First published in 1926 and written a few years before, this small book is a fascinating read written at a watershed of Soviet history both in the debate over art and the revolution, and more generally over the direction of the revolution. It reflects and was part of a turn away from the experimental art after 1917 to what became social realism of the 1930s and beyond, a move that mirrored the counter revolution.
Aratov came from constructivism, associated with the prolecult that saw itself as the left wing of the arts and argued for a proletarian art. It was also a movement which famously Trotsky argued with, but now we can read in detail the other side rather than just the summary provided by Trotsky. Aratov was one of the leading promoters of productionism, a movement that, along with the constructionists, argued for art to transform the world. But not as they argued, just by redesigning everyday objects, but by fully integrating with the production process; out of the studio and into the factory.
The main problem is that for his ideas to be realised the proletarians had to be ruling society and by the mid-1920s the working class was disintegrating under the onslaught of the civil war. Russia was a workers’ state without a working class, ruled by a state acting in the name of the working class but becoming a new ruling class itself.
But at the time of publication ideas about art were in flux. This is a taste of the vibrant intellectual debate that was released by the revolution. Though he is highly critical of William Morris his ideas are based on Morris’s idea that art should be based on use value as opposed to bourgeois art that is based on commodity value. He sketches out a history of art from the feudal to 1917, which, though as Trotsky said is one sided, includes fascinating insights such that you can see the linkage between Morris and Walter Benjamin. Benjamin never directly referred to Aratov but he was in Russia in 1926 when this book was published and it is argued would have been aware of these art debates.
Arartov was dismissive of all decorative art and believed that materials had their functional form which should be the basis of the new society. His ideas were similar to those developing at the time at the Bauhaus, as are his ideas of unlearning the traditions of past times and that the new society should reject the past, start afresh and junk the rest.
He is particularly hostile to Lunacharsky who was arguing to save old art from destruction. He also argued for a total art that should be part of and an extension of the socialist society. It is from these particular ideas that the concept of social realism grew just as the new ruling class grew like a cancer within the body of the workers’ state. It was in fact from the left, the prolecult, that socialist realism came.
In short this is a great publication. It’s full of a mass of ideas that reads fresh and exciting, showing what artistic creativity the revolution released.