The art form that became the singular artistic expression of communism took its roots in the mid-nineteenth century, aiming to establish art as a manual for (socialist revolutionary) life.
Tetiana Yablonska, Bread, Oil on Canvas, 1949The foundations of Russian socialist realism were provided by Nicholai G. Chernyshevsky (1828 - 1889), translator and critical commentator of John Stuart Mills’ Principles of Political Economy. An enthusiastic reader of Henri de Saint-Simon and other proto-communist radicals, he was the editor of a subversive magazine, Sovremennik (Contemporary), for which he wrote economic and analytical texts, critiquing the Tsar’s government and calling for revolutionary change. While the bohemians of Montmartre were worrying about whether or not their paintings would make it through the selection committee of the Salon of 1863, Chernyshevsky was being arrested and imprisoned in the Peter and Paul fortress in St. Petersburg for demanding the overthrow of the Tsar. Behind bars in Moscow, the inspired Chernyshevsky was able to persuade his captors that he should be allowed to write, and he quickly produced a revolutionary novel titled What is to be Done, which would become regarded as one of the most influential texts inspiring the Russian revolution. The book describes a group of young people who become ascetic revolutionaries, entirely dedicated to the cause of the workers, even though they have middle-class backgrounds. Chernyshevsky was able to arrange the publication of the novel in serial in Sovremennik during 1863 while still confined to his cell. What is to be Done was published in an English translation in 1886. No sooner had he finished the novel and sent it to his magazine for publication than Chernyshevsky was dragged from his cell to face the horror of a mock execution, then shipped off to prison in the frozen landscapes of Siberia. After six years there, he faced another twelve years in exile in Yakutsk. Karl Marx commented on Chernyshevsky with high praise, describing him in his seminal work Das Kapital as “a great Russian scholar and critic,” “a master mind,” and “the greatest of today’s revolutionary writers. Friedrich Engels described him as a “socialist Lessing.” Vladimir Lenin was deeply impressed by the lifestyle of the characters within Chernyshevsky’s novel, claiming that he would not have become a revolutionary himself had he not read it, saying, "Before my acquaintance with the works of Marx, Engels, and Plekhanov, only Chernyshevsky had a major influence on me, an overwhelming influence.” In the summer after his brother was executed for plotting to murder the Czar, Lenin read What is to be Done five times, and he adopted the lifestyle of the lead character Rakhmetov, living a life of austerity and preparing for revolution. Lenin’s literary admiration was sincere, too. In 1902 he paid homage to Chernyshevsky by borrowing the title of his hero’s book for the first publication of his own political writings, describing the need for the establishment of a revolutionary party to assert radical ideas among the proletariat. Chernyshevsky’s influence upon early Russian communists was so deep that Simon Karlinsky, a modern authority on pre-revolutionary Russia, described him as “the true father of Bolshevism,” said that his philosophical writings were the foundation for “the revolutionary style, the ethics, and the aesthetics of both Russian Marxism and Russian anarchism,” and placed the responsibility for the “simplistically utilitarian” art of Soviet states firmly upon his shoulders. The principal theme of Chernyshevsky’s aesthetics follows Saint-Simon. Art should not idealize man’s experience of nature and life but should serve only to lead the people. He wrote, “Let art be content with its fine and lofty mission of being a substitute for reality in the event of its absence, and of being a manual of life for man. Reality stands higher than dreams, and essential purpose stands higher than fantastic claims.” Art must serve the needs of the people. With an active distaste and resentment of paintings that merely imitated reality, Chernyshevsky took a deeply materialistic approach to art, insisting that works of art must have a purpose other than mere imitation or beauty — they must also satisfy man’s needs. Works of art that lacked content disgusted him. Beauty was not enough, did not distinguish art, which “…seems to be a pastime too sickly sentimental for adults, and not without its dangers for young people.” No, the purpose of a work of art was not merely to fulfill vague and useless notions of beauty for its own sake, but to serve man’s “inner life” by explaining his experiences to him. As such, art was similar to history, which explained the narrative of life, and provided an interpretation of it. Artists, then, must be thinkers, providing an explanation of reality for the people, and giving them instruction on how to live. Naturally, the only correct way to live was as a socialist revolutionary. In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution in 1917, the split between the avant-garde and the individualists that Pierre-Joseph Proudhon had implied, deeply divided artists in two as they battled for control of the arts. The first group was made up of Chernyshevsky’s admirers, the true avant-garde of political art in the Saint-Simonist sense. The aesthetics of the second group, the formalist bourgeois-bohemian artists, who were to be completely crushed in the Soviet Union, was crafted by artists who believed that the revolution required them to conceive completely new ways of making art, disposing of the old ideas of the aristocracy and replacing them. This second group, which was represented by abstract artists like the famous anarchist Kazimir Malevich, had no intention of working in service of the people — although they sympathized with the revolution, its artists were thorough individualists, and their ideas were more closely in tune with the ideas of “art for art’s sake” than with those of Saint-Simon. They were revolutionary in that they recognized a need for new art for a new era, but theirs was a revolution for the petite bourgeoisie, not for the proletariat. But Marx had written that in a communist, proletarian revolution private property, bourgeois individuality, bourgeois independence, and bourgeois freedom would all be abolished. Because individuality is tied to capital “it must be swept out of the way and made impossible.” There would be no individualism in Soviet art. The process of eliminating formalist, bohemian-bourgeois, individualist artists from Soviet life was slow, and socialist realism only solidified as authoritarian dogma upon the ascendancy of Joseph Stalin as Party Secretary after the death of Lenin in 1924. During the late 1930s the party went through a fraught period of self-purification and supported and encouraged optimistic socialist realism as the singular form of art in the Soviet Union, violently suppressing any who dared to challenge it as the official art of the regime. Many fled. Wassily Kandinsky escaped to Germany and taught at the Bauhaus until Hitler terminated the school, then fled to France, where he became a citizen in 1939 and died in 1944; Marc Chagall left Russia for good in 1923 and went to Paris, and then was rescued by Varian Fry and came to the United States after the Nazi invasion; Vladimir Tatlin moved into set design and died in obscurity; Malevich abandoned Moscow for Vitebsk, where he served three months in prison after being accused of espionage, and was restricted in the kind of art he could produce. After World War II, the Russian academy and other party-funded art schools cemented socialist realism as the art of the communist block by providing exceptional training for generations of artists who traveled from across the globe to learn their craft. Dead in the Soviet Union after 1934, crushed by the Nazis in Germany after Hitler came to power in the same year, and oppressed in France after Hitler’s invasion of 1940, individualist art would survive and thrive in New York as a newly redefined American avant-garde. The financial support of America’s wealthy and idealistic limousine-socialist haute-bourgeoisie and President Franklin Roosevelt’s government would allow this fresh iteration of the avant-garde to flourish as the antithesis of communist and Nazi art, the art of the enemy. But first, in one of the greatest wrong turns in art history, the United States would also embrace the principles of socialist realism and attempt to use it to propagandize its citizens. Source