Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What am I Doing?

This is a good question. Sometimes I feel like I don’t rightly know, myself. Let me try to explain, nevertheless.

I’m researching the architecture that was built in Moscow under Stalin, between 1932 and 1954.

It’s architecture that refuted all of the aesthetic and ideological advances that Russia and the world had made. Up through the end of the 1920s, Russia was still at the forefront of the avant-garde, its leading Constructivists and Formalists and Suprematists all fighting for supremacy. But all of those –isms, which became legitimized because they all had to register as official groups, wielded dangerous power in the form of calling one another anti-Communist, pro-Western at a time when to be so was to be sent still farther Eastward, past the Urals. Until along came the sun that dried up all the rain, and collected all of the groups under one Union of Soviet Architects.

The year was 1932. Some architectural historians try to argue that the changes that then took place, the refutation of functionalism and the turn to monumentalism, was an entirely natural evolution (my mentor, in class last Friday, labeled gigantomania as one of the leading identifiable characteristics of Moscow architecture. The formula: take any world architectural motif, make it 3 times as big, and you have an ornament fit for Muscovite consumption). Others believe that “architects are prostitutes,” selling their soul to the highest bidder (I wish I was paraphrasing, but that is a direct quote), and in this case, the “head architect,” of any project, was Stalin himself.

I’m looking into what projects were built, and how they were conceived. So the first perspective is that of architect -> project. Jaded prostitutes or fervent Communists?

At the same time, I am tackling the prospect of discovering how deep the viewpoints of official culture went. For a long time, historians thought that everything came top-down, in the form of do-it-or-die orders from Stalin and other Party officials. Then a set of revisionists came along, asking if there were not masks that citizens wore, so that their public façade was in support of the regime, and when they retired home, the mask hanging on a hook by the door, they despised what they were doing. And then another wave of revisionists came, asking if the general populace, already a generation into the Soviet Union, might actually believe in the Party rhetoric; that the official façade was not just a mask, but was indeed a fervor felt in the blood.

As in many things, I don’t know that it can ever be answered with 100% certainty. I don’t think there can be just “it was Stalin who said this,” every time, or “it was the populace who wanted this,” every time. There’s no denying it was an autocratic society, but I do think that there was more wiggle room than is sometimes believed. How much? Hopefully I will better answer that question in 9 months.

Foucault looked at history as it affected the present. I don’t completely agree with where he continued that line of reasoning, but I do think the present-day attitudes towards Stalinism are interesting, and although it’s not officially in my project guidelines, it’s something I’m trying to keep an eye on. It’s riddled with dichotomies and inconsistencies: the Seven Sisters are beacons in the modern night sky, both filled with the fires of hell, and the guiding light of lighthouses towards the radiant future. Those same sisters, and other iconic, “Stalinist” constructions, are in a Gothic revival – a style born in Europe, revitalized in America, yet somehow, here, distorted into a purely Russian, nationalistic cast.

And there’s currently a love-hate, remembrance-forgetfulness relationship to Stalinism. It’s already not nostalgia --
A Svetlana Boym quote, in GRE form (a special shout-out to Wer. How’s the studying going, buddy?) Nostalgia:Memory::_________:Art

a) folk revival
b) iconoclasm
c) kitsch
d) babies dressed up as vegetables and/or playing instruments
-- not nostalgia, that is, because those of whom I speak right now are too young to miss that past – but a different kind of feeling. A strange attitude of looking “backwards to the future!”


nazad k budushchem -- Back to the future


Monica said...

It sounds like you have your plate full. I hope you get what you're looking for. Hey, take some pics of the architecture, if you can! On the last part of your post, I'd have to pick 'd' because it sounds good...lol!! Stay out of trouble :)

Justin said...

e) all of the above?

The studying barely ever happened. Final score: Eng: 660 Quant: 680