It’s hard not to feel unease viewing paintings that were part and parcel of the self-promotional ethos of what may be the most murderous regime of the 20th century. It becomes doubly hard not to feel unease when one considers that socialist-realist painters made conscious choices to collaborate with such a regime, very often to the detriment of the non-conformists who refused to go along and paid for their stubbornness with their lives. Those who cringe upon viewing socialist-realist paintings may be excused: their doubts are no different from those of Israelis who cannot listen to Richard Wagner’s music, or Germans who refuse to consider Adolf Hitler’s watercolors as art.
And yet it’s equally hard not to conclude that socialist realism is a legitimate form of realism, and that many of the works produced by socialist realists were of high artistic quality, possessing a variety of laudable formalistic qualities on the one hand and being bereft of all too obvious propaganda on the other. Indeed, the distinction between art and propaganda is at best overdrawn and at worst false. Artists have historically promoted the cause of the state, the church, or the rich, being more than happy to draw hefty honoraria from institutions and individuals with morally dubious qualities. The bottom line is that art can be propaganda and propaganda can be art. Moreover, the fact that artists themselves are often odious does not detract from the quality of their work. Few would suggest that T.S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism or Ezra Pound’s fascism or Mykola Khvylovy’s Bolshevism or Ernst Jünger’s proto-Nazism disqualifies these men from the status of great poets or writers.
I'm not sure. For a start T.S. Eliot's anti-Semitism was in no way relevant to his poetry: he had his reputation firmly established before his (relatively mild) anti-Semitic views became known. Did it matter? Well yes, it did to our understanding of the man; but not to his reputation as a great poet. Ezra Pound's case is a little more complicated in that his fascist sympathies were a significant part of his later life, and Wagner is probably the furthest along that line: producing great art despite holding repulsive opinions. But then opera is not essentially an anti-Semitic art-form, obviously. Nor is poetry. With Socialist Realism we're talking about an approach to art that defines itself in terms of its aims: to glorify the achievements and to promote the goals of socialism and communism. As such it's compromised right from the start. It's propaganda disguised as art.
The picture chosen to illustrate the Ukrainian Exhibition is pleasant enough:
It's not really what comes to mind though when we think of Socialist Realism. It's only with the knowledge that this is Ukraine, presumably somewhere around the time of the Holomodor, that we appreciate the grotesque deception that we're confronted with here; the portrayal of happy well-fed peasants at a time of mass starvation.
I'm reminded of a 1934 photograph by Georgii Petrusov (can't find it online) of peasants eating lunch in a field in Ukraine - an image of a rural cornucopia - that I found in a book called Propaganda and Dreams. I wrote about it here. The book looked at Thirties photography in the USA and the Soviet Union, and argued that there was an equivalence, in that in both cases photographers were using their art as propaganda: in the former as part of the Farm Security Administration's efforts to document and publicise the effects of the dust-bowl in Depression-era America, and in the latter to hide the effects of the Soviet agricultural collectivisation policies which were causing widespread famine. The argument - fatuous in my view - was that the two cases were comparable, because the photographers in both situations were using photographs to convey a message. To conflate the superb documentary photography of the likes of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange with the crass lies used to cover up Stalin's murderous repression takes a particular but all-too-common type of academic mentality.
So, no, I disagree that "the distinction between art and propaganda is at best overdrawn and at worst false". It's a vital distinction - and Socialist Realism falls the wrong side. Some examples may be - undoubtedly were - technically accomplished, but that's not the same as being great art.
Leni Riefenstahl? Well yes, she's perhaps the most difficult case. Art or propaganda? But the fact that we can argue about it, and that it matters, surely proves the importance of the distinction.