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Marxist aesthetics and the socialist realism of Geli Korzhev

2013-04-07  Vitaly Pershin Версия для печати

With Geli Korzhev’s demise, the socialist realism tradition has suffered a severe loss. Yet, an even greater blow was suffered by the critics of both the socialist realism and the real communism when at the beginning of the new millennium, prompted by his ageing, the humble artist allowed himself some publicity that made a stunning impression on the broad public. Now, various communist web sites upload his long-forgotten masterpieces such as such as “The Communists”, while the general public is astonished at many of his later works which may not portray the communist proletarian struggle, but remain firmly within the socialist realism framework – no matter how deeply Marxist, but inherently early-socialist.

Geli Korzhev has been an increasingly inconvenient target for attacks by the bourgeois and postmodernist left-wing critics of the real communism’s art. As a representative of the Soviet art, he emerged at a time when the socialist realism tradition had just peaked. He appeared to have grabbed, in principle, all of the influence of the great masterpieces of the Marxist aesthetics of the 1950s, and carried this influence all the way into the 3rd millennium – an achievement that not many people can boast. Thus, in the 1990s and 2000s he was not a “dead lion” of the post-war Soviet aesthetics like writers Fadeev or Polevoy, but a living and active piece of it. According to his own repeated confessions, he “painted only what he felt like painting”, but what a creative person “feels” is deeply related to the creative environment that once generated him. And that is the post-war Soviet culture – an “alternative civilization” that continues to attract people’s minds across the world.

His realism was truthful to the extreme, close to photographic, and in some aspects more than that. Yet, at the same time he had nothing to do with that “close-to-photographic” academism of the late Soviet era that lost much of the spiritual content and paved the way for the “objectless art” in the same way as the classical bourgeois academism had done a century before. His social focus was extremely strong and at times overtly political, yet it had nothing to do with the “order from authorities” that ruled much of the politicized Soviet art during the Khruschev and Brezhnev era: his patriotism, whether it had any Christian or communal flavor in it, was real; just like his orientedness at labor, no matter how he understood it, was clear and sincere. Unlike most of his “political collegues”, he remained loyal to his ideas until the end of his life; though, of course, with the collapse of the Marxist aesthetics environment that once made him, his realism underwent some transformations away from it and back into the “eternity” theme that once prompted his just-after-the-war paintings [attachments 1 and 2]. Thus, the perception of real communism’s art as a “state service with no featured value” is broken apart by Korzhev’s heritage outright.

At the same time, his “severe style” approach stands apart from the social realist mainstream that portrayed the achievements of the socialist construction and later became a target for the “carpet bombings” by the usual “democratic” media. Those were the schools within the social realist tradition that went a little further than “what’s real” in order to provide some positive example – “exemplary realism” portraying heroism and achievements that the bourgeois culture machine has diligently tried to diminish, sometimes calling it “utopian”, and even trying to equalize it with the Nazi art. No, Geli Korzhev dedicated his art to the opposite, to the “severe side” of both the revolutionary struggle and the early socialist construction. To a bourgeois intellectual with his one-sided idealist logic, it may even look as if Korzhev is portraying “ulcers of the real communism”. Of course, this has nothing to do with the Marxist aesthetics or the real materialist approach, especially with regard to the real communism of the XX century (as a product of a successful proletarian revolution in a country where proletariat had not yet become a major economic force with the patriarchal labor dominating the production of foods). Thus, the inconvenience of Korzhev to the postmodernist bourgeois critics (especially the “liberal democratic”, trotskyist or any other “anti-authoritarian” version of the postmodernist left that has grabbed the minds of young intellectuals in most of the industrial and even agricultural nations) is obvious.

Korzhev’s extreme truthfulness provides a powerful alternative to the mainstream of today’s bourgeois art with its abstractly refined, faked and concealing approach. In fact, he is indeed more than photographic: the important details that he gathers, conceive the spiritual atmosphere of the time and place to the extent of a somewhat shocking emotional timeshift. What a difference with the idealist art that lacks its time and leaves you in a virtual limbo environment of abstract unnaturalness, hiding behind “cosmic”, “technological” and “future” themes (as though anti-realist aesthetics of abstract torn-out one-sidedness has anything to do with Space or any other future technology)! At the same time, it is impossible to accuse Korzhev of the sensual anti-abstractionism: every stroke of his brush is conscious and conceptualized, it is not just an image by some academically refined reflection tool. Yet, such truthful and sensible painting of the truthful and natural Soviet environment would not in itself be much different from the contemporary bourgeois realist schools that expose, in the eyes of the pragmatic bourgeois intellectual, the ugliness of the decay of the capitalist formation behind its gloss.

So, what does make his extreme realism socialist?

Firstly, it is the close social focus which is something extremely opposite to both the consumptive entertainment (that is supposed to be “directed at the masses”), and the “narrow art” directed at a narrow layer of bourgeois intellectuals and composed of “signs” playing their own abstract game apart from the objective social reality. Social focus of the realism, much more than the left-wing abstractionism, has been a target of violent bourgeois attacks. Let alone the “Utopian theme” which is everything that projects or proposes beyond the class society (even in deliberately anti-utopian, scientific manner). Let alone the proletarian vanguardism (which is always “same as Nazi”) or the overtly politicized art which is always “obtrusive” and venal to the interests of the political leadership, whilst the most refined and advanced art is always “above the struggle”. But the very social focus is considered a bad taste: the “great artist” of these days is supposed to be a “unique creative intellectual” who must brush the various “refined cockroaches” from his individual imagination, and wait for a response from another “individuality” that “understands” and recognizes this “unique feature” (which, by closer look, turns nothing unique but rather widespread, largely physiological, and easily modeled). Yet the Hegelian, and not the postmodernist, uniqueness lies in appropriating and conceiving cultural treasures that are universal and increasingly social. Heli Korzhev leads us into the world of such treasures; at the same time, he is indeed doing it so humbly and unobtrusively: as a guide [1] for the interested party in the world of values, and not some “mentor” for the ones who are “socially lost” and “need correction”.

It is also not a secret that Korzhev often raises the aesthetical dilemma of The Beautiful and The Disgusting in the context of LABOR. It would be quite “normal”, from the point of view of the bourgeois mainstream, if he expressed his extreme realism and the “severe style” in the same way as it is done by some “surrealist” or other bourgeois or pettybourgeois school of painting. If it was that way, his outcrying truthfulness would, of course, be in contrast with the obtrusive polishedness and the artificiality of forms of the contemporary mainstream – in contrast, but not in contradiction. But the labor theme, which is expressed in the Aesopian language and therefore passes through the common anti-communist patterns is, in my opinion, something that brings it a completely different quality, making it dangerous for the bourgeoisie.

Korzhev’s labor is chiefly the physical labor of the productive sphere, but the productive intellectual labor can be drawn easily into his approach. It is mostly petty, primitive labor which also includes, for example, the “labor” of a soldier defending his own land, as represented by his various war paintings. Some predominant necessity, inevitability, frustration can be felt in this approach to labor. At the same time, this debilitating, crippling labor is something that enables the beauty – The Beautiful in The seemingly Disgusting. And, this is essentially not about the features of the “aristocratic” labor dictated by needs of the formal aesthetics, but the necessary, or (as Lenin put it with regard to the free labor under communism) “damn hard work”, when the fatal need imposes its own vision of what is beautiful or not. The hidden reservation that everything connected with necessary labor (including the war labor with all of its disgusting things) – labor muscles, labor suntan, etc. – is unconditionally beautiful, is without any doubt present in Korzhev’s treatment of the category of The Disgusting. Here is one of the examples where Geli Korzhev stresses the leading nature of Necessity in the “Freedom-Necessity” dilemma – an idea rather unappealing to most of today’s left-wing intellectuals – just like his stress on DUTY which is another important issue in the Marxist aesthetics.

The question of duty comes up with regard to treatment of the aesthetic categories of the Heroic, the Sublime and the Deposed. It again can be seen clearly in his war paintings, e.g. in his work “The Deserter” (1980) [attachment 3]. The Duty that is standing in front of every human being, and is not a whim or fault by some government or party official. Because of the way Geli Korzhev expresses its form, it may look like a communal rather than communistic duty, but the content is essentially the same for both of them. For the contemporary liberal (and, in essence, the conservative as well) left-winger this outcrying communal Duty can be something alien; but for a conscious proletarian, it is something that should be drawn clearly into the mind, no matter how one-sided or obtrusive this puffing-out of the Necessity at the expense of Freedom may be.

At the same time, I state that Korzhev’s treatment of the aesthetic category of The Tragic is not consistently Marxist, as it is not consistently materialistic from the Marxist aesthetics point of view. Marxist aesthetics, as it is known, discriminates between the Tragedy of the obsolete social classes and the Tragedy of social classes that are going to replace them. While the first tragedy is pure frustration, lack of hope, pessimism and bewilderment, the second one is either not a tragedy at all (for an individual) or contains SELF-IRONY at the inability to solve an urgent historical task due to the lack of real resources [2]. Korzhev fails to include this important reservation, and falls instead into some kind of Christian-moralistic subjectivism or the late-Soviet pessimism of the kind: “Eh, Morozova… What have we been fighting for?” with regard to the historical task formulated by the October revolution, with regard to the Russian question, etc. In my opinion, this inability stems from the fact that Korzhev’s socialist realism as a whole is not so much Marxist as it is inherently early-socialist with Marxist and non-Marxist aesthetics hiding in contradiction with each other.

In fact, it looks like his proletarian communist of the 1950s is not so much a firmly conscious proletarian but a yesterday’s muzhik (manly harsh countryman), proletarianized patriarchal producer whose consciousness, at first praised by Lenin’s promise of the “paradise on Earth”, then undergoes a transformation into skeptical, cynical, and eventually Christian (or “sad”, according to Hegelian language) consciousness. The perception of the world from the point of view of the early socialism (bewildered and lost in dismay) is most clearly reflected in the Korzhev’s picture “Raise up, Ivan”.

Inconsistent materialism, which is most clearly reflected in Korzhev’s treatment of the aesthetical category of The Tragic, can also be found in his approach to the concepts of labor, duty, and other important issues, connected with the “Freedom-Necessity” dilemma. In fact, hard labor stands here as something fatal, something that leads inevitably to the question: “What have we been suffering for, and what is the value of this constant struggle for survival, this constant sacrifice?” But similarly to the ironic reservation to the Tragedy as a whole, the Tragedy of Labor has its own reservation, and that is: it is a real Tragedy for as long as it contains a piece Comedy in it. Remember Nekrasov’s “Barrel of Vodka I give to the workers” (Nekrasov N.A., “The Railroad”). Sins of the class society (whether it is capitalism or the early socialism) are the opposite side of its hardships, and for as long as workers and proletarians take the “pleasant things” of this class society for granted, they can not get rid of its hardships; until the hardships and joys of it vanish altogether in the classless society – and this will eventually happen, whether we want it or not.


1. “The one raising the banner” by G.O. "Propaganda", autumn 2012.

2. Dmitry Gutov. Marxist-Leninist aesthetics in the post-communist era. Mikhail Lifshitz.