Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Kinder, Gentler, Socialism

There was a division in socialist thought more than a century ago, and I think it continues to be significant.  Overview statement: the division was gradual, so that many who are on one side of the divide believe in their hearts that "socialism" refers to Socialism A, an approach to life not entirely distinct from democracy, with dignity and respect for the everyman as opposed to the grasping rapacious rulers.

A century ago, there was a brand of socialism that was rather Whiggish, highlighting the importance of the common man (and, more than communism or fascism, woman).  The other strain, a more Bolshevik art, deteriorated into an abstract New Soviet Man, looking off onto the horizon, sheaves of wheat in his arm, sweat on his brow, with a remarkably well-fed and robust peasant woman. She seemed to be somehow fair and smooth of skin despite her many hours of toil in the brutal sun. There was some reference back to actual workers in socialist realism art, but mostly, they were cardboard, 2D figures. I saw this up close when I was in Budapest and went out to Szobor Park, a displayed collection of massive statues on the outskirts of the city, preserved from the omnipresent public art that remained after the Iron Curtain collapsed. (Worth the visit if you go there.)

It is hard to draw clear lines, because their eyes were not as ours.  Is Millet's earlier The Gleaners actually sympathetic to the peasants, or still condescending, respectful only by comparison? Fifty years later, we have a painter who is quite explicit about his regard for the importance of the small events of everyday people. Carl Larsson is now known mostly in the US as a Swedish specialty, whose paintings of family life in the old country have an entirely sentimental air.  The figures in his works - his own family, primarily - are clearly prosperous, plump, and adorable. They look like a fantasy of common everyday folk, a distillation of bourgeois sensibility. Yet Larsson had been quite impoverished as a child and was under no illusions how the poor actually lived.  He saw himself and his family as part of them, who had had a little success and made a little money, but was much the same.  He was certainly regarded that way at the time, with no disdain or resentment from the common folk.. What criticism he did get was from elites.

I have a friend from years ago, Gordon Carlisle, who remains in that tradition of socialist art that even conservatives get the import of. In fact, as times moves forward in its irritating, inexorable way, it will increasingly be regular folk, culturally if not politically conservative, who appreciate what is being expressed by Gordon. He has had commissioned murals along the otherwise bleak and ugly downtown walls of the mill cities of New England, in addition to his cheerier backgrounds. Please note that these are not those ridiculous monstrosities that larger cities commission, with huge heads of national protest or rebel figures, over-obvious symbols, and screaming letter. Those remain, BTW Socialism B, clear descendants of Soviet socialist realism art. In Socialism A, There are labor figures, but they are workers.  If they have been drawn into protests or strikes, it is unfamiliar territory. Manchester residents may recognise this location.

If you are in Concord, ask me to show you a particular display of his which continues to captivate me after all these years, seven paintings he did for our hospital when he was an intern.

Which brings me to my controversy.  There was an American artist who started as an illustrator and gravitated greatly toward the comic attributes of the lives of everyday folk.  But there is considerable overlap with those above. How is this so very different, for example?

1 comment:

Grim said...

In the particular piece chosen, the difference lies in the aspiration of the poor farmer that his son should have a better life. There is implied there a bond of loyalty absent from Socialist art, whereby a generation labors to save and lift its children out of poverty. The farmer has worked himself to exhaustion so his bright-eyed boy can go to the State University. That boy, in a few years, will be gray and tired -- but probably fatter than his father, from a career indoors behind some desk -- as he sits beside a boy he hopes to send to Yale.

That sentiment is at least as old as John Adams: "I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine."

I like that in the original, he first wrote that his sons could study painting and poetry -- and then lined that out. There's a lot of work to be done before you can afford to study painting and poetry: generations of work.