Socialist realism was a propagandist genre of art, music, and literature that was prevalent in the Soviet Union during the rule of Stalin. According Walter G. Moss, “Although it permitted nonideological fiction, the state preferred that which reinforced Communist ideas.” The state endorsed socialist realism as the official genre of the nation, and it rejected other styles, including impressionism and experimentalism. Artists and authors who did not abide by the standards set by the government typically did not have their work published. The state may have also punished them severely for their refusal to be censored. The censorship of art and literature was a significant tool for the regime, which relied on propaganda to keep Communist rule in place. Socialist realist works encouraged the average person to embrace Communist ideals. The common people could easily understand socialist realist works, and they learned to support the socialist order.
Artists had no choice but to work within the guidelines for socialist realism. The government did not allow them to publish and exhibit work that went against the socialist order. They made art become propaganda because they wanted to keep the people from organizing a rebellion against Communism. Artists did not have creative freedom because the subject matter of their art was predetermined to make it become propaganda. While creativity might have suffered, artists continued to make and study art. For instance, they attended institutes for art to learn about the process of making paintings. The art they made was significantly different from the art of revolutionary Russia because of its subject matter and technique. Westerners might think that it lacked artistic value because the artists who made it could not creatively express their ideas. Although an analysis of art during Stalin’s era might show that art had perhaps had little value, it reveals the role that Soviet politics had in the development of art.
The examination of a specific genre of socialist realism, painting, can demonstrate the influence that the government had on art. For instance, Iskusstvo says that artwork showed “the best qualities of Soviet people – courage, belief in their work, love and devotedness to the socialist motherland, the capacity and ability to overcome any obstacles” by the artist’s depiction of the common man. The advent of socialist realism meant that artists stopped painting the subject matter of a select few, notable individuals. The subject matter changed to include the common people during Stalin’s reign. Artists made commemorations to the average people by painting monumental portraits of them. For instance, painter Grigori M. Shegal created a work titled A Nurse – a Free Moment. Its subject matter is a nurse dressed in plain clothes. Her face looks weathered, although the artist glorified her by having a monumental work of art dedicated to her. The artist revealed that hard work was a trait that society valued. Although the nurse’s job may have been rough, she was a trouper for being dependable and selfless. Other socialist realist painters depicted mothers, students, and friends in their art. They utilized their paintings to make a statement about the positive traits of the average person. The significance of their subject matter was that they did not determine what it would be. The state decided what they could speak about in their paintings. Although creativity was stifled during Stalin’s reign, the art of his era still speaks volumes about the values that society had. What did the depiction of the common man in paintings say about society? What was happening in politics to create a change in the subject matter of paintings?
Bown, Matthew Cullerne. Socialist Realist Painting. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.
Guggenheim. “Reflections: Socialist Realism and Russian Art.” Accessed September 15, 2010. http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/education/sackler-center/sackler-exhibitions/past-exhibitions/230.
Moss, Walter G. A History of Russia since 1855, Second Edition. London: Anthem Press (2005), 380-533.
Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, 1900 A.D. – Present.” Accessed September 15, 2010. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=11®ion=eue.
Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. “Propaganda.” Accessed September 15, 2010. http://www.moma.org/collection/theme.php?theme_id=10179.