Art & Production
Edited by John Roberts and Alexei Penzin
Translated by Shushan Avagyan
Pluto Press, 2017
Boris Arvatov’s Art & Production forged a path for the Productionist avant-garde in Russia when first published in 1926, and before its author fell out of favor with the Stalinist regime. That the book still illuminates the contradictions characterizing art, the society that produces it, and the market that commercializes it, says more about how relatively little things have evolved than how prescient Arvatov’s arguments were at the time. Translated into English for the first time, this invective against the decorative and contemplative role of art in pre-revolutionary society still provides today’s readers cause for reflection, if not inspiration.
Though burdened by an excessive Manichaeism, especially when it comes to gauging the social position of art throughout modern history, Arvatov lucidly captures the insufficiency of an artistic practice that settles for the inevitable rather than daring the impossible. His theoretical musings spring from that short-lived window of possibility between the October Revolution and the advent of Stalin(ism). Arvatov had served in the Red Army following the Revolution to become a member of the Bolshevik Party in 1919. In 1923, he co-founded LEF (Left Front of the Arts) and contributed to its journal and other avant-garde publications. Condensed between the ages of twenty-three and thirty-four, his intellectual activity produced five books in less than ten years, starting with Art and Class (1923) and concluding with On Agitation and Production Art (1930). At forty-four, he allegedly committed suicide in a psychiatric sanatorium where he had spent the last ten years of his life (not an uncommon fate for avant-garde artists unadaptable to Stalin’s reactionary new course). Translated into German, Spanish, and Italian in the ‘70s, Art & Production was never republished in the Soviet Union nor in post-communist Russia.
Firmly rooted in a Marxist and materialist understanding of art history, Arvatov’s book traces the evolution of what he calls the artistic industry from the Middle Ages up to the advent of capitalist society. The main difference he sees between these two epochs is that while in medieval times craft united the artist and the artisan, merchants and then capitalism turned art into a mere commodity, and artists into an alienated workforce. The artistic sin of capitalism for him is to have separated art from craft. “The Renaissance,” he claims, “possessed such marvelous artistic crafts not because the craftsmen were artists, but, on the contrary, because the artists were craftsmen.” Yet the alienation of the artist from the practicality of life long predated the advent of capitalism. Arvatov points out that “by the seventeenth century the Venetian School excluded forever all ‘non-artists’ from its membership,” which meant that artist-producers (i.e. craftsmen) were no longer subordinate “to the principles of socio-technical practicability, but to the consumer interests of the mercantile oligarchy.” That said, Arvatov does not consider anything that came before the rule of capital as pure and uncorrupted—quite the contrary. “What is called ‘folk art’,” he notes, “is nothing other than the art of the patriarchal, technically backward, private-property type, petty bourgeois village.” Like most Soviet avant-gardists, especially in the Productionist current, Arvatov sees the solution to the problem of capitalist commodification not in the past but in the emancipatory potential of future technological progress.
As art became the monopoly of the ruling feudal elite and was subjected to its aesthetic superiority complex, “the artist-productionist turned from an organizer of objects into an organizer of ideas.” No longer usable, art became something to be marveled at from a distance, usually behind a glass. “The subservient artist,” Arvatov denounces, “turned his art into a universal cosmetic.” Unable to rely on mass-market sales, art was effectively subsidized from the same elite that commissioned and consumed it, pushing it further away from any meaningful connection with the everyday. Trapped in an ivory tower of relative privilege but dwindling relevance, artists were, according to the author, sentenced to the meaningless production of “non-utilitarian objects,” forced to “individualistically depict” instead of doing the work of “life-building.” The latter is a central concept in Arvatov’s thought that negates any distinction between daily life and art, ornamental objects and utensils, individual creation and collective aspirations.
Identifying easel art (painting and sculpture) as the ultimate reactionary art, Arvatov considers Impressionism and Expressionism as nothing but subjective solutions (“my sensation”) to objective tasks (“how to interpret reality”), instances of emotional formalism that exemplified the art of solipsism. Not even revolutionary subjects can turn painting into a revolutionary art, he argues, citing Delacroix’s Liberty on the Barricades (or, Liberty Leading the People, 1830) as an example. “Unsuitable for mass consumption, not tied to any practical social function, resistant to reproduction and accidental in its placement, it is organically incapable of a real effect that would justify the efforts put into its production.” Arvatov’s inflexible verdict on painting betrays a theoretical absolutism that verges on the myopic. What’s more, his tendency to dismiss all artistic forms and practices belonging to a pre-revolutionary context stems from an integralist interpretation of historical materialism. For, as other equally intransigent Marxists have shown, even under mercenary commission artists can always sabotage their mandate. Exemplary in this regard is John Berger’s chronicle in Ways of Seeing (1972) of the possibility to subvert even those portraits commissioned to celebrate power and the powerful.
More stimulating is Arvatov’s criticism of the socialist-utopian artist William Morris and his ascription “of all the evils of capitalist relation to the machine.” To him, this romantic belief that revolutionary art could only occur outside of technological progress was anti-historical and bound to fail. In fact, what Arvatov advocates is the fusion of art with engineering: “only then will art walk hand in hand with science and technology [...] transferring its creative abilities from the sphere of illusion into the sphere of real change.” If in the past, the author argues, “art provided the ‘beauty’ that life lacked,” the revolutionary art of the future “will destroy the boundary between artists, as monopolists of ‘beauty,’ and society as a whole.” In The Total Art of Stalinism (1992), however, Boris Groys reveals the unintended end of this “revolutionary art” in the substantial continuity between the early dreams of the Soviet avant-garde and the grey nightmare of Stalinism. The latter, according to Groys, was already inscribed in the longing for an art that could transform the world altogether instead of simply depicting it.
Post-industrial capitalism seems to have perversely surpassed the contradictory separation between the making of art and the making of society by turning art into an immaterial asset of financial speculation. We now live in a paradoxical situation whereby artworks are virtually accessible at any given moment and yet the material conditions of daily life are getting uglier for the vast majority of us. It is in this respect that Arvatov’s call for the abolition of all the obstacles, material and ideological, that divide beauty from reality still feels not only urgent but even timely. It’s a project that is neither inherently aesthetic nor exclusively political. It rests on the awareness that a liberating art can only be accompanied by the liberation of everyday life from the shackles and blackmail of profit. However naïve it may seem in this age of cynical, overdetermined apathy, Arvatov’s plan to apply the tools of art to the making of life, to bridge the gap between creativity and routine, if not entirely doable, does certainly sound desirable.