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SocialEast Seminar on Art and Revolution
Conceptual art at the Crossroads
In my presentation I will distinguish form and mentality of modernism and Socialist Realism out of Mukhina’s works from 1925 to the end of the thirties. Vera Mukhina (1889 – 1953) is today largely seen as sculptor of Socialist Realism. However even her famous sculpture Worker and Kolkhos Peasant Woman (1937) didn’t correspond completely to the official art of the thirties. The changes of the model required by the jury, and the dealing with the sculpture after the World’s Fair in Paris are verifying this. Actually, Mukhina was an artist between modernism and Socialist Realism. In the twenties Ternovets called her a progressive sculptor, since her work matched the current artistic tendencies in European sculpture. Throughout her career she used modernist methods, “priëmy” in Shklovskii’s sense, amongst others cubism and futurism. Therefore the official attitude to her work was ambivalent.
When Mukhina got an assignment she always had to make changes to her models in order to be in conformity with Socialist Realism. The analysis of these changes shows to what extent modernist elements were allowed in the official Soviet art, and which elements had to match under all circumstances the ideological norm. Thus we get a macro-view on the borders between ideologically correct and not correct Soviet art or, in Mukhina’s case, rather between modernism and conformity.
Readymade Rituals: Jerzy Bereś in Dialogue with Marcel Duchamp
This paper takes as its starting point an action in which Jerzy Bereś, characteristically naked, took from around his neck a sign reading ‘ready-made’ and cast it into a small fire at his feet. He then sat down to a game of chess, opening the first of three polemical ‘manifestations’ he called Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp (1981, 1988, 1990), which discuss consequences of readymade strategies as reconfigured in a socialist context. The target of the critique are systems which tend towards an instrumental treatment of man (and nature): socialism and industrialisation. Using the figure of Duchamp, Bereś also raises crucial questions concerning the responsibility of artists (the historical avant-garde) and politicians (the legacy of Yalta) for ideas which have swelled, over time, far beyond their original scope. This exploration of the fragility of subject and object positions has a self-reflexive dimension, in which the problem of the fetish emerges as key – played out across the body of the artist.
Bereś’s paradoxical marriage of Duchamp’s cool material strategy with ritual symbolism and moral rhetoric, along with the seemingly unproblematic conjunction of action, text and speech, make these manifestations ideal sites for an exploration of the contradictions inherent in conceptual practice more broadly, and of paradoxes particular to Central European work.
Utopian Aesthetics or an Aesthetic Utopia?
The paper takes its point of departure as a tension between Ernst Bloch’s view of art as shaping hope for a better world (in The Principle of Hope  1986 - completed in the GDR), and Herbert Marcuse’s idea of society as a work of art (in his talk at the Roundhouse, 1967). Bloch sees radical change as like a redemption from the future, and attacks Socialist Realism; Marcuse writes of an art which ruptures the codes of perception when political change is off the agenda. But Bloch is not explicit about the role of art in social change, and Marcuse does not say what he means by society as a work of art . The paper reconsiders Bloch’s objection to Socialist Realism, and Marcuse’s allusions to art’s subversive force. Refusing the conventional division of the social and aesthetic dimensions (as a mis-reading of critical theory mirroring the dualism of the Cold War), it notes the role of the communal kitchen in the Soviet apartment bloc (*) as a site of idea exchange, and likens this in general terms to the role of the love story as site of freedom in Marcuse’s essay on French literature under the German occupation (in Collected Papers vol. 1). The conclusion is that if a society is in part shaped in domestic spaces then so, too, a revolutionary awareness is immanent in everyday cultures.
(*) Gerasimov, K. (2002) 'Public Privacy in the Soviet Communal Apartment', in Crowley, D. and Reid, S., ed.s, (2002) Socialist Spaces: Sites of Everyday Life in the Eastern Bloc ( Oxford, Berg), pp.207-230