Revolutionary Art

Source: Arvon, H. 1973. Marxist Esthetics. Cornell University Press: Ithaca. Transl. from French, by Helen R. Lane. pp. 56-70.

The interdependence of form and content recognized by Marxist esthetics makes political and social revolution the driving force behind artistic conceptions. Thus for Franz Mehring, the best-known German Marxist critic, the development of a proletarian culture is impossible within bourgeois society; only a revolutionary transformation of reality can produce such a culture.

By creating a new political and social content, the October Revolution offers artists and writers an opportunity to seek new forms appropriate to an entirely new situation. The political and artistic avant-garde share the feeling that a new order is dawning, and both march toward the future with the same quickened pace. The more and more rapid flurry of political activities is accompanied by a constant improvement of artistic techniques. Russian tradition and Marxist doctrine, in fact, join hands to maintain and further the primacy of content. But this revolutionary content re-quires a revolutionary mold. According to the Marxist view, this new content should have given rise to a new form. As a matter of fact, the groundwork for this new form had been laid for some time, for the defeat of 1905 had plunged Russia into a prerevolutionary mood. Since the political hopes of intellectuals were disappointed, their determination to win emancipation now found expression in the realm of art, so that we would not be exaggerating the situation if we were to claim that artistic revolution in Russia preceded political revolution. It is precisely the birth of revolutionary artistic forms at a moment when the content is still bourgeois that later enables the Soviet regime, which after its consolidation is eager to adapt itself to the petty-bourgeois tastes of its bureaucracy, to transform the revolutionary upsurge of artistic forms during the first years of the regime into a rigid and simplistic neo-academicism, or worse still, to denounce the revolutionary confusion in the field of art as a manifestation of bourgeois decadence. The variety of literary schools that appears in the wake of the Revolution is really most impressive; it ranges from enthusiasts who believe that they are witnessing the birth of a totally new world and therefore are anxious to start all over from zero, to indifferent theoreticians who regard esthetics as a refuge against continual demands that art be enrolled in the service of political action.

The “Proletkult” literary movement led by A. A. Bogdanov wishes to eliminate the past altogether. “In the name of our future we are burning Raphael, destroying the museums, and trampling on the flowers of art,” is the fiery proclamation that accompanies the opening of centers for proletarian culture; writers and poets of the older generation who have rallied round the Revolution after having abjured the esthetic errors of the past take on the task of educating young working-class writers in these centers in order to create a purely proletarian literature. Around 1930 the “Proletkult” leads to the promulgation of the “Rapp doctrine” by the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers, aimed at creating an entirely new culture to fit the needs of the proletariat.

Lenin is not very much in favor of this group of writers who regard themselves as the avant-garde of Soviet literature whose mission it is to safeguard that literature from any sort of deviation. Far from approving of their iconoclasm, he stresses the importance of the cultural heritage in the creation of a proletarian culture. “If we do not clearly understand that a proletarian culture can be built only on the basis of a precise knowledge of the culture created by the entire evolution of humanity and by the integration of this culture, if we do not understand that, we cannot fulfill our task. Proletarian culture is not something that suddenly surfaces without our having any idea of where it comes from, it is not the invention of people who claim to be specialists in proletarian culture. All of that is preposterous... . All the culture that capitalism has left us must be carefully preserved and it is on this basis that Socialism must be built, otherwise it will be impossible for us to create the life of Communist society. And this science, this technique, and this art are in the hands and minds of specialists.”

Like the members of the “Proletkult” movement, the Futurists have a negative attitude toward the past; they too are eager for a total break with bourgeois art. Their school profits enormously from the contributions of Mayakovsky (1895-1930), a genius who is able to impart an exceptionalrevolutionary fervor to an art expressly intended to appeal to the popular masses. During the years immediately following the October Revolution, literature seemed to have fallen on dark days for two reasons: political activity had become the first concern in every area of life, and the printing presses had almost shut down altogether because of a severe paper shortage.

Mayakovsky, at once a revolutionary and a lyric poet, does not hesitate to walk the streets in order to ac-quaint the public with his “products.” He does his utmost to aid the Revolution, reciting propaganda poems, writing and singing satirical songs anywhere and everywhere, in the streets, in cafes, at literary gatherings; he designs posters and organizes theatrical performances. This essentially oral period of Soviet literature, extending from around 1917 to 1920, thus sees the birth of a new lyricism amid the general hardships of the time. Though this new lyricism is not centered on strictly personal problems, it is fascinating nonetheless. Mayakovsky manages, in fact, to raise what would seem to be the most prosaic subjects in the world to the level of the purest poetry: in his hands the vocabulary of popular journalism, the language of the streets and the new simplified syntax take on an extraordinary luster. Mayakovsky tried hard to “put his foot on the throat of song,” as he phrased it, referring to his hard-fought struggle against his own elegiac tendencies, but, far from destroying the lyricism of his work, this self-discipline enhanced it.

The political and social mission assigned to artists and writers by the leaders of the Revolution is carried out with particular zeal in the theater, under the brilliant leadership of Meyerhold, the director of the theatrical section of the People’s Commissariat for Popular Culture. Lunacharsky, the first Soviet commissar of education, rightly claims that in Meyerhold’s theatrical activity the esthetics and the politics of the left become so closely conjoined that they are inseparable.

Meyerhold had been engaged in all sorts of theatrical experiments long before the October Revolution. But it is only after the Revolution delivers him from every manner of theatrical convention and social constraint that his talents as a director are allowed absolutely free expression. In order to win the popular masses, who for the most part are illiterate, over to the cause of the Revolution, Meyerhold forms “theatrical shock troops” and has them perform very simple plays specially written for agitation and propaganda purposes. It is theater with a message, the aim of which is strictly didactic, a theater guided and directed by political considerations. But in order to keep these performances from being the boring and tiresome exercises that politically “committed” art all too often becomes, Meyerhold takes great pains to give them a form so new and so unusual that it will capture and hold the attention of the audience.

His staging, aimed at dramatizing and reinforcing the political lesson taught by the play, borrows many devices from periods in which theater was a popular genre, but at the same time it is based on a small number of fundamental principles that will later be followed more or less closely by the theater of the extreme left.

The acting is based on a principle that Meyerhold calls “bio-mechanics.” As the word suggests, the actor must follow a certain fixed system of gestures to represent human emotion. Each gesture he uses is calculated with mathematical exactitude and has an immediate symbolic value. Thus sadness is represented by the actor’s assuming just one attitude, which never varies: he bows his head, moves about very jerkily, and becomes careless about his dress. Joy, on the other hand, is expressed by breaking into a little dance step.

The aim of “bio-mechanics” is the total depersonalization of the various characters. Since the style of acting is not aimed at suggesting the individual character traits of the person the actor is playing, but rather the feeling or the emotion that this person shares with all the rest of humanity, the sort of socialization that is the goal of political action in real life is actually achieved to some degree on the stage. Meyerhold eventually has all his actors and actresses wear identical blue overalls, thus not only blurring individual differences in appearance but also making both sexes look alike. The only distinction that is maintained is that of class: the actors are taught a special technique of pantomiming and gesturing that enables them to show exactly what class the character they are playing belongs to.

The clown is a favorite character in Meyerhold’s theater, thus marking a return to a popular Russian tradition. Whereas the theater of the West attracts audiences from the classes in power who find their own ideology mirrored in it, Meyerhold goes back to the circus tradition which is bound to have an immediate appeal to the proletariat. Moreover, the court jester, who by tradition is allowed to tell the Czar the most unpalatable truths, is regarded as a sort of revolutionary ancestor. To further enhance the popular appeal of his theater, Meyerhold uses all the acrobatic tricks and juggling acts traditionally associated with the figure of the clown. The clown role provides a convenient and enjoyable way of putting the serious political message across through parody and exaggeration, accusations so extreme as to be ridiculous, and slapstick disputations.

The staging itself is based on the principle of “dynamic constructivism.” The traditional-and extremely artificial-conventions of the stage are done away with entirely. There is no curtain separating the actors from the audience, no prompter’s box, no wings, no props. The spectators face a large space that from the beginning of the performance to the end has nothing in it but “constructions,” that is to say scaffoldings, flights of steps, cubes, arches and so on, so that the action takes place within immense geometrical perspectives. This decor is not at all static however, for these “constructions” are continually shifted about, both horizontally and vertically, with the aid of moving platforms, escalators, electric tows, cranes, and all sorts of special mechanical devices invented by Meyerhold. As for the actors, they too participate in this “dynamic constructivism” by continually moving all over the stage area, not only back and forth but also up and down, scaling the scaffoldings and climbing up and down suspended ropes. Moreover, the stage area is constantly swept by spotlights, projected film sequences suddenly interrupt the actors, and at irregular intervals musicians strike up an accompaniment that includes everything from accordion tunes to jazz numbers.

Meyerhold’s revolutionary staging is inspired in large partby theatrical experiments that had been conducted long before the October Revolution and entirely apart from Marxist canons, for they were innovations of an avant-garde rebelling against bourgeois ideology. The Party therefore later came to regard Meyerhold’s revolutionary drama as the last gasp of bourgeois decadence in the theater. It is possible nonetheless to reconcile Meyerhold’s theatrical practices with a Marxist esthetics. If it is true that art reflects reality, Meyerhold was justified in ridding the stage of its clutter of illusionistic devices and making it over in the image of the setting in which the heroes of the Revolution, the proletariat, live their lives, namely factories and workshops filled with machines. Dynamic constructivism is the theatrical counter-part of the building of Socialism in the Soviet Union. “Our artists must abandon the brush,” Meyerhold said, “and take up the compass, the axe, and the hammer, in order to re-build the stage in the image of our technical world.”

Moreover, if it is true that artistic praxis is one of the vital components of human praxis as a whole, the spectator should by all rights take an active part in the performance. “Dynamic” staging allows them to do exactly that. The spectators’ imagination is kept continually on the alert because the action is constantly shifting from one place to another. Since there is nothing separating the spectators from the action being staged, it is possible for the actors to address them directly at all times, and therefore the performance that takes place is the common creation of the actors and the audience. “The aim of theater,” Meyerhold insists, “is not to put a finished artistic product before an audience, but to make the spectator cooperate in the creation of the work.

The current must not only flow from the stage to the audience, but in the reverse direction as well.”

One of the strangest phenomena in the history of literature in Russia following the October Revolution is the triumph of the Formalist school in the years 1921 to 1925. This movement in literary criticism spreads rapidly within the “Section for the History of Literature” founded in 1920 as a part of the State Institute for the History of Art in Saint Petersburg. Despite its semiofficial status, it deliberately adopts a critical position that is totally contrary to Marxist esthetics. The Formalist school, whose principal tenets are outlined in the collective work entitled The Problems of Poetics, which serves as a sort of manifesto of the movement, not only rejects any sort of biographical and psycho-logical interpretation of a literary work, but is also particularly opposed to any kind of sociological interpretation; the only thing of interest to the Formalist critic is the poetic work itself, its composition, its rhythm, its metrics, and its style. The “Association for the Study of Poetic Language,” which goes by the abbreviated name of “Opoyaz” and is headed by Shklovsky, thus totally disregards the content of a work and devotes itself exclusively to the study of specific literary techniques; the Word and the author’s verbal strategies are regarded as much more important than the subject matter.

This most surprising new direction taken by Russian literary criticism, which had traditionally concerned itself only with content, would seem at first glance to be inspired by a firm determination to free literary criticism of its dependence on the sort of religious ideas that appear in Dostoevsky’s work or in Berdyaev’s philosophy. Because the Russians are the God-seeking people par excellence, even when they are overcome with the vertigo of a revolution whose spirit is supposedly entirely atheistic, they find it extremely difficult to rid themselves of the idea of divinity. Alexander Blok, the leader of the Russian Symbolist school, does not hesitate, for instance, to place Christ at the head of the Red Guards in his poem The Twelve. There were thus certain justifiable reasons why the Party regarded the “Opoyaz” as an ancillary critical school, for even though it did not obey Marxist principles, it nonetheless furthered them by attempting to totally eradicate other critical tendencies that ran counter to it. “The principal slogan around which the Formalists rallied,” according to Boris Eichenbaum, one of the theoreticians of Formalism, “was that of the emancipation of poetic style and the refusal to bow to the philosophical and religious tendencies which were increasingly enslaving the submissive Symbolists.”

But shortly thereafter the fundamentally anti-Marxist bias of Formalism is freely admitted and even proudly pro-claimed by its followers. Boris Eichenbaum openly challenges the Party by categorically refusing to regard literature as a mere superstructure. In his view, any attempt to explain a work of literature in terms of any sort of economic or social science is tantamount to denying the autonomy or the internal dynamics of literature, to failing to take its evolution into account and paying attention only to its origins. Shklovsky for his part even goes so far as to dare to question the intimate connection between form and content that is a sacrosanct principle of Marxist criticism. “The forms of art are to be judged on the basis of their artistic legitimacy. A new form does not appear in order to express some new content, but to replace an older form that has lost its literary value,” he writes in his Theory of Prose. And when Party doctrinaires who are up in arms against such heresy back him into a corner, he haughtily declares: “We are not Marxists, but if some day we were to have a need for such an implement, we would not eat with our hands out of sheer pride.” Marxism for Shklovsky is what God was for the astronomer Laplace: “a hypothesis that thus far [he] had had no need of.”

In the beginning at least, the Bolshevik leaders’ attitude toward Formalism is rather ambivalent. In general these leaders are highly cultured men who are not inclined to be excessively dogmatic despite their unshakable loyalties to the revolutionary cause. They prefer to maintain a certain reserve; the most extreme step their Marxist convictions lead them to take is to utter rather timid condemnations in which the mitigating circumstances play a more important role than the supposed crime itself. Thus Bukharin willingly admits that the “Opoyaz” has fulfilled a certain propaedeutic role as a school of literary criticism insofar as it has attempted to draw up a “catalogue” of poetic devices. “This analytic activity must be given its due as a step toward a later critical synthesis,” he writes with regard to the Formalist school. He refuses to concede, however, that Formalism is capable of achieving such a synthesis on its own.

Trotsky more or less embraces the views of the Formalist school when he concedes that Marxism, in and of itself, is incapable of providing the criteria of esthetic judgment. On the other hand, however, Marxism is the only philosophy that has offered a causal explanation of literature. “Only Marxism can explain why and how a certain orientation has arisen in art in any given historical period,” he states. Hence the attempt of the Formalists to shed light on the particular artistic features of literary form is justifiable, but they are wrong when they attempt to reduce the whole of literature to its style of verbal expression; the task of the literary critic is not limited to an essentially descriptive, quasi-statistical analysis of the etymology and the syntax of a poem, and certainly not to A simple inventorying of its vowels and consonants. “The Formalists are disciples of Saint John. They believe that ‘in the beginning was the Word.’ But we believe: ‘in the beginning was the Act. The Word came after, as its phonetic shadow,’ “ Trotsky writes.

Lunacharsky is the critic who would appear to have voiced the most severe criticism of the Formalist preoccupation with poetic devices rather than with content. Lunacharsky regards the literary criticism of Formalism as a type of “escapism,” that is to say a way of avoiding real human problems and a sterile product of the decadent ruling class. “The only artistic genre that the modern bourgeoisie can enjoy and understand is nonobjective, purely formal art,” he writes in Formalism in Esthetics. “In order to satisfy this need, narrow-minded bourgeois intelligence has produced both a brigade of Formalist artists and an auxiliary corps of estheticians whose orientation is Formalist.” And in his discussion of the Russian Formalist school in particular, he adds this remark which foreshadows the thunderbolts that the Party will eventually launch against a movement whose very name will one day become a senseless dirty epithet, the evil epitome of everything that is opposed to the beneficent influence of Socialist Realism: “Before October, Formalism was a vegetable that was in season. Today it is a stubborn vestige of the status quo, an ultimate refuge of intelligence which has not yet been transformed and which slyly winks out of the corner of its eye at the European bourgeoisie.”

In the period immediately following the year 1917, Marxist esthetics, borne on the wings of revolutionary enthusiasm, thus forges ahead in a number of very different directions. Although in principle the “Proletkult” enjoys a sort of state monopoly of culture, the independence and freedom of artistic and literary creation are fervently defended by Gorky, Lunacharsky, and Trotsky. The 1925 resolution of the Central Committee still recognizes the right of those whom Trotsky calls “the literary fellow travelers on the road to Russian Revolution” to study man’s inner world independently of political and historical considerations. In the era of speeded-up rhythms of production, the novelist Yury Olesha has one of his heroines defend the view that “the artist must think slowly,” thus openly opposing the Marxist dogma that insists that economic and literary evolution must proceed hand in hand. The baroque, epic writer Isaac Babel deals with mankind’s timeless sufferings and joys, and in his novel The Red Cavalry describes love in its most naked form and the physiological ravages of death.

But after 1925, reaction sets in against the modernist tendencies unleashed and given broader scope by the October Revolution. The announcement of the First Five-Year Plan, which supplants the New Economic Policy, is accompanied by a warning to writers in the form of a resolution of the Central Committee. Though this resolution recognizes the distinctive nature of art and literature, it stresses the principle of “social leadership.” “Just as the class struggle in general is not yet ended,” this resolution states, “so it has not yet ended on the literary front. In the class society there is no neutral art nor can there be any such art, even though the nature of art in general and literature in particular is expressed in forms that are far more divergent than in politics, for example.” The wild, luxuriant growth of the 1920’s is brought under strict control in 1932. Once the opposition of the left is eliminated, Stalin and the Communist bureaucracy, of which he is the supreme representative, use the end of the First Five-Year Plan, which in their eyes is the first step toward the building of Socialism in a single country, as a pretext to enlist all Soviet writers beneath the same banner and make them entirely subservient to the Party: the associations of independent writers are dissolved and their members summarily enrolled in the Union of Soviet Writers. Dogmatism then becomes the unbreachable wall circumscribing the realm of writers and making it more and more of an intellectual and artistic prison. The intriguing prospects of a revolutionary literature become a thing of the past. Esthetic judgment becomes subservient to the most primitive sort of Manichaeanism: the pure and simple glorification of Party decisions is accorded the pompous title of Socialist Realism and celebrated as a triumphant new step forward, while the writer who shows the slightest sign of in-dependence, even of the most harmless sort, immediately risks being marked with the infamous brand of “Formalism” by the political powers that be. Not sacrificing form to ideology is henceforth considered an artistic crime. The end of the era that has been called the bronze age of Revolution destroys those whose genius was its crowning glory. Mayakovsky commits suicide in 1930. Meyerhold, shorn now of all his functions, makes one last appearance at the Congress of Theater Directors in 1939. The Party had hoped to force him back into its ranks after the long penance it had imposed upon him. The speech he delivered on this occasion proved, however, that his loyalties could not be co-opted. “This pitiable and sterile thing that claims to be Socialist Realism,” he had the courage to state publicly, “has nothing to do with art. Theater belongs to the realm of art, and without art there is no theater. Go to Moscow theaters and have a look at the dull and boring performances, which differ only in their degree of proximity to absolute worthlessness... . In the great circles in which once upon a time there was only fervent and constantly renewed artistic life, in which men devoted to art engaged in research, conducted experiments, lost their way and found new paths for achieving mises-en-scene that sometimes were bad and sometimes marvelous, one now finds only a de-pressing mediocrity, [men] possessed of the greatest good will but overcome with despair and displaying a terrible lack of talent.” The day after this explosive speech, Meyer-hold is arrested and dies not long after, either as a result of the interrogations he is made to undergo or because he is mistreated in an internment camp. His wife, the famous actress Zinaida Reich, is murdered a few weeks after her husband’s arrest.