Socialist realism and art for the state’s sake

In these times of major global challenges, art should have a purpose. When I say that, however, I sometimes think about socialist realism. No one can deny that it was art with a purpose. Yet it was not my idea of art with a purpose — what I call “Art for Our Sake.” It is worth looking at what created socialist realist art and at what distinguishes it from Art for Our Sake.

Lenin speaking to the workers of the Putilov factory, in Petrograd, 1917
by Isaak Brodsky.

First, what is socialist realism? This art form emerged after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917. The Bolsheviks were trying to build a new state, a new world, even a new type of human being — “Soviet Man.” Lenin and Stalin personally decided how art could help with that goal. In 1932, socialist realism became the official art style of the state. Artists either got with the program or had to leave. Some who did not cooperate were executed.

At its worst, socialist realism was propaganda. For example, in “Roses for Stalin” by Boris Vladimirski, children in spiffy white uniforms give a bouquet to Stalin, who is also clad in white. The messaging about Stalin being a kindly “father of the country” is quite clear.

Roses for Stalin by Boris Vladimirski

Except in the many cases of overt propaganda, however, socialist realist paintings do not leap out as anything particularly horrible. There are many fine portraits of leaders, historical scenes, paintings of workers, and bucolic landscapes filled with peasants.

Much of the painting is quite beautifully done. Many of the artists used classical approaches to figure painting and landscapes. Others painted in styles that would not be considered unusual today if seen in another context.

Bread by Tetyana Yablonska.

At the Weekend by Viktor Popkov.

So, what’s the problem? The problem is the context.

Socialist realist artists worked within one context — the one set by the state. The role of art for Lenin was to promote the ideals of Soviet-style socialism to workers. He did not like art that, in his view, workers and peasants could not understand. What was important was supporting the party line.

Georgi Plekhanov, a Marxist who formulated some of the ideas that led to socialist realism, said art acquires social significance “only in so far as it depicts, evokes, or conveys actions, emotions, and events that are of significance to society.”

So artists conformed, willingly or otherwise, and started promoting a utopian vision of the Soviet state — the vision dictated by their leaders. Many artists were enthusiastic supporters of the revolution and used their art to promote the cause. Others found themselves forced to conform or were side-lined once socialist realism emerged as the only approved form of art.

In the new artistic regime, negative comments about Soviet society and living conditions were not appreciated. Artists who strayed too far from Lenin’s artistic directives were branded degenerate and dealt with.

So, in the case of socialist realism, artists were not able to rise above the demands of the state that sometimes brutally governed them. They were unable to address issues on a larger scale because they were either not allowed to or they wore political blinders. Even though Marxism and Soviet socialism promised to solve problems for all humankind, these theories translated into a horrible totalitarian regime that did not save the world, but instead suppressed the freedoms people need to thrive.

To be truly effective Art for Our Sake needs to rise above existing political and cultural contexts. That’s why I’ve selected themes such as frontiers of science and global environmental crises for my art. These are pan-human and pan-global concerns. States and cultures influence how effectively we can address these global issues, but they can’t own them.

This is one of my “Art for Our Sake” paintings. It was conceived as part of my effort to generate more interest in one of today’s frontiers of science, space exploration.

The Soviet Union is gone. And, unfortunately, the memory of the work of many talented artists who tried to support that state through socialist realism will disappear as well.

Any state or culture can demand that its artists create art that serves the purpose of the state or culture. The result will be art like socialist realism.

Art for Our Sake doesn’t serve the purpose of any state or culture. Its purpose is larger. Because of this, it will be remembered by future generations as the first global movement of artists to join together to solve current global challenges and move toward a better future for all.

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An artist passionate about exploring the zones where art meets science. Former Art Director of National Geographic magazine.

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chris sloan

chris sloan

An artist passionate about exploring the zones where art meets science. Former Art Director of National Geographic magazine.

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