Starting in November 2017, the Tate Modern in London will host an exhibit called Red Star Over Russia, and will display artwork made by Russian and Soviet artists between 1905 and 1953. The art includes propaganda posters, Socialist realist paintings, and photographs by renowned artists of the time. Each work of art is accompanied by a small plaque indicating the artist’s name, the work’s title, and the year in which it was created. In addition, museum curators frequently include some historical background information to give the audience context. Nevertheless, the information is often limiting. In order to gain a full understanding of the artwork, a visitor should do personal background research before the exhibition (which most often does not happen).
Although it is becoming increasingly common to see such exhibitions in major museums around the world, it is still debated whether artwork produced under politically oppressive and violent regimes should be celebrated as “art.”
Soviet art and fascist propaganda posters are remnants of relatively recent histories — events that have profoundly touched millions of families, and whose traces are still visible in the tragedies of genocide and dictatorship. The purpose of art exhibitions — which is to display “works of art” of “scholarly and visual merit,” can be considered contradictory to the tremendously painful memories and pernicious purposes of former propaganda. Claiming that a former Nazi propaganda poster, which promotes concentration camps, is of “scholarly and visual merit” is, to say the least, insulting to those affected by the historical events in question.
Fascist and Nazi propaganda posters had malevolent goals that served oppressive regimes. Between 1930 and 1945, art was produced to justify war and genocide. Futurism, an art movement promoted by Mussolini, displayed the “beauty of the machine, speed, violence and change.” These themes were in line with the fascist political agenda and, since the state did not allow for any artistic representation that denigrated or deviated from Fascism, Futurism was promulgated at the time.
Similarly, Socialist Realism was the only art style permitted in the Soviet Union between 1935 and 1955. The state set strict guidelines — proletarian, typical, realist, and partisan — and appointed a special police force to ensure that these guidelines were followed. Stalin demanded that art depict the “everyday,” but with a “critical realist” lens in order to portray his idealized utopian society rather than the brutal reality of the 20 million lives lost during his modernization. As a result, Socialist Realism depicted idealized images of effective agricultural collectivization, industrious workers, the national war effort, and the paternalistic qualities of Stalin.
Notwithstanding the difficulty of acknowledging propaganda and oppressed art as potentially virtuous, it is important to consider the artistic validity of works produced under political oppression. One definition of art, according to The Free Dictionary, is “the conscious use of the imagination in the production of objects intended to be contemplated or appreciated as beautiful, as in the arrangement of forms, sounds, or words.” Following this definition closely, the fact that political systems influenced and restricted artistic expression implies a limit on the freedom of creativity used by the artist, rendering it less valid, valuable, and important. But blindly following this definition assumes that, until around the 1950s, art didn’t exist. Paintings, sculptures, and the like were once only commissioned by the rich and powerful elites who could afford them; therefore, artists did not have the means to purely “create” without financial backing. Because of political oppression in the USSR, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany, only art that supported the ruling regime was commissioned and exhibited. This should be taken into account before ruling out works of art because of their political affiliation.
In addition, apart from being allowed to exist, artists who followed these rules were rewarded with dachas, higher social status, and more. Those who did not follow the guidelines had their art banned from being sold, exhibited, or commissioned, and faced criminal repercussions (sometimes as drastic as execution) for breaking the rules.
While this system unfortunately suppressed talented artists who did not conform, it is important to acknowledge that some of the conforming artists were talented as well. Several artists still found ways to express themselves subtly while remaining appropriate to the state. For example, in the painting “Letter From the Front,” Soviet artist Aleksandr Laktionov included a broken fence, floor, and wall in the depiction of a peasant household. Such small details, which implied a lack of perfection in the Soviet reality, sparked controversy. Nevertheless, because of the subtlety and merit of the work, Stalin overlooked these characteristics.
Just a few years ago, and arguably still today, because of the connotations and violent memories tied to those historical periods, the art from this repressive era was as taboo as the history itself. More recently, exhibitions in important museums (such as the Guggenheim in New York, the MuSa in Brescia, and the Tate in London) have changed course. And they are right to do so; these works should be discussed and analyzed because it is important to acknowledge that “forced” forms of art have always existed. Art museums should take on the role of educating visitors about the historical significance of the art being exhibited. A painting should not simply be described by its artistic “-ism” style, but by the human history behind it. Fortunately, art exhibitions displaying controversial artworks are gradually increasing in popularity, as the taboo of these relatively recent epochs slowly fades, and people are more willing to observe and study works with negative historical connotations.
The most obvious cause of this phenomenon is the passing of people who were directly affected by socialism, fascism, and Nazism. The number of people who can recount from memory the atrocities of history is steadily decreasing. At the same time, the growing indifference, or curiosity, toward past tragedies uncovers interesting implications regarding today’s world. Maybe the vast, constant availability of information is leading people to become more disconnected from events as they were historically experienced. Maybe museum curators feel the need to advertise past mistakes given the current political climate, which many argue is rife with the same precursors to dictatorial fascism that were exhibited a nearly a century ago.
Although there are negative connotations associated with artwork and propaganda from turbulent historical periods, it is important to study these works and acknowledge them as art while also keeping in mind their powerful and painful histories. Learning about historical periods and propaganda is valuable for future reference, so museums should strive to spread historical knowledge along with the artwork on display.