The Civil War was also a period of fierce struggle on the art front. The revolutionary futurists and Com-Futs were not just a detachment of anti-traditionalists rushing in to conquer the tastes of the period. They flung art into the thick of revolutionary activity. They set the tone and held the hegemony in the field of aesthetic forms. Their innovations and projects, while not always fully realized, were always significant and grandiose. Tatlin’s Tower, Mayakov-sky’s Mystery Bouffe, the Rosta Posters and the RSFSR productions and in common ideas of the epoch as important and inspiring as those that give rise to the worker’s army and communist Saturday labour. The greatest achievement of left art in that period was the establishment of the principle of production art, whereby the former entertainer/joker/clown/conjurer/hanger-on of society’s entertainment world switched categorically to the ranks of the workers, exchanging an aesthetic fantasy for the creation of things that were useful and needed by the proletariat.
Lef was the form which the activities of revolutionary Futurism took in the conditions of the New Economic Policy – an association of workers in left art. Lef means Left front, and Left front implies opposition to any other front. The novelty of the Lef position as against the position of Com-Fut lay in the fact that the principles established in the preceding period now had to be realised in conditions of competitive production with other group suppliers of aesthetic products. ‘Whose side are you on?’ proved to be an urgent question in the field of art too. The whole of academy art ranged itself against Lef. academy art was economically powerful for it had once again found its old, well-tried consumer. It demanded a licence to trade and this was obligingly granted in the shape of the formula about ‘assuming the cultural heritage.
‘Whose side are you on?’ – a frenetic rag fair had broken out in the marketplace of aesthetic products where talent, charlatanry and all kinds of fine imitations elbowed each other furiously. Their guidelines were the box office takings and production costs, their aims, to satisfy the tastes of the consumer. They lost no time in disassociating themselves from ‘Lefism’ even while appropriating Lef formal devices for their own constructivist nicknacks. But Lef proved to have staying power and vitality. Wherever artistic initiative was needed. Lef emerged and acted, to each piece of expediency on the part of academism, Lef raised its own utilitarian-based objection. But since Lef considered that an aggressive stance was vital, it had at all costs to maintain a distance between itself and its enemies: failing this it would have found itself thrust into the general melee where it would have had its arms pinned and been Paralysed. As it was, the roach that crept up from the right wing of art did in fact paralyse Lef to a significant extent by taking over all its inventions, terminology, techniques, constructivist devices, parading itself in Lef colours to the point where the inexperienced eye would have been hard put to distinguish where a wooden construction was a construction and where a postcard with an inscription, where verse was a controlled organisation of language, and where simply musty lyricism.
‘Whose side are you on?’ was transformed into ‘anything goes, with anyone, and anywhere 1 , and embraces all-round. Instead of a struggle there came the sermon which preached inter-departmental agreement in the bosom of a single ‘Soviet’ art. Ideological differences in art were annulled – everything was reduced to a question of formal and technical differences. A band of all-embracing associations arose, flying the ‘red’ ‘Revolutionary’ , ‘Soviet’ , banner.
New Lef had not come into existence by chance, and the bearers of the innovatory initiative could not accept this ‘peace and good-will to all departments 1 as appropriate soil for the blossoming of a Soviet art which would ‘strike awe in the hearts of our enemies in the remaining five sixths of the world 1 , as certain admirable and responsible comrades like to put it.
Drawing the teeth of natural enemies in the art field can lead to only one thing – they all end up toothless. The greatest sin for a worker in the art field now is not lack of talent or inventiveness, but on the contrary, principles.
The first fact against which Lef must take a stand is this replacement of intergroup wars of principles by a levelling of all the conflicting tendencies within the protection of a corporative-type union.
The battle for form has been reduced to a battle for the stylistic sign. New inventions in the field of form are no longer weapons for cultural advance, but merely a new ornament, a new embellishing device, a new addition to the assortment of aesthetic embroideries and rattles offered to the public. […] The subjection of material to inappropriate formal means can only lead to the distortion of the splendid material offered by Soviet reality.
Soviet reality fixed by the lens of a Soviet camera (even in the form of a painted photograph if the preservation of a colour impression is called for) which finds a place in the pages of an illustrated journal is as important and essential as daily bread. But the same material hanging on the walls of an AKhRR exhibition in the form of an easel painting – which for all its sympathies in this direction the AKhRR hasn’t an idea where to put or how to use – is material fixed by the outworn devices of a transplant art and therefore material ruined.
‘Red’ icon painting devices lend themselves to this kind of distortion of material (proud, fiery-eyed leaders, selfless marching pioneers, peasant Ivans with their heraldic sickles): All of this is a feature of the agit-poster, against which if I am not mistaken, the AKhRR is waging a battle, but whose devices they seem to be attempting to adapt to their own needs. […]
[…] It is a fact that once the concern with form lessened, what remained was the line of least resistance, the reactivation of already worn-out formal models and the rejection of innovations in form. The persistent cry of the ‘saviours of art 1 against so-called stunts and conjuring tricks has led to a situation where they are now credited with the defence of either the crudely talentless, or of the good old stereotype.
The first mistake of these ‘saviours’ was their endorsement of the formula form/content, ‘what / ‘how’ (rather than Lef’s proposed ‘material-purpose-form/thing’ ) and in the activation of each part separately. The second mistake, the forced pedalling of the ‘primacy of content’ (i.e. of a completely indeterminate and undifferentiated phenomenon) was in fact realized in a deterioration in form. The ‘how’ flew up the chimney. Surely ‘how’ has its own noun -‘quality’ . . . and the struggle for how/quality is the struggle for form. The struggle for quality in art has now been replaced by a struggle for the reinstatement of the pre-war stereotype, what has happened is a flight backwards into the wilderness. […]
[…] Material in raw forms – this is the vanguard of contemporary art. But raw forms can only serve an informational purpose and this is the tragedy of the situation – as soon as the question of the use of material on levels other than that of pure information arises, say in agit – pre-war formal devices immediately appear on the scene and thanks to them the material is either deformed as we have seen, or is immediately subjected to the aims of aesthetic diversion from reality and its task of construction.
But the pre-war norm has its defenders.
Why should art be concerned with raising quality and seeking new forms when the basic mass of consumers of aesthetic products swallow them in the pre-war models and even praise them. Down with innovation; down with experiment; long live the aesthetic inertia of the masses.
There is only one context in which the public can honestly be fed the pre-war aesthetic norm: when what is intended is the pre-war norm’s corresponding social purpose – to draw the consciousness and emotions of the consumer away from the essential tasks of reality. And this is the point we have reached. The pre-war norm in form has drawn after it the pre-war norm in ideology: art as relaxation, art as pleasant stimulus, art as diversion … is this not a variation on the old ‘art as dream, day-dream, fantasy? […]
[…] A full stop has been reached. The pre-war norm has been achieved. The altar of art has resurged out of the tedious abysses of our ‘depressing, grey, everyday reality 1 to provide citizens with a legalised daily escape route into the kingdom of dream/stereotypes. Topical raw material still survives, but never mind. . . . The specialists will invent a means of getting imaginative exoticism from Party history material, or treat it in say, ancient Roman or Babylonian tones, or even in the Sergievo-suburbs-iconpainting style and everyone will feel that art is serving revolutionary construction (well of course, look at the themes, incidents, characters) while in reality art will be serving a philistine escapism from the revolution.
These are the four dangers:
Lef is aware and will fight responsibly
for an aggressive, class-active art
for innovation appropriate to the tasks of socialist construction
for art/lifebuilding, art/activisor, art/agit
for the culture of form
Sergei Tretykov, Novy Lef, no. 11/12, 1927.