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date: 22 February 2020

Socialist realismlocked

  • Christopher Norris


A doctrine with sources in 19th-century aesthetics but now chiefly associated with Marxism or communism. It has had, to say the least, a somewhat chequered ideological career. Its applications have ranged from the largely descriptive to the downright prescriptive and dogmatic, their common factors being a realist (mimetic) theory of representation and a belief that art can promote human emancipation by offering a truthful yet affirmative vision. Argument about these terms has been widespread since the 1930s, but was especially urgent in the Soviet Union and its satellite countries, where socialist realism was for long periods official policy.

The great paradox of that policy, as viewed by most Western Marxist commentators, was that it espoused revolutionary aims in the socio-political sphere while adopting a conservative canon of aesthetic values, even if there was the authority of Lukács for 19th-century realism as the means of portraying 20th-century injustice. In musical terms, that conservatism resulted in a favouring of such forms as the programme symphony, the dramatic cantata and other such genres (opera, ballet, epic film score) that could range from private suffering to reaffirmed social values – values that distinguished socialist realism from other (as Lukács would have it, ‘bourgeois-decadent’) realisms that emphasized human misery without any redeeming sense of collective destiny and purpose. Hence a connection with the Promethean works of Beethoven's middle period....

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