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RE: [GreenLeft_discussion] Re: Did the Cuban Revolution enforce socialist realism?

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  • Renfrey Clarke
    Technically Fred is correct in this case: the proletarian culture movement of the USSR in the 1920s never enjoyed particular official favour, and as
    Message 1 of 10 , Jan 1, 2013
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      Technically Fred is correct in this case: the "proletarian culture" movement of the USSR in the 1920s never enjoyed particular official favour, and as bureaucratic reaction consolidated itself, the hatchet-men such as Averbakh were vigorously repressed. But while the bureaucrats had no use for the zealots of "proletarian art" (or for anyone else with roots in the revolution and an independent political motivation), they had no objection to the general ethos of the movement, which was taken up, divested of its streak of stylistic experimentation, and reworked into the official Stalinist artistic credo. There was a genuine continuity.

      When Adam talks about a revolutionary state encouraging artists to use their talents for the revolution, he's not telling half the story of "socialist realism" (I prefer "sotsrealizm", since it wasn't particularly socialist, and never even minimally realistic). As Fred rightly stresses, Stalinist artistic policy wasn't just preventive, but very actively prescriptive, in matters of style as well as content. The rewards for conformity were enticing - the dwellings in the Union of Writers dacha settlement outside Moscow are substantial country houses, built in an era when most Russians were living ten to a communal apartment. The penalties for insisting on expressing your own ideas, including on what constituted revolutionary art, started with expulsion from your artistic union (which amounted to having your work banned), and extended all the way to a bullet at the base of your skull.

      The losses to the revolution were serious and irretrievable. The Soviet literature and painting of the 1920s had been characteristically lively and provocative, often thoroughly humanising, and at their best, of world class. What followed was almost all stilted and pedestrian, its didacticism an automatic turn-off. The cynical reaction it drew wasn't just an elite thing; irritation with the sermonising was widespread. Part of the result, eventually, was a popular fascination with Western models, even the most trashy and vulgar.

      If it's any comfort to Adam, the last ten years have seen a certain vogue in Russia for sotsrealist art, with paintings from the Stalin era fetching impressive prices. In my view this is largely the result of nostalgia, but there's also a recognition that the best of the artists were extremely skilled.

      What they achieved, though, was in no sense a stylistic advance on the French academic art of the mid-nineteenth century. And alongside the imaginative leaps of someone like Marc Chagall, there's nothing inspiring about The Tractor Drivers' Lunch.


      To: GreenLeft_discussion@yahoogroups.com
      From: ffeldman@...
      Date: Tue, 1 Jan 2013 02:23:50 -0500
      Subject: [GreenLeft_discussion] Re: Did the Cuban Revolution enforce socialist realism?

      Just a historical point here. I think it is important to make a distinction

      here between "socialist realism" and the movement among some artists after

      the 1917 revolution that advocated "proletarian literature" and "proletarian

      art." This was an ultraleft current that Lenin and Trotsky fought, but it

      was not the same as "socialist realism."

      This current produced some valuable art and literature. Lenin, Trotsky, and

      the Bolshevik leadership opposed it on theoretical and political grounds,

      and also because as a faction they tended to press the state to accept their

      theories and standards, including the repression of what Adam calls "elite


      "Socialist realism" was simply the insistence that artists of all kinds LIE

      about the real situation in the Soviet Union, and defend the policies and

      leadership of the regime, and it dictated everything about art, including

      all matters of style and content. This was not definitively adopted until

      the 1930s. The results were catastrophic in all fields - fiction, poetry,

      movies, paintings, etc. The results of this policy, from the standpoint of

      the development of art, were catastrophic in every field - fiction, poetry,

      painting, music, and on and on.

      This is the policy that North Korea enforces today, and that was enforced in

      China under Mao. Today's "counter-revolutionary" regime in China is much

      more open, but still bans the most critical descriptions of the society,

      which gives the edge to "elite art" rather than the more popular kind, which

      is more frank about social and political conditions.

      In Cuba, the policy was declared by Castro as "Within the revolution,

      everything. Outside the revolution, nothing." This never had anything in

      common with "socialist realism."

      Even this tended to bend things a bit too much to the "left," and fostered

      some mistaken steps in the 1970s, when some like the poet Heberto Padilla,

      who were not revolutionaries, were repressed for a time.

      This was linked to the efforts to suppress homosexuality, which were

      imported from the Stalinist-ruled Soviet Union. Cuba's policy today on

      homosexuality builds on the Bolshevik tradition of support for gay rights.

      Cuba's course on art today seems to me to be on the right track.

      My favorite comment from anyone on "proletarian literature" was from Lenin

      in 1920. He wrote a letter to the state publishing house urging the

      publication of a book of short stories by a writer who was fighting on the

      counterrevolutionary side in the civil war. He said the stories gave a vivid

      picture of life on the counterrevolutionary side, although the portrayals of

      Lenin and Trotsky were caricatures, naturally enough (Lenin explained* since

      the author really knew nothing whatever about them).

      Lenin urged publishing the book, concluding, "Talent should be encouraged."

      I think that is the correct policy of a workers state toward art and


      Fred Feldman


      From: GreenLeft_discussion@yahoogroups.com

      [mailto:GreenLeft_discussion@yahoogroups.com] On Behalf Of eastwest3173

      Sent: Monday, December 31, 2012 10:10 AM

      To: GreenLeft_discussion@yahoogroups.com

      Subject: [GreenLeft_discussion] Re: Did the Cuban Revolution enforce

      socialist realism?

      The premise of this question is that socialist realism is ipso facto

      something so horrible that one cannot countenance any condoning of it.

      Yet I find this view, repeated often amongst some on the left, reeks of

      libertarianism, something at odds with socialism. What does one want to be

      in place of socialist realism? Nihilism? Individualism?

      The "freedom" of the artist, in the context of class society, cannot but be

      influenced by the false freedom for the bourgeois class to exploit and

      plunder the workers, and everything contained within. To imagine that an

      artist should be "free" to produce whatever art their minds dream up is to

      deny the extent to which human dreams are influenced by their social


      If a revolutionary state encourages artists to use their talents for the

      revolution rather than feed their self-indulgent, individualistic whims,

      which often results in art which is incomprehensible to the masses, should

      this be rejected? Isn't the aim to allow the masses to take part in art

      themselves, to develop their talents, to remove art from "high" culture?

      Art which means something to the working class, or art which only pleases an

      elite, or those who aspire to be elite?

      In my view, once workers' states spread throughout the globe, history will

      reappraise it's view of socialist realism - and those on the left who now

      condemn it will be brushed aside.

      Adam Baker


      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
    • David
      I agree with Fred here, right down the line. Socialist Realism was the triumph of one wing of many competing schools of art that existed since 1917, all of
      Message 2 of 10 , Jan 1, 2013
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        I agree with Fred here, right down the line. Socialist Realism was the triumph of one wing of many competing schools of art that existed since 1917, all of whom had their roots in pre-1917 Europe. This 'triump' was hitching their school onto the triumph of the Bureaucracy and thus *suppressing* ALL forms of art not inline with the aims of the Bureaucracy.

        Interestingly, I learned at the Chagall exhibit a few years ago here in San Francisco, (Chagall was mostly an Impressionist, influenced as many were, by the French movement of the same name) one of the schools that existed during the Revolution under Lenin and Trotsky was the "anti-Realist" school, who argued that any form of realism was intrinsically 'bourgeois', that all art had to be abstract to be revolutionary. They went after the Impressionist wing, lead by Chagall and others (the predominant form of revolutionary art in the USSR then was likely Impressionism) demanding the Petrograd Soviet stop payments to the school there he worked for and helped direct.

        The Cubans have historically supported all forms of art though no money goes to any religious form of artwork (this might be changing under the new regime there). they "favored" "revolutionary art" but didn't use this to *suppress* other forms of art. Cuban culture, especially it's murals and paintings, were intrinsically innovative, creative and impressionistic. A real 'socialist realism' movement would of gone in the opposite direction that the Cubans went after 1959.

      • RatbagMedia
        Nonetheless, another feature of the swathe of movements that were kicked off by the Russian Rev is a sort of conscious dialectics. I find this trend
        Message 3 of 10 , Jan 1, 2013
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          Nonetheless, another feature of the swathe of movements that were kicked off by the Russian Rev is a sort of conscious dialectics.

          I find this trend fascinating.

          A conscious use of dialectics underpins much of the style of montage film making as in the work of, for example, Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. Without this creative experimentation we would not have got Star Wars.

          The norm in most top feature film lists it's Eisenstein's films that gets the #1 slot.

          The Soviet montage perspective formatted modern cinema.

          Both Vertov and Eisenstein wrote essays on the merging of dialectics and cinema which are still studied today by Hollywood hopefuls.

          In theatre, poetry and playwrighting it drove the methods of Bertolt Brecht, Vsevolod Meyerhold and Erwin Piscator. In music the early work of Kurt Weill and all the compositions of Hans Eisler. In art, it drove montage -- esp the startling photomontage imagery of John Heartfield.

          You'll also find its resonance in audio work and documentary film making -- esp in Canada and the UK.

          But this was a trend and focus that wasn't ruled upon by any bureaucracy. Indeed it tended to dovetail with many of the discoveries and preferences of Dadaism -- the radical art movement that grew out of the slaughter of the First World War.

          On the Cuba question -- I think there has been times of censorship by default engineered on certain artists. Just recently Leonardo Padura Fuentes captures some of it in, I think, his best novel, Havanna Red

          It's a crime novel, folks.Cuban even tolerates and celebrates noir fiction.

          In similar mode, is the paintings and sculptures of the late Wilfredo Lam

          His painting The Third World
          which is featured in Cuba's presidential palace -- would have got him shot in the USSR under Socialist Realist rules..

          Even a cursory review of Cuban avant garde art
          would find not one jolt to do with kowtowing to any whiff of 'socialist realism'.

          dave riley
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