July 01, 2009

Socialist Realism

August 1934

there was once a fearsome, one-eyed sultan who decided to have his portrait painted. He summoned the first artist, who painted the sultan just as he was, with one eye. The artist was executed, and this marked the end of critical realism. Then a second artist was summoned, and he portrayed the sultan with two eyes that flashed with blinding lightning. The ruler was outraged by this glaring falsehood, and the second artist was also executed, putting an end to romanticism. Then a third artist was summoned. He portrayed the sultan galloping on a magnificent black steed while brandishing a sword, his head turned in profile to the viewer – and was richly rewarded. This marked the beginning of socialist realism.

This Soviet-era joke, which must have been thought up by an artist (or perhaps a writer or art critic) who, for obvious reasons, preferred to remain anonymous, gets right to the heart of the matter. Nobody ever asked socialist realism to lie. Quite the contrary – the Soviet writers who gathered at their first congress back in 1934 and swore to abide by this poorly-understood art form clearly explained what they had in mind: “As the primary method of Soviet literature and literary criticism, socialist realism demands from the artist a faithful, historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development. Furthermore, this faithfulness and historical concreteness must go hand in hand with the task of ideologically reshaping and educating the workers in the spirit of socialism.” So reality had to be depicted faithfully and nothing was supposed to be hidden from view. True, “revolutionary development” was not to be forgotten. In other words it had to be shown in every instance how the forces of good triumph over the forces of evil, insofar as revolution and the establishment of communism were inevitable.

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