Soviet Avant Garde: Boris Arvatov’s Art & Production

02 November 2017

ART, LITERATURE, film, and science today are infused with the incandescent legacy of the Russian revolution. Every generation of artists who seek to deploy art as a hammer with which to shape society owes a great debt to the revolutionary movements unleashed by the October revolution, whose centenary we are celebrating.

This year Pluto Press have published a significant text from these debates – Boris Arvatov’s Art and Production, edited by John Roberts and Alexei Penzin. Appearing for the first time in English, Arvatov’s manifesto for a new avant garde art is a powerful testament to the vitality of the revolution that changed forever not only art, but politics, and the struggle for human emancipation.

Arvatov was a leading theorist in the Soviet avant-garde; biographical information is scarce but we know that he joined the Bolshevik Party in 1919 and served as commissar in the Red Army during the civil war – an experience which would leave him suffering from shell shock and mental health problems. He would contribute to the periodicals of the Proletkult and go on to co-found the LEF.

Proletkult – a contraction of the Russian, Proletarskaya Kultura or proletarian culture, was a movement that erupted in in 1917 and grew and flourished during the Civil War. Its early inspirers were Alexander Bogdanov and Anatoly Lunacharsky. Lunarcharsky joined the Bolsheviks in mid-1917 and became People’s Commissar of Education. From this post he encouraged Proletkult. Its aims were outlined by an early theorist, Platon Kerzhentsev:

“The task of the ‘Proletkults’ is the development of an independent proletarian spiritual culture, including all areas of the human spirit — science, art, and everyday life. The new socialist epoch must produce a new culture, the foundations of which are already being laid. This culture will be the fruit of the creative efforts of the working class and will be entirely independent.”

During the Civil War it played an important role in agitation and propaganda (Agitprop) where artists produced on a grand scale for huge public events and agitprop trains crisscrossed Russia. By 1920 it had 84,000 members organised in some 300 local studios, clubs, and factory group.

Bolshevik leaders like Lenin, Trotsky, Nadezhda Krupskaya, however, distrusted the tendency to denigrate the achievements of bourgeois culture and thought more practical tasks of increasing literacy should take precedence over artistic experimentalism. In 1920 the autonomy of Proletkult was reigned-in but many artists and trends that it inspired continued and flourished during the 1920s, influencing music, architecture photography, film as well as the design of everyday objects, textiles, furniture, clothes.

There was the Futurist poet Mayakovsky, the design work of Alexander Rodchenko and El Lissitsky, the painting of Kazimir Malevich and the architecture of Valdimir Tatlin. Film was another area it stimulated, seen in the early works of Sergei Eisenstein like Strike and The Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October (1928). In the theatre there was the great innovative producer and designer Vsevolod Meyerhold.

The school of Constructivism, and its more left wing variant Productivism, are associated with Rodchenko, Malevich and Lissitsky. A key voice for this trend was LEF, the journal of the Left Front of the Arts, which appeared from 1923 to 1925 and as Novy LEF (‘New LEF’), from 1927 to 1929. The journal’s objective, as set out in one of its first issues, was to “re-examine the ideology and practices of so-called leftist art, and to abandon individualism to increase art’s value for developing communism.”

Boris Arvatov’s Art & Production was originally published in 1926. Though never republished in the Soviet Union it was a significant contribution to the ideas of the Productivists. Their platform in reaction against Constructivism rejected the role of the individual, skilled artist-designer. In order to truly be socially productive, art itself needed to be incorporated into the heart of the industrial relations of production – the factory.

Divided up in to four chapters, Art & Production begins with his vivid history of bourgeois art and its function, as well as seeking to show art’s varying (but consistent) relationship to production. Starting from the feudal guild system, Arvatov traces this genealogy.

The transition from the craft guilds of feudal society to capitalism would see art subordinated to consumer interests and the political ideology of the bourgeoise. Fundamentally a demonstration of class supremacy in a disorganised capitalist system, its potential remains essentially limited and its functions narrow. During the development of machine production he identifies the artist eventually working within industry simply as decorator – i.e. art decorating objects within the factory.

From this, Arvatov discusses easel art, a form wherein the artist is subordinated to the laws of commerce. As free-floating commodity, easel art is ideal for bourgeois society – it is a fundamental expression of individualism; it is isolated and detached – unable to ‘build’ life. As imperialism developed so did the instability of bourgeois society, leading to what Arvatov describes as extreme emotional subjectivism in bourgeois art as expressed through the solipsistic canvas.

He fiercely rejected this form, the studio it is produced in and the galleries it hangs in, seeking to abolish each. Arvatov denies that easel art can ever be progressive for the ideas of the working class – its form in particular ensures it can never have a social function: “it’s destiny is never to be proletarian”.

He goes on to detail the programme of LEF. To break with the limited, proscribed bourgeois forms, the artist must become an engineer-constructor within the factory, their technical skills must be embedded (and subordinated) to the labour process itself. We must consume art in a radically different way – no longer for contemplation, it must be subsumed into life: “the proletarian artist must be the equal builder of every day life and not a priest of art.”

Arvatov’s ideas proved unrealisable because they took place at a time of upheaval for the factory. The New Economic Policy which had allowed the reemergence of private capital, had seen industrialization slow to a snail’s pace. It was soon to be replaced, under Stalin, by a massive forced industrialisation and the collectivisation of agriculture.

However, Arvatov’s assertion at his book’s conclusion highlights a more fundamental problem, not in the text, but in the conditions in which is existed. It predicts that upon reaching communism, art will “wither away”. Alas under Stalin there was to be no room for ideas how art and life must be fused.

Stalin identified the harsh regime of forced industrialisation with building “socialism in one country” and soon crushed all the experimental and creative ideas of the artists of the 1920s. Those who refused to adapt to the monumental art glorifying the great leader were silenced, some were sent to the Gulag; others faced the firing squad.

Arvatov’s ideas are anticipation of history; one which tragically was not allowed to enter into the dialectic of democratic working class practice. But these are surely the struggles that must take place as revolutionary ideas applied to transforming the environmentally and inhuman conditions of capitalist production during the transition to a classless, stateless society – communism.

There is much to think about and discuss in this book; it brings a significant addition to our own contemporary debates for a radical art, its relationship to production, and a socialist future.

Get it here

Art & Production
Boris Arvatov, John Roberts, Alexei Penzin
Pluto Press, August 2017


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