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. Now is the time to build on ground that has been cleared. What is dead will pass away without our help; land that is lying fallow does not require a program or a school, it needs work. It is as laughable as it is naïve to talk nowadays about “wanting to throw Pushkin overboard” [a reference to the 1913 Cubo-Futurist manifesto “A Slap in the Face of Public Taste”]. In the flux of forms binding laws do exist, and the classical models need cause no alarm to the artists of the New Age. What we can learn from Pushkin and from Poussin is not how to animate forms that are ossified but the eternal laws of clarity, economy, and proportion. Objet does not condemn the past in the past. It appeals for the making of the present in the present. That is why the immediate vestiges of yesterday’s transitional phases are inimical to us — symbolism, impressionism, and the rest.

We hold that the fundamental feature of the present age is the triumph of the constructive method. We find it just as much in the new economics and the development of industry as in the psychology of our contemporaries in the world of art. Objet will take the part of constructive art, whose task is not to adorn life but to organize it.

We have called our review Objet because for us art means the creation of new “objects.” That explains the attraction that realism, weightiness, volume, and the earth itself hold for us. But no one should imagine in consequence that by objects we mean expressly functional objects. Obviously we consider that functional objects turned out in factories — airplanes and motorcars — are also the product of genuine art. Yet we have no wish to confine artistic creation to these functional objects. Every organized work — whether it be a house, a poem, or a picture — is an “object” directed toward a particular end, which is calculated not to turn people away from life, but to summon them to make their contribution toward life’s organization. So we have nothing in common with those poets who propose in verse that verse should no longer be written, or with those painters who use painting as a means of propaganda for the abandonment of painting [Rodchenko — RW]. Primitive utilitarianism is far from being our doctrine. Objet considers poetry, plastic form, theater, as “objects” that cannot be dispensed with.

It is with the closest attention that Objet will follow the reciprocal relations between the new art and the present age in all its varied manifestations (science, politics, technology, customs, etc.). We observe that the development of communal activity in the course of recent years has been influenced by various phenomena that lie outside the so-called pure arts. Objet will, however, investigate examples of industrial products, new inventions, the language of everyday speech and the language of newspapers [factography — RW], the gestures of sport, etc. — in short, everything that is suitable as material for the conscious creative artist of our times. Objet stands apart from all political parties, since it is concerned with problems of art and not of politics. But that does not mean that we are in favor of an art that keeps on the outside of life and is basically apolitical. Quite the opposite, we are unable to imagine any creation of new forms in art that is not linked to the transformation of social forms, and understandably, all Objet‘s sympathy goes to the young creative forces in Europe and Russia that are constructing the new objects.

The new collective, international style is a product of work undertaken in common. All those who play a part in its development are the friends and comrades-in-arms of Objet.

The fever of construction, as we are experiencing it nowadays, is on such a general scale that work can be found for all. We are not founding any sects, we are not contenting ourselves with surrogates for the collective in the form of different trends and schools. We aim to coordinate the work of all those who are really anxious to work and do not wish to live merely on the investments of previous generations.

Whoever is accustomed not to work but to passive enjoyment, who wishes only to consume and not to create, will find Objet paltry and insipid.

There will be no philosophical orientation in Objet, or any elegant frivolities. Objet is a matter-of-fact organ, a herald of technique, a price list for new “objects” and a sketch for objects that have not yet been made.

From the sultry gloom of a Russia that has been bled white and from a Europe grown fat and drowsy the battle cry rings out:

An end to all declarations and counterdeclarations!

Make “Objects.”

7 thoughts on “Not art but communism

  1. Pingback: Not art but communism | Ícaro e a Utopia Real

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  5. Pingback: El Lissitzky’s Soviet pavilion at the Pressa exhibition in Cologne, 1928 | The Charnel-House

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