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Partisanship in Art A Conversation between Rena Rädle and Vesna Vuković inspired by an article by John Roberts

Vesna VukoviĆ »

R.R.: One of the contentious issues between modernism and realism in the 1930s was the relation towards propaganda. John Roberts wrote a concise article about this debate titled Realism, Modernism, and Photography: At last, at last the mask has been torn away where he discusses the works of Ernst Friedrich's Krieg dem Kriege [War against War] (1924) and Kurt Tucholsky and John Heartfield's Deutschland Deutschland über alles [Germany, Germany Above All] (1929). According to Roberts modernists argued that “where propaganda fails, […] is in its identification of the truth of the artwork with a singular and univocal position.” Propaganda is seen here as a language of persuasion that intends to bring about partisan identification of the reader or spectator. Modernists contested such unreflected monological character of art and granted the autonomy of the spectator. Postmodernism finally established multiple and recently also 'queer' identities.
The bourgeois society of the capitalist countries dismisses the language of propaganda according to Roberts as “failed forms of democratic speech”,as not “balanced” and the intention to persuade is equalled with coercion. He is thinking here of the Western capitalist societies. How was the relation between propaganda and art in the Yugoslavia of the 1920s and 1930s?

V.V.: Roberts describes the 1920s also as a time of exchange and interfusion between realism and modernism, and it is exactly these two analyzed photo-text books that he sees as a new hybrid form of artistic production in which modernism steps up to ironize the claims of realism and realism steps up to ironize the claims of modernism. This period, he states, represents a time when the separation of the partisan and nonpartisan breaks down, allowing realism and modernism to infect and redefine each other.
If we want to talk about partisanship in the Yugoslav context, we have to start from the same period – the late 1920s – and the so-called 'Dispute on the Literary Left'. Lasting until 1952, the dispute was taking place between two left-oriented groups of authors: surrealist poets and authors of social literature, or in other words between two poles – aestheticism and literature as instrument of the class struggle. It was framed by the first international conference of revolutionary authors organized in Moscow in 1927 with the aim to broaden fronts on the intellectual left and it’s there that the avant-garde's pluralism and aestheticism were strongly criticized. But the a-historical discussions, either stating the partisanship being inherent to art, as art historian Arnold Hauser did in his article “Propaganda, ideology and art” from 1971, or claiming that having a tendency means to give up artistic tendency do not bring us too far. In his famous lecture entitled “The Author as Producer” held in 1934, Walter Benjamin sets both of these factors in a live social environment. Benjamin replaces the old materialistic question of the relation of a piece of art towards social relations of production of its time, with the question of its position within the social relations of its time, which aims for the function that a piece of art has within the artistic relations of production, i.e., its technique. The long discussion of the relationship between quality on the one hand and political tendencies of a piece of art on the other was bridged by Benjamin with a formula that clarified the relationship between these two factors: “the correct political tendency of a work includes its literary quality because it includes its literary tendency”. Coming back to the Yugoslav context, it is too easy to say that the prose was instrumentalized and that the poetry lost its status as being too individualistic and too intuitive; as always, one has to historicize. Namely, at that time, in the late 1920s, the Communist Party was banned, together with the leftist press, so it was literature that was regarded as the field for propaganda work by the Communist Party. The dispute ended in 1952 at the 3rd Congress of the Writers' Alliance of Yugoslavia, where Miroslav Krle˛a held a famous speech, with Yugoslavia embracing modernism as its official aesthetics. The end of the discussion in 1952 is consistent, since the socialist project at that time had an institutional frame, so literature was no longer a privileged field for propaganda or political articulation.

R.R.: Both works in discussion are photo-text books that make extensive use of the photographic archives of that time. Amongst the more than two hundred pictures of war atrocities printed in Krieg dem Kriege and attributed with an ironic caption each, the most appellative is a set of photos Ernst Friedrich got from a hospital archive. It shows the brutally disfigured faces of soldiers who survived the front-line. In the very act to make visible the hidden visual archives, Roberts identifies the truly realist task: to “unveil” the real which is covered by bourgeois interests.
Another point Roberts makes deals with the quality of the photograph in comparison to the realist painting. In contrast to the realist painting, photographs are not just symbols or expressions of the relation between the artist and his subject, but are considered as veridical evidence. Moreover, he states, “Photography brings to realism and the “unveiling” of bourgeois ideology the “speech” of the subject of representation.”
I would like to discuss two questions here. Is photography today, with mobile phones and social networks, still a relevant means for artists to “unveil” the real? And, taking into account the critique of representation questioning who is entitled or able to speak and for whom, my second question is, what are in your opinion possible or “successful” models of representation?

V.V.: The idea that there is a reality which is hidden and needs to be revealed in clear terms is a classical prejudice of Western modern philosophy, stemming at least from Descartes. Presupposing that there is a firm and stable outer reality which needs to be apprehended by a passive subject (or cogito) reduces the procedure of such a quest to a technical question: what is the most proper tool to disclose the ‘real’? This type of reasoning applies to the photography as well.

Furthermore, as we put art in its live social environment, one has to think both of journalism as a field which is about informing and of the advertising industry as operating with the production of images. How does art stay in relations to both? I think that it makes more sense to start by posing a basic question: Why do we need art to understand the society and its relations? And, as part of the same question, are artistic instruments privileged for understanding the society and its relations? Only if we pose these questions and bring art in relation to the other epistemological fields, we can gain some substantial insights into the potentials of photography as political tool.
There is a development I would like to stress, which comes with changes in the scientific/academic field and also in journalism, namely with their commodification: art is still a relatively open space that hosts all who want that their work – so to say – makes sense (science, journalism, philosophy…) and becomes a massive refuge for this disposed, over-educated class. In this changed structure, art has to position itself anew.

Coming to your second question, rather than speaking of successful models of representation, I would like to touch the question of the critique of representation looking at its loudest manifestation: participatory art is proliferating in the 1990s (ironically enough, at the time of the dissolution of the Eastern bloc and dismantling of the welfare state in the West). In her book Artificial Hells. Participatory Arts and the Politics of Spectatorship Claire Bishop analyzes increased artistic interest in participation and collaboration as a global phenomenon. She makes a historical overview of artistic preoccupation with participation and collaboration throughout the 20th century, with the basic insight of the proliferation of participatory practices and its ties to the political turmoils and movements for social change. In the process, she pinpoints three key moments: the historical avant-garde around 1917, the neo-avant-garde around 1968 and, as the third moment that triggered contemporary participatory practices, the fall of socialism in Europe in 1989, in a decreasing function – from the triumph (1917); over the last heroic resistance (1968); until the utter collapse of the collective vision of society (1989). In this historical development, the status and the identity of the audience (participants) in the participatory art practices have also changed: first the masses, then the people and, finally, communities and the excluded.
In most of the participatory artworks, which today deal with minorities, the excluded, dispossessed, we see the audience (the participants) themselves. The critique of representation somehow ends up in the claim for authenticity. It is always them and their attitudes, their thinking, their emotions that are being displayed (and never paid) as authentic, and – not of unimportance – it is their only access to the art production and art institutions.

R.R.: Later on, Roberts elaborates on the inclusive character of classical realism that was addressing a (yet to establish) cross-class spectatorship. With the Russian Revolution, this social-democratic ideal became obsolete and “[T]he representation of the real was no longer a means of bringing bourgeois experience and proletarian experience into some kind of common connection, but of transforming the movement of the real itself in the collective interests of working-class experience and emancipation.” The working class has become an agent of the real and the counter-symbolic function of realism, so Roberts, has been replaced by a practical one. In the aftermath of the Russian revolution, he states, the newly established independent cultural institutions allowed the artists and writers “to speak directly from an explicit class position without the mediation of mass cultural institutions. They therefore did not have to allegorize their own partisanship and working-class interests.” In the Zagreb and Belgrade of the 1930s the artists groups ˇivot [Life] and Zemlja [Earth] were articulating explicit peasants' and working class interests. Could you elaborate on these groups and their position in contrast to today's social struggles of artists (and other workers)?

V.V.: The artists groups ˇivot and Zemlja were active in the period before WWII, in times when the workers' movement and the unions were strong and active, as well as the Communist Party, although illegal. One has to emphasize their historical specificity, and only such framework is the proper starting point for the analysis and evaluation of contemporary artistic practices. The fact that contemporary art practices explicitly take on political agendas is actually due to the disappearance or weakening of real political forces that could implement them (left parties, unions). The collateral effect of such a development – contemporary art treatment of political questions without support of real political movements – is the following: the actor of the critique becomes the artwork itself, or in other words, it is the object that takes responsibility for the political, while the subjects of this production can stay at the safe distance. To understand the reasons for the difficulty of uniting the struggles of artists (and other workers), one has to look at the specific nature of artistic work, or at the position of the artist in the production. From the moment of establishing wage labour, art was separated from all other social activities, becoming thus an autonomous activity in the direct opposition to wage labour. This autonomy implies that the production of art is not motivated by money, which means that artistic labor is independent in regard to the definition of its price. Since there is no general price of this labour, there is no possibility for solidarity with other producers. Furthermore, creativity implies an intimate relationship with its object and therefore its uniqueness, which then brings artists in competitiveness – the constant struggle to be different, and better, from the others. All this thwarts the artists to organize in a concrete political formation. Although – and this should not mislead us – they do perceive themselves as a social group or even class, the 'creative class', it is more of a false homogeneity because it hides the class relations within it, and consequently, those outside the sphere.


Roberts, John. “Realism, Modernism, and Photography: At last, at last the mask has been torn away.” In Adventures in Realism , edited by Matthew Beaumont. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.

Hauser, Arnold. “Propaganda, ideology and art.” In Aspects of History and Class Consciousness , edited by Istvįn Mészįros, 128–151. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971.

Bishop, Claire. Artificial Hells. Participatory Arts and the Politics of Spectatorship. London: Verso, 2012.

Short bio:

Vesna Vuković is a translator, curator and researcher, a member of the Zagreb-based collective [BLOK], associate, and periodic lecturer at the Academy of Fine Arts Zagreb and the Art Academy Split. Vuković’s work is dedicated to the art in public space and its relation to the politics of public domain.

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