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Artistic Mastery and Professionalization

During the early Soviet years the Proletkult was a remarkably vital cultural institution, and it was also remarkably eclectic. It had no unified aesthetic direction; in its far-flung network of studios and clubs it produced both some of the most conservative and some of the most radical cultural creations. But there was another source of confusion. The participants also could not decide what the precise purpose of the organization was. For many local circles the Proletkult served as a comprehensive cultural training program for the lower classes. This inclusive vision was opposed by other members who hoped the Proletkult would provide the most talented students with enough skills and resources to discover the culture of the future.

Some of the harshest criticisms of Proletkult work came from within its own ranks. Participants worried about the low quality of production and the weaknesses of local training


programs. They also feared that the constant demands for agitational performances lowered artistic standards. As the Moscow leader Arvatov mournfully reflected in late 1920, "It's funny to say this, but it remains a fact: up until now the proletariat has not given even one performance the way it wanted to give it."[102]

One obvious solution to these problems was to direct the organization's limited resources to fewer students, who would receive more intensive schooling than typical programs could provide. A dispute in Moscow in early 1919 over the creation of special workshops for scholarship students initiated a wide-ranging national debate over the issue of "professionalization."[103] Should the Proletkult allow all members to pursue their cultural interests alongside their usual occupations? Or should it instead help the most talented workers by freeing them from their jobs and giving them the skills to become professional artists? The foes of professionalization argued that worker-artists received their inspiration from the factory. They should not abandon this source of strength, nor should they distance themselves from the broad mass of laborers. Those on the other side of the argument countered that one condemned aspiring proletarian artists to mediocrity if they had to stay at their benches. Without fulltime attention to their own cultural development, they would never get the preparation necessary to create an art that could rival that of other classes.

Distrust of hierarchical privilege was widespread in the


Proletkult, and professionalization sparked a number of passionate objections. One writer in the Samara journal Glow of the Factories denounced the notion of artistic genius itself as a degenerate remnant of capitalism. The purpose of the revolution was to bring out the creative potential in everyone. Organizers of the very radical Kostroma Proletkult insisted that proletarian culture would be made by the working class as a whole, not by gifted "loners" (edinochki ) who stood outside their class.[104] A theater enthusiast in Tambov claimed that the old method of elevating the artist above the public was passé. "Together with the old theater, the old actor, [that is,] the actor-parrot (akter-popugai ), is disappearing. In his place will come the actor-creator, the actor-amateur." The author used the term liubitel ', an amateur or a dilettante, as a positive description.[105]

Nonetheless, selective programs such as scholarships provided easy answers for local groups facing financial problems and constant student turnover. Such methods also appealed to the most ambitious studio members, who worried that the organization might overlook their needs. One worker-participant in a Moscow literary studio, Ivan Eroshin, complained that after a day in the factory he hardly had the energy for nightly lessons in the Proletkult. In his view physical and mental labor did not mix. "Let us live with our art so that our brain and blood, our whole selves, are imbued with it; then we can strike the most powerful weapon from our enemy's hands."[106]

Even before the issue of professionalization was officially resolved, a group of working-class authors left the movement to start a rival organization, charging that the Proletkult did


not pay enough attention to their professional needs. In February 1920 Mikhail Gerasimov opened a circle for proletarian literature under the aegis of Narkompros and took five other Moscow poets along with him. According to these poets the Proletkult inhibited their creative growth because it slighted formal training and ignored the special demands of the most talented. From his base in Narkompros Gerasimov opened a new journal, The Foundry (Kuznitsa ), and gathered a group of writers around it. This group was known as the "Smithy" or the "Kuznitsy."[107] They used the Narkompros division as a base to expand plans for a proletarian writers' union that would devote itself to the interests of professional working-class authors.

Initially, this rupture did not greatly threaten the Proletkult. Many talented authors, including Kirillov and Samobytnik-Mashirov, joined the Smithy but did not break their ties to the Proletkult. By the time the groundwork for the new union was laid the two groups had reached an uneasy compromise. The union would not attempt to rival or eclipse the Proletkult; instead it would devote itself primarily to discrete professional issues, such as payment scales. In return the Proletkult central committee offered moral and limited financial support.[108] Despite the compromise, this altercation graphically illustrated how loosely the Proletkult's following was bound


together. A dispute over artistic training was enough to split the organization apart.

Professionalization was finally placed on the national agenda at the 1920 Proletkult congress, an event that also marked a turning point in the debate over artistic programs. Lunacharskii gave the keynote address on this controversial topic, arguing that proletarian ideology had already penetrated Soviet life to such an extent that it made no sense to restrict aspiring worker-artists to the factory. However, he warned that professionalism for workers could not take the same forms that it had under capitalism. It did not mean that the organization would abandon its commitment to the broad masses.[109]

This was not an isolated resolution. The conference delegates also gave official approval to local groups wishing to sponsor elite artistic studios and scholarship programs. In addition, the delegates supported the formation of a selective national Proletkult studio in Moscow that would begin work in the theater. Here, too, the resolutions had a somewhat cautious tone. One organizer, Stefan Krivtsov, demanded that scholarship students be required to take part in union and party work so that they would retain their class ties.[110]

Demands for higher artistic quality and expertise accompanied these endorsements of professionalization. "Turn away from dilettantism and amateurism to mastery and professionalism," read the 1920 congress resolutions on literature. Similar sentiments were echoed for music, theater, and the visual arts as well.[111] In a comprehensive statement on the


arts issued at the end of 1920 central leaders proclaimed: "All students should learn that without grasping the mechanics of art, without mastery, their creative expression will be weak; they often will only discover an already-discovered America."[112]

Along with calls for mastery came much more explicit instrnctions on the kind of art that Proletkultists should pursue. The movement would offer rigorous studio training, but its primary function was to produce original creative art. Visual art studios would make banners, decorations, and implement the principles of production art. Literature studios would write song lyrics, new plays, and agitational slogans for festivals. Music workshops would put composition before performances. Finally, theater circles would conceive a new, proletarian repertoire.[113] Although these proposals fell far short of a systematic aesthetic, they did show that the central leadership was eager to rid the Proletkult of some of its cultural eclecticism. It also was a clear step away from one of the most important functions of the Proletkult during the Civil War—to offer large and varied audiences a chance to learn about and perform the Russian classics.

Professionalization was the logical result of the Proletkult's commitment to a new proletarian intelligentsia. In the words of one central resolution, "If we are not afraid to take the proletariat from the bench to run the government, then there is no reason to worry that workers' specialization in artistic creation will lead to a rift with their class."[114] By embracing this direction the Proletkult also followed patterns set by other revolutionary institutions. The advocates of egalitarianism and decentralization in the army, state bureaucracies, and the Communist Party all faced defeat by the end of the Civil War.[115] What is interesting in this case is the ambivalent


nature of the Proletkult's endorsement. Members made clear that they wanted a new kind of professional artist, one who would not lose contact with the laboring population. But nonetheless, by emphasizing the importance of professional standards the leadership undermined the contributions of those who wrote, acted, composed, and painted after working hours—those "dilettantes" who had built the movement during the Civil War years.

Proletkultists tried to discover new forms of artistic expression without clear blueprints to tell them how to proceed. The fact that no distinctive genre of proletarian art emerged from their efforts is hardly surprising. Proletkultists experimented with a variety of artistic approaches, and in so doing they were aided by an impressive professional staff. However, the organization was not a catalyst for the creation of a unique proletarian culture; rather it was a mirror reflecting the heterogeneous cultural world of the early Soviet years.

The cultural diversity of the movement was deeply troubling to many members and particularly to the national leaders, who began to restrict its range by the end of the Civil War. They gave their support to special programs, such as production art, that contradicted the tastes of some local followers. At the same time, they endorsed scholarship programs and elite studios to provide serious training to a select few. These were all methods to improve the organization's cultural output; still, they narrowed both its aesthetic and its social scope. Even before the Proletkult began its rapid decline during the New Economic Policy, a decline precipitated by political attacks and funding shortages, the movement had em-


braced programs guaranteed to limit its popular appeal.[116] It ceded the creation of proletarian culture to the most talented, to the artists and intellectuals who claimed a proletarian title but who had left the smokey sky in the factory behind.


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