It is no news that powerful people have used art to manipulate the masses and promote positive and negative political agendas -- repression, oppression, discrimination, and segregation, hope, change, freedom. The list goes on. As discussed in my previous posts, art -- recognized early on as a powerful and provocative instrument -- has been and continues to be a tool used by governments and regimes of kinds.
“Champions of Social Realism” discusses the reemergence of work similar to the "Socialist Realism" work that Stalin made the official art of the Soviet Union under his regime. The work is gaining momentum again as a valued art form, and the ‘champions’ of social realist work wish to restore it to its rightful place in art history. Paying huge amounts of money to not only personally acquire but also publicly display the of the art, many of these wealthy benefactors see the work for its artistic merit and appreciate childhood memories associated with many of the family scenes. I find it interesting that this style of art appeals to the rich and upper class although it depicts the working class. On the other hand, there has been a vast number of people since the fall of the Soviet Union that associate the art with the terror of Stalin and Soviet Russia. Some don’t even see why the history matters, claiming the art should be evaluated based on its own merit regardless of its controversial context. In my opinion, art and history are so deeply rooted in one another that attempting to segregate the two only takes away from the experience and interaction one could have with the art -- an evaluation of now and then. History does not define our present, but the pieces that preserve it allow us the unique opportunity to remember and grow.
When Stalin declared Socialist Realism the official art of the Soviet Union, all other styles faded away. Sheer survival required abstract artists to change their art and produce art that met certain standards and propagated the “right” content. Although we may not agree with the inherent messages in the art produced by these Social (and Socialist) Realist artists, the article brings up an intriguing point about appreciating the artists for working within the confines of their time and place.
“They had to define something that
According to Frances Asquith, the director of the Russian pictures department at Sotheby’s, the artists who established themselves in the Soviet art world under Stalin were faced with an interesting challenge: “They had to define something that didn’t exist.” And they had to define what didn’t exist in way that didn’t get them executed. That said, Even if the government commissions or controls art for propaganda purposes with certain principles, styles, and convention, artists can still use their skills to tweak the message. For example, well established Social Realist painter, Alexander Dienekes’ provocative portrayal of the naked human figure “transcended the state’s asexual self image.” Popkov pioneered a new style within Social Realism that showed greater experimentation with color and abstraction. This Severe Style also included “psychologically penetrating domestic scenes” that subtly strayed from the usual glorified depiction of family and the working class.
Commissioned artists may seem a puppet of the government on one hand, but the work of Dienekes and Popkov present another idea altogether: he whose hand holds the paintbrush has the most control over the outcome of the painting, does he not? Now, I have no knowledge of the moral musings and political opinions of these artists. However, it excites my imagination to think that they may have attempted to undermine the oppressive policy and destructive messages of their commissioners by using their creative genius to manipulate the images in a way that resonated with people and went unnoticed by the government. Of course, such covert creative practices are probably as romantic as the much of the propaganda that supported Stalin’s vision of his country. We see that even subtle alterations in appearance of powerful figures did not slip past them so easily. For Social Realist painter, Isaak Brodsky choosing to paint a fur cap or hat on the head of military leader, Voroshilov, was a matter of life and death.
Unfortunately, artists and their art are still at risk today, perhaps even more so than in the past. In the case of Brain McCarty, he found out that the terrorist group ISIS had stolen one of his photographs and doctored it to use as recruiting propaganda. The photographer from California was shocked when he saw that his original photo -- which was inspired by a girl from Gaza forced to live each day in fear of a missile strike -- into a poster promoting the terrorist platform. What angered him most was not that his work was stolen and propagated illegally, but that his art intended to promote peace was turned into a treatise of terror. The internet has made art both more accessible and more easily distorted. Vulnerability is the price artists all over the world pay for attempting to promulgate their work and their message using the technology of our time. This is yet another reason why I believe it is critical to consider context as well as content. If we only evaluated an artist on his or her workmanship, we may miss a key component of their craft: courage.