The central question that unavoidably dominates today’s thinking and speaking about the Russian avant-garde is the question regarding the relationship between artistic revolution and political revolution. Was the Russian avant-garde a collaborator, a coproducer of the October Revolution? And if the answer is yes, can the Russian avant-garde function as an inspiration and model for contemporary art practices that try to transgress the borders of the art world, to become political, to change the dominant political and economical conditions of human existence, to put themselves in the service of political or social revolution, or at least of political and social change?
Today, the political role of art is mostly seen as being twofold: (1) critique of the dominant political, economic, and art system, and (2) mobilization of the audience toward changing this system through a Utopian promise. Now, if we look at the first, pre-revolutionary wave of the Russian avant-garde, we do not find any of these aspects in its artistic practice. To criticize something one must somehow reproduce it—to present this criticized something together with the critique of it.
But the Russian avant-garde wanted to be non-mimetic. One can say that Malevich’s Suprematist art was revolutionary, but one can hardly say that it was critical. The sound poetry of Alexei Kruchenykh was also non-mimetic and non-critical. Both of these artistic practices—the most radical of the Russian avant-garde—were also non-participatory, since writing sound poetry and painting squares and triangles are obviously not activities that would be especially attractive to a wider audiences. Nor could these activities mobilize the masses for the coming political revolution. In fact, such a mobilization could only be achieved through the use of modern and contemporary mass media, like the press, radio, cinema—or today, through pop music and revolutionary design such as posters, slogans, Twitter messages, and so forth. During the pre-revolutionary period, the artists of the Russian avant-garde obviously had no access to these media—even if the scandals their artistic activities provoked were from time to time covered by the press.
We often use the phrase “the Russian revolutionary avant-garde” to refer to Russian avant-garde artistic practices of the 1920s. But, in fact, this is incorrect. The Russian avant-garde of the 1920s was—artistically and politically—already in its post-revolutionary phase. During this phase, the Russian avant-garde further developed the artistic practices that had already emerged before the October Revolution. It operated in the framework of the post-revolutionary Soviet state—as it was formed after the October Revolution and the end of the civil war—and was supported and controlled by this state. Thus, one cannot speak of the Russian avant-garde of the Soviet period as being revolutionary in the usual sense of the word, since the Russian avant-garde art was not directed against the status quo, against the dominant political and economic power structures.
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