Socialist realism is a teleologically-oriented style of realistic art which has as its purpose the furtherance of the goals of socialism and communism. It should not be confused with social realism, a type of art that realistically depicts subjects of social concern, although it is related. The original intent of socialist realism was to portray the lower classes of society that had traditionally not been the subject of literature or the arts in general.
What began as an attempt to depict a new kind of art later became the cultural and artistic policy of the Soviet Union to which writers and artists were required to conform. As socialist realism became state policy, the old censorship of Imperial Russia was replaced by a new censorship, as art that did not conform to state demands was suppressed, and artists who did not comply were silenced.
Socialist realism was the officially approved type of art in the Soviet Union for nearly 60 years. Communist doctrine decreed that all material goods and means of production belonged to the community as a whole. This included works of art and the means of producing art, which were also seen as powerful propaganda tools. During the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks established a movement called Proletkult (the Proletarian Cultural and Enlightenment Organizations) which sought to put all arts into the service of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
In the early years of the Soviet Union, Russian and Soviet artists embraced a wide variety of art forms under the auspices of Proletkult. Revolutionary politics and radical non-traditional art forms were seen as complementary. In art, constructivism flourished. Constructivism began with architecture and visual arts. Its principle practitioner was Vladimir Tatlin. It emphasized functionality in form and efficiency in production. Its utilitarian ethic spread to other art forms, such as poetry and film. The avant-garde journal Lef was associated with this ethic. Important critics, like Viktor Shklovsky and Osip Brik, promoted practical art over the imagination. The emerging Soviet cinema, which included early film genius Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov saw the "consciousness-raising" potential of film. In addition to the documentary, Eisenstein's masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin about the Russian Revolution of 1905 was made. In poetry, the nontraditional and the avant-garde were often praised.
The relationship of the avant-garde and the new Soviet state frayed quickly. Elements of the Communist Party criticized the new experimental art, rejecting modern styles such as impressionism and cubism on the pretext that these movements existed before the revolution and hence were associated with "decadent bourgeois art." Socialist realism was thus to some extent a reaction against the adoption of these new styles that were deemed "decadent," despite the fact that realism itself was an art form that had also long predated the coming of the communist state. Of course, the nature of realism is not that it depicts what really is. It is an artist movement that used the description of the material world to portray individual or social character. The notion of socialist realism was always something of an oxymoron, since the socialist ideals required the depiction not of what was, but what society should become. This required depicting a "reality" which did not actually exist.
Socialist realism became state policy in 1932 when Stalin promulgated the decree, "On the Reconstruction of Literary and Art Organizations." The Union of Soviet Writers was founded to control the output of authors, and the new policy was rubber-stamped at the Congress of Socialist Writers in 1934. It was enforced ruthlessly in all spheres of artistic endeavor. Artists who strayed from the official line were severely punished—many were sent to the Gulag labor camps in Siberia and elsewhere.
The restrictions were loosened somewhat after Stalin's death in 1953 but the state still kept a tight rein on personal artistic expression. This caused many artists to go into exile, such as the Odessa Group from the city of that name. Independently-minded artists that remained continued to experience the hostility of the state. In 1974, for instance, a show of unofficial art in a field near Moscow was broken up, and the artworks destroyed, with water cannon and bulldozers. Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost and perestroika facilitated an explosion of interest in alternative art styles in the late 1980s, but socialist realism remained in force as the official state art style until as late as 1991. It was not until after the fall of the Soviet Union that artists were finally freed from state censorship.
The Soviet Union exported socialist realism to virtually all of the other Communist countries, although the degree to which it was enforced elsewhere varied from country to country. It became the predominant art form across the Communist world for nearly 50 years.
Today, arguably the only country still strongly focused on these aesthetic principles is North Korea, where, especially in the visual arts, socialist realist principles continue to function as a primary means of propaganda expression. The People's Republic of China occasionally reverts to socialist realism for specific purposes, such as idealized propaganda posters to promote the Chinese space program.
Socialist realism had little mainstream impact in the non-Communist world, where it was widely seen as a totalitarian means of imposing state control on artists.
The political aspect of socialist realism was, in some respects, a continuation of pre-Soviet state policy. Censorship and attempts to control the content of art did not begin with the Soviets, but were a long-running feature of Russian life. The Tsarist government also appreciated the potentially disruptive effect of art and required all books to be cleared by the censor. Due to censorship of political ideas, Russian writers and artists in nineteenth century Imperial Russia used literature to discuss politics, but they had to become quite skilled at evading censorship by making their points without spelling it out in so many words. However, Soviet censors were not so easily evaded.
Socialist realism had its roots in neoclassicism and the traditions of realism in Russian literature of the nineteenth century that described the life of simple people. It was exemplified by the aesthetic philosophy of Maxim Gorky. The work of the Peredvizhniki ("Wanderers," a Russian realist movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), Jacques-Louis David and Ilya Yefimovich Repin were notable influences.
Socialist realism held that successful art depicts and glorifies the proletariat's struggle toward socialist progress. The Statute of the Union of Soviet Writers in 1934 stated that socialist realism
is the basic method of Soviet literature and literary criticism. It demands of the artist the truthful, historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development. Moreover, the truthfulness and historically concreteness of the artistic representation of reality must be linked with the task of ideological transformation and education of workers in the spirit of socialism.
Its purpose was to elevate the common worker, whether factory or agricultural, by presenting his life, work, and recreation as admirable. In other words, its goal was to educate the people in the goals and meaning of Communism. The ultimate aim was to create what Lenin called "an entirely new type of human being:" Homo sovieticus. Stalin described the practitioners of socialist realism as "engineers of souls."
The "realism" aspect should not be overlooked. Soviet art had some continuity to the late 19th century fashion for depicting the social life of the common people. It aimed to depict the worker as he truly was, carrying his tools. In a sense, the movement mirrors the course of American and Western art, where the everyday human being became the subject of the novel, the play, poetry, and art. The proletariat was at the center of communist ideals; hence, his life was worthy subject for study. This was an important shift away from the aristocratic art produced under the Russian tsars of previous centuries. However, it differed in its inclination to romanticize its subject and to portray the society it hoped to create as a kind of "realism."
Compared to the eclectic variety of twentieth century Western art, socialist realism often resulted in a fairly bland and predictable range of artistic products (indeed, Western critics wryly described the principles of socialist realism as "Girl meets Tractor"). Painters would depict happy, muscular peasants and workers in factories and collective farms; during the Stalin period, they also produced numerous heroic portraits of the dictator to serve his cult of personality. Industrial and agricultural landscapes were popular subjects, glorifying the achievements of the Soviet economy. Novelists were expected to produce uplifting stories in a manner consistent with the Marxist doctrine of dialectical materialism. Composers were to produce rousing, vivid music that reflected the life and struggles of the proletariat.
Socialist realism thus demanded close adherence to party doctrine, and has often been criticized as detrimental to the creation of true, unfettered art—or as being little more than a means to censor artistic expression. Czeslaw Milosz, writing in the introduction to Sinyavsky's On Socialist Realism, describes the products of socialist realism as "inferior," ascribing this as necessarily proceeding from the limited view of reality permitted to creative artists.
Not all Marxists accepted the necessity of socialist realism. Its establishment as state doctrine in the 1930s had rather more to do with internal Communist Party politics than classic Marxist imperatives. The Hungarian Marxist essayist Georg Lukács criticized the rigidity of socialist realism, proposing his own "critical realism" as an alternative. However, such critical voices were a rarity until the 1980s.
Maxim Gorky's novel, Mother, is usually considered to have been the first work of socialist realism. Gorky was also a major factor in the school's rapid rise, and his pamphlet, On Socialist Realism, essentially lays out the needs of Soviet art. Other important works of literature include Fyodor Gladkov's Cement (1925) and Mikhail Sholokhov's two volume epic, And Quiet Flows the Don (1934) and The Don Flows Home to Sea (1940).
Although much socialist realist art is nowadays widely dismissed as propagandistic rubbish, a number of artists were able to make creative use of the genre. The painter Aleksandr Deineka provides a notable example for his expressionist and patriotic scenes of the Second World War, collective farms, and sports. Yuri Pimenov, Boris Ioganson and Geli Korzev have also been described as "unappreciated masters of twentieth-century realism."
Socialist realism's rigid precepts and enforcement inevitably caused great damage to the freedom of Soviet artists to express themselves. Many artists and authors found their works censored, ignored or rejected. The novelist Mikhail Bulgakov, for instance, was forced to write his masterwork, The Master and Margarita, in secret, despite earlier successes, such as White Guard. Sergey Prokofiev found himself essentially unable to compose music during this period.
The political doctrine behind socialist realism also underlay the pervasive censorship of Communist societies. Apart from obvious political considerations that saw works such as those of George Orwell being banned, access to foreign art and literature was also restricted on aesthetic grounds. So-called "bourgeois art" and all forms of experimentalism and formalism were denounced as decadent, degenerate and pessimistic, and therefore anti-Communist in principle. The works of James Joyce were particularly harshly condemned. The net effect was that it was not until the 1980s that the general public in the Communist countries were able to freely access many works of Western art and literature.
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