– Siw Umsonst, Martin Kirchner, Jeronimo Voss: “Organising Realism”

· Realism! Online Magazine – table of contents

Organising Realism

german version

The foundation of realism is the negation of the ideal.

Gustave Courbet, 1861

In the year 1848 its regular customers Courbet, Baudelaire, Proudhon, and Champfleury rename the tavern “Brasserie Andler” in Paris to Temple of Realism. Here theories and experiments on new oppositional relations of art towards reality arise together with the will to overcome romanticism and its melancholic desire for an authentic nature that disguises the constructedness of bourgeois society. Today the situation appears conversely: romantic mythologies are being actualised in the most different fields[1] while the so called post-avant-garde hides realism in the art historical categories of the 19th century. Meanwhile the image of the romantic (mostly male) artist who obsessively dedicates himself to the profession of art enjoys an elevated degree of esteem. His stylisation as a showcase entrepreneur of neoliberal management discourse ultimately banalises him to a stereotype of post-fordist self-expression. The search for a way out of this glamorous drama of artistic self-super elevation cannot simply be answered by an abstract call for a more collective practice.[2] The romantic imperatives of the present demand the revitalisation of a programmatic focus on art as realism. Thereby the term realism refers to a substantiated history of artistic and political debates.

In 1916 Malevich writes the Manifesto “From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Realism”. He polemically rejects the “naturalist” forms of 19th century figurative realism while insisting on art as realism. Malevich’s collaborative frame of reference is the council of UNOWIS (1920 – 1923) – an organisation functioning as an experimental art-academy as well as an open laboratory for production. In the UNOWIS publications, “The New Realism” is differentiated from the conventional “realism of impression” and discussed as a non-figurative method of appropriating the world of things.[3]

The CPSU’s decree of 1932 “On the adjustment of all literary- and artistic organisations” into the state-run “Union of Soviet Artists” sets an early end to similar art groups, organisations and free associations.[4] Shortly after, the traditional form of heroic realism is declared to be the only “socialist realism”. Its function is to document (and idealise) the developments of the Soviet Union.[5]

As a reaction Bertolt Brecht defends his modernist realism in a debate on anti-fascist art in the Moscow exile magazine “Das Wort”.[6] Here Brecht emphasises that his understanding of socialist realism has nothing to do with heroic idealisation, but that it is grounded on a basic critical stance towards ideologies of reality.At the same time Brecht considers the “Model R”[7], the workers council, as the basis for political practice and describes his concepts of “learning plays” as model for collective political experimentation.[8] Similar to the artists who organised themselves in the November Gruppe (November Group, 1918 – 1933), the Arbeitsrat für Kunst (Art Soviet / Artist Workers Council, 1918-1921) or the Rote Gruppe (Red Group, 1924 – 1933)[9], Brecht connects artistic realism with political organisation. This realism doesn’t define any formal style. Instead it becomes a method to oppose representations of reality by hinting at the potentials for collective change of those constructed actualities.

Brecht’s ideas influence members of the Dziga Vertov Group[10] working in the immediate aftermath of the May 1968 rebellion. Initiated by Jean Luc Godard and Jean Pierre Gorin the group attempts to “make political films politically”. Therefore the filmmakers construct film aesthetics interrogating current political situations and seemingly natural perception of reality. Commenting on their Film “Tout va Bien” Gorin explains: “It’s a realist film, but it’s neither critical realism nor socialist realism (a bourgeois value and a bourgeoisified value). We’ve gone into a new type of realism, closer to Brechtian theory”.[11]

Similar approaches appear in certain film-theory occuring in the context of the feminist movement of the 1970s. Rejecting the “idealist conception […] of the artist” as well as naturalist traditions of documentary forms that pretend ‘to show life as it is’, film theoretician Claire Johnston argues: “What the camera in fact grasps is the ‘natural’ world of the dominant ideology […], the ‘truth’ of our oppression cannot be ‘captured’ on celluloid with the ‘innocence’ of the camera: it has to be constructed.”[12]

In the 1990s this criticism is redefined by a ‘critique of representation’ focussing on the ‘performative’ construction of identity as well as problematising forms of collective representation. The political agenda of this critique is the deconstruction of hegemonic systems of representation and its accordant strategies of normalisation. By exposing the discursive production of naturalised concepts of subjectivity its goal is to develop and refine performative counter-strategies.[13]

Parallel, in the art world and beyond, performativity of identity tends to be (mis-)understood as performance of Personality. The neo-romantic doctrine of combined self-representation and -exploitation thereby turns into a more or less reflexive work of spectacular self-performance:[14] a proto-celebrity culture of endless flexibility in which works of art appear as deeply conflated with the artist’s personage.

Instead of celebrating this present status quo of idealised self-expression, artistic realism puts the material changeability of current realities into the fore. This realism is not reproductive (mimetic) but productive, providing reflexive and critical means to counter supposedly natural and seemingly unchangeable conditions of the present.

Martin Kirchner, Siw Umsonst, Jeronimo Voss, 2008


[1] Thereby the term ‘Romantic Conceptualism’ is only the most obvious indicator for such tendencies in the present art world.

[2] Especialy german romanticism is known to answer this call with prospects for a collectivism driven by a spirit for ‘Volk’, race and nation.

[3] Cp. Malewitsch, ed. Larissa A. Shadowa, (Schirmer/Mosel, München, 1978).

[4] Other art organisations of the early soviet union were the Swomas (free art-academies) and productivist mass-organisations like the Proletkul’t Groups (proletarian cultural organisations) and the influential Oktjabr (association of workers in new ways of artistic practice). For further details read Kerstin Stakemeier: „Künstlerische Produktion und Kunstproduktion, Polytechnik und Realismus in der frühen Sowjetunion“, in: Phase 2.24, 2007. (http://phase2.nadir.org/rechts.php?artikel=464&print=)

[5] George Lukács describes these Stalinist aesthetics in his later writings as „establishment naturalism“ (Cp. Conversations with Lukács, ed. T. Pinkus (Cambridge, Mass., 1975), p. 36-37).

[6] Cp. Aesthetics and Politics, ed. Frederic Jameson (Verso, New York/London, 1977), p. 68-86.

[7] „Model R“ refers to the model of the Workers Council [in german: (Arbeiter-) Rat / Sowjet] as it occured after the end of the 1st World War in 1918 replacing state institutions on a local level all over Germany. This development was repressed early on by military interventions of radical right wing Free Corps backed by a social democratic government. Cp Bertolt Brecht: Schriften zur Politik und Gesellschaft, GW 20: p. 118.

[8] Cp. Douglas Kellner: „Brecht’s Marxist Aesthetic“, http://www.gseis.ucla.edu/faculty/kellner/essays/brechtsmarxist.pdf

[9] Today more well known members of these groups are Hanns Eisler, El Lissitzky, Mies Van de Rohe, Walter Gropius, Käthe Kollwitz, Otto Dix, George Grosz and John Heartfield.

[10] Named after the early soviet documentary and newsreel filmmaker Dziga Vertov, the group includes members such as Nathalie Billard, Jean Luc Godard, Jean Pierre Gorin, Armand Marco, Gérard Martain and Anne Wiazemsky.

[11] Cp. Julia Lesage: “Godard and Gorin’s left politics. 1967-1972”, (http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC28folder/GodardGorinPolitics.html)

[12] Cp. Claire Johnston: Women’s Cinema as Countercinema, in Feminist Filmtheorie, ed. S. Thornham, p. 31-40.

[13] Cp. Dagmar von Hoff: „Performanz/Repräsentation“, in: Gender & Wissen. Ein Handbuch der Gender-Theorie, ed. Christina von Braun und Inge Stephan, (Köln/Weimar/Wien: Böhlau 2005).

[14] Cp. Sven Lütticken: “Progressive Striptease. Performance Ideology Past and Present”, in: Secret Publicity | Essays on Contemporary Art, (NAi Publishers, Rotterdam, 2005).

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