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In the early twentieth century, the dominant art style of the Soviet Union was Avant-Garde. Its experimentalism in both form and materials was revolutionary in spirit and its radical aesthetics were championed by the state following the Russian Revolution of 1917. However, with the rise of Joseph Stalin and a more oppressive regime, a suspicion of abstract forms and intellectualism associated with the movement emerged and the state began to regard this art as dangerous and censored it. Instead, state-sponsored artist unions promoted Socialist Realism, which was embraced insofar as it idealized the USSR and promoted ideologies of nationalism, socialism, and conformism. The primary way Socialist Realism served the state was that it appealed to viewers through emotions and sentiment. In so doing, it can be seen as an aestheticization of politics. Instead of deploying political rhetoric or making policy arguments, it supported Soviet authority by fostering a sense of unity and belonging, and by portraying scenes that furthered the objectives of the state. The aestheticization of politics has the effect of doing political work without people being aware of it, and in this way political debate becomes displaced by feelings of patriotism and community. Scholars have studied this phenomenon in relation to Soviet Realism and fascist politics, but we can observe similar practices today. It is important to consider that modern politics do not only operate through policy and legislation but also through aesthetics and powerful non-rational emotional appeals and symbols. This project will analyze exemplary Social Realist paintings that were particularly favored by Stalin, to reveal the ways in which they function as a subtle yet very powerful instrument of politics. Then it will apply these insights to current instances of the aestheticization of politics, to show both how it functions and how pervasive it is.



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The Aestheticization of Politics in Socialist Realism