Letter: In Search of that 'Undead Cult of Socialist Realism'

Date: 2022-11-21T22:19:41+00:00

Location: cosmonautmag.com

On October 4th, 2022 NYC DSA announced a mural commission by Molly Crabapple for their lower Manhattan office. The mural bears a quote from Puerto Rican socialist poet and national independence activist Juan Corretjer: “Gloria a las manos que trabajan—Glory to the hands that work!” written in spindly, cursive letters that float above the portraits of six anonymous individuals, a series of brownstone buildings, and some vegetation.1 The work is executed in an expressionistic and somewhat whimsical style familiar to those who have followed Crabapple’s career at any point since she first started to make a name for herself at Occupy Wall Street.

Though Christian Noakes alleges in his Cosmonaut article of November 9th that Left-wing artistic production in the US is plagued by an “undead cult of socialist realism,” he fails to give any concrete examples of either whom he means by “US socialists,” or what he means when he refers to Socialist Realism.2 In my own experience, art associated with at least the more mainstream progressive and socialist political movements in the US today is better typified by the work of Crabapple, or the artists associated with the Justseeds Collective, than it is by Soviet Realist painting and sculpture from the 1930s.

If this Left is nostalgic, the sources of its aesthetic nostalgia are far less specific than what Noakes describes. They range instead from the social realist caricature and agitational art of various 19th-century, European reform movements, to the early-20th century avant-gardes as filtered through their reception by the New Left (see, for example, Justseeds founder Josh MacPhee’s re-imagining of El Lissitzky’s famous “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge” poster). 

Indeed, it is the international New Left and its aesthetic landscapes that continues to bear an outsized influence over the aesthetic production of the US Left, not least of all because some of its practitioners and institutions remain active in one way or another. I would begin to explain the reigning popularity of block printing—with its connotations of small-scale craft production— among North American Leftists, for example, by pointing to the importance of this medium to the aesthetic self-presentation of organizations like the Bread and Puppet Theater, founded in New York in 1963 and still going strong out of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.

There is also, perhaps, a nostalgia for 1930s, politically-progressive cultural production in some corners of the broader US Left. This is evidenced, for example, by the 1930s-throwback advertisement campaign for the Green New Deal, launched by the progressive wing of the Democratic Party in 2019. To call this “Socialist Realism” by invoking Andrei Zhdanov’s 1934 address to the Soviet Writers’ Congress, however, would be to oversimplify the cultural dynamics of the popular front as a strategy and specific, pre- World War II alliance against Fascism that brought social-democratic, socialist and Communist parties from across the Americas and Western Europe into an alliance with the Soviet Union. Incidentally, insofar as they were active before 1945, all of the visual artists whom Noakes invokes as examples from whom the contemporary, US Left should learn found themselves on the same side as Zhdanov in terms of the broader political alignments of the 1930s.

Because Noakes fails to give a clear definition of what he means by Socialist Realism, he comes very close to resurrecting that anti-Communist bogeyman, ‘totalitarian art.’ Currently, even a standard, academic art historical account of the rise of realism as the dominant artistic style in the Soviet Union by the 1930’s takes into account that this development was preceded by acrimonious debate regarding the relative virtues of figuration and abstraction by artist-intellectuals sympathetic to the Russian Revolution. Many art historians with little stake in the aesthetic self-definition of the current US Left acknowledge that reducing an artistic style with deep roots in the 19th century, a persistence into the last decades of the existence of the USSR, and 20th-century resonance across the Left-wing movements of the world to the caricature of a “totalitarian” monolith is intellectually lazy.3

Noakes is correct, however, in characterizing the broad US Left as nostalgic, even if he misunderstands the subject of this nostalgia when pinpointing its specific point of origin in Soviet Realist painting from the 1930s. Indeed, Noakes’ invocation, presumably of the formal qualities and commitments to Communist movements outside the USSR of a handful of European and Mexican Modernist avant-garde artists, in addition to the OSPAAAL poster art program and the work of Emory Douglas in the late-1960s and 1970s, might also be called nostalgic. The fact that Noakes’ argument is nostalgic isn’t, in itself, a problem. Rather, again, it’s the fact that he is not specific enough when defining his objects of criticism, or how he would like the US Left to draw from past artistic developments, which makes it difficult to understand what he finds regressive in some artwork or useful in others. 

Similarly, current art on the US Left doesn’t necessarily have a problem with nostalgia as much as it has an issue with organization and commitment. I would posit that the longstanding popularity of the work of Molly Crabapple, for example, has something to do with its commercial viability outside the progressive NGOs on which Leftist artists might otherwise rely for funding, but also its appeal to a broad swathe of such organizations given what might generously be termed its populist ideological flexibility. When US Leftists draw on the cultural production of the Popular Front, the New Left, the Soviet Union, or even the earliest gains made by the labor movements of the 19th century in their visual self-representation, they draw on the formal connotations of art associated with periods of Left-wing dynamism, internationalist unity, or perceived revolutionary strength. Longing for past periods of cohesion and commitment—including in the Soviet past—need not turn reactionary if it is mobilized, as Noakes himself suggests, toward political education, and as Christopher Carp elaborates in his own response to Noakes’ article, towards building new institutions or taking seriously those that already exist—either as models to be emulated and expanded, or adversaries to be identified and challenged.4


Patricia Manos

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  1. NYC-DSA 🌹 [@nycDSA], “Gloria a Las Manos Que Trabajan—Glory to the Hands That Work! Thank You @mollycrabapple for Creating This Beautiful Mural for Our Office 🌹♥️🌹 https://T.Co/PG8NmXDkEU,” Tweet, Twitter, October 4, 2022, https://twitter.com/nycDSA/status/1577097535566405633.
  2. Christian Noakes, “Against the Undead Cult of Socialist Realism,” Cosmonaut (blog), November 4, 2022, https://cosmonautmag.com/2022/11/against-the-undead-cult-of-socialist-realism/.
  3. See: Christina Kiaer, “Was Socialist Realism Forced Labour? The Case of Aleksandr Deineka in the 1930s,” Oxford Art Journal 28, no. 3 (2005): 321–45, https://doi.org/10.1093/oxartj/kci031.
  4. Christopher Carp, “Letter: An Art of Our Own,” Cosmonaut (blog), November 17, 2022, https://cosmonautmag.com/2022/11/letter-an-art-of-our-own/.