Kundera

Socialism and Arts: Portrait of an Artist Outlined by Milan Kundera 25 Years Ago

by Giuseppe Raudino (Copyright: Giuseppe Raudino 2007. All rights reserved)

Sabina is a painter. She studied at the Academy of Fine Arts and she lives in Prague until the Sixties. Then she escapes her country and moves to Geneva, to New York and, finally, to California. But Sabina is not a person in flesh and body. She is a character of a novel, and her probable journey from East to West, from Socialism to Capitalism, is told by the Czech writer Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. [1]

Despite her fictional existence, Sabina’s life mirrors the main problems experienced by each free artist who collides with the socialist oppression.

As a matter of fact, we must bear in mind that Kundera wrote this novel in 1982, during the Cold War, while he was already living in Paris as an emigrant. Therefore, feelings and remarks about Sabina have been told by a spectator who observed the defeat of the “hope of Socialism” from the inside, first, and the outside, then. In other words, we may say that Kundera knew very well what kind of problems an artist in a socialist country had to deal with and, above all, he knew what an artist meets abroad.

Since every socialist political power has revealed, sooner or later, its authoritarian face, in the eastern countries arts could no longer survive as a complete embodiment of free thoughts and free choices. “When oppression is lasting,” Milan Kundera said, “it may destroy a culture completely. Culture needs a public life, the free exchange of ideas; it needs publications, exhibits, debates and open borders”. [2]

With reference to the conflicting relationship between the socialist utopia and the artistic freedom, something quite similar was already outlined by Sigmund Freud, too, who found that Marxism showed a determining influence exerted “by the economic conditions of man upon his intellectual, ethical and artistic reactions”. [3]

For these reasons, the story of Sabina is the story of every artist under a socialist oppression, compelled to fight against the regime, becoming an opponent, or to hide the forbidden aesthetical messages behind a façade that only apparently matches with the socialist ideals.
The readers of the novel are told by Kundera about several aspects of Sabina’s life. The story, overall, lets us know not only the ideas of the writer about the condition of the arts in a certain historical period, but also suggests what, in his opinion, is the possible development of the situation.

According to Kundera, one of the biggest problems for an artist who works under the socialist oppression deals with individuality. Kundera wrote that only in “a society where various political tendencies exist side by side…the individual can preserve his individuality; the artist can create unusual works”. (p. 245)

This evidence is far from those romantic conceptions, which see Socialism as a great and powerful breeding ground for individualism. Indeed, to reach the highest mode of perfection and the full development of life, some did embrace Socialism without considering its likely authoritarian nature. For instance, Oscar Wilde wrote that with “the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy Individualism.  Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things”. [4]

Wilde’s advocacy for Socialism, however, was related to the socialist utopia rather then to a real circumstance. He really believed that Socialism could lead people to express their authentic individuality; otherwise he wouldn’t have affirmed it. Indeed, he believed that “whenever a community or a powerful section of a community, or a government of any kind, attempts to dictate to the artist what he is to do, Art either entirely vanishes, or becomes stereotyped, or degenerates into a low and ignoble form of craft”. Safely insulated in England and Ireland from the real thing, he never experienced the socialist lifestyle.

Unfortunately, Socialism was more concerned with political matters than in people’s individuality or skills. Therefore, the socialist perspective paid more attention to the political attitude of an artist than to his or her ability.

“If a painter is to have an exhibition,” Kundera wrote, “… a vast array of recommendations and reports must be garnered (from concierge, colleagues, the police, the local Party organization, the pertinent trade union) and added up, weighed, and summarized by special officials. These reports have nothing to do with the artistic talent … they deal with one thing only: the ‘citizen’s political profile’.” (p. 92)

In this way, political and artistic values are commingled by Socialism at every level. “Sabina was studying at the Academy of Fine Arts. There, her professor of Marxism expounded on the following theory of socialist art: Soviet society had made such progress that the basic conflict was no longer between good and evil but between good and better”. (pp. 245-246)
In any event, the “good-evil” opposition does not disappear but begins to shift its focus to the opposition between Socialist and Capitalist countries: good belongs, of course, to Socialism while evil is connected with western values. At this point, there is another danger that can involve all the arts: moralizing. The oppression, in fact, “creates an all-too-clear boundary between good and evil,” Kundera said, and the artist “easily gives in to the temptation of preaching”. [2]

At this point, the socialist ideology is strongly suggesting what people must consider beautiful and what artists have to produce to please the audience (and Socialism itself) at all costs. This proposition is of utmost importance, because it introduces us to the key-idea of kitsch elaborated by Kundera.

The particular meaning given by Kundera to the word kitsch is so important because it so aptly fits into the (artistic) expectations of Socialism and explains how artists can endure.

“Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit … [it] excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence”. (p. 242)

Kundera thinks that Socialism is one of the possible expressions of kitsch: it is a totalitarian, political kitsch. As a matter of fact, the socialist kitsch announces that only the Soviet society is progressive and good, whereas evil or “shit” (that is, whatever is essentially unacceptable) could exist only ‘on the other side’ (in America, for instance) … And in fact, Soviet films, which flooded the cinemas of all Communist countries in that cruellest of times, were saturated with incredible innocence and chastity”. (p. 246)

But kitsch is also the abolition of creativity and it repulses every artist’s effort to make any original, provocative masterpiece. Kundera wrote: “The feeling induced by kitsch must be a kind the multitudes can share. Kitsch may not, therefore, depend on an unusual situation; it must derive from the basic images people have engraved in their memories”. (p. 244)

Once again we notice the contrast between the individuality of the artist, who is supposed to produce new and stimulating works, and the common taste requested by totalitarian kitsch.

For this reason, “everything that infringes on kitsch must be banished for life: every display of individualism … every doubt … all irony (because in the realm of kitsch everything must be taken quite seriously)”. (p. 245)

Up to this point, we have an overview of Kundera’s ideas about arts and Socialism. If we want to understand how an artist actually experienced the totalitarian kitsch, we must return to Sabina. Besides any needs to work without restrictions, her tendency for visual arts implied that “Sabina’s initial inner revolt against Communism was aesthetic rather than ethical in character. What repelled her was not nearly so much the ugliness of the Communist world … as the mask of beauty it tried to wear – in other words, Communist kitsch”. (p. 242)

Sabina was a promising student and, during her school days, she utterly observed the artistic rules.

“In the spirit of the wager of the times, she had tried to be stricter than her teachers and had painted in a style concealing the brush strokes and closely resembling colour photography.” (p. 59)

This technique was used by Sabina in order to be as realistic as possible, because “art that was not realistic was said to sap the foundations of socialism”. (p. 59)

However, one day something important bursts unexpectedly into Sabina’s life.

She says to a friend: “Here is a painting I happened to drip red paint on. At first I was terribly upset, but then I started enjoying it. The trickle looked like a crack … I began playing with the crack, filling it out, wondering what might be visible behind it.” (pp. 59)

This unintentional red drop of paint changed Sabina’s life, giving her the opportunity to draw something abstract (which is something forbidden).

“On the surface, there was always an impeccably realistic world, but underneath, behind the backdrop’s cracked canvas, lurked something different, something mysterious or abstract.” (p. 60)

It is clear that that particular event caused Sabina to think in a new manner about art and a new approach to the meaning of what she painted: “On the surface [of her paintings there was] an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth”. (p. 60)

Sabina will quickly learn that Socialism is hostile to her new pictures and so she decides not to show them to anyone. Officially, she will continue to follow the academic rules, even though she never stops producing a cycle of paintings called “Behind the Scenes”.

Sabina’s first reaction towards her desire to violate the compelled realism was an apparent calm. She doesn’t mind that she must hide her predilection for the abstract paintings. This is understandable since it matches her typical temperament, which is made evident when we consider that “Sabina did not suffer in the least from having to keep her love secret”. (p. 109)

To solve her problem, therefore, she makes a neat separation between those paintings that could be exhibited from those that would have to be jealously kept far from the audience’s sight.

This certainly was one of the most usual compromises for the artists of her time. Even for writers, the cultural exchange had to continue underground: “After the Russian invasion in 1968, almost all Czech literature was banned, and circulated only in manuscript. Open public cultural life was destroyed. Nonetheless, the Czech literature of the 1970’s was magnificent”. [2]

In any event, this could not be a definitive solution and, in the end, Sabina eventually decides to go abroad, where she could paint whatever she wanted. Her paintings were simply too dangerous in her country of origin.

But why were they really considered so dangerous? Kundera offers a good explanation. “In the realm of totalitarian kitsch, all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions. It follows, then, that the true opponent of totalitarian kitsch is the person who asks questions. A question is like a knife that “slices through the stage backdrop and gives us a look at what lies hidden behind it.” (p. 247, our emphasis)

Is this not a wonderful metaphor of Sabina’s artistic conception?

In one way or another, her paintings contained a question which represented a threat for the regime, a question that artists were not allowed to ask.

In conclusion, we see Kundera’s point of view about Socialism, which was an expression of totalitarian kitsch. Besides his theories, we have pointed out some important aspects of Sabina, an artist whose fictional life has been described by a novelist that suffered the same oppression and, expelled by the communist party, had to finally abandon his country.

Throughout the novel, Kundera indicated a possible way for artists to express themselves: pretend to follow the rules, work underground, leave the country.

However, the novel suggests also what happens next, after Socialism’s fall, after an artist has chosen a new place to work.

Sabina continues to be persecuted by the socialist kitsch. For instance, she had once an exhibition in Germany, but after she read the catalogue she discovered that her biography was composed of such kitsch information as suffering, struggles against injustice, difficulties, forced expatriation, and so on. In other words she had not escaped those “simple truths [supported by totalitarian kitsch] to make the multitudes understand, to provoke collective tears”. (p. 247)

When Sabina protested that her biography looked more like that of a saint’s rather than an artist’s, nobody understood her. And, when someone asked her whether she agreed that modern art was persecuted under Communism, she replied that her enemy was actually kitsch and not Communism. “From that time on, she began to insert mystifications into her biography, and by the time she got to America she even managed to hide the fact that she was Czech. It was all merely a desperate attempt to escape the kitsch that people wanted to make of her life”. (p. 248)
This episode proves that kitsch is everywhere, beyond socialist countries, beyond socialist ideology, beyond any restriction of personal freedom (even if the absence of freedom is definitively worse). But this episode also offers us a clue as to how we define what beauty is and which role the arts can play.

Like two incongruous worlds that come together in Sabina’s paintings, like the New York scenery (which is composed by completely different things, buildings, people and cultural influences), like the first mature painting of Sabina (that was born after a fortuitous stain of red paint), beauty is something “unintentional”. It arises “independently of human design, like a stalagmitic cavern … Another way of putting it might be ‘beauty by mistake’. Before beauty disappears entirely from the earth, it will go on existing for a while by mistake. ‘Beauty by mistake’ – the final phase in the history of beauty”. (p. 98)

Beauty by mistake often goes unnoticed. It is so unexpected that people usually ignore it. Even Socialism can sometimes forget to censure a small bit of beauty. This implies, for Kundera, that the mission of the artist is to find this forgotten, unintentional beauty among the kitsch that covers all the world.

“The only way we can encounter it [the beauty] is if its prosecutors have overlooked it somewhere”. (p. 107)

[1] Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (London: Faber and Faber, 1984)

[2] Olga Carlisle, “A Talk with Milan Kundera”, The New York Times, 19 May 1985, sec. 6, p. 72

[3] Sigmund Freud, “A Philosophy of Life” (Lecture XXXV, 1932), New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (London: Hogarth Press, 1933)

[4] Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man, 1891

Copyright: Giuseppe Raudino 2007.
All rights reserved

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