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From the Issue of Art to the Issue of Position: The Echoes of Socialist Realism, Part I

Socialist Realism was introduced into China in the first half of the twentieth century, and gradually became the main, overarching creative method of the revolutionary era, leading art, literature, theater, and other creative fields for decades. It is often seen as a highly politicized creative model that is the product of socialist, and particularly communist, political views. Over the past three decades, contemporary artists and art discussions often attempted to cast it off as an external form, positioning themselves in opposition to it in order to declare their independent, rebellious, free, and contemporary stance in their artistic practice. Many artists and critics have also engaged in a conscious rethinking of their socialist heritage within their artistic practice, either distancing themselves or avoiding it altogether, unwilling to admit Socialism’s direct connection to contemporary times as an artistic tradition or ideology. Such an independent, rebellious, and free stance appears to be the foundation of the contemporary legitimacy of art. At the same time, we have not engaged in adequate observation and discussion of its internal logic. The current ambiguity of articulation concerning contemporary issues in art criticism in China is largely due to the delay in carrying out deep research and analysis of this historical process. In this paper, we propose to address the subject of socialist realism as a fundamental issue, exploring the historic practice and complexity of its formation.

Engels predicted in 1859 that socialist literature would possess profound conceptual and predictive abilities, as well as a perfected artistic form. He believed that realism “implies, besides truth of detail, the truthful reproduction of typical characters under typical circumstances.” That is to say, art reflects generalized reality rather than solely and simply a mimetic reproduction of a particular reality. It is a depiction that presupposes historical development and class struggle so as to “lay claim to a place in the realm of realism.” Socialist Realism is socialist first, not realist. The intellectuals, writers, and artists who were entrusted with the duty of changing and educating the working class had to accept communist utopia as the ultimate truth as well as the inevitability of the revolution. Once both were accepted, then romanticization, with its embellishment and exaggeration of heroes and various beautiful imaginings, would not be fabrication but an actual reflection of a reality to come.

As a creative method, Socialist Realism was not just a Soviet invention promoted by the Communist Party. Early in the twentieth century, progressive intellectuals introduced realism into the field of literature, its sense of intimacy attracting many authors engaged in the fields of literature, drama, and art. For some, realism in China allowed for an escape from Western invasion and appealed to Chinese national values, including its culture. Others saw Western modern art as reflecting the modernization of the nation and a way to help overcome its feudalist structure. These complex, intertwined sentiments of admiration and hatred for Western nations—as both industrialized states and colonialists—filled the Chinese intellectual realm. Socialist Realism appeared within this context and appealed to Chinese artists’ aspirations for the modernization of art. For intellectuals, it had a sense of presence in reality, and this in itself already proved quite alluring. Meanwhile, it fit with their deep desire to integrate their own ideals with their pursuit of change in reality and progress for the nation. An early definition of Socialist Realism accounted for this precedence, stating that Socialist Realism emerged

between 1932 and 1934 in the discussion of creative methods among artists and writers in the Soviet Union, proposed by writers and theorists and agreed upon by Stalin. Though the Socialist Realist creative method was established in the 1930s, its basic traits had already taken shape in the creative practices of some writers before it was theoretically defined.

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