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Art in Translation, Volume 1, Issue 1, pp.

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Under the Banner

of Life-Building
(An Attempt to
Understand the
N.F. Chuzhak [1] Art of Today)
Translated by Abstract
Christina Lodder
Originally published in Russian in Nikolai Chuzhak’s article, first published in 1923 in the Russian avant-
Lef, no. 1 (1923): 12–39. garde journal Lef, is a plea for a production art based on Marxist dialectics
and a rejection of bourgeois aesthetics. The text traces the development of
ideas of production art, providing a critique of the avant-garde’s attempts
to link aesthetic ideals with the communist ideology of the Bolshevik Party.
Chuzhak’s own viewpoint is at odds with the vague radicalism of Lef. His
criticism of his fellow editor in Lef, Osip Brik, is an indication of tensions
within the Lef camp. Chuzhak also draws attention to the provincial Cre-
ation group and its contributions to discussions about Marxism and art.
120 N.F. Chuzhak

Keywords: Russia, avant-garde, Marxism, aesthetics, Futurism,

Constructivism, Productivism.

Introduction by Christina Lodder

This text appeared in 1923 in the very first number of the avant-garde
journal Lef, which stood for Levyi front iskusstv or the Left Front of the
Arts. Set up primarily by the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, Lef sought to
promote innovative creative ideals throughout the artistic sector despite
the aesthetic conservatism of official Soviet cultural bodies. Its opening
statement announced that Lef must “blow up the old junk,” “fight for
the aesthetic construction of life,” and prove that its approach was “the
true path to the impending future.”i
Nikolai Chuzhak’s article followed the opening program and acts
on several levels. It is an impassioned plea for production art based on
an application of Marxist dialectics to art and an emphatic rejection
of bourgeois aesthetics. The text also traces the way in which ideas
of production art emerged, providing an astute survey, analysis, and
critique of the avant-garde’s attempts to link aesthetic ideals with the
communist ideology of Bolshevik Party, following the October Revo-
lution of 1917. Chuzhak, who had some knowledge of Marxism and
had written about its relationship to art prior to 1917,ii had a decided
viewpoint, at odds with the vague radicalism of Lef’s program. His
criticism of his fellow editor in Lef, Osip Brik, is an early indication of
those differences within the Lef camp that resulted in Chuzhak’s res-
ignation from the editorial board in 1924 in disgust at Mayakovsky’s
adherence to traditional poetic genres.iii Having been based in Vladi-
vostok, Chuzhak was also eager to point out the contribution that the
provincial Creation group had made to discussions about Marxism
and art.
Chuzhak’s language is forceful and idiomatic, mixing philosophical
and political terminology with poetic neologisms, archaic words, allusions
to popular proverbs, and a wide range of cultural references. My transla-
tion has tried to balance the need for comprehensibility with the desire to
convey some flavor of this literary style. I hope that it has succeeded.

Notes on Introduction

 i. “Za chto boretsya Lef?,” Lef, no. 1 (1923): 1–5. Translation as

“What Does Lef Fight For?” in Anna Lawton (ed.), Russian Futur-
ism Through Its Manifestos, 1912–1928 (Ithaca and London: Cornell
University Press, 1988), pp. 191–5.
ii. N. Chuzhak, “K estetike marksizma,” 1912.
iii. N. Chuzhak, “Pis’mo v redaktsiyu,” Lef, no. 4 (1924): 213; and
Chuzhak, “Krivoe zerkalo. Lef v prelomlenii ‘Lefa,’ ” Oktyabr’
mysli, no. 2 (1924): 39–46. For a discussion of the differences that
Under the Banner of Life-Building 121

developed within Lef, see Devin Fore, “The Operative Word in So-
viet Factography,” October, no. 118 (2006): 95–131.

Under the Banner of Life-Building

(An Attempt to Understand
the Art of Today)
N.F. Chuzhak

At present, all kinds of our Russian art, from poetry to painting and
theater are at an unusual turning point. This is not just a routine crisis,
after which there will be the inevitable flowering. No, this is a real “to
be or not to be” situation, only free of theatrical flourishes. We have
rejected so much these past years that now we are confronted by the
­serious question: What should we consider to be art in our day and
what uncoordinated fragments of this art should we cultivate today,
faced as we are by the dissolution of art into life?

The Facts

So-called applied art declares that art should embellish work (nobody
still talks about art decorating life). The so-called Productivists stand on
the recognition that art itself is work. People who look at art from the
point of view of communist monism inevitably come to the conclusion
that art is only a quantitatively individual, temporary, and predomi-
nantly emotional method of life-building, and, as such, cannot remain
isolated, or what is more, self-sustaining compared with other ap­
proaches to life-building.
That is how art is presented in the light of tomorrow—and clearly,
a real muddle arises when this idea, which previously informed views
on art and its trends, works of art, and even the producers of this art,
is applied to the art of today! Art will flow together with life; art will
penetrate into life. And this means that art cannot be any sort of special
occupation, even understood as “work,” nor can there be a “work of
art” that is sep­arate from the unified flow of art and life or especially
made to be so.
All absolutes have gone to the Devil, and only little old men, trying
to look younger, who are readers “of the great deceased,” still mumble
about “eternal beauty,” and the theater as a refuge for “relaxation” and
“dreams,” while clerks studying a rejected aesthetic at Proletcult [The
Proletarian Cultural and Educational Organizations] [2] still dream about
restoring Nadson [3] and Pushkin [4]—and what about “presence”?
The presence of Russian art conforms very weakly to the developing
perspectives suggested by the communist idea.
122 N.F. Chuzhak

There [in theory] is the whole mass of objects, produced by an anony-

mous collective of artist-creators as a result of the process of the ­dialectical
development of material, and here [in actuality] making of an object and
the production of items of value are like some hardly perceived, dreamed
of ideal! There, there is the idea of overthrowing the creative artist, who
is now fertilizing and dissolving into the masses, and here, the wood-
worker is an ideal!—and a new step toward this—art as . . . engineering.
Art is only a shy apprentice in the face of the enormously developing
life that is being created. And its childish exertions are its creation, in the
name of a single lovingly fostered son (psychologically speaking) and
approach by contemporaries to the contradictions of the future growing
from the fragments of contradictions. Such, in its essential outlines, is
the art of today.
Why talk about projected workplace painting or even about Produc-
tivist Constructivism, when art is not producing the most elementary
objects? Is it worth cultivating the theater as some kind of packaged
biomechanics; music as some kind of condensed noise of barrel organs;
and the art of the word, as some kind of laboratory of language-making,
when real life beats out thousands of better and more genuine rhythms
and sounds, and the dance of this life is immeasurably more intricate
and complex than the plagiarisms of art?
This is precisely how the question now stands before that wing of
Russian art most sensitive to the throb of life, and it is not difficult to
see that some of its more blunt representatives have agreed, confused by
life, that art is agitational work, ignoring the fact that agitation, however
worthy, is only a temporary and therefore not an exclusive task for art,
and that even art as propaganda is not identical to it. Others have become
obsessed with nihilism, with the rejection of art, in the name of the
death of sentiment, etc.
“What can you say?” and “is art worth cultivating?”
Yes it is worth it insofar as …
Insofar as the emotional element is still inseparable from the com-
mon intellect. Insofar as we do not intend to burn out this element by
artificially castrating humanity, in the name of some theoretical “beauti-
ful eyes”—alas, this is still too “engineering-like,” too distant, although
categorically imperative …
Let us trace how the theory and practice of Russian art have de-
veloped in recent years and how the conceptions of it have evolved—
initially under the involuntary and instinctive attraction to the class
advancing to social hegemony, then under its indirect influence, and
finally under its direct pressure.

1. The Early Searches

In attempting to cover the most important achievements in the field

of art, which are closely connected with the social victories of recent
Under the Banner of Life-Building 123

years, one inescapably comes up against curious yet extremely char-

acteristic facts—indicating the unity and inevitability of the influences
on art from the fundamental driving forces of life—these are: first, the
solitary and partial discoveries concerning the general future position
of art in the relatively early years; and second the fact that that there
are noticeable parallels in the exploration of these positions by groups
of people who embrace the epoch, but who are completely separate
from one another geographically and not even always in agreement
Manifestations of the first category include, among others, an early
attempt by the writer of this article (“Toward an Aesthetic of Marx-
ism,” Irkutsk, 1912) [5], to apply the dialectical method to questions
concerning the theory and practice of art. The second category includes
those almost simultaneous, isolated, and parallel attempts that were
feeling their way toward a communist approach to aesthetics—in Petro-
grad (Art of the Commune [Iskusstvo kommuny]), in the Far East (the
Creation [Tvorchestvo] group) and to some extent in Berlin among the
Soviet-Russian groups (Object [Veshch/Gegenstand/Objet]) [6].
Having set myself the question of what art is “from the point of view
of the perspectives of the working class” (1912), the author of those
lines turned for a solution of the problems troubling him both to the
Marxist ideas concerning the fate of the working class (which has been
firmly consolidated and has its own views) and to the dialectical con-
structions of Marx and Engels. I took as my fundamental position, what
Marx declared in 1873 (exactly fifty years ago)—i.e. that:

Dialectics, in its mysticized form, transforms and enlightens ex-

istence. In its rational form, it encompasses not only a positive
conception of existence, but also a conception of its negation,
its necessary destruction, because it comprehends every existing
form in motion, and as something that is transient [7].

Having turned to this methodological approach in order to clarify

the structure of art, I came to certain essential and logical conclusions
First, what exactly is art? And second—what kind of art does the
working class need?
If at the basis of everything, including artistic activity, there is some kind
of material actuality (dialectical materialism), then this actuality is already
“something transient,” i.e. it contains “not only a positive understanding
of reality, but also an understanding of its negation.” From this it is clear
that the task of art is not to record everyday life objectively, as many who
call themselves Marxists have imagined up to now but by studying reality,
to realize the imagined antithesis, the revelation of which is of interest to
tomorrow, and to represent every synthesized (“realized”) form “in its
development,” i.e. under the banner of the new and the new process that
is perpetually revitalizing and developing material from within.
124 N.F. Chuzhak

“To reveal the ripening shoots of the future in visible reality”—

I wrote of art in 1912, somewhat solemnly, but already it seems applying
communist philosophy to art logically and consistently. “To reveal the
new reality hidden in the depths of the present day, and to throw aside
the moribund, which is temporarily predominant—that is the true aim
of art, considered in the light of dialectics” (“Toward an Aesthetic of
Marxism,” Irkutsk, 1912). And further, “the creation of new ideologi-
cal and material values in the light of the future—this is the only reliable
criterion in applying dialectics to art.”
We will see later what the most recent communist theories of art,
­fertilized by the recent social victories of the working class, have brought
to this conception of art, which was issued comparatively early on and
carelessly discarded.
Now to the question concerning what art is necessary to a class—
precisely what kind of art does the working class need i.e. what formal
means of expression correspond to its social mission and its feelings
about the world?
In that same early article I wrote that: “Dialectical materialism,
based on a conception of the relativity of objects, cannot give exclusive
or absolute recognition to any one of the existing or potential artistic
forms. The only unshakeable principle must be that of a correspondence
between content and form. Everything else is in flux.”
Considering “every existing form” as “something transient” or fluc-
tuating, in that same year of 1912, I tried to explain the correspondence
between the experiences of the “rising class” and what formal realiza-
tion was essential for it, although not native to it. Unlike the vulgarizers
of materialism (the official Marxists) who directly and totally equate
the productive condition of a given class with a given form of art, as the
art of precisely that class and as a simple and static representation of
it, I determined that there was a difference between the subjective role
and the objective function of every trend in art, emphasizing the inner
­coherence of the form, notwithstanding the simultaneous influence on
art of different social groups—from a subtle drawing of attention to
their interests to a barely concealed dictatorship. Moreover, I mentioned
only the correspondences in meaning (not equating them) but insisting
on the dialectic nature of every art form, and that means its transforma-
tion in relation to the subjective and direct interests of the ruling class.
I wrote that no class appearing on the stage of history immediately
acquires a culture, and this applies particularly to art. Every culture,
and particularly art, are gradually and painfully acquired by the rising
class in the long process of its self-realization as a class and its advance
to hegemony. Every new culture, and particularly every new art, grows
out of and gives rise to “tomorrow” from the depths of the culture and
art of the past. From the satirical songs of “the working class” to the
anthems “of the proletariat” is a long and painful, but a completely
inevitable and dialectically “necessary,” path.
Under the Banner of Life-Building 125

I was writing this, when so-called Symbolism was the latest achieve-
ment and the last word in Russian art. Deliberately treating Symbolism
conditionally as a formal structure of the ideas of tomorrow, which
excluded (for us) the possibility of a real and spontaneous construction,
we literally felt our way at an enforced “distance” from art to the forms
needed by the working class.
At that time in 1912, I was not pleased with any of the current artis-
tic trends, and almost like a sleepwalker concluded:
“The proletariat is a social group that is ambiguous by nature. On the
one hand, it is only a class, with all the peculiarities of the situation of a
class, i.e. with its narrow class struggle for existence, for an actual crust
of bread, for the basic existence of the family, etc.—and with a definite
and narrow class psychology. On the other hand, it is a class on whose
banner is inscribed freedom from the class yoke, more accurately speak-
ing, it is the last class, and as such cannot not possess its own particular
psyche, possessing as it does a foretaste of future norms.”
Such an ambiguous position creates an ambiguous psychology. And
the very tactic of Marxism, cultivating the class instinct, in order to lead
to the destruction of the class structure, and being profoundly monist
in its scientific and philosophical expressions, rests on premises that are
clearly ambiguous.
Sociology is helpless to remove this fatal discrepancy and bring har-
mony into this tragedy of the proletariat. The tasks of psychology, and
more importantly its weapon, art, are to shed light on this.
But even art is powerless to represent this combined dynamism and
the stasis of the worker in a single work. Moreover, since Symbolism (al-
though conditionally) represents a form that already provides a hint about
the future, a special and adequate form is needed to fully represent the
“dynamic” and reveal the “static” principle, a form that most sharply
reflects the position of the worker, who is doomed to live through the most
agonizing of all conflicts—the collision between what is and what will be.
Such a form is available to us—ultrarealism—a term that does not
express the necessary meaning precisely, is hackneyed, often used in a
negative sense, and has nothing in common with realism except a con-
ditional acceptance of reality as a basis. It is exactly conditional. Taking
reality for what it is in all its deliberately cynical nakedness, the ultra-
realist artist passes it through the prism of the dialectical revolution.
Because of this, all creation possesses a passionate character, as if it were
a taut bow string, a challenge, or a slap in someone’s face” [8].
And further (“Toward a Marxist Aesthetic,” Irkutsk, 1912):

Only a stern ultrarealism, without any shadow of lingering roman-

ticism, ruthless and almost caricature-like, is able to reflect all the
horror, all the tragedy of the working man, in whom brilliant minds
with clear eyes have begun to see a messiah, called upon to plant
heavenly gardens for mortals, and doomed to lead a swinish life, his
126 N.F. Chuzhak

children cursed by being old before their time, his wife and sisters
bought by drunken scum, and often he does not even know himself
for what great miracles he was born to be a soulless machine.

To transform reality in the long run, to realize it in all its desolation,

to illuminate a distant world, and create a future reality—this is the
path of art. Ultrarealism, representing the horror of the “static”
worker, is like a threshold for art, whose task is all in the future.

It is interesting to note that at the very same time (1912) as I turned

out those speculative lines, “It is in the air,” there appeared in distant
Moscow an artistic trend that set itself the aim: to intensify and sharpen
the contradictions of contemporary reality and by this means break into
“the future consciousness” and into the future [9].
The chronic loss of contact with, and reference to, art, during the years
of the civil war [10], the involuntary push to the seashore, the excessively
delayed acquaintance with the full (uncensored) “Cloud” [Cloud in Trou-
sers] of Mayakovsky [11], which with one stroke did more to clarify the
sought-for art than all the ardent (but still too tied to aestheticism) Futur-
ist agitation of his Far Eastern colleagues, meant that even seven years
later (Vladivostok, 1919) in the article “What Kind of Art is Close to the
Proletariat?” the present writer, in conducting a polemic with the oppo-
nents of the new art, could only assert half, while half had to be sensed
and guessed at. He had to deliberately approach the new trends condi-
tionally, like early Symbolism, unceremoniously breaking in the boots of
its structure, and, while discarding the survival of bourgeois aestheticism,
welcoming the growth of a form that could be a fellow traveler to the
proletariat, “nudging” and helping it to reorganize itself.
I wrote:

To speak about the abstract quality of Futurism, means to re-

veal hopeless incomprehension, precisely because, despite all the
complexities of artistic structure, it, more than any other trend, is
fighting against naked oversimplification; it, more than any others,
is fighting to make its images, notwithstanding their intimidating
“monstrosity,” more “meaty” and more “tangible.” In this lies
Futurism’s “contact with people,” in this lies its ability to “unite”
people, in this lies its ability to knock them on the head with life,
but with a life “enormously rushing by,” a life that is dialectically
developing and forging its future from its own contractions.

And here is my thesis:

Although complicated and symbolic, isn’t Futurism, in its present
form, nothing other than what we called, in the absence of any definite
term that could reflect the sought for meaning, ultrarealism, meaning
by it something cynical and relentless, alien to feelings of “regret,” a
Under the Banner of Life-Building 127

reflection of the contradictions of contemporary reality in the light of the

future—“regret” like an elusive cobweb, twists around the legs of the
creative person, preventing him from walking forward and upward?
And so what is Futurism from the dialectical point of view? How, to
what extent and when can it accompany the experiences of the working
Let us turn to Futurism in its 1919 manifestation—the manifesta-
tion [produced] by the writer of these lines personally, as well as by the
active core of the Far Eastern group of artists, who had linked their fate
with the fate of the working class.
Futurism, as it was discussed by the Far Eastern Creation [Tvorchestvo]
group, arose on Russian soil as much as through the laws of art’s inner
development, i.e. through the conflict of contradictions, as through
social and psychological laws. With regard to its inner (immanent) de-
velopment, it is strictly evolutionary i.e. “it derives from the father,”
considering the “father” to be the sum total of all previous achievements,
dictating the further development of art. With regard to its social and
psychological roots, it is undoubtedly revolutionary, since it was gener-
ated by a revolutionary psyche. Having developed immanently and for-
mally, its “art” receives its ideal (in terms of content) fertilization from
Futurism, as a formal phenomenon, appeared in Russia at the begin-
ning of the 1910s, having tried to absorb the formal language of Impres-
sionism and Symbolism, and taking them to their logical conclusion.
Russian Impressionism was a progressive literary trend on the threshold
of birth in art, but weakly impregnated with life, so that in the end it
died, like a class, through lack of movement. Futurism put dynamism
at the head of its corner; it synthesized the entire dispersal of spots into
an image-shout, and it launched this single shout like an arrow into
the future. Russian Symbolism, having performed mass for a class, de-
veloped into Acmeism [12], into a sculptural fossil—Futurism inspired
art’s walking corpse with unprecedented sounds.
Fairness, however, demands that I mention that the blossoming
forest of images of movement and sounds, synthesized rhythm, leaps,
and intonation, which is so characteristic of Russian Futurism, did not
immediately penetrate very far into the “art of the future” and if there
had not been a sunny fertilization of life (and we know that in the end,
this is a fertilization by one or another class), Futurism even now would
have stagnated into stuffy, purely formal investigations, imperatively
necessary and dictated from within, but an inert and powerless proposi-
tion, like all artistic trends (in Symbolism this was particularly evident)
that emerge without the presence of any demand from life. “The writer
writes, the reader reads.” But it is vacuous when it does not inflame; it
does not resonate. And Futurism would not have developed out of the
refined wordplay of Severyanin [13], just as it would have suffocated
in the scholastic trousers of D. Burliuk [14], if that creator, the crazy
128 N.F. Chuzhak

riot of enormously developing life, had not inspired it with the spirit of
intoxication and fire, and waved it onto a swing, which made heads that
were too tender began to whirl.
This is how Futurism was interpreted from a distance—cut off from
RSFSR [Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic] and its most recent
creative developments—to a significant extent in parallel with the most
revolutionary and authentically creative Russian groups. Coming from
the realization of the immensity of the achievements of the class base of
the new art, the Far Eastern groups perceived the aspiration of Futurism
to be just as immense.
In 1919, I wrote:

Here, in the Far East, where a mad seesaw of future art has
been changed so often that nobody worries about the rhythm
of the seesaw, where the soapy cord strangling the throat of the
­bourgeois-serf rabble did not allow Futurism to develop into a
natural wave—here for a long time Futurism did not leave the
boundary of “the room.” But there in distant Russia, where the
rhythmic dance of the Revolution cleared the atmosphere and had
an astounding effect on human susceptibility—there Futurism
truly became the unprecedented marvel of the twentieth century.

“In fact,” as the Englishman V.Y. Good confirms in his lecture concern-
ing art and culture in the new Russia, “this modernist(?) form of art,
having appeared to be dead, is now more animated than ever before,
and the exaggerated forms of its images alone reflect the colossal intel-
lectual and spiritual cyclone stirred up by the Revolution.”
And further:

Objectively, the Russian proletariat in the forward march of its

steps in history has been like Pygmalion [15], giving life to the
Galatea of Futurism, turning the evolved tasks of art into the cre-
ation of the Revolution.

Does it follow from this, however, that Futurism is the immutable

and absolute form of art given to the working class, as the only one that
can satisfy it now and for ever? No, of course not. “Everything is fine
in its time,” said one Russian dialectician, and all artistic trends should
definitely be approached with this good methodological measure.
The working class in Russia is not that young. There was a time
when, objectively speaking, it was still a developing estate, when it
was not hostile to but took to the alien culture of “realism,” because
the latter took notice of Rasteraev Street, leading it out of a condition
of social nonexistence, and presenting it as a social problem. And the
working class (estate) itself still fed on “My Lord Silly” … Later, there
was a time when Rasteraev Street developed into a town, when it took
Under the Banner of Life-Building 129

to trembling Impressionism, also from an alien culture, representing

(in its first phase) and objectively corresponding to this period of the
proletariat’s experience, and encouraging its disturbing ditties. Finally,
there was a time when Symbolism (symbols)—in the sense of an art of
new structures—didn’t simply correspond to, but was like air that was
essential to a working class that was realizing itself, and beginning to
demonstrate its historical mission, but not yet strong enough to infect
its own artists with this conviction, and make them create in art a new
and unseen life—in the image of the working class.

The position with Futurism is completely different. Futurism ap-

peared when the pregnant future class was already prepared to
give birth to the Revolution. This is why, organizationally as the
consumer of tomorrow, and spiritually as the future ruler, the
proletariat already subordinated itself, let us assume, not even
to its own artist (but precisely as the revolutionary intelligentsia
is not the revolutionary proletariat’s “own”) clearly having con-
vinced him that he was an inevitable necessity.

This is Futurism.
How did it develop further? And did the idea of Futurism develop in
the interpretations of the inhabitants of the Far East?
The idea did develop further, and it inevitably had to develop in con-
nection with the continuous influence of the Russian social base on the
consciousness, politics, and economics of the colonized periphery, even
behind the backs of the barriers of the Ataman sheiks. Even there, in
the Far East, already by the beginning of 1921, but still before the real
intersection of our cultural-artistic paths, we became aware, together
with the first two, of the third phase of Futurism, the Productivist,
which is now being promoted by us further, as the natural result of the
social fertilization of the new class.

1.  The laboratory and formal phase—already with the first break
through the limits of so-called graphic means.
2.  The tribune and poster phase—the time of the first fertilization of the
new art with a revolutionary, proletarian content. And
3.  The stage of the fusion of art and production.

This is the evolution of Futurism between 1921 and 1922. Let us hope
that just as it seems like this “from a distance,” that is how it is “in fact.”
Before us, there was not even a theory of this development—and it
hardly exists even now—but there was an intensified engagement with
propaganda images. We [in the Far East] lacked images, but it must be
owned that we had more leisure time to think.
Among others, it was we, at a distance and as a result of the fertil-
izing and healthy mutual approach of social activists and art-makers,
130 N.F. Chuzhak

who realized that Futurism is not a school, but a tendency to recon-

struct human striving toward “a future consciousness”—and this alone
explains why all those intentional or unintentional aesthetes gradually
left Futurism and why it naturally attracted around itself all the young,
willfully victorious and rebellious.
So, dotting the is and crossing the ts, by mid-1921 we had already
written (introduction in Toward a Dialectics of Art) [16]:

The proletariat has already fertilized the new art with its life-giving
breath—without waiting for the Pharisees and the bookworms to
give it its “term.” And if the second phase of Futurism must not only
be acknowledged to be necessary, but has become essential to the
working class, coloring its basic aspirations and the creations of its
most prominent and talented proletarian poets, then most recently
Futurism has put forward, perhaps for the first time, a concept of art
not as individual “expertise” and “decoration” of life, but as one of
the forms of production, as a collective forging of new images from
life itself—and Futurism has extended the limits of what was yester-
day still a “school” into what is more real than reality: “philosophy.”
Today, by rights, Futurism must be acknowledged to be proletarian
art, in the literal, organizational, and spiritual sense of the word.

And further:

Futurism is fortunate in that it was born within the framework

of the bourgeois art structure, and completed its development not
as an obsolete “school,” like other artistic trends of recent de-
cades, but directly in parallel with the opening of a new era of
everyday life, and the increasing growth of man’s new commu-
nist consciousness. Whatever were or weren’t even the outlines of
the art closest to the working class and whatever new elements,
new names, distinct moments, and intensifications it acquired—
Futurism, especially the latest stage of Futurism, is part of it—just
as “you can’t omit a word from a song” …

In Productivism—the third stage of Futurism, which has now been

developed further by us—first territorially, then toward the end of 1922,
our paths crossed and our individual strivings were artificially dissolved.
Productivism is the last path, uniting us, and under its banner our group
[i.e. Lef  ] has been formed.
Its realization will help us to advance further.

2. Attempt at Analysis

If you look at left-wing literature on the theory of art published in the

capital during the past five years (it is so little!), you will notice with
Under the Banner of Life-Building 131

curiosity how speculation in the field of art developed among our Rus-
sian friends impetuously and by leaps and bounds, corresponding to the
feverish onrush of the times, but (and it was the same with us [in the Far
East]) in a clash of contradictions, with shy regrets as well as radicalism,
along the path of an obvious eclecticism.
I am hardly mistaken when I say that the first attempts to realize
art in the RSFSR appeared in the Petersburg newspaper, Art of the
Commune, a most curious theoretical weekly, organized like a pam-
phlet (December 1918–April 1919) [17]. This was the stormy period
of the onslaught of the working class, a time of happy offensives on in-
violable “cultural values” of all kinds, like “the constituent assembly,”
“democracy,” “classless science and art,” and “the priesthood,” and it
was understandable then that such atheistic fervor percolated the most
conspicuous writings of the ringleaders of Art of the Commune, from
Mayakovsky’s poetic “Order to the Army of Art” [18] and Brik’s [19]
theoretical attacks, to the Komfut [Communist-Futurist] romanticism
of Kushner [20] and even to Punin’s [21] relatively calm feuilletons,
these were the heavy guns of the newspaper …

Into the streets—Futurists, Drummers and poets!

appealed the poet, supreme commander of the paper—and he was con-

fident that:

We will greet the hundredth anniversary [22].

This was, of course, the minimum program of the Art of the Commune,
in upper and lower case letters—i.e. the call for art to go into the streets1
still defined only the middle stage of Futurism, the stage of posters and
tribunes. The poet, whose name decorated three-quarters of this first,
revolutionary stage in both form and content—was wonderfully accom-
panied by the newspaper’s fleet theoreticians, who were trying to take
theory itself out onto the street.
Enthusiastic Brik, with all the weapons of revolutionary denial, in
the name of some kind of new, as yet barely tangible truths, already in
a frenzy, seizes hold of the beards of the “venerables,” under the sounds
of the first revolutionary drums and drags them down from their “heav-
enly” pulpits of so-called “free” art and the “priesthood.”
Quiet and dreamy Kushner is already loudly inspired, overthrowing
everything that isn’t the music of drums, and openly asking the ques-
tion: “Isn’t it better to throw what is most decrepitly mellifluous into
the city’s sewers and to appear rumbling more powerfully and more in
accord with the nature of our hearing?” [23].
It is repeated, undoubtedly sincerely, even by those who were carried
away by the music of the epoch, who burnt their fingers further with
guns, taken for good democratic pipes, and who later left the Art of the
132 N.F. Chuzhak

Commune and were struck down, some by safeguarding their grandfa-

thers’ traditions in the museums and in IZO [Department of Fine Arts
within the Commissariat for Enlightenment] [24], and others in the dry-
ness of the apolitical emigration.
“Art is action and, as such, can only belong to the present; behind us
we have the results of action, in front—the plans for action.” This is the
slogan of the art of the epoch.
Mystery Bouffe [25], a satire and ode to the Revolution by Maya-
kovsky, is one of the most characteristic signs of the times, a kind of
studio for adapting the classics—and its best battering ram.
Nevertheless, this is only the minimum program. An extraordinary
leap, splendidly effective, and sheer “direct action,” but—there was al-
ready too great a running start, too many imperative organic tasks of the
day, the tasks of construction—for a theory of art, even in those days,
not to instinctively and feverishly break straight into construction.
And so, we see that—collectively they acted instinctively and sepa-
rately, with whimsical eclecticism in comparison with the future line—
even so all the most important words for the future were already issued
in Art of the Commune.
Having just been employed on the streets by many-colored gleaming
crowds and demonstrations, art is not lost, although it is sometimes in
the pose of a timid drummer, not so much leading the people as nudg-
ing them, and sometimes in the attitude of a brilliant dumbing-down
[by limiting revolutionary aims to those intelligible to the masses] [26]
inevitable in that loud and noisy time—but it strives to do precisely the
opposite, to collect itself—from being dissipated in the crowd to con-
densing its vernal energy—from the condition of a brilliant isolation to
fusing with work.
And at that time, when the practice of art is still arrogantly con-
vinced that “all the Soviet deputies cannot move the army if the musi-
cians don’t play the march,” theory, already mistrustful, looks to the
future, when with the possible intensification of real progress, [it would
become] too separated from the base of the superstructure and even if
it moved to the role of drum, it would be in danger of appearing po-
etic, being cast aside and doomed to a silent death. Theory instinctively
makes an attempt to touch the very basis of life—economics—not the
conspicuous expression of it, in the form of politics, insurrection and
demonstration, but—its very heart—production.
At the beginning, in an attempt to save art, the theory of art stumbled
upon the question of “aims” and tried to base itself in this question.
“Aims! Here is a new point,” writes the mysterious Vydra [27]—
who ambiguously fires up contemporary art. We will formulate once
again the disagreement in question.

The aim of art is education, the ennoblement of humanity,

and the destruction of its barbaric and bestial characteristics. Old
Under the Banner of Life-Building 133

artists say that the aim of art is to influence material in order to

influence people.

No, the aim of art is to influence material in order to exercise

power over it, for the aim of art lies in itself alone and does not
depend on any kind of conventional conception concerning the
state of humanity. The aim of art is the achievement of perfect
forms [28].

Here there is already some indication of the disagreement that was

not only felt then, but also in the future—in the sense of a dissatisfac-
tion with the applied character of art, including agitational art, and a
dissatisfaction with its narrow and applied agitational quality. But here
there is also too much naive idealism, treating art as an aim in itself and
enclosing it in “purity” and formal “perfection.”
Brik approached the question more tenaciously, although with
opposite exaggerations and a simplified materialism.
“The Bourgeoisie,” he says, “thought that the single aim of art is to
distort life. The proletariat thinks otherwise. Not to misrepresent life,
but to create (as you see, at the end of 1918 this word was still used, to
be replaced later by the word ‘to produce’—N. Ch.). And not the intoxi-
cation of expressing ideas, but a material object. We supplied the idea
of the object. We do not need your ideas. (! N. Ch.) We love our living,
material, fleshy life. If you artists, if you can create, originate—create for
us our human nature, our human objects. If you cannot create anything
of your own, if all your art mangles living reality into different tunes,
you are not needed by us, you are surplus to our requirements” [29].
Of course, here there is a lot more impassioned radicalism of the
proselyte and naive quasi-materialistic writing in the style of Pisarev
[30], but there are also healthy spurts of those future ideas that would
color the third phase of Futurism:
“It is essential that we immediately organize an institute of mate-
rial culture, where artists can be trained for work on the creation of
new objects for proletarian use (later this idea went ‘into Constructiv-
ism’ N. Ch.), where models of these objects, (that means once again
“ideas”—N. Ch.) these future works of art, can be developed.”
“Everyone who loves living art, who understands that it is not an idea
but a real object that is the aim of every true creative act, and who can
create objects must take part in establishing these genuine proletarian
centers of artistic culture. Reality and not a sign. This is the slogan of the
future art of the commune” (O. Brik, Art of the Commune, 1918) [31].
In this way, the everyday concept of “the object” first appeared in art
practice—that is if you don’t count Mayakovsky’s use of this word and
idea in 1916 (“Man Object”) when in writing those lines he employed
economic jargon to define art as “the creation of spiritual and material
values” [32].
134 N.F. Chuzhak

Here I should point out that theory alone did not run ahead, seeking
“a union” with material life, but art practice also, in the person of the
most impulsive poet of the time, who is clearly already oppressed by the
fatal isolation “of its idea,” and loudly declares:

The Gospels and the Koran have been written for us,
A lost and returning paradise,
And yet,
And yet
More and more books
Promise every joy in life after death, intelligence and cunning.

On earth we want
Not to live above
Nor beneath
all these fir trees, houses, roads, horses and grass!
We have had enough of the sweetness of heaven,—
Give us rye bread to munch!
We have had enough of paper passion
Give us a living woman to live with [33].

This, however, does not prevent the poet going all the way—
Mystery Bouffe is a picture of the future, precisely about “idea” and
Art, as the straightforward, material creation of objects, is the first
stone in the maximum program of Art of the Commune. O. Brik and
N. Punin write simultaneously about “objectness”2 [34].
The next stone is the phrase mentioned in passing, “art like every
other kind of production” (Brik) [35]. And its development by the edi-
torial board “It is believed that the separate existence of art and pro-
duction is an immutable law. We see in this distinction a survival of the
bourgeois system” [36].
Developing this correct position, B. Kushner concludes with a new
radical exaggeration in No. 7: “Inspiration is an empty and foolish
fairy tale … inspiration is abolished absolutely (! N. Ch.), and without
reprieve.” [37]. Yet, only a few lines earlier, in this same issue, the edi-
tors, appearing adequately restrained, declared: “We consider the chief
task of proletarian art to be the complete destruction of the concept of
‘free creativity’ and ‘mechanical work’ and their replacement with one
concept—creative work” [38].
N. Punin already makes the first distinction between applied art
and production. “The point” he says, “is not decoration, but the cre-
ation of new artistic objects. Art for the proletariat is not a holy temple;
where the lazy only contemplate, but work, a factory that produces
artistic items for everyone” [39]. (What “artistic items” are is not
Under the Banner of Life-Building 135

explained; likewise, the idea “of Constructivism” has not yet entered
anyone’s head—N. Ch.)
From the rejection of “lazy contemplation” to mastering material
is one step. And this step is the last fugitive stone in the maximum
program of Art of the Commune as it is ostensibly outlined in No. 15
(Vydra): “Art is mastery.” But here, instead of concentrating on this
point, there is the unbalanced addition “perfection and movement for-
ward” [40].
As I have already said, all the main words for the future platform
of the third stage of Futurism were already tossed out in Art of the
Commune. But they were tossed out half by chance as if dropped, and
half lightly in passing, moreover, completely unmotivated and merely
announced, like something that makes sense by itself. Not only the
practice of the newspaper, but also the whole practice of Futurism at
that time was almost entirely based on the agitational poster.
The distance between the second and third stages was very signifi-
cant, and additionally deepened by the purely fellow-traveler coopera-
tion. As much as the agitational poster was maintained precisely and
aggressively, to that extent the line of materialization was eclectic and
Nevertheless, despite the evident eclecticism, even despite the after-
taste of the vulgarization of Marxism, in view of the complete move to
the side of tangible objectism, Art of the Commune was not only the
first in the RSFSR, and parallel with the Far Eastern group Creation, to
sprint on to the last stage of Futurism, but up to the present it has not
been surpassed, or even extended, and only very weakly continued.
Here—there are as many compliments for the theoreticians of the
time of Art of the Commune as there are reproaches … concretely of
course and nominally for the theoreticians of the production stage in
Let us turn to 1919. What is new in the life of future art? The Futur-
ists in Petersburg are gaining a position in IZO and publish one issue of
the art journal Fine Art [Izobrazitel’noe iskusstvo] [41].
The celebrated capture of IZO clearly does not come cheaply for
­Futurism; at least, judging by Fine Art, Futurism itself falls into the hand-
some captivity of IZO. The number of “fellow travelers” and their circle
expands. Of course, eclecticism becomes stronger. Cleverly operating with
Marxist phraseology although not thinking like a Marxist, N.N. Punin
clearly drowns the unaffiliated but precise Brik. Spineless Shterenberg
[42], the commissar of IZO, popularized through stylized lubki, steams to
bursting point toward the objectism of Tatlin [43]. And all this is flavored
with the emphatic nonobjective suprematism of Malevich [44].
As a whole, this is a big step backward in comparison with Art of
the Commune. True, the main article of the journal, “The Proletariat
and Art” by Punin, is dated April 1918 [45]. Perhaps the journal was
prepared before Art of the Commune? …
136 N.F. Chuzhak

In it, not only is there no whiff of “Productivism,” but even the

elementary idea of the object is missing. Evidently, they talked about
it and then discarded it … The editorial, dated “Petersburg-Moscow,
May 1918” based on a hopeless eclecticism, is a kind of official and
benevolent declaration, equally tolerant toward all trends “if they can
provide the elements for a new artistic culture” [46]. Brik’s article, “The
Artist and the Commune,” somewhat destroys the generally indulgent
tone of the journal, but it only makes one attack; Brik undermines the
priesthood, but there is no sound or hint about the ills of Futurism’s
rise [47].
N.N. Punin’s article is perhaps the clearest, most detailed and com-
plete of all that was written, if not by the “Left Front,” then in the
publications of the Left Front in the period 1918–21. But it is the most
alien to the Left Front and the most conservative, despite the author’s
greater dialectical advantage in comparison with the theoreticians of the
Left Front [48].
Here there can be no talk about objectism in art. In this there are
pluses and minuses. The pluses are the absences of any exaggerations
and vulgar misrepresentations of dialectical materialism. The minuses
are the absences of those first Productivist inclinations, on which Art of
the Commune agreed and so too did N. Punin himself at the time.
Objectism is treated completely conventionally: art is a “method,
thanks to which one or another artistic perception is given substance.”
On top of this, the author persistently campaigns against so-called “aes-
thetic emotion,” without even distinguishing between aims and means,
but he also rejects “the spontaneous-utilitarian significance of art”
(“Artistic creation differs from other kinds of creation in that it does
not posses, like mathematics for example, a spontaneous-utilitarian sig-
nificance”). And this means that he rejects the concept of art as the ma-
terial construction of objects. There remain “ideas of objects,” which
somewhat straightforwardly, but with healthy protestant laughter,
O. Brik mocks in Art of the Commune.
This eclectic muddle, however, doesn’t end here. In his article,
N. Punin stands firmly on the platform of art as a method of perception.
This can be considered a healthy bourgeois achievement (bourgeois aes-
thetics did not go beyond this), but even this proposition sounds fairly
abstract in Punin’s writing. Namely: “Art doesn’t serve anyone or any-
thing; it is an instrument that helps humanity to extend its horizons,
its experience, and in this way its culture” [49]. This wouldn’t matter,
if it were only Punin who held this spineless position, but no; the
entire article of the editors’ introduction is not based on the theory of
the construction of objects, but only on art as a “cognitive human ac-
tivity” What were our friends in the capital thinking to publish such
articles? [50]
I do not know what they were thinking at the time of Fine Art, but
1921 showed that the idea of the spontaneous production of objects
Under the Banner of Life-Building 137

through art had by no means died, fed by the strivings of the class that
was not only continuing the greatest of all revolutions in the name of
the destruction of the class structure, but was also flying the flag of the
culture of the new structure of objects, the culture of the reconstruction
of production. This idea ferments simultaneously in a fair number of
Soviet heads: it occupies our Futurist comrades in IZO who had moved
from Piter [Petrograd] to Moscow; it is being developed independently
in Proletarian Culture [Proletarskaya kul’tura] by the Proletcult activ-
ist, B. Arvatov [51]; the Far Eastern Futurists are thinking about it;
I. Ehrenberg’s [52] group in Berlin is developing it, and in many re-
spects their conclusions agree with ours; and V.E. Tatlin moves from the
weak, halfhearted counter-reliefs of 1916 toward the idea of Construc-
tivism. In that same year of 1921 the small collection, Art in Production
[Isksstvo v proizvodstve], is published in Moscow, immediately becom-
ing a focus for theory.
What does the editor of the collection suggest is the purpose of art?
—“The introduction of artistic elements into the life of production in
general, the transformation of the form of the production process and
the form of everyday life through art” [53].
It must be said that, in terms of concrete expression and precision,
this definition is hardly the first in a series of attempts to realize the
new tasks of art. But it must be noted that the study of the tasks men-
tioned in the collection Art in Production does not go any further than
the “introductory” definition. On the contrary, the future tasks of the
new art seem to dissolve and even disappear completely into the “foggy
The resolution of these [tasks] is not helped by the venerable com-
missar of IZO, D. Shterenberg, who opens the collection with his article
“It Is Time to Understand,” from which one can only understand that
Productivism differs in some way from applied art, but in what exactly,
it is impossible to say. The most precise [statement] in the article is
that “Art in production signifies the most expedient approach and the
maximum qualifications.” But the term “art in production” itself is still
confused with applied art [54].
In the article “On the Order of the Day,” O. Brik does not make the
slightest attempt to expand his decree-like phraseology of 1918 [55].
Trying to discover what our comrades mean by “art in production,” we
only stumble upon the explanation: “By artistic production we mean
simply merely (‘simply merely’—indeed! N. Ch.) a conscious and cre-
ative attitude (! N. Ch) to the production process” [56]. Attitude to
production—instead of the advertised production!
“We must open everyone’s eyes and show that what is valuable is
not a beautifully decorated object, but an object that is intelligently
made” [57].
An intelligently made object, an intelligent attitude toward the pro-
cess of making—this alone is new and a new cipher.
138 N.F. Chuzhak

Instead of expanding this, there is the usual decree: “We must prove
to the workers that work in production is the greatest cultural power
and help them to possess it creatively” [58].
That “prove to the workers” hardly follows. Perhaps it would have
been more important to prove it to the following author in Art in Pro-
duction. A. Fillipov is still not able to abandon “the joyful need to deco-
rate life” and only dreams of a “constructive imagination” [59].
A. Fillipov actually deals with Marxist terminology, but his Marxism
peacefully coexists with the most openly announced metaphysics. So, in
talking about applied art, he explains the appearance of production art
in the following way:
“But—in accordance with the idea of the laws of inevitability, which
exist in the world (!) ideas and separate experiments with another con-
cept of art and its embodiment appeared long ago” [60].
In this way art develops in isolation from the relations of pro-
duction and real life … in accordance with “the idea of the laws of
And further—there is great “news”:
“The aspirations of the new production art can be formulated by ap-
plying the ideas of K. Marx concerning learning to artists: in a certain
way artists have only represented the world, but the task is to change
it” [61].
I give up—isn’t this the same news about “the new” art that the pres-
ent author, also proceeding from the position of Marx concerning the
dialectical transformation of the world, already formulated in 1912?
So the idea of Productivism in art, emerging into the light in 1918, is
hardly in the rank of the “the law of inevitability changing ideas”—and
so the minds of the Futurist theoreticians remained hypothetical masks,
struggling with practicalities in a series of distinct approaches, which
were more or less of an “applied art” nature. More luck was had by the
idea, fertilized by the process of work in art (and science)—in the area
of the direct construction of objects through art. After fruitless mark-
ing time on one spot around the terms issued, the idea of Productiv-
ism crystallized into what is called Constructivism and there it gave off
new growth.
Without one intelligent theoretician, studying more from life than
from drawings, immersed completely at times in blind Russian nihilism
(A. Gan) [62]—the Constructivists, the only theoreticians coming from
practical work, from the machine, from the plough (the Productivists
are not an example to them, having no philosophy, and trying to go
from philosophy)—the Constructivists all the same were able to find
some holds on life, and they were the first to present to the theoreticians
from theory some hints about material objects, about which—as some-
thing still pathetic, but tangible—it is already possible to speak.
Constructivism—having taken off from Productivism already in
1920 and having begun its fight for the future of the picture plane and
Under the Banner of Life-Building 139

the overthrow of easel painting; evolving under the imperative of work

generated by the Revolution, from the first break with easel painting
through texture [faktura] to the first experimental counter-reliefs; and
finally to defined utilitarian objectives—with some success, tried to cap-
ture the theater in 1922, and having established itself, broke into bud.
In the theater, Constructivism went under the flag of uniting a Con-
structive set (decorations, properties, costumes)—calculated to show if
not the objects then their models—with “constructive” gestures, move-
ments, mime (the biomechanics of Vs. Meyerkhold) [63]—the rhyth-
mically organized actor. The constructive biomechanical theater waged
a struggle against psychologism—here paralleling the general Futurist
struggle against psychology—cultivating movement and skill, essential
for a person in production.
The theater as a place of intimate experiences and relaxation is
banned. The theater is now the leader of proletarian culture, organiz-
ing man’s will and all his psyche—directing it toward victory over the
machine and full possession of it, on the plane of organizing the cre-
ative collective, parallel to class social organization. Taylorization of
the word, the elasticity of the taylorized gesture (here there is a parallel
with the Scientific Institute of Labor) [64], the energetic structures, freed
from all heavy bourgeois objects entangling man—this is the slogan of
the new theater …
… Futurism gave birth to Productivism. Productivism (in rough out-
line) gave birth to Constructivism. Constructivism gave birth to biome-
chanics. Biomechanics—in accordance with the logic of inertia—gave
birth to eccentrism, circus-ism, stunt-ism and all kinds of other similar
small “isms,” apparently created merely to justify the proverb about the
distance between the sublime and the ridiculous. Add agitational art,
not yet obsolete, but now reduced to the cabaret and humorous ditties;
add advertising art, created as if intentionally to vex the editorials of
comrade Steklov [65]; finally add the so-called “red” cheap novel and
similar output of fellow-travelers and non fellow-travelers in our hurly-
burly—and you will understand the long-term difficulty for left art that
this abundant flowering has caused—naturally, life demands a move
from depth to width, but with such a flood of ink being dispatched—
one can’t see the wood for the trees.
The difficulty is intensified by the fact that any unifying conception has
been lost. Every pen pusher declares his own trend, every craftsman—is a
wood. Along with tens of provincial philosophies that have disappeared,
a philosophy of art has totally disappeared in literature. Along with tens
of movements, methods, and little ideas that have sometime or other
been lost to eternity—the idea of Futurism has also been lost.
Our efforts must be dedicated to the realization of the guiding phi-
losophy of art, as one of the methods of life-building. All the steps of the
ideologists of the front must be directed toward renewing the guiding
idea of Futurism among those embracing applied art and similar ideas.
140 N.F. Chuzhak

3. Synthesis

The proletarian Revolution, not having yet completed its logical devel-
opment and found its line of rest—already in 1921 followed the policy
of contracting its extent, made necessary by coexisting with NEP [the
New Economic Policy] [66].
The temporary setback of the Revolution, following the policy of
general contraction, naturally reached art.
The maximum industrial words and calls for an immediate break-
through into production, issued in 1918 and again now—also came
under the pressure of the setback and, perhaps for this reason, flagged.
The Revolution was under two burdens. On the one hand—the
­incomplete development of capitalist industry and postwar, postrevo-
lutionary economic devastation forced the Revolution into surrender.
On the other hand, these very same conditions, plus the will to victory
of the victorious class, categorically dictated to the working class the
necessity (perhaps titanic)—but there was really no other way out—
that precisely now, in these unrepeatable conditions, was the time for a
breakthrough into creative production.
Art is also under these two burdens.
Today art, i.e. Futurist art, cannot remain simply acquiescent in
the work of the Revolution, but it must inevitably follow the policy of
breaking through into production; it must not wait for a new swing, but
go now immediately into production and cultural construction. It must
do this as much in the name of organic self-preservation as from fear
that in the unknown developing fight between two industrial cultures,
it will be thrown out on the threshold of construction for being com-
pletely unnecessary to anyone.
Has old art thought of its role in this way?
Certainly not.
What in general distinguishes the old aesthetic, even in its best
­examples, from the new science of art?
The old aesthetic, even in its best examples, was based on a conception
of art as a definite method for acquiring a knowledge of life. However
many adjustments theory made to this, the definition was very clearly
the same—none of the theoreticians of the past advanced the statement
further, by any kind of experiment (the accumulation of “human docu-
ments”) or limp sermon, dried out into the bargain through the delight
of perception. Even fatal and “accursed” moments arose, connected with
art, and consisting of positions, such as “Art only asks questions, but
never resolves them” (the classical heritage), or “We artists say we raise
our hands against a crowd of scorpions, but they drop faded roses on
them” (the realist Veresaev) [67]. These withered and inactive concep-
tions about the function of art are like Hamlet’s entourage.
Not long ago, it was precisely this conception of art (as a means
of cognition) that P. Kogan [68] exposed unintentionally in one of his
Under the Banner of Life-Building 141

articles for VTsIK News [Izvestiya VTsIK]. In 1919, our Moscow theo-
reticians of Futurism based themselves on this compromise statement—it
has to be said!—and through some strange play of eclecticism—mixed
this concept with the bony idea of Productivism.
Using dialectics not at all badly, one of the theoreticians of the con-
struction of objects, N.N. Punin, in the article “Art and the Proletariat”
wrote (and this reasoning was repeated in the editors’ introduction for
the journal Izo):

The cognitive character of artistic activity is evident in itself, inso-

far as this activity is creative. Creation has no other aim than the
aim of cognition. (!)

Art is created (!) by man and created by the force of an inner

necessity to understand the world, through all the means at art’s
disposal [69].

And in the conclusion there is that kind of dyed-in-the-wool idealism

that isn’t even obligatory for bourgeois aesthetics:

Artistic activity is powerful by nature and vital in its importance.

Cleansed of its class consciousness, it is self-sufficient and im-
mutable (!) [70].

Artistic activity has existed and will (? N. Ch.) exist insofar as hu-
manity will exist (! N. Ch.); but only when it is left to itself (? N.
Ch.) will its conformity to its inner laws and its natural interests
have a real and inevitable social importance, and art can become
what it should be: a classless (! N. Ch.), highly organized, and
social weapon of cognition.

Without touching on this barefaced idealistic blurb, we will focus

particularly on what is emphasized throughout the whole article—and
for which all the editors are responsible—the role of cognition: it is ines-
capable. As you see, art has not only “existed” under the banner of cog-
nition, and not only does it “exist” now (despite our declaration of the
immediate construction of objects!) under this banner, but it “will exist”
under this inert banner, which is clearly a result of the bourgeoisie’s fear
of construction. Art will even be “cleansed of class consciousness”!
Cognition (what is cognition for?) is a fatal theory of the bourgeoi-
sie and of our dear and “dialectical,” but typically academic, stay-at-
From henceforth this theory must be brought to an end!
We understand that the bourgeois is permanently frightened of the
ghost of the inevitable gravedigger behind him; everywhere he goes,
in science and in art, even in politics, this fear is exposed when con-
fronted by a real creative path, something typical, something sacred
142 N.F. Chuzhak

and principled—the irrational. So even in Symbolist art, for instance, the

bourgeois had already tried to construct the world, i.e. his idea of the
necessary structure that was needed, and didn’t dare to advance to uto-
pianism and mysticism, these characteristically philosophical equivalents
of fear. That is how it is. But we definitely do not understand why a class
that would lose nothing in an active approach to life, except its chains,
and gain the whole world, why the proletariat needs to drape itself in
these old bourgeois rags which are no longer of any use to anybody.
Accepting the subsidiary quality of cognition—the working class,
here, there, and everywhere, both in real, active science and in real, ac-
tive artistic creation, and in the active physical fight for the necessary
social structure—here, there, and everywhere, the proletariat moves the
center of gravity from cognition to the immediate construction of ob-
jects, including in this the idea [of cognition]—but only as a definite
engineering model.
Naive utopianism (not to mention mysticism, which is the equivalent
of fear) is alien to the working class precisely because it does not contain
an intelligible or constructive model of reality—and reality is forged
through the exposure and mistakes of contradictions—the basis for real
construction. Only the idea, as the product of the dialectical realization
of objects, deserves the intense attention of the proletariat. Only the
idea of the dialectical “feeling” for the world through material is the
productive, and real precondition for the construction of the material
object. The same goes for “understanding.”
Art as a method of understanding life (from this arises passive
contemplation)—is the most naive and at the same time the most detailed
and insubstantial content of the old bourgeois aesthetic.
Art as a method for life-building (from this arises working with ma-
terial) is the slogan under which the proletarian conception of the sci-
ence of art advances.
Art is an original, mainly emotional (only mainly and it only differs
from science in this advantage) dialectical approach to the construction
of life. Here is a precise and clear watershed “aesthetic.” The new sci-
ence of art advances under the banner of life-building—also overcom-
ing. The stage of [art as] cognition of life retreats to the museum, and
with it all kinds of Hamletism.
I wrote in the brochure of Over the Heads of the Critics (Chita, 1922):

Passivity of perception and the isolation of the perceiver from the

process of creation (production) are the main evils of the old art.
And these evils are so great that no kind of palliative can efface
them. The old art does not merely suggest, but it also demands
a passive, soft as beeswax, so-called perceptive psyche, essential
for contemplation. The principle of anaesthetization is inherent in
the very nature of the old art [71].
Under the Banner of Life-Building 143

Naturally, the proletariat has nothing to do with this “principle.”

Based on the industrial (creative) nature of the working class, the

ideology of this class cannot remain indifferent to anything that
­destroys the proletariat’s will to victory, intentionally or uninten-
tionally, or delays the moment of reconstructing the whole world.
The issue of the victorious psyche is an issue of life and death. The
struggle with the perceptive passivity of the past and with nine-tenths
of available art is an important task that cannot be postponed.

A sharp and uncompromising stand must be taken on this point.

The working of material is not only the destiny of the artist. The
masses are becoming keen on the process of creation. There are
no more “temples” of art, or shrines, where the sacred absolutes
of priests reside, shrouded in incense. There are workshops, fac-
tories, mills, and streets where commodity values are created in
the generally festive process of production.

Art is the business of everyone; art is in the very pores of life itself;
life penetrates art, like a very prominent rhythm.

The rhythm of art is the rhythm of life—it is a single unity.

Absolutes will be dethroned and treated as ordinary commodi-

ties, if, by that time, there are no outworn ideas, and the terminol-
ogy itself is discarded.

No commodity “valuables” will be created by individuals if they

“demand Apollo as a sacred priest,” but the new, still unknown
constructions of worked material will be built by humanity in a
unified monist process.

Art as a unified joyful process of rhythmically organized produc-

tion of commodity values, conceived in the light of the future—this
is the program of that trend that every communist should pursue.

The promotion of this revelation with all the means at one’s

­disposal, beginning with the thorough reconstruction of human
society and ending with the effective support of every available
­artistic trend that is exercising the desire to overcome and is ­already
striving toward the rhythmic and organized hammering out of
­objects—this is our approach to art-construction every day.
144 N.F. Chuzhak

Posing the question of what art is in the organized construction of

the day, S. Tretyakov in parallel, in that very same year of 1922, (Chita,
brochure about painting), wrote:

Art is a front, directly attacking its requirements and subjugating

its theory and practice to the tasks of constructing life in solidar-
ity [with the working class]. It is a front fighting to unify into one
whole two opposing elements—the army of many millions given
to passive contemplation and the small group of specialists and
inventors in art—so that in unity and solidarity they can do the
work of humanity, percolating through to everyone the same joy
of a continually new vision of the world and a single inventive
impression of the expressive construction of everything that man
needs [72].

Some of these early ideas had already been put forward, as has been
shown, by our Russian friends; others were suggested by us first. But
the link between these attempts to define the task of the art of today, in
the struggling life of the proletarian capital and in the distant provinces,
isolated from that life, is characteristic. In connection with the real-
ization, as I have already remarked, we made progress—in our leisure
time—further, in connection with art practice, we were not aware of
those comparatively modest images, organically bursting through into
the reality of art, that were characteristic of the capital, stormily pulsat-
ing under the banner of the new construction.
Returning to our earlier definition of art, already in 1912 we read
(“Toward an Aesthetic of Marxism,” Irkutsk): “The creation of new
ideological or material values—this is the only reliable criterion, from
which dialectics can approach art.”
What have the latest theories brought to this approach to art?
There are two different corrections to be made.
First, not “creativity” but “production”—the correction is not es-
sential, but suggests the immediate task of today. And …
Second, this is not a damned division about “form” and “content,”
now that we are talking only about the function of objects. This correc-
tion is extraordinarily important.
But there are also inherent minuses.
First, having burst into production, our theoreticians have not even
asked themselves the question how precisely is an object to be created
(produced) through art? They do not possess a dialectical mode of
Second, they have not even conceived, with the power of their non-
dialectical method, so called ideological values (objects).
This has given rise to a crude vulgarization of materialism, a defi-
nite applied art, a lack of esteem for it, and a kind of dumbing-down
Under the Banner of Life-Building 145

[limiting revolutionary aims to those intelligible to the backward

It is our duty to discard the minuses and introduce the corrections.
So: Art—insofar as we conceive it—is a temporary activity, which in
future will be fully dissolved into life; it is original, and constructed on
the use of emotions; it is the production of values (objects) needed by
the [working] class and humanity.
Insofar as we use the ideological (like material) values that are built on a
dialectical understanding of the world, and only use them from the point of
view of their function—there can be no talk of denying “the idea of objects.”
Not only the tangible object, but also the idea, the object as model,
is the content of art today.
This is the assumption underlying every kind of experimental art—
from biomechanics’ preparatory steps to the reconstruction of the world
by dialectical modeling (Constructivism, symbolism).
Every kind of fantasy, utopianism and similar kinds of naked ideal-
ism and metaphysical affectation not based on the dialectical develop-
ment of reality are banished.
In this way, the shunning of “the perversion of reality” by the theo-
reticians of 1918 is now considered a necessary stage of creativity, not
just when exposing and solidifying contradictions.
The proletarian science of art goes under the banner of real life-
building. Its attitude toward the progress of art-making is formed under
the banner of overcoming, in opposition to banished, weak-willed per-
ception. The art of day is conceived under the banner of a determined
and focused apparatus striving toward communism.
There is not one school, nor even one example, that the proletariat
needs in general. “Everything is fine in its own time,” everything is for
the needs of the class advancing toward communism—corresponding to
the necessary dialectic.
It is possible to conceive a moment when real life will be saturated
with art to the point of rejecting the expulsion of art as unnecessary,
and at that moment the Futurist artist will be blessed for his beautiful
“release of today.”
Until that time, the artist is a soldier at the post of the social and
socialist revolution—waiting for the great opening “stand.”
Futurism is not a school, but an aspiration. Dialectical Productivism
is the immediate task of Futurism.
In art, it is essential to differentiate between the river and the little
stream. One must never lose sight of the whole, while accepting the
small constructive part. And most importantly …
It is essential to remember that this small article is only the first attempt
to realize the art of the day within an interpretation of communist dialec-
tics, and that its full and necessary realization for the working class will
depend on a sincere and friendly cooperation with all of communism.
146 N.F. Chuzhak


See the original text of this article at

  1.  There is another curious coincidence. Even though the Far East was
cut off by Kolchak territorially and morally from Soviet Russia,
and had a factual knowledge of Mayakovsky’s works only from
1917 and the beginning of 1918, the Far Eastern journal Biryuch
(Dilettante—“Proletariat and Art”) completely in parallel and al-
most simultaneously (August 1919) made the appeal: “From the
measured, balanced rocking chairs knock out drowsy art, from the
buildings of the uezd treasuries chase creativity into the streets! To
the noise, to the hubbub, to the mad round dances, to the crowds,
to the flames!” It is unnecessary to confirm the simultaneousness of
the response of the Left Front of the arts to the simultaneous imper-
atives demanded by one and the same social foundation. Author.
  2.  At the same time, the Far Eastern journal Creation was writing
about an earthly theory of Futurism, about Futurism as “already
not art,” and about life as something greater than art. Author.

Translator’s Notes

  1.  Nikolai Fedorovich Chuzhak was the pseudonym of the writer and
theorist Nikolai Fedorovich Nasimovich (1876–1939). The name
Chuzhak is derived from the Russian adjective chuzoi, meaning
“strange or alien.” Before the 1917 Revolution, Chuzhak lived in
Irkutsk, but during the Civil War, he moved to the Far East, be-
coming a member of the avant-garde Creation group, which was
based in Vladivostok 1918–20. In 1922 he moved to Moscow and
in 1923 joined the editorial board of Lef. He resigned in 1924,
but maintained contact with the journal. In 1929 he edited the Lef
collection, Literatura fakta. Pervyi sbornik materialov rabotnikov
Lefa, (Moscow: Federatsiia, 1929) to which he also contributed.
  2.  Proletcult is the acronym of the Proletarian Cultural and Educational
Organizations, which were set up in 1917 in Petrograd and early
1918 in Moscow, in order to promote the cultural development of the
working class, and the creation of a distinctly proletarian culture.
  3.  Semen Yakovlevich Nadson (1862–1887) was a Russian poet.
  4.  Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin (1799–1837), a Romantic writer, is
considered to be the founder of modern Russian literature because
he introduced vernacular speech into his poems and plays.
  5.  N.F. Chuzhak, “K estetike marksizma,” 1912.
  6.  Art of the Commune [Iskusstvo kommuny] was a weekly newspaper
published by the Department of Fine Arts within the Commissariat
of Enlightenment in nineteen issues between December 7, 1918
Under the Banner of Life-Building 147

and April 13, 1919. It was devoted to debating the aesthetic issues
raised by the Revolution. Creation [Tvorchestvo] was the journal
that the artist David Burliuk and the writers Nikolai Chuzhak and
Sergei Tretyakov published in Vladvostok in 1918, promoting Fu-
turism. Object [Veshch’/Gegenstand/Objet] was published in Berlin
in 1922 (only two issues appeared) by the writer Ilya Erenburg and
the artist El Lissitzky. As its title indicates, it was a trilingual pub-
lication, which was as concerned to disseminate Russian ideas in
Europe as to make Russians aware of developments in the West.
  7.  This is a shortened version of the famous paragraph that appeared
in the afterword to the second edition of Karl Marx, Das Kapital.
Kritik der politischen Oekonomie, vol. 1 (Hamburg, 1873).
  8.  This is a reference to the famous declaration of the Russian Futur-
ists, “A Slap in the Face of Public Taste,” 1912, signed by David
Burliuk, Aleksei Kruchenykh, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Velimir
Khlebnikov, and published in a collection of the same name. For
a translation, see Anna Lawton (ed.), Russian Futurism Through
Its Manifestos, 1912–1928 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University
Press, 1988), pp. 51–2.
  9.  “Future consciousness” is my rendition of futurum, a neologism,
created by Chuzhak from the imported word futur, meaning “the
future,” and the Russian term um, which means “the mind” or “rea-
son.” In this instance, it evokes the notion of the new man, with an
enhanced intellect and worldview.
10.  The Civil War began in spring 1918 when the regrouped Tsarist and
right-wing forces, supported by Western regimes, sought to wrest
power from the Bolsheviks. The fighting between these Whites, as
they were called, and the Reds (the Bolsheviks together with other
revolutionary activists) lasted until mid to late 1920, causing wide-
spread destruction and devastation.
11.  Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky (1893–1930) was a leading
Futurist poet. “A Cloud in Trousers” (1915) was his first major
poem. Written from the point of view of a spurned lover, it chal-
lenged idealistic views of love and conventional notions of poetic
language by using street slang.
12.  Acmeism was a literary reaction to Symbolism and included poets such
as Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelshtam, and Nikolai Gumilev.
13.  Igor Vasilevich Severyanin was the pseudonym of Igor Vasilevich
Lotarev (1887–1941), who led the literary group of Ego-Futurists,
founded in 1911.
14.  David Davidovich Burliuk (1882–1967) was a poet and painter
who was an active leader of avant-garde theory and practice during
the early 1910s.
15.  According to Greek myth, Pygmalion was a Greek artist who fell
in love with his perfect female sculpture, Galatea, whom Aphrodite
brought to life.
148 N.F. Chuzhak

16.  N.F. Chuzhak, “Predislovie,” K dialetike iskusstva. Ot realizma do

iskusstva kak odnai iz proizvodstvennykh form. Teoreticheskie-
polemicheskie stat’i (Chita: Dal’pechat’, 1921).
17.  Chuzhak, like many artistic and literary figures of the time, refers
to the former capital of Russia as Petersburg (sometimes simply
Peter), although the city had been renamed Petrograd at the begin-
ning of the First World War.
18.  Vl. Mayakovsky, “Prikaz po armii iskusstva,” Iskusstvo kommuny,
no. 1 (December 7, 1918): 1.
19.  Osip Maksimovich Brik (1888–1945) was a writer and theoreti-
cian, who was also on the editorial board of Lef.
20.  Boris Anisimovich Kushner (1888–1937) was a poet, writer, and
the theorist-founder of Komfut [Communists’ and Futurists’ group]
in 1919, which, as its name suggests, promoted Futurism as the art
of communism. For Komfut’s declaration, see Russian Art of the
Avant-Garde: Theory and Criticism, ed. and trans. John. E. Bowlt
(London: Thames and Hudson, 1988), pp. 164–6. Kushner also
belonged to the editorial board of Lef.
21.  Nikolai Nikolaevich Punin (1888–1953) was an art historian,
critic, and theoretician. He wrote extensively on avant-garde art,
including a brochure on Tatlin’s Monument to the Third Interna-
tional (1920), a monograph Tatlin (Protiv kubizma) of 1921, and
a Cycle of Lectures (1920). For translations, see Larissa A. Zha-
dova (ed.), Tatlin (London: Thames and Hudson, 1988), pp. 344–7
(Monument); and 347–8 and 389–93 (Tatlin); and for extracts of
the Cycle, see Bowlt, Russian Art, pp. 170–6.
22.  Vl. Mayakovsky, “Prikaz po armii iskusstva,” Iskusstvo kommuny,
no. 1 (December 7, 1918): 1.
23.  Boris Kushner, “Nam muzyka,” Iskusstvo kommuny, no. 11 (February
16, 1919): 2.
24.  IZO is the acronym for the Department of Fine Arts within the Com-
missariat of Enlightenment, in which avant-garde figures played a
dominant role during the years of the Civil War, i.e. 1918–20. In
1921, IZO was purged of all avant-garde personnel.
25.  In Mayakovsky’s revolutionary verse play Mystery Bouffe (1918),
written in the language of the street, using political slogans and
journalese, the “Unclean” working class defeat the “Clean” upper
class and create a paradise of ease and plenty on Earth.
26.  The Russian term tailism (literally “tailism” in English) is translated
as “dumbing down.” In the 1920s the term was used to describe the
policy, when communicating revolutionary aims to the masses, of
limiting it to those aims that would be intelligible to them.
27.  Vydra, “Svoboda i diktatura v iskusstve,” Iskusstvo kommuny,
no. 11 (February 16, 1919): 2.
28.  Vydra, “Svoboda i diktatura v iskusstve”: 2.
29.  O.M. Brik, “Drenazh iskusstvu,” Iskusstvo kommuny, no. 1
(December 7, 1918): 1.
Under the Banner of Life-Building 149

30.  Dimitrii Ivanovich Pisarev (1840–68) was a revolutionary writer

who argued that art should be used as a weapon to highlight abuses,
and promote social and political reform in Russia.
31.  Brik, “Drenazh iskusstvu”: 1.
32.  Vladimir Mayakovsky, “Chelovek veshch’,” 1916.
33.  Mayakovsky, “Chelovek veshch’.”
34.  The Russian term is veshch’nost, which emphasizes that the work
of art is just another type of object, which merely happens to be
artistically made.
35.  O.M. Brik, “Khudozhnik-proletarii,” Iskusstvo kommuny, no. 2
(December 15, 1918): 1.
36.  “Primechanie redaktsii,” Iskusstvo kommuny, no. 7 (January 19,
1919): 2.
37.  Boris Kushner, “Burzhuaznye golvolomki,” Iskusstvo kommuny,
no. 7 (January 19, 1919): 2–3.
38.  “Primechanie redaktsii,” Iskusstvo kommuny, no. 7 (January 19,
1919): 2.
39.  N. Punin cited in M.L. “Miting ob iskusstve,” Iskusstvo kommuny,
no. 1 (December 7, 1918): 3.
40.  Vydra, “Pervyi itog,” Iskusstvo kommuny, no. 15 (March 16,
1919): 2–3.
41.  Only one issue of the journal Fine Art [Izobrazitel’noe iskusstvo]
ever appeared. It was a substantial and richly illustrated issue.
42.  David Petrovich Shterenberg (1881–1948) was a painter who
was also head of IZO. He was sympathetic to avant-garde ideas,
although his own experiments were fairly moderate; he used simpli-
fied forms and spatial dislocations, without adopting the extremes
of Cubism or abstraction.
43.  Vladimir Evgrafovich Tatlin (1885–1953) was head of the Moscow
branch of IZO. A leading avant-garde painter, in 1914 he initi-
ated Russian experiments with constructed sculpture. His Model
for a Monument to the Third International, exhibited in Novem-
ber 1920, stimulated the development of Constructivism in early
44.  Kazimir Severinovich Malevich (1879–1935) pioneered non-
objective painting in Russia in 1915. He called his new style of
colored forms on white grounds Suprematism, and exhibited it
for the first time in December 1915 (old style), or January 1916
(according to the Western calendar).
45.  N. Punin, “Iskusstvo i proletariat,” Izobrazitel’noe iskusstvo, no. 1
(1919): 8–24.
46.  “Ot redaktsii,” Izobrazitel’noe iskusstvo, no. 1 (1919): 6.
47.  Osip M. Brik, “Khudozhnik i kommuna,” Izobrazitel’noe iskusstvo,
no. 1 (1919): 25–6.
48.  Punin, “Iskusstvo i proletariat”: 26.
49.  Punin, “Iskusstvo i proletariat”: 24.
50.  “Ot redaktsii”: 5
150 N.F. Chuzhak

51.  Boris Ignatevich Arvatov (1896–1940) was a theorist, a member of

the Communist Party, and an active member of Proletcult. He was
also a member of Lef’s editorial board.
52.  Ilya Grigorevich Ehrenburg (Erenburg) (1891–1967) was an ex-
tremely successful journalist and novelist, who lived in Berlin in the
early 1920s, but eventually returned to Russia.
53.  Iskusstvo v proizvodstve (Moscow, 1921), p. 4.
54.  D. Shterenberg, “Pora ponyat’,” Iskusstvo v proizvodstve, pp. 4–6.
55.  O. Brik, “V poryadke dnya,” Iskusstvo v proizvodstve, pp. 7–8.
56.  Brik, “V poryadke dnya,” p. 8.
57.  Brik, “V poryadke dnya,” p. 8.
58.  Brik, “V poryadke dnya,” p. 8.
59.  A. Fillipov, “Proizvodstvennoe iskusstvo,” Iskusstvo v proizvod-
stve, pp. 9–12.
60.  Fillipov, “Proizvodstvennoe iskusstvo,” p. 10.
61.  Fillipov, “Proizvodstvennoe iskusstvo,” p. 11.
62.  Aleksei Mikhailovich Gan (1889–1942), playwright and graphic
artist, worked in the theatrical department (TEO) of the People’s
Commissariat for Enlightenment during the Civil War. He was
a founding member of the Working Group of Constructivists in
March 1921, wrote its program, and was its leading theoretician.
63.  Vsevolod Emilevich Meyerhold (1874–1940) was an avant-garde
theater director, who was responsible for developing Constructivist
theater. The first Constructivist production was The Magnanimous
Cuckold of April 1922, with decorations and costumes by Lyubov
64.  The ideas of Frederick Winslow Taylor concerning efficient indus-
trial processes (published as Shop Management of 1905 and The
Principles of Scientific Management of 1911) were extremely pop-
ular in early Soviet Russia. The Scientific Organization of Work
(Nauchnaya Organizatsia Truda) was set up to introduce his prin-
ciples of time and motion into everyday life.
65.  Yurii Mikhailovich Steklov was editor of Izvestiya.
66.  Lenin introduced the NEP [New Economic Policy] at the beginning
of 1921 in a pragmatic attempt to resuscitate the economy, which
had been devastated by the Civil War. The NEP allowed small-scale
private enterprises to exist alongside state-controlled heavy indus-
tries. It represented a retreat from War Communism and a compro-
mise with communist ideals of collective ownership. Ultimately, it
endangered the Revolution by allowing an entrepreneurial class to
67.  Vikenty Viktentevich Veresaev was the nom de plume of Vikenty
Vikentevich Smidovich (1867–1945), a doctor who wrote so-
cial realism and was connected with Marxism even before the
Under the Banner of Life-Building 151

68.  Petr Semenovich Kogan (1872–1932) was a Marxist critic who

became president of the Soviet Academy of Literary Sciences.
69.  Punin, “Iskusstvo i proletariat”: 24.
70.  Punin, “Iskusstvo i proletariat”: 26.
71.  N. Chuzhak, Cherez golovy kritikov (Chita, 1922).
72.  S.M. Tretyakov, O zhivopisi (Chita, 1922).