Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Art & the October Revolution


Rahul Vaidya

"The Streets are our brushes, the Squares our palettes"-Vladimir Mayakovski

The October Revolution in 1917, USSR and its fall in 1991 have all become part of a history which seems far too distant. The world has changed beyond recognition over past couple of decades with financial globalization, technological advance of internet and social networks, fundamentalist terror and rising far-Right forces, especially in the wake of financial crisis that broke out in 2008. The all pervading sense of euphoria around the dictum ‘There is no alternative’ to liberal capitalism after fall of USSR has been replaced by a fear that the only alternative would be ‘end of the world’ in climatic or terrorist catastrophe. And ironically, this dystopian fear sums up the state of our ideological universe. Fredric Jameson hence had once remarked ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism’ which points to a resigned, cynical and almost fatalist acceptance of capitalist mode of production. 


However, if one refuses to share the such nightmarish vision of dystopian ‘end times’[1], one must be able to conjure up visions of an alternative- to transcend the bounds of ruling ideology and class power and build the struggle for social transformation. For this, any Leftist political vision must have utopia and imagination to transcend the ‘immediate’. And it is this commitment to modernity i.e. to change and challenge the material reality which forms an organic bond between Marxism and various modernist art movements which arose in Europe and elsewhere from late 19th century onwards.

Marxism and modern art- an organic, yet a complex relationship
It will be important to situate the Soviet art and October revolution in this wider backdrop. Technological changes like telephone, airplane etc., and democratization of art forms meant radical changes in popular perception of what constituted art. What is more, these radical changes were in direct contradiction with decadent bourgeoisie culture of 19th century as well as its elitist prescriptive norms which often overlapped the feudal aristocratic ones. Since ‘social democrats and the artistic and cultural avant-garde were both outsiders, opposed to and by bourgeois orthodoxy; not to mention the youth and, quite often, the relative poverty of many members of avant-garde and boheme’[2]; the Left and these artistic movements overlapped often. Bernard Shaw was himself a socialist activist, literary man, critic, and champion of avant-garde in arts and drama. Similarly Zola in France was a socialist writer and his Naturalism in literature, Great Russian novelists like Dostoevsky, Tolstoi, and Gorki were enthusiastically welcomed in Marxist circles.

Visual arts understandably were accorded much more importance by Marxists and these arts also had been influenced by Marxist thought. The British Arts & Crafts movement by William Morris protested ‘against the reduction of the creative worker-craftsman into a mere ‘operative’ by capitalist industry’[3]. Architecture was influenced too- Bauhaus, the most ambitious modern art project in 1920s & 30s Germany, was formed in the shadow of a potential Marxist revolution. ‘The original Bauhaus adherents looked to the Arts and Crafts tradition, itself inspired by the older utopian socialism of people like Owen and Fourier, who believed that they could dream up elegantly designed communal schemes, islands of unalienated labor in a capitalist world’. Despite failure of German revolution of 1918, Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius had become head of the architect-led Working Council on the Arts in February 1919, which issued an "Appeal to the Artists of All Countries." Surrealism, cubism, Dadaism etc. in paintings which emerged in 20th century was met with mixed reception from Marxists- and artists were criticized for developing a bourgeois fetish for ‘formalist’ experiments. However, Picasso became member of French Communist party despite such Marxist criticism in the wake of role of communists in Spanish civil war and anti-Fascist struggle in France. Writers like Romain Rolland were fascinated with Socialist experiment of USSR. Charlie Chaplin, Sartre, Breton were fellow-travelers or even members of Communist parties. In short, it was a continuing partnership of anarchist rebellion and communism in a shared project of modernity.    

Sure, the Marxist take on art sought to emphasize the primacy of ‘content’ over ‘form’ throughout this period. However, the modernist art of the period was also aspiring to radicalize the content through its staunch critique of decadent bourgeois culture- both form and content. It also emphasized the function over form in its experimentations, and didn’t always get stuck into mere formalism for the sake of pursuing commercial ‘fashion’. In short, the anarchist and communist political as well as artistic currents criss-crossed and formed an enriching modern culture aimed at shaping a better future.

The Russian Avant-garde and October Revolution
It was a similar organic linkage between modern art and revolutionaries in Russia as well. The idea of Revolution itself excited every single creative mind, so to say. ‘Millennialists, avant-gardists, and utopian dreamers of every sort were eager to interpret the revolutionary future as their own. Bolshevism needed to speak for all of these people, structuring their desires inside a historical continuum that, at the same time, contained their force’[4].

Russian avant-garde flourished from 1890 to 1930. ‘During the years 1915-32, Moscow and Petrograd (from 1924, Leningrad) witnessed revolutions in art and politics that changed the course of Modernist art and modern history. Though the great  revolution in art — the radical formal innovations constituted by  Vladimir Tatlin's "material assemblages" and Kazimir Malevich's Suprematism — in fact preceded the political revolution by several  years, the full weight of the new expressive possibilities was felt only  after, and to a large extent because of, the social upheavals of February  and October 1917. As avant-garde artists, armed with new insights into form and materials, sought to realize the Utopian aims of the  Bolshevik Revolution, art and life seemed to merge’.

Avant-gardism was a Universalist and modern project. What was novel about Russsian avant-garde was it also sought to be populist and proletarian—spearheaded by such experimental artists as filmmaker Dziga Vertov, poet, futurist actor, and artist Vladimir Mayakovski, and “suprematist” painter Kazimir Malevich. The nascent Communist state after 1917 produced some of the most forward-thinking art, music, dance, and film the world had yet seen. And this state had assumed a responsibility hitherto no modern state had undertaken- it had to educate its people out of their backwardness, organize them, modernize them and at the same time ensure creative freedom not stifled by demands of emerging propaganda apparatus and its industry-like venture. For a great part of 1920s till 1930s, the USSR admirably achieved glorious success on these counts.

The political demand for representation of new material reality, visions of a new society meant change in the content of art itself. The industrial working class, peasantry, their life struggles had to become part of the post-revolutionary art and aesthetic: both as propaganda as well as its function of unifying the life-worlds of artist and the subject. For this purpose, ‘Proletkult’ was founded in 1917 under A. Bogdanov. This organization, a federation of local cultural societies and avant-garde artists, was most prominent in the visual, literary, and dramatic fields. However, it is Lunacharsky, first Soviet People's Commissar of Education responsible for culture and education who succeeded in merging the aesthetic aspirations of avant-garde and modern artists of the day with the emerging socialist culture which needed elaboration and grounding in popular perception. Lunacharsky wrote copiously. He wrote quite a few articles on various questions of classical and contemporary literature, painting, music and sculpture. He wrote a series of lectures on the history of Russian and West European literature, works on literary and aesthetical problems, papers on the most important problems of contemporary art and politics, brilliant essays. Especially his work ‘On Literature and Art’ is quite illuminating and instructive of how this tension between artists and Marxist social criticism needs to remain alive for creative art and a modern proletarian culture.        
 
One example of ‘formal’ success of this period is quite interesting: an avant-garde Soviet composer, Arseny Avraamov, became inspired by the advent of sound recording technology in film. He played with an audio track recorded on a separate negative running parallel with the film. Bauhaus artist László Moholy-Nagy claimed that with this technology, “a whole new world of abstract sound could be created from experimentation with the optical film sound track.” A whole new world of abstract sound indeed: it is some of the world’s first synthetic sounds ever created, predating synthesizers by a good 20 years.

While their contributions were considerable in many areas, it will worth to dwell over three distinguishing markers of Soviet art: montage in cinema, constructivist architecture and posters.

Soviet Montage in cinema: complete collapse of Tsarist cinema, shortage of film stock after the February revolution, and civil war after October revolution meant extreme difficulties for film makers in Soviet Russia. However, loss of most of the human and material resources of Tsarist cinema led to an extraordinary development of Soviet cinema, particularly “montage cinema” with principal film-makers like Lev Kuleshov, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. This cinema was consciously political and agitational cinema as witnessed in Eisenstein’s classics like ‘Strike!’ or ‘Battleship Potemkin’ which won worldwide acclaim.

          (a still from Eisenstein’s film ‘Strike’)

‘Most modern films follow the ‘continuity system’ (Putting it together) so that viewers get caught up in the story and don’t notice the filmmaking. Soviet montage is completely different and offers lots of ways of giving your films impact and making the viewer think about your ideas’[5]. ‘Eisenstein also had the more general ambition of achieving a “synthesis of art and science” in his films, which would unite the emotional and intellectual effects of montage in an indissoluble unity’ (Eisenstein 1977:62-63)

The parallels here with later day Brechtian meditation on alienation as well as didactic theatre are quite obvious. Also illuminating is the technical success achieved through montage technique was on the backdrop of the complete backwardness of Soviet then as well as scarcity of resources. However, the overriding factor was a productive merger of political vision & project of emancipation with technical tools for agitation, instruction and propaganda. The social and educational backwardness of Russia that time meant cinema and such visual means had to perform not just the role of political persuasion but also education. In a sense, it was a task of ‘preparing the people for a cultural revolution’ and transition to socialism.  

Russian Constructivism was ‘the most radical, intense, ambitious and ultimately tragic design movement of the last century. Through the 1920s the Constructivists developed a radical new architecture, revolutionized graphic design, film and photography, and pioneered design styles for the mass production techniques made possible by new technology. All of this was inspired by a utopian vision: design had nothing to do with subjective artistic expression, it was thoroughly public, and thoroughly political, an instrument for the building of a new Soviet utopia’.

Especially noteworthy is the Constructivist architecture. Tatlin and many others of this movement envisioned architecture as a cosmopolitan, modern space accessible to everyone- thus they insisted on industrial level production of their designs and not pure art. The worker-clubs which were set up after the revolution symbolized this modernist, utopian aspiration. A central aim of the Constructivists was instilling the avant-garde in everyday life. Hence, from 1927 they worked on projects for Workers' Clubs, communal leisure facilities usually built in factory districts.

               (Melnikov's Rushakov workers club, he described it as a ‘tensed muscle’)

The inspiration of these experiments was depiction of new emerging reality of Soviet experiment of New Man and everyday life as well as providing ambition for their future development. Modernist Architecture via public space and shapes aspired to build a cosmopolitan Soviet culture.

Soviet posters-Soviet Posters perhaps remain the most visible and lasting memories of art of this period. As mentioned earlier, it was a major task for the revolution to make workers and peasants conscious of meaning of Bolshevik revolution, educate them, and prepare them into envisioning a new society. They needed new heroic models that could be comprehended and interpreted at once, models that were able to forge their emerging subjectivity. Posters played a major role in this propaganda-art. It is quite interesting however to note how this propaganda wasn’t a stale and mechanistic reproduction of political goals but their innovative integration into modern forms of painting and designing which were heavily influenced by movements and trends like dadaism, futurism, constructivism, surrealism etc.

(Liberated woman – build up socialism! – 1926)

‘The socialist version of femininity was replacing the bourgeois aesthetic with a new perception: The dominant element in the process of constructing socialist female identity was not gender, but class’[6] was captured well in this poster as women’s liberation could be achieved only through their participation in working class.

Also prominent was the muscular image of workers, peasants, soldiers, and women which sought to celebrate them as new hero of society in the place of religious icons or feudal heroes.


(‘We destroyed our enemy with weapons, we will earn our bread with labor- Comrades, roll up your sleeves for work!’- poster by Nikolai Kogout, 1920) 

Socialist Realism and retreat of Soviet avant-garde art
Soviet Avant-garde productions in art forms like literature, theatre and painting received limited popular reception due to backward cultural condition of working class and peasantry. These artistic vistas were hitherto not open to them. They were suddenly exposed to this cosmopolitan imaginary which needed training and education. The tendency of proletkult under Bogdanov hence was to adopt an alternative route towards culture- celebration of working class life as it is- in material and cultural terms. Proletkult tended to be more realist and “heroic” in its representation of workers, Bolshevik leaders, and revolutionary battle scenes. They developed a fetish of ‘working class culture’ for which Lenin had criticized them. He had maintained that ‘Marxism has won its historic significance as the ideology of the revolutionary proletariat because, far from rejecting the most valuable achievements of the bourgeois epoch, it has, on the contrary, assimilated and refashioned everything of value in the more than two thousand years of the development of human thought and culture’.

However, during the 1930s, the historicist tendencies prevailed within the USSR under Stalin which proclaimed a unilinear growth of history and preference for realism. ‘Proletkult and proletarian art merged with elements of a strange brand of monumentalist avant-gardism, and this led to the Stalinist synthesis of Socialist realism’[7].

Zhdanov defined Socialist realism in Soviet Writers Congress of 1934. He told that ‘As engineers of human souls, writers  knowing life so as to be able to depict it truthfully in works of art, not to depict it in a dead, scholastic way, not simply as “objective reality,” but to depict reality in its revolutionary development. Revolutionary romanticism should enter into literary creation as a component part’[8]

Practically it meant denunciation of avant-garde art and return to conservative forms of art which was ‘intelligible’ to workers. Practice of creative artist as an artisan in studio was now seen to be a bourgeois, individualistic deviant one, which was replaced with bureaucratic norms of industrial production. Certainly it didn’t mean trampling down all artistic efforts in USSR- but the possibilities of avant-garde, ‘through an open temporality, of an ungoverned cultural revolution as the path to a new society became one of the dead ends of history’[9].

In proviso of Conclusion
The relationship between art and politics, specifically the Left politics and post-revolutionary world has remained a complex one as we have already seen. In fact, the leading figures of Frankfurt school such as Brecht, Luckacs, Bloch, Benjamin & Adorno engaged in passionate polemics over this question of what constituted good art. Realism versus expressionism, futurism, content over form, and individuality versus collective- the dialectical tensions of these debates continue to inform the literary and cultural studies even today.

Lacan maintained that ‘a true Event not only retroactively changes the rules of the symbolic place; it also disturbs the underlying fantasy’. October revolution was such an ‘Event’ in human history which disturbed and reshaped the underlying fantasies of the existing art. Soviet avant-garde was a creative expression of the utopian vision of a better collective future. Artists fearlessly experimented and were encouraged by the Soviet State. What is more, these artists didn’t seek to revel in individualistic feelings and ‘express the inner world of emotion rather than external reality’ like expressionist art elsewhere in Europe at that time but sought to participate in the collective utopian social transformation and provide a modern, cosmopolitan formal shape to this modern vision for society. It was a true synthesis of content and form. It was a true merger of modernity in politics with modernity in art.  The Left today needs to reclaim, recapture this synthesis of modernity in art and politics to envision new utopias for the future.


Notes and References 

[1] Would like to invoke here a book by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek named ‘Living in the End Times’- Žižek shows the cultural and political forms of ideological avoidance and political protest, from New Age obscurantism to violent religious fundamentalism and Concludes with a compelling argument for the return of a Marxian critique of political economy.
[2] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘How to change the world’, pg. 246
[3] Ibid. pg.249
[4] Susan Buck-Morss- ‘Revolutionary Art: The Bolshevik Experience’ pg. 5
[6]  Syrago Tsiara, ‘Utopia and Reality in the Art of the October Revolution’ pg.7 
[9] Susan Buck-Morss- ‘Revolutionary Art: The Bolshevik Experience’ pg. 13

The Author is an Interdependent Researcher based in Delhi 

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