Movies and clowns

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April 21, 2003 by AK

The WSJ on museum looting in Baghdad:

Modernist art in Russia all but died in the 1920s, when Lenin denounced it as bourgeois and decadent, decreeing that the purpose of art was to glorify the revolution and the worker.

Lenin didn’t care much about modernist art, and had little time or patience to devote to crushing it. I think he didn’t take modernism seriously: he wanted art to “belong to the people and serve the people”, and even to be “understandable to to the people”. The latter, however, is said to be a mistranslated quote from his conversation with Klara Zetkin (in German). The intended meaning was “art must be understood by the people”. Lenin was not averse to using art as a means of propaganda, though, but he did not mean to exclude any particular style from this effort. Moreover, he did admit his own ignorance in the field.*

For all I know, modernist literature (and most of it was some sort of modernist then) flourished through most of the 1920s, until monopolization of publishing houses by the Bolshevik state nearly deprived non-ideological authors of access to the press. This coincided with Stalin’s crackdown on private enterprise and was probably part of it, but had little to do with Lenin’s alleged dislike for modernism.

*”While the masses are illiterate, the most important arts for us are cinema and circus,” according to Lenin. Communist propaganda later transformed it into “the most important art for us is cinema”.


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