The now-traditional view of the Russian avant-garde and Constructivism, which limits itself to two or three big names (Kandinsky, Malevich) or discrete works by leading figures (Rodchenko, Tatlin), reduces not only the sociopolitical context of these artistic phenomena, but also the dominant form in which they existed during their historical period—namely, as a form of Productionist art, which conceived itself as a species of collective artistic labor. It was a social practice that aimed at the revolutionary renewal of society and the creation of new types of relations among people—communist relations, to be precise. It was an art that could not imagine the creation of new artistic forms happening outside the transformation of social forms, and by this transformation it had in mind the production of “forms of intercourse” (Marx).
Nevertheless, the participation in Productionism of such renowned figures as Olga Rozanova, Liubov Popova, Varvara Stepanova, Karl Ioganson, Gustav Klutsis, Moisei Ginzburg, Konstantin Melnikov, Anton Lavinsky, Alexander Vesnin, the Stenberg Brothers, El Lissitsky, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Sergei Tretyakov, Vsevolod Meyerhold, and Dziga Vertov is often put down to passing leftist fancies or the forced “collectivization” of artists in the complicated circumstances of the first years of Soviet power. As a result, we know all these names either separately or as members of an amorphous “leftist avant-garde,” rather than as a broad movement engaged in the creation of a new material and intellectual culture for an enormous country—that is, in a project whose scale was unprecedented for artists. Art historians keenly discuss Suprematism or Expressionism, the struggle between non-figurative art and realism, but all of them are inclined to underestimate the epoch-making decision by twenty-five prominent leftist artists in 1921 to remove Wassily Kandinsky from his post as chair of the INKhUK (Institute for Artistic Culture). They thus made a total institutional break with easel painting and moved into mass production and political agitation. The same should be said of the theorists of Productionism who joined artists in the LEF group—Alexei Gan, Nikolai Tarabukin, Boris Kushner, David Arkin, Sergei Tretyakov, Nikolai Chuzhak, Osip Brik, and Boris Arvatov. They opened up whole new fronts in the study of art and culture, and they developed alternative artistic methods and strategies. Over the past eighty years, however, their writings have not been republished and have remained the object only of biased criticism. In fact, the work of such scholars as Arvatov, who were among the founders of the sociology of art, might prove, mutatis mutandis, quite relevant today for a critical grasp of the processes that have led to the fusion of art, the market, neoliberal ideology, and mass culture.
The Historical Context
Although it declared itself as a primarily leftist, communist art, Productionism was not, however, an isolated phenomenon, an anomalous instance of political excess in the history of art. Formally and in terms of content, it was linked to such paramount artistic currents of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as Romanticism, Cubo-Futurism, Abstractionism, Arts and Crafts, and the Bauhaus. It manifested and tested ideas and practices that these other groups had abandoned at the level of declared intuitions.
It was, however, the association of Productionism’s practitioners and theorists with the ideas of communism and with the 1917 Russian Revolution that determined to a great extent its tragic ambivalence. It was this that prevented the movement from putting down firm roots and realizing itself fully in history.
The Productionists did not limit themselves to the role of production technologists and designers of the new industrialized lifestyle. Instead, they hoped that their work would have a more fundamental impact on socioeconomic processes. Thus, they linked the relevance of their theory of art to the success of revolutionary transformations at all levels of social existence. This success did not depend only on art, even art understood from the Productionist viewpoint. For the technicization of artistic labor did not solve the problem of industrial labor, but merely framed it, especially under conditions where production itself was underdeveloped. This explains to a great degree why the ideas of the Productionists resounded with confidence only in the early twenties. By the early thirties, these artistic initiatives maintained some kind of presence perhaps only in architecture and, partly, in journalism, and the movement as a whole was exposed to constant pressure from the mounting Stalinist reaction.
Formulation of the Problem
The question is whether the cause of these events was a fateful mistake made by the Productionists within their project itself or something mostly external to it—that is, the failure of the Revolution itself, the gradual curtailment of the communist project. Correspondingly, did Productionist art itself cease to be “communist” as a result, thereby forever relinquishing its relevance?
Although I hope to answer these questions, I have not set myself the task of reconstructing the entire history of Productionist art in the revolutionary Russia of the nineteen-twenties. There are already several good (albeit variously tendentious) studies on this topic . I avoid this reconstruction all the more so because this phenomenon was quite heterogeneous: it included the simplistic declarations of the Proletkult (Alexander Bogdanov) and émigré aestheticism (the Berlin journal Veshch—“Thing”) along with well-conceived theoretical conceptions and impressive artistic achievements (the theorists and practitioners of the LEF circle, INKhUK, VKhUTEMAS). Hence I will focus only on formulating the overall ideology of this ambiguous phenomenon, what with its stark approach to posing questions and its obvious contradictions. In addition, I intend to answer the following questions in this text:
1. What was Productionist art’s logical and political connection to modernism and the pre-Revolutionary Russian avant-garde?
2. How did Productionism differ from the Deutscher Werkbund and the Bauhaus? That is, why is it wrong, despite superficial similarities, to reduce Productionism to applied/decorative arts and design?
3. What is the link between the Constructivists and Productionists, on the one hand, and Situationism and contemporary political media art, on the other? That is, where in the contemporary world might Productionism find its heirs?
Among the most commonly recalled fundamental achievements of the Productionists is the Soviet section at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, in Paris: Melnikov designed the pavilion itself, while the central exposition was Rodchenko’s famous Workers’ Club. Other frequently cited highlights are Tatlin’s furniture, Popova’s textiles, Miller and Stepanova’s designs for work uniforms, the advertising posters of the Stenbergs, the photomontages of Mayakovsky and Rodchenko, Gan and El Lissitsky’s avant-garde graphic design, Lavinsky’s models and buildings for the city of the future, the Suprematist dishware of Malevich’s followers, Meyerhold’s biomechanics for the theater, and Vertov’s Kino Eye movement.
It was not the achievements of particular artists that distinguished Productionism, however, but the movement itself and the original conception of art that emerged from their daily experience of toiling in workshops, factories, schools and colleges, and art institutions. Although it has been repudiated by art historians and half-forgotten by contemporary artists, this conception remains unsurpassed to this day.
The undertaking to return art to the popular masses was not just a slogan. It was also part of the concrete task of organizing the industrial arts and arts education in a country that was essentially illiterate, backward, and exhausted by war and famine. Moreover, this return was, at a minimum, associated with the democratization of Russian society and the ideals of popular rule, and, simultaneously, with the no less pressing problems of creating a mass society and the continuing division of labor. Productionist artists and theorists were thus faced with problems that, while not reducible to one another, were essentially intermeshed: the emancipation of labor; the return to it of the creative character it had forfeited under capitalism; and the democratization of art itself in terms of its new collective author and mass consumer. The task was to coordinate production and consumption via the figure of the “artist in the factory,” to make art a mass phenomenon without diminishing its quality and revolutionary import. The existence of art in the regime of mass production/consumption—that is, not only in the laboratory of formal experiments aimed at an elite audience capable of appreciating them—confronted the Productionists with questions that much later theorists of modernism (Adorno, Greenberg) were unable to answer positively without once again confining the artist within a quite precarious autonomy and herding the masses into the reservation of kitsch and “bad taste.”
Labor and the Production of Things
Thus, the basic dilemma in the conception of the Productionists was already conditioned by the Kantian antinomy within the notion of art as, on the one hand, a practice capable of restoring the unity of humanity’s rational and sensual, natural and social essences; and, on the other hand, as an exclusive ability bound only to the individual genius of the artist. The latter notion, dominant in the history of contemporary art, widened the gap between art making and material production, and in turn reflected the general trend toward the division of social labor.
The Productionists proposed their own method of overcoming this antinomy, a method that differed from Schiller’s “state of beauty in appearance.” They regarded art from the viewpoint of labor and advanced the idea of mastery as the skillful production of things instead of the notion of the artist as genius. “Every artwork is a thing,” wrote the authors of The Art of the Commune. “The art of the future is not connoisseurship, but labor itself transfigured,” declared Tarabukin .
In the historical reconstruction of art undertaken by Arvatov (Art and Production, Moscow, 1926), although the artist was conceived as a “master” who had emerged from the workshops of the Middle Ages, he differed from the craftsman only by virtue of his mastery. That is, it was not that the craftsman had been an artist once upon a time, but that the artist had once been a craftsman. Like the craftsman, he had been inscribed in society’s system of daily needs and practices. Right up until the early bourgeois age, he was not engaged in the production of discrete luxury items and museum pieces, but in the full-blooded reproduction of society’s entire system of vital activity.
That is why, by the way, that the art of antiquity, which we still imagine as the “norm and unattainable model” (Marx, Grundrisse), was viewed as such, according to Arvatov, not by virtue of its “classicism” or “realism,” but because it was incorporated into the religious practices, architecture, and infrastructure of the democratic polis.
This strain of historicism assumed that a new transformation of art was possible: art could be returned from its Hegelian wanderings round the circles of alienation—palaces, museums, and galleries—into the daily lives of people. Moreover, Arvatov, Gan, and Tarabukin saw the future of art not in a return to cottage craftwork, as Ruskin and Morris (and Proudhon) would have had it. On the contrary, artists would be involved in the organization of industrialized machine production as engineers and inventors.
In his typically radical manner, Osip Brik raised the stakes when he wrote, “Why is the manufacture of a still life more ‘basic’ than the manufacture of chintz? The experience of the easel painter is not the experience of the artist as such, but merely the experience of one particular instance of painterly labor” (“From Paintings to Chintz,” LEF 2 (1924), pp. 27–34). Of course, the comparison of a still life to chintz was a bit invidious. The problem evoked by this comparison involves the applied nature of art when it makes the transition from the artist’s studio to the production floor—for example, when a Suprematist painting is transferred onto a new medium such as a porcelain plate. Tarabukin and Brik, however, were dreaming of something bigger: namely, art’s infiltration “into the ‘economic mystery’ of the thing.” In this connection Brik wrote: “Productionist art’s principal idea is that a thing’s outward appearance is determined by its economic function, not by abstract, aesthetic considerations.”
We might imagine that they had in mind the simple notion of masterfully produced designer items. This is not quite accurate, and the attempt on the part of Soviet art historians in the sixties to rehabilitate Productionist art by reducing it to design is explained solely by the ideological conjuncture.As a minimum program for a time when the economy and productive forces were underdeveloped, Arvatov proposed the manufacture of comfortable furniture and clothing, the development of an “economical gait,” and an efficient work and domestic environments. At the same time, he was perhaps overly optimistic in his assumption that these products were capable not only of improving the general welfare, but also of altering people’s perceptual/sensual habits, thus gradually shifting society towards the maximum program of the Productionists. That is, as they discussed chintz, machines, and even domestic life, their real target was the individual, or rather, her increasing capacities and species being/social essence, now in a process of transformation.
The New Life and Its Overcoming
Wholly in the spirit of the early Marx, Arvatov, Tarabukin, and (even!) Ilya Ehrenburg viewed the emancipation of things only as a dialectical stage towards total de-reification, as the overcoming of the fetishistic mediation of social relations as relations between things. “The worker not only liberates the thing from man; he also liberates man from the thing. The thing is not his yoke, but his joy. Art is the creation of things (which, although not crudely utilitarian, are always necessary)” (Ilya Ehrenburg, ).
Therefore, there was nothing anti-artistic about the notion that the thing’s efficiency and utility (its “tectonics,” according to Constructivist canons) were equivalent to its artistic qualities. The way that the Productionists framed the question about the origins of artistic creation can be compared in this sense (and without straining the point) to Nietzsche’s genealogy of morals. As we know, Nietzsche exposed the utterly unethical basis of our pleasant moral norms. Just like Nietzsche, however, the Productionists spoke not so much of a return to a pre-ethical/pre-aesthetic (pre-cultural) stage (that is, the production of merely useful domestic items), as of the transfiguration of life itself. This transfiguration would overcome the threat of a new reification brought on by the proletariat’s ownership of the means of production. The Productionists thus understood daily life in a maximally broad and dynamic sense: the new life would not so much supply people with comfortable, affordable housing, dishes, and furnishings (that is, it was not the organization of things), as much it would introduce a grammar of new relations between people based on a new relation to things. According to the Productionists, things had to be overcome as much as daily life did. As Arvatov wrote, “The total merger of artistic forms with the forms of daily life [and] the creation of a maximally organized, efficient, and ceaselessly fashioned being will supply not only harmony of life—the most joyous and complete unfolding of all social activities—but will also destroy the very notion of daily life. Daily life—that is, something static and ossified—will die insofar as the forms of being (which today takes the form of daily life) will be altered endlessly as productive forces evolve”  Here we find the principal difference between Productionism and the ideas of Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier or the Werkbund. Unlike the founders of Productionist art in Russia, their western comrades-in-arms advocated the utility, economy, and efficiency of daily consumer items, and for them these qualities were fairly abstract aesthetic principles based on a lopsided notion of technical progress. Given the constant substitution of pure technicism for art, the possibility of fetishizing manufactured things and even sacralizing them was thus preserved.
Russian designers, on the contrary, saw a solution to this problem in a balance between production and consumption that would be based on the manufacture of temporary, as it were “disposable” (Tarabukin) things. By virtue of their collective production and social consumption, the individual would be able to avoid becoming attached to them. For the problem with things is not whether they can be individually possessed as private property, but whether they are able to satisfy the elementary needs of any person whatsoever.
Arvatov interpreted easel-based visual art as the illusory supplementation of capitalism’s under-organized world of daily life. This form of daily life could be overcome only under a socialist economy, which he understood as a return to a quasi-natural economy that presumed collective production and the consumption of the fruits of this “high-quality labor” as its use values. Correspondingly, he saw art’s future in the creation and appropriation of universal culture by all members of society according to their creative skills and levels of mastery.
As for easel painting, under socialism it would be turned into an “art of social pressure—that is, into an art that would try to provoke determinate, concrete behaviors”. Moreover, it should be realized without mediation in the daily life of workers, revolutionizing it from within: “It is not that the working life should be brought to the theatrical stage, but that theatrical action should unfold in life”. That is why Arvatov proposed turning museums into research institutes, rather than storehouses of “eternal treasures” for admiration by an idle public. He gave pride of place to the new media—photography, cinema, radio, and “literary factography” (newspapers). With its basis in these new democratic media, proletarian art, according to Arvatov, should combine the “objective fixation” of real facts with their “dialectical montage,” by which he meant the formalist principle of “baring the device of artistic mastery,” a technique that revealed the “fetishistic” mysteries of art.
Here, Arvatov anticipated a number of ideas that western historiography ascribes exclusively to Walter Benjamin. In particular, Arvatov penned the following “Benjaminian” phrase: “Instead of socializing aesthetics, scholars aestheticized the social milieu”.
Arvatov interpreted the “socialization of aesthetics” as the organization of artistic labor within a regime of direct cooperation between producer and consumer, which also links him to Benjamin: “Proletarian artistic collectives should become members of collectives or associations in those fields of production whose material is designed by the given branch of art. Thus, for example, an agit-theater joins the propaganda apparatus as its organ. A theater of mass and other daily actions is linked to institutes of physical education and communal organizations. Poets are members of magazine-and-newspaper associations and, via them, are linked to linguistic societies. Industrial artists carry out commissions from industrial centers and are part of their organizational system. And so forth”. Arvatov also had an affinity to the much later strategies of the Situationists: “Actor training needs to be recreated in such a way that instructors of the theatrical craft would be able to teach people how to walk down the street, organize festivities, make speeches, comport oneself in various concrete situations, and so forth”.
Arvatov sometimes took his idea of the total artistic organization of daily life to a maniacal extreme: “Every person should be qualified to walk, speak, and arrange the world of things around him with their qualitative properties”. But in the conclusion of his Art and Production he nevertheless reserved a niche even for the fine arts: “Insofar as absolute organization is practically unattainable, and insofar as one or another element of disorganization is always preserved in the personal life of the members of a socialist society, then we must think that the supplement of the visual arts will remain under socialism as well. [...] In this artistically organized self-manifestation and intercourse, the personality will, apparently, compensate for its personal dissatisfaction”.
Abstractionists and Productionists: Towards the Problem of the Avant-Garde’s Legacy
The Productionists were quite aware that the old regime’s “thing” would disappear under conditions of modern industrial production (Tarabukin). In this sense, the Productionists had no choice but to be abstractionists: they were heirs to the non-figurative tradition not only in its negative aspect (the critique of representative and figurative art), but also in terms of its positive affirmation of the contemporary world’s non-figurative nature. For in what other way would the utilitarian works of Productionist art have differed from the designer articles of the Werkbund or the furniture of the Bauhaus? Thus, the Productionists paid negative recognition to the fact that leftist art could not be reduced to the production of the elements of material culture, even if we understand it as Bogdanov did, as the identity of the spiritual and the material in the idea of total sociocultural organization.
Of course, they never mentioned this directly in their manifestos. Moreover, they even sometimes consigned pure Constructivists to the ranks of “bourgeois” artists. Thus, one of the excesses committed by the theorists of LEF and the INKhUK was their needlessly rigoristic rejection of their predecessors and allies in the struggle against bourgeois art and bourgeois society. This, it has to be said, made them bear a striking resemblance to the Futurists themselves.
Cubo-Futurism and non-figurative art had contained not only a negative (illusory) critique of capitalist society: their non-figurativeness expressed not only the non-figurativeness of the exploited worker, but also the future non-figurativeness of the communist. It was thus all the more strange to criticize pre-Revolutionary Futurists for the absence in their practice of a link-up with the production of things under conditions where production itself was in the hands of the capitalists.
The more sober-minded Productionists (Tarabukin and Arvatov, again) realized that, under contemporary industrial conditions, Productionist art was more a wish than a reality, thus primarily taking the form of laboratory experiments and political agitation. In this sense as well it was no different from the art of the abstractionists and the Futurists, whose work those very same LEFists legitimated as a formal laboratory of the art of the future under capitalism, and propaganda art under Soviet power.
The leftist theorists made their most serious mistake, however, when they subjugated contemporary artistic practice exclusively to industrial production. They thus took as reality a situation in which the artist would produce things whose usefulness was in no contradiction with their artistic qualities. They made this ideal the basis of their doctrine, thus inevitably substituting their above-mentioned maximum program for their minimum program and vice versa.
It was not just a matter of Brik’s “chintz,” of course. Nor, since we are on the subject, was it a matter of canvass. The problem had to do, rather, with the notion of the “frame” and the limits of art. This frame is not a constant, nor does it depend exclusively on art itself. In revolutionary periods, this frame is violated and begins to shift. Therefore when the most advanced strata of Russian society adopted the utopian project, smashed the resistance of the ruling class, and then set about constructing the new life, nothing else remained for art but to aestheticize this project’s successes or failures (leftist and rightist traditionalists) or try and cruise in the wake of its realization (abstractionists and Productionists). But as soon this project itself began to stall, artists were again faced with a choice: to continue the Productionist strategy by now only ideologically servicing a merely nominal socialist state (for they had already been ejected from production), or to shift to criticizing this project via artistic means and from an even more radical position. As a result, the Productionists got caught between the trials of applied design and utopian designs for the future.
Unfortunately, the utopia of Productionist art remained only a wish during the twenties—a possible horizon of art’s development that, for the first time in history, unfolded into such a broad panorama before Russian artists and theorists.
The Lessons of Productionist Art
Thus, the main lesson of the Productionism of the twenties is that when our understanding of art is at a crossroads—when we cannot decide whether art is knowledge, propaganda, entertainment, utility or life-construction—we are not at all obliged to follow only one of these perspectives. The heterogeneous nature of art enables us to regard it from all these viewpoints, without reducing it to one of them absolutely. However, consideration of art’s social and historical character should be the basis of these viewpoints: this is the most vital condition for the emancipation of art from commercial subjugation and ideological capture.
The history of Productionism shows us convincingly that avant-garde art cannot “depict” reality via representative strategies or produce “things themselves” under capitalist property relations without betraying itself. Moreover, within the contemporary art market, with its systems of brands, stars, and political spin, both these strategies have become intertwined to the point of indistinction, manifesting themselves either as decorative or political design for the ruling classes.
The artist has to be able to forego attachments to things or their absence, for life changes endlessly and becomes more complicated by the minute. Thus, under capitalism, the only way to remain faithful to oneself and the avant-garde is to maintain a critical distance to the forms and relations it foists on us. The artist has to develop strategies so that the fruits of her labor are not appropriated by the market and by bourgeois culture; she has to actively employ and invent new media and artistic techniques that they have not yet assimilated. In this sense, Arvatov’s testament remains relevant: “The fetishism of aesthetic materials should be destroyed”; “the fetishism of aesthetic techniques, forms, and tasks should be destroyed”; “the fetishism of aesthetic instruments should be destroyed”.
In positive terms, today as well the leftist artist should be in search of the “best political tendency” as the main condition of the aesthetic quality of his work (Benjamin, “The Author as Producer”).
A reassessment of the achievements and defeats of Soviet Productionism might prove invaluable experience for artists as they search for and articulate this new, emergent historical tendency.
In the main text, references to books published in Russian are given only in English, although in many or all cases, no published translations of these works in English exist.
1. From the Easel to the Machine, Moscow, 1923, p. 23
2. See, for example, A.I. Mazaev, Kontseptsiia ‘proizvodstvennogo iskusstva’ 20-kh godov [The concept of ‘productionist art’ of the 1920s]. Moscow, 1975
3. Nevertheless, It Does Move, Berlin, 1922, pp. 135–136
4. Art and Production, p. 117).
Igor Chubarov is a philosopher and editor based in Moscow. He is a research fellow at the Institute for
Philosophy of the Russian Academy of the Sciences, and is editor-in-chief of the publishing house Logosaltera (Moscow).