Did communism unwittingly become a preserver of traditionalism?

August 10, 2009 at 6:40 pm 1 comment

Here is a somewhat off-topic discussion for this blog, but since this deals with art history, aesthetics and culture I suppose this would be an appropriate forum for this.

Today, socialism of Marxist or Stalinist types (not the Social Democracy, which is a mainstream political system in Europe) is viewed as an arcane, failed ideology that eventually gave way to a global free market society (“Capitalist Democracy”, or the American system). Certainly, there are many evils done in the name of socialism or communism, and one should never forget the damages done by the Khmer Rouge or by the Great Cultural Revolution. But in the light of the recent wave of hostilities between the world community and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, it may be a good idea to evaluate how cultures could develop in two respective systems, and if there is anything to be learned from the experiences of communism. After nearly 20 years after the “end of communism,” it may be worth exploring this topic in depth.

As an artist, one of the most important questions is whether arts suffered — and even destroyed — under a communist rule.

Many say yes, that communist regimes routinely suppress artists’ freedom of expression often with gulags and thought reformation camps, and that communist governments are generally averse to the preservation of traditional cultures. On the other hand, capitalist society usually has a constitution that guarantees one’s freedom of speech and expression, and new ideas are valued as the free market stimulates innovation and rewards artists in tangible ways. At least, these are the official American government line of reasoning.

History seems to suggest otherwise.

Many internationally renowned conservatories and companies of music, arts and theatre were based in, and sponsored by the government of, socialist countries until the end of the Cold War. The Soviet Union was known for some of the best ballet companies on earth, while China’s Shanghai Circus and USSR’s Bolshoi Circus were far above the crass “entertainment” (exploitation of animals, “freak” shows, etc.) of American counterparts to truly elevate circus to the level of a high performing art, decades before there was even le Cirque du Soleil. Far from destroying it, socialist countries spared no expense to develop conservatories and art academies to teach traditional classical music and traditional visual arts.

What they were against was the older institution of traditional arts, which often imposed unreasonable barriers for talented common people from learning the arts, and the “masses” from enjoying the arts.

On the other hand, much of the cultural deracination originated not in the communist nations, but in purportedly “progressive” and “democratic” nations and their avant-garde movements. Cubism, Dada and others that defined the modern art in the western Europe and North America in the earlier half of the 20th century were actually seen by the communist parties in the Soviet bloc as being “bourgeois” and as such were rejected. Rather, the Socialist Realism became the mainstay of fine arts in the Eastern bloc (including the “non-aligned” communist countries such as the People’s Republic of China, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Socialist Republic of Vietnam), which took off from the realist art of the Renaissance. While the Socialist Realism rejected both Romanticism and pre-Renaissance art as being too “fluffy” and for belonging only to the upper class (the assumption here was that the common, proletarian masses were not intellectually sophisticated enough to understand anything that is not “real” and “close to everyday life”), it was nonetheless derived from the rajasic aesthetics and has very little of the poisons coming from the type of cultural corruption experienced in the Western bloc during the same time period. This, perhaps, is in part due to the Eastern bloc’s having shielded by the Iron Curtain from the 1960s. One do not hear of hippies or rock-and-drug subcultures in the USSR, even as they infected the farthest reach of the post-WWII American empire including Japan and the Republic of Korea.

Added to this, in general the socialist regimes (albeit selectively and with a propaganda in mind) generously supported arts. They spared no expense in building cultural facilities, recruited and educated the best of the best in various art institutes and conservatories, and truly cultivated and promoted the arts and artists as the pride of the nation. Since neither training nor production had to be bound to the short attention span of the novelty-seeking “market” or be driven by the commercial demands of the bottom-lines and popularity, they could focus on the quality. While one can always point to how the socialist nations engaged in heavy censorship, it was at the time a common practice even in the “capitalist” world. It was not until the late 1980s or 1990s when many Asian “capitalist” and “democratic” countries did finally lift their heavy censorship regimes (especially in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, South Korea and Taiwan). In a “free” society, art falls to the self-censoring effect of “The Market” and whims of non-profit or foundation leadership that finances projects.

Thinking of some of the grandiose works done under a stringently communist world of the Cold War, it would be a lot more difficult to put together similar productions today even in the People’s Republic of China, which is only nominally communist while preserving the police-state aspect of Stalinism. With the rise of consumerism, growth of so-called “individualism” (which in fact isn’t), shorter attention span and increasing personal affluence for some, a production such as the 1965 epic musical “The East is Red” (Dongfang Hong) would be very difficult to put together in today’s China.

While I reserve much of my objections to the excess of communism and many of its harmful aspects, a proper credit must be given to how traditional art forms were unwittingly preserved in the artistic policies of communism. They were mobilized for propaganda purposes, yes. But it is also true that in a capitalist world arts and artistic talents are mobilized for propaganda purposes, too, and only arts that satisfy the needs of the market economics and those who funds art projects would “make it.”

Sidebar: Glimpses into Communist arts


Entry filed under: By Sarah Morrigan.

South Waterfront artist-in-residence to present an assessment of current visual culture Revolution that quite wasn’t: What could have been “radical” vindicates the traditional

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. samnangp  |  August 10, 2009 at 7:38 pm

    Unforunately, the Khmer Rouge had a different line of thinking about “art”. After the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975, the arts were destroyed in Democratic Kampuchea, Singers, actors, artists were amongst the first to be killed in the “cleansing of society” during that period. Recordings, movies, and books were destroyed.

    During a trip to Cuba in the mid-90’s, I was suprised at the amount of “non-socialist” music that filled the air contrasting with the posters/billboards proclaiming the glories of socialism.

    On the issue of DPRK, Kim Jong Il is a great fan of the arts, and particularly the cinema. His 1973 book “On The Art of the Cinema” is available in English (published Pyongyang 1989). In the book he shares his views on life and literature, the purpose of cinema,and how to write, direct and mesh character, plot and music to create a finished film.


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