Domesticating the Revolutionary?

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I’m indebted to the Socialist Unity blog for drawing my attention to these plates produced by philosophyfootball. They are a series of four which reproduce designs from the high period of Soviet artistic achievement. And they are rather fine. The imagery is original and works well in the context of the plates.

Of course the really interesting question arises when one asks what exactly is their purpose? They are sold with wall holders so clearly those who produce them believe that they have a function beyond the utilitarian. But what is that function? Is it the promotion of the visual imagery of the early years of the Revolution, is it the promotion of the political significations or is it simply to appreciate that visual imagery? I don’t intend these questions to be negative, but rather to provide a critique of the meanings implicit in these artifacts and their reproduction.

And I think that material culture throws up questions like this on an on-going basis, particularly where political and social concerns interact. Perhaps even more so because these are reworkings of the original where a sampling and collation process has taken place in order to arrive at a final selection of four images. And the imagery – although linked by the broad theme of visual imagery produced during the Revolutionary period – is intriguingly disparate. There is the geometric abstraction of a Supremacist design by Nikolai Suetin, a colleague of Malevich which nods towards the prevailing ideology through the use of the colour red. Then there is the Cubist inspired image of a hammer and sickle set against an industrial background which visually threads together the Communist ideology and the workplace. There is the Red Star accompanied by the slogan “Long Live Soviet Power” with the hammer and sickle and a plough at its centre and finally a further iteration of the factory with belching smokestacks set against a red dawn.

Their modernism is softened by the somewhat painterly treatment of the original designs. Their visual simplicity joined modernism and ideology both as an aesthetic device representative of modernity, but also as a means of promoting the essential ethos of the Revolution in society with a high degree of illiteracy.

And what is particularly fascinating is that they are required to work both in the context of their original designers intent, which it seems reasonable to suggest that they do, but also in this new context of a plate.

The process by which political design and imagery becomes reified as a collectible is both difficult and contradictory. Is the inherent signification replaced or retained? What value does a political poster have in the context of a gallery space or the wall of a house? Does the purchase of this sort of material indicate acceptance, or indifference to the original signification? The response, almost inevitably, appears to be centred upon the individual response. Having said that, there do seem to be limits. The utilisation of fascistic imagery by punk did not lead to any wholesale reappropriation of it more broadly in society. And that response is also quite understandable (although worth noting that there is a significant market in Nazi-era memorabilia). As has been noted here before even the inadvertent use of political imagery can be problematic. In the case of the Soviet Revolution aspects of that event – forced industrialisation and collectivisation, the leading role of the Communist Party and a lack of democratic representation – remain open to question. Yet these artifacts, which come from a point at which the Revolution had yet to ossify and retained enormous potential, perhaps transcend those questions. Their inherent significations sufficiently humanist and optimistic to allow for them to be ‘read’ on their own terms and as fine examples of an important if somewhat marginalised element of modernism.

Other examples of material on the philosophyfootball website demonstrate an intriguing interaction between the cultural left and the political left. One can purchase T-shirts promoting trade unionism, a reworking of the cover of the “London Calling” album by the Clash and even a St. Patrick’s Day T-shirt that has the Shamrock made up of “‘pride not prejudice’ printed hundreds of times over”. Okay, not entirely sure where that one is coming from.

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So, yes. Clearly in this instance the imagery on these plates is not restricted to a re-representation of the modernist, but is intended to contain at least some continuing political agency. Whether it can work on that level in any more effective a way than, for example a Che Guevara T-Shirt which appears at this point to be almost emptied of all real political signification – after all, how many who wear them are fully aware of his by turns tragic and troubling history – is a further interesting question.

Ciarán Swan

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