Abstraction and Representation

One of the reasons that many artists turned away from representation over the course of the late nineteenth century, such that you have Wassily Kandinsky painting in a purely abstract fashion (“on or about December, 1910”) was the advent of the camera – all the skills needed to represent things accurately (perspective, foreshortening, shading, anatomy, etc.) were suddenly redundant. But another was that artists were reacting to the bourgeoisification of Europe. The soulless bourgeoisie were held to need things spelled out for them – they needed “reality”, and an uplifting reality at that – so artists started breaking rules and constructing elaborate new theories about what art could be and do, to stick it to the bourgeoisie. It only makes sense that the great anti-bourgeois revolution in Russia in 1917 should employ an abstract style, constructivism, as its quasi-official one.


El Lissitzky, Beat the Whites With the Red Wedge (1920). Wikipedia.

One problem with this sort of modern art, however, is its elitism. As much as artists wanted to stick it to the bourgeoisie, they stuck it to everyone else at the same time; it’s not likely that peasants and proles should naturally be attracted to constructivist (or cubist, or expressionist, or synchronist, or futurist) art. Even less than the bourgeois did they have the time, education, or inclination to get into it. Stalin therefore decreed, some time in the late 1920s, that there should be no more abstract art, that the official style of the Soviet Union should be “Socialist Realism.” Thus the commie art with which we are familiar.


From an article at the American Thinker.

As much as I hate to agree with the mass-murdering tyrant, I think he was right. This sort of thing really is more accessible to the masses, although I wager it got rather boring after a while.

The funny thing is that socialist realism may have been one of the reasons why the New York school of abstract expressionism ended up receiving so much attention. If the commies were going to be literal, well then we were going to be abstract! We inherited all the moral superiority of the pre-WWI anti-bourgeois critique. Jackson Pollack, as an American, is free to decide where the paint goes. The CIA certainly agreed!


Jackson Pollock, No. 5, 1948 (1948). Wikipedia.

So the bourgeois Americans ended up with abstraction, and the anti-bourgeois Soviets with representation.

Tom Wolfe talks about a similar phenomenon in From Bauhaus to Our House (1981). The stripped-down workers’-housing aesthetic of modern architecture (which is another example of modernist elitism: no one ever asked the workers who had to live in them whether they liked it or not) ended up the style of choice for the headquarters of capitalist enterprises across the world.


Mies van der Rohe, Seagram Building, New York (1958). Wikipedia.