Issue 192 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
Do art and politics mix? That is the theme of a new exhibition which looks at art in the age of the dictators--the 1930s. The Art and Power exhibition shows how fascism in Germany and Italy, and Stalinism in Russia crushed the cultural experiment of postwar Europe, and produced cultures of crude propaganda. That shouldn't be surprising, given the level of repression in those societies. But the exhibition and much of the accompanying comment imply that any link with politics degrades art. In the words of one of the organisers, 'The point at which art becomes a weapon is the point when it loses its power'.
Art and Power starts with the extraordinary Paris Exhibition of 1937, at which the Soviet pavilion faced the German pavilion across a boulevard. Both were stark. characterless monuments, designed to impress with the inhuman scale of their architecture. The heroic statue on the Russian pavilion was called 'Industrial Worker and Collective Farm Girl'. The more classical German pavilion was topped simply with an eagle and a swastika.
Russian art from the 1930s and 1940s divides roughly between sycophantic portraits of Stalin and celebrations of the achievements of the Russian working class. Most of it is in the kind of children's book style that the Stalinists called 'Socialist Realism'. Individuals are mere 'types', all life and meaning is reduced to the forward march of the proletariat.
Some modernist techniques were allowed in propaganda posters, but any other signs of artistic experiment had been banned by decree in 1934 when Socialist Realism became official and artists were ordered to become 'engineers of the human soul'.
By the mid-1930s state repression had ensured that most of the great Russian avant garde artists of the 1920s were either dead or in exile. Others like Casimir Malevich and Alexander Rodchenko, who stayed in Russia, defied state dictates as best they could, either by conjuring up a very personal, almost impenetrable, imagery, or by using subtle formal innovations. Rodchenko was denounced for the angle at which he took a series of photos of 'young pioneers'. 'Why does the pioneer look upwards? It is not ideologically correct. Pioneers and the youth of Komsomol must look ahead.'
Architecture was the most important of the arts for the Nazis. The innovative social housing projects of Weimar Germany, between the end of the First World War and the rise of Hitler were abandoned for a monstrous public architecture of authority. Hitler planned a complete rebuilding of central Berlin combining neo-classical style with the scale and anonymity of modernism. Whereas in the 1920s progressive architects in Germany had been experimenting with democratic social planning, Nazi architecture was about spectacle. Its ultimate expression was found in Albert Speer's sinister arenas and monuments which served as backdrops for Nazi rallies. Some modern architects adapted to the Nazi regime. There was nothing inherently challenging in the modern style. Modernist pioneers Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius had projects considered by the Nazis, and many of their Bauhaus colleagues worked in Germany throughout the period--particularly on industrial projects.
In the visual arts, however, the regime came to associate anything avant garde with 'cultural Bolshevism'. In 1936 Goebbels issued the 'Decree Concerning Art Criticism' which forbade any writing on art independent of the Nazi Party line, and the next year virtually all modernist works were confiscated from the museums. Many found their way into the Exhibition of Degenerate Art mounted by the state to discredit the avant garde. Some dissidents tried to survive in Germany, but most of the very moving oppositional work on show was produced in exile. By the end of the 1930s the official obsession with the healthy blonde blue eyed Aryan nude dominated.
Even in Italy, where the state was relatively tolerant towards abstract art and formal experiment, most of the output was lifeless and heavy, weighed down by the obligation to celebrate the unity of the state or the glory of Ancient Rome.
Condemning the art of the dictators is uncontroversial. The problem is that this exhibition can reinforce the fashionable idea that art and politics don't mix. Right wingers have seized on the various works of art displayed here as proof that any state involvement in the arts is disastrous.
In reality artists are never 'independent' even in the so called liberal democracies. As state funding for the arts is cut back, they have to rely for support on a market dominated by rich patrons like the Sainsburys or the Saatchis. More and more, artistic value is determined by bids in auction rooms, and art is increasingly reduced to an investment.
Even in those democracies the state is not unpolitical in its treatment of the arts. In postwar America the FBI secretly pumped millions of dollars into promoting the work of abstract artists like Jackson Pollock and Theodore Roethke because it was felt that their huge abstract canvasses would bolster America's prestige around the world. And in Britain the Tories have intervened in everything from education to the Arts Council, to promote a culture that stresses national unity and a common heritage.
There is, however, a long tradition of public and committed art, running from the French Revolution right up to the 1930s and beyond, that includes some of the most popular artists. The Spanish section of this exhibition gives a glimpse of this. The Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, committed to fighting the fascists, defending democracy and even fundamentally changing society, was an inspiration and a beacon to a range of Spanish artists.
As well as Picasso's world famous painting Guernica, painted to protest at the fascist bombing of the historic Basque town in 1937, the Spanish pavilion in Paris in that year contained a whole range of committed and innovative works that have a freshness and passion completely at odds with most of the rest of the exhibition. The organisers did not seem to know how to handle this material. Instead of presenting them as a contrast they imply that these works too are tainted by 'politics'.
The tradition of socially committed art reached its 20th century highpoint in post-revolutionary Russia, in the years preceding those covered by this exhibition. Despite terrible economic hardships there was an unprecedented popular involvement in the arts after October 1917. The revolution offered artists the possibility of overwhelming the alienation they had felt in the old society, of participation in building a new world. The poet Mayakovsky argued that:
Artists like Malevich, El Lissitsky and Mayakovsky threw themselves into producing political posters, organising revolutionary street pageants and painting murals in factories. The period produced the most daring abstract experiment, but it was not confined to the studio. El Lissitsky's famous abstract 'Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge', for example, was actually a design for a street poster. A group of artists calling themselves Constructivists headed by Tatlin, Popva and Stepanova went into the factories to apply new artistic ideas to industry. The textiles, ceramics and typography they produced revolutionised design and are still inspirational today.
All this depended on the Bolsheviks' attitude to the arts, which tended to be the complete opposite of Stalin's. The Bolsheviks encouraged artists to identify with the revolution, but recognised that artistic development demands maximum freedom. In this time of fierce debate, Trotsky fought to ensure that no one artistic school would dominate: 'The domain of art is not one in which the party is called upon to command,' he argued. 'Art must make its own way and by its own means.'
Trotsky was clear that artistic value could not be judged by crude political content, and that a new 'socialist' art could not be imposed by decree. He welcomed the energy of the avant garde, and saw in their work the potential 'germs and roots and springs' of the culture of the future. But he argued that a truly socialist culture cannot be developed by an elite 'behind the backs of the working class', it can only grow out of the cultural development and involvement of the mass of the population.
During the years 1918-21 a total of 36 museums were set up throughout the country, containing, in the words of Lunacharsky, commissar of education, 'works from all the artists, but in the first place from those artists who were outlawed during the reign of bourgeois taste and who are therefore not represented in our galleries'. Russia thus became the first country in the world to exhibit abstract art on such a scale.
Art schools were reorganised. An artist teacher in the Moscow school reported that 'general discussions were held amongst the students on diverse problems where the public could participate, and artists not officially on the faculty could speak and give lessons... these gatherings had a much greater influence on the later development of art than all the teaching.'
Art and Power shows conclusively that fascism and Stalinism smothered the great explosion of artistic experiment in Europe in the 1910s and 1920s. The dictators were afraid of artistic experiment, linked as it was to the period of revolutions after the First World War. The exhibition ignores the very different history of revolutionary movements this century which have been a spur to artistic development and which have fought for artistic freedom and genuinely popular culture.
Art and Power is at the Hayward Gallery, London