“The production of souls is more important than the production of tanks. And therefore, I raise my glass to you, writers: the engineers of the human soul.”
Joseph Stalin, 1932
Author: Ermir Hoxha
At first glance, the art of socialist realism was euphoric, optimistic, and beautiful. Established in communist Albania during the Cold War as part of a state platform, it was the official image of communist ideology, from the late 1950s until the fall of the regime in 1991. As such, it would essentially preach a “new world”, rising above the ruins of the old one: a “new world” without exploitation, no exploited people and no exploiters, where no social classes existed and where the income was shared equally among all. Built as an aesthetic method, socialist realism today remains the material, tangible evidence of an immaterial dream and the artistic vision of another World almost impossible to reach.
Its official history is now known to everyone. Socialist realism developed after the October Revolution in Russia (1917), more precisely with Stalin’s rise to power, when the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia, founded in May 1922, encouraged the realistic approach to the avant-garde. In 1934, at the First Congress of Soviet Writers, Andrei Zhdanov proposed that socialist realism be the only official art, whereas the “soul engineers,” as Stalin called these artists, were tasked with the ideological transformation and education of workers in the spirit of socialism. On its origin, the critic Boris Groys states, “socialist realism was not created by the masses but was formulated in their name by well-educated and experienced elites who had assimilated the experience of the avant-garde and been brought to socialist realism by the internal logic of the avant-garde method itself, which had nothing to do with the actual tastes and demands of the masses.”
The “engineers of the human soul” – the writers, painters, sculptors, filmmakers and artists of any format – were charged with the task of ideological transformation and the “spiritual nourishment of the masses.” They were to create for the state in the forms and means which the state judged to be appropriate; this ideological transformation had to build itself upon definite forms and themes in realistic (understandable) ways as it addressed the proletariat. At the 1934 congress, artists were required to create works that were:
1. Proletarian: art relevant and understandable to the workers,
2. Typical: depicting scenes from the people’s daily lives,
3. Realistic: the image should be representational,
4. Partisan: supporting the objectives of the state and the party.
In the visual art of this period, all this is easily categorized into specific topics, such as the leader’s portrait, the young person, historical themes, socialist life, or the industrial landscape. These themes were materialized in thousands of large canvases, billboards, posters, and monuments under the strict scrutiny of the propaganda machine throughout the countries of the Soviet orbit. It was understood that while in that period the specified conditions determined the themes of artistic expression, the realistic method in presenting the image was tightly intertwined with an extreme ideology, and often very grotesque works of art were a means of illustrative propaganda.
Igor Golomstock, one of the most important scholars of socialist realism, offers a personal view of the totalitarian state structure, defining it as a “megamachine” – a structure formed by several living, subdued, or charismatic human elements, each having a defined role, which, with enforced mass organization, makes it possible to accomplish grandiose projects. This mega-machine is the epicenter and pillar of a totalitarian regime, without which no leader would have been able to build the myth (the cult of personality) and the firm belief of the people in him.
Lewis Mumford, another prominent researcher on the phenomenon, explains that the structure of the mega-machine requires the people’s blind faith in the leader and functions through a bureaucratic entourage dealing with the division and organization of labor by mobilizing large numbers of people, materials, and measures for the realization of public and private works that guaranteed the functioning, consolidation, and expansion of the power itself. This structure was similar (and often the same) for all kinds of totalitarian regimes. In this way and under meticulous guidance, the artists, writers, and filmmakers who described themselves as important gears in this mega-machine had to empower it to achieve its goal: the absolute domination of the individual’s conscious and will.
Many artists who were “guilty” of not conforming to the “technique” or who were responsible for any deviation from the party line were considered deviants, and as such, they were denied the right to practice the profession, were persecuted, or were forced to “return” to the working-class front, seeking and regaining the needed inspiration from the workers and commoners. Many others suffered from the jealousy of power-holders or fell victim to various state-sponsored repression campaigns, ending up in prisons or internment camps.
Writers, architects, filmmakers, painters, and so on, had the duty to follow or build stereotypes and clichés. Using the language of art, they sought to create a new truth that, in the eyes of the people, appeared purely subjective; but on the whole, this new truth was justified by the desire to create an ideal for the new life and the new person. With an easily ascertainable enthusiasm and illuminated by a “personal sun,” those they portrayed lived in a parallel reality, a “socialist paradise” where exhaustion and poverty, internment camps, security agents, and spies magically disappeared. They disappeared because in the socialist paradise, all places were occupied by the heroes of modern times; they were occupied by triumphant heroes, by collective workers, teachers, miners and engineers; they were occupied by workers (the builders of socialism) or soldiers (its defenders). Indeed, this “earthly paradise” was experienced only as an image, one that was scattered everywhere as it strived to illustrate a socialist reality. Similarly, to a giant scene, the characters laugh and laugh endlessly, as in a race of happiness, beyond the possible, beyond the imaginable.
Though in most cases socialist realist paintings were often unbelievable even to the artists themselves, they were presented not as an exaggeration of reality but as life in the immediate future. So, this required that they be seen as the idealistic version of things, which probably had not come into full form, but were undoubtedly nearby, because in the megamachine optics, art offers the viewer not only what is to be seen but also what is to be believed. “The composition of images was exhausted in the view and application to the faith category: I believe what I see. The truth is what I am told to see; that is more authentic than what is revealed to me daily in the everyday life. ”Writers, architects, filmmakers, painters, and so on, had the duty to follow or build stereotypes and clichés. Using the language of art, they sought to create a new truth that, in the eyes of the people, appeared purely subjective; but on the whole, this new truth was justified by the desire to create an ideal for the new life and the new person. With an easily ascertainable enthusiasm and illuminated by a “personal sun,” those they portrayed lived in a parallel reality, a “socialist paradise” where exhaustion and poverty, internment camps, security agents, and spies magically disappeared. They disappeared because in the socialist paradise, all places were occupied by the heroes of modern times; they were occupied by triumphant heroes, by collective workers, teachers, miners and engineers; they were occupied by workers (the builders of socialism) or soldiers (its defenders). Indeed, this “earthly paradise” was experienced only as an image, one that was scattered everywhere as it strived to illustrate a socialist reality. Similarly, to a giant scene, the characters laugh and laugh endlessly, as in a race of happiness, beyond the possible, beyond the imaginable.
In the socialist realist paintings depicting everyday life, the lucky figures dine at crowded tables, live in trendy apartments, enjoy their holiday homes, and stroll happily in fertile fields. That is because socialism, for them, is a tangible reality. It is the reality they fought for in the past and enjoy in the present in all its forms. It is the reality that the communist revolution brought along with the modernization of life: the emancipation of the society and the industrialization of the economy. It is the culmination of all the sacrifices. It is at this stage that the proletariat can finally enjoy the fruits of the revolution. It is the stage of enjoying the triumph, after overthrowing the exploiters, redistributing wealth, fighting over the waste of the past, industrializing the country, and building socialism. According to Pirettos, it consisted of “transforming the characters into simply functional ones, enabling them to wear specific symbolic and cultural significance, putting above all of them a seductive aura.”
The socialist paradise, this imaginary vision, was essentially merely a substitute for the existential vision preached by the religion. In factual similarity, totalitarian ideologies attempted to replace religion and its spiritual connection with the people. Its key elements, concepts, and identifying symbols, rituals, and the promise of eternal life are replaced by the communist ideology and its corresponding symbols: the leader (the Messiah), the work (the ritual), and the promise of paradise (this time, an earthly one). Art plays a primary role in both of these spiritualities. Art is seen as an illustrator of the “promised land.” The socialist version of paradise is reflected in the portrayal of “daily life” – being with the family, in holiday camps, and workplaces. Much like an advertisement, it shifts in socialist campaigns from country to country, adapting to the reality it finds, while essentially constituting the fulfillment of Marxist “prophecy,” which in its ultimate goal required changing the social order. The image of the “new person” is everywhere and enthusiastically so, for the promised “earthly socialist paradise” has now become a reality, and the “guiding hand” of the party-state, even when not seen, feels ever omnipresent.