Artists Address Revolution: Trump Today vs. 1917 Bolsheviks

Revolutions Subway Therapy
Subway Therapy (detail), Courtesy of Lady Liberty blog, 2016

One hundred years ago, the political world order was roiled by a working-class revolution. That tumultuous reversal appealed to the same economic fears and insecurity that Donald Trump exploited successfully in his run for the Presidency.

Which raises the question: might the trajectory of the 1917 Russian Revolution hint at what we can expect — or not — from our own populist uprising? Looking at the relationship between Bolshevik leaders, increasingly given to strong-man tactics, and the evolution of Russian art offers a cautionary warning. It’s a history lesson with a dismal outcome, which artists today seem bent on not repeating. In 1917, avant-garde artists climbed aboard the Bolshevik bandwagon, enamored by its idealistic intentions. As soon as individual expression was no longer deemed an asset, they were sidelined — silenced, exiled or executed. Today the art community (including individual artists, museums and galleries) are pushing back, not just refusing to collaborate but mounting active resistance.

The Museum of Modern Art’s current exhibition, “A Revolutionary Impulse: the Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde” (described in last month’s column) demonstrates how artists’ initial enthusiasm for creating a workers’ paradise was replaced by censorship, suppression and totalitarian control, an outcome not tempered until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

#signsofsolidarity revolution
Banner by Monicka, hung on Jan. 20, 2017, #signsofsolidarity public art project.

Of course, comparing the election of a capitalist like Donald J. Trump — even with his lust for wall building — to the Communist overthrow of a monarchy is a stretch. Trump’s campaign was reactionary, hyping the lure of regression to stem the tide of cultural change. But there is a commonality. In both 1917 and 2016, the working class was the deciding factor. Trump owes his elevation not to the coastal, urban elite, of which Trump is a conspicuous member, but to blue-collar, Rust-Belt and white rural workers — “the poorly educated” for whom Trump professed his love in February after his win in Nevada. They pushed his total over the top in the Electoral College.

Donald Trump: A stranger to irony.

In its disregard for all accepted conventions, Trump’s campaign was revolutionary. He called for a radical reset, professing himself savior of the economically disenfranchised. In a 2012 tweet (subsequently deleted) after Obama was reelected, Trump had urged: “We should have a revolution in this country!” During the August campaign, he told Detroit supporters, “These reforms will offer the biggest tax revolution since the Reagan tax reform.” On his thank-you tour last December, Trump promised his administration will “usher in a new industrial revolution.”

Trump — a stranger to irony — seems not to have noticed how revolutions often end badly. In February 2016, the night before the New Hampshire primary, he bounded to the stage as the Beatles’ “Revolution” (a blast against ignorance) boomed from speakers. I doubt he’ll be singing these words on Carpool Karaoke:

You say you want a revolution…


But if you want money for people with minds that hate,

All I can tell is, brother, you’ll have to wait.

But now that the Trump regime is ensconced in the corridors of power, let’s review the fate of that other working-class revolt and artists’ role in consolidating its reign. It began with high spirits and unfettered imagination. The most original artists were gung-ho to aid the unprecedented social experiment. As the artist Lyubov Popova put it, “We are breaking with the past [to] build our new life and new world view.”

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I should point out that one way in which the Russian Revolution diverged from Trump’s phallocentric history is that female artists, promised equality by the Party, were treated with respect. Artists like Popova, Natalia Goncharova and Olga Rozanova were afforded dignity and opportunity, a glaring departure from Trump’s attitude toward women as trophies and erotic targets. “It doesn’t matter what they write [about you],” the Groper-in-Chief has said, “as long as you have a young and beautiful piece of ass.”

Today, artists lead the resistance.

Women and men were fervent revolutionaries in politics and art, eager to overturn the status quo in both. As El Lissitzky wrote, “The (painted) picture fell apart with the old world which it had created for itself.” Innovative artists whom we now think of as leading the Modernist charge, like Kazimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin and Aleksandr Rodchenko, forged radical forms of abstraction to help achieve the promised era of classless equality.

Then, after Lenin created a one-party state under rigid Communist Party control, artists acquiesced in adjusting their styles. Free creative expression took a back seat to the more practical goal of inspiring the masses. Artists became functionaries, using more mechanical means like photography, posters, film and pamphlets as well as theater to present a rosy view of the future.

Vladimir Lenin in heroic pose for the revolution
Lenin on the Tribune by Alexander Mikhailovich Gerasimov, 1930
An example of Socialist Realist painting.

Things went downhill from there. By 1932, with the autocrat Stalin in power, the avant-garde was no more. Socialist Realism with its fictional, sunny images of heroic farmers and zealous factory workers was the only form of painting permitted. This willful distortion of reality disguised unsavory truths. Three million landed peasants were liquidated, six million peasants had starved to death by 1921, untold numbers of dissidents were shot or died in exile, seven million were sent to prison camps. (Scary fact: section 5 of Trump’s January 25 executive order calls for construction of detention camps for two to three million undocumented immigrants whom he fantasizes are guilty of criminal infractions.)

Which brings us to the most striking — and sinister — parallel: the deliberate fabrication of disinformation and manipulation of the media. Lenin believed that the key to a victorious insurrection was control of access to forms of communication like telephones and the telegraph. Trump uses Twitter to directly connect with his base and transmit his redacted worldview.

A century ago, Lenin set the tone for such falsifications, saying:

The art of any propagandist and agitator consists in his ability to find the best means of influencing any given audience, by presenting a definite truth, in such a way as to make it most convincing, most easy to digest, most graphic, and most strongly impressive.

Fake news, anyone?

In the Soviet Union, the newspaper Pravda and Socialist Realist artists collaborated to deceive the public. Today, President Trump has his fabulist Kellyanne Conway with her “alternative facts” and his apologist press secretary Sean Spicer to convey white(house)-washed news. Stephen Bannon, Trump’s chief political strategist, has already attempted to curb freedom of the press, suggesting the media should “keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.”

The proliferation of what Stephen Colbert called “truthiness” — a tactic polished in the Soviet Union and increasingly practiced in the US — is a real danger. As a leading official in the Stalin era said, “A fact is not the whole truth; it is merely the raw material from which the real truth must be smelted and extracted — the chicken must not be roasted with its feathers.” Creativity lies, he went on, in “staging of the picture,” which should not mirror reality but be gussied up to attract the masses’ support.

Staging pictures was Stalin’s “alternative facts.”

“Staging” the picture sounds eerily similar to soliciting images that show an inaugural crowd as larger than it actually was or claiming that millions of illegal votes were cast for one’s opponent.

Equally worrisome for preservation of the Constitution, Bannon has admitted taking a page from Lenin’s playbook. As he told a reporter, “I’m a Leninist. Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

It’s not likely that artists today will knowingly create work that promotes the Administration’s plans. And it’s doubtful President Trump will attempt to enlist artists to further his goals as Socialist Realist painters did. Artistic independence is not at risk, since practice today doesn’t depend on state support or require its approval.

revolution post-it notes following Trump's election cover walls at subway station
Post-its at Union Square subway station, Subway Therapy, 2016 project by Matthew “Levee” Chavez, courtesy of New York Historical Society.

The opposite of state-sanctioned puffery is what’s actually happening, as artists lead the way in resistance. Many contemporary artists are socially engaged in progressive causes. They create participatory works aimed at fostering social justice and tolerance, which puts them in an adversarial position to Trump’s right-wing agenda. One example is Subway Therapy, a communal work consisting of protest post-it notes that covered the Union Square subway station after the November election. (My favorite: “Pussy Grabs Back.”) American artists are doubling down on opposition to attempts to roll back gains made during the Obama years.

Which is not to say that an ultra-right-wing Trump administration might not influence the art world negatively. Trump appointees could revive the 1990s culture wars. Rumors have spread that the administration will shut down the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which would adversely affect states’ budgets for local arts organizations.

Such philistinism recalls Lenin’s dismissal of the value of artistic creativity: “I’m no good at art. Art for me is just an appendage, and when its use as propaganda — which we need at the moment — is over, we’ll cut it out as useless. Snip, snip!”

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Yet, even if funding for the NEA, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting disappears, artists won’t kowtow. They’re used to being marginalized and have already sprung to the barricades fighting for the soul of America.

Artists appear to be energized rather than demoralized. In the first two weeks of the Trumpocracy, many came out as “artivists” — dissident activists protesting the misogyny, xenophobia and bigotry emanating from White House executive orders.

Anish_Kapoor revolution Beuys poster
Anish Kapoor, I like America and America Doesn’t Like Me, 2017 / via

Just a few examples: the sculptor Anish Kapoor repurposed a poster from Joseph Beuys to express his disapproval of restrictions on immigration. Christo canceled a twenty-year project for Colorado to divorce his work from any ties to Trump’s America. The photographer Catherine Opie was vocal in her support of the January 21 march protesting Trump’s policies. The artist Ann Hamilton traveled from Ohio to Washington, DC, for the Women’s March. Martha Rosler defied authoritarianism in a fiery speech at the Whitney Museum of American Art on January 20. More than 100 artists and arts organizations united in a project called #signsofsolidarity from January 19–22. In Philadelphia and Atlanta, they hoisted banners as signs of resistance to “a global shift towards fear and exclusivity.”

In terms of frightening parallels between the course of the Russian Revolution and the unfolding Trump era, perhaps more germane than visual art is the fate of science in the Soviet Union. Just like Trump, who’s said that climate change is a Chinese hoax, Stalin was all-in when it came to post-factuality. Disregarding experts, Stalin endorsed the erroneous Lamarckian view that acquired traits can be inherited. He imprisoned plant breeders and geneticists who sought to develop hardy, hybrid crops for better yields. With disastrous consequences (mass famine), those in power chose to believe anecdotal, not statistical, evidence or facts based on measurement of results.

As ideology determined “scientific” fact, thousands of researchers and teachers lost their jobs, delaying progress and technological innovation. (Lenin, as early as 1922, had already deported 220 “undesirables”: philosophers, academics, journalists and scientists.)

Art can be an escape or a call to arms.

Both Bolsheviks and President Trump appropriated the KISS doctrine (“Keep It Simple, Stupid”) of propaganda. Trump effectively combined his anti-intellectual stance with inflated promises and lack of specifics during his campaign — a winning formula compared to Hillary Clinton’s recital of boring policy details. This non-rational appeal, relying on simplistic, bumper-sticker slogans like “Build a Wall!” targets the limbic brain, site of emotions like fear and resentment. Bypassing reason, red-state voters chose as their leader a reality-TV star devoid of qualifications, experience or interest in (and grasp of) policy.

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Where artists can make a contribution is exactly in this realm of emotion and non-verbal stimulation. Art can be an escape or a call to arms. It can conceal or expose, reflect reality or inspire change. By expressing complex ideas, visual art can also spur critical thinking. Just as the Russian avant-garde a century ago sought new forms for a new world, artists can entice viewers to take another look and to think again — to think deeply. “Artists,” as the actor Paul Robeson said, “are the gatekeepers of truth. We are civilization’s radical voice.”

The mantra of the Russian Revolution was “Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.” American workers, enamored by Donald Trump’s rhetoric of return to greatness, did unite to elect him. Let’s hope they’re not chained to an irrecoverable past. Or we won’t be singing “Revolution” but a more disillusioned lamentation, “Chain of Fools.”