The Socialization of Artists
proclamation of a rapprochement between social cla tsses was used
to justify a major intervention by the political authorities in
the artistic field. The desire was for artists and workers to
work in concert toward the construction of socialist society.
Indeed, artists were encouraged to go into the factories and represent
the world of labor. And at the same time, workers were to counsel
artists and to produce in turn their own works. In East Germany,
this cultural policy was given theoretical expression at the Bitterfeld
Conference of 1959, where artists were exhorted to go out and
meet the workers and the latter to “take up a brush.”
The way the art world operated financially in the GDR ensured
this policy’s success: with the art market centered around
galleries having been dismantled by the early 1950s, artists lived
basically from commissions given by firms (and by mass organizations)
and from contracts with worker brigades who thereby became their
While the reality
of these encounters between artists and workers far from corresponded
to the irenic image given of them in official speeches, it remains
no less the case that this political framework set artists and
workers side by side and gave rise to particular practices of
art production, specific exhibition sites (like firms and cultural
centers), and the organization of times and places for such meetings
(such as worker festivals during which works by professionals
and amateurs were exhibited). The political constraints framing
artistic activity in the GDR led to a certain kind of socialization
of tartists and gave to the word Realism an original meaning:
the socialist artist is a Realist less in terms of his style than
in terms of his rootedness in social reality.
Variations on Popular Aesthetics
of these encounters between artists and workers orchestrated by
the authorities was to advance a popular aesthetics painters were
to reproduce and imitate. Popular aesthetics was defined by two
points. Painting was to reproduce, first of all, the everyday
world. Workers supposedly wanted to recognize in art works their
nearby environment. And the work of art was to be a reduplication
of the known world. Painting also was to be characterized by its
simplicity and its comprehensibleness, as against bourgeois taste,
which was inclined toward abstraction and confusion. The Realist
style was to be the guarantor of the readability of art works.
However, as in
the Soviet Union, the function of Socialist Realism was to educate
and to struggle against the “kitsch” of the masses
as much as to respond to their tastes. It certainly had to be
pleasing and to offer seductive images that would immediately
absorb the viewer’s attention, but it also had to educate
the population’s aesthetic sense. Socialist Realism produced
as much as it reproduced a popular aesthetics, and it sought to
respond to aesthetic dispositions while at the same time changing
t;The amateur painting
of the time was highlighted as an expression of popular culture
(even if it was done by painters of various social origins). This
type of painting clung to a realistic representation of everyday
objects and of one’s nearest and dearest. But this was so
less on account of aesthetic taste than because of a concern with
artistic training. In Communist societies as well as in capitalist
ones, amateurs are above all apprentice painters for whom apprenticeship
begins with a mastery of figurative representation and is practiced
through the use of motifs.
or by force) in social reality and caught up in the play of varying
social tastes, Socialist Realism was thus nourished by the social
world. The subject of paintings was social being. The art critic
in Communist countries tackled this key point with the help of
the notion of type and typicality. This notion had been introduced
at the end of the nineteenth century by Friedrich Engels, who
defined Realism as “the faithful translation of typical
characteristics in typical circumstances.” Grasping the
typical gestures of the building worker, the peasant at work,
or the working woman on the shop floor was the way to embody the
ideal set by the regime. But the representation of the typical
had a much larger political import: in a society marked by class
struggle, it was a matter of social antagonisms; in Communist
societies, it was a matter of showing the domination of the tproletarian
classes. To borrow Bertolt Brecht’s words, Realism is the
art form “that reveals the complex causality of social relations;
it is concrete while at the same time facilitating the effort
typical was nonetheless not supposed to end in an effort to allegorize
people, who would thereby become symbols of workers and peasants,
but was to respect the individuality of the person who is represented
and of the situation being conjured up. The authorities required
that characters be individualized, that paintings show the inner
life of individuals and not halt at a description of their social
characteristics; the East German art critic took back up the idea,
developed in the nineteenth century around the work of Wilhelm
Liebl and Wilhelm Trübner, that German Realism is capable
of painting inner life whereas French Realism remains at the surface
of bodies. Socialist Realism in the GDR is thus to be understood
within the tension between the typical and the individual.
Realism and Interaction
Yet more than
any precision in depicting facial features or other details, it
was the interactions between protagonists and places or among
protagonists themselves that allowed an individualization of figures.
Set within their environment and within their relationships with
their contemporaries, characters became more concrete and more
real. The kind of reality Socialist Realism wished to repr toduce
was not the reality of matter, objects, or bodies, but that of
social relations. Its problem was not objectivity but, rather,
in which workers were depicted as working in isolation were subject
to condemnation. Conversely, works that set characters in interaction
were very much appreciated, whence the predilection for scenes
involving discussions (in firms, at political meetings), scenes
involving collective labor, or even scenes involving couples (as,
for example, the very popular picture by Walter Womacka, Am
Strand, representing a young couple on the beach). Historical
topics did not elude this requirement: situations involving revolutionary
emulation were held in high esteem, as when workers encouraged
one another to rise up or when a political leader (Vladimir Lenin,
Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Ernst Thälman, etc.) incited
the crowd to revolt. The great number of portraits of Lenin presented
in a variety of ways the figure of political leader who explains
and harangues, and such paintings thereby raise the problem of
the representation of political speech. Artists, whether professional
or amateur, were able to play upon the representation of discussions
among workers and of the speeches of political leaders, sometimes
introducing indications of incomprehension or distances between
characters and creating dislocations amidst the interactions.
Heroization Shattered from Within
The effect of
such individualization of characters and situations was to avoid
too great a heroization of people. One of the objectives set by
the authorities was to produce a kind of art that would glorify
without heroizing. Because they were represented in their activities
or in interactions with other characters, political rulers, workers,
and peasants had to get away from the victorious pose of heros.
In reality, Socialist Realism staged people who were in the process
of becoming heros, characters who were striving for heroism. Unlike
Nazi Realism, which short-circuited the past, the present, and
the future so as to represent an atemporal hero, a perfect expression
of the race, Socialist Realism showed a hero in the process of
construction. It was profoundly historical, and the optimism that
was displayed included awareness of past pains. This historical
dimension allowed one to introduce into the paintings of the time
expressions of suffering: failures of the German Communist movement
(in 1918 and under Naziism), the wounds of World War II, the privations
of a society of scarcity, and fears of the Cold War. This point
holds all the truer once one moves away from official art and
considers the works of little known professional artists and amateurs.
East German Realism was inspired then not only by the glorifying
tendencies of Soviet Realism; it was also nourished by the traumatic
Realism of Otto Dix and the moving Realism of Käthe Kollwitz.
The inner breach of Socialist Realism became one of the main motifs
of the figurative painting of the 1970s and 1980s, that of Wolfgang
Mattheuer o tr Bernhard Heisig, for example. Analyzing the painting
of the 1950s and the 1960s, an East German art critic of the time,
Karl Max Kober, defined the basic problem of Socialist Realism
indeed as the search for a balance between heroism and sacrifice.
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