Not art but communism

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Early in 1921 the Soviet Commissar of Enlightenment Anatolii Lunacharskii nominated the young avant-garde artist El Lissitzky to serve as the USSR’s cultural ambassador to the West. At the time, the civil war in Russia was still waging, but the end was in sight. Narkompros, the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment, was ordered by Lenin to prepare to make cultural inroads in Western Europe, where revolution had stalled out but might yet be reignited. When David Shterenberg, the director of IZO (Narkompros’ Fine Arts Department), accused Lissitzky of cynically using the funded trip to Germany and the Netherlands as simply a way to promote UNOVIS, the artistic group to which he belonged at the time, the artist immediately shot back:

We are taking not art but communism to the West.

Despite the reservations expressed by art historians such as Victor Margolin, Margaret Tupitsyn, and Henk Puts about the political intent of Lissitzky’s mission, the late Detlef Mertins uncovered evidence a couple years ago that this indeed was the case. On the surface of things, of course, this statement by Lissitzky seems startlingly naïve. How could revolutionary form automatically convey revolutionary content?

Could an abstract shape (think of Beat the White Circle with the Red Wedge) really communicate a communist message? Fredric Jameson once remarked, in his 1992 lectures on The Seeds of Time, that “[i]t was one of the signal errors of the artistic activism of the 1960s to suppose that there existed, in advance, forms that were in and of themselves endowed with a political, and even revolutionary, potential by virtue of their own intrinsic properties.” The same charge might be made against the 1920s, of course, leveled against the artistic and cultural avant-garde of that era. I should like to propose another option.

Perhaps it was not just delusional exuberance or an overactive imagination that led them to make such rash claims for themselves, but rather in that moment revolutionary form and revolutionary content appeared to have merged. Or at least, things seemed to be approaching this point. Lissitzky and Ehrenberg, in their otherwise apolitical article appended below, on the end of the Western naval blockade against the fledgling Soviet Union, said as much when they wrote that “we are unable to imagine any creation of new forms in art that is not linked to the transformation of social forms.” The two appeared indissolubly interconnected. Afterward, of course, revolutionary forms of art would be banished from most of Western Europe by fascism and from the Soviet Union by Stalinism. It flew across the ocean to Chicago and New York, where the United States was rapidly in the process of becoming a global superpower. Nevertheless, nothing like the revolutionary social content prevailed in the US, and in the USSR, where this revolutionary social content was still present, revolutionary forms of art were absent. The two had become decoupled.

I’d like to thank Aleksandr Strugach for bringing these fabulous images to my attention, and the Petersburg architecture blogger and historian Sergei Babushkin for posting them. You can access his blog by clicking here, and I hope you’ll forgive this brief meditation on my part. Check out posts on PROUN and Lissitzky’s design for a yacht club also. Enjoy!

The blockade of Russia is coming to an end

El Lissitzky
Ilya Ehrenberg
Veshch (1922)

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The appearance of Objet is another sign that the exchange of practical knowledge, realizations, and “objects” between young Russian and West European artists has begun. Seven years of separate existence have shown that the common ground of artistic aims and undertakings that exists in various countries is not simply an effect of chance, a dogma, or a passing fashion, but an inevitable accompaniment of the maturing of humanity. Art is today international, though retaining all its local symptoms and particularities. The founders of the new artistic community are strengthening ties between Russia, in the aftermath of the mighty Revolution, and the West, in its wretched postwar Black Monday frame of mind; in so doing they are bypassing all artistic distinctions whether psychological, economic, or racial. Objet is the meeting point of two adjacent lines of communication.

We stand at the outset of a great creative period. Obviously reaction and bourgeois obstinacy remain strong enough on all sides in Europe as well as in disoriented Russia. But all the energy of those who cling to the past can only, at the very most, delay the process of constructing new forms of existence and communal work. The days of destroying, laying siege, and undermining lie behind us. That is why Objet will devote the least possible amount of space to combating the epigones of the academy. The negative tactics of the “dadaists,” who are as like the first futurists of the prewar period as two peas in a pod, appear anachronistic to us. Continue reading