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International Socialism, June/July 1969


Robin Fior

Work, Clarity, Organisation


From International Socialism (1st series), No.37, June/July 1969, p.40.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Art and Revolution Ernst Neizvestny and the Role of the Artist in the USSR
John Berger
Weidenfeld & Nicolson 30s / Penguin

The trouble is that Berger has written the wrong book. He has chosen the life and work of the Russian ‘unofficial’ sculptor Ernst Neizvestny to exemplify the condition of the artist in a revolutionary situation – Russia – and the contradiction between what society claims to be and what it is. Berger shows how Neizvestny’s way of working – excluded from official facilities, scrounging for scrap to cast in his home-made furnace, eking a living from private patronage, standing up to Khruschev at the Manege show in November ’62 – expresses his politics by working across the grain of Socialist Realism, obstinately putting down his personal vision of a model for a public reality.

Much of this vision is taken up with maquettes for public monuments that were never put up; but they aren’t successful in their own terms and they couldn’t easily have been, anyhow.

Firstly, because he hadn’t been commissioned and briefed by the appropriate organ. Neizvestny’s ‘solutions’ haven’t been able to grow out of a specific struggle – over a site, a budget, a timetable, let alone a content – for a specific monument. And this is why their evident conviction has not been focussed into an inevitable, tested form. So the resulting rhetoric seems overworked and forced.

Secondly because his choice of a figurative and very ‘personal’ language is only valid in the East for public statement to the extent that such statement has to be made in the context of Socialist Realist Art. Art but not art. Berger points put very clearly what it is: a (ruling-class) naturalism summoned up to endorse the claims of the state, its continuity with, and legitimacy as heir to, the (late 19th century, early capitalist) national culture. In fact it is the graphics of prestige advertising expensively applied to canvas and dressed up in the gilt trappings of state property.

But there is an alternative, revolutionary, artistic tradition in Russia no less fruitful than the political one. The constructivist Naum Cabo in taking ‘4 planes’ to ‘construct with them the same volume as of 4 tons of mass’ was consciously determined to free art from its Forsytian price-tag (’in creating things take away the labels of their owners’) by substituting constructions for the construct. He goes on, in the Realistic Manifesto, 1920 to proclaim:

‘our words to you people. In the squares and on the streets we are placing our work convinced that art must not remain a sanctuary for the idle, a consolation for the weary, and a justification for the lazy. Art should attend us everywhere that life flows and acts – at the bench, at the table, at work, at rest, at play; on working days and holidays; at home and on the road; – in order that the flame to live should not extinguish in mankind.’

These notions of integrating art with society trickled through the Bauhaus and the art schools to become the mainstream philosophy of current innovation in Western art: the celebration of the ordinary or machine object, multiple production, open-ended happenings, auto-destructive and kinetic art – all are attempts to make connections easier and the dealer’s and historian’s roles more difficult (The Art School Revolt of last year centred on the irrelevance of Art History to students evaluating their work in their studios; official art history is invented at the Courtauld Institute, which up till the expansion of art education specialised in training authenticators for Sotheby s and Christie’s). A kinetic piece in the catalogue is changed at the fall of the auctioneer’s hammer: the difference between a live and dead butterfly – it can’t be pinned down.

All this quasi-public activity is still marginal to society. The people concerned in it believe, like Neizvestny, that what they are doing is worth doing, and socialists wouldn’t stop them. The courage of the lone human being standing upright against the world, which Berger sees as crucial to the artist’s role, is presented in this book as a model of and for the people of the third world struggling for national liberation. But they have no choice. The artist has more.

The concept of the artist-engineer, the designer appeared from the constructivist movement, and a more activist wing developed its own identity with an overtly Marxist programme; it declared itself for technicism, but also for taking concrete problems presented by the communist way of life, and the rejection of abstraction: The Collective Art of the Present is Constructive Life (1922) Just as, Edmund Wilson points out, the literature of the revolution is in the writings of Lenin and Trotsky. The best-known of these proto-designers, Tallin moved on from making a splendid ikon – his (model for a) monument for the 3rd International (not quite understood by the Old Man in Literature and Revolution) to designing and making a stove and warm garments; others in the group deprofessionalized themselves and entered industry.

The revolutionary designer’s job turned out to be not so easy. The Marxist architect Hannes Meyer wrote confidently that everything boiled down to the formula Function × Economics. We now have to ask: ‘Whose function? Whose economics?’

Should Neizvestny have to – One supposes not. He persists, like Berger, in hanging onto figuration as the talisman to give access to the people. His science-fiction iconography get him enough response from the scientific intelligentsia to keep him going. And they keep the system going. Revolutionary art isn’t meant to reflect the system, it must change it. As Alexei Gan put it in 1922: Work. Clarity. Organisation.

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