Friday, 11 December 2009

The Defense of Sebastopol - Alexander Deineka, 1942


Here’s a question for you: does heroic art supersede the politics it celebrates? In other words, is good art didactic, or something else.

In the painting above, by the Soviets’ leading figurative painter, Russian fighters defend the Soviet city of Sebastopol from Nazi invaders.


  1. This is a superb question, because whilst you ask it in relation to art, the answer you provide has a great deal of an impact on the whole of your life.

    A coherant value system is more important than the good intention of celebrating a virtue like courage.

    However, you can admire someone's intentions, even if they don't have a coherant value system - especially in the visual arts and literature.

    The artist's intention in that painting is clearly to celebrate courage, not Stalinism.

    That is a good thing.

    Even in the worst case where their intention *is* to celebrate Stalinism, you have to ask if they've made errors in their integrations, before deciding whether to hate or admire them.

    Do they see themselves celebrating unbreakable loyalty to
    honorable fellow men, *thereby* celebrating Stalinism (as they've integrated to see Stalinism as an representation of that value).

    Very rarely are you faced with someone who actually makes the correct integration and conciously celebrates the butchering of innocents for the purpose of a grand societal vision. Of course in that case you ought to hate their art and the person who made it.

    So it's possible to admire art isolated from the values it may represent in part.

    It's similar to public hostpitals treating people - that is a good thing. It's not optimal, but the treatment, the dedication of the doctors, the caring indiviual staff, are still all good things.

    It's also similar to love a confused marxist friend, provided they've made errors in integrations, and are therefore mistakenly celebrating bad things instead of good.

    Of course again, if they're consciously celebrating the bad, then you need to cast them aside.

    Humans are human - whilst you ought to judge, you need to judge on the correct grounds and ones which accept the reality of the human condition.

    You can forgive people for errors in their integrations. Everyone makes deductive and inductive errors - some just more severely than others.

    That doesn't *completely* take away from whatever virtues the object or person has.

  2. Robert Winefield11 Dec 2009, 07:26:00

    "Does heroic art supersede the politics it celebrates?"

    That's tough question. I agree with Willie, it is possible to isolate the aspects of courage in this painting and celebrate them as a virtue in isolation.

    But that requires some knowledge of the subject depicted so you can - as Willie does - check the painter's premises and make sure he isn't trying to trick you into cheering for something abhorrent. I do not believe that he is. He is celebrating the courage of these men and delivering a message to the viewer.

    The only way to survive the Nazi invasion is to kill them.

    This poster is attempting provoke the viewer into defending his homeland - not the Soviet system or Stalin.

    Notice how the Sailors are not carrying Soviet banners and that there are no images of Stalin to be found (as there would have been after 1942ish when the tide of war had turned and Stalin sought to reestablish his cult of personality).

    That was deliberate strategy of course. Initially the Eastern Provinces of the USSR were looking at the Germans as their liberators. Indeed, had they behaved that way I believe that the Soviet Union would have been defeated in 1942.

    Notice also how the sailors have their backs to the sea. The choice is simple: retreat means death. The fact that the Nazi's are mounting a frontal assault and bayonet charge (highly unlikely in real life) suggests to the viewer that they aren't taking prisoners.

    Nevertheless, it takes supreme courage to fight, hand to hand against trained soldiers (remember, the guys in white are sailors not soldiers).

    This is good art IMHO. Especially because its immediate message 'defeat evil or die' is virtuous. It also helps that the painting survived the a-hole regieme that commissioned it...

  3. There may be no need for Soviet banners or images of Stalin.

    The fact that these are sailors may have communist significance even in the absence of red flags.

    My history is a bit rusty, but sailor uprisings were a major, and celebrated, part of the 1905/06 revolutions, so that might be the symbolism used here.

    This begs the question: given that the analyis of any piece of art relies on relevant knowledge of the context, what level of knowledge is acceptable to make the value judgement?

    I personally like both this painting and the 1812 overture. Do I have to be an expert on both the napoleonic war and the russian revolution to judge every piece of art from that century in order to decide if the art "deserves" my appreciation?

    The comment has been made on this blog that not knowing Che's atrocities is no excuse for wearing a shirt, but given I can't know everything surely I can enjoy a pretty picture without a relevant PhD?

  4. Robert Winefield11 Dec 2009, 10:53:00

    "What level of knowledge is acceptable to make the value judgement?"

    In art as in every sphere, there is no such thing as too much knowledge. IMHO it isn't a question of passing a quiz prior to being let into the art gallery.

    My view is that you should never stop acquiring knowledge. But doing so will cause your opinions and tastes to change especially in art and music. Periodically rechecking your 'artistic premises' often leads you to wonder what in the hell your younger self was thinking.

    So it is with this painting. There was a time when I would have deliberated on PC's question and baulked at applauding any propaganda picture designed to help the evil Soviet Empire survive into the late 20th Century.

    But, with a larger knowledge of history, I believe that argued that the good in the artwork actually outweighs the lesser political aspects presented in it. Note that I'm not commenting on the asthetics here (I'm not qualified) merely upon the righteousness of the message.

    I'm happy to stand corrected. But you'll have to give me an argument for why I'm wrong.

    I had considered the point about the Sailors by the way. Your point is obscure to us, but would have been recognized as correct by 1940s Soviet citizens.

    But notice that the sailors have no red-star insignia at all. If you look at Soviet era political artwork you will note that blood-red banners and stars abound. None of that here.

    So, even though it was commissioned by Stalin. It appears that the painter is deliberately avoiding political ideology here.

    This is Soviet Russia remember. People have been sent to Gulags for producing Green-painted tractors as opposed to Red-painted ones.

  5. I take a contrary view on the level of knowledge "required" to properly judge the value of art.

    I think the primary indicator of a good painting is indicated by the level of knowledge you *dont* require to enjoy it.

    Take a first glance at "The Defense of Sebastopol", and without any education whatsoever, your instant response is "wow, those guys are brave."

    And that response is *really* strong. That's a powerful painting.

    That is, a painting's quality is indicated by how effectivly it can solicit an instinctual or emotional response from you.

    It's a great test to run over the Jackson Pollock's of this world. Look at some tubes of paint splattered on a canvas, or a few square blocks and what does that do?

    Nothing. Unless your (a) lying or (b) mentally ill or (c) saying it irritates you.

    The same test with the same result applies to some of the other stuff PC posts here, no matter what the technical talent of the artist is.

    A bowl of fruit? A picture of a fish?

    Might make you feel a bit peckish for a salmon fillet - but it's not exactly powerful.

    Certainly, you can enjoy *more* about a painting, the more educated you are about the topic depicted. (Or for that matter decide you don't enjoy it because of your higher level knowledge about the values it celebrates.)

    But as a basic requirements test, if it doesn't spark something instinctually raw, its crap.

    Also as a note about that painting, I didn't take the sailors to be stuck in a position of "fight or die".

    I saw the sailors with the water and ships behind them, therefore having the the option of retreating to safety on their ships.

    Yet they choose to leave their natural safety in ships to fight against odds verses soldiers on the ground, rather than give up any ground to the invaders.

    Of course the historical context of the painting might contradict that.

  6. I'll answer that question with three words.

    Manic Street Preachers

  7. The painter was a slave. The panting was commissioned by a committee and signed off by a committee. The Soviet Union didn’t loosen up in 1942 the painter was following calculated commie instructions.

    Had the painter expressed an opinion contrary to his slave masters he would have died a long time ago.

    Generally some knowledge of the subject matter is helpful in that you might understand the art better. (And in the Soviet Union knowledge of the subject matter of the panting in question would prevent you expressing a negative opinion and being shot)

    And in this case so as long you are happy about being lied too then you can be indifferent to knowledge. Nothing but a puppet.

    In practice the Sailors would have drunk large amounts of vodka and pushed by commie bayonet into machine gun and mortar fire.

    The commies fueled their entire army on vodka. It was the only way for the soldiers to cope with the hunger, disease, cold and appalling casualties.

  8. Willie,

    That's the point I was trying to make: A piece of art can (and should) be beautiful without any prior knowledge.

    Simon is merely fueling my argument:
    Without telling you who painted it and when, you might have loved the image, but the minute you know the context, you hate it.

    We also criticize those who know less than us for loving an image on perceived merits , without further knowledge (ie. thinking Che was a rebellious rascal, or Simon's post above)

    I know very little about art (mainly because I hate the idea of finding ever "deeper meanings") and fully agree with Willie, but how do I handle the guys who calls me a tsarist because I like Tchaikovsky? (or a Nazi because I like Wagner or Nietsche)

  9. @Simon

    Certainly that contextual knowledge of the painting reduces my respect for it.

    But that doesn't mean by celebrating the virtue in it of "wow those guys are brave", I'm celebrating the atrocities of the Soviets.

    Remove all context, and the painting is about courage.

    Not to mention your very good points about the commie pressure on the artist. As @Robert and @Dolf have said, there was plenty of opportunity for the artist to throw in more commie propaganda. But it's not there.

    Why? Was the artist stupid, or a cunning little swine in the commie ranks, doing what he needed to survive, running a dangerous strategy of "falling into line" whilst throwing a few subtle knives at his aggressors.

    The history of art and literature is full of such people. Seemingly towing the line, but subtly sabotaging it at the same time.

    I'd be fascinated to hear PC's opinion on this, most specifically because he's repeatedly celebrated the Large Hadron Collider.

    Ten billion euros of thieved money thrown at a project of little practical significance to human welfare (probability balanced - something towards human welfare *may* come from it).

    Yet PC celebrates the good in it - the phenomenal drive of the human mind to understand the world in which it exists.

    And yes @Dolf I guess I agree with you. I'm generally skeptical of anything that says you have to have a bloody PHD to understand it. That's usually a red flag there's something wrong. E.G AGW, Tory "economics", socioligy, all things post-modern etc.

  10. Robert Winefield17 Dec 2009, 05:58:00

    "I think the primary indicator of a good painting is indicated by the level of knowledge you *dont* require to enjoy it."

    And I'd agree Willie, except when the art-work is actually designed to be propaganda.

    This one was. But it also happens to be one hell of a piece of art. The knowledge you require IMHO is to make sure that you aren't being duped into accepting a message that is abhorrent.

    Maybe knowledge is the wrong word. Maybe just considering a piece with an active mind as opposed to a passive open one is enough.

    I guess that my message is that when considering the artistic merit of propaganda, you should be on your guard.


1. Commenters are welcome and invited.
2. All comments are moderated. Off-topic grandstanding, spam, and gibberish will be ignored. Tu quoque will be moderated.
3. Read the post before you comment. Challenge facts, but don't simply ignore them.
4. Use a name. If it's important enough to say, it's important enough to put a name to.
5. Above all: Act with honour. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.