Today, any attempt to actualize the archive of the left avant-garde can have only one political meaning. Namely: to analyze a conjuncture almost unprecedented in history, when art and politics from the left joined forces to realize the greatest social revolution ever imagined, its impossibility comparable to that of truly rational beings finally appearing in the world. In what was ultimately a failure, they attempted to reinforce political gains in new forms of everyday life, creating hitherto unimagined sensibilities.

An understanding of art as an anthropological experience of images defined by unconscious non-representative mimetic procedures (or mimesis immanent to the artwork) [1] would allow us to see this phenomenon as a model of human life that is immediate and no longer subordinate to any subject-centered ideology, at least to the degree to which it becomes characteristic of both the art work and broader socio-historical “truth procedures” (Alain Badiou).

Propagated by the authors of the early Proletkult and LEF, the life-building utopias of the 1920s – productivism and the “literature of the fact” – tried to extend this notion of art to all sides of life, intervening into the fabric of a society still largely determined by pre-revolutionary culture. Today, the theoretical paradoxes and complex realizations of these ideas in practice become our principal object of attention. For one, we will inevitably be interested in the objective social causes and conditions immanent to artistic creativity that prevented such projects from reaching their historical realization; but, even more importantly, we will want to assess the potentialities that these projects still contain, and how they are relevant to the “big politics” of art today. Why exactly is the avant-garde contemporary? Can it respond to the current political situation adequately? Can it change anything? Or is it only capable of aestheticizing detached aspects of contemporary bourgeois reality in projects of private nostalgia?

Much of the scholarly research into these questions to date seems academically neutral. But actually, we can be sure that it is characterized by ideological biases that interfere with any unprejudiced appraisal of socialist art and its problems. Though there is a great deal of interest in the Russian avant-garde worldwide, scholarship usually attempts to present it either as a left-liberal alternative to the communist cultural project or as little more than a preamble to its conservation in the socialist realist canon that emerged already in the 1930s. In my view, there is a striking similarity in these two views. [2]

To begin with, we need to stop reducing art to perception or to the pure consumption of an aesthetic product whose making and makers remain obscure. At the same time, we need to elude the Platonic trap of seeing politics as art. Left art may have its own immanent criteria, and these criteria may indeed not be aesthetic, but political. However, these political criteria do not originate in ideologemes or political movements, but in the immanent political nature of art as a real physical experience of violence, labor, and exploitation. The artist inevitably partakes of these experiences and tries to overcome them through his art, changing the surrounding world correspondingly.

Revolution as Mimesis

One could see revolution as a form of social mimesis. This is already immanent to the very notion (re-volution) as a return to justice, brotherhood, emancipated labor etc. Here, however, one could identify two subtypes. The first is Aristotelian: it assumes the realization of total mimesis as the imitation of a certain ideal and the embodiment of a true idea (such as “communism,” for example) in historical reality. The instruments of ideology usually control this type of political mimesis. The other type of mimesis assumes that such social projects are limited by the sensuous experience and potential of the revolutionary class and the general order of mortal (i.e. finite) being [3],  unlocking what is essentially an inexhaustible resource in art. Art now operates both in the regime of utopia and in the regime of tragedy. This, however, does not assume any rejection of revolutionary activity. Quite on the contrary, only it is capable of providing its fundamental motivation.

Communist futurism and the art of a broader leftist avant-garde of the 1920s are interesting primarily because they suggest ways to overcome the gaps between ideology and utopia, politics and poetics, modes of working that allow artists a simultaneous presence on both the field of art and on the stage of political struggle.

Before the revolution, Russian futurism actively expressed the much-cited loss of the “integral object” through non-objective art and trans-rational poetry, mourning or replacing it with fetishized images, much as did the Russian symbolists. No doubt futurism played a revolutionary role in its time: it gave the most advanced part of Russian society a palpable sense of the possibilities in a new, other mode of being against the backdrop of a century-old panorama of lordship and bondage, reflected in hundreds of mirrors of its “divine” presence (one of which was classical realism). However, after the October Revolution, the continuation of the futurist project required a more complex remotivation, since the revolutionary quality of form immanent to the avant-garde came up against nominal truths that were no longer in need of “de-familiarization.” Moreover, communist futurism faced increasing pressure from a new art that enjoyed the support of the new powers because it was ready to propagate its political content through traditional aesthetic means.

Also, it seemed obvious that the problem of alienated labor had not simply disappeared when power changed hands. The declaration of social ownership over the means of production required a real constructive effort to become more than empty words. This led to a soaring rise of technical utopianism during the early 1920s, prompting a number of talented authors to leave art for production altogether (Alexei Gastev, the young Platonov). Their mechanical utopias attempted to capture the entrepreneurial spirit and productive efficiency of Taylorism, but clearly perceived itself as working toward an outcome similar to the one envisioned by the early Marx. Machines were supposed to take over routinized labor, leaving people free to study, to invent the machines themselves, and to engage in other forms of socially productive creativity. But the all-too-optimistic hopes toward a total mechanization of the economy were doomed. The problem was not so much that these utopias could not be realized in principle, but that, aside from encountering a host of technical problems, their paths were blocked by the surrounding capitalist world, the destruction and hunger of the post-revolutionary years, as well as the rather conservative legacy of Russian sensibilities, stereotypes of lordship and bondage, objectifying, violent relations to the body of the other, etc.

There were two different ways of dealing with this state of affairs, and with the pre-revolutionary division of labor and social stratification that socialism had inherited: one was utopian, the other ideological. Reading Adorno through Karl Mannheim, one might say that left art, as not to betray utopia “for the sake of appearances and reassurances,” had no right to become ideology. Yet at the same time, the majority of leftwing artistic currents in the 1920s followed a trajectory of “betraying” utopia: presenting communism as a “true idea” that had already been realized, without going on to change the world. When theoreticians, poets, and artists who came together around the journal LEF in the early 1920s and its editor Vladimir Mayakovsky, they answered these conservative tendencies with the idea of “production art.”

The Sacrificial Character of Art and the “Ass” of Labor

As we have already said, the revolutionary class’ mimetic capabilities were limited by the bourgeois backgrounds and sensibilities inherited from the pre-revolutionary regime. The writers and artists of LEF saw that this limitation contained a paradoxical potential for the development of art, and went on to suggest a number of devices for their productive utilization. To be more precise: while they too realized that it would be impossible to overcome these limitations even under the conditions of the proletariat’s victory, it made sense to them to introduce a ban on any imitation-reflection of reality, and to prevent the author from expressing his or her individual (ultimately petit bourgeois) psychology in artistic practice.

For art, this entailed the return to the bosom of social production. The creative process would be handed over to a certain collective literary machine (commune); the individual author would take over the function of a master craftsman. This “master craftsman’s” dependence on class and society expressed itself in the idea of “social demand” (social’nyj zakaz). It is easy to fall into the trap of demonizing this notion today by identifying it with the vulgar-sociological slogan of a “social command” (social’nyj prikaz). Actually, the attempt to answer “society’s demands” entailed a reflection of the artist’s sensual-corporeal relation to both the social milieu of his origin, and the society he was gravitating towards. Radicals like Osip Brik, Sergei Tretyakov, or Nikolai Chuzhak may often have gone too far in their eagerness to fulfill this “social demand.” But this should not make us blind to what is most important: the presence of an indelible link of the artist with his social body, the nature and form of which has yet to be understood in full.

By the way, the main lesson of production art was that the proletariat’s class-consciousness may be a necessary but clearly insufficient precondition for revolutionary art, due to the unconscious character (Benjamin) of that mimetic activity that the proletarian (like the artist) is really capable of carrying out. Only the source of this unconscious today need to be revealed in its broad social setting, and not only in the stuffily familiar domestic context of individuality.

The avant-garde opposed labor with creativity, and countered the solitary artist personality with the communal body of the “proletariat.” Departing from this problematic, we can interpret the “utilitarianism” of the productivists and their critique of the “autonomy of art” in a somewhat different vein than previous criticism. The opposition of earlier futurist and formalist positions to productivism only holds up to a superficial reading. It would be inappropriate to present this argument [4] in full here, but I think it totally contradicts the fashionable neoliberal idea that the communist-futurists and productivists were the godfathers of the socialist realist canon or the “Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin.” Here, there were fundamental differences.

For one, even the productivists’ most vehemently argued thesis – art’s conscious dissolution in social production – never presupposed the triumph of the mimetic model outlined in Plato’s “Republic.” Instead, it marked art’s passage from easel painting and the salon to social reality in the form of artistic elements for daily life, and advocated the adoption of an artistic language no longer burdened by illusionism.

LEF offered a way out of the Lukascian-Benjaminian dilemma between the aestheticization of politics and the politicization of aesthetics through the idea of “life-building,” one with a clearly Marxist genealogy, combining it with the formalist conceptions of the autonomy of a social stratum (social’nyj rjad). This position’s principal point of contention was a view of human activity as artistic and technical creativity against the backdrop of a newly discovered non-representative model of subjectivity, mechanically organized “generic” proletarian corporeality.

Like the theoreticians of the early Proletkult and unlike the Trotskyites, the members of LEF assumed that it would be possible to unlock the proletariat’s creative capacities without a 50-year delay for the building of socialism, and it was production art that functioned as a model for this unlocking. LEF’s notion of the proletariat differed somewhat from that of the Proletkult, however:  rather than being a social status quo that had already been attained, it appeared as the principal possibility to unlock every person’s “proletarian consciousness.” The productionists’ version of proletarian art, in this sense, was not “art for proletarians” and not “art by proletarians” but the art of “artist-proletarians.” [5]  Thus, the productionists postulated a new socio-cultural status for the artist, offering him a very specific model of subjectification, “becoming proletarian,” reversible in the proletarian’s “becoming artist,” through the participation of broad masses in accessible forms of artistic and technical creativity.

The latter remained, of course, no more than a good intention, an insurmountable weakness of such social utopianism, and one that the state ideological apparatus immediately took advantage of, replacing the utopia of creativity with the ideologemes of labor.

It may well be that a quasi-Hegelian “sublation” of utopia and ideology in the later versions of productionism (New LEF) became the main reason for com-futurism’s inner collapse, though it was pushed along by outer attacks. Because it was no secret to anyone that death (and what’s more, the “death of art”) would always come between the futurist utopia and the possibility of its realization. The “death of art” may not have seemed like such a great loss, had at least one artistic utopia realized itself as “paradise on earth,” and not just an endless goal of development in the forms of art itself. There is much more than coyness behind that shamefaced word “just.” The artists sacrificed themselves – Mayakovsky committed suicide; Tretyakov was arrested and shot; Platonov led a “life” of obscurity – after dedicating such great efforts to bridging the insurmountable rupture between individual artistic creativity and the zhopa (lit. ass) of social labor (Yelizarov). But in the country of triumphant socialism, there was no one to take this sacrificial offering.


[1] One could derive such an approach through the political synthesis of the aesthetic theories of Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and Valery Podoroga (who has recently published an extensive volume on mimesis).
[2] Examples of these modes of thinking can be find in the works of E. Dobrenko, Hans Günther, B. Groys, N. Sirotkin, I. Kondakov, I. Esualov, B. Khazanov, A. Aggev, A.I. Mazaev, and others.
[3] The Russian philosopher Valery A. Podoroga has developed this idea in application to the material of experimental Russian literature in his recently published Mimesis: Materialy po analiticheskoi antropologii literatury. Tom 1 N. Gogol, F. Dostoevsky (Moscow: Logos-Altera, 2006).
[4] It can be found, for example, in A. Hansen-Loewe’s book on Russian formalism.
[5] Osip Brik. Iskusstvo kommuny, 1918, No. 2