Interview for Description of the Lie.
ALWAYS UNDER CONSTRUCTION
There is a tension between the underlying thrust of works related to the Bauhaus, like those of Kandinsky, Klee, and Mondrian (aesthetic productions that bend art to the purposes of enhancing life); and the the revolutionary thrust of works that seek to join the revolution in art with the revolution in politics represented by the idealistic phase of communism under Lenin in the U.S.S.R. Roughly the complicated history of this mix of aesthetic and social or political impulses might be stated in this way:
In the West, the collaborative spirit of the Bauhaus led to the application of modern abstraction to the design of furniture, fabrics, and buildings in the "International Style." Central also to the emergence of the modern style in architecture is the feeling for machines described in the Futurism page on this site and the images of power drawn from the American industrial landscape. For the latter see images by Feininger, Demuth and Sheeler, as well as photographs by Edward Steichen, among others. Kurt Schwitter's attraction to both Dada and the "der Stil" (a movement in Holland similar in spirit to the Bauhaus) is indicative of this mix of forces. Schwitters was, in fact, employed by the graphic design department of Pelikan, a manufacturer of inks, and brings both his appreciation of draftsmanship and dada to his commercial designs.
In Russia, the proposition that the purpose of art was to enhance
the quality of life, bringing aesthetics to a practical level, came under
attack as an anti-revolutionary celebration of a bourgeoisie privilege.
The call for "art in the service of the revolution" produced an exciting
array of Constructivist works, including agitprop and other display technologies.
With the passing of Lenin, the influence of Stalin led to a repression
of the abstract qualities of Constructivism in art and a new push toward
realism, one that can be observed in the poster art of a figure like Gustav
Klutsis. Many Russian Constructivists joined their Bauhaus colleagues in
Germany as a result of this direct pressure to produce mass propaganda.
In turn, with the emergence of Hitler in Germany, Constructivists were
labeled as degenerate. Many went into exile, first going to other European
cultural centers then emigrating to the U.S.A.
The tension between art and politics is best described by Walter Benjamin in his "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Production" [see excerpt]. Benjamin associates the use of art for purely political purposes with Fascism (not the emerging totalitarianism in Russia). He sees the artist as a revolutionary employing visual modes of inquiry to make visual culture legible. His theory remains open to the politicization of art, shrinks from the aesthetification of political or market forces, and offers a counter-position to what might be called the counter-revolutionary stance of "high" art. This stance, often associated with Picasso, in the thought of some art critics like Clement Greenberg [see excerpt], attributes to the aesthetic object a life or value of its own in a sphere that is removed from or above the sphere of daily life. Picasso himself undercuts an attempt to associate his work with a counter-revolutionary position when he states that "artists do not decorate apartments. They fight as guerillas." After WW II, Picasso would join the Communist party himself.