Hundreds of workers gather for the mammoth undertaking of raising the bell from the pit. Men, like ants in black dotted rows, pull at thick ropes while others scurry about the scaffolding, barking orders. The bell is made of brass and silver and was forged in molten fire, but at this critical stage it is nonetheless a frail thing. There remains the fear that it might fall and break. Or, worse, that it won’t ring. The grand prince will behead the bell-maker and his assistants if it does not ring.
I’ve not once thought about where bells come from. Who makes them? What materials go into them? What shape must they take in order to ring? These are questions that, to a bell-maker, are very obviously fundamental. Each human has at their gravitational core a unique cluster of importances. What is inconsequential to one is the very purpose of life for another. A satellite to me, the sun to someone else.
With this in mind, the question of what is and what is not art is difficult to answer. Let us continue with the bell-maker. Let’s assume they are someone who has dedicated their lives to a craft, someone who has with great effort arranged a good deal of themselves around a singular toil. “That is an artist,” we might say of this person. “That is art,” we might say of any one of their bells.
The bellsmith might agree without us having to press the issue. They might think of their output as art, as their practice as something elevated, something sacred. It’s more likely, of course, that they would think of the whole thing as mere life, as their life. In either case, even if we were to agree, we would not think of bellfounding or of art in the same way. We are unlikely to hear a bell, any bell, in the same way they would.
When I’m bored, which is often, I make a game of the notion of art. The rules are simple. Point to anything nearby and ask, “art?” Brick wall. Wood table. Plastic cup. “Art?” Responses range from “absolutely not” to “possibly.” Then I imagine the thing isolated. Then I place it behind a case of glass. I hover a spotlight over it. Add a gawking crowd, why not. And now?
Art is less an object and more an act of the interior: the marshaling of our attention toward a particular sentiment. So then, who is the artist? A conductor? A magician? A tradesman? No one?
Andrei Rublev (1966), a film by renowned director Andrei Tarkovsky, is loosely based on the medieval Russian icon painter’s life. Before it is a biography, it’s a meditation on art, faith, and cruelty. Playing out over ten titled sections like chapters in a book, the film weaves an intricate tapestry depicting the many brutalities that defined the Russia in which Rublev lived.
Among them: a jester is arrested and has a piece of his tongue cut out for joking about the monarchy. Invading Tatars ram down the doors of a church and slaughter those inside, raising swords and slitting throats amid the masterworks of Russian artists that adorn the walls (Mary and Jesus stare impassively down at the carnage below). Rublev is one of the few survivors of the Tartan raid, and he takes a vow of silence in its aftermath, hoping to atone for taking a life while defending a young woman.
Plague, famine, the ruthless power of the state, these bob in and out, at times providing the backdrop for Rublev and at times leaping out to strike. Sometimes the focus abandons Rublev entirely in favor of inspecting the ambient violence. Tarkovsky’s priorities are clear. His canvas is neither Rublev himself nor the vividly rendered atrocities that surround him. It is in the relationship between the two that Tarkosvky finds his material for sculpting. Notably, we see Rublev turning down opportunities to paint more than we see him painting (we see this only once, where he is fiddling with a painting to busy his hands).
One of the most gripping sections of the sprawling opus is The Bell, in which a young man, Boriska, is tasked with creating a colossal bell for the grand prince of Vladimir. When envoys are sent to a plague-stricken village to bring artisans back to the city, they find everyone dead except Boriska, whose father was a bellsmith. Boriska convinces the envoys that his father passed on the secret of bellfounding to him before he died, and successfully begs them to take him to the city to create the bell for the grand prince.
Much of the film is dedicated to pondering the artist’s place in a barbarous world, but The Bell, which comes in at the end, is a punctuation mark on a long sentence. Boriska himself becomes one of Rublev’s icons (or Tarkovsky’s), a figure meant to represent something larger than life—in his case, he is the consummate artist. We are invited to pursue the universal in his story, to seek both ourselves and broader truths.
The truths in The Bell echo those that appear throughout other sections of the film—that the artist is at the mercy of the time they are born to, that the ideal conditions for artistic expression don’t truly exist. The artist works between wars, between famines, between the kaleidoscopic cruelties that have colored the human experience since time immemorial. The artist lives caught between two worlds: the sobering truth of reality, and the fantasia of imagination. The negotiation between the two is always troubled.
Boriska’s bell is a sweaty, perilous undertaking. It should be mentioned that Boriska, who plays up his confidence in his craft to the point of arrogance (he has an insubordinate worker whipped), is a fraud. His father has not actually passed on his secrets of bellfounding. Boriska lied to get out of his plague-stricken village. He makes a show of what knowhow he does possess, hunting publicly and dramatically for the right kind of clay, ordering people around like a dictator, a medieval take on the common trope of the temperamental genius.
Boriska’s deceit makes the moment the bell is finally pulled from the earth all the more fraught. It’s a beautiful object, the image of Saint George and the Dragon, an enduring symbol of Russia and its faith, emblazoned on the front. Even more notable to me are the delicate leafy flourishes around the top, that so small and fine a design could have sprung up from mud and fire.
The grand prince arrives on horseback with Italian ambassadors in tow. The foreigners are eager to see the piece the prince has commissioned, and even more eager to see if it will ring. If it doesn’t, Boriska will be executed. They discuss this within earshot of the young man while a worker swings the clapper. Everyone waits with bated breath for it to strike the side, for the project (the bell itself, the competence of the prince, Boriska’s efforts) to succeed or fail.
It’s a happy result. The bell rings resplendently. The crowd cheers. Calls for celebration are made. Meanwhile, Boriska, whose reward is that the prince may now forget about him, quietly slinks away to a field and collapses into a shuddering heap of sobs. Here, Andrei Rublev finds him. Like the bell, he too makes a sound, breaking his vow of silence to comfort the young smith. “You’ve created such a feast, such a joy for people. Why are you crying?”
Boriska confesses that he lied, that his father did not pass his secrets down to him before his death. I’ve heard a compelling argument that Andrei Rublev is primarily concerned with sin and reward. Through this lens, Boriska is experiencing catharsis from atonement. He admitted the truth, thus relieving his guilt, a very Christian interpretation. He has done his job well, a good deed, and thus fitfully accomplished his penance. The film’s story is, at its core, a Christian one, and Tarkovsky, a Christian.
But I don’t necessarily see a tortured penance in Boriska’s cries, which to me sound less religious and more feral. I see “artist” reduced to “biological machine,” utterly spent from the process of bringing something into the world under great duress. He has narrowly avoided death, made something beautiful and practical (it satisfies its function both as a church bell and in its more important role as an expression of the political power of the grand prince), and now there is nothing left of him.
To me, this is the most compelling portrait of the artist (in the archetypical sense) that Tarkovsky gives us—Rublev cradling a broken Boriska in his arms. Rublev himself struggled with the balance between institutional demands and his art in the film, refusing to depict “The Last Judgment” because he didn’t think paintings should be used to terrify people into submission. Art should transcend the brutal facts of this world, should bring beauty, should inspire instead of intimidate.
Does it? Can it?
“The artist exists because the world is not perfect,” Tarkovsky says in an excerpt from The Poet of the Cinema. “Art would be useless if the world were perfect, as man wouldn’t look for harmony but would simply live in it. Art is born out of an ill-designed world.”
There are no clear answers, and Tarkovsky is uninterested in pretending there are. Boriska’s breakdown isn’t a blunt critique of human nature, an indictment of a world that undervalues beauty, expression, and craftsmanship, a world that sees artists as mere tools to political ends. In the violence that saturates the world of Andrei Rublev, Boriska is both a collaborator and a victim. His work is both art and propaganda. He is simultaneously a fraud and a prodigy.
Every artist is born into a conversation they did not consent to. The notion of the artist as a noble and singular figure distinct from society is a false one. As The Bell demonstrates, the act of creating something, anything, is collaborative. At times, oftentimes, maybe always, violently so.
The artist is a participant, and cannot escape that fact any more than anyone else. Even a soft and beautiful piece reflects an ugly world in some respect (in the film, a group of artists paint a mansion in soft tones, “light as a singing bird,” and the prince then has their eyes gouged out so they cannot make another, similar mansion for his rival, a grim statement on the high value of art and the paradoxical expendability of artists).
In a contemporary world where there is an obsession with rooting out the bad art from the good, in distilling every work down to its base principles so as to more perfectly align it with our own virtues, I have somehow found refuge in Tarkovsky’s gruesome, nuanced take on art and the people who make it, the people who have for one reason or another decided to undertake a process that is at once complex and simple.
It’s not that there is no value in interpreting art through the lens of morality. More that we ought not confuse a specific form of analysis and the truths it yields for the whole truth, truth being unruly, chimeric, and full of contradictions, as with life itself, and as with the artist.
The artist, whose work is overvalued and whose life is undervalued, who is a member of society and a mirror to it, who is like the work they produce a product of savagery and a protest against it. It’s all the same. In the end, in The Bell, there’s just the making, the crying, and, with any luck, the ringing.