The study of the Russian communist avant-garde is of singular importance if we are to understand the logic of contemporary political art’s evolution because of the way that it anticipated, albeit incompletely and even unsuccessfully, the future of art and social life. For the possibilities that were opened to art in Soviet Russia in the twenties cannot be compared with those that even the most wealthy democratic state might offer it today. Friedrich Schiller, who in his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man dreamt of a “state of beauty in appearance” where people’s dreams of universal equality would be brought to life, could not even imagine the degree to which this political-aesthetic utopia was realized. The socialist revolution gave the artist the chance to come into contact with social reality in an immediate— that is, non-alienated—mode that had no need of convention, illusion, and fiction in order to convey the artist’s utterances. The Revolution liberated zones of reality that previously had been subjected only to estrangement and distancing; it opened channels for the immediate construction of man’s life world. It was not merely matter of artists participating in largescale architectural and urban planning projects, the artistic design of streets and squares, the choreography of massive revolutionary celebrations, and the production of practical forms of clothing for the mass consumer and holistic elements of communal life. Most of all, the revolution effected a shift in relationships between people and gave birth to a new man who was liberated from a master-slave sensuality and consciousness.

The “agit-prop” character of proletarian art, so disturbing for liberals, meant in fact the continuous exchange of its material and form, of the practical and poetic idioms. From the standpoint of form, the characteristic “tendentiousness” of this art was a no less productive device than the illusory “impartiality” of contemplative art. In its immanent forms, the very material of the new life supplied the artist with the broadest choice of motivations and techniques. In essence, we see here the selforganization of social material via the reciprocal motion of workers fighting for freedom and artists moving into the sphere of production.
The heirs of Russian futurism, who united in the twenties in LEF (Left Front of the Arts), which was headed by Vladimir Mayakovsky, seized at this historic chance. However, their example today shows us all the advantages and drawbacks that arise when art takes it upon itself to decide directly political questions and wield cultural power.

Whereas before the revolution the cubo-futurists, transrational (zaum) poets, and non-figurativists (Khlebnikov, Mayakovsky, Kruchenykh, Kamensky, Rodchenko et al.) could demonstrate in their works only the alienation of the object world and the human world under capitalist conditions, the construction of socialism caused the work of these artists to undergo a complicated albeit logical transformation towards productionist art and factography. The stance of early futurism—provocative and negative vis-à-vis reality—gives way after the revolution to artistic strategies designed to impact sensuality and intellect, and to direct life-construction. This transformation was conditioned, first and foremost, by the unified political consciousness of these artists. This consciousness ensured the continuity between such seemingly different forms of “left” art in terms of how this art’s nature and tasks were understood. And these artists were united in their rejection of mimetic-reflective strategies, fictionalism, figuration, plottedness, etc.

Although they often surpassed the possibilities of real artistic practice, the fundamental theoretical positions of the LEF artists contained nothing fantastic or unusual. They were based on the labor theory of art that dated all the way back to Hegel—that is, the theory that viewed art as a species of labor determined at the material and formal level by the social means of its production and consumption. Here, the artwork was transformed from a plaything of the ruling class into a useful thing linked to the entire mode of social life, a thing that found its ultimate justification and meaning in collective daily existence without any harm to its aesthetic form. Unlike, however, such utilitarian Arts and Crafts advocates as Ruskin and Morris, the productionists relied on the movement of the laboring masses, mechanized industrial production, and the idea of the scientific organization of labor. Correspondingly, their task was to raise the work process to the level of art making, and to return art to the sphere of production from which it had been separated under capitalism.

In LEF’s reliance on the broad social base, which combined both representatives of the proletariat and “fellow travelers,” we can see the most consistent manifestation of democratism during that complex period. We should also not fail to mention LEF’s internal self-governance, the absence of diktat even on the part of such an authoritative poet of the revolution as Mayakovsky. Everyone regarded LEF not merely as a journal in which likeminded authors were published. LEF was indeed a revolutionary artistic-political project that no one, including Mayakovsky, bent to his will or used for personal career goals. Moreover, the participants of LEF sometimes engaged in fundamental, no-holds-barred polemics (e.g., the Chuzak-Brik and Arvatov-Shklovsky debates). However, LEF’s sound ideological base enabled it, over the course of fairly lengthy period of time, to encompass such divergent phenomena of the twenties as futurism and factography, formalism and the emergent sociology of art, the Kino-eyes and the theater of attractions, productionism and constructivism.

Already from its very first issues, however, LEF’s aggressive left-wing ideas ran into the misunderstanding, envy, and rivalry of politicians and other art groups struggling for power in the cultural field. The LEFists fought not so much for power as for a particular understanding of it that sprung not from the nominal politicization of the author as a communist (the position of the Trotskyites) or from his actual social status as a proletarian (Proletkult, RAPP), but from the real engagement of the artist in the process of revolutionizing the world by artistic means. Osip Brik’s dialectical formula—that proletarian art is neither art for proletarians nor the art of proletarians, but the art of artist-proletarians—combined the idea of revolutionism and mastery in art. As far as the sociopolitical aspect was concerned, this formula assumed that a representative of any social stratum could embody the viewpoint of the most progressive class. In terms of art, it simultaneously militated against amateurism by insisting on the quality of artworks and fought for the continuous revolutionizing of artistic forms as against the use of outmoded techniques, which was justified by the mere participation of the author in the Party.

As a consequence, however, of the enormous effort they expended on defending themselves and countering the criticism of a wide variety of authors and groups (Lunacharsky and Trotsky, RAPP and the At One’s Post [Na postu] circle, The Smithy [Kuznitsa] and Crossing [Pereval] groups), the LEF theorists often had no time to develop their own positive program. Hence they simplified their positions, although a synthesis of various artistic ideas around a common political platform was initially quite feasible.

Thus, in my view, LEF’s genuine Achilles heel was the issue of art’s relationship to cognition. The view of art not as a privileged form of individual activity but as a practice that was, however complexly mediated, nevertheless a social practice, was definitely full of promise, particularly in light of the dangers of sociological reductionism. But the desire of the comfuturists to oppose all manifestations of symbolism and mimetic-reflective art led them to overkill—to a rejection of functions that even works created in the productionist or factographic modes do not cease to perform. So the attempts of LEF to proclaim the overcoming of aesthetics in their understanding of art were mostly a matter of polemics. For the fusion of art and life could be only a vector and an ultimate goal. Along the road to this goal, dangerous simulacra (for example, fascism) lay in wait both for art and for politics. Besides, knowledge does not necessarily contradict the revolutionizing of reality. We should understand Marx’s famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach to mean that the world has to be changed, and that thought and science are among the means of changing it.

Aside from internecine conflicts, however, during the period of the New Economic Policy the LEF strategy collided with a number of contradictions that finally led to this leftist group’s collapse. The problem was that their artistic program corresponded only to an actually realized ideal of the commune in which the utopian and the aesthetic, beauty and freedom would really coincide. During the transition to the new state system, however, left art was confronted with a recoding of all its aims; understood literally, they could have begun to play a directly opposite role. That is why, in the thirties, the avant-garde moves from literary facts to figures of tragic irony and the absurd (Andrei Platonov, OBERIU).

In the precise sense of the word, art may be termed avant-garde only during a revolutionary struggle and the ensuing construction of communism. That is, despite its historicity, the avant-garde does not have a history of its own and, consequently, it has no prospects for continuation under another kind of social regime. Avant-garde art is post-historical: it ruptures the flow of history with the time of the event, with revolution. The avant-garde is fundamentally transitive in nature, corresponding to radical changes in society—the destruction or total transformation of all the forms and norms that had previously been operative within it.

It is precisely for these reasons that the avant-garde stance does not enable us nowadays to speak of art only as a self-sufficient production of forms: although they remain in relative opposition to capitalism, over time they are almost completely appropriated by it. Under these conditions, to speak in any way of the development of the avant-garde is merely to move backwards, to undermine its techniques, and even to pervert its commandments.

Thus, a literal adherence to the aims of productionist art can lead today only to the decoration and design of the bourgeois lifestyle. The new series of Adidas sports wear produced from sketches by Varvara Stepanova and sold by the Guggenheim Museums is a glaring example of this. The requirement that the artistic product be of “high quality,” so important for the productionists, which they opposed to the expression of the individual artist’s “genius,” looks like an irony of history in the context of contemporary market-oriented art technologies.

That is why faithfulness to the ideological project of the avant-garde (to borrow Alain Badiou’s expression) has to be accompanied by a positive critique of its formal (academic) repetition together with a total boycott of the zones of contemporary art as the spaces where it has been captured by capitalism. It is not only possible for the artist to make this choice today; it is the only adequate choice given the logic of history and a political appraisal of the current state of affairs. But we are not speaking here of pure negation and passive protest. “Faithfulness” to the avant-garde means, more than anything, the discovery of new artistic forms in the social field itself; it means that the artist works directly with the material of everyday life, not with cultural contexts, quotations, and the traditional artistic arsenal. The communist decoding of capitalist reality that Dziga Vertov argued for in his time or an art of socialist techniques might prove to be an effective means of revealing the emerging contours of the future even in our present age, which has been hurled backwards into the past. And factography might be the idiom for expressing this future.

The main point, however, is that art should reorient itself, both on the level of material and the level of technique, away from the petit bourgeois audience and the circle of its connoisseurs and towards the whole of society, especially society’s most oppressed strata. If you like, the artist should be able to take up the position of the working class, notwithstanding the phenomenological absence of this class. For only an art that is “wholly determined by social practice is capable of filling in the real, unorganized tendencies of life” (Boris Arvatov). We can still march in a left front of the arts, comrades!


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 Logos-altera (Moscow).