The Soviet Avant-Garde: Culture, Politics, Aesthetics
What is the role of the cultural avant-garde in a nascent post-revolutionary society? The decades prior to the 1917 Russian Revolution saw profound changes in Russian cultural life, as artists dispensed with traditional materials, practices, and aesthetic criteria in order to give expression, as Susan Buck-Morss has put it, to the “changed anthropology of modern life in forms and rhythms that left the perceptual apparatus of the old world triumphantly behind.” The Revolution channeled the anticipatory imagination of the avant-garde, giving sensuous expression to socialist ideals. The subsequent decade of artistic innovation and cross-fertilization—from the architectural fantasies of Vladimir Tatlin to the filmic innovations of Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, the functional workwear of Varvara Stepanova, and the pedagogical experiments of the VKhUTEMAS faculty—posed questions about aesthetics and politics that would reverberate across the century. Can art anticipate, or even produce, new forms of social consciousness? What is the avant-garde’s relationship to mass culture? What becomes of the avant-garde when it is given official recognition?
In this seminar, we will take up these questions through a critical examination of the cultural objects, aesthetic strategies, and theoretical texts associated with the Russian and Soviet avant-gardes during the first three decades of the 20th century. We will begin by situating works from the pre-revolutionary avant-gardes (including Cubo-Futurism, Zaum, and Suprematism) in the context of transformations in Russian social and political life, and in conversation with contemporaneous movements in Western Europe. We will consider the shifting ideological and institutional status of the arts in the early Soviet state, and ask how artists across the visual, performing, and applied arts—particularly those associated with Constructivism, and its call for art’s entry into everyday life—grappled with the task of finding “communistic expression of material structures.” We will pair close readings of manifestos and artists’s writings with rigorous visual analysis of representative artworks, including those by Kazimir Malevich, El Lissitzky, Vladimir Tatlin, Sergei Eisenstein, and Dziga Vertov. Readings may also include selections by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, and György Lukács.
“The Soviet Avant-Garde: Culture, Politics, Aesthetics” will also run in-person at BISR Central, on Tuesdays, from 6:30-9:30pm EST, starting April 16th. For more information, please visit the course page.
Course ScheduleWednesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
April 17 — May 08, 2024