Having teased out some of the tensions in the revolutionary avant-garde’s manifestoes for the future of art and life, we’ll see these kernels of aesthetic compromise come to full bloom in the florid style of socialist realism that reigned supreme and singular over all the arts under Stalin and after.
Abby will be our fearless leader on Tuesday, when we have our first group encounter with the lacquered monoculture of communist Russia.
Tastes So Good—Saccharine Socialist Realism
“Thank you, Comrade Stalin, for our happy childhood!” This is the defining chorus of the 1930s that denotes Socialist Realist aesthetic. Satisfied workers, determined protectors of the state, and Stalin kissing babies dominated the artistic scene, and Mayakovsky committed suicide. Despite the hard work of the revolutionary avant-garde to reject everything that had preceded the self-proclaimed post-apocalyptic state in favor of original creation and art that is entirely separate from classical artistic traditions, the Party re-legitimized (particular) artistic traditions of the past in a devastating political move.
Socialist realism was the accepted form of art in the Soviet Union for nearly 60 years. Despite the title of the movement, the purpose of this artwork was not to depict the reality that was, but rather the reality that should be by socialist standards—an imagined (or promised) utopian reality that would surely come about in the future. This contrasts mightily with the meanings of «realism» that we have seen in previous texts for this class.
Rather than reflecting life as it may appear (charcoal grey apartment buildings, long queues for food rations, empty shelves in stores), Socialist Realism reflected an ideal standard. With Stalin, «the real creator of reality» at the helm, the purpose of art was to shape the subconscious of the people «without revealing the mechanisms of the process» (44). In this way, Socialist Realism is not just about Victory Day parades and a furry-faced dictator surrounded by smilling children, but subliminal messaging and mind control.
In preparation for tomorrow, let’s consider the tensions between Socialist Realism, other realisms, and reality!