Based on my previous posts, the question came up on how to better prep oneself for the revolutionary mindset if one doesn’t have it. What are people over thirty supposed to do, given that “He who is not a républicain at twenty compels one to doubt the generosity of his heart; but he who, after thirty, persists, compels one to doubt the soundness of his mind.” Republican here, of course, means someone extremely progressive, because the quote comes from 19th century France.
Again, the past can be your mentor.
Imagine the revolution has succeeded. The USA is now the USSA, aka the United Socialists States of America. The UK is the UC, United Communists. The Republic of France is still the Republic of France – it is pretty much a socialist state anyway, except that now the French demand restitution from Italy for the centuries of Gallic oppression and have renamed Caesar salad.
- Half of your friends are crucified by the other half of your friends. The executors sing Lennon’s “Imagine all the people, sharing all the world” while they nail the martyrs to their metaphorical crosses. You are not a butcher and maybe even horrified about the act, but you have to sing along because otherwise, you’ll find yourself on one of the crosses – and you accept it as necessary for the greater good. At least this is what you tell yourself.
- All the prior art is the reactionary opposite of what the new world desires. You have to start hating it.
- The concept of beauty flies out of the history window. When the world is bogged down in evil, the primary artistic task is to fight the darkness, not think of beauty.
- The attention span for the new generation is 8 seconds. Testing your art against this hurdle is easy. Buy a bowl with a goldfish. If the fish doesn’t fixate on your artwork, it’s not good.
- Keep singing.
Do I describe a mind so conflicted it is impossible to fathom? Ivan Vladimirov, a Russian artist, could be your guide to it.
In 1917, when the Bolshevik Revolution upended the country, he turned 47 and was an established artist in battle and war-related genre. He had done four tours with the army, documenting conflicts and wars in the Caucasus, Europe and the Far East.
During the first two years after the Revolution, he was earning his food ration as a police sketch artist, all the while recording the many horrors and occasional joys of communism. Later on, he went on to become a recognised Socialist Realism artist, was awarded the Order of the Red Banner, and even survived Stalin’s purges.
Ivan Vladimirov had stayed away from avant-garde movements that mushroomed after the revolution. A faithful adept of realism, he never made it into art history books. Still, he offers a unique chance to get the feel of the times through his documentary art. We would walk now through the formative years of the first successful socialist revolution, keeping in mind that if only Vladimirov had come up with a new visual language, he might have reached Chagall’s calibre.
Most of these drawings survived because they were taken to the US in the 1920s. In Stalin’s Russia, they would be equal to at least 25 years inside a GULAG camp without the right to communicate. My great-great parents got much more for much less back then.
You may notice that some of the situations have an uncomfortable similarity to what is happening today in developed countries across the globe. If you have ever been interested in the French Revolution of 1793, you’d find similarities too. Not a single revolution promised a reign of terror, but all of them had one.
The official Soviet propaganda presented “the takers”, the avant-garde of the revolutionary masses, determined and noble soldiers. The truth is the Bolsheviks couldn’t stop vandalism and looting that lasted for five days after the Winter Palace fell.
Besides the usual assortment of valuables that one might expect to find in a palace, revolutionary soldiers were inspired by the rumour about the vast royal wine cellars. Having a horde of drunken soldiers around – in case of their victory – was not an option the all-female battalion that guarded the Palace wanted to entertain. A few guards went down with a machine gun and unloaded thousands of rounds into the cellar, destroying all the bottles. Wine started flowing down the rain sewage system and into the Neva River, which delayed the final assault on the Palace for a few hours because revolutionaries scattered to drink wine straight from the ditches. The ruse didn’t prevent the fall of the Palace or the subsequent looting, but the female guards survived disarming and surrender with only three of them gang-raped and only one thrown out of the window. You don’t expect a non-violent revolution, do you?
To curb looting, on the next day after the Interim Government fell, the Bolsheviks issued a decree that guaranteed each Red Guard two bottles of wine daily.
Of course, old symbols had to come down and be replaced with red flags.
The takers of the Winter Palace were vandalising portraits with their bayonets, but burning them was also an option. Symbols of oppression of the working classes had to go.
The Bolsheviks were no fools, though. They didn’t burn everything. Together with the revolutionary masses, they first looted valuables.
And, of course, no successful revolution is possible if dissenters can walk around freely and sow their dissent!
First, they had to be arrested and isolated. But how to identify dissidents if you don’t have their Tweeter or Facebook history at hand? Aha. Arrest all who used to be employed by the powers that fell – military officers, engineers, company directors, police detectives, university professors – the whole lot.
Some of the “has-beens” – especially the “opium for the people” workers or university professors – were put to “constructive” and “useful” labour, supervised, of course, by the Red Guards.
To scare these “has-beens” into submission, half of them had to be executed. And some had to be killed just for the sheer fun of it, and sometimes “some” meant the other half.
And finally, in-between escorting, guarding, and executing the “has-beens”, the Man of Labour could relax.
With the bourgeois kicked from their estates, mansions, flats and theatre boxes, all of their possessions was up for grabs!
Destitute men and women who had had no hope of climbing up the social ladder under the old regime, had now become the elite.
They got the power to take anything and anyone they wanted.
Taking, looting, robbing by people with rifles had become the new normal.
Famine and destitution for the former “ruling” classes and their servants had become the new normal as well.
A new generation was raising its young head – without any respect for the past or present.
So, we just had a leisurely stroll through the Russian Socialist Revolution.
Don’t despair, artists can do well under the direst circumstances.
This is Ivan Vladimirov, at the end of his life – an extremely well-to-do representative of the creative class.
If you want to survive a revolution as an artist and expect future generations to respect your work, you may want to consider expressing yourself along some of the following lines:
- your belief that the new world would eliminate hunger/racism/oil spills/injustice/the boy who bullied you at school
- your disbelief in the above
- your suppressed horror/exaltation at what you see happening around you right now (Bacon’s Pope Innocent is an excellent example of suppression going full boom but remember you are supposed to hate it because it is “old” art)
- your tongue-in-cheek opinion of the new perfectly moral people (the executors)
- your vision of their future (when generation Z hits 80, for instance)
…and don’t forget to think up a new visual language!
I don’t know if I could help, but if I did, drop me a line in the comments )