Groys and The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond

The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond by Boris Groys was first published in 1988 at the height of the glasnost and perestroika policies in Soviet Russia. Received with mixed responses from Western critics, Groys piece remains relevant decades later after the tearing down of the Berlin Wall as it provided a clever and sober take on Soviet art history as a continuous and organic development. The book is a critical history of the Russian avant garde, Stalinist socialist realism, and the dozens of art movements that came after Russian’s descent into reformism. What is fascinating with Groys’ work is that it refuses to accept the dominant neoliberal rhetoric of

Malevich, Kazimir. Teapot, 1923. An example of early Soviet art's interest in moving away from
Malevich, Kazimir. Teapot, 1923. An example of early Soviet art’s interest in moving away from “art” into “everyday life.”

Stalinist socialist realism as a primitivistic retrogression from what was perceived as the Russian avant-garde’s futuristic project of dissolving art into everyday life. Rather than celebrating the avant-grade and condemning Stalin’s totalitarian political and artistic aesthetic (which the American avant-gardists and cultural institutions seems to have a penchant for, from the 60s until today), Groys lucidly traces Stalin’s socialist realism as a logical and organic synthesis of the bourgeios contradictions of the avant-garde. For Groys, socialist realism is the triumph of the modernist project which the avant-garde set out but failed to accomplish.

Malevich’s Black Suprematic Square (1915, oil on linen, 79.5 x 79.5 cm) or The Black Square, typifies the Russian avant-garde’s aim to dissolve art as a material and sensual object ( or as a “spectacle,” to loosely borrow Debord’s term) in order to bring out the essence which all artistic innovations attempt (but fail) to reach. Malevich’s early works serves as a prelude to the consistent theme in Soviet art to end all connections with the past.

Numerous avant-gardist movements emerged and tried to gain hegemony in Russia upon the Bolshevik’s victory in the Russian revolution. Influenced by Fillipo Marinetti’s futurism, the avant garde is essentially a totalitarian movement in the sense that it aimed to incorporate art to the everyday life of new society that the Bolsheviks’ are setting out to create. However, Groys pointed out that the divisiveness and the carreerism of the avant-gardists prevented this feat from happening. Artists attempted to penetrate the political structure so they can gain hegemony over other artists. This is despite the fact that it is their common aim to bring down art from its privileged pedestal into “cogs and wheels” of the revolutionary movement, as Lenin has stated. Lenin, admitting that he does not have enough knowledge to problematize things such as art, left the cultural aspect of the revolution at the hands of the avant-garde in a relatively liberal fashion. Being essentially bourgeios, artist commitment to actualizing the socialist project vary from group to group and artist to artist, and this pluralism put the new Soviet artists at the center of the Western (bourgeois) art world’s attention, thereby undermining the essence of the avant garde itself. Stalin’s entry into political power, however, changed the landscape entirely, both literally and

El Lissitzky's
El Lissitzky’s “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge” is as literal and symbolic as a propaganda gets.

figuratively. With Stalin’s radical industrialization attempts and aggressive political and economic policies, his power also aimed to consolidate the artistic community under a single unit that serves the interests of the revolution. This aesthetic came out to be Socialist Realism, and not all avant gardists embraced it fully. Yet the baffling contradiction, as Groys points out, is that this is precisely what the avant-garde wanted: a total and violent restructuring of society towards a new world. Stalin did what the middle-class sensibilities of the avant-garde prevents them from doing so.   Stalin’s Total Art Stalin’s total hegemony on all aspects of everyday life is precisely what the avant-garde wanted to attain.

Karp Demyanovich Trokhimenko:
Karp Demyanovich Trokhimenko: “Stalin as an Organizer of the October Revolution”. Oil on canvas, 85 x 117 cm

Socialist realism, therefore, is the consummation of the modernist project. In the West, postmodernism is often defined as what emerged after modernism ‘failed,’ yet the sheer power and the revolutionary actualization of what was perceived to be a utopian dream of Stalin’s Russia typified the new world that the avant gardists aimed to create. With the collective power of a whole nation and a strong will for discipline, the whole Soviet Russia became a totally new “work of art” in itself. Perhaps what Groys is attempting to elucidate is how the avant-garde pursuit for the dissolving the ‘ego,’ ‘the Author,’ ‘the Artist’ and the glorification of the process and not of the product imply a huge quantum leap into real and symbolic violence. With contemporary arts’ fascination in displacing the authority of the producer, what Groys tries to imply is that all artistic innovations aim towards self-annihilation, and this requires a total, passionate and self-sacrificing commitment for the collective revolutionary project of transforming the world.


2 thoughts on “Groys and The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond”

  1. Levi, I haven’t read this book. But this argument puts a whole new meaning to Benjamin’s idea of the ‘aestheticization of politics’ as a purely fascist phenomenon as opposed to the ‘politicization of aesthetics’ as the sphere of a truly radical empancipatory project. I always thought Benjamin’s formula put a straitjacket on what is possible in the use of art and culture as an instrument of liberation. Kudos on your two latest articles posted here.

    1. thanks! benjamin’s dichotomy is indeed dubious. russian and italian futurism share the same roots, yet only italy fasttracked to fascism. it is because stalin’s vision transcended benjamin’s categories. i doubt this review did justice to groys’ book; it has a lot of interesting insights.

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