#5 Mass Appeal Madness

stalin pink frame

Mass Culture and the Middle-Brow with Guest Speaker Jim von Geldern!

For Professor von Geldern’s guest appearance, please do the assigned reading and prepare two questions to ask in class, at least one of which must be directly related to the readings. The second question and thereafter can be broader in scope, so long as it somehow connects the question of mass culture in Soviet Russia to the course’s primary themes of consumption, distinction, and taste. In order to get credit for participation, you are required to publish these questions here on the blog before class on Thursday, February 27. Professon von Geldern may not get a chance to look online before he meets you to talk about the dictatorship of proletarian taste, so be sure to write your queries down somewhere and come armed to Neill 112 with them.

Yo Mama's So Classless


10 thoughts on “#5 Mass Appeal Madness

  1. Questions for the class and Professor Von Geldern:

    Boym talks about the “magical qualities” (p. 103) of the world culture, which is “…a powerful word that has replaced everything.” (p. 103) What are these qualities of the world culture and how does that relate to socialist realism? Is the concept of culture the same everywhere or is it a particularly heavy word only in Russian?

    Is the difference between poshlost’ and meshchanstvo the achieve ability of meshchanstvo? (Dunham reading)

  2. The Mass Culture in Soviet Russia reading, the Groys and Trekyakov readings from prior course meetings discuss the emotional and intellectual investment Soviet peoples had, and needed, to be content with working toward a utopian, communist future. The Dunham reading describes a Soviet middle-class (meshchanstvo) seemingly disinterested with the Soviet political/lifestyle project, describing them as “vulgar, imitative, greedy,…ridden with prejudice” (19) and at odds with the intelligentsia. What specific occurrences and cultural shifts transitioned the masses and meshchanstvo from interest in the collective, Soviet, socialist project, to more individually and materially focused people?

    Pre-WWII Soviet propaganda stigmatized the United States and Americans as “a gang of greedy capitalists plotting to destroy Soviet socialism” (von Geldern xxiv). How did the Soviets reconcile such beliefs in their propaganda and national discourse when they allied with the United States during WWII? How did they transition to similar dour beliefs at the start of the Cold War? What rationale was used to justify to the Soviet people the relatively rapid change in Soviet outlook on the U.S.?

  3. Questions for class tomorrow:

    Boym explains that Russian culture was manifested in many “contradictory phenomena” (pg. 103), and was paradoxical in nature. Was the varnished and lacquered finishing of cultural objects reflective of the conditions of everyday life in Soviet Russia? Or did it too mark a paradox?

    Based on the “Mass Culture in Soviet Russia” reading, how did both consumerism and nationalism support mass culture? Was mass culture the driving force behind consumerism, or did consumerist patterns dictate mass culture?

  4. What role did nostalgia for the pre-revolutionary play in the development of the socialist realism and the Stalinist aesthetic? Does this nostalgia subvert the purpose of socialist realism (translating ideology into the everyday)?

    How did World War II contribute to Stalinist aesthetic? In what ways did the hardships of World War II propel and/or hinder the socialist mission of the USSR? In other words, would Stalin have been more or less successful in maintaining complete control had Russia not suffered so greatly during the war?

  5. Given that so much of the mass culture (especially surrounding art) was determined by the politics at the time, how much do you think was actually determined my any sort of aesthetic taste?

    In “Mass Culture in Soviet Russia” it is stated that “industrialization and collectivization almost destroyed folk and popular culture” (xvi), was this noticed at the time? and did the people object in any way to the forced conformity and mourn the loss of their subcultures or welcome the conformity with open arms?

  6. Boym states that fear becomes a shared experience by those who participate in optimism (p. 112). Why is this a case of Russian cultural paradox if it seems so negative?

    There seems to be an emphasis on the distinction of purely memorizing these optimistic patriotic Russian songs and actually understanding and reading the lyrics. Do you think this defines a class system in Russian society, even though the readings indicate otherwise?

  7. In “Mass Culture in Soviet Russia” it appears that the early cult of personality surrounding Stalin was projected outwards onto the working class as much as they were projected into Stalin himself. “The Popular audience did not reject the cult of Stalin as something directed against its interests, but accepted it as a myth of success available to anyone” (xi). Did Stalin’s cult of personality change in nature as time went on? Did the cult ever find itself in conflict with the “popular audience”?

    Boym talks about about the various implications of the phrase “culture” and how it can be used to mean what is common to all human beings but also be divided along national lines and national identities. How did Soviet “mass culture” deal with the vastness of the Russian empire and its ethnic diversity?

  8. In the intro to “Mass Culture in Soviet Russia,” professor von Geldern acknowledges that despite the Bolshevik educators attempts to regulate and stymie commercial mass culture, the masses still had tastes for that which was censored, and thus “underground” consumption of other genres of art and literature existed. I’ll assume that this continued beyond the formation of the Soviet Union. The Boym reading refers to the the Stalinist art critic, who “usually had more training in ideology and the propaganda of culturalization than in art history” (109). I was wondering if other, more “underground” art criticism existed––literature that analyzed art for primarily for its aesthetic and artistic value, and separate from the Stalinist ideology.

    As a more general follow-up to that question, to what extent did aesthetics play a role in the consumption of the Russian masses? Was the literature appealing because of its propagandistic message, or did the Bolshevik and Stalinist masses read and consume for pleasure in the way that most other cultures do?

  9. In the “Mass Culture” reading, you mention that propaganda depended on 3 different groups cooperating: the state, the artists, and the masses/audience… and that each group in themselves were dependent on propaganda for their own reasons. But do the masses really crave propaganda and its entertainment value as a necessity of life? If the state can’t force the masses to consume what they don’t want, and if the artists are subject to the whims of the masses, aren’t the masses above propaganda?

    On a different note, you also mention how the avant-gardists turned towards porcelain, clothing, and furniture, and how these endeavors proved to be to limited in functionality, and so unpopular. Nowadays, with their limited political message, are the arts and relics of the mass culture period considered limited in functionality and culturally wasteful?

  10. Turns out happiness needn’t only be compulsory in the ‘bleak’ empire of the ex-Soviets, but is definitely complex. To wit, these recently Internet-published images of “Life and Happiness in Siberia’s Cold.” Check ’em out, and ask yourselves: do those two titular terms–life and happiness–prick your ears to the presence of kitsch? http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/03/10/life-and-happiness-in-siberias-cold/?_php=true&_type=blogs&emc=edit_tnt_20140311&nlid=68253070&tntemail0=y&_r=0

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