The Paris International Exposition in 1937 incarnated an ideological conflict between democracies and rising authoritarian powers, which took over the art world and lasted until the fall of the USSR. Such mingling of politics, everyday life and art did not escape Clement Greenberg’s attention, who in his seminal essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch (1939) attacked the Soviet Union, the Fascists and those who did not subscribe to “Art for Art’s sake”. He championed artists who strived for the purity of form, such as the Abstract Expressionists and the Colour Field painters. However, the Marxist writers quickly pointed out that these movements might not be as apolitical as he assumed.
Forming the Socialist Realism
In the 1930s, when a heated debate on political implications of art ensued among the German Marxists, Georg Lukács wrote that truly popular art should portray experience of the nation and be accessible for the people. It was a common view among the leftists and Stalin himself endorsed it, additionally stipulating that art should be positive and true to life. Socialist Realism became a state policy in 1934, erasing the Constructivists and other avant-garde artists, such as Kazimir Malevich and Władysław Strzemiński.
Boris Vladimirski, Roses for Stalin, 1949, oil on canvas. Image source: Virtual Museum of Political Art
Ideology of abstraction?
The mere fact that avant-garde art was reputed to be bourgeois was not its greatest disadvantage. Deliberately omitting the problems of the working class and escapism from reality was seen as counter-revolutionary. Furthermore, it did not contribute to the society by entertaining, educating or improving the living conditions of workers. Abstraction could be a carrier of ideology only when directly contrasted with Socialist Realism. The USA championed Abstract Expressionism for its individualism, thus pointing out how dehumanising the communist apparatus was.
Jackson Pollock, One: Number 31, 1950, oil and enamel paint on canvas. Image source: MoMA
Abstract Expressionism vs. Socialist Realism: Asian Rendition
The same conflict arose in the East as China, followed by North Korea, enforced the doctrine of Socialist Realism in 1953. As a counterbalance, the government of South Korea was promoting Dansaekhwa – the monochrome painting group formed in the 1970s. At that time South Korea was under the authoritarian leadership of Park Chung-hee, whose goals were to improve the economy and establish rapport with Japan and the USA. There are three major reasons why Dansaekhwa was favoured. Firstly, its aesthetics were aligned with Clement Greenberg’s theoretical writings, which would accentuate both the alliance with the USA and Park’s vision of modernised Korea. Secondly, Dansaekhwa seemed to be incapable of articulating subversive ideas as it was not figurative. Last but not least, the artists explored the theme of national identity by introducing traditional Korean art supplies or by discarding Western conventions, as seen in Ha Chong-Hyun’s Conjunction series. Ha stands in direct opposition to Action Painting, as the “back-pressure-method” erases gesture of the artist. Paint was pushed through the obverse of the canvas, which meant that the gesture was applied only on the reverse. Alongside these questions, Dansaekhwa explored the spiritual, as seen in the exhibition Five Korean Artists: Five Kinds of White. It featured an ‘anti-colour’ which bears much significance in Korean tradition.
Ha Chong-Hyun, Conjunction 74-26, 1974, oil on burlap. Image source: MoMA
Danaekhwa artists were chosen by the government for the National Documentary Paintings project and international exhibitions, rendering other artists underrepresented. As a result, the Minjung artists criticised Dansaekhwa for the institutional privilege and apolitical complicity, as their paintings did not portray the reality of the working class. Minjung art (people’s art) emerged in 1980 after the Gwangju Massacre and demanded democratisation of South Korea. Its members did not fear to attack the regime directly, which lead to further suppression and imprisonment of one of the artists on charges of collaboration with North Korea. Minjung’s criticism was unwanted, especially since it was formulated in the Socialist Realism formula.
O Yoon, Marketing I—Hell Painting, 1980, mixed media on canvas. Image source: Korean Cultural Center NY
A notable member of the group, Lee Ufan, tried to dispel the allegations of Dansaekhwa’s support for Park Chung-hee. He stressed that the role of monochromes was to reflect poverty and austerity of living under a military dictatorship, while colourful Minjung art represents the resistance of a wealthier society that came later. Such a stance is interesting since the New York School artists were also disinclined to their government. Unbeknownst to the Marxists writers, the same artists who were publicly praised were subjected to surveillance by the FBI due to their left-wing beliefs. The communists in Latin America, like Fidel Castro, did not even reckon Abstract Expressionism as antagonising. According to them, abstraction did not promote imperialism, decadence or capitalism. On the other hand, American congressman George Dondero claimed that Abstract Expressionism itself is subversive and communist. After all, before the rise of Stalinism abstract art was practised by the Russian avant-garde, whose members at large subscribed to Marxism and Trotskyism. This paradox of having both capitalist and Marxist legacy is explained by Robert Motherwell, who stated that “works of art are by nature pluralistic: they contain more than one class of values.” The same applies to Dansaekhwa, which contains both modernism and traditionalism, universalism and Koreanness, formalism and exploration of the self.
Written by: Zuzanna SzulcRecommended1 recommendationPublished in