from ‘Socialist Formalism’ – Victor Burgin

While contemporary Western art practice is currently polarized between Modernism and ‘conceptualism’ both are being viewed in terms of a Modernist politique – in terms of a Modernist aesthetics and a Modernist version of history. The inability of most critics to deal with conceptualism on anything but an ad hoc basis stems from this fundamental category error, as does the failure of most conceptualists to found their practice in anything other than laissez-faire subjectivism. The consolidation of conceptualist practices along the socialist lines which have been implicit from their inception demands a reading of formalist aesthetics, of history, and of current priorities, different from that now predominating in the Western art community.

Conceptualism administered a rebuff to the Modernist demand for aesthetic confections and for formal novelty for its own sake. It disregarded the arbitrary and fetishistic restrictions which ‘Art’ placed on technology – the anachronistic daubing of woven fabrics with coloured mud, the chipping apart of rocks and the sticking together of pipes – all in the name of timeless aesthetic values.

However, once beyond the official enclosures of ‘legitimate’ art practice many found that they had exchanged their prison for a desert. They learned that there is nothing to be made of a conceptual/^, defined in opposition to Modernism, other than an ‘official opposition’; and that there is nothing to be made of Modernist art history other than a history of Modernism.

My remarks here, very far from being comprehensive, are intended to point off the highroad of Western bourgeois aesthetics to areas where conceptualism may be better grounded for the completion of its metamorphosis from an essentially Modernist avant-garde to a socialist art practice. They will concern Russian art in the decade following the October revolution, normally presented as a story of the arbitrary suppression of modern art by philistine communism; and (representing a general concern with ‘mass media’) advertising, normally not presented at all in an art context.

The Western assessment of the ‘importance’ of Malevich amongst modern Russian artists is readily understood: his work, his concern for ‘the spiritual in art’, is easily accommodated within the western tradition of Romantic formalism. This movement of accommodation disengages all Russian art of the revolutionary period from its real historical context in order to insert it in the familiar, spuriously historical, sequence ‘from Cubism to Modernism’ which in fact is an anti-history, an ideology. It also ignores the difference between Western and Russian formalism.

Modernism is typically defined in opposition to Realism. In classic Realism there is assumed an unmediated presentation of the referent through the sign (unmediated that is save for ‘noise’ in the physical channel of communication – problems of mediation in Realism tending to become confused with questions of technique exercised in the interests of conformity to some prevailing model of reality). Realism is primarily ‘about’ content and major debates within Realism concern subject-matter alone (witness the recurring ‘crisis of content’ in nineteenth-century painting).

With the hindsight granted us by Saussure we can today see that classic Realism rests upon a mistaken concept of signification: the sign is assumed to be ‘transparent’, allowing unproblematical access to the referent. Cubism we can see as constituting a radical critique of this concept, a practice compatible with a recognition of the disjunction of signifier and signified within the sign. Post-cubist Modernism, however, did not develop as a scientific aesthetics based upon a critique of the sign, but rather as a normative aesthetics based upon a notion of territoriality.

The brand of formalism propounded by Greenberg and Fried is in direct line of descent from the attempt by Bell and Fry to ‘free’ art from concerns not ‘peculiarly its own’. In the earlier of these two periods of formalist criticism, particularly with Bell, recourse is made to a Kantian ontology (a noumenal world ‘behind’ mere appearances) in order to justify abstraction. American Modernism ostensibly sees the art object as justified solely as an end in itself, but it remains determined by the earlier English version in that in the same movement in which it sheds idealism it loses the last vestige of any concern with content.

(The ghost of idealism haunts Modernism to this day – it was minimal sculpture which came closest to a materialist abstractionism.)

In Russia the move towards the immanent modes of analysis of formalism was first accomplished by the Symbolist philologists Potebnya and Veselovsky. Their emphasis on the distinction between poetic and prosaic language isolated language itself as the primary object of literary studies. 1 The Formalist critics of OPOYAZ (Society for the Study of Poetic Language) and the Moscow Linguistic Circle retained this distinction, Jakobson, in a well-known dictum, declaring the proper object of literary studies to be not literature by ‘literariness’ (liter aturnost).

The Russian Formalists, however, rejected the Symbolist notion of a ‘higher reality’. They also rejected the Symbolist notion of form in which form, the perceivable, was conceived in opposition to content, the intelligible. They extended the notion of form to cover all aspects of a work. Todorov writes: ‘ … the Symbolists tended to divide the literary product into form (i.e. sound), which was vital and content (i.e. ideas), which was external to art. The Formalist approach was completely opposed to this aesthetic appreciation of ‘pure form’. They no longer saw form as opposed to some other internal element of a work of art (normally its content) and began to conceive it as the totality of the work’s various components. Thus every element inside a work of art is, according to the exact measure of its appropriateness to it, a formal part of the whole . . . This makes it essential to realise that the ‘form’ of a work is not its only formal element: its content may equally be formal.’ 2 Russian Formalism was therefore substantially advanced beyond its Western contemporary, the formalism of Fry and Bell, in which considerations of content were arbitrarily banished in a quasi-legal ruling.

The period from 1917 to 1932 does not present the simple story of suppression preferred in the West. Decisions on aesthetic questions were entirely avoided by the party until 1925. The notion that a fully formed state aesthetic policy was desirable did not emerge until the thirties. By 1920, however, ‘laboratory art’ Constructivism had already been condemned by the constructivist artists themselves as an anachronistic perpetuation of bourgeois vested interests. These productivists went on to develop, in industry and in mass media, practices compatible with their revolutionary socialist politics. In some respects they were ‘overtaken on the left’ by Proletkult, but both factions eventually foundered against the growing influence of conservatism after NEP – that moment depicted in some accounts as an improvement in post-revolutionary cultural conditions, but which the artists and critics of Lef recognized as a betrayal of the revolution.

We may integrate the concerns of Russian Formalism and Factography within a modern Western art problematic: the first requirement of a socialist art practice is that it should engage those codes and contents which are in the public domain. These present themselves, and thus ideology, as natural and whole; a socialist art practice aims to deconstruct these codes, to unpick the apparently seamless ideological surface they present.

The propaganda message is ineffective to the extent that it endorses the very codes which frame the ideology it would oppose; it is these which appropriate it as ‘mere propaganda 1 . Anthony Wilden puts it: ‘ . . . the response to the indifference of the system cannot simply be a strident dogmatism … the first line of defence against the violence of the rhetoric of the establishment is to learn something about rhetoric. And that means to learn something about communication. But a line of defence is not enough: the victims must take the offensive. What is required – at this admittedly minimal level – is a guerrilla rhetoric. And for a guerrilla rhetoric, you must know what your enemy knows, why and how he knows it, and how to contest him on any ground.’ 3

Wilden is speaking here of the rhetoric of the academic establishment in which: The necessary isolation of a system from its context in order that it may be studied … is generally used, implicitly … to justify the isolation of the researcher from his context: from his past, from his social and academic position, from his future expectations, from his economic status in a hierarchical system of privilege, from his conscious or unconscious positive or negative commitment to a set of ideological and political views – all of which one may expect to discover in various transformations in his work.’ 4 Wild en’s remarks, however, may be extended to all the forms of discourse which collectively constitute the symbolic representation of our official ; notably, those which are encountered in the mass media.

Fortini quotes a certain communist spokesman: ‘Continue as writers. We do not want to make a corporal of a man whose voice can move an army’; and then comments that ‘. . . the writer whose “voice can move an army” is in fact the bureaucrat of letters, the specialist in propaganda, integrated in mystification. ,s It is such specialists as these who today compose commercial publicity.

Without doubt advertising constitutes one of the most massive ideological interventions in our cultural life. Why then does it receive such a disproportionately small amount of ‘serious’ attention, compared say with cinema? One answer to this question is cultural: British intellectuals tend to have an ‘English Lit’ background and the analysis of (what they take to be) animated books suits them very well. Another reason is phenomenological: whereas the cinema readily constitutes itself as an object, advertising is received as an environment and as such tends to pass unremarked (like ideology itself). Nevertheless it is advertising which is closest to that mass-consumed art form, the product of an anonymous collective, which cinema becomes in the imagination of ‘left’ film commentators when they take time off from writing about films by famous men. It is as much an autonomous category of communication as is the cinema, and should be studied as such.

* * *

In a 1934 essay the Prague linguist and aesthetician Jan Mukarovsky referred, in passing, to the triad of theories which even today still frame the thinking of our Western art community. He warned: ‘Without semiological orientation the art theorist will always be open to the temptation to treat the work of art as a purely formal construction or else as an immediate reflex of the mental or physiological moods of the author or of the distinct reality expressed by the work, viz, the ideological, economic, social and cultural situation of the contemporary milieu.’ 6

These are the points between which well-worn paths are still being trodden today – Formalism, expression theory, Realism. ‘Only the semiological viewpoint 1 , Mukarovsky continues, ‘allows theorists to grasp the autonomous existence and fundamental dynamics of the artistic structure and to grasp the development of art as an immanent movement which also has a constant dialectical relation to the development of the other domains of ’.

Russian art of the twenties represents an exemplary attempt to deal with that interdependence of form and ideology for which Aleksei Gan, in Constructivism (1922), coined the term ‘tectonic’: ‘Painting, sculpture, theatre, these are the material forms of the bourgeois capitalist aesthetic which satisfies the “spiritual” demands of the consumer of a disorganised social order . . . The tectonic as a discipline should lead the Constructivist in practice to a synthesis of a new content and the new form. He must be a marxist-educated man who has once and for all outlived art and really advanced on industrial material. The tectonic is his guiding star, the brain of experimental and practical activity . . . the tectonic unites the ideological and the formal.’ 7 [see IIID7]

The Left front’s advance on industrial materials led them into direct engagement with mass communication codes and practices. Today such ‘mass media’ constitute en bloc a popular Art. We took the example of advertising: advertising is an ‘art’ form in that it constitutes an autonomous genre of aesthetically dimensioned message structures (which although they may be analysed in terms of other structures are not reducible to them) – devices whose (contingent) function is to renew our perception of, and enthusiasm for, consumer values. Advertising is ‘popular’ in the sense that its codes are commonly understood: assuming literacy, advertisements yield more or less non-aberrant de-codings within most social sub-groups.

Although we cannot currently affect the publicity messages emitted, we may subvert the messages received. A task for socialist art is to unmask the mystifications of bourgeois by laying bare its codes, by exposing the devices through which it constructs its self-image. Another job for socialist art is to expose the contradictions in our class society, to show up what double-think there is in our second-nature. Qualifications for the first job include a knowledge of semiotics; qualifications for the second job include a knowledge of politics and economics. As we only know society through its representations, then both jobs will have to be done by the same man. (The inmates of art educational institutions generally receive only courses in connoisseurship; on their release, their progress towards self-reeducation is a difficult one.)

To date there is little evidence that the self-professing left of our art community has grasped Gan’s ‘tectonic 1 principle in its application within our own media-dominated . Seemingly oblivious to the formal aspects of ideology, they address each other in a shop-worn rhetoric long ago appropriated by bourgeois ideology as ‘leftist dogma 1 . Thus they obligingly fill the benches which bourgeois allocates to the ‘official opposition’, endorsing the existing structure of social relations.

John Berger has observed: ‘Publicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy. The choice of what one eats (or wears or drives) takes the place of significant political choice.’ 8 Vanguardism in art has become just another way of offering the consumer a choice. Body art or art-language, the ingredients disappear behind the packaging and a mindless loyalty to the label is rapidly established and just as rapidly lost. There is therefore nothing more contradictory at this present historical juncture than a left avant-garde, and nothing more depressing than attempts to invent one.

References to literature are unavoidable when discussing the visual arts in Russia at the beginning of the present century. In addition to the early lead taken by Formalist literary criticism the political framework of art tended to be discussed primarily in terms of literature; party decisions on the arts were made first in respect of literature with other arts following suit. To make such literary references, however, is not to misrepresent the theoretical context of the visual arts, as contacts between the various arts were extensive both before the October revolution and into the late twenties.

Tzvetan Todorov, ‘Some approaches to Russian Formalism 1 , 20th Century Studies, December 1972, p. 10.

Anthony Wilden, System and Structure, Tavistock, 1972, p. xxvi. Ibid., p. xxii.

Franco Fortini, ‘The Writers’ Mandate and the End of Anti-Fascism 1 , Screen, vol. 15, no. 1, 1974, pp. 42-3.


Published in Studio international, vol. 191, no. 980, London, March/April 1976.

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