Anton sent me a link to this article about a couple of Russian exhibitions in London at the moment, which bring up questions of the post-WW1 ‘Art is Dead’ movement to abolish art. Here are the beginning and the final three paragraphs, but the whole article’s worth a look.

Die Kunst ist Tot, es lebe die Neue Maschinenkunst

From Russia, Royal Academy and Rodchenko – Revolution in Photography, Hayward Gallery.What would a world be like without art? And why did the most talented artists of the period immediately after the First World War end up advocating the abolition of art altogether?

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Which brings us to Rodchenko – Revolution in Photography. In the early 1920s another art-obituarist wrote ‘art is dead, and Rodchenko is the executioner’. He would have resented being fingered as the sole culprit. Rodchenko was a member of LEF, a group of former painters and poets who attempted to realise an art without art – abandoning anything not technically reproducible (such as the oil painting or sculpture) as a remnant of the deposed bourgeoisie. LEF’s ‘art workers’ like Varvara Stepanova or Sergei Tretiakov theorised an art against spectacle. Rather than the individual fetishised object, whether painting or sculpture, they moved into book and magazine design, fashion, film, architecture, even advertising. Most of all they tried to engage themselves in everyday life, transforming the spaces of mundanity and drudgery. The Hayward exhibition has a fragmentary, but still impressive collection of what was to replace painting – the photomontage, the photograph, the covers of popular magazines.

In 1923 Sergei Tretiakov wrote in LEF’s journal that art, like capitalism, was something that held back innate human creativity, frightening off the non-expert, with its religiose rhetoric of magic, inspiration and dreams. ‘Recall that in childhood every person draws, dances, invents precise words, sings. So why does he then grow up to be extremely inexpressive? And only occasionally go to admire the artist’s ‘creation’? Doesn’t this originate within those conditions of capitalist labour which make work processes into a curse and within which people are always longing for moments of free time? Is it normal to be converted from a skilled producer into a spectator-consumer? And to thereby lose your active creative instinct?’ For LEF, a world without capitalism was necessarily a world without such an art.

In abolishing art as we know it, and with it the museum and the gallery, LEF hoped that ‘everyone should become an artist.’ If everything is artistic, then art as a separate category need exist no longer. Today, we find all this in fragments, walking round galleries and museums, confirming their failure. Although it may be in the form of installations as much as paintings, the culture of contemplation and spectacle still suffuses the art world, and millions are still made from artistic mystique. If we follow Tretiakov’s reasoning, then art survives because drudgery survives, because we still need escapism. Maybe, then, the would-be executioners of art deserve to be taken a little more seriously?

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