In the aftermath of World War II, artists living in the Soviet-occupied zone initially aligned themselves to classical modernism. Art condemned by the Third Reich as degenerate, such as Expressionism, New Objectivity, Dadaism or avant-garde, experienced a brief renaissance. Alongside the philosopher Ernst Bloch and returning exiled writers Bert Brecht, Anna Seghers and Arnold Zweig, the former Expressionist Johannes R. Becher quickly became the central figure of cultural events.
image courtesy of HG Esch
No more black and white dead fish
But the newly founded Republic was quick to take steps to limit artistic freedoms. The state imposed a debate on formalism and issued a mandate that required artists adhere to a political goal: the clear segregation of East German art from the decadent of art in West Germany. Debate can quickly lead to new legislation: at the 5th Plenum of the Central Committee of the SED in 1951 cultural war was declared on formalism. Walter Ulbricht did not want to see any more abstract pictures, lunar landscapes or rotting fish – not to mention gray-on-gray-painting, which was classified as the expression of capitalist decline. All this – in the opinion of the officials – should have nothing to do with the optimism of their newly formed state.
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Against bourgeois decadence
With the appointment of John R. Becher as the country’s first Minister of Culture in 1954, formalism was fused with Socialist Realism to form the only officially valid art of the GDR. The demand for truly realistic folk art had an impact across all cultural fields: poetry, visual and performing arts, music and architecture. The resistance of numerous artists against this division into realistic = good and abstract = evil, a distinction almost identical to the one made by Third Reich collapsed in the face of the regime’s strength. Following Stalin’s death, the doctrine of Socialist Realism was imposed across almost all socialist countries.
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In the spirit of tradition: Mass-produced and yet somehow original
Socialist realism demanded topics that conformed with the overarching political ideology, presented in a style incorporating positive symbolic elements, leaning towards classicism or romanticism, combined with a (fairly) realistic representation. The level of discussion of this cultural and political diktat unfortunately often stood in stark contrast to the triviality of the art being produced. A pertinent example can be found in the songs for the masses so exclusively prevalent in socialist countries. These quite melodic and harmonic compositions, addressing revolutionary themes, were written to be easily sung at mass gatherings. The leadership was now elevating these simple pieces of music and hailing them as an entirely new genre.
image courtesy of Flügelwesen / photocase.de
Pick up your pen, buddy!
At some point, the artistic striving to experiment with new forms of expression became somehow superfluous. Instead of being allowed to spend time worrying about artistic form and substance, artists should be found more productive tasks, such as working in production at the Bitterfeld Electrochemical plant. In the early 1960s, going the “Bitterfeld Route” was used to describe an artist who worked in a factory whilst also supporting other factory workers in their own artistic endeavors. The Bitterfeld Route did initially result in a rise in the amount and quality of amateur art. However, such measures aimed at bringing professional and amateur art together quickly led to differences between the state and artists, and must ultimately to be viewed as unsuccessful – especially as the artists of the GDR were not exactly committed to increasing production levels at state owned firms.
image courtesy of mischkaarndti / photocase.de