Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Art meets the Iron Curtain

I came across this cartoon today. Not sure the punch line does much except to me a bit snobbish about LS Lowry and British art in general, but it's historically accurate.

The Soviet Union had a 'workerist' attitude towards art and culture. The products of bourgeois pre-revolutionary cultures were admired and preserved - architecture, ballet, music, paintings, literature, but contemporary work was judged according to whether it fitted the state's concept of progressive values. So all workers had to be heroic, all employers damnable, all social problems soluble through revolution. What literature would be once the Revolution had liberated everybody was hard to say - boring, I suspect. Certainly the 'proletarian literature' authorised by the Soviet state was bloody awful, though some of the visual art was stunning. Architecture swung between jaw-droppingly science-fiction amazing and soul-crushingly terrible.

In the UK, plenty of bad writers were published because they were workers or pro-Communist, but many worker-authors of high skill were discovered: amongst them Lewis Jones, whose novels Cwmardy and We Live were presented as orthodox Communist propaganda. Actually, my PhD argues that they're actually a very subtle and intelligent critique of Stalinist Communism as well as of capitalism. They're stuffed with odd sex-and-death stuff too - not the kind of thing tolerated by the Culture Commissars.

Anyway, I digress. The cartoon is interesting because it refers to the Cultural Cold War, in which the CIA founded and funded lots of cultural bodies and magazines, such as Encounter, a very popular English-language current affairs/arts magazine. They used front groups and charities to put on touring art shows and concerts, all designed to show socialists inside and out of the Soviet Union that Western artists were free to do whatever weird stuff they wanted - Jackson Pollock was one unwitting tool of this policy. The Soviets had bagged realism, the CIA seemed to think, and so abstract expressionism must necessarily be the property of capitalism. Needless to say, lots of the artists promoted by the CIA weren't very good: just useful.

If you'd like to read more about this weird element of the Cold War, Frances Stonor Saunders' Who Paid The Piper? is an excellent and readable introduction, as is Hugh Wilford's The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America. As they both used musical metaphors, I'll just point out that both the American and Soviet security services thought the Beatles were subversives.

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