Beware the Bad Takes
Surprisingly high Stalin quotient ahead
Twitter’s a weird place. I hang out there mostly to keep up with large gang of friends around the world that I’ve made over the years. It’s also good for keeping up on what’s happening in the world (not that this is an uncomplicated blessing these days). It’s also good for accidentally running into some really weird, dumb ideas, many of which seem to involve art.
I had a weird morning today in that, back to back, I ran into dumb, bad art takes coming first from the political left and then the political right. And I guess I figured that maybe it’s worth digging into them as cautionary tales for the way that people try to use art to push their bad political ideas.
Before I get into this, though, I want to make one thing clear: the fact that I’m pushing back against from things from both the left and the right absolutely does not mean that I’m trying to position myself as a centrist. I’m not; to be a centrist in the United States in 2022 is to live in a fantasy land. I’m coming from a leftist point of view, although I try pretty hard to make it a pragmatic leftist point of view that’s grounded in a good understanding of historical and political realities.
And this is why my blood started boiling when I saw an argument floating around that attempted to use art history to “prove” that Stalin wasn’t the fault of the Russian Revolution. I’ve blocked the people involved (a hair trigger on the block button is *the* key to a sane Twitter experience), but the argument ran something like this:
1. Revolutions always lead to experimental avant-garde art movements and reactionary counterrevolutions always lead to stodgy, traditional romantic art movements.
2. There was an explosion of experimental avant-garde art in Russia after 1917, but it was crushed by Stalin in the 20s and replaced with Stalin-glorifying Socialist Realism.
3. Therefore, by definition, Stalin wasn’t part of the Russian Revolution but was instead his own freestanding reactionary counterrevolution
4. And therefore, by implication, you can’t blame communism for Stalin, or hold him against the concept.
And this is horseshit. It’s absurd on its face; Stalin was a key part of the revolution years before it succeeded. He was a leading Bolshevik way before Trotsky was, for Christ’s sake. Attempting to airbrush him out of the history of the revolution is… well, it’s (amusingly) pretty fucking Stalinist. And while what he did to consolidate and maintain power was consistently awful, he absolutely did not reinstall the previous regime or install a new one; co-opting a revolution is a different thing from countering one.
Of course, the whole stupid argument stands on the slender reed of point 1 up there. And that’s really the main thing I want to point out here: look at how much work that simplified, cherry-picked statement does in setting up the rest of the argument. Art history gets trotted out a lot this way: some classification or “law” gets stated confidently, and then edicts conforming to it are handed down. And the argument flows so quickly that there’s no time to step back and ask things like “but what about the revolutions where artistic movements didn’t happen, and even if there *was* a movement, what other art was happening at the same time?” or “who’s providing these definitions of ‘avant-garde’ and ‘traditional?’”
It’s a cheap, sneaky debating tactic, an attempt to bum-rush the audience by unexpectedly bringing in another discipline that they maybe aren’t as familiar with or at least weren’t expecting here. And it doesn’t just happen with art history, but for whatever reason we seem to get it a lot.
The bad art history argument from the right was a lot simpler and dumber. This one I had the foresight to screenshot, so I can just present it on its own terms:
It may look innocuous on its own, but this is part of a larger flood of similar sentiments moaning about how we’re a fallen culture because we, uh, stopped paining things “realistically.” This is yet another example of the ongoing push from the American far right to present everything after 1900(-ish) as decadent and nontraditional. The responses to this bullshit are many: you could point out that the “modern” art the dude is complaining about is a century old and just happens to be the same type of art that coincidentally bothered a bunch of uninterested, neutral folks in Germany in the 1930s. You could patiently explain that the spread of photography as a technology devalued realism as an end to itself in painting (why go to all that work when you could get a more accurate representation with a machine?) and gave artists an incentive to distinguish themselves by expression rather than technique.
But thinking through the argument from the left above did make me realize that there’s a third option here, which I intend to do every time I run into some fascist dingus crying about how realistic painting is inherently superior to decadent ‘modern’* expressionism: you could point out that if realism is the goal in painting, well then Roses for Stalin is superior to most of the art created in the last century.
*’Modern’ in scare quotes because it’s a complicated word in this context. “Modernist” in art history more accurately means “conforming to a lot of ideas that held sway in the first half(-ish) of the twentieth century” than it does “contemporary,” the way we usually use it. This carries over to “postmodern,” but that’s a bigger kettle of fish.
Where does this leave us, ultimately? I guess about where I usually leave things: watch out for glib political point-making based on art history (or anything else), because it’s almost never that simple.
Right on. Stay safe.
WHILE YOU’RE HERE
I recently started a second newsletter called Pille’s Boutique, and focused entirely on music--both appreciating/analyzing it and making it. If you’re at all into this *gestures upwards*, you might like it, too! If nothing else, there’s a lot less Stalin over there. So far.
OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over.
If you have any thoughts/reactions/what have you about this, I’d love to hear about it, either by email or on Twitter. And if you know anybody who might dig this, please forward it on to them, or send ‘em the signup link! And thanks!