Already in their own times, Russia’s revolutionary artistic avant-gardes of the 1910s and 20s offered a highly desirable point of reference for artists outside of Russia. Be it for those who were hoping for a subsequent spreading of the revolution towards Europe, or for those who, after the frustration of those hopes in the early 1920s, believed that artistic practices could proceed to form an independent starting point for revolutionary tendencies within bourgeois capitalism.

Even when the rise of fascism in Europe demanded a drastic change of artistic politics from attacking the petit bourgeois sentimentality to countering the fascist aggression, it was the politics of the popular front, issued by the Comintern in 1934, and exiler’s journals like “Das Wort” published in Moscow, which served artists on the left in Europe as points of orientation. This was the case in spite the fact that the avant-gardes in Russia had been dragged into passivity years before. The CPSU’s decree of april 1932 “On the adjustment of all literary- and artistic organisations”, officially dissolved all autonomous artist associations into the state-run Union of Sovjet Artists and settled the dispute between the constructivist and productivist artist associations and those whose realism was based on artistic traditionalism in favour of the latter. Already since 1928, the state’s cultural policies had centralized working permissions for artists so severely, that constructivists like Gustav Klucis had to publicly denounce their commitments and obey to the national union’s slogans. In 1938, when Bert Brecht, Ernst Bloch and Alfred Kurella debated the revolutionary capacities of realism for a popular front in Europe in “Das Wort”, Klucis was arrested. In 1944 he died in a Gulag.

Stretched between affirmation and contestation, the avant-gardes in the East and West may have shared the abstract will to turn “art into life” (Tatlin), but while in Europe this meant the introduction of everyday objects and subjects into artistic practices without being able to effect an actual challenge of the role art played within bourgeois capitalism, in Russia this possibly meant the dissolution of artistic practices into means-oriented production. Boris Arvatov, one of the major theoreticians of this productivist branch of the constructivist avant-gardes formulated the revolutionary artists’ assignment in clear terms: “The work of the artist-engineer will build a bridge from production to consumption and this is why the organic engineer-like diffusion of the artist into production will, amongst all other things, be an indispensable condition of the economic system of socialism, ever more necessary as the course of socialism is completed.”

Productivist artists and theoreticians like Arvatov did, for a short period of time, play leading roles in the debates around the functions of art in the socialist society, when between 1918 and 1923 the Proletkul’t (Proletarian cultural-educational organizations), the INKhUK (Institute of Artistic Culture) and the VChUTEMAS (the Open Studios of the Fine Arts Moscow) all passed decidedly Productivist constitutions. The Proletkul’t’s studios were situated in the factories. This meant that they were not only close to the workers, but also to the machinery, which they were aiming to alter through the introduction of artistic labour. The Proletkul’t’s policies were in many regards in direct conflict with those of the CPSU. Alexander Bogdanov, a central theoretician of the early Proletkul’t had been a major opponent of Lenin since 1909, as his theory did promote an antimaterialist cultural bolshevism. Following the empiricist tradition of Ernst Mach, he denied the existence of any physical reality outside of man’s perception of it. Consequently, his politics saw cultural factors, ideology and science at the centre of building up socialism, very unlike Lenin, who favoured a materialistic base-superstructure model, in which culture figured as an asset to general production. After Lenin’s successful attempts to diminish the Proletkul’t’s influential position in the early 1920s, when the organization had over 500 000 members, large parts of the most widespread institution of productivism ceased just five years after the October Revolution. This in result meant an ‘academisation’ of Productivism, as the INKhUK and the VChUTEMAS were far less able to enter the sphere of production directly, exceptions being the individual efforts of Varvara Stepanova and Lyobov Popova at Tsindel (the First State Textile Factory), Carl Ioganson at the Red Roller Metal Factory in Moscow and Vladimir Tatlin and Boris Arvatov’s laboratory for material culture at the Petrograd Lessner Factory.

With the initiation of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1921, Lenin’s attempt to strengthen the suffering country in re-inventing restricted forms of private property and profit into the agrarian economy, also the art market was reinvented, strengthening the influence of those (realist) pictorial artists, who had lost their previous power with the revolution. Productivist artistic politics did not gain a wider influence outside of the educational sector until the end of the NEP under Josef Stalin in 1928, when Oktjabr’ (Union of workers in new forms of artistic practice) was formed, a coalition of artists, assembling all those, who had reoriented their art towards a purposeful production. In the short period before 1932, Oktjabr’ managed to build up its own youth organization (Molodoj Oktjabr’), formed workshops at industrial plants, worked with the printers, organised wide-ranging projects in the production of mass posters, festivities, spectacles and held touring exhibitions in workers clubs in which they presented the state of their art. Members were amongst others A. Kurella, M. Ginzburg, the Vesnin brothers, S. Eisenstein, A. Gan, E. Lissitzky, G. Klucis, A.Rodchenko, V. Stepanova and D. Riviera. In 1930 Oktjabr’ they had around 500 members and was cooperating with the TRAM theatre groups, the Mejerchol’d theatre, the Union of Modern Architects (OSA) and others. Again, the idea was to give artistic production a place within society that would have an effect on the development of production as a whole and again, this idea was formulated in sharp contrast to bourgeois artistic autonomy.

Within the Russian Revolution, when revolutionary artistic claims were confronted with a revolutionary society the bourgeois concept of artistic autonomy turned at the same time into its most severe shortcoming and its most urgently needed safeguard. When Productivist artists in the early 1920s had sought to abolish the bourgeois genres of artistic production and moved into photography, film, typography, architecture and object design, they had done so within the cooperative project of a collective cultural revolution. Those media were thought to be revolutionary means of production in and of themselves. As Tarabukin describes it in “The Art of the Day” (1925), “photographic reform is (…) not a simple amateur artistic experiment, arising as an exploration that is undertaken within the bounds of ‘pure’ art. It is closely linked to the vital tasks of agitational art, that is to say, the most typical phenomenon in modern artistic culture.” This ‘reform’ is presented as a dissociation of mechanical media of cultural production in general from their subordinance to the styles and fashions of painterly culture, and the cultivation of an approach to those, which would align them with other machinery of production. Where painting and sculpture had to be entirely dissolved as genres to become productivist media, photography and film were perceived to be purposeful means of production. What Tarabukin attacked was not just the distinction between reproductive and artistic media, but the existence of artistic media altogether.

Boris Arvatov writes out the consequences of such an approach to artistic labour: “This will only become possible, if the artists cease to decorate or represent life and start to create it. The total mergence of artistic forms with those of the everyday, the total immersion of art into life, the buildup of a of a maximum organized and purposeful, continuously reshaping being, will not only give life harmony, the total and cheerful evolvement of all social activity, but also the abolition of the everyday itself. The everyday, that is something static, paralyzed, which will die out, because the forms of being (what today defines the everyday) will constantly be in flux with the vicissitude of the means of production.”

Both Tarabukin and Arvatov indicate an understanding of artistic production which is on the one side defined by its aim to couple artistic production with the emerging means of mass reproduction – which also their revolutionary disciples in the capitalist West, most prominently the Bauhaus, envisaged. On the other side they refused to make artistic production dependent on a presupposed machinery – which, due to the capitalist conditions, the Western artistic revolutionaries were caught in. Russian Productivists were heading for the dissolution of reproduction as a category altogether. This marks a major antagonism between the revolutionary artistic claims in Russia and those operating in the West: the terms of liberation conversed. Productivism wanted to adapt machinery to human life within a collectivized liberation of all producers. Arvatov’s reflection on the end of the everyday assumes that within a collective society, production would turn into a permanent and omnipresent dynamism.

Productivism’s promise of a liberated production was not realized, because within Russia’s developing state capitalism of the 1930s, the materiality of individual autonomy vanished. Within capitalist societies, in which a total dissemination of production into all spheres of life mirrors the menace of a complete individual flexibility and dependency, the everyday holds the absurd promise that there might be life beyond production, but still bourgeois artists produce nothing but “conceivabilities” (Arvatov) of the world, instead of creating it. Still, revolutionary artists who are caught up in the capitalist present can do nothing but counter those “conceivabilities” in re-establishing collectivity. But today this collectivity is caught up within the everyday, because the organization of the workforce in late capitalism has desolidarized labour to a point, where its affirmation offers nothing but an endless repetition of solipsistic subjectivism. Revolutionary artistic aims today grasp for collective work beyond labour.

Kerstin Stakemeier (*1975) holds an MA in Political Science and History of Art. She is working on Phd projects in both disciplines on the „Aesthetization of Politics“ and on „Artistic labour and Revolution – artists as amateurs“. She publishes frequently on topics related to art, labour and materialist philosophy, is a member of the Radical Culture Research Collective and, together with Nina Köller, runs the „Aktualisierungsraum“, a project space based in Hamburg, which stages twelve subsequent exhibitions all concerned with the carving out and discussing of past events, objects or theories of historical significance which are than actualised and exhibited in the space.