Nikolay Oleynikov: When I think about the art worker’s place in contemporary reality, unexpected pictures flash before my eyes: a poet torching an ugly office building in the city center or an artist, his face covered by a bandana, being arrested by seven cops at a demo. I like these pictures. Boring is the artist who has convinced himself that his place is in the studio from eleven in the morning to seven in the evening. And fine is the poet who doesn’t merely rock the Internet or club slam with his words, but devotes himself to activism
Gustave Courbet, one of the greatest artists of the nineteenth century and a founder of Realism, was active in the Paris Commune. He didn’t hesitate for long when the revolutionary committee offered him an important post in the new government. Here is what he wrote his family: Here I am, thanks to the people of Paris, up to my neck in politics: president of the Federation of Artists, member of the Commune, delegate to the Office of the Mayor, delegate to [the Ministry of] Public Education, four of the most important offices in Paris. I get up, I eat breakfast, and I sit and I preside twelve hours a day. My head is beginning to feel like a baked apple. But in spite of all this agitation in my head and in my understanding of social questions that I was not familiar with, I am in seventh heaven. Paris is a true paradise! […] The Paris Commune is more successful than any form of government has ever been.
We could also cite the Berlin artists of the twenties who were inspired by the Russian Revolution. George Grosz drew political caricatures for the proletarian newspaper Die Rote Fahne. John Heartfield, inventor of the photomontage technique, designed the clenched fist motto of the Rot Front and produced an endless number of collages for leftist publications.
No one would dare to say that these artists “sold out” or “frittered away” their talents, that they sacrificed art for the sake of vague political goals or got mixed up in a pointless struggle when they should have been practicing pure art. All the artists I’ve mentioned did a lot for the history of art: their works are genuine masterpieces, the common property of humanity, and landmarks of world culture without any qualifications. And I still for the life of me cannot see any justification when a creative person argues that art should be unbiased, objective, subjective, suggestive, aloof, autonomous or however you like just as long as it’s not political, as long as it doesn’t seem tendentious, too red, too leftist. This last set of terms is suspect amongst artists. They insist on ambiguity, believing that this is the only way art can exist.
Kirill Medvedev: Kolya, I share your general sentiments, but we should nevertheless distinguish different modes of engagement. Administrative, activist or creative work by the artist in revolutionary organizations or institutions is one thing, but agitation on behalf of a movement that is still engaged in the struggle or has won that struggle is another thing. The third mode involves singing the praises of revolutionary or post-revolutionary regimes. Of course when a revolution is on the upswing, all three modes can be combined. This is the happiest moment, but it has never lasted for long. What is to be done when the revolution is on the downswing or (more relevant for us) during a period of reaction – that is, when revolutionary passion alone is not enough? There is the case of Mayakovsky, for example. We know the tiresome traditional interpretation: he was a terrific poet who later wasted his talent on Party agitprop, leading to his death as an artist and his suicide. And the equally tiresome conclusion: don’t get mixed up with politics, artist – stay independent. The source of this notion is clear: a quite peculiar understanding of “independence” and a general disenchantment with politics. Why be involved in politics if the idealists will lose all the same, and the cynics will triumph via their dirty methods? Why should the artist invest in collectivity, when individuality is the only valuable and palpable thing he has? How can we as Marxists respond to this? We are against determinism: we know that history is not foreordained, that it could have turned out differently. And if we assume even a little that the fate of the Revolution could have been different, then we understand Mayakovsky’s fate was determined not by his choice (the only choice worthy of man and poet like himself), but by the fact that the Party in the end was transformed from a vanguard into an obstacle to social revolution in our country. It’s another matter to what degree Mayakovsky’s own position was capable of impacting the overall political dynamic. Given the example of Victor Serge, who wholly associated himself with the Revolution and worked for it but nevertheless (or rather, precisely for this reason) criticized various aspects of Bolshevik policy and Party life, we can say that, yes, it was possible to fight for the Revolution and thus fight for one’s poetry and for one’s life. Of course it’s hard for us today to judge this properly. What should be obvious, however, is that engagement does not rule out an internal critical vector but demands it.
NO: As for engagement as a whole, it’s clear that you and I have decided this question for ourselves affirmatively. There is the opinion, perhaps wrong, that this damages one’s reputation, and even goes against the logic of creative development (which I would counter with the argument that one grows continuously within the constant process of activist self-education). But here’s another thing that worries me. From being engaged, i.e., from the given political constant, it is impossible for us not to take the next step forward, where the artist serving the movement becomes an agitator and propagandist. And here’s where we see a tight bundle of contradictions. This bundle needs to be untied; otherwise we’ll all end up in the hell of art history, whereas we’d like to get to heaven, of course.
So propaganda artists do not doubt their political choice. They don’t just share the movement’s values but fully equate their own values with the movement’s task, meaning that they universalize them. But what if the artist has made a historically incorrect choice? After all, there are different kinds of agitation. It was agitation that led the students of the Sorbonne to the barricades in 1968 and agitation that entices young people to join the armed forces. The Soviet totalitarian machine used propaganda, and Hitler constantly insisted that agitation was of extreme importance in the Third Reich and in the occupied territories. The Cold War between the USSR and the USA was, among other things, a propaganda war. In this situation, the artist, poet and art worker are turned into tools by a political force. But choosing sides, choosing that force is the job of the artist. In the end, Brecht chose one side and Riefenstahl the other. But who, in the final analysis, will absolve Riefenstahl? She was so talented. Or who will bury Prokhanov (or Limonov or Gintovt)? They’re so engaged. Who put Mayakovsky, Heartfield and Victor Serge, who sold their souls to the Movement, on the express train to Art History heaven? And what as a result should we do with Rodchenko?
You are right that there is no engaged art outside the mass movement, but at the same time all political forces use propaganda and agitation, whether emancipatory, totalitarian or fascist, regardless of their relative weight. At the same time, the choice of a movement, the will to sober criticism from within, the form of interaction with movements and the public, and the question of artistic realization and self-development are always on the artist’s agenda.
KM: As for Riefenstahl, she was neither an engaged nor a political artist, and she never made a political choice, for example, between fascism and anti-fascism. She was apolitical, young and talented, and she craved self-expression. The Nazi regime gave her the opportunity to express herself. In the same way that, in its refined, intellectual dimension, fascism brought the slogan “art for art’s sake” to its logical conclusion, so Riefenstahl took the paradigm of the apolitical artist to an extreme. It is precisely for that reason that Riefenstahl is so popular today among apolitical decadents of every stripe. For them, she is an unattainable example of radical apoliticalness.
And I wouldn’t compare Gintovt to her. I’m prepared to respect Gintovt as a worthy enemy to the extent that he is seriously prepared to work for the Eurasian movement. The problem is that he waffles between atomic orthodoxy and the Moscow/Petersburg art bazaar. What if that whole black-gold mirage fades? Who besides art speculators in the two Russian capitals and their critical lackeys will take him in then? It’s fear that eats away at today’s propaganda artist from within and forces him to orient himself toward bourgeois history, a history of lone individuals who rose above the dumb collectivity.
It is understandable that a stance on propaganda is inseparable from the general neoliberal backdrop. For example, an artist working in advertising, and the merging of art and the banking system are taken as givens, although this is engagement in the worst sense of the word. For the artist who advertises a product with which he has no connection is one hundred percent alienated from the results of his labor, in contrast to the artist who sincerely propagandizes ideas. There is nothing humiliating or manipulative in such agitation, as opposed, by the way, to the political spinmeistering on which practically all of political life is grounded. If you see the merger of the market and parliamentary politics as a total atrocity, then the question of propaganda on behalf of non-parliamentary groups, self-organized collectives and social movements takes on an entirely different meaning. The leftist artist or his collective client ceases to be merely the subject of manipulation, and the public to whom he addresses himself ceases to be merely an object.
I also personally need to be agitated. I need someone to inspire me to do something with a clear, powerful statement or image. Recently I saw on a Soviet photograph the slogan “Deeds, not words; action, not criticism!” It had hung over a tram depot. I’d give my eyetooth to have such a slogan greet me in the morning when I leave the house, instead of some advertisement or other. And when I got used to it and stopped noticing it, I’d want a new one to appear.
The same can be said of Mayakovsky: he’ll be canonized by those who are able to create a powerful art of agitation and, at the same time, work in a deeply universalist key by appealing (as is characteristic, in principle, of the artist) to everyone, not only to potential supporters. But the most important thing is the ability to connect those realms (including these), to link them via your life, your blood, and your political choice. To make that connection convincing. When you tell yourself, “I’m just a propagandist” or “I’m just a philosopher,” or “I’m just an independent critical artist,” or, for example, “I’m just a father who feeds his family and is forced to give himself over entirely to the system,” you shift responsibility from yourself, you entrust your political choice to certain external factors, authorities, whether it’s politics, science, art, morality, etc. And you continue to exist according to their criteria, whether successfully or unsuccessfully. This choice is personal, professional, existential or whatever, but it is not the choice of a Human Being. And it is not a political choice. Even “to be or not to be a propagandist” is not a political dilemma. A political choice is precisely how you connect those various modes in your life. How you connect your analytical, contemplative function, your understanding of all the complexity of this world and society, in a word, the optics that gives birth in the intellectual to the practical apathy with which everyone is familiar; how you connect all of this with agitational, activist work, with the need to suddenly reduce all of this wealth of possibilities to an agitational flyer and then, for example, to go and hand it out.
NO: Another difficulty is that propaganda is not only a question of personal political choice and loyalty to the movement. It’s not just a statement subjected to party logic but also a type of speech, a clear choice of a semiotic system that is related to those to whom the movement appeals through the artist. In other words, for an artist, agitational work is always the solving of a formal problem. Everyone must hear the message relayed by the agitator in a work of propaganda as clearly as possible. For example, the American leftist activist Abbie Hoffman said, “Always use the symbols, props, dress and language of the people you are working with. […] If you are working on the street do not talk of imperialism, participatory democracy, or affinity groups. Save that for college seminars. Talk to the guys about getting fucked by the boss, having a say in things. […] How would you like to be known as the kid who got kicked out of your affinity group?” This doesn’t mean lowering the intellectual bar when talking with the public. On the contrary, simple speech needs to be full of meaning and make the substance of any complex matter accessible. This is a transition from the detached, alienated “autonomy” of the artistic practice of seeking the “new” to the practical search for generally accessible, maximally democratic and extremely convincing formal means. It is a search that, in the end, also expands the boundaries of art. This may sound like a paradox, but it is this kind of linguistic and formal asceticism, dictated by the needs of the party as it were, that leads the artist to a firmer connection with reality and, at the same time, sets the direction of the formal search, often leading that search onto the plane of real action. And when the poet stops being just a poet, when he goes out onto the street, picks up a fuse or a banner with his own hands and at that moment becomes an actual poet, when the creative person gets involved in political action, that’s when politics will again have a chance of becoming art.
KM: What is important is the degree to which you are able to organize that organics of the transition to action, which is always a limitation, even a form of violence against thought and ornamentation, which want to twist according to their own intrinsic laws. If you manage to grasp, implement and express it precisely as a transition and not as a refusal or break, then it goes without saying that this boosts the status of the activist, propagandist and engaged artist – a person who invests his singularity in a different, collective project for reality. This is incredibly important. After all, the status of the activist is incredibly low in society right now; in fact, it doesn’t exist at all. But the status of artist, poet and philosopher remains high. Even a person who knows nothing about art understands what the artist is fighting for: for the happiness of self-expression, for the free creative life, for success or, on the contrary, for romantic rejection and, in the final analysis, for a place in history, in the history of the masters, next to the politicians, scientists and military leaders, and even higher than them. Hardly anyone understands what the activist is fighting for. That’s a sign of a very grave crisis. A crisis of social creativity, if it can be put that way. For example, if you say, “The world is ugly and people are sad,” that is perceived as the anguished and disillusioned expression of an artist, but if you say, “The world is diverse and people are still capable of self-organization,” then you automatically become a propagandist. However, the first statement has long been a non-obligatory banality, while the second can become a serious political or artistic platform, the basis for a new thoughtful, heroic existence.
If a person is hopeless then, of course, the most he strives for is to objectify part of himself in a work of art or text in order that, alienated from him, they turn from objects into subjects of history, the history of art. But the subject of history is the human being as such, in all his positive complexity, not in some alienated part of him. Just as the history of art is part of human history, not the other way around. [As Maxim Gorky said,] Man! That has a proud ring to it.
Artist-man, agitator-man, activist-man, worker-man, intellectual-man – all of them together have a proud ring to them. But breaking them down is artificial: it’s a crisis of a system that strives to reduce the artist, along with everyone else, to an economic function. But that’s not just neoliberal ideology; it’s reality itself. A reality in which it is truly very difficult to connect different things – theory and practice, reflection and agitation – with one another; you have to tack them on with thread, and the threads often stick out and don’t look very convincing. But that’s the only way that reality changes. And I believe that’s the only way to return and retain that universalist, humanist horizon created by our predecessors, including the agitator artists – the socialists, anarchists, and radical democrats, in the twentieth century and earlier. They created it not only at the cost of their efforts and death, but at the cost of their own reputations.
NO: As we resist Nazism from the left under neoliberalism, it is appropriate for us to draw historical parallels with the thirties and attempt to understand how art workers should carry out agitational work under the new conditions. What tools do we have in the current conditions that are outside the realm of the big parties/corporations? Can we organize a dialogue with people, appeal to humanity? Are there any new methods of propagandist struggle? Is there a potential for reinventing new emancipatory propaganda? After all, if we look closely, there are quite a few tools for democratic struggle in our daily arsenal: grassroots theoretical and practical conferences, demonstrations, pickets and other forms of public protest and street-level self-organization, exhibitions and film clubs, and autonomous publishing projects. We already have all of that. What else is there?
KM: Kolya, talk about various kinds of “reinventions” and novelty most often remains just that: talk. We can simply recall what exactly you and I did, for example, over the past year and what we will probably do in the future: produce art objects and texts, design newspapers, translate and produce books, exhibitions, readings, go to meetings and organize committees, organize seminars, protests and pickets – some of which are successful, some of which are passable, and some of which are failures. We combined one thing with another, sometimes sacrificed one thing for another, and this caused misunderstandings among other people. There is nothing new in any of those types of activity as such. When you have to make a flyer and you want as many people as possible to read and understand it, you don’t have much space for “reinventing,” do you? For me the possibility of something new, the possibility of utopia consists precisely in combining all of this. It is this combination that generates (or doesn’t) new motivations, new relations, new ways of life, and new stakes that are different from those of the artist or intellectual striving to gain a foothold in an already existing professional field, or the politician who dreams of coming to power and rebuilding society from the top down. This is the field of personal revolutionary utopian struggle (to which I belong as well). And the figure of the propagandist (allegedly, historically compromised) is necessary in that field, so that it is charged and generates new meanings beyond the limits of hypocritical liberal-conservative mindsets.
NO: Then it is obvious that the figure of the artist-fighter should exist in that field constantly. It shouldn’t glimmer and flash somewhere on the horizon but be constantly manifested, intensely, every minute, and obviously through the regular practice of the common struggle. I want to say that it is a great joy to expend oneself in the struggle. That perhaps is what life in art is. Because inspiration is an awesome state, when you are guided by outrage and joy. Outrage at the realization that there is injustice and crap in the world. And joy of the kind that makes you stand up straighter and fills your hands with strength.