Some Notes on the Apparently Mutually Exclusive Status of (M/m)odern (A/a)rt and Socialist Realism

I have recently—and finally—had the time to read Art and Democracy in Post-Communist Europe (London: Reaktion, 2012), by the great (and unfortunately now deceased) art historian Piotr Piotrowski. For many, like myself, in the field of Eastern European art history, Piotrowski’s attempt to model and facilitate what he calls a “horizontal art history” remains a continued source of methodological and theoretical inspiration. Piotrowski’s scholarship always seems—to me, at least—to admirably walk the line between overarching regional and even global syntheses and, at least in those geographical areas where he had expertise, engagement with the specificity of local conditions and traditions. Of course, Art and Democracy in Post-Communist Europe is, like Piotrowski’s In the Shadow of Yalta: Art and the Avant-Garde in Eastern Europe, 1945-1989 (London: Reaktion, 2009), a survey, and as such it is engaged in the methodological project of understanding broad narratives and trends as opposed to delving deeply into particular, concrete situations.

One of Piotrowski’s key goals in mapping out these narratives and trends is to come to terms as fully as possible with the geographical (and geopolitical) implications of art history—both its limitations and its possibilities. With this geographical sophistication, however, comes a certain theoretical bluntness. Piotrowski embraces this—he declares at the outset that he is “not a political theorist” (even as he explains his use of Chantal Mouffe’s notion of agonistic democracy as a frame for the book). Additionally, he declares the book to be far more concerned with contemporaneity and its disjunctures than with providing a history (as In the Shadow of Yalta aimed to do). Nonetheless, as all historians are ultimately constrained to do, Piotrowski must start somewhere, and his starting point is a swift yet nuanced reiteration of the map sketched out in In the Shadow of Yalta.

In a way, what I want to do next is completely unfair to Piotrowski, but I will proceed regardless precisely because I believe that—in selecting a very specific moment in Piotrowski’s text, indeed a single sentence—we can grasp a vast and complicated problem that evidences the power of Piotrowski’s methodology. It also presents us with precisely the kind of problem that any “horizontal art history” should—indeed, must—be able to confront, if never resolve. Discussing the dubious merits of treating Eastern/Central European art history according to the model of “colonization,” Piotrowski suggests that the obvious angle would be to treat Soviet culture as the occupier, but points out that this dissolves in concrete cases, since Socialist Realism was only “an official ideological façade” in many countries in the region. He then declares, “In fact, one could say that it was modern art, not Socialist Realism, that defined the cultural identity of Central Europe [a term Piotrowski uses to encompass areas often described as either ‘Eastern’ or ‘Central’ Europe] between 1945 and 1989” (46).

Above all else, I think this sentence is a fair summation of Piotrowski’s In the Shadow of Yalta, which charted many of the Modernist movements in postwar Eastern Europe against the foil of a (/n always unfortunately un-illustrated and therefore amorphous and spectral) Socialist Realism. (One chapter, on the significance of figuration, is even titled “Un-Socialist Realism”.) It also raises the difficult problem that I alluded to above, namely: What is the relationship between “Socialist Realism” (let us note the capitalization) and “modern art” (let us note the absence of capitalization)?

Having raised this question, and moving in the spirit of Piotrowski’s desire to decenter hierarchical art history, we can almost immediately imagine a number of related, yet deeply different questions: What is the relationship between socialist realism and modern art? What is the relationship between socialist realism and Modern art? What is the relationship between socialist realism and Modern Art? What is the relationship between Socialist Realism and modernism? What is the relationship between socialist Realism and Modernism? What is the relationship between Socialist Realism and Modernism? What is the relationship between socialist realism and Modernism? What is the relationship between socialist realism and modernism? Etc., etc. This list of potential questions is not a fanciful play with the ambiguities presented by the un-codified (or, differently-codified) norms of capitalization. It is, instead, a very serious interrogation of the relationship between style, periodization, and ideology. It suggests the truly exhausting number of potential topologies that can be developed by really considering the question of Socialist Realism in Eastern/Central Europe (and remember, we have not even moved—as Piotrowski demands that we do—beyond a crude and generalized global-regional frame of investigation).

Allow me to elaborate what I think is deeply problematic about Piotrowski’s statement, and to attempt to present some of the ways we might both be more careful about our use of the language of style and periodization, and gain a more comprehensive picture of what “the cultural identity of Central[/Eastern] Europe” was in the years between 1945 and 1989. Juxtaposing “Socialist Realism” to “modern art” posits three related conceptual moves, both—in my opinion—fundamentally flawed. First, it assumes the monolithic (and therefore capitalized) quality of Socialist Realism, which we are invited to assume is clearly defined as the Soviet variety (which we are in turn invited to assume was a clearly codified and unified phenomenon, without meaningful ambiguity or internal, chronological strife). Second, it invites us to treat Socialist Realism as a movement or style that is straightforwardly and exclusively distinguished from the already vastly general term “modern art.” Third, instead of aligning “Socialist Realism” against a clearly (or at least what I would interpret as a clearly) stylistic alternative—namely, Modernism—it aligns it against a term that seems (again, at least to me) more clearly chronological—namely, “modern art.” The lack of capitalization in “modern art” implies the absence of an emphatic ideology (it is not even “Modern art,” or “Modern Art”); that is, it is the art that comes after pre- and early-modern art, and yet before post-modern art. This implies that Socialist Realism, a stylistically unified category belongs to a different chronological period, presumably an earlier one, yet this is never elaborated. The fact that both Modernism and “modern art” are generally considered to begin in the late 19th century (at least in the Francophile model Piotrowski implicitly critiques) means that the conventional way to read Piotrowski’s statement would be to say that Socialist Realism is a retrograde return to some pre-modern form of art-making, and thus—by implication—that it offers little of art historical significance.

Of course, this is precisely the kind of interpretation that Piotrowski’s “horizontal” art history would want to reject. Therefore, even if Piotrowski himself continues to use “Socialist Realism” as a convenient historical foil (and to use both “modern art” and, as is more frequently the case in In the Shadow of Yalta, “Modernism”), this should not prevent us from thinking critically about the ideologies at play here, and from rejecting the apparent premises and implications of a sentence like “In fact, one could say that it was modern art, not Socialist Realism, that defined the cultural identity of Central Europe between 1945 and 1989.”

I would like to offer, as it were, a series of both theoretical and polemical guidelines for thinking the relationship between Socialist Realism (I will retain the capitalization, but—as I note below—reject any implications of unified ideology or style) and both “modern art” and “Modernism.” These are, of course, methodological directives steeped in ideology, and not meant to be universalizing; they are intended quite explicitly to move away from the “hierarchical” art history Piotrowski critiques but does not fully escape. They are also the result of my own engagement with 20th-century Albanian art, much of which relates fundamentally to (a decidedly, I would argue, diverse and stylistically conflicted) Socialist Realism even if it cannot be subsumed under that label. As such, the applicability of these guidelines will vary geographically, just as do theories of psychoanalysis, postcolonialism, and postmodernism.

Edison Gjergjo, Lavdi Deshmoreve, no date [before 1969], oil on canvas
Edison Gjergjo, Lavdi Deshmoreve, no date [before 1969], oil on canvas
So, then, a kind of incomplete methodological manifesto, and a challenge:

1) We must resist the urge to treat “Socialist Realism” as an a priori factor in our analyses of “modern” or “Modernist” art (to say nothing of our analyses of Socialist Realism itself). In other words, it is never enough to simply assert that such-and-such an artist, or a movement, rejected “the official doctrine of Socialist Realism.” As tempting as this summation may be, it tells us little, and even less when we have left the demarcated sphere of Soviet cultural policy. (Even there, especially in the absence of close visual analysis and illustrations supporting the point, the assertion that a work of stands opposed to Socialist Realism has little obvious meaning. We must think about what a particular group of artists understood by “Socialist Realism,” and about how that understanding might have played out in discourse, in material manifestations, at the time of the creation of a particular work. If we lack the resources to make these distinctions, then we are just as well off to avoid the statement that a work or an artist stands opposed to Socialist Realism.)

This is not a matter of ignoring what official documents and discourses claimed Socialist Realism to be, in particular locations. Nor is it a matter of ignoring stylistic, functional, and philosophical similarities between works typically described as “Socialist Realist.” It is simply a call to do what the best scholarship of Modernism does: enact a marked suspicion towards generalizations and a priori assumptions about the well-formed character of particular styles. (In a discussion of Antimodernism, for example, we would never take the term “Modernism” to be a self-evident (and stably codified) factor. )

2) As a continuation of this first point: We must resist the urge to straightforwardly oppose Socialist Realism and either “modern art” or “Modernism.” Whatever might be gained by such a general opposition, too much is lost. In short, what is lost is the status of Socialist Realism as a form of Modernism. The “modern,” and “Modernist” aspects of Socialist Realism—in nearly all of its manifestations—range from a stylistic indebtedness to schools of Impressionism, Expressionism, and Cubism on to philosophical affinities with Futurism, Surrealism, and Conceptualism. Just as it would be strange to starkly oppose Expressionism (as a particular strand of modern art) to “modern art” in general, so do we accomplish little of worth when we oppose Socialist Realism to modern art.

This is not a matter of obscuring the ideological, aesthetic, and historical clash between many manifestations of Modernism and many manifestations of Socialist Realism. The perceived conflict between the two was, of course, fundamental to the official rhetoric that grew up in many countries around Socialist Realism; it often represented itself as the enemy of “bourgeois revisionist” Modernism, and set out to distinguish itself from much that Modernism stood for. But this differentiation was not only a temporal process that changed over time (as the character of both Socialist Realisms and Modernisms changed) and an exercise in the unstable process of identity production. Taking the word of Socialist Realism’s theorists that the style was not Modernist would be as pointless as proclaiming that it really is the true style of the future simply because they asserted it was so.

3) We must recognize that, insofar as it was a Modernist style, Socialist Realism was not a single “ism” but rather a constellation of the “isms” mentioned above, combined in new ways and in many cases incorporating new elements.

This is not a matter of throwing as many “isms” at a particular work of art or set of works of art as possible, but rather a matter of getting at the complex assemblages hiding behind the monolithic terms “modern art,” “modernism,” and “Modernism.”

4) We must pay close attention to how we periodize Socialist Realism, and avoid treating it as a simple (and naïve) throwback to pre-modern or early-modern ideologies, styles, and practices of artistic creation. (This is precisely what is risked by Piotrowski’s juxtaposing it to “modern art.”) Elsewhere, I have discussed the potential significance (narrowly speaking, in the context of Albanian 20th-century painting) of Boris Groys’ assertion that Socialist Realism was “a style and a half,” falling somewhere between Modernism and Postmodernism. This is one approach, but there are of course elements of Socialist Realism in particular cases and geographies that escape this chronology.

This is not a matter of returning to a kind of Wölfflinian art history that is concerned with the careful delineation of different periodic styles and eras of thought. (Though in actuality a truly Wölfflinian history of, say, Socialist Realism in Eastern Europe, would be much more subtle and stylistically and psychologically sophisticated than Wölfflin’s detractors would insist.) However, it does mean being more honest about what kinds of factors we are truly focusing on when we periodize artistic movements and styles, and thus about what we are claiming is innovative as opposed to that which we claim is conservative, traditional, or retrograde.

5) When we consider Socialist Realism, we must also grapple honestly with the heritage of Romanticism, Realism (more on this below), and (Neo-)Classicism in the 20th-century. Again, the problem often arises in the case of a double standard: we would seldom deny the influence of Romanticism on many Modernisms (if indeed we would even set the two apart so sharply), but are often far more willing to set, say, the “revolutionary romanticism” of Chinese Socialist Realism over against the development of “Modernism.”

This is not a matter of historicist devotion to the continuity of discrete concepts or movements through time, nor is it methodological devotion to the elaboration of a particular venerated “tradition”; it will suffice to point out that in many cases (and this is undoubtedly the case in Albania), the presence of a strong ‘tradition’ in the visual arts was absent in many fields. In other words, we are not speaking of the continuation of Romanticism, of Greek or Italian ‘schools,’ of Classicism or Neo-Classicism, of some primitivism archaism—we are speaking instead of the emergence of these styles, ideologies, and tendencies in the context of modernization and Modernism. Of course, Socialist Realism did look to particular elements of past art history, such as 19th-century Realism and Classicism, for inspiration, and it did so because they preceded the “decadence” of Modernism. However, the lesson that this teaches us is not so much as lesson about a backwards-looking ideology, but about the continued (re)invention of certain styles and philosophies in the 20th century. Modernism participated in this (re)invention, and—as a Modernism—so did Socialist Realism, in a number of temporally and geopolitically specific ways that bear further investigation.

6) Finally, we must take the engagement with Socialist Realism as an opportunity to re-evaluate the status of Realism(s) in both 20th– and 21st-century art and culture. “Realism” (and its sometime partner, “materialism”) have recently enjoyed a resurgence in cultural theory, and this has—to some degree—triggered a re-evaluation of R/realism in art historical narratives. However, some of the recent efforts at this, such as Alex Potts’ survey Experiments in Modern Realism (Yale University Press: New Haven, 2013) do not fully address the problem, since they often simply embrace already canonical figures (like Pollock) as ‘realism’ and continue to dismiss styles that have already been too often dismissed, such as Socialist Realism. We owe it to ourselves to write a history of the relationship between Real/ism and the 20th-century (neo-)avant-garde that does not simply reiterate the geographical and artistic foci of, say, Hal Foster. Part of this history must be the histories of various Socialist Realisms, and these Realisms must be acknowledged to be as diverse as the Realities they denied, reflected, distorted, emerged from, and constructed.

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