This issue of V–A–C Sreda online magazine, produced in collaboration with “The Vaults” Centre for Artistic Production, publishes a text by Tatiana Kruglova, PhD, that examines the ideas of Boris Arvatov, an important theorist of Russian avant-garde productionist art, whose collected works were published by V–A–C Press in July 2023.
In this essay, Kruglova reconsiders the ideas of the leftist avant-garde, which consisted in a complete union of art and technology on the one hand, and in a decisive break with bourgeois art, far from the real political and social problems of society, on the other. Kruglova turns to Boris Arvatov’s report “Art and Production” (1923) to understand why the then-radical plan to integrate art into large-scale industrial production turned out not to be utopian, but rather one of the most promising courses of development in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Report presented at the Central Club of the Moscow Proletkult named after M. I. Kalinin
Comrade Arvatov (speaker):
Two or three years ago, it was necessary for advocates for the entry of art into industry to explain that art can be connected with industrial production, that art is not solely the painting of pictures. Nowadays, there is no longer a need to prove to this point. I will therefore examine a different question, specifically, the question of the ways in which artistic creation can be connected with machine production processes.
This is firstly a problem of technology, and a problem of methods secondarily. A struggle is presently in full swing around these problems.
Technology. One finds two main groups around this subject: 1) advocates of artisanal art and 2) advocates of industrial art. Representatives of the first group assert that artisanal production was always closely bound to artistic creation, and that even today artisanal art has not died out. The artist, in their opinion, can create only when he is free, he cannot invent where the artistic process has been subjugated to a machine. Only that branch of production that is individualistic can be used, and that branch of production is the artisanal industry. The artist cannot make parts of things, he must organise a thing in its entirety, and this is precisely the kind of organiser that an artisan is. Advocates of artisanal artistic production point to the All-Russian Exhibition of Artistic Production that is currently open as evidence for the fact that artisanal art is growing and developing. They also point to the fact that the artisanal industry is a highly profitable source of exports for the Russian economy, given that it is these export goods that have significant sales abroad.
Let us take stock of what we have to do with here.
1. Representatives of the group that defends the artisanal industry are representatives of the old artistic generations (Wanderers, Allies, Stroganovites)—people, undoubtedly, with a bourgeois ideology. Bourgeois art is, of course, individualistic, and it does not occur to the practitioners of such art that an artist might work un-individually. They give all possible support to the idea of the independence of artistic creation, to the art of “freedom,” and assert that art can only be drawn out of artisanal production.
2. The trajectory of the future development of production, undoubtedly, lies on the path of industrial production. If all life (everyday life) is to be founded on industry, yet we lead art towards artisanal production, then, by the same token, art will not enter into everyday life. The artisanal industry, sooner or later, will die out, it is doomed to perish. The support of artisanal production, from this point of view, is a reactionary act (it supports old forms of production).
3. As regards the recognition of the artisanal industry as being an export item of great importance for the RSFSR, it is necessary to keep in mind that long-term use of this export good is doomed failure. The artisanal industry is an act of individual creation, it is not mass production, its yield of export items cannot be significant. We had old reserves, canned goods. These reserves can be gathered, and are being gathered, but the artisanal industry will not produce a significant influx of goods in the future, and the reserves will have been exhausted.
4. Artisanal goods are exported as luxury goods. To rely on buyers from the middle working classes, peasants, the middle and lower bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie is impossible—they are not going to buy items they do not need. Demand for our artisanal wares exists abroad among the big bourgeoisie, and this demand is founded, in the first place, on an interest in the products of our artisanal industry as rarities. It is the same as what a Papuan feather is for us—exotica, nothing more.
5. Any lower culture is characterised by individualisation, by isolation from all systems of world culture. Our artisanal industry has precisely this character. If one goes to an art-industry exhibition, the main impression one comes away with is of the presence in our artisanal products of national-patriotic spirit and local style, of precisely what was cultivated by the tsarist government. This ideologically organised tsarist rule, and this kind of art is counter-revolutionary in a proletarian government.
6. The are no artistic achievements at the exhibition. All works are templates, the originals of which were created 150 or 200 years ago. The development of art can take place only with the development of technology. One can understand, then, why there has been no development in the artisanal industry. After the October Revolution, urban artists poured into artisanal production. As a result, we have Cubist plates, Impressionist fabrics. This means that artisanal production, having lost its impetus to development, has begun to reproduce the forms of traditional urban art.
I hope that the question of the future fate of the artisanal artistic industry will not arise here again.
At present, one can talk only of the entry of art into large-scale industrial production. And here the question is one of methods, and two positions are beginning to take shape. One is put forward by advocates of applied arts, the other by defenders of artistic engineering.
The advocates of applied arts argue that if production is organised according to utilitarian expediency, the artist ought not to organise technology, but create beauty. The artist ought to “impart” beautiful forms to things, an artist ought to take a finished product and decorate it outwardly.
Applied arts drag on from the period of market capitalism. Artists prepared items of luxury and ceased serving the wider masses. Artists worked for the magnates of capital. They thought not of the purpose for which a thing was made, but about how it would look. As a result—violence against material, the un-utilitarian production of things. Work began on expensive materials, the production process perverted itself. Such objects as plates, for example, and chairs, were transformed into art for art’s sake (artistic plates hang on walls while people eat from ordinary ones).
Not long ago, I was in Ivanovo-Voznesensk at the Kuvaev calico-printing factory. I observed a striking phenomenon: all the processing takes place according to the instructions of the colour-engineer. But what about the sample drawings? There are hundreds of drawings in lockers. They are selected and sent to the drawing department so that “something of this kind” can be made there.
This is one example. There are thousands of such examples. Almost everywhere, one finds an orientation towards the taste of the petty bourgeoisie. It cannot fail to be recognised that our production is organised by the conservative consciousness of the RSFSR. The artist enters production without studying that production. He imposes an individualistic perspective on a public matter.
Applied art is simply pure art. Form exists independently of technologically organised material. Defenders of artistic engineering take the opposite point of view. The artist must rise to the level of high industry. But what does this mean? It means being able to organise a process in its entirety, it means becoming an engineer, understanding production in terms of the development of production itself.
What is “art [iskusstvo]”? The root of the word is “skilful [iskusnyy].” In every field, the artist does “better.” He makes things of quality. Up until now, these abilities were manifested in an individualistic way. Our task is to make the production process in its entirety of high quality.
Curiously, when the question of the necessity of the artist studying economics is raised, engineers ask the opposite question: why should engineers not be trained in art? The main shortcoming of this point of view is that contemporary art has nothing to teach an engineer. Until the artist himself is able to reorganise his creation, he can be of no use in production. We need a cadre of artists who have learned to know material in its expedient organisation. It is necessary for the artist to take the socio-technical perspective.
The significance of the representatives of urban (city) art of the last period lies in the fact that these artists have refused to make representative compositions. They began to construct, occupied themselves with the organisation of material. Though why all these “things”—constructions of glass, wood, wire, and other materials? True, they are all aesthetic things, they are not needed, yet all the same, this transition is of great significance. The artists attempted to process material, they rejected the creation of illusory things, and the next step for this progressive group of constructivists was the rejection of non-objective constructions. It is two years now that these artists have not done non-objective things. Tatlin worked in the metal-working industry. Rodchenko and Lavinsky—in the printing industry. OBMOKhU—in textile production. Popova, Stepanova—in the theatre.
It is deeply saddening that today’s production is feebly developed. Something might all the same be done. One machine, for example, in the twenty-machine Kuvaev factory might be set aside for experimental work. This kind of trial could be carried out in other areas. Yet in fact this kind of work cannot be put in place, as both from the side of the Communist party, and from the side of the state trade unions, one meets with indifference to this matter.
What, then, can be done now? The liquidation of the old bourgeois aesthetic, the introduction of elements of expediency. The revolutionising of new products within the bounds of the possible (depending on the market). Experiments must be carried out, and this will not reflect on the economic condition of the market. These tasks must be set and solved in the RSFSR.
Much has been written in the world about the avant-garde, about their artistic innovations, and about the biographies of its authors, though for reasons that are well-known, academic and social attention to the phenomenon first arose in the West, as until the very end of the Soviet period studying the avant-garde—even the national one—was impossible. But beginning from the end of the twentieth century, a rapid return of the avant-garde into world and Russian culture has been taking place. The Soviet avant-garde occupies a special space in this flow. When in 1917 the whole world celebrated the centenary of the October Revolution, the social and political meaning of which continues to be debated to this day, much attention was given to leftist revolutionary art, the aesthetic significance of which seemed undeniable. For this reason, 2017 was marked by a surge of academic publications, exhibitions, and conferences that sought to understand the uniqueness of this phenomenon and its global historical significance. The legacy of Boris Arvatov, however, fared far less fortunately than those of authors close to him—authors such as Alexey Gan, Vladimir Tatlin, and Alexander Rodchenko. The art historian and anthropologist Serguei Oushakine’s three-volume The Formal Method: An Anthology of Russian Modernism, for example, republished articles by a large circle of intellectuals, artists, and directors of the 1910s and 1920s. Commentaries by leading contemporary specialists accompanied their ideas, yet there were no articles by Boris Arvatov in the edition, nor any contemporary reflections on his work.
It goes without saying that the density of intellectual and aesthetic ideas in the period running from the 1910s right to the beginning of the 1930s in Soviet Russia was incredible. There were so many new ideas that even simply to describe them, let alone assess them, would be a decades-long task. Today, when attentive comparative studies with other national versions are carried out, far from all the ideas of the Soviet avant-garde look absolutely original, but in culture it often happens that prototypes of change are in the spirit of the age and similar phenomena arise in parallel. And this cannot be explained by simple borrowing. This was the case, for example, with the Russian and Italian Futurists. But everything that relates to “productionism”—a movement within the Russian leftist avant-garde of which Boris Arvatov was one of the brightest ideologists—belongs to what was least trivial and most original .
The Soviet avant-garde has become a fashionable topic in public artistic and intellectual spheres, and this is often harmful to an understanding of its heritage. Clichés form, passing from one exhibition prospectus or publication to another. The most commonly encountered stereotype holds that the utopianism of the leftist avant-garde prevented it from being able to translate a single one of its ideas into a reproducible lifestyle, work, or consumption practice. The common basis of all leftist theories and projects was the slogan “Art—in Life,” which eloquently and succinctly expressed the connection between the social, technological, anthropological, and aesthetic revolutions. All leftist theorists of art were united in their common concept of a strategy of emotional influence on the masses that was aptly termed “life-building.” Their ideas have been interpreted as incredible, fantastical, and utterly impractical, especially against the background of a disintegrating historical and social fabric. The contradictions between the simplified, popular characterisation of “life-building,” and the ideologically-founded principle—which was absolutely opposed to everything speculative and “idealistically-romantic,” and the absence of the possibility of its realisation would seem quite obvious to those who lived in different historical times. The avant-gardists acquired the label of “dreamers,” and their historic loss came to be seen as the logical consequence of mad ideas. The ideas themselves have elicited sympathy as games of the mind explainable within the context of revolutionary illusions and dreams but utterly impracticable in real life. The conclusion reached by this reasoning unavoidably appeared as a sentencing: “productionism” must remain in its time as yet another symptom of the failed revolutionary project that was logically doomed to defeat. The situation is also not saved by the habit of qualifying “failed” ideas in history as having been “untimely” and “ahead of their time,” and therefore “not understood.” Discussion of the utopianism of the leftist avant-garde misrepresents the origins of its historical defeat, and the assessment of utopia as a strictly negative moment in intellectual creation should be reconsidered (see, for example, the theory of concrete utopia by the German philosopher Ernst Bloch).
The texts of Boris Arvatov can help us to move beyond clichés of utopianism. In his statements, he appears as a precise and impartial diagnostician of the state of his cultural context—he provided information, and not just ideology. Leftist intellectuals saw things in their true light. Their diagnosis of the existing order of things in the field of art of the period of modernisation was correct. The majority of authors writing about the leftist avant-garde draw attention to its ideological and social programme, and the use of the epithet “proletarian” in relation to art muddles their academic focus. But Arvatov’s constant criticism of traditional painting was not motivated not by a desire to clear the field for proletarian art, to get rid of competitors, or to evaluate easel paintings as purely bourgeois art. Rather, by Arvatov’s logic, traditional art was, more than anything else, inadequate to the spirit of technological civilisation.
Arvatov often engaged in polemics with the defenders of the artisanal industry, with those who considered precisely this kind of production to be an effective means of developing the creativity of the masses. But the artisanal artistic industry was in fact no different from any other type of traditional activity, and reproduced the same signs: individualism, singularity, beauty, intricacy. Industrial production, technology, machines had great potential for anthropological change in comparison with artisanal unions. The dominance of traditional painting and artisanal artistic production in the cultural field in no way enabled mass creativity and consumption. The principles of democratic order in this situation did not cohere with the order of things in the field. Achieving an increase in artistic products of quality, available to a number of consumers that was constantly growing in the context of the cultural revolution was practically impossible. Only a consideration of the technological factor would enable an understanding of the problem of the stratification of art into art for the elite and art for the masses.
The German philosopher and cultural theorist Walter Benjamin was the first to understand this in his studies of the new types of art—film, photography—that were based on methods of industrial production. Benjamin showed unlimited reproduction to be in no way related to a decrease in artistic quality and or to a liquidation of authorial genius. And, in the future, all those who dealt with the nature of cinema would deepen Benjamin’s original thesis, showing that through technological instruments, a new artistic reality and language arise, leading to serious anthropological change.
Unfortunately, for a wide circle of people involved in the promotion of contemporary art, the organisation of artistic events, as well as for art historians and art critics, technology, production, and industry continue, to this day, to be seen as kinds of optional appendages to the highly vague concept of the “spiritual nature of art.” Technology, in the best case scenario, is treated as a kind of translator which is indispensable in the contemporary cultural economy and which must be borne as a necessary evil, in the same way we bear advertisement. The discovery of the avant-gardist-productionists is closely related to the later discovery of the Canadian cultural historian Marshall McLuhan—the medium is the message. Arvatov and those who thought along similar lines to him did not, of course, make use of the concept of “media,” but if we replace this term with “industrial production,” we get a highly non-trivial result and once again find ourselves face to face with the fact that in the cultural field everything is related and that one unexpectedly finds allies and common ground where one least expects it.
The discourse of the economic rationality of art set out by Arvatov is relevant and utterly un-utopic. Art and the market, art and money—these are eternally painful themes, from which aesthetes and art historians run from as from fire or plague. The art historical community imposes a division of labour: everything that relates to the nature of art is sacred, and for this reason set aside somewhere beyond the reach of the profane utilitarian economic logic of expediency. The romantic model of the relationships between the artist, the dealer, and the consumer persists to this day: the artist can create masterpieces only in a state of complete disregard for the demands of the public and the market. This model has more than once been disproved by philosophic and sociological deconstruction, beginning with the Frankfurt School and the historical sociology of the French philosopher and ethnologist Pierre Bourdieu. But the analysis revealing the true genealogy of the romantic model of autonomous art and its origins in bourgeois economics has not yet been assimilated. Artistic ideas and formal innovations exist in public consciousness independently, circulating somewhere in the circles of a select minority and entirely within “spiritual culture,” whereas art for the majority is relegated to an enclave of the cheap, the kitsch, and the creatively infertile, claiming interest only fro sociologists of culture.
Arvatov takes as his evidentiary basis the true economic state of the masses—their ability and desire to consume art, to pay for it. It is important to note that the problem posed by the productionists—the actual, rather than the declarative democratisation of art—has yet to be truly resolved in the twenty-first century. Everything that is written and discussed in artistic institutions is fairly feeble and often little more than a search for “effective marketing.”
Of particular interest is the fifth point of Arvatov’s report on “Art and Production,” which discusses the artisanal industry’s connection with national-patriotic spirit and local style. Arvatov accurately diagnoses a trend that would ultimately prevail in Stalinist cultural politics of the 1930s and 1940s, in which an imperial orientation relied on the support of everything “of the soil”: the local, regional, and the national became constituent elements in a new, synthetic Soviet culture. As we know, the slogan “Technology decides everything” was changed at the beginning of the 1930s to another: “Cadres decide everything.” The journey down the complex and difficult path of making the development of production the foundation for a fair socialist order would be abandoned. The source of development was now seen in an endless squandering of human resources, and here ideological means of influence on people were needed. Arvatov felt in this, then only vaguely, a neo-traditionalistic turn, the risk of the substitution of the resources of art. He saw the foundational generators of the emancipation of creativity as being technology, new economic relations, and the relevant development of industrial culture. It was production, fused with artistic creation, that would give rise to an unprecedented progress adequate to the era, it would be founded on universal societal forces. And here Arvatov fell upon a highly vulnerable place in cultural politics, not only for the times in which he lived, but for those to come. The waves of cultural trends that replaced one another over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries revealed a pattern: the predominance of national-patriotic discourse can be interpreted as symptomatic of a turn to the past, of a restorational trend. In and of itself, interest in the national past contains nothing hindering to progress, so long as this interest does not divert attention from real social (economic and political) problems that can be resolved only through modern means (first of all, through technology—in the widest sense of the word) and onto some speculatively interpreted “achievements of the past.”
It is necessary to clearly define the attitude to technology and industrial production among the leftist avant-gardists as a whole. It is not quite correct to see the productionists as having made a cult of technology, neglecting factors of culture, especially its higher spheres. Yes, their texts are full of words like “utilitarian,” “useful,” “functional,” “material,” and “expedient.” And it was precisely for this reason that they could not become adepts of the new religion, worshippers of the sacred industrial age, and it is in this, to my mind, that their principal difference from their contemporaries, the German anthropologists, lies. Reread and compare Arvatov’s rhetoric, its sober style of argumentation, with the German writer Ernst Yunger’s essay “Worker,” in which the worker is represented not as a social class but rather as the archetype of a new era, the master over the forces of material elements, a superhuman. This is no longer social physics, as it is in the works of the Russian productionists, but a new metaphysics. And the Worker in this Universe is master over not just machines, but all of human nature, forming it in his image and likeness. In a certain sense, such an interpretation corresponds more to the socialist realism of the Stalinist period—suffice to recall the monument of the Soviet sculptor Vera Ignatievna Mukhina Worker and Collective Farm Girl. One can assert with certainty that this was not how Arvatov and those of like-mind envisioned productionist art, though Mukhina did use the most advanced technologies and her own inventions.
Let us turn to the credo of the productionists: “The development of art can take place only with the development of technology.” However much we might try to demote technological progress to a secondary role and bring “spiritual searching” to the centre, we fall into the trap of a false dilemma. Artisanal production only copies the forms of traditional art: Suprematist plates and Impressionist fabrics are palliatives. The fact that propagandistic images in the spirit of Suprematism are used to decorate everyday objects instead of flowers or traditional patterns does not change the function of those objects. We do not get new objects in a cardinally different sense, and this means we do not get new anthropological content either. Arvatov rightly criticises the false opposition between utilitarian expediency and beauty, and would be proved correct with hindsight: fairly soon all the discoveries of the avant-gardists would be used in the cultural politics of the 1930s as formalisations of ideological politics. What the productionists were most afraid of—that the role of art would be reduced to the embellishment of the old order without the fundamental alteration of that order—took place, and not without the expropriation of the formal discoveries of the avant-garde. From one article to another, Arvatov repeats that without a production concept all the efforts of art in artistic industry would amount to nothing but a superficial layer, a masking, on the one hand, of the low-quality of mass-produced goods, and a justification, on the other, of the creation of unique luxury goods. Precisely such a division of goods into two flows took place in the USSR, and was supported by governmental politics (regional centres of folk trade worked according to this logic)—this division persisted for many decades, and played no role whatever in the betterment of everyday life or in the renewal of production.
More penetratingly and soberly than many of his like-minded thinkers, Boris Arvatov understood the relationship between the development of forms of art and the radical transformation of forms of social existence. Drawing on the example of the fate of traditional art, Arvatov explained how its birth and historical course had depended on the bourgeois economy. Socialist economics were interpreted by the productionists as the total transition to collective production and consumption. Accordingly, “Arvatov saw the future of art in the creation and assimilation of a universal culture by all members of society, proportionally to their craft and creative skill”. Art was to be realised directly in everyday life and production. It may have seemed that these tasks were set and solved by design—a product of the industrial age that most effectively manifested itself in institutions such as Bauhaus. In the USSR, as is well known, design was replaced by the concept of “technological aesthetic” and, in this Soviet variant, was unable to resolve the contradiction between high aesthetic quality and mass production that would have guaranteed the availability of high-quality modern things to the world. Arvatov considered design to fully correspond neither to the revolutionary renewal of art nor to social progress. He had a highly sceptical attitude to the reduction of the concept of productionist art to design. And the history of Western design would show him to have been correct in many of his forebodings.
Arvatov saw the main task of the post-revolutionary situation to lie in the creation of a form of collaboration of art and society in which absolute creative freedom would be preserved, giving a guarantee of “liberation from totalising ideological interception or commercial subordination”. And here it seems is where we find grounds for criticism of a utopian concept. In contemporary discussions of the freedom and dependence of art, we very often hear as a conclusion that there can be no freedom as the artist must always chose whether to depend on the customer or on the market. This conclusion demonstrates the intellectual helplessness of participants in the artistic process and their readiness to surrender to the will of circumstances, or, in other words, their readiness to submit to illusion, enshrined in a formula that is always close at hand: ideological and commercial power cannot be overcome, but one can be cunning, use guile, search for roundabout routes or compromises. The avant-gardists heard all this repeatedly and perfectly understood the historical circumstances of any stage in the development of art. But they took a different initial position. This position was founded on their clear vision that in the twentieth century, through rapid technological progress, life would continuously change and become more complex. For this reason, they adopted a strategy not of adapting to circumstances, but of active involvement, of the invention of methods and technologies as yet unused in artistic practice. In this way, they created a new field of art, one that was a step ahead of the rules of their times, putting in place a new order. The problem of freedom being a search for the optimal choice between different dependencies became irrelevant. In this sense, the formulas constantly repeated by Arvatov: “The fetishism of aesthetic materials must be exterminated”; “The fetishism of aesthetic methods and tasks must be exterminated”; “The fetishism of aesthetic tools must be exterminated” remain relevant to this day. The fundamental intuition of the artist and intellectual now lay in understanding that the changing borders and frames of art did not depend exclusively on art itself. And the purpose of the life of an artist became to catching the generator of these changes of borders and taking control of them. Then it was industrial forms, now it is virtual space, among other things. “Any idea can be agitated for in any form”; “Only flexible forms, entering into life, can be acceptable.”
All the history of the artistic innovations of the twentieth century points to the truth of the intuitions of the productionists. Books have now been written about the influence, for example, of radio on the rock music boom, about electronic sound and the birth of new musical material, about the radical transformations in compositions as a consequence of the composition of music on synthesisers and, later, with the help of digital programmes. The forms of art appearing at a striking speed from the interaction of the bio-geo-cyber spheres (one could add anything that can be written with a hyphen to this list) with artistic imagination and aesthetic erudition no longer amaze anyone. That which was scornfully qualified as utopian turned out, on the contrary, to have been one of the must forward-looking trends in the development of art.
And it is not just the entirely sober and pragmatic expectations of the union of art and technology that are coming true, but those of a social means of producing and consuming art. Contemporary collectivity is, of course, not quite the one that was dreamt of in the 1920s in the context of the socialist project, but all the same, we find it appearing everywhere in the most diverse versions—from the formats of biennale projects, to immersive and interactive spectacles and expositions, to the creation of neural network literary projects.
See further in English:
 Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. London: Penguin, 2008.
 Jünger, Ernst. The Worker: Dominion and Form, Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2017.
For further reading in Russian, please see the Russian-language version of this article here.