Revolutionary Art

Recently the Guardian published an article about a (then-upcoming) exhibition on post-Revolution Russian art at the Royal Academy, specifically referring to it as “brutal propaganda” and worrying that our admiration of it “sentimentalises one of the most murderous chapters in human history”. Unfortunately, the author seems deeply confused not only about what the exhibition represented but about his own opinions. This may, of course, be a reflection of the hazards of reviewing something that you haven’t seen yet.

To give him his due, Jones is particularly concerned with arguing that art should be placed in its proper social and political context; I agree, especially with art that had such a political and social motivation as some Soviet art did.

And yet, after visiting the exhibition, nobody could fairly claim that it failed to give the political context of the art — nor is it possible to say that the Royal Academy understates the “brutality” of the Soviet government, not only under Stalin but (as Jones is at pains to point out) under Lenin too.

From my perspective, the exhibition goes too far to the opposite extreme; the historical background on the wall of every room misses no opportunity to criticize the Bolsheviks, but in doing so completely fails to explain why anybody might have been motivated to create art for or about them. As pointed out on Twitter, for example, it’s not difficult to figure out why the Lithuanian Jewish graphic designer El Lissitzky, several of whose works feature in the exhibition, might have found it difficult to mourn the downfall of the Russian monarchy and the deeply anti-semitic Russian Orthodox church that supported it, nor why he might have felt positively about a government that took the risk of anti-semitic violence seriously. For Jones, though, putting Lissitzky’s in historical context means identifying them as “calls to merciless violence”: a partial contextualization that is perhaps even more misleading than a total lack of context would be.

More broadly, this is a mindset that does not allow any reason to support revolution, even revolution against a cruel and arbitrary autocratic monarchy and the backwards social conditions it perpetuated. Lenin and other leaders, it is taken for granted, planned from the outset a dictatorship for their own benefit; anyone who might have supported them from outside a position of power was merely misguided, and their motivations need no further explanation. After all, how could anybody seriously have imagined, as Lissitzky did in the late 1920s, a world in which ordinary people might have modern, spacious homes?

Of course, Jones could hardly be said to be an objective reviewer; on the one hand, he claims that we should “never stop looking at the art of the Russian avant garde”; on the other, he compares it to an exhibition of Nazi-era German art, to which there would “rightly be an outcry”. And, yet, a few years back he was arguing that “brutal regimes and empires have long contributed to a legacy of eye-popping realism” in the context of the Spanish Inquisition. I wonder what changed?