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Fodla32

Fodla's Review of Boris Groys: The Total Art of Stalinism

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I've just finished reading a book called "The Total Art of Stalinism," by Boris Groys. Its a very well written book, which looks at the Avant Garde and Socialist Realism of the 20th century. His thesis is that traditional art considered the world as a perfect creation of God. Its task was to, as Shakespeare put it, to hold the mirror up to nature. The closer an artist got to a perfect representation of nature, the closer his or her (usually his) work was to the divine. In effect, the artist tried to capture something of the divine eternal in his work.

The avant garde, all over Europe, took an entirely different view. This movement sprung up in the late 19th century, when, as Nietzsche put it, God was dead for the intellectual elite. And if God was dead, then what was creating the world? The answer was simple - we humans are. The task of art was now not to simply paint pretty pictures of the world as the artist already found it, but to actively create a new world.

In the West, the avant garde was quickly stopped in its tracks by the philistinism of the "market." All it could do was powerlessly complain about the power that it did not have. But, things were very different in the USSR. In 1917, the traditional Russian artists had supported the Tsarist cause. The avant garde rallied to the Communist cause. Thus, avant garde artists found themselves as government ministers and officials, with massive power to really change the world - not just paint pictures of it.

Groys points out that it was Stalin himself who was the greatest of all avant garde artists. All of the USSR, and everybody in it, became his canvas. The USSR really became a single work of art, where every act was an artistic act. The Proletariat was, at all times, on stage. And this is why everything they did and said was of such vital importance - to the point of being shot for saying the wrong thing. Groys doesn't say this, but I was left with the distinct feeling that democracy can only exist if what you say can cost you your life. Today, in the West, anyone can say anything they like, simply because nothing they say can ever be of any importance. This is the opposite of democracy. This is absolute totalitarianism.

Groys wrote this book in 1987, in the USSR, where he was a professor of art. His attitude to Communism in general, and Stalin in particular, is far from uniformly positive. But, he does point out that, with the death of Stalin, the idea that art, and thus humanity, could make any difference, also began to die. Art went back to holding up the mirror to nature - a miserable pass time - or singing songs about love and peace - an even more miserable pass time.

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