Журнал Искусство (1923-1928) / The Journal Art (1923-1928) Full-Text PDFs

Serov's "Lenin Giving a Speech to Workers," in a More Realist Style

Not quite as revolutionary as the artists of VKhUTEMAS/VKhUTEIN, the  more conservative academicians at GAKhN did produce several noteworthy publications on art and literature in the 1920s.  Here are just a few of them, more later:

Искусство (1923) No. 1

Искусство (1925) No. 2

Искусство (1927) No. 1

Искусство (1927) No. 2-3

Искусство (1927) No. 4

Искусство (1928) No. 1-2

Искусство (1928) No. 3-4


Down with Art!: The Age of Manifestoes

El Lissitzky's "New Man" (1923)

Note from the blogger: I tend to agree with the Marxist architectural critic Manfredo Tafuri’s assessment of the various strains of the avant-garde as all aspiring to enact a Weberian “rationalization” of society, whether in it’s negative, nihilistic form (Dada, Absurdism) or in its positive, constructive form (Futurism, Functionalism, Constructivism).  But Eagleton quite rightly points out the politicization of modern art, as it appropriated and took on the form of political literature: the tract, and the manifesto.  He also notes the avant-garde’s tendency to associate with various anti-capitalist movements (Bolshevism, Trotskyism, and even Fascism).  All this corresponded to, after the death of the avant-garde in the 1960s (see Arthur Danto on this), post-modern art’s seeming apoliticism.  Just as modern art was heavily political, post-modern art is largely post-political, in the sense that the ideology of the “post-ideological age” took on in the 1980s and 1990s.  The following piece is by the Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton, whose work I occasionally enjoy and at other times find problematic.  This particular work is a review of an upcoming book by Aleksei Danchev, though Eagleton’s article takes on something of a life of its own:

In the world of polite letters, literature is the enemy of programmes, polemics, sectarian rancour, the sour stink of doctrinal orthodoxies. It is the home of the unique particular, the provisional and exploratory, of everything that resists being reduced to a scheme or an agenda. This, one might note, is a fairly recent point of view. That literature should be free of doctrinal orthodoxy would have come as a surprise to Dante and Milton. Swift is a great writer full of sectarian rancour. Terms like “provisional” and “exploratory” do not best characterize Samuel Johnson’s literary views.

Nor do they best describe the views of the various twentieth-century avant-gardes, which set out to demolish this whole conception of art. From the Futurists and Constructivists to the Surrealists and Situationists, art became militant, partisan and programmatic. It was to be liberated from the libraries and museums and integrated with everyday life. In time, the distinction between art and life, the playful and the pragmatic, would be erased. There were to be no more professional artists, just common citizens who occasionally wrote a poem or made a piece of sculpture. The summons rang out to abandon one’s easel and design useful objects for working people, as some of the Russian Constructivists did. Poets were to read their poetry through megaphones in factory yards, or scribble their verses on the shirt-fronts of passing strangers. A moustache was appended to the Mona Lisa. A Soviet theatre director took over a whole naval port for several days, battleships and all, and commandeered its 300,000 citizens for his cast.

Theatre audiences might be asked to vote at the end of the play, or march en masse on the local town hall. From agitprop to poster design, art was an instrument in the service of political revolution. For some avant-gardists, there were to be no more permanent art objects, since they would only suffer the indignity of becoming commodities. Instead, one should create gestures, happenings, situations, stray intensities, events which consumed themselves in the act of production. “To the electric chair with Chopin!”, fulminated the founder of Mexican Stridentism. “The Venus de Milo is a graphic example of decline”, declares Kasimir Malevich in his lengthy Suprematist Manifesto of 1916, reproduced here. The most obscene word of all was “academic”.

In this cultural revolution, two broad currents can be distinguished. The more positive strain of avant-gardism sought to transform human perceptions in order to adapt them to the new technological age. Avant-gardes tend to take root in societies still in the first flush of modernization, when the oppressive aspects of the new technologies are less obvious than the exhilarating ones. History is now skidding by so fast that the only image of the present is the future. Nothing is more typical of these activists than a mindless celebration of novelty – a brash conviction that an absolutely new epoch is breaking around them, that twentieth-century humanity is on the brink of greater, more rapid change than at any time in the past (they were to be proved right about that), and that everything that happened up to ten minutes ago is ancient history. How one would set about identifying absolute novelty is a logical problem that did not detain them.

This fetishism of the future crops up on almost every page of 100 Artists’ Manifestos, deftly selected and stylishly introduced by Alex Danchev. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto of 1909, which as Danchev points out founded not only Futurism but the very idea of the artistic manifesto, celebrates “the beauty of speed”. “A racing car, its bonnet decked with exhaust pipes like serpents with galvanic breath . . . is more beautiful than the Winged Victory of Samothrace.” A later Futurist proclamation incites the brethren to destroy all “passéist” clothes (“tight-fitting,colourless, funereal, decadent”) and invent futurist clothes instead, “daring clothes with brilliant colours and dynamic lines”. Like Romanticism, the revolutionary avant-garde was staffed by the young, full of contempt for their experimentally challenged elders. In its more flamboyant moments, of which it had more than a few, it raised adolescence to an ideology.

Revolutionaries singing the praises of technological progress is rather like archbishops recommending adultery. These cultural experimenters seem to have overlooked the fact that no social system in history has been more innovative and dynamic than capitalism, and that a credulous trust in progress was a stock belief of the very middle classes they sought to outrage. It is true that this faith was coming badly unstuck in the early twentieth century, and would finally lie bleeding on the battlefields of the First World War. Even so, turning the middle classes’ belief in technological progress against their own cultural conservatism was always a perilous tactic.

Scandalizing the bourgeoisie, whose grandchildren were to be charged fancy prices for the very works of art that did so, meant more than rejecting this or that convention. It involved an assault on the idea of men and women as autonomous individuals with rich interior lives. That ripe, Proustian interiority was to be ripped apart by an art that was externalizing, mechanistic and deconstructive. For the first time in the history of aesthetics, fragmentation and dislocation ousted the impulse to unify. The Old Man (private, spiritual, contemplative) was to be taken apart, and the New Man (active, collectivist, mobile, anonymous) was to be constructed in his place. This meant waging an unpleasantly macho campaign against moralism, realism and Romanticism, all of which were soggy with feminine feeling. The Futurist Manifesto ditches feminism along with libraries, museums and academies. The avant-garde was a robustly masculine affair; its hymns to lust and Deleuze-like cult of desire boded ill for anyone furnished with a uterus. A Manifesto of Futurist Woman encourages woman “to find once more her cruelty and her violence that make her attack the vanquished because they are vanquished”. There is a good deal of such sub-Nietzschean swagger in the current as a whole. The decadent values of pity and compassion – mere fronts for the predatory bourgeoisie – must give way to a certain spiritual brutalism.

Alongside the more positive strand of avant-garde revolt, with its complex relations to Bolshevism, Trotskyism and (in the case of Marinetti) Fascism, flourished a more negative, even nihilistic strain, which held that the cultural establishment could absorb attacks on this or that meaning; what it could not withstand was an assault on meaning as such. It followed that the most lethal revolutionary weapon was absurdity. In a period of savage irrationalism stretching from the Somme to the rise of Hitler, only the lunatic could be said to be sane. Reason itself was an oppressive force, and the title of madman was one to be cherished. Logic was the preserve of those incapable of creation. Since manifestos made a kind of sense, they, too, were to be junked. “No more manifestos”, demanded a Dadaist manifesto. “DADA MEANS NOTHING”, announced another.

Continue reading