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Third Text, Vol.

24, Issue 5, September, 2010, 571582

Conceptualising the Art of

Communist Times
Suman Gupta

1. Larry Wolff, Inventing

Eastern Europe: The Map
of Civilization on the Mind
of the Enlightenment,
Stanford University Press,
Stanford, CA, 1994; Maria
Todorova, Imagining the
Balkans, Oxford University
Press, Oxford, 1997
2. S A Mansbach, Modern
Art in Eastern Europe:
From the Baltic to the
Balkans, ca. 18901939,
Cambridge University
Press, Cambridge, 1999;
Jeremy Howard, East
European Art, 16501950,
Oxford University Press,
Oxford, 2006

Art of the Communist period (roughly 1945 to 1989) in the former

Eastern Bloc is arguably the most neglected in currently dominant
circuits of art history and criticism. Unless such art can be dubbed
unofficial or outright dissident it generally tends to be passed over in
disapproving silence. To keep an established artist of that period in the
post-Communist fold he or she has to be reinvented (often implausibly)
as being at odds with the Communist era. That happens relatively
rarely, and, on the whole, the entire body of art that sought attention
and relevance in that context is now overlooked irrespective of its
complex contents and affects. Post-1989 art history and criticism which
have addressed Eastern Europe (or Central and South-east Europe, or
the Balkans), and circulated widely in the West, emphasise the construction of that geopolitical space by the West with a longer historical
perspective. These often circumvent the Communist period and hark
back a couple of centuries to understand the post-Communist present.
In that mould Larry Wolff and Maria Todorova have influentially
explored the connotations of the East and of Balkanism.1 Similarly
inspired art histories of Eastern Europe, by S A Mansbach and Jeremy
Howard, have appeared, stopping just short of the Communist period.2
The analytical thrust of these has consequently not impinged upon
conceptual formulations about art of the Communist period which are
largely responsible for the above-mentioned sweeping neglect and
selective focalisations. These formulations have remained largely uninterrogated since they were put together, primarily in the 1980s and early
1990s, and have hardened and been ritualistically reiterated in the
dominant circuits of art history and criticism since.
There are two ways in which such formulations may be interrogated:
either by examining their contextual nuances and constructions carefully, or by exploring closely the art of Communist times that they ostensibly address. This article attempts the former. A sceptical discussion of
the manner in which Communist period art from the former Eastern
Bloc has been conceptually framed and disposed since the 1980s is
offered here in three sections. The first looks closely at the distinction
Third Text ISSN 0952-8822 print/ISSN 1475-5297 online Third Text (2010)
DOI: 10.1080/09528822.2010.502775


often made between official and unofficial art in Communist times,

the second examines the alleged great break before and after the 1980s,
and the third analyses influential formulations of totalitarian aesthetics.


In a frequently mentioned 1998 essay on Art After Communism?,
Robert Fleck observed:
Immediately after the Eastern European revolutions of 1989 and the
opening of the Soviet hemisphere to the capitalist art trade, exhibitions
took place in many museums in Western Europe and North America of
older or more recent art of the other half of Europe. Younger and older
artists from these countries were invited in huge numbers to travel West
and to exhibit But three years later the wave had passed.3

There was a run-up to this wave of interest and, more significantly, a

fall-out. This article is about the fall-out, but to get to that the run-up
has to be considered.
Exhibitions themed around Eastern European art were organised
from the early 1980s by, for instance, David Elliott (Director, Museum
of Modern Art, Oxford, 19761996), Andrew Nairne (Exhibitions
Director, Third Eye Centre and Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow, 19861993), and Alexander Tolnay (Director, Municipal Gallery
of Esslingen, 19761991). Reflecting on this phase of West European
interest in Eastern European art, Tolnay observed in a 1992 article that:
Even committed experts in the West ignored the cultural diversity in Eastern Europe, which existed in these countries despite the political suppression and ideological limitations. This purely political way of looking at
things, together with the usual lack of information, not only prevented an
understanding of the cultural products of the former Eastern bloc countries, but it also meant that the mere possibility that authentic sovereign
art could emerge in these countries was called into question. This automatically meant that both differences within so-called official art, as well as a
variety of unofficial art, that is art of underground movements and inner
emigration, not seen by the public, remained totally misunderstood.4
3. Robert Fleck, Art After
Communism?, Manifesta
2, exhibition catalogue,
1998, reprinted in After
Art After Communism?,
in The Manifesta Decade:
Debates on Contemporary
Art Exhibitions and
Biennials in Post-Wall
Europe, eds Barbara
Vanderlinden and Elena
Filipovic, Roomade and
MIT Press, Cambridge,
MA, 2005, p 260
4. Alexander Tolnay, East/
West Artistic Exchange in a
Changing Europe, Kunst
& Museumjournaal, 4:2,
1992, p 33
5. Ibid, p 36

He went on to note how, as a curator organising Eastern European art

exhibitions in Esslingen, he initially courted perceptions of being a
Communist agent and later came to be regarded as a visionary pioneer
of EastWest cultural relations.5 There was little doubt at the time
about where the distinction between East and West derived from: it was
clearly marked by the iron curtain, a mutually held and mutually
polarised purely political way of looking at things. That broke down in
two interconnected ways: a sharp polarisation of the official against the
unofficial when looking back at Communist times, and the conceptualisation of a great break between before 1989 and after 1989.
The first of these is mentioned by Tolnay. The polarisation of the
official and unofficial in Communist times had already become the
broadly Western way of disposing Eastern European art, and also for
recuperating an artistic presence for international consumption within
former Eastern Bloc countries. Tolnays sense that the distinction


between official and unofficial needed more variegation was perceptive, because it had already become reductively polarised. The shared
experience of former Eastern Bloc countries was differentiated from that
of the West as a matter of veering between the official and unofficial
in Communist times, and of overcoming that distinction after 1989.
The distinction was in fact offered and given content while the iron
curtain was firmly in place. Following Alexander Glezers setting up of a
Russian Museum in Exile in 1974, and accompanying the 1977 exhibition Unofficial Art from the Soviet Union (Institute of Contemporary
Arts, London), Igor Golomshtok and Glezer published a book of that
title (1977) giving the relevant definitions. The introduction clarified
that none of the artists featured has openly sought a conflict with the
political authorities and it is for that reason that we have eschewed such
emotive terms as dissident or underground for this art and prefer to
describe it more naturally and comprehensively as unofficial.6 The
simple fact of systematic institutional neglect, however, seemed
insufficient to characterise such art, and, since positive political content
was eschewed, a sort of negative political content was proposed by
Most of the works shown in this book are remote in style for the presentday art of Western Europe. Moreover the vast majority of these works,
which represent a powerful movement in the recent art of an enormous
country, come from unofficial artists who are banned in the sense that
in their own country they and their work do not, as it were, exist, being
surrounded by an impenetrable curtain of silence and hostility, although
in their work these artists do not adhere to any political doctrine and
represent a purely aesthetic movement.7
6. Golomshtok,
Introduction, in
Golomshtok and
Alexander Glezer,
Unofficial Art from the
Soviet Union, Secker &
Warburg, London, 1977,
p vii
7. Igor Golomshtok,
Unofficial Art in the Soviet
Union, in Golomshtok and
Glezer, op cit, 1977, p 81
8. Boris Groys, The Total Art
of Stalinism: Avant-Garde,
Aesthetic Dictatorship, and
Beyond, trans Charles
Rougle, Princeton
University Press, Princeton,
NJ, 1992
9. Golomshtok, Totalitarian
Art: In the Soviet Union,
the Third Reich, Fascist
Italy and the Peoples
Republic of China, CollinsHarvill, London, 1990
10. Vladislav Todorov, Red
Square Black Square:
Organon for
Imagination, SUNY,
Albany, New York, 1995

There were interestingly contrary strategies at work in these early definitions. On the one hand, the unofficial was defined by what does not
happen to such art (though disapprobation and lack of acknowledgment
are different) and by registering its diversity. On the other hand, rhetorical coherence was attributed to unofficial art by discerning a powerful
movement (as if intended) in it and by asserting its apolitical and purely
aesthetic character (as if aesthetics and politics cannot overlap). Golomshtok also indicatively kept such art separate from the style of presentday art of Western Europe thus suggesting a distinctively Eastern style.
Thus, the so-called unofficial art was not defined by its politics but by
political exclusion and, at the same time, by a distinctively Eastern
apolitical aesthetics. These uneasy negotiations toward polarising unofficial and official hardened from the late 1980s as a totalistic account
of totalitarian culture emerged. Books such as Boris Groyss The Total
Art of Stalinism,8 Golomshtoks Totalitarian Art,9 Vladislav Todorovs
Red Square Black Square,10 and the lectures and work of migr artists
like Ilya Kabakov, all perceivably representing Eastern Europe to the
West from an authentic inside view, gradually widened the gap
between official and unofficial art. By these accounts the official art
was uniformly totalitarian in Communist states and the unofficial art
was anti-totalitarian and natural; the former appeared in indistinguishable clumps according to official initiatives, and the latter was a
variegated area of individual and group efforts. Little space was left for
middle-grounds or overlaps or cross-fertilisations or ambiguities or


complexities. I return to accounts of totalitarian aesthetics below; for the

moment, it is worth noting that these enabled the polarisation of official and unofficial art in Communist times to be retrospectively
sustained and hardened, and for slight modifications to be introduced to
that end. By the time Groyss essay The Other Gaze appeared in 2003,
it was understood that:
The artists belonging to that [ie the unofficial] scene turned away from
the official art of Socialist Realism, attempting to link up with the traditions of Western and Russian modernism. No longer as ruthlessly
repressed as they had been under Stalin, these artists were assured of both
physical survival and the possibility of continuing to pursue artistic work,
yet they were almost completely cut off from the official museum, exhibition, and publication systems, as well as the possibility of travelling
abroad, and establishing connection with the Western art institutions.11

11. Boris Groys, The Other

Gaze: Russian Unofficial
Arts View of the Soviet
World, trans Paul Reitter,
in Postmodernism and the
Postsocialist Condition:
Politicized Art Under Late
Socialism, ed Ales Erjavec,
University of California
Press, Berkeley, CA, 2003,
p 55

12. Marta Sylvestrov, The

Art of the Street, Art as
Activist: Revolutionary
Posters from Central and
Eastern Europe, Thames &
Hudson, with the
Smithsonian Institution
Travelling Exhibition
Service, London, 1992,
pp 1324
13. James Aulich and Marta
Sylvestrov, Political
Posters in Central and
Eastern Europe 194595,
Manchester University
Press, Manchester, 1999
14. Laura Hoptman and
Toms Popiszyl,
Introduction, in Hoptman
and Popiszyl, eds, Primary
Documents: A Sourcebook
for Eastern and Central
European Art Since the
1950s, Museum of Modern
Art, New York, 2002, p 10

Evidently, Golomshtoks 1977 sense of a distinctive Eastern aesthetic in

the unofficial had been replaced by Groyss account of the unofficial
as torn from and desiring the West and its pre-Communist modernist
roots, through some kind of spontaneous drive. The hard polarity
between unofficial and official now derived not from the exercise of
bureaucratic and political power, but from the natural/traditional European affinities between Eastern and Western art. This account entirely
elided certain questions: was it possible for official art to evidence variety and aesthetic discernment?; was it possible for artists to operate in
both official and unofficial realms, or move between them?; did these
realms ever mix and negotiate with other?; were there grey areas and
ambivalences between the official and unofficial?; and so on.
To rewind a little, the bipartite disposal of Eastern European
Communist period art was concretised in exhibitions in the West from
the early 1990s. A 1992 travelling exhibition entitled Art as Activist:
Revolutionary Posters from Central and Eastern Europe in London and
Washington presented the 1989 revolutions as neatly enacted through
the marginal form of the poster. The catalogue introduction by Marta
Sylvestrov (Director, Moravian Gallery, Brno, then in Czechoslovakia)
made the official/unofficial distinction clear and placed posters as
central among unofficial forms.12 This was one of the early exhibitions
which led the way toward more ambitious visual accounts of the official and unofficial, so that by the 2000s this polarity was taken for
granted. An expanded follow-up from the 1992 exhibition appeared in
2000 in a Signs of the Times: Posters from Central Europe 19451995
exhibition in the Imperial War Museum, London, and Manchester
Metropolitan University, accompanied by a publication by James Aulich
and Sylvestrov.13 The latter (containing the 1980s in a single Chapter 5)
showed that posters, by definition explicit political statements, are useful
for exemplifying both sides of the official/unofficial polarity sharply.
The Samizdat: Alternative Culture in Central and Eastern Europe from
the 1960s to the 1980s exhibition and exhibitions of samizdat products
have been doing the rounds of European venues with similar effect since
the early 2000s. In 2002 Laura Hoptman and Toms Popiszyl edited the
volume Primary Documents: A Sourcebook for Eastern and Central
European Art.14 Ilya Kabakovs preface observed that the collected
documents represented:


what happened in distant, closed countries that at least in the case of

the former Soviet Union virtually did not exist in the artistic map of the
world from 1930s until the 1980s.15

(Evidently Kabakovs map of the world was now the West.) The selection represented the Communist period of Eastern European countries
almost exclusively in terms of unofficial documents and drew lines of
continuity from those to post-Communist artistic productions. The socalled official, by now also habitually designated Socialist Realism,
was entirely missing. It was also clear here that Eastern Europe was still
constructed, as in the early 1990s, almost entirely on the basis of
having been the former Eastern Bloc. In a roundtable on this volume,
during the March 2003 symposium East of Art: Transformations in
Eastern Europe (Museum of Modern Art, New York), Groys drove the
point home by asserting that Eastern European art is seen, and must be
seen, as Eastern European; if the Eastern European artists like it or not
and most do not, you know.16 His argument, in brief, was that in
Eastern European countries Communism erased very violently and very
effectively the cultural differences that existed before Communism
evolved out of the inner logic of these or those cultures, and that postCommunist art from these countries has since been engaged in erasing
that erasure by assuming a universalist and ironic attitude.17 Slavoj
izeks response, while agreeing that East Europe is East Europe,
objected both to the simplifications of this totalitarian model of
Communist art and to the concept of post-Communist universalist
izek these actuated an over-determination of Eastern
irony.18 For Z
European Communism that underplayed the politics of the Wests
izeks comment was, it
construction of Eastern Europe. Pointed as Z
drew attention away from the simplifications toward the somewhat
separate matter of Western constructions. By the early 2000s this diversion was predictable too. As mentioned above, a parallel debate regarding Eastern Europe and art in terms of Western constructions had
izek himself, but that
developed la Wolff and Todorova, and indeed Z
is outside the scope of this article.19






15. Ilya Kabakov, Preface, in

Hoptman and Popiszyl, op
cit, p 10
16. Boris Groys, The
Complicity of Oblivion,
Art Margins, 23 March
2003, available at: http://
17. Ibid
i zek, On (Un-)
18. Slavoj Z
Changing Canons and
Extreme Avantgardes, Art
Margins 22, March 2003,
available at: http://


i zek, The Spectre

19. Slavoj Z
of the Balkan, Journal of
the International Institute,
6:2, winter 1999, available
at: http://quod.lib.umich.






I have observed that in so far as the iron curtain has characterised Eastern Europeanness in art, the before and after of 1989, or (more
cautiously) of the 1980s, has been increasingly emphasised as a great
break. The polarisation between official and unofficial in Communist
times intertwined with a widening polarity between the pre-1980s and
post-1980s periods. The idea became ensconced that there is a relationship between the years pre- and post-1980s in so far as the experience of
Communism (of the division between official and unofficial) characterises Eastern Europeanness in art, but this relationship is one of pure
opposition. That is, the formerly unofficial became official and then
transformed art to mark a comprehensive break with the former ethos,
and consequently a resoundingly new attitude and distinctive worldview
was cultivated. The further one moves from 1989 the more comprehensive this break seems.


To chart the growing emphasis on the break let me step back again to
the early 1990s. The exhibition Europe Without Walls: Art, Posters,
and Revolution 19891993 at the Manchester City Gallery, November
1993January 1994, may be usefully recalled here. A related 1994
special issue of Art and Design Magazine featured critics from Eastern
European countries commenting on artistic modernism and postmodernism. Mojca Oblaks contribution on Slovenian art tried to generalise
about East European art by focusing on the experience of Communist
totalitarianism but, interestingly, the wall between the pre- and post1980s was fairly porously constructed here. It was suggested that Eastern European modernism/postmodernism before and after was both
distinct from and related to the Western European through a complex of
transfers and cross-fertilisations and shifting ideological orientations. It
was not simply that works of art were self-evidently unofficial and
official or modern/postmodern and otherwise in the Communist
period, but that the emphases of looking at and, so to speak, reading art
were at stake:
The legitimacy of contemporary art was not entirely denied, but certain
works of art were not entirely accepted until, through specific historical
appropriation, they were emptied of their dangerous modernist potential and were no longer regarded as confrontational in respect of socialist

20. Mojca Oblak, Neue

Slowenische Kunst: And
New Slovenian Art, New
Art from Eastern Europe:
Identity and Conflict, Art
& Design Magazine, no
35, special issue, 1994,
pp 910
21. Ibid, p 10
22. Ian McKay, Czech Art
Today: On the Death of
Czech Culture, pp 2735;
va Krner, The Absurd
as Concept: Phenomena of
Conceptualism, pp 5459;
Paulina Kolczynska,
Contemporary Polish Art:
An Interpretation and
Analysis, pp 6171, all in
New Art from Eastern
Europe, op cit
izek, The
23. Slavoj Z
Enlightenment of Laibach,
in New Art from Eastern
Europe, op cit, pp 817


It is this matter of how the gaze and reading are ideologically reoriented
that underlies Oblaks analysis of modern or postmodern, post-1980s
and, in particular, Eastern European art. Oblak also picked up the kind
of irony that Groys sees in post-Communist art, but regarded it not so
much as anti-totalitarian aesthetics as a strategy for negotiating within
the ethos of the Communist state (and therefore away from that ethos
too) a strategy arising from ideologically repressive pressure and
ideological contradictions. Interestingly, Oblak also located the recent
post-1980s art as defined against the Western concept of modernity
rather than against the pre-1980s development of East European art:
Recent East European art is constituted in a completely different context
[from the Western] as a result of its relation to political totalitarianism,
or, more precisely, social realism in decay. East European art does not
recognise itself in that relation to modernism and the problematic context
of the commodity which is characteristic of Western postmodernism.
Rather this recognition arises from the traumatic ideological field, which
it reflects in different ways.21

Other essays in this special issue, addressing Czech, Hungarian and

Polish art,22 seemed to follow a similar rendering of modernism/postmodernism without generalising about East European art; and also
i zeks view of these ideological distinctions (similar to those
included Z
he expressed in the 2003 East of Art symposium) from his essay The
Enlightenment in Laibach.23
Gradually, after 1994, such complex accounts of pre- and post-1980s
art gave way to a more rigid rendering of a comprehensive break. Boris
Budens resistant observations on this in his article The Revolution of
1989 are in many ways a succinct statement of the obvious:



The fall of the Berlin Wall echoes the myth of Eros not only in terms of
an epochal victory of love that has finally reunited what Communist
totalitarianism previously separated, but also in terms of the regressive,
restorative tendency of the democratic Revolution of 1989, in short, its
essentially conservative character.24

Buden interrogated both the misrecognition of the post-1980s as an

ideology-free and apolitical order, and the glitches in memory through
which the pre-1980s Communist past is now evoked in Europe. But
much more than the views expressed, it is Budens tone which makes
the point: it is articulated defiantly against a prevailing and pervasive
attitude precisely the attitude that has rendered the pre- and post1980s as rigidly polarised in a normative way: from totalitarianism to
freedom, from the grip of ideology to a release from ideology, from
top-down power to peoples agency, from hatred to love, and so on.
Budens intervention is, however, singular in this area, and his defiant
tone cognisant of that, because in fact the polarisation remains firmly
in place.
The polarisation works in several ways. Accounts of East European
art whereby the formerly unofficial became official and was then
transformed grasped at the 1980s as a schismatic singularity after
which all became different. One of the clearest expositions of this attitude appears in Ales Erjavecs edited volume, Postmodernism and the
Postsocialist Condition (2003). Erjavec introduces the 1980s in a range
of former Eastern Bloc countries, with Cuba and China tagged on, as:
an epoch [that] signified a pivotal artistic break with their Socialist
realist past and partly with their modernist past.25 Accordingly,
Groyss retrospection on Russian unofficial art mentioned above
follows Erjavecs introduction, along with Misko Suvakovi cs on 1980s
art in Mitteleuropa and the Balkans, Erjavecs on Slovenian art, and
Ptar Gyrgys on art in Hungary.26 To give such focused attention to
the 1980s in itself, as a solid and distinct wedge between the before and
the after, is actually to be more perspicacious in this regard than usual.
Much more often the polarisation of before and after is now simply
thoughtlessly accepted, sometimes without even recognising anything as
tangible as an interim decade. Numerous incidental observations and
statements in different East European contexts have glossed over the
1980s as a barely characterisable turning point, a thin line marking an
absolute break. Iara Boubnovas 2006 observations on Bulgarian art are

24. Boris Buden, The

Revolution of 1989: The
Past of Yet Another
Illusion, in Vanderlinden
and Filipovic, eds, op cit,
p 115
25. Ale s Erjavec,
Introduction, in Erjavec,
op cit, p 2

26. In Erjavec, op cit, see Boris

Groys, The Other Gaze:
Russian unofficial Arts
View of the Soviet World,
pp 5589; Misko
Suvakovic, Art as a
Political Machine:
Fragments on the Late
Socialist and Postsocialist
Art of Mitteleuropa and
the Balkans, pp 90134;
Erjavec, Neue Slowenische
Kunst New Slovenian
Art: Slovenia, Yugoslavia,
Self-Management, and the
1980s, pp 13574; Ptar
Gyrgy, Hungarian
Marginal Art in the Late
Period of State Socialism,
pp 175207.



27. Iara Boubnova, Bulgaria:

Tracing Back, in IRWIN,
ed, East Art Map:
Contemporary Art and
Eastern Europe, Afterall,
Central St Martins College
of Art and Design, London,
2006, p 153




The professional impossibility of constructing a logical succession of

artists and events before 19845 is grounded in the simple fact that
hardly anything from the abundant artistic production in the country
between 1945 and 19845 would merit the qualification of a direct link
to what is taken to be the state of contemporary art and artists in
Bulgaria now. It is an incredibly difficult task to speak of alternative or
underground artistic activities in Bulgaria prior to 19845. Even at that
time [19845] the first signs of alternative artistic thinking were not at
the same time signs of alternative social ideas, let alone dissident trends.27

In Boubnovas view, it seems, all artists who and art which can be
regarded as contemporary were simply born or reborn in 19841985.


Throughout the above I have noted occasional calls for caution in
disposing the art of Communist times, and of the post-Communist in
relation to Communist times, too neatly into pigeonholes. Tolnay was
sceptical of both the so-called official art and a variety of unofficial
izek has warned of oversimplification; Buden clarified some of
art; Z
the myths and misrecognitions surrounding the great break of 1989.
And there are others. One of the frequently evoked categories that is
used interchangeably to capture a specific Stalinist phase of control of
cultural production, artistic production under Communist regimes
generally, and totalitarian art as a whole28 is that of Socialist Realism.
Matthew Bowns Socialist Realist Painting (1998) sought to complicate
the category both by placing it within a broad historical perspective
and by discerning qualitative levels.29 In a 2007 article, Re-Thinking
the Cultural Field in Central and Eastern Europe, Lrnd Hegyi calls
for a more differentiated view of Communist regimes and contexts in
different countries of the East, especially when seen from the West,
than currently obtains.30 These warnings are self-consciously against
the grain of the prevailing ethos and come with a sense of speaking
against widely held perceptions. Such perceptions derive largely from
the reductive and homologous account of totalitarian aesthetics in the
Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries which has powerfully held
sway since it was put together, as noted above, in the late 1980s and
early 1990s.
The power of this account derives not so much from attention to
details concerning the art in question, but from the manner of its own
self-perpetuating logic; ie, from the way in which the account was put
together and thereafter absorbed details within its structures by selective
and predetermined interpretation. Put otherwise: the conceptualisation
of totalitarian aesthetics, and its containment of artistic practices in
Communist times, has arguably been not merely an accounting of totalitarianism out there in the past but a totalising performance itself. This
has worked by dissociating its perception of an ideologically led totality
from material, pragmatic and everyday worlds, and understanding the
totality as acting upon those worlds in an autonomous and subsuming
fashion as an immaterial, impractical and idealistic aesthetic. All texts
and cultural productions from those complex worlds are thereafter seen
as symptoms of that free-standing and top-down aesthetic, either irremediably fitting in (therefore official) or otherwise invisible (unofficial).
But this mode of recounting Communist times is principally carried by
the thrust of its own rhetorical performance: the identification of a freestanding and auto-perpetuating totality enables the placement of all
complexities after the fact of verbalising the totalitarian core first. It is
the critical text which thus looks back that also performs the subsuming
of all productions in the ever-extending sweep of its own conception of
totalitarianism. This is not to deny that totalitarian repression existed,
all too materially and with visceral effect, but to suggest that it existed in
relation to complexities of material, pragmatic, everyday worlds. The
account in question has written out those complexities in a bid to show
how total the totalitarianism was. Doing that is a totalising performance

28. It is recognised that as a

mode of describing specific
art policy and production,
perhaps the Stalinist period
is where Socialist Realism
is most unambiguously
applicable. This is noted in
passing in books by Groys
and Golomshtok discussed
here, and, for instance, in
Henry Meyric Hughes,
When East Was East and
West Was West: Art
Attitudes in the Cold War,
in Vanderlinden and
Filipovic, op cit, pp 133
52. But that does not deter
the application of the term
Socialist Realism loosely
to all official art under
Communist regimes in the
same texts.
29. Matthew Cullerne Bown,
Socialist Realist Painting,
Yale University Press, New
Haven, CT, 1998
30. Lrnd Hegyi, ReThinking the Cultural Field
in Central and Eastern
Europe, Third Text, 21:2,
March 2007, pp 12935



Perhaps the most cogent account in this manner appeared in

Vladislav Todorovs Red Square Black Square (1995). This engagingly
written book performed a mocking Dada-like exercise by turning on its
head the socialist revolutionary impulse that was avant-garde (the Dada
and Surrealist) before becoming transformed into Communist-state
aesthetics. The book assumed an aphoristic mode, allowing for a cumulative build-up of assertions which came together gradually through the
readers attempts to link them up and simply through the confidence
with which they were pronounced. These assertions were given with the
authority of someone who already knows and understands akin to the
rhetoric of religious authority so that evidence was always almost an
afterthought. Once the asserted statements, densely juxtaposed, were
taken in by the reader, evidence and texts were fitted symptomatically
into the structure of assertions. Todorov analysed some evidence in this
manner rather brilliantly (especially with regard to Lenins mummy), but
the thrust of the rhetoric was to invite the reader to fill in the evidence in
the blanks and gaps between aphoristic assertions. Ultimately Todorovs
book worked through the sheer allure of presenting readers with a thick
set of assertions which readers felt called upon to link up and extend,
with which they slowly began to feel familiar, and in which they recognised the succinctness and confidence of authority.
Consider statements such as the following about the academic field
of communism:
The fundamental academic field of communism lies in its political
aesthetics. The political economy is a simulative one. It generates an
initial appearance of an economically motivated society. Actually, it
produces the symptoms of such a society, not the causes for it. The working out of metaphors and figures of speech is what generates life-forms.
The identity of communism reveals itself in the over-production of words
and symbols. The political economy falsifies the genuine character of

And then about newspapers:

The Communist papers publicize the one Party interest. These papers do
not report facts but rather their mandatory interpretations. They do not
document events but their Party significance. Facts or documents cannot
be credible in these papers. Only their interpretation is either credible or
not. The totalitarian newspaper does not misinform. It performs the
Party function.32

And alongside that about art:

31. Vladislav Todorov, Red

Square Black Square:
Organon for
Imagination, SUNY,
Albany, NY, 1995, p 11
32. Ibid, p 25
33. Ibid, p 39

Art manufactures facts. Art turns the empirical reality of Revolution into
an outstanding and suggestive aggregate of facts. Art produces the virtual
reality of the revolution. Art provides the revolutionary turbulence with
political design and premeditation. It makes Revolution visible. Art is the
ideological conclusion of the empirical flux of Revolution.33

None of these passages invites interrogation or offers fodder (like evidence

or reference) for the thinking reader. These are simply pronounced with
an incantatory certainty that has clear resonances with religious rhetoric.
The reader falls in with Todorovs vision of Communist totalitarianism


and whatever he or she can cite to make sense of these, or whatever

Todorov cites after the fact of these pronouncements, is already a confirmation of them. All complexities of the everyday and the practical, of the
legislated and the lived, are washed away on the surface of Todorovs text.
The irony is that the kind of critique of Communist totalitarianism that
Todorov constructed was in many ways a mirror reflection of the critique
of capitalist totality or one-dimensionality that numerous revolutionary
art and literature manifestoes had offered.
Todorovs was an exemplary performance of an account of totalitarianism which was totalistic itself. No difference remained between
Communist art and newspapers and monuments and everyday life and
anything in this account, and no differentiation seemed necessary. A
similarly auto-constructive and totalising performance occurred with
reference to specific cultural spheres too, particularly in 1980s-onwards
art history and criticism circulating in the West, and in accounts of
socialist realism and total art. To take an example, Boris Groyss 1988
examination of Stalinist aesthetics (considerably before Todorovs book)
started off promisingly by circumscribing the period of Stalinist terror;
and in observing that socialist realism was not created by the masses but
was formulated in their name by well-educated and experienced elites
who had assimilated the experience of the avant-garde;34 and by recalling parallels in French neoclassicism, American regionalism, arts and
monuments in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, traditional political
writing in England, Hollywood posters etc. However, the analytical
possibilities thus opened for making contextually nuanced distinctions
and charting complex interests at work were soon swept aside in an
all-subsuming rhetorical construction of socialist realism, which, in
retrospect, chimes in with Todorovs narrative strategies:
socialist realism, which regards historical time as ended and therefore
occupies no particular place in it, looks upon history as the arena of
struggle between active, demiurgic, creative, progressive art aspiring to
build a new world in the interests of the oppressed classes and passive,
contemplative art that does not believe in or desire change but accepts
things as they are or dreams of the past. Socialist realism canonizes the
former and dispatches the latter to a second, mystical death in the hell of
historical oblivion. According to Stalinist aesthetics, everything is new in
the new posthistorical reality even the classics are new, and these it has
indeed revoked beyond recognition. There is thus no need to strive for
formal innovation, since novelty is automatically guaranteed by the total
novelty of superhistorical context and significance. Nor does this aesthetics fear charges of eclecticism, for it does not regard the right to borrow
from all ages as eclectic; after all, it selects only progressive art, which
possesses inherent unity.35

34. Boris Groys, The Total Art

of Stalinism, op cit, p 9
35. Ibid, p 49

The problem here is that in rendering socialist realism as the repository for an expanding embrace of top-down and autonomous ideological power, Groys dislocates the term socialist realism comprehensively
from its agents and pragmatics, from actors and everyday contexts and
materialities. That, of course, was Groyss point: his dislocated account
of socialist realism ultimately conveyed the vision of totalitarianism
that he wished to convey. But just as this did convey something of the
oppressiveness of a totalitarian regime, it also equally performed a


totalistic and indiscriminate disposal of history, actors, agents,

products etc.
A similar performance was conducted shortly afterwards, taking
Todorovs approach even more clearly, in Igor Golomshtoks Totalitarian Art (1990). The strategy here depended less on rhetorical flair and
more on making selected evidence subject to a two-step argument: first,
focalising contexts which were already popularly recognised in the West
as exemplifying totalitarianism; and second, using that given predisposed perception to erase ideological and sociocultural differences
between the focalised contexts. The result was a rendering of totalitarianism as a consistent aesthetics:
In the totalitarian system art performs the function of transforming the
raw material of dry ideology into the fuel of images and myths intended
for general consumption. The precise nature of the raw material
whether it is the cult of the Fhrer or of the Leader, dogmas of race or of
class, laws of nature or of history is of no more importance than
whether one uses beet or wheat when distilling alcohol: the raw material
lends a specific flavour to the final product which is in essence identical.
And it is not only the final product which is identical; the means of
preparation (totalitarian aesthetics) and the technology of production
(totalitarian organization) turn out to be equally similar.36

36. Golomshtok, Totalitarian

Art in the Soviet Union, op
cit, p xii
37. Usefully collected, for
instance, in Maynard
Solomon, ed, Marxism and
Art, Harvester, Brighton,
1979, pp 23541

The nuances of reception were outside the ken of this version of aesthetics. If Golomshtoks assertion and the metaphor it rested on were
accepted without question, and the focalised contexts concurrently
accepted as exemplifying the unity of totalitarianism, then totalitarianism could only be regarded as a free-standing auto-perpetuating acontextual supersignifier.
Apropos that much highlighted term Socialist Realism the case was,
it can be plausibly argued, that Socialist Realism existed in party-lines
and legislative policy and institutional functioning. What Socialist Realism denoted in art practice, or what it entailed in doing art and receiving
art, was indeterminate at best. The legislative and bureaucratic principles
that imposed Socialist Realism on art institutions and artists could be
called upon to understand certain kinds of patronage and disapproval
within an always complex field of artistic production, reception and
circulation, but not to reduce its complexity. Socialist Realism marked
a (in itself constantly shifting) party-line, and its relation to art praxis
was constantly troubled, constantly open to transgression, in a field that
the party-line could not possibly contain (and often knew as much). The
distinction is important, and the relationship between what was legislated for and what happened in art in Communist times needs to be
explored accordingly. The party-line on Socialist Realism, the documents that actuated it in the Soviet Union after 1932 and more widely
after 1949, are well known in the West.37 How they tested and were
tested by the complex field of artistic practice through repression,
compliance, accommodation, disregard, defiance, assimilation, inspiration, sentiment etc has yet to be examined carefully because of the
sway of totalistic accounts of totalitarian aesthetics.
Bowns Socialist Realist Painting did try to question the totalitarian
aesthetics view of Socialist Realism. This book tried to redress the overdeterminations of the totalitarian model (the phrase is Bowns) by


looking closely at Russian/Soviet socialist realist painting. Bown felt

that the totalitarian model was deficient in three ways: first, in focalising the Stalinist period at the expense of the Khrushchev and Brezhnev
years; second, in emphasising totalitarianism as a free-standing concept
(allowing Nazi and Communist art to be lumped together, and in a
generally ahistorical manner), so it may be suspected that:
The appeal of the totalitarian model may be partly psychological. A horizontal, transnational, analysis of culture provides both Russian and
German intellectuals, intent perhaps on delivering their countries from
unhappy pasts that are widely perceived as shameful, with a means of
parcelling off these periods in history from what went before and what
came after.38

And third, in refusing to consider any socially realist art as art at all,
which Bown put down to critics ignorance of the art in question. He
consequently decided to use his art historical narrative as a corrective
and, in a way, that determination made his own enterprise questionable.
Bowns expansion of the connotations and history of Socialist Realism,
and normative assessments of art labelled as such, simply begged the
question of whether or not he was talking about something different
from what the totalitarian-model proponents had in mind.
Ultimately, the totalitarian model of Socialist Realism cannot really
be questioned by identifying any set of artefacts as definitively Socialist
Realist. The totalitarian model performs its discernment of Socialist
Realism in a rhetorical structure, just as Socialist Realism was
constructed within the precincts of party-line rhetoric. The point to foreground is one that Henri Arvon made succinctly in his study of Marxist
Esthetics in 1970:
[Socialist realism] does not refer to a special style that the writer is to
employ; it is used, rather, as a definition of the artistic principle underlying all works that win the official stamp of approval. It represents, in
fact, the decisive victory and the extension to the entire realm of culture
of the Party spirit (partignost) Socialist realism thus represents a
bureaucratic and administrative conception of literature notable both for
the exceptional vagueness and fuzziness of its notions in the realm of pure
esthetics and for the impeccable rigour of its judgement.39
38. Bown, op cit, p xvii
39. Henri Arvon, Marxist
Esthetics [1970], trans
Helen R Lane, Cornell
University Press, Ithaca,
NY, 1973, p 83

The relationship of this superstructural institutional discourse to art

practice at ground level should be examined by allowing that much that
happened under this bureaucratic aegis was inconsistent and did not
necessarily hold together with conceptual totalities, however powerfully
total ideological subscription may have been enjoined and demanded.

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