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8 The Proletkult as Postscript, 1923–1932
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Artistic Practice

The Proletkult's politically conventional club programs contrasted sharply with the innovative work it conducted in its own theaters and creative workshops. In comparison with the Civil War years its artistic agenda became much more homogeneous. The national organization finally had enough power to impose a fairly unified aesthetic direction that was enforced by constant inspections of provincial groups.[28] National guidelines endorsing production art and experimental forms finally prevailed, moving the organization toward the artistic left. In a clear indication of this shift artists and writers from the futurist camp, including Nikolai Chuzhak and Sergei Tretiakov, gained influence in Proletkult central studios. The futurist journal LEF noted this with some pride in one of its early issues.[29] Although leaders like Pletnev contin-


ued to object to the label "futurist," the Proletkult nonetheless became an ally of the avant-garde.[30]

Theater, always the most popular art form, became the arena for the Proletkult's greatest experimental successes. By 1927 the organization supported workers' theaters in six Soviet cities outside of the capital.[31] The First Workers' Theater in Moscow, opened in 1921, shaped an interesting repertoire. The offerings were still eclectic, ranging from Dawn of the Proletkult , a compendium of proletarian poetry first composed in 1918, to Pletnev's realistic Lena . However, standard prerevolutionary classics disappeared entirely. In their place came the inventive work of Sergei Eisenstein, who became active in the Proletkult theater in 1921.

A student of Vsevolod Meyerhold, one of the most innovative directors of the early Soviet years, Eisenstein introduced many new techniques to the Proletkult. The most fruitful was Meyerhold's system of biomechanics. Advocates of this system argued that it would work like Taylorism in industry and make acting into a controlled, scientific process.[32] From his mentor, Eisenstein also took a love of the circus, pantomime, parody, and the grotesque—"minor forms" that Meyerhold believed were rooted in popular theater and culture.

Working together with the futurist writer Sergei Tretiakov, Eisenstein directed three striking experimental plays in 1923–1924. The first was an adaptation of Ostrovsky's Enough Simplicity for Every Wise Man , completely rewritten by Tretiakov.[33] This production moved the setting to contemporary émigré Paris and employed circus techniques, buffoonery, and even film (Eisenstein's first) to surprise and engage the


audience. The next production, also a collaboration between Eisenstein and Tretiakov, was Are you Listening, Moscow? (Slyshish', Moskva? ), a chilling agitational play about the rise of fascism in Germany. Using methods to promote suspense and terror, Eisenstein and Tretiakov induced the audience to identify with the events depicted on the stage. In the final scene viewers enthusiastically joined in the storming of a fascist tribunal.[34] Eisenstein's last major work in the Proletkult was Gas Masks (Protivogazy ), a performance staged in the Moscow gas works without any decorations or set designs.[35]

After Gas Masks Eisenstein left the Proletkult for film production, although his first major film, Strike (Stachka ), was completed with help from Valerian Pletnev and the First Workers' Theater collective.[36] The major directors who followed him in both the Moscow and Leningrad Proletkult theaters—Aleksei Gripich, Lazar Kritsberg, and Naum Loiter—had also studied with Meyerhold.[37] Throughout the 1920s the First Workers' Theater in Moscow employed techniques inherited from Meyerhold, especially the biomechanical method and the extensive use of the grotesque, pantomime, and satire, an approach that set the standard for all provincial branches.[38]

In the visual arts the Proletkult also shed some of its diversity and embraced the principles of the artistic left. The production art approach finally prevailed during the New Economic Policy. As a symbol of this shift, in the spring of 1922 the central art studio in Moscow closed its painting workshop.[39] Boris Arvatov became the most eloquent spokesman


for the arts, praising the virtues of artistic creation tied to practical needs. He declared that easel art, museums, and purely decorative forms were dead.[40] Instead, art studios turned to utilitarian tactics, designing posters, book jackets, union emblems, and decorations for revolutionary festivals.[41]

In comparison with the visual arts and theater the Proletkult's work in literature was modest. It could not compete with the expanding number of proletarian writers' organizations or with the growing workers' correspondent movement encouraged by the party press. Local groups urged club activists to teach practical skills, such as journalistic technique, speech writing, and how to prepare scripts for agitational courts that were based on experiences from workers' daily lives. However, the task of publishing and promoting imaginative literature passed into other hands.

The Proletkult's presence in the musical world also declined. Some local groups, like one in Georgia, developed popular choirs and orchestras, but the national Proletkult did not sponsor a central music studio. The work that remained also tended to the left. In 1923 the Moscow Proletkult, led by the experimental musician Arsenii Avraamov, staged a concert of factory whistles to celebrate the anniversary of the revolution. The Leningrad Proletkult organized a jazz band, which promoted the "sports trot" to dislodge popular enthusiasm for the fox-trot.[42]

Participants in Proletkult workshops and studios were supported by scholarships in the 1920s, and most pursued their artistic work full time. The First Workers' Theater in Moscow was particularly successful in promoting its young artists to


professional careers. The future National Artists of the Soviet Union, Maksim Shtraukh and Iuliia Glizer, as well as the famous film star Grigorii Aleksandrov all got their start in this organization.[43]

Nonetheless, the Proletkult continued to display ambivalence toward professionalization. Its artistic programs were idiosyncratic; they were designed to take their inspiration from nonprofessional circles.[44] More important, they were not integrated into the general Soviet educational system. When someone graduated from a workers' faculty or party school, it was clear what that meant, complained one participant from Ivanovo-Voznesensk. However, the social significance of Proletkult training was not immediately apparent to him. "I have to leave the Proletkult to join up with some Meyerhold or one of his many assistants or go to some VKhUTEMAS [Higher State Artistic and Technical Workshops] just to find out if I am or will become a real actor or artist with a credential in my pocket."[45]

When the Proletkult switched to trade union control in 1925, its creative work came under closer scrutiny. In general, union leaders were critical of the Proletkult's agitational and experimental style. They urged it to follow the paths of established professional groups more closely, particularly in the theater.[46] This evoked some positive responses from journalists in Workers' Club , who argued that proletarian audiences were growing tired of "naked agitation" and longed for welldeveloped characters and a clear plot line. However, central Proletkult leaders resolutely resisted conventional repertoires. Club theaters should stage agitational trials or com-


pose literary montages from public documents and newspapers, urged V. M. Bliumenfeld of the Leningrad Proletkult. Valerian Pletnev believed that scripts of any kind would soon be a thing of the past.[47]

Within its own workshops and theaters the Proletkult showed no signs of adopting more conservative methods under trade union management. Although the Workers' Theater retreated somewhat from its experiments under Eisenstein, it had a completely contemporary repertoire and considered itself part of the artistic left. Production art still held sway. Workshops employed the popular method of photomontage, and Moscow studios, under the direction of Aleksandr Rodchenko, designed ingenious multipurpose furniture for clubs.[48] Festivals were a focal point for much local activity. In 1927 the Leningrad Proletkult helped to map out an elaborate three-day agenda for the tenth anniversary of the revolution. The program incorporated displays of military hardware, historical scenes from the revolution, and mass performances of physical exercises and games.[49]

Despite this evidence of vitality, the Proletkult remained on the margins of cultural life in the 1920s. During the festivities marking the first decade of the revolution, numerous reviewers gave an appreciative account of the Proletkult's contributions to Soviet culture. But the articles had the tone of a postmortem, looking back at an institution that had outlived its usefulness. In his assessment of a decade of Soviet litera-


ture the influential critic Viacheslav Polonskii concluded that the Proletkult had helped to awaken the creative power of the working class. "No errors by Proletkult leaders and ideologues can lessen the enormous significance of the movement, which attracted many gifted representatives from proletarian youth, if only for a short time."[50] It was clear from his tone that he felt its short time had long since passed.

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