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Socialist Art and the Seduction of Salary : THE VELVET PRISON : Artists Under State Socialism by Miklos Haraszti, foreword by George Konrad, translated from the Hungarian by Katalin and Stephen Landesmann with the help of Steve Wasserman (New Republic / Basic Books: $14.95; 164 pp.)

October 25, 1987|Anthony Levitas | Levitas is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at MIT, working on the relationship between the Communist Party and professional groups in Poland and Hungary. and

It is often forgotten that the generation that came of age in the 1960s rocked the boat as much in Eastern Europe as in the West. Miklos Haraszti, born in Jerusalem in 1945 but raised and still living in Budapest, is a product and a survivor of his generation.

In 1970, Haraszti was expelled from Budapest University for poetry and politics. He then found work in a tractor factory and turned his experiences into a samizdat manuscript on piece-rates and shop-floor dehumanization (published here as "A Worker in a Workers' State"). In 1973, he was formally charged with subversion, but he transformed his trial into political theater of the first order. His home, his pen and his person continue to serve many causes; and the panache with which he has confronted the ruling authorities makes him, as George Konrad puts it, "a baron of the opposition." He remains, like the best of his generation, a romantic and utopian critic of the world around him.

Indeed, his utopianism is responsible for both the eerie power and the problematic conclusions of his new book, "The Velvet Prison: Artists Under State Socialism." Here Haraszti argues, with sardonic perseverance, that artists, far from being oppressed by state power and by censorship, make themselves at home in it and seek to become, as Stalin put it, "engineers of the soul."

Haraszti begins with the disturbing observation that it is only with the rise of the bourgeoisie and the separation of church and state that art and power have come to be understood as "natural enemies." Until the modern era, art was produced primarily in the service of power; despite periodic struggles between artists and their patrons, the relationship was considered normal, the product no less art for all its subservience.

The liberation that the rise of commerce and the decline of tradition afforded artists came with a price: alienation. Art was now just another commodity, while artists lost the seats near power from which they had articulated their visions of the good. The commercialization of art and the new powerlessness of artists produced, by the mid-19th Century, two reactions: that of the aesthete, who saw the potential for realizing the true nature of art in producing it for itself; and that of the activist, who saw the realization and liberation of art as contingent upon the liberation of all oppressed groups.

"The aesthetics of commitments," writes Haraszti, was therefore "invented not by bureaucrats but by alienated artists," who through socialism "expected more than an end to their private misery and social helplessness. They thought: If society provides the prestige, then art can directly serve society through its humanistic relevance."

In the heroic interwar years, artistic autonomy could be combined with revolutionary politics. But with the consolidation of communist power, artists' "Nietzschean drives" won out over their desire for autonomy and they flocked to a state that defined for them not only how reality could be represented but what reality was. Adopting the half-ironic, half-cynical voice of a state artist, Haraszti writes of Stalinism that "most artists eagerly gobbled the carrots; sadly, sticks had to be used on the recalcitrant few."

Moreover, claims Haraszti, the Faustian deal struck between artists and the state endures even when terror and censorship are no longer the primary means of contract enforcement. Artists accept their roles as planners of the soul, enjoy their guaranteed incomes and audiences, and understand that their work must be "relevant" to the goals of a "directed society."

In a modern, post-Stalinist socialist state such as Hungary, Haraszti thinks that censorship is more an irritant and a professional insult than a constraint: " 'I know my job best' is the "typical grumbling" of artists in the face of "the less sophisticated guardians of state unity." After all, asks Haraszti, "Is it censorship that guarantees that the employees of Twentieth Century Fox will create movies that serve the interests of the entire company. . . ? Didn't someone once observe that freedom is simply the recognition of necessity?"

Now all this is very interesting, and a needed tonic against the image of communism as the rule of pure force. Moreover, Haraszti's book underscores many of the points made in Hungarian sociologists George Konrad and Ivan Szelenyi's fascinating study, "The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power," and Czeslaw Milosz's classic examination of artistic support for Stalinism, "The Captive Mind."

But unlike his compatriots or Milosz, Haraszti goes on to create a seamless world of power, where all resistance is co-opted and all change is the product of unexplained shifts in the preferences of the rulers. Here, Haraszti more closely resembles his own generation in the West. When he writes of "repressive tolerance" in communism, one cannot help recalling the New Left's attack on capitalism and its "culture industry," on the "system's" ability to anodize all dissent by selling it back in sugar-coated packaging.

There are, of course, pernicious forms of co-optation and compromise in all societies, and in all lives. But the very fact that something has to be co-opted and compromised, that resistance to domination is not frictionless, seems to me to be the more important point. This point is lost in Haraszti's bleak but still utopian account of artists under socialism.

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