From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Socialist realism is a style of realistic art which developed under Socialism in the Soviet Union and became a dominant style in other communist countries. Socialist realism is teleologically-oriented style which has as its purpose the furtherance of the goals of socialism and communism. Although related, it should not be confused with Social realism a type of art that realistically depicts subjects of social concern. Unlike Social realism, Socialist realism often glorifies the roles of the poor. Indeed, as the critic Andrew Graham-Dixon put it: " What it never showed, was social reality."
The initial tendencies toward socialist realism date from the mid-19th century. They include revolutionary literature in Great Britain (the poetry of the Chartist movement), Germany (Herwegh, Freiligrath, and G. Weerth), and France (the literature of the Paris Commune and Pottier's "Internationale.") Socialist realism emerged as a literary method in the early 20th century in Russia, especially in the works of Gorky. It was also apparent in the works of writers like Kotsiubinsky, Rainis, Akopian, and Edvoshvili. Following Gorky, writers in several countries combined the realistic depiction of life with the expression of a socialist world view. They included Barbusse, Andersen Nexø, and John Reed.
The political aspect of socialist realism was, in some respects, a continuation of pre-Soviet state policy. Censorship and attempts to control the content of art did not begin with the Soviets, but were a long-running feature of Russian life. The Tsarist government also appreciated the potentially disruptive effect of art and required all books to be cleared by the censor. Writers and artists in 19th century Imperial Russia became quite skilled at evading censorship by making their points without spelling it out in so many words. However, Soviet censors were not easily evaded.
Socialist realism had its roots in neoclassicism and the traditions of realism in Russian literature of the 19th century that described the life of simple people. It was exemplified by the aesthetic philosophy of Maxim Gorky. The work of the Peredvizhniki ("Wanderers," a Russian realist movement of the late 19th / early 20th centuries), Jacques-Louis David and Ilya Yefimovich Repin were notable influences.
Socialist Realism was a product of the Soviet system. Whereas in market societies professional artists earned their living selling to, or being commissioned by rich individuals or the Church, in Soviet society not only was the market suppressed, there were few if any individuals able to patronise the arts and only one institution - the State itself. Hence artists became state employees. As such the State set the parameters for what it employed them to do. What was expected of the artist was that he/she be formally qualified and to reach a standard of competence. However, whilst this rewarded basic competency, it did not provide an incentive to excel, resulting in a stultification similar to that in other spheres of Soviet society. The State, after the Congress of 1934, laid down four rules for what became known as "Socialist Realism"-
That the work be;
1. Proletarian- art relevant to the workers and understandable to them.
2. Typical- scenes of every day life of the people.
3. Realistic - in the representational sense.
4. Partisan - supportive of the aims of the State and the Party.
Even so, many of the art works glorifying Joseph Stalin and other leaders are hardly in keeping with these ideals and the charge that art be understandable to the whole people negated the Western notion of the avant garde (despite the Bolsheviks casting themselves as a political "vanguard") and discouraged experimental approaches. The realism achieved was often technically very good and similar to many Western works intended as magazine illustration or bookjackets, rather than High Art. The partisan quality tends to attract the most criticism, in that it often predominated to the exclusion of the other tenets, so that paintings of peasants feasting after bumper harvests was neither real nor typical of the lot of many of those depicted, especially in the Ukrainian Famine.