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5 Iron Flowers: Proletkult Creation in the Arts
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Worker-Centered Art

Clearly not all Proletkultists were content to study the culture of the past; many hoped to find a distinctive working-class art that would embody the spirit of socialism. The aesthetics of this genre were never very clearly defined, even by the organization's most enthusiastic advocates. For Bogdanov proletarian creation would evolve from the labor process and express the workers' collective ethos; it would serve as a means to organize and articulate the proletariat's unique vision of the world. But these principles offered few guidelines for either form or content.[48] Lebedev-Polianskii was only slightly more


specific. He believed that the new art had to focus on the city and the workplace as the loci of the proletariat's creative powers.[49]

The worker-centered art composed by Proletkult writers, painters, musicians, and playwrights came in many different forms. Most was stylistically conservative and followed standard artistic conventions. But in contrast to the classics, Proletkult artists crafted poems, songs, plays, and paintings that lauded the powers and virtues of the victorious proletariat and depicted the future of the revolution in grandiose, utopian terms. Critics of the 1920s and 1930s, who sought either more realism or more innovation, named this genre "revolutionary romanticism."[50]

This celebratory style was best developed in literature, where many worker-writers had begun their publishing careers long before the revolution. The best-known Proletkult authors, Pavel Bessalko, Mikhail Gerasimov, Vladimir Kiril1ov, Aleksei Samobytnik-Mashirov, and Ilia Sadofev, helped to set the tone for workers' literature during the Civil War. Their work was not all of a piece, nor was it sui generis. Numerous literary critics have traced the influence of Lermontov, Nekrasov, Verkhaeren, Whitman, Briusov, Blok, and Maiakovskii in Proletkult creations.[51]

Nonetheless, these authors did address common themes


that made their work distinctive. The revolution was central to their writing. It was presented as a festival made by and for the proletariat. They looked to the glorious future that socialism would initiate. Most important, they used their work to praise workers and workers' collectives, often in inventive and hyperbolic language. Workers were giants, titans, and masters capable of anything. As Vladimir Kirillov wrote in his poem "To the Proletariat":

O, many-faced (mnogolikii ) ruler of the world
Your faith—reason; your strength—labor.
                                    . . .
Beneath your dark shirt, in your stern heart
You carry the sun of a new life.[52]

In Proletkult writing symbols of progress and beauty were drawn from the lives of industrial laborers, something apparent in the titles of many poems: "Iron Flowers" (Gerasimov), "The Iron Messiah" (Kirillov), "Machine Paradise" (Samobytnik-Mashirov), "We Grow from Iron" (Gastev). Industrial imagery was so predominant that one contemporary critic called proletarian writers' work "machinism."[53]

The literature of this older generation of Proletkult authors dominated the most important journals in the two capitals and was given a central place in provincial publications as well. Aspiring new writers looked to the creations of their established colleagues, who took their didactic functions very seriously. The editorial board of Petrograd's The Future , led by Bessalko, Kalinin, Kirillov, and Samobytnik-Mashirov, published rejection notices that betray their sense of purpose and also their sense of superiority. "Save your time and ours, comrades," one such notice read. "There is no point wasting time reading or writing poems like the ones you have sent. They are hopelessly weak." Prospective authors were often


taken to task for using old and dated imagery, but the most critical responses were saved for those who addressed "non-proletarian" themes. One who bemoaned his fate was admonished, "That's a hopeless task, comrade. To struggle with fate is like fighting with windmills. The proletariat believes in the power of collective reason, not in fate." They taunted another who sent in a poem titled "To My Weary Soul." In the editors' opinion such intellectual rubbish did not belong on the pages of a proletarian journal.[54]

The industrial imagery so important to the first generation of Proletkult authors was emulated in the provinces. In journals with names such as Glow of the Factories (Zarevo zavodov ), The Hammer (Molot ), and Our Furnace (Nash Gorn ) provincial writers praised the factory, workers' collectives, and the glorious future of socialism, which was to be built by proletarian hands. As one Proletkultist in Saratov wrote:

Here they are, these calloused hands!
These huge rakes
That pierce the depths of the earth
With fingers of red steel!

Here they are, these calloused hands!
They will build a home
For freedom, art, and science
With no room for pain or suffering.[55]

Proletarian poetry was used as a model for other artistic forms. One of the first Proletkult plays, Vasilii Ignatov's Dawn of the Proletkult (Zori Proletkul'ta ), was actually a compendium of popular poems tied together by symbolic figures, among them a young girl in red representing the Communist Party.[56] Well-known poems were also put to music to create what was


known as "revolutionary hymns," a favorite method in the Petrograd Proletkult. At the opening of the main Proletkult building in Petrograd on May 1, 1918, the choir, under the direction of the composer Ianis Ozolin, performed "Workers' Palace" ("Rabochii dvorets") to the words of Aleksandr Pomorskii's poem and "May Day" ("Pervyi mai") to the words of Kirillov's poem.[57] The central Proletkult leader Fedor Kalinin was so impressed by this approach that he wanted revolutionary hymns to form the basis of the Proletkult's musical curriculum.[58]

Proletkult writers also tried their hands at plays, creating agitational and inspirational works that depicted workers' struggles in the revolution and Civil War. One of the most successful was The Bricklayer (Kamenshchik ) by Pavel Bessalko, who had studied with Lunacharskii in Paris.[59] This play is an allegorical tale about an architect who designs tall buildings and the worker who executes his plans. The architect is afraid of heights and dies trying to overcome his fears. When the revolution begins, the bricklayer, who has now studied architectural theory, assumes his former employer's job. He starts to construct a huge "tower of the commune," a revolutionary tower of Babel that will end national divisions between workers and inspire a single international language. The play discusses themes dear to the hearts of Proletkult theorists, including the need for workers to take over the tasks of intellectuals. As one laborer tells the protagonist, "It is good that you studied the art of building. Workers will trust you to construct the tower. You are ours; we are proud that you are one of our own."[60] The play ends as the bricklayer scales the


tower to place a red flag at the top. A popular favorite in Proletkult organizations, The Bricklayer was also used as a model for theatrical improvisations in the Red Army.[61]

Valerian Pletnev, an important Moscow leader and head of the national Proletkult after 1920, became one of the organization's best-known playwrights. His theme was the history of the workers' struggle and the evolution of the revolutionary movement in Russia. By 1921 Pletnev's plays were standard fare in many provincial organizations and workers' clubs.[62] Among his most popular works were the following: The Avenger (Msititel '), a heroic tale of self-sacrifice during the last days of the Paris Commune that was inspired by the work of the French author Léon Cladel; Strikes (Stachki ), based on a story by Aleksei Gastev about youths who engage in a labor protest in prerevolutionary Russia; Improbable, but Possible (Neveroiatno, no vozmozhno ), a farce about the Provisional Government; and Lena , about workers' lives during the strike that led up to the Lena massacre.[63]

The Civil War itself became the subject matter of Proletkult drama. Pavel Arskii, from the Petrograd organization, wrote a short agitational piece, For the Red Soviets (Za krasnye sovety ), depicting an assault by White forces on a peasant village and their brutalization of women and children. It was used by the Petrograd troupe and by the Red Army to discourage desertion.[64] When the Moscow Proletkult went to the Polish front in


1920, the traveling studio devised a special play, Pan Bunia , to expose the corruption of the Polish landlords.[65]

Like theater groups, music collectives were quick to discover an appropriate revolutionary repertoire. Choirs performed popular prerevolutionary workers' songs of struggle, such as "The Red Banner" ("Krasnoe znamia") and "Boldly Keep Step, Comrades" ("Smelo, tovarishchi, v nogu"),[66] along with "The Internationale" and "The Marseillaise." They also devised new lyrics for well-known tunes. For example, Pavel Arskii supplied verses that could be sung to "The Internationale":

Rise up, all of toiling Russia.
Rise up, our giant, our titan.
Yours—all the working masses.
Yours—the workers of all lands.[67]

Vasilev-Buglai composed a rousing political message for the popular gypsy ballad "White Acacias."[68]

In the visual arts many Proletkult participants tried to discover a simple, realistic style based on working-class themes. "The body of the working man, here is the ideal of future sculpture," read one explanation of a proletarian aesthetic.[69] An intellectual instructor in a Saratov art studio defined workers' art as the expression of monumental content through clear and simple forms. In his view such an approach grew organically from workers' life experiences. "Each worker's broad hand decisively and energetically draws the charcoal across the paper; it powerfully and boldly kneads and shreds the clay. The reason for [the workers'] special traits is not hard to explain. Since childhood these joiners, turners,


and carpenters have made things out of wood or iron and have shaped them into the necessary forms."[70]

Although many believed that realism was the proper form for proletarian creation, sympathetic critics tried to distinguish between proletarian realism and the dominant modes of nineteenth century art. In the words of the art professor A. A. Sidorov, "The realism of the Proletkult is of course not the old detailed kind, bound to nature. In the faces of these portraits and in the colors of these landscapes one discerns an effort to become masters of nature, to subjugate nature to [the workers'] plans."[71] Others gave a more honest account of Proletkultists' intellectual debts. The Proletkult instructor Lev Pumpianskii, in a review of a Petrograd exhibit of proletarian art, noted the primitive nature of many of the paintings, but he also found much to praise. In the works by soldiers, sailors, proofreaders, and house painters Pumpianskii saw elements of naturalism, impressionism, and the lubok tradition of Russian art. He was particularly moved by one artist, a hall porter named Andreev, whose paintings evoked the naive folk style of Henri Rousseau and Nataliia Goncharova.[72]

In their search for unique proletarian forms many participants brusquely rejected artistic paths that they associated with alien classes. Platon Kerzhentsev, the theater expert, was a sharp critic of the "bourgeois" opera and ballet, sentiments echoed in some Proletkult publications.[73] Boris Krasin of Moscow worried that workers would be corrupted by the "petty-bourgeois" musical tastes of the lower classes, particularly popular gypsy songs.[74] Playwrights denounced the


"frivolous" repertoires chosen by many local theaters, including farces and humorous entertainments. These opinions lent a censorious, moralistic tone to many Proletkult pronouncements on aesthetics, but they did not dictate the content of local work.[75]

Proletkult art critics saved their most vicious attacks for "futurism," a blanket term indiscriminately (and inaccurately) applied to impressionism, cubism, nonfigurative artistic forms, and various types of literary and theatrical experiments. These styles were rejected not because they were new but because they were old; they had begun before the revolution and were promoted by "bourgeois artists," which made them unsuitable forms for the proletariat.[76] A recurrent theme in Proletkult criticism was that futuristic forms were too difficult for workers to comprehend. "First and foremost, as the positive sum of collective sensibilities, feelings, and experiences," wrote the intellectual Ilia Trainin, "proletarian


art is clear and understandable to everyone."[77] Art could not claim to be collective if the collective could not grasp it.

Efforts to create a worker-centered art were not universally well received by the artistic community. Critics found much of the Proletkult's work amateurish, eclectic, and highly derivative.[78] The most complete demolition was at the hands of the much-maligned futurists, who could find nothing new or valuable in Proletkult work. The self-proclaimed worker vanguard was just reusing the tired clichés of heroism and realism, insisted David Sterenberg. To create a truly proletarian art, one needed more than tales of the lives of labor. The essential ingredient was a new, inventive, and revolutionary artistic form.[79] Despite the bad blood between futurists and the Proletkult, it was a message that at least some participants took to heart.

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