Socialist realism is a teleologically-oriented style of realistic art which has as its purpose the furtherance of the goals of socialism and communism. Although related, it should not be confused with social realism, a type of art that realistically depicts subjects of social concern.
Socialist realism was the officially approved type of art in the Soviet Union for nearly sixty years. Communist doctrine decreed that all material goods and means of production belonged to the community as a whole. This included means of producing art, which were also seen as powerful propaganda tools. During the October Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks established an institution called Proletkult (the Proletarian Cultural and Enlightenment Organizations) which sought to put all arts into the service of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
In the early years of the Soviet Union, Russian and Soviet artists embraced a wide variety of art forms under the auspices of Proletkult. Revolutionary politics and radical non-traditional art forms were seen as complementary. In art, constructivism flourished. In poetry, the nontraditional and the avant-garde were often praised.
This, however, was rejected by some members of the Communist party, who did not appreciate modern styles such as impressionism and cubism, since these movements existed before the revolution and hence were associated with "decadent bourgeois art." Socialist realism was thus to some extent a reaction against the adoption of these "decadent" styles. Also, it was thought that the non-representative forms of art were not understood by the proletariat and thus could not be used by the state for propaganda.
Socialist realism became state policy in 1932 when Soviet leader Joseph Stalin promulgated the decree "On the Reconstruction of Literary and Art Organizations". The Union of Soviet Writers was founded to control the output of authors, and the new policy was rubber-stamped at the Congress of Socialist Writers in 1934. It was enforced ruthlessly in all spheres of artistic endeavour. Artists who strayed from the official line were severely punished many were sent to the Gulag labour camps in Siberia and elsewhere.
The restrictions were loosened somewhat after Stalin's death in 1953 but the state still kept a tight rein on personal artistic expression. This caused many artists to choose to go into exile, for example the Odessa Group from the city of that name. Independent-minded artists that remained continued to feel the hostility of the state. In 1974, for instance, a show of unofficial art in a field near Moscow was broken up, and the artworks destroyed with a water cannon and bulldozers (see Bulldozer Exhibition). Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost and perestroika facilitated an explosion of interest in alternative art styles in the late 1980s, but socialist realism remained in limited force as the official state art style until as late as 1991. It was not until after the fall of the Soviet Union that artists were finally freed from state censorship.
The doctrine of socialist realism in other Soviet-controlled new People's Republics, was legally enforced from 1949 to 1956. It involved all domains of visual and literary arts, though its most spectacular achievements were made in the field of architecture, considered a key weapon in the creation of a new social order, intended to help spread the communist doctrine by influencing citizens' consciousness as well as their outlook on life. During this massive undertaking, a crucial role fell to architects perceived not as merely engineers creating streets and edifices, but rather as "Engineers of the human soul". The general theme, extending beyond simple aesthetics into an urban design, was meant to express grandiose ideas and arouse feelings of stability, persistence and political power.
Today, arguably the only countries still focused on these aesthetic principles are North Korea, Laos, and to some extent Vietnam. The People's Republic of China occasionally reverts to socialist realism for specific purposes, such as idealised propaganda posters to promote the Chinese space program. Socialist realism had little mainstream impact in the non-Communist world, where it was widely seen as a totalitarian means of imposing state control on artists.
The former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was an important exception among the communist countries, because after the Tito-Stalin split in 1948, it abandoned socialist realism along with other elements previously imported from the Soviet system and allowed greater artistic freedom. Miroslav Krleža, one of the leading Yugoslav intellectuals, held a speech at the Third Congress of the Writers Alliance of Yugoslavia in Ljubljana in 1952, which is considered a turning point in the Yugoslav dennouncement of dogmatic socialist realism.
The political aspect of socialist realism was, in some respects, a continuation of pre-Soviet state policy. Censorship and attempts to control the content of art did not begin with the Soviets, but were a long-running feature of Russian life. The Tsarist government also appreciated the potentially disruptive effect of art and required all books to be cleared by the censor. Writers and artists in 19th century Imperial Russia became quite skilled at evading censorship by making their points without spelling it out in so many words. However, Soviet censors were not easily evaded.
Socialist realism had its roots in neoclassicism and the traditions of realism in Russian literature of the 19th century that described the life of simple people. It was exemplified by the aesthetic philosophy of Maxim Gorki. The work of the Peredvizhniki ("Wanderers," a Russian realist movement of the late 19th / early 20th centuries), Jacques-Louis David and Ilya Yefimovich Repin were notable influences.
Socialist Realism was a product of the Soviet system. Whereas in market societies professional artists earned their living selling to, or being commissioned by rich individuals or the Church, in Soviet society not only was the market suppressed, there were few if any individuals able to patronise the arts and only one institution - the State itself. Hence artists became state employees. As such the State set the parameters for what it employed them to do. What was expected of the artist was that s/he be formally qualified and to reach a standard of competence. However, whilst this rewarded basic competency, it did not provide an incentive to excel, resulting in a stultification similar to that in other spheres of Soviet society. The State, after the Congress of 1934, laid down four rules for what became known as "Socialist Realism"-
That the work be;
1. Proletarian- art relevant to the workers and understandable to them.
2. Typical- scenes of every day life of the people.
3. Realistic - in the representational sense.
4. Partisan - supportive of the aims of the State and the Party.
Even so, many of the art works glorifying Joseph Stalin and other leaders are hardly in keeping with these ideals and the charge that art be understandable to the whole people negated the Western notion of the avant garde (despite the Bolsheviks casting themselves as a political "vanguard")and discouraged experimental approaches. The realism achieved was often technically very good and similar to many Western works intended as magazine illustration or bookjackets, rather than High Art. The partisan quality tends to attract the most criticism, in that it often predominated to the exclusion of the other tenets, so that paintings of peasants feasting after bumper harvests was neither real nor typical of the lot of many of those depicted, especially in the Ukrainian Famine.
Socialist realism held that successful art depicts and glorifies the proletariat's struggle toward socialist progress. The Statute of the Union of Soviet Writers in 1934 stated that socialist realism
Its purpose was to elevate the common worker, whether factory or agricultural, by presenting his life, work, and recreation as admirable. In other words, its goal was to educate the people in the goals and meaning of Communism. The ultimate aim was to create what Lenin called "an entirely new type of human being": New Soviet Man. Stalin described the practitioners of socialist realism as "engineers of souls".
The "realism" part is important. Soviet art at this time aimed to depict the worker as he truly was, carrying his tools. In a sense, the movement mirrors the course of American and Western art, where the everyday human being became the subject of the novel, the play, poetry, and art. The proletariat was at the center of communist ideals; hence, his life was a worthy subject for study. This was an important shift away from the aristocratic art produced under the Russian tsars of previous centuries, but had much in common with the late-19th century fashion for depicting the social life of the common people.
Compared to the eclectic variety of 20th century Western art, socialist realism often resulted in a fairly bland and predictable range of artistic products (indeed, Western critics wryly described the principles of socialist realism as "girl meets tractor"). Painters would depict happy, muscular peasants and workers in factories and collective farms; during the Stalin period, they also produced numerous heroic portraits of the dictator to serve his cult of personality. Industrial and agricultural landscapes were popular subjects, glorifying the achievements of the Soviet economy. Novelists were expected to produce uplifting stories in a manner consistent with the Marxist doctrine of dialectical materialism. Composers were to produce rousing, vivid music that reflected the life and struggles of the proletariat.
Socialist realism thus demanded close adherence to party doctrine, and has often been criticized as detrimental to the creation of true, unfettered art or as being little more than a means to censor artistic expression. Czesław Miłosz, writing in the introduction to Sinyavsky's On Socialist Realism, describes the products of socialist realism as "inferior", ascribing this as necessarily proceeding from the limited view of reality permitted to creative artists.
Not all Marxists accepted the necessity of socialist realism. Its establishment as state doctrine in the 1930s had rather more to do with internal Communist Party politics than classic Marxist imperatives. The Hungarian Marxist essayist Georg Lukács criticized the rigidity of socialist realism, proposing his own "critical realism" as an alternative. However, such critical voices were a rarity until the 1980s.
The painter Aleksandr Deineka provides a notable example for his expressionist and patriotic scenes of the Second World War, collective farms, and sports. Yuri Pimenov, Boris Ioganson and Geli Korzev have also been described as "unappreciated masters of twentieth-century realism". Another well-known practitioner was Fyodor Pavlovich Reshetnikov.
Socialist realism's rigid precepts and enforcement inevitably caused great damage to the freedom of Soviet artists to express themselves. Many artists and authors found their works censored, ignored, or rejected. Mikhail Bulgakov, for instance, was forced to write his masterwork, The Master and Margarita, in secret, despite earlier successes such as White Guard. Sergey Prokofiev found himself essentially unable to compose music during this period.
The political doctrine behind socialist realism also underlay the pervasive censorship of Communist societies. Apart from obvious political considerations that saw works such as those of George Orwell being banned, access to foreign art and literature was also restricted on aesthetic grounds. Bourgeois art and all forms of experimentalism and formalism were denounced as decadent, degenerate and pessimistic, and therefore anti-Communist in principle. The works of James Joyce were particularly harshly condemned. The net effect was that it was not until the 1980s that the general public in the Communist countries were able to freely access many works of Western art and literature. Many then joined Western observers in denouncing socialist realism as mere propaganda.
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