With a new term comes a change in focus: this blog will now primarily be used to post my thoughts and reflections on the Libraries & Publishing in an Information Society module that I am currently studying. In our first lecture for this module, we discussed (amongst other things) the role of “the author as producer” – the title of an address delivered by the German philosopher and critic, Walter Benjamin, in 1934. In this address, he discusses several topics, such as his belief that the form and content of a work of art or literature cannot be separated from one another, and the role of technological and political developments in changing the nature of authorship.
What I was most drawn to, however, was the fact that Benjamin delivered this address in a period of history when freedom of creative expression was under threat from the twin pillars of contemporary totalitarianism: fascism, represented by the accession to power of Benito Mussolini in Italy and Adolf Hitler in Germany, and communism, represented by the creation of the Soviet Union in the wake of the Russian Revolutions in 1917. Benjamin acknowledges this by referring to Plato’s Republic, a discussion of a utopian society in which the common good is achieved through just governance by an élite of “philosopher-kings”, but which also includes a great deal of artistic censorship.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the rapid development of new artistic movements that reacted violently against the established practices that preceded them. These developments can often be identified in the progression of individual artists’ works. For example, the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky’s early works are rooted in Impressionism—a revolutionary movement itself when it first appeared, but well-established by the beginning of the twentieth century—but become quickly more abstract during his artistic development, culminating in the compositions of seemingly-random colours and shapes of his mature works.
A similar example in the field of music can be taken from the artistic development of Arnold Schoenberg, the Austrian composer. As with Kandinsky, his early works, such as Verklärte Nacht (1899) are rooted in the late-Romantic tradition of Richard Wagner.
However, he quickly abandoned this style, instead experimenting with atonalism, before developing his own technique of twelve-tone serialism, which, like abstract painting, was alien to anything that had gone before it.
The total creative freedom espoused by these and other artistic developments were anathema to the totalitarian régimes that emerged during the inter-war period. Both the fascist and communist governments aspired to total control of their nations’ cultural lives, and anything that ran counter to the official, state-sanctioned artist movements was repressed with increasing severity. In Nazi Germany, not only were the works of “traditional” artists who happened to be Jewish (such as Felix Mendelssohn) or otherwise undesirable censored, but modern, “degenerate” artworks in general were treated as objects of ridicule.
In the Soviet Union, the collapse of the Tsarist society during the revolutions of 1917 and the subsequent civil war at first allowed artists—at least those who did not go into exile—complete creative freedom, and the country’s avant-garde movements initially flourished as a result. However, as the Bolsheviks consolidated their hold on the country, the party leadership eventually rejected these movements as being associated with the bourgeoisie, and instead promoted and sponsored the style of socialist realism: many artists who were not able to abandon their favoured styles in favour of socialist realism were subsequently demoted, exiled to Siberia, or even executed, and their works suppressed.
Yet despite these oppressive and often dangerous environments, it was still possible for an artist to defy the régime and retain his or her creative independence and integrity. Probably the most famous example of this is the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich: initially a rising star of the music world, he abruptly fell from favour after a hostile review of his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District, was published in Pravda, the state newspaper, allegedly by Joseph Stalin himself. Fearing for his life, he worried that his Fourth Symphony, in development at the time, was too tragic in tone to be performed at a time when the state was proclaiming a rapid improvement in living conditions through the measures of the second Five-Year Plan, and pulled it from performance. He later completed a triumphant Fifth Symphony, which received glowing reviews, and was officially subtitled “A Soviet Artist’s Response to Just Criticism”. However, many musicologists have noted that the triumphalism of the music sounds exaggerated and forced, as in the final section of the fourth and final movement (starting at approximately 10:05 in the video below), a interpretation which was too subtle to be noticed by the state organs responsible for vetting artistic output.
Despite the fact that fascism and communism are now largely discredited, and their control of the arts is an extreme example of how the artist and society are related, it is clear from what we discussed in the lecture that authors, publishing and libraries are intrinsically interlinked to one another, and to the wider society in general. I look forward to studying these issues from additional perspectives in the coming weeks.