Logie Barrow writes: Marx’s ‘merciless criticism of all that exists’ can, as Russian formalists noted, be evolutionary as well as genetic. Some of Lissitsky’s perceptions predate those of McLuhan, but are incorporated, not into a discussion of trends as in the latter’s neon inevitabilism, but into an awareness of future technical choices, as one would expect from a practising artist influenced by a Marxism at that time historically open. But when referring to practice in the West now, as the Introduction seems to attempt in passing, one would be ‘formal’, i.e. self-deceptive, to play down the genetic dimension—the unequally and unevenly interdetermining relations between all ‘levels’. The Introduction correctly hopes to avoid ‘being in the least antiquarian’ and to pose problems ‘in a revolutionary context’; but hearing that Lissitsky ‘rallied to the Revolution in 1917’, i.e. once the fact of revolution had to be faced, one wonders where to find our non-antiquarian revolutionary ‘context’ in a country where there is as yet no likelihood of a revolution for artists or would-be artist-engineers to rally to as such rather than as literaturesellers or propaganda-designers. Hence the wistfulness of the Introduction’s last sentence, against which we soon read Lissitsky emphasizing ‘in the first place’ the ‘determining’ role of the ‘social strata that provide the commissions’; his own modular and comparatively idealist framework, which with Malevich’s, but against Tatlin’s separated art from life, could be expected to provide few channels for generalized environmental advance, so he directed his sympathy for the Revolution into serving its leading social strata immediately as propagandist, which is one of the themes of his article.
In 1922 a contributor to Freiheit contended that the spiral was a socialist form; but Marxists cannot seriously adopt ‘artistic’ styles, tactics and technical breakthroughs in this area as their own even when they or their predecessors have foreseen or already made them. The authors of the Introduction rightly note that the ‘arts’ are again converging. (This is one lead in to questions of total ‘environment’, a word too determinist and deceptively class-free.) But this precisely redoubles the pressure on artist-thinkers to fit their projects into the given environment and its present modes of change, since the only likely alternatives are to take in each others’ utopian washing (as the Berlin Dadaists after the failure of their Spartacist hope), or to hold themselves in abeyance by designing
From an anti-capitalist perspective, any, some or all of these responses may assist stirrings of antagonistic consciousness in other fields, ideologically, or by marginally awakening further needs on top of those already apprehended. In other words, with no immediate practical choices to offer, Marxists might as well not nourish brief hopes or go through the motions of predetermining particular trends in the flux of, often sympathetic, stylistic ideologies whose successes and failures can have equally inverted effects. For an unspeculative example: Malevich emphasizes ‘economy’ and Lissitsky designs ‘Prouns’, whereas in the West Kiesler emphasizes ‘efficiency’, designs ‘Horizontal skyscrapers’ and writes Contemporary Art Applied to the Store and its Display (an application of precisely the sort Lissitsky rejects here). Kiesler’s development may be parallel to Lissitsky’s, or it may descend via the latter’s contacts with de Stijl and de Stijl’s intensification in the Elementarism of Does and others (which Kiesler correctly acknowledges); either way, this suggests that their two societies separated the ‘useful’ and the ‘utopian’ in markedly different ways. This, irrespective of the specifically artistic ideology. The authors of the Introduction play down the radical opposition within Russian art at this period which is symbolized for many in the conflict between Malevich and Tatlin. Tatlin, to whom Malevich seems to have conceded personal defeat by retreating to Vitebsk, in the end built little despite all his denunciations of his Opponents’ idealist theories of ‘pure’ art and ‘pure’ form, and his own and many others’ efforts to become super-engineers. Societal differences predominate over differences in artistic ideology.
Even if fascinated by discussion on the building of artistic roads or by-roads to socialism, it is difficult for practising Marxists to share this much-denounced illusion of Bogdanov, or to escape the lines of conflict over his position: a declaration that a certain style, etc, is ‘proletarian’ or revolutionizing, is hardly involvement in the class-struggle it presupposes, whether as artist or anything else. We can only wish success to those who strive towards artistic projects, while we are unable to say whether these, or their corrosion by class society, might marginally (?) clarify the issues for their creators and for others. The brilliant beginnings of systematic Marxist aesthetics can be transplanted, complete with problematics, controversies and all, and re-trained very usefully for modern capitalism (as partially in the Bauhaus), and far be it from nlr or any other Marxists to bewail this. If we claim to attempt more than a discussion of society we must concentrate on the sort of practice which requires also the genetic dimension of theory. (Jan. 67)