Art in East Germany has been dismissed as banal socialist realism and its artists as second-rate party hacks – but that view is being rethought, and this piece by artist Wolfgang Mattheuer shows why. Mattheuer was a leading member of the Leipzig School whose socialist-realist paintings were also provocative parables. This edited contribution to the ninth congress of the East German Artists Union shows that art, truth and socialist realism were hotly debated issues among artists in the GDR 
Above: “Der_Jahrhundertschritt”_(Step_of_Century),_Wolfgang_Mattheuer,_1984_-_Bonn

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a Colombian, writer and communist, calls himself a socialist realist. He visits Cuba regularly and acknowledges the great achievements of the revolution and the post-revolutionary reconstruction of the country. In his pre-revolutionary homeland he writes for the liberation of the proletariat.

He is concerned with the representation and effect of truth. This is not at all easy. He will have to muster all his courage and use all his strength. He will have to be smart – it is all extremely dangerous!

But the danger of misusing truth as a tactical weapon ought not to be so great, since truth is still quite clearly distinct from lies – like poor and rich, like good and evil, like any pair of oppositions that still lends itself to convenient simpli?cations and blanket statements there, where they are still relevant to society.

What counts for socialist realists and socialist art is above all the formulation of truths: simple and complicated truths. The socialist realist should not privilege bene?cent truth any more than he should avoid painful truth. Life does that of its own accord.

To me there is only one truth that could conceivably be of any real and lasting damage to socialism: the unspoken truth.

Unspoken truths turn toxic. If truths were in fact capable of harming socialism or our real existing socialist society, this would not only call socialism into question, it would also mean that there was something more humane, something better than socialism in the world.

The fundamental signi?cance of truth for socialist realism cannot and should not be diminished by tactical considerations. To politicians this demand often makes art seem detached, naive, irritating, or even very disruptive. Art, even political art, is simply something very different to politics. Nor can art be a continuation of politics by brush and quill.

Perhaps politics ?nds its continuation in agitational art and journalism. I’m talking about what to me seems an essential criterion of socialist realism: the truth content of a work, which can never clash with partisanship. In fact it is the rational substance of the concept of partisanship, whilst the emotional energies of this concept warm us to the facts or harden us against them. It goes without saying that judgements are made here and our dealings with truth become more dif?cult. Sadly there is no such thing as value-free truth cognition. People are partisan in their most private selves and to their very marrow; they nurse or neglect facts on the dim path to consciousness.

The emotional energy of partisanship may let us perceive and believe the right and the good, but it can also block the way to truths seeking to attain to consciousness.

In the latter case the truths concerned will certainly not be those that bring pleasure and satisfaction.

The way I see it, the dif?culties one faces in obtaining truths, those troublesome dif?culties which cause so much vexation and so much mistrust among people, arise when one has to deal with bitter truths recently discovered. For these, no doubt, indicate that something that was meant to happen somewhere went wrong. And no one likes to see that, no one; neither the painter on his canvas nor the premier politician in his territory.

The discrepancy in scale here changes nothing. Discovering positive truths, by contrast, is a joy for all concerned.

Everyone is keen to be of assistance. Such truths are welcome and congenial to all, and he who keeps particularly felicitous and one-sided company with them is everywhere reputed for his particularly ?ne partisanship. How welcome, too, is that ?ne chap who recognises the desired success of the work as something really true and accomplished and openly calls it as much.

No-one need worry about the reception and effect of such truths; we gladly elevate them to consciousness. And yet there is danger in these truths too!

Namely, when the emotional energies of partisanship overheat their gratifying factual matter. Overheated use of exclusively sweet sorts of truth combined with stringent avoidance of the sour can lead to losses of quality so signi?cant that even the most beautiful truth no longer seems beautiful.

Indeed, a certain de?ant, wicked delight in the extra sour sorts may begin to develop. This is not good.

But what becomes of the sorts of truth that go unused? They become toxic – that has already been said. I think this is worse. For suppressed truth does not rot as quickly as hollow straw. It lies like a burden on the future.

An art that deems only the accomplished and the desirable to be worthy of its name cannot be called realistic and certainly not socialist realistic. It would be pure whitewash. And is anyone still in doubt as to its inherent dangers? But of course not – just as no one can be in any doubt as to the dangers of its opposite – painting everything in shades of black.

It is probably the case that everyone is in?uenced by a natural af?nity for whitewash – for painting things in a ?attering light – and only critical awareness can prevent this ?ne inclination from causing blindness. What I mean to say is that socialist realism is a permanently imperilled balancing act between whitewashing things and painting them black.

But what is it that brings such severity to the judgement of things that slide toward the black, whilst those that slip off the sunny side, into rose-tinted shades, hardly hear a word of reproach?

Convenience is certainly a factor. Socialist realist art is about truth-beautiful and ugly, sour and sweet. It is an honest striving for discovery on the part of open-minded socialists; for the recognisability, transparency and comprehensibility of what has come to be, what is planned and what is desired; of reality and truth obtained with and by means particular to art.

Published in the Morning Star courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing and taken from a special issue of the journal Art in Translation


Wolfgang Mattheuer, Hinter den sieben Bergen (1973)


One thought on “GDR art: ‘We have a duty not to whitewash the truth’

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Wolfgang Mattheuer : 'We have a duty no to whitewash the truth' - Upstart Publishing

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