[Marxism] Soviet art

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jul 29 11:29:24 MDT 2004

Production Novels, Labor Camps
The Nation, 29 January 1996
by Scott McLemee

One of the lesser-known "gains of October" (an old Trotskyist 
formulation I can't quite shake) was free theater tickets. This was, to 
be sure, a fairly minor point on the Bolshevik agenda; war, grain and 
the railway system were more urgent concerns. A market in theater seats 
did in fact survive, if precariously, on the margins of Soviet culture. 
But it was doomed. Censorship and heavy taxes took their toll on 
bourgeois stagecraft; so did the mass emigration of its clientele. And 
as Katerina Clark shows in Petersburg, Crucible of Cultural Revolution, 
the urge to transform theater utterly had been brewing considerably 
before 1917. Free and continuous access of the masses to dramatic 
performance was not simply a goal to be realized in the glorious 
socialist future but an aspect of the revolution itself. "Within the 
theater one can engineer the interworking of previously 
unsynchronized-alienated-sectors of people," Clark writes, "and many 
began to think one could use it as a basis for affecting social space as 

The "many" who "began to think" this way were not just stage 
professionals. The revolution unleashed an enormous interest in 
performance throughout Russia, and countless amateur drama groups 
appeared, sponsored by unions, the military and youth groups. This 
plebeian movement typically displayed more gusto than talent: Imagine a 
high school production of Richard III, then multiply by 10,000. Still, 
this outpouring of creative energies made itself felt in practically 
every medium in the years following the revolution. And if the resulting 
poetry, fiction and performances tended to be ham-fisted -- with scripts 
by amateur playwrights being, it seems, particularly awful -- that could 
only be expected in a country struggling to bring even basic literacy to 
the population.

This upsurge from below occupies only a passing place in Clark's study 
of the arts in Petersburg between 1913 and 1931. Her attention falls, 
rather, on those currents among the intelligentsia that reached some 
mutually accommodating relationship with the new regime -- in particular 
the avant garde, which, liberated from the demands of the box office, 
that implement of philistine tyranny, seized the moment to enact its 
grandest visions of aesthetic insurrection. "Let every minute of our 
life be theater," announced Nikolai Evremov, a director who saw man's 
"instinct to transform himself' at the root of all art.

No dramatic performance could have realized these messianic formulations 
more thoroughly than the mass spectacle Evreinov produced in 1920, on 
the third anniversary of the October Revolution. In Petersburg, an 
audience of some 100,000 viewers gathered to watch an open-air 
re-enactment of the storming of the Winter Palace. "Its cast of six 
thousand," Clark writes, "was made up largely of members of the army and 
navy drama circles and even authentic army units, but it also included 
professional actors, ballet dancers, circus performers, and drama 
students." The performance moved from the February revolution, through 
the escapades of the bourgeois Provisional Government (here the clowns 
and acrobats came in), up to the events of October. The taking of the 
Winter Palace required an enormous display of special effects: "Fifty 
windows in the upper story of the palace were suddenly illuminated, and 
in them spectators could see a shadow play of tussling silhouettes."

There was machine-gun fire, and bombs bursting in air. Then silence -- 
followed by a sudden shift to the comic: "The pathetic figure of 
Kerensky was seen scurrying off dressed in women's clothing." The show 
closed with fireworks and a military parade. And the boundary between 
audience and spectacle-already very fluid, given the sheer 
scale-dissolved entirely as onlookers and actors sang the 
"Internationale." It was, of course, propaganda, a ritualistic 
invocation of the regime's origins. Yet it was more than that. A number 
of these open-air spectacles were performed in 1920, but they enacted a 
whole array of themes found in manifestoes written prior to 1917 -- for 
example, the priority of gesture over verbal text, the incorporation of 
elements of festival into dramatic performance, the new place of 
technology in the arts. Likewise, "trans-sense" poetry or Futurist 
visual experiments sought to remake consciousness as deeply as Marxism 
did society.

Some rapprochement between avant-garde and Bolshevik vanguard became 
inevitable. And indeed, this "current of acceptual millenarianism," as 
Clark puts it, makes the most extreme measures of War Communism look 
like mildly Fabian reforms.

To militate for an aesthetic apocalypse is one thing; working in the 
midst of an actual revolution is quite another. Clark largely ignores 
the extensive debates on cultural and ideological questions within the 
Communist Party during the thirties -- a matter much better treated in 
Sheila Fitzpatrick's The Cultural Front: Power and Culture in 
Revolutionary Russia. But Petersburg is full of close readings of early 
Soviet texts, performances and artworks; and Clark is particularly 
sensitive to the subtle dialectic between utopian aestheticism and 
cultural Realpolitik shaping Soviet culture over the decade or so 
following the revolution.

full: http://www.mclemee.com/id90.html


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