During the 1990s, a strange trend developed in Kyiv. Every year, there would be a massive series of auctions of Socialist-Realist paintings and the occasional sculpture. Expats would flock with their Ben Franklins (no checkbooks in Ukraine, and, at most galleries, no credit cards, either, back then) to these auctions, buzzing as though they were going to see newly-discovered Van Goghs or the Spring collection from John Galliano. It was dismaying to watch people plump down thousands of dollars for the rosy-colored canvases of dead artists while the most wonderful, intense, individual works of young, living artists collected dust on the walls of the same galleries.
There are more than a few things that I despise about Socialist Realism, better known as “Soats-Ray-a-leezm” in Ukraine and Russia. This is the school of art that became the state-approved style under Josef Stalin: The super-men and super-women of the Workers’ Paradise that can still be found in most cities that were once behind the Iron Curtain, intimidating bronze behemoths marching grim-faced or fanatically wide-eyed, chest forward into a future that no longer exists . This was the art that Mr. Stalin deemed politically correct. Everything else was bourgeois and subversive.
First of all, Socialist-Realism epitomizes all that is bad about Art as Propaganda. When art stoops to propaganda, it simplifies, limits and browbeats. It is filled with the banalities of the billboard white-washer, the political sound-bite writer, the politically correct civil servant. Issues become the guiding principle, rather than exploration, and if the issue is to perpetrate a lie, then lying becomes the guiding principle.
Which is the second reason why I despise Socialist-Realism: most Socialist-Realist art is a Big Fat Lie. When mediaeval and renaissance artists painted Madonnas and saints ad infinitum, one could say that they were victims of a propaganda machine, the Catholic Church. But, first of all, they did not propagate a lie. They did not pretend that crucifixion was fun or that being poor or sick was something for humans to aspire to. Instead, they took the framework of Christian mythology, sets and symbols, and aspired to create the best possible rendition while pushing the envelope of artistic perception and interpretation of the world as they knew. The result was centuries’ worth of incredibly rich art, exploring the world of the imagination through the metaphors of religion, and inspiring viewers for hundreds of years afterwards.
Communism, on the other hand, perpetrated murder on the minds of human beings. It pretended that the high should aspire to be low, that cleaning toilets, working in a coal pit, and standing on an interminable, earsplitting assembly line were holy and wonderful things.
This is a lie.
I was in a pulp and paper mill when I was 24, for three days only. And when I left, I could not rid my clothes of the sulphur smell for a week. The whole time I was there, I thought, This is a factory of death. Dark and slippery metal stairs, dripping with corrosive acids, wrapped their rickety ways up the sides of causticizing tanks and vats filled with nasty stuff. The work areas were lit by dim and dirty lightbulbs dangling from frayed electrical cords. The noise level was unbelievable. People not only did not look happy working there, but they smelled the hell of their workplace all year round. I was there in the dead of winter and it was piercing; I could not imagine what it would be like in the hot summer. And three generations of Canadians had worked in that mill. Luckily, Canada was not communist, and over the years, regulations improved and the environment in and around these mills was fixed. This is the right approach to making the lives of workers better. Since we always will need people to do dirty work, we should try to make it less dirty and pay them well.
Communism did the opposite: it glorified the ugly and brought beauty down to its own level. Instead of a garbage collector aspiring to a white-collar job and a home of his own, college professors degraded into rubbies: uncouth, unkempt and impoverished. This is a travesty. It makes the life of the low better in the meanest possible way: through schadenfreude – exultation in the misery of others – rather than through genuine progress in the overall quality of all human life.
And this travesty is what Socialist Realism largely portrayed. Pictures of rosy-cheeked peasants and miners carrying red banners and having picnics in vast sunny fields. Show that to the miners who are dying of black lung at 35 and have lost half their high-school classmates to accidents. Pictures of the myriad steelmills, papermills, chemical refineries, all crisp and correct, in the bright blue air. Sanitized, disinfected and in total denial of their true meaning in the lives of the people who suffered there every day for their entire working lives. Perhaps it should be called Socialist-Idealism. Except that that, too, would be a lie.
The rare Socialist-Realist artist found a way to treat the constraints of political painting somewhat like the mediaeval artist did religious painting. Evading lies, this artist sought out interesting people or awe-inspiring landscapes. In the painting of a family paying respects to its dead by breaking bread over the Dnipro, the scene is suffused with an unbelievable back-lit sunshine that comes close to resembling holy light, and the serenity of the family sitting around a sad and resigned grandmother becomes nearly iconic in the most spiritual sense of the word, so that the viewer hardly notices the shape of the tombstone. No fake bonhomie, no bathos – and no lies.
So why do collectors love Socialist Realism? It’s simple. There are no grey areas in Socialist Realism, there are no abstractions, there is no hidden meaning. What you see is what you get, and for people who do not understand art much, that’s perfect. People with no artistic bent can look at a Sots-Realizm painting and “get it.” And because they want to “get it” above all, they get these paintings. They’re just like the brown schooners on stormy turquoise seas, the cosy cottages in the forest, the vases of lilacs on a universal table that a certain kind of collector looks for, to match the colors in the bedroom. Except that they’re also politically hip.
That is the third reason why I despise Socialist-Realism. The lie of Communism has become politically hip. People have forgotten the reality behind the façade: the crushed miners behind the neatly painted smokestacks against the stripped hillsides, the murdered artists behind the group portraits of distinguished academics, the famine holocaust behind the rosy-cheeked grain girls in their white kerchiefs and bright-colored skirts.
It makes me want to shout to my friends: Stop buying the Lie. •