Socialist Realism as Institutional Practice: Observations on the Interpretation of the Works of Art of the Stalin Period

  • Jørn Guldberg
Part of the Studies in Russia and East Europe book series (SREE)


In the catalogue accompanying the Moscow version of the retrospective exhibition ‘Artists of the RSFSR through XV years’ in the summer of 1933, the chairman of the exhibition committee, M.P. Arkad’ev, could state laconically that ‘the style of our epoch is Socialist Realism. The artist not only depicts our Socialist construction truthfully, but also takes an active part in it himself’.1 However, in the official address to the participants of the First Congress of Soviet Artists, which took place at the beginning of 1957, the CPSU Central Committee was not particularly generous in its appraisal of the achievements of Soviet art up till then. Summarising the development of Soviet art, the Central Committee stated: ‘The character of Soviet man, who is emancipated from exploitation and its spiritual world, has not yet been wholly represented in works of art’.2 The address did not, however, specify the reason why Soviet artists had not so far been able to recognise and represent the new and emancipated Soviet man. The Party furthermore offered only one piece of advice for the relief of the inadequacy of Soviet art. This was ‘to enrich the forms and styles, the types and genres, of Socialist Realism, which requires a true, historically concrete depiction of reality in its revolutionary development’.3


Institutional Practice October Revolution White Marble Artistic Practice Soviet Society 
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  1. 1.
    Cf. M.P. Arkad’ev, ‘Smotr sovetskogo izo-iskusstva’, Chudozhniki RSFSR za XV let (1917–1932). Katalog vystavki (Moscow, 1933) p. XV.Google Scholar
  2. 8.
    Cf. Katerina Clark, The Soviet Nover History as Ritual (Chicago and London, 1981) pp. 10ff.Google Scholar
  3. 10.
    Cf., for instance, the contributions to Berel Lang (ed.), The Concept of Style (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1979), especially that by Richard Wollheim.Google Scholar
  4. 13.
    Konrad Farner, ‘Realismus in der bildenden Kunst’, Kunst als Engagement (Darmstadt and Neuwied, 1973) pp. 193–220.Google Scholar
  5. 14.
    Cf. the contributions to the discussion in Ästhetik und Kommunikation Berthold Hinz, ‘Produktion, Rüstung, Krieg. Beispiele nationalsozialistischer und sozialistischer Ästhetik’, and Eckhart Gillen, ‘Ist sozialistischer Realismus mit national-sozialistischer Kunst vergleichbar?’, Ästhetik und Kommunikation 26, 1976, pp. 80–95.Google Scholar
  6. 15.
    Cf. Martin Damus, Sozialistischer Realismus und Kunst im Nationalsozialismus (Frankfurt am Main, 1981) especially pp. 7ff.Google Scholar
  7. 16.
    Cf. Matthew Baigell, The American Scene: American Painting in the 30’s (New York, 1974), see especially pp. 55ff.Google Scholar
  8. 17.
    Matthew Baigell, ‘The Beginning of “The American Wave” and the Depression’, Art Forum Vol. XXXVII, 4. Summer 1968. p. 338.Google Scholar
  9. 18.
    The circular is translated in John E. Bowlt, Russian Art of the Avant-Garde. Theory and Criticism 1902–1934 (New York, 1976) pp. 268–71, at p. 268.Google Scholar
  10. 20.
    Thomas Hart Benton, ‘ statement’ in John Baur (ed.), New Art in America. Fifty Painters of the 20th Century (New York. 1957) p. 131.Google Scholar
  11. 23.
    Katerina Clark op. cit., and Hans Günther, Die Verstaatlichung der Literatur. Entstehung und Funktionsweise des sozialistisch-realistischen Kanons in der sowietischen Literatur der 30er Jahre (Stuttgart, 1984).Google Scholar
  12. 25.
    With the terms ‘institutional theory of art’ and’ socialist Realism as institutional practice’ I am not primarily alluding to the so-called’ institutional theory of art’ as outlined and developed by George Dickie in Art and the Aesthetic. An Institutional Analysis (Ithaca and London, 1974) and Arthur C. Danto in ‘The Artworld’, Journal of Philosophy 1964, pp. 571–84. Although many contributions to the still intense discussion about the relevance of a specific ‘institutional theory of art’ come close to points which are of relevance to the Soviet art scene (cf., for instance, Jeffrey Wieland’s ‘Can there be an Institutional Theory of Art?, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism XXXIX, 4, Summer 1981, pp. 409–17) it is not primarily the philosophical aspects of an institutional theory which interest me, but the possibilities for a historical concretisation of — in this instance — the actual institutionalisation of Soviet art.Google Scholar
  13. 28.
    K. Sitnik, ‘Ogyust Renuar’, Iskusstvo 1941, 1, pp. 58–66.Google Scholar
  14. 29.
    K. Sitnik, ‘Narodnyi chudozhnik’, Iskussivo 1949, 5, pp. 57–70, at p.68.Google Scholar
  15. 30.
    A. Zotov, ‘Za preodolenie perezhitkov impressionizma’, Iskusstvo 1950, 1, pp. 75–80, at p. 80.Google Scholar
  16. 33.
    See, for example, the ‘classic’ account by Roy Medvedev, Let History Judge (New York, 1973) especially pp. 71ff. and 498ff.Google Scholar
  17. 35.
    For a discussion of the religious symbolism in Socialist Realism see, for instance, Lars Kleeberg and Sixten Ringbom, ‘V.I. Lenin in Smolnyj’ and’ The Second Coming’, Russian History/Histoire Russe 1984. I have tried to survey the problem in a paper ‘Christian Iconography as a Source of Socialist Realist Imagery’ (forthcoming).Google Scholar

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© School of Slavonic and East European Studies 1990

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  • Jørn Guldberg

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