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New International, October 1938


Edna Margolin

Art by Ukase

From New International, Vol.4 No.10, October 1938, pp.315-316.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Seven Soviet Arts
by Kurt London
381 pp. New Haven. Yale University Press.

There have been innumerable books and articles on Soviet art, most of them definitely prejudiced, favorably or otherwise. So few of them have been genuinely objective that Kurt London’s book, while presenting little that is not familiar, is most welcome.

It is a quite successful effort to examine the condition of art in all its branches after twenty years of the revolution. Of course, such an ambitious purpose requires a generalized treatment rather than a detailed review. Wherever possible, Mr. London offers the latest statistics, gives the sources of his information and names persons whom he quotes, so that the reader is given the impression of reliable reporting.

He cannot by any means be called a Stalinist or a Trotskyist, but is simply a detached liberal, and proud to be one. Frequently he is at a loss to explain various circumstances in terms of politics although he is aware that the underlying factors are political. He realizes that the bureaucracy maintains a deathly control over the arts, but, having no Marxian interest in Russia, he is unable to discern its motives for the enslavement of art.

Without doubt no country in the world or in all history has instituted so wide and far-reaching a cultural program and accomplished as much of it as the Soviet Union. Its first task was to abolish illiteracy; a truly marvelous achievement, for today the ability to read and write is almost universal. Then, on the entirely correct theory that the proletariat enjoys art in all its forms, an astounding number of libraries, theatres, museums, and concert and opera halls have been built and are being used eagerly in all of the Soviet Republics. The Central Art Committee, the chief cultural organization, has set up subsidiary bureaus with the result that the entire Union participates in the output of Soviet art.

Such a set-up would be admirable (and is, when one considers it quantitatively) if artistic freedom and high standards were as eagerly furthered. However, today there is no single activity in the USSR which is independent of bare politics. Art, far from being an exception, must genuflect and wait on the new “line”. And when an artist is slow to apprehend, or through conspiracy is not informed of the change, he is in a very bad way. He is denounced editorially, his friends and comrades dissociate themselves from him (which is, perhaps not entirely reprehensible, since they and their dependents would suffer swift vengeance for their defiance), and he is, of course, deprived of any opportunity to make his livelihood.

Today the new esthetic line is Socialist Realism. After a good many of Russia’s outstanding artists were unexpectedly tossed up and around, for alleged artistic disorders (naturalism, formalism, Western-ism, and lots of others), a delegation of writers and critics visited Stalin and promised that henceforth the approach to art would be based on realism.

He replied: “Say, rather, Socialist Realism.”

And so it came about. To nobody’s surprise, one detail was ignored: the name for the new esthetic was delivered from on high without any definition or clue for its meaning. The various artist and critics’ organizations still hold meetings and conferences to discuss it, but the answer is never determined. They know that it is not formalism, naturalism, leftism, Westernism, nor is it bourgeois, diversionist, deviationist, Trotskyist, Bukharinist, etc., because those are the names Pravda gives to a work of art when it is denounced for not conforming to Socialist Realism.

A reasonable assumption is that it will never receive a precise and definitive description because, unformulated, it makes a better weapon against those who fall from grace. It can be woven to fit any figure.

It is not difficult to understand why “leftism” in art is repudiated. That is in line with the current bourgeois direction of the Comintern. Also, in line with its social patriotic policy is the condemnation of “Westernism”. And since it still carries on in proletarian terminology, to label undesirable art as “bourgeois” is easy enough. The reputation of Trotsky and Bukharin with the Kremlin makes the application of such terms as “diversionist” and “deviationist” a natural for unpopular art.

But out of all these critical epithets, only two validly pertain to art, namely, formalism and naturalism.

In the West naturalism had its highly significant day in art when it represented the rebellion against concealment, understatement and the genteelizing of the bare facts of life. And while the question of naturalism is no longer a clarion call to do battle with the philistines, its tremendous value to art cannot be underestimated. Curiously enough, those artists who came into favor on the fall of the last batch are also naturalists. In fact, if there is any single art style indigenous to Russia, it is naturalism. (Pravda uses the word with so little comprehension – the typical politician blundering about in art.)

Gorky, whom the Executive Committee of the Comintern called “the greatest writer of the proletariat”, was a naturalist. Those Russian and European artists who are considered the “classics” in the USSR, Chekhov, Andreyev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Moussorgsky, Zola, Sherwood Anderson, Dreiser, were all naturalists.

Naturalism today seems such an innocuous issue that it is difficult to understand its present low estate in the Soviet Union. It did, in the past, permit of clear exposure of injustices of society, and thereby criticized rather subtly. It is not too far-fetched to suppose that the Stalinist officials fear equally accurate portrayal of their non-revolutionary practices. Is it impossible that the combined use of naturalism with formalism (the latter representing the accumulated polish and skill of technique) constitutes a danger at a time when Russia is trying desperately to make the good lists of both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat?

But whatever the reasons for the ban on formalism and naturalism, the emphasis on Socialist Realism can result only in the creation and diffusion of mediocrity. Art is distinctly unresponsive to dictation and prescription by politicians with ulterior motives.

The outlook for art under the Stalinist subjection is utterly depressing. To quote Trotsky: “The art of the Stalinist period will remain as the frankest expression of the profound decline of the proletarian revolution.”

When other social systems declined in the past, they left behind an art that, without restriction, reflected and expressed this decadence and even implied the rise of the new system. A marked quality of the music of Mozart, for example, is a sadness associated with loss or change; the extreme formality of the court, a suggestion of the doom of European monarchic absolutism, and at the same time the sharply defined advance in the development and use of the new form, the symphony, the new importance of the large orchestra as opposed to the more intimate chamber group, these are all inherent in his music.

Soviet art will have no such importance in history. It can contribute nothing but a doughy deadweight of stagnation. Instead of moving and flowing as art always does, it must mark time impotently. Where it might have become the spearhead of a powerfully creative movement, it is now roughly frustrated and dispirited.

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