of a suspected Ukranian separatist, and he amassed a significant collection of Cossack artifacts and antiquities. Repin and Yavornytsky became fast friends, and Yavornytsky’s research, collection, and encyclopedic knowledge of Cossack culture was invaluable to Repin as he worked on the painting. It was Yavornytsky who came across an old copy of the Zaporozhian letter to the Sultan, and related the story to Repin, and the pair traveled together to southern Ukraine, Yavornytsky to research, Repin to sketch. The guns, the swords, the vodka bottle, and even the shoes are faithful renditions of objects from Yavornytsky’s collection. Thanks to him, Repin’s painting is materially accurate down to the last exquisite detail.
Except for one thing. The Cossacks — they’re not Cossacks at all, not really. Most of the warriors gathered around that table are members of the cultural elite of 1880s Saint Petersburg. Repin populated the painting with portraits of a professor of the Imperial Academy of Arts, a Russian general freshly famous for a recent victory over the Turks, two members of nobility, several artists, a musicologist, and a noted dramaturge. Even Igor Stravinsky’s father, an opera singer, makes an appearance. Repin’s message becomes clear, and becomes contemporary; the new Slavophile barbarians are the same as the old ones. Saint Petersburg’s cultural elite are the new — contemporary — Cossacks. Repin makes them happy warriors. He represents them as defenders of Russian culture in the face of unwanted invasions and sad attempts of cultural conquest — and they are having fun doing so. This is not a history painting at all, but a masquerade — contemporary art in the guise of history.
By making this event both contemporary and historic, Repin engages in a bit of painterly legerdemain — he folds time onto itself. History, Repin suggests, is not linear, but cyclical. History repeats itself, just as Nietzsche told us it does. History is the story of the endless repetition of human failure, and laughter is the only rational response to the bleak, cyclical, endless comedy of human error that we all find ourselves in. A joyful acceptance of Nietzsche’s eternal return, a laughing response to this cosmic joke, lives in the heart of every happy warrior.
American critics and art historians almost always get Russian art wrong. For example, in his seminal 1939 essay, Avant-Garde and Kitsch, critic Clement Greenberg calls out Repin by name. Political revolution, according to Greenberg, breeds revolutionary art, but, somehow paradoxically, the avant-garde also spawns its nemesis, a reactionary lowbrow pablum-art meant to soothe the urban poor: advertisements, Hollywood movies, Tin Pan Alley, tap dancing, comics all fall into the category of non-art Greenberg christens kitsch. But kitsch is a global phenomenon, knowing and respecting no borders, and it turns out that the Soviet Union had been drowning in kitsch from the start! The Soviets conditioned their ignorant masses to appreciate propagandistic films and socialist realist pap. Taste, for Greenberg, has nothing to do with aesthetics, nor is it a political value — it is, instead, a moral one. The Soviets, by embracing kitsch, have destroyed the moral fiber of their people by erasing the distinction between art that is good, and art that is bad.
In the pages of his essay, Greenberg actually concocts out of his imagination the “evidence” he needs to prove his theory. He imagines an ignorant Russian Peasant and a refined Western Modernist standing before a Picasso painting and a battle scene painted by Repin. The Picasso, an unspecified portrait of a woman, “reminds [the Russian Peasant] somewhat of the icons he has left behind him in the village, and he feels the attraction of the familiar.”4Greenberg, Clement. “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” in Art and Culture: Critical Essays. Beacon Press: Boston. 1989. 14. But Repin’s battle scene, to this imaginary-Russian-peasant-that-somehow-lives-inside-Clement-Greenberg’s-brain, is miraculous! It is so real! Picasso and the icons are bare and austere, but this battle scene is like life itself. Look at the sunset, the explosions, the running and falling men! In Greenberg’s “Western Modernist” versus “Russian Peasant” fever-dream, only the make-believe Modernist has the natural superior ability to understand Picasso’s genius. He is, according to Greenberg, a “spectator sensitive enough to react sufficiently” by projecting his own inborn miraculousness into the Picasso painting, and then being spiritually moved by his own reflection. The uncultured dreamed-up Russian Peasant is a lesser being, handicapped by his own lack of internal miraculousness, unable to see that nonexistent miraculousness reflected back to him through Picasso’s magic cubist mirror. So Repin, who instinctually knows this, necessarily, “predigests” art for his ignorant Peasant beholder. Repin tells him a simple story, and “provides him with a short cut to the pleasure of art that detours what is necessarily difficult in genuine art.”5Greenberg, 15. For Greenberg, Repin is the ultimate perpetrator of bad art, false art, and immoral art, art for peasants — all rolled into an old, now familiar, Greenbergian ball called kitsch. This essay, this one!, is still held up to art history students as a culturally important example of exemplary critical thought!6See Art Since 1900, Vol. I.
In 1972, thirty-three years after he published Avant-Garde and Kitsch, Greenberg added a short postscript to the essay:
P.S. To my dismay I learned years after this [essay] saw print that Repin never painted a battle scene; he wasn’t that kind of painter. I had attributed some one else’s picture to him. That showed my provincialism with regard to Russian art in the nineteenth century. 
— Clement Greenberg. Postscript to his essay, Avant-garde and Kitsch.7Greenberg. 21.
One of the fundamental and debilitating failings of art history is the arrogance of anthropomorphism. Art history imagines art that goes through time like we do, on a single, progressive, temporal path. Humans are subject to the depredations of time, and so too must be their little creations. Art historical “movements” are conceived, born, mature and wither away, and then replaced by the next. Art historians construct a genealogy of style, and in the process of producing this grand story of begetting, they cut out the problem children, the ones that make their job difficult and complicated — the bastards, the orphans, the ungrateful, and the miraculous.
Art doesn’t work like that. Art exists in an evanescent present, and as a product of a certain time and place. But art is always looking back and always looking forward, ever folding time on itself. Repin knows this and explicitly places his contemporary painting in the historical past, and using a style, a sort of mystical realism that belongs to no other place or time than his. Repin is as surely a product of Abramtsevo as Andy Warhol is of New York.
Repin’s painting does not belong to a single point in time — not 1891 when he finished it, not 1678 when Sirko and the Sultan exchanged billets-doux, and it does not, entirely, belong to our present moment. Repin’s painting, like all art, is temporally destabilizing. And so Repin provides an ex ante reply to the criticism Greenberg offered in 1939, and can still tell us something in 2018, if we are willing to listen. This, I believe, is the difficult work art demands of us.
As I look at Repin’s painting, I think about Nietzsche’s words. “Not by wrath does one kill,” his Zarathustra tells us, “but by laughter.” Repin’s Cossacks know this. I flip through my copy of Zarathustra, and discover Nietzsche’s book and Repin’s painting, after nearly a decade of work from both of them, were each finished in 1891. Zarathustra and the Запорожцы are exactly contemporaneous statements. Their makers separated, perhaps, by a few hundred miles. (And Nietzsche always identified as a Slav, not as a German.)
Nietzsche describes the perverse joy of ugliness, the libidinal excess of destruction. He tells us resistance is the strategy of slaves. He also tells us laughter is the true wrecker. Yes, Repin’s Cossacks know all about this, but so do the happy warriors of our age. Like a nauseating carnival ride, the eternal return returns.
I’m sure President Trump has no idea who Nietzsche or Repin are, but there is more than a little Zaporozhian Cossack in him. There is no nadir to his offense, no bottom to his vulgarity, and each one of his tweets — if only faintly — echos that famous Cossack letter. Somewhere in the depths of his soul, he, just like Ivan Sirko, knows Nietzsche’s laughter. Twitter is his instrument, and he plays the sick burn with the joy of an ugly, tinhorn maestro.
But it’s not just Trump, it’s all of us. If we are living through an age that is more Nietzschean than contemporary Americans are accustomed to, each taunting, mocking tweet, each encouraging, clicked-on “heart,” each repost, and each righteous chuckle simply fans the flames of a kind of schoolboy nihilism. Twitter lets us play-act Cossack, but this modern kind of sick burn is little more than a child’s game. We are not strong enough, not brave enough, not honest enough to thrive in Nietzsche’s world, and there are real Cossacks out there.
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Linguist Victor A. Friedman’s translation available here.|
|2.||↑||There are several versions of this letter floating around, some expurgated, others not. I’ve relied on Victor A. Friedman’s analysis available here, and Russian and Ukrainian versions, wordlists and translation tips easily found online, but any faults with this translation are mine. Friedman’s translation is, of course, scholarly and literal, but my goal here was to offer a more colloquial and conceptual translation that captures the snide, insulting, and profane character of the Russian/Ukrainian original. (Although the whole tale is apocryphal, there really is no “original.”) I hope to have captured the full Cossack spirit of the letter, taking into account all versions as the letter morphs its way through time.|
|3.||↑||The two-volume undergraduate art history textbook/manifesto, Art Since 1900, written by Rosalind Krauss, Benjamin Buchloh, David Joselit, and Hal Foster would be Exhibit #1 in support of this very American view of Russian culture.|
|4.||↑||Greenberg, Clement. “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” in Art and Culture: Critical Essays. Beacon Press: Boston. 1989. 14.|
|6.||↑||See Art Since 1900, Vol. I.|