Good politics and good art?
I have just been to get a glimpse of the new exhibition at the Royal Academy: Revolution, Russian Art 1917-1932. And I went with especial enthusiasm after having had this surprising encounter with twentieth-century Russian art in Moscow after Christmas.
It was, in a word, amazing – and unsettling. I went on in that earlier blog about the wonderful ceramics of the earliest Soviet era… and there were plenty of those. But it was the unsettling side of the RA show that was most memorable.
The final room, after you had enjoyed the stunning paintings etc, from 1917-1932, included a memory room… an appropriate black box in which you could see the photographs of those who died under (and thanks to) Stalin. That was a good way, I thought, of reminding every visitor to look behind the aesthetics to the murderous politics. (Declare an interest here: I am part of the Academy home team in a way… but I would be as critical as anyone if I wanted to be.)
For me though it was some of the art that did that job even more powerfully. One of the most striking images was Rublev’s 1930’s painting of Stalin reading Pravda (at the top), with an apparently contented dog at his feet. Don’t forget, we were being told, that the most vicious dictators can look like this to some people. And we were being asked what difference that sanitisation makes (Whose false consciousness is it? And what false consciousness? Our’s, the artist’s?) .
But there was a sense in some of the responses to the show that, even so, nasty dictatorships are still thought to produce nasty art. If only it were so simple – though that does lie behind the view that somehow it was (nice) Greek democracy that produced (nice) Greek art. And that is what some critics indeed said.
I was struck in one paper by the comment: “The brief but soaring flight of the Russian avant-garde falls to earth in a silt of Stalinist kitsch”. Ok, a genuine aesthetic judgment that may be. But I couldn’t help thinking that it was underpinned by the conviction that Stalinist stuff could only be kitsch. For me, as I hope some of these images shows, there is a lot more to it that that.
And THAT is worth talking about.
The other version: http://www.the-tls.co.uk/good-politics-good-art/