For Proletrian Art – and the Death of Constructivism
This magazine was the official journal of the Russian Association of Proletarian Artists – RAPKh. It was published in 1931 and 1932 only. It was the successor to ‘Iskusstvo v Massi’ (‘Art for the Masses’), a copy of which can be found here.
Cover and Artwork
The cover shows ‘Comrade Vibornikh, a shock-worker tank crew member from I Brigade of the 4th. Batallion, secretary of the Komsomol cell’ It is painted in the avant-garde style so typical of the day, with heavy use of shadow, neutral space and scant attention to close detail. The artist is Zernovoi. This issue contains a rare insert on page 13 – a colour plate page has been glued onto a normal one. It shows both sides of a banner.
This issue of ‘For Proletarian Art’ confronts us with evidence of the enforced decline of the Avant-Garde and the increasing bureaucratisation of creative thought and its application. Artists are no longer seen as interpreters of philosophy or front-line creators of the new world – they are increasingly being cast as support workers whose job is to design, praise and glorify the state.
Much of this issue concerns the seemingly trivial question of one bureaucratic ‘union of artists’ merging with another. That it created such an outpouring of effort, ideological and metaphysical consideration is indicative of the political context of the time. Stalin had begun his war with the artistic community and would not relent until every facet of human expression had been largely brought under the strict control of his apparatus.
The organisations under discussion are:
RAPKh (Russian Association for Proletarian Artists)
Oktyabr (An association of proletarian artists with distinctly avant-garde leanings, led by P. I. Novitski, the former Rector of VKhUTEMAS/VKhUTEIN
Novitski had been a Menshevik from 1911 until 1920. As such, he was a deeply worrying character to the Bolsheviks. He was a founder member of the OCA – the Society of Soviet Architects – who had produced some of the most radical Avant-Garde buildings of the 20th. Century.
He was on the editorial board of the famous journal, ‘Sovremennaya Arkhitektura’ – ‘Contemporary Architecture’ – where many utopian plans and designs were published for discussion. There is an original copy of SA here.
The Descent to Socialist Realism
‘Oktyabr’ represented the ‘unacceptable’ face of proletarian art. The mysterious, non-figurative works were suspicious. The Party decided it was too difficult for the workers and peasants to understand or appreciate them. This art was seen as serving only the purposes of the artists themselves, and because of the uncertainty of interpretation, the potential for duality in the message, was regarded as potentially threatening. It had to be denounced and discouraged. Not only that, but its creators had to do the denouncing and discouraging themselves.
Self-Criticism - ‘Here’s the rope – now hang yourself’
This enforced ‘self-criticism’ was a feature of the Bolshevik approach to those who disagreed with them, even on seemingly non-political issues such as aesthetics. To the Bolsheviks, everything was political and had to be their way, or no way at all.
In order to be allowed to continue artistic activity, Novitski was forced to publicly criticise the artistic styles and philosophies that he had helped to create as part of his own commitment to supporting socialism. He had to write, here in this magazine, that his presence on the board of ‘Sovremennaya Arkhitektura’ had been a mistake and that he had resigned ‘when the editorial board took up the completely incorrect and hostile development of proleterain architecture….’ One must not be mistaken and think he was some form of dissident – indeed he was a confirmed communist, and had been a Bolshevik party member since 1920.
RAPKh triumphantly announces:
We remove our disagrement on the question of constructivism, the artistic system we consider not to be the closest to the proletariat. The same method of proletarian criticism should be used in relation to constructivism as it was to other artistic systems devised by Bourgeois culture. We consider the mastery of the constructivist style by young proletarian artists to be more ideologically dangerous in this period of the intensification of the ideological class struggle on the front of spatial arts.