Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 22, 2018
Matthew S. Witkovsky and Devin Fore, eds. Revoliutsiia! Demonstratsiia! Soviet Art Put to the Test Exh. cat. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017. 324 pp.; 392 color ills.; 78 b/w ills. Hardcover $65.00 (9780300225716)
V-A-C Foundation, Venice, Italy, May 13–August 25, 2017; Art Institute of Chicago, IL, October 29, 2017–January 14, 2018
Installation view, Revoliutsiia! Demonstratsiia! Soviet Art Put to the Test, Art Institute of Chicago, October 29, 2017–January 15, 2018 (photograph © 2017; provided by the Art Institute of Chicago)

There should be some irony in the fact that in much of the English-speaking world this past year’s run of major art museum exhibitions commemorating the centenary of the 1917 Russian Revolution exceeded that honoring the quincentennial of the 1517 Protestant Reformation. Why the god that failed rather than the one that won? That the revolution tended toward iconogenesis and the reformation toward iconoclasm is not insignificant, neither is the fact, as the Russian exhibitions have been quick to remind us, that the old revolutionary dream of freedom, equality, and reason still gurgles in the deeper recesses of many of our souls, nor, of course, is the dyspeptic reality that even that vestige is now being perverted in the hands of cosmopolitan globalists in one corner and identitarian nationalists in the other.

Nonetheless, my vote for the leading cause of revolution’s cultural edge over reformation in this past year is that shows like Revoliutsiia! Demonstratsiia! Soviet Art Put to the Test appeal to our primordial impulse to take trophies, our desire to see our temples and palaces adorned with the disjecta membra of the worlds we have vanquished. Just as it would be foolish to assume that we are drawn to the art of other worlds innocently, so would it be to assume that it is put on display for us merely out of beneficence: while the motivations of the Art Institute of Chicago and Russian tycoon Leonid Mikhelson’s V-A-C Foundation may not be exactly the same, neither is different in this respect from any museum. For a comparison all too easy, imagine Revoliutsiia! next to the displays in the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro during its colonial heyday. “All evil is justified if a god takes pleasure in it,” is Nietzsche’s well-known account of the cultural origins of this impulse, “how deeply this primeval concept still penetrates into our European civilization!”

Guilty pleasure or nostalgic reverie, in other words, the exhibition was a treat for those who had a chance to see its rich selection of greatest hits and unexpected finds. Among the hits were reconstructions of Aleksandr Rodchenko’s 1925 workers’ club and El Lissitsky’s 1926 Raum für konstruktive Kunst as well as the magisterial later posters of Valentina Kulagina—her 1930 International Female Workers’ Day with its lead banner announcing that women workers will be commemorated by competing against each other, for example, or her 1931 Female Shockworkers: Strengthen the Shock Brigades, Master Technology, Increase the Ranks of Proletarian Specialists—which triumphantly show women as much the enforcers and producers of state Taylorism as men during the period that Christina Kiaer has elsewhere labeled “the short life of the equal woman.” Among the finds were sundry worker-themed porcelain inkwells, bookends, coffee sets and other tchotchkes; several pieces of Ikea-modest folding furniture and their accompanying illustrations in various avant-garde journals; a Munchesque watercolor by Kulagina depicting her last sighting of husband Gustav Klutsis as he was taken from their home by Stalin’s police before dawn one morning in January 1938; and the show stealer, several notes from Stalin’s daughter drafted in a delightful mix of crayon doodle and bureaucratic prerogative. One from 1937, for example, says this: “Order No. 13[a] to First Secretary comrade I. Stalin: I order you, in addition to the parade, to request the film ‘Peter the First’ and to take me with you.”

What is most notable about Revoliutsiia!, however, is less the work itself and more its powerful curatorial framing. Instead of the vaulting view of history bequeathed to us by Hegel, Marx, Lenin, and their heirs, we are asked to experience the relationship between art and revolution spatially, as a networked array distributed across ten discrete social settings used to define the layout of the exhibition: Battleground, School, Theater, Press, Factory, Exhibition, Festival, Cinema, Storefront, and Home. “In place of an evolutionist narrative,” Devin Fore and Matthew S. Witkovsky explain in the catalogue’s introduction, “a host of lateral relations” (19) are utilized for the show’s organizing principle. Rather than calling us to the old phenomenology of spirit in which workers of the world were to unite, Revoliutsiia! invites us into the “metabolic exchange” (17) of laboratories and stage sets in which the phenomenal experience of the Great Experiment was to be tested, tweaked, and occasionally deployed. The benefit of this curatorial approach, Witkovsky and Fore explain, is therapeutic: “Organizing the artwork spatially,” they say, provides a “less tragic” view of the revolutionary period by freeing us from its failed teleology. “Permitted to inhabit its own artifactual temporality, the artwork drifts out of phase with the historical parameter of political exigency” (19). A small battalion of additional experts—Yve-Alain Bois, Masha Chlenova, Maria Gough, Kiaer, Kristin Romberg, Kathleen Tahk, and Barbara Wurm—was commissioned to shore up the curators’ powerful framing with catalogue essays given the same titles and themes as the exhibition’s ten sections.

Of course, it is not historically inaccurate to see the art on view in its spatialized “artifactual temporality”—in the rhythms of life and death, expediency and need, of individuated beings and things—rather than in the dialectical temporality of teleologically driven common cause espoused by Hegel, Marx, and Lenin. The early years following the revolution faced an awkward combination of two very different exigencies, political and economic, each defined by their own temporalities and summed up in Lenin’s pithy 1920 definition: “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country” (illustrated in the well-known sketch by Klutsis included in the exhibition). The dialectical temporality of the federated soviets was to be an ongoing process of reconciliation between part and whole that aimed at the production of a synthetic political subject—a sensus communis, in Kant’s wording, or Geist in Hegel’s, and or “species being” in Marx’s. The artifactual temporality of industrial development reaching to catch up with the more developed West, on the other hand, was shaped by specific instrumental aims, disciplines, and durations.

In this context, the slogan about soviets plus electrification is sometimes misunderstood. It was never meant as a static formula but instead highlighted what Lenin in the same statement called a “crisis” that demanded a wholesale rethinking of the communist project. Revolution was one thing, but electrification was wholly another because the “cultural level of the majority of the proletariat and the peasants is unequal to the task.” As such, there was a pressing need to “completely overhaul all Party work,” replace workers with “a great number of technical experts,” and direct all “activities, propaganda and agitation” to the economic goals of industrialization. It was this shift from political to economic need that funded and guided the artworks exhibited in Revoliutsiia! amid a broader regression from the original revolutionary goals to a renewal of the old bourgeois economic rationality. Already by 1920 the new communist subject had been divided into a rapidly receding comrade whose main charge was the production of solidarity and an equally rapidly emerging technocrat charged with designing the new socialist world. This split haunts all the work in the exhibition. Each of us can choose the most disturbing example of this new lifeworld for ourselves, but I vote for Rodchenko’s June 1930 cover of Radio Listener (with Stalin leering at us through a Slinky-like coil standing for the new networked world, alternating between red and blue, made into something like a collective mood ring) as the best illustration of the way its core contradiction fouled the Great Experiment and continues to undermine us to this day. 

While it is not cited in the catalogue, we know from Fore’s scholarship that the work of Gilbert Simondon is in the background of the curatorial framing, and rightfully so. Of particular value for understanding the exhibition is Simondon’s account of the “technocratic attitude” that, he says, “consists of reinventing the world like a neutral field for the penetration of machines.” Instead of constituting itself as a body politic filled out by the narrative purpose of freedom, the technocrat produces a world in which “the social begins to manifest itself in the form of obsolescence.” As a result, the political subject’s bonds of comradeship and teleological aim give way to the economic subject’s sense of herself bobbing about with each and every other thing in a neutral field, all of us caught up in our own artifactual temporalities subject to the ebb and flow of network processes that operate beyond our control.

It is this shift from a phenomenology of spirit to a phenomenology of need, from the world of the comrade to that given to us by the technocrat, from dialectical temporality to artifactual temporality that Fore and Witkovsky rightfully call the drift “out of phase with the historical parameter of political exigency” (19). Whether the drift is therapeutic as they contend or is itself part of our period’s reproduction of the same bourgeois denial that the Soviet experiment put into partial and momentary abeyance is an open question. The politically reductive, exaggeratedly economistic worldview on display in Revoliutsiia! was precipitated by the industrialization that communism needed to survive in a brutally competitive capitalist world, but that is only half the story. The other half has to do with us now, with our choice to see the communist glass half full or half empty. Certainly, the commemorators of revolution this past year were right that many of us still harbor the old feeling that, as Marx once said, “can only consist in socialised man” seeking “that development of human energy which is an end in itself.” But that does nothing to lessen the backward pull of the even older feelings of schadenfreude that I began with, the delight we take in the failure and suffering of once-threatening worlds splayed across the trophy halls of our cultural life. How we respond to that choice, however, need not be confined to the ebb and flow of artifactual temporality, to the experience of time foisted upon us by the brutal necessity of our economic lives. Indeed, perhaps the most enduring lesson that Revoliutsiia! reminds us of—like the revolution it commemorates—is that we have the capacity to decide the future for ourselves. 

Blake Stimson
Professor of Art History at University of Illinois, Chicago