Postmodernism and the Postsocialist Condition: Politicized Art under Late Socialism

By Aleš Erjavec | Go to book overview

The Other Gaze
Russian Unofficial Art's View of the Soviet World
Boris Groys

The unofficial art scene in the Soviet Union formed as early as the mid—1950s, almost immediately following the death of Stalin in 1953, and from then on developed parallel to the official culture industry. The artists belonging to that scene turned away from the official art of Socialist Realism, attempting to link up with the traditions of Western and Russian modernism. No longer as ruthlessly repressed as they had been under Stalin, these artists were assured of both physical survival and the possibility of continuing to pursue artistic work, yet they were almost completely cut off from the official museum, exhibition, and publication systems, as well as from the possibility of traveling abroad and establishing connections with the Western art institutions. As a result, the unofficial artists built their own scene in major cities such as Moscow and Leningrad, existing in semilegality at the margins of Soviet normality. They could earn a living by turning to applied art, by taking up another profession, or by selling their works to a handful of private collectors. Because of the precariousness of their social status, they felt insecure and threatened, but their social isolation also generated a kind of euphoria. They could practice a relatively independent and often extremely bohemian lifestyle in a country where such a thing was unimaginable for most of the population. Despite the lack of official recognition, their lifestyle was secretly envied, and during the three decades of the unofficial art scene's existence, from the mid—1950s until the opening of the Soviet system in the mid—1980s, many people in Moscow and Leningrad thought it a great and exciting adventure to have an unofficial artist as a friend.

Unofficial artistic circles also included independent authors, poets, and musicians, although these had even less opportunity than visual artists to survive on the margins of the Soviet system. Small exhibitions, poetry read

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