Soviet Kitsch in Utah

Posted: January 24, 2019 in Uncategorized

Some of you may be surprised to learn that our beloved Beehive State is home to one of the largest collections of Soviet Socialist art to be found anywhere. What?! Sure, just drive south an hour or so and check out the Springville Art Museum. They have acres of canvas there that might as well have been painted by our friend Repin.

The question arises though: Why would people around here want to collect such works? I’ll leave that question to you to answer. Click the image below to check out the museum’s extensive holdings. Notice that the painters are not referred to as Soviet however, but rather as “Russian” – in fact, at least a few artists are not Russian but Ukrainian. Also, the art is incorrectly called “Social”, rather than Socialist. What up with that?

0000001949_02

Kozhevnikov, Ivan Vasilevich
Election Day on the Collective Farm (1958)
SOCIAL REALISM
OIL ON CANVAS
46-3/8″ x 113-3/8 x 117.7

(Click for link to Utah’s collection of Soviet Socialist art)

Comments
  1. It’s fascinating to know that Utah has so many Socialist paintings. The question remains: Why?

    Could it simply be that the folks running that museum enjoy the sterile, “aspartame sweet” style of painting? Or perhaps they enjoy art history from that time period.

    I would like to take it a level deeper and propose that the reason we have so many of these paintings is because socialist ideals are common in the Mormon faith. I may be going against the principle of parsimony, but let’s entertain the idea for the sake of just that.

    Since I don’t know the Mormon church more than any other secular person, and I did have to do some light research to go beyond first hand observations. The following article is the main source I read.

    The case for Book of Mormon Socialism: http://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?id=51308137&itype=CMSID

    Going from first hand experience, an unconscious love for socialism makes sense. Think about what Mormonism is and the similar values become clear to see.

    Mormonism is associated with industriousness and focuses on a united community. Socialism is not only associated with industriousness and unity, but can only truly function in its purest form with those qualities. Socialist ideals are everywhere in Mormon culture, and having a large collection of paintings that perfectly exemplify those shared ideas makes complete sense.

    Additionally, a key trait of Socialist Realism is the kitsch, ‘pure’ subject matter of the painting. Scenes of a traditional family at dinner, people working hard with suspiciously large grins, etc. Those scenes would be appreciated by any group that values traditionalism, and Mormonism is a fantastic example of that.

    Am I finding an ocean in a puddle? Perhaps, but the commonalities between socialist values and Mormon values is undeniable. It’s certainly entertaining to think about, at the very least.

    For more examples of Social Realism, here are a few links to Chinese Social Realism. Its the style that set the stage for contemporary artists like Ai Wei Wei, Zhang Xiaogang, etc. Look for big fists and a deified Mao because they’re a signature part of the Chinese style.

    https://bit.ly/2CKvnIo https://bit.ly/2Tczlk3 https://bit.ly/2UdgRQl

    • I want to respond to your complex response, and eventually I will. Because you make a lot of points worth consider. I’ll hold of for now though, in the hopes that other students will weight in without feeling their remarks need to align with mine. One thing I do want to address though is Ai Wei Wei, whose work is not only interesting but important. Any quick glance at his work will reveal his deep and abiding, if not intensifying, interest in issues of social justice. His most recent work on migration and refugees immediately comes to mind. However, I would imagine his recreations of detention camps and monumentally scaled inflatable refugees fall into the same camp as Socialist Realism. I can’t imagine the Soviet government approving of him. Meanwhile, much of his recent work documents his own detention and surveillance by the Chinese government, who arrested him for his artistic output. Below I’ll post a video from just a few months ago of the Chinese government demolishing his former student. While Ai had not worked there for some years, it’s entirely reasonable that most other governments would have turned the former workplace of a world-renowned artist into a museum or landmark.

      In any case, I’m very glad to see you looking at the art behind the link and weighing in with your thoughts. I certainly hope other students will follow your excellent lead.

      https://news.artnet.com/art-world/ai-weiwei-studio-demolished-1329026

  2. Parker Law says:

    I definitely agree with how Mormonism and Socialism both focus on unity and industriousness. I, too, am not the most knowledgeable person on the subject of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, but I have seen and experienced enough of it to see the connections. The Google definition of “kitsch” is “art, objects, or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garnishes or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way”. This comes off as fairly negative, at least to me, which is where I think it differs from Mormonism. Obviously, there are some things that would fit this definition exactly, but I think a decent amount of the aspects of Mormonism are more positive than this depicts. The family dinners, overly-happy workers, and things like that can be riddled with sentimentality and garnishes, but I don’t think this puts them in the category of poor taste. It takes away from the authenticity of it, but I still think those images are positive. These paintings are very much like ones that one would find in a typical Mormon household, which connects the two even further.

    • Mormonism’s history does entail a period of theocratic socialism. However, now the Church and the majority of its members now insists that untethered capitalism as God’s ordained economic model, while socialism is of the Adversary. This discrepancy has caused a fair amount of cognitive dissonance in certain persons, while others choose not to worry about it.

      As for these painting resembling the kind of art you see in LDS homes, I would say that observation is spot-on.

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