Russian art of the avant-garde is known for its embrace of technology. Read about artists who created a cult around technology and about those who condemned the virtues of the machine age and stressed the moment of failure as extremely valuable.
?Not because it is dead, am I contrasting the machine to [the painter] Goncharova,? writes the poet Marina Tsvetaeva in 1919, ?but because it is murderous. How? Ask the worker who has lost his finger! Ask any worker! And don?t forget the farmer who has his kids ?in the city?. Ask the Russian home worker! The machine is the murderer of all creative beginnings: from the hand that creates to the creation of that hand. Murderer of all that is made by hand, of all creativeness, of all that is Goncharova.?
Marina Tsvetaeva wrote these lines after the disillusioning experience of the First World War. When the destructive power of technology, especially that of the air force, became clear. Between her warning voice and the well-known cult of technology, there lays an open field within the European avant-garde of diverse theoretical currents, reflecting the hopes and fears towards a radically altered future.
The Airplane And The Russian Avant-garde
The attitude of Russian avant-garde artists, towards technology, had been marked by ambivalence from the very beginning. They had inherited a doubtful view of the innovations of modernism from the Symbolists. However, at the same time they were embracing the airplane as a possible means of gaining a new kind of perception. Flying symbolized a departure from the past and the creation of a future that would be entirely different and new. The liberation from gravity was to change the perception of space and time and therefore freed man from the prison of terrestrial logic. It meant the victory of ?natural life energies? – of dynamics over everything static. And this victory of life was paradoxically attained by the means of a machine, the aeroplane.
It has been argued that the view from above, made possible by flight, served as an inspiration for abstract paintings. There seems to be a direct connection between the dissolved perspective in abstract painting; the alogic of zaum? poetry (?poetry beyond reason?) and the disorientating experience of flight. One can imagine how being able to leave Earth created a certain arrogance towards old values, i.e. when the Russian futurists rejected the use of grammar, orthography and other norms of language, it was certainly linked to the everything-is-possible-atmosphere prevelant at beginning of the 20th century.
Illustration: Jan Köster
Machine Visions And Virtues
The machine was certainly in many ways an inspiration, and a definite indicator of the rise of new times. It was welcomed enthusiastically by some while in others it sparked debate, evaluating and redefining the dividing line between the material world and man. Mayakovsky, for example, in some of his poems, sketched out a sombre image of the city and modern life, in others he wrote of objects rebelling against their human owners. And one of the most extremely pro-machine poets was Aleksey Gastev. He expressed a wish ? if only bolshevist Russia could work as a perfectly structured machine?. His wildest visions of 1918/19 described the take-over of the world by machines, a moment he looking forward to with much excitement. A couple of years later Gastev, who had become head of the central institute of work, designed training centers in which man was not trained by teachers but by machines. The workers? arms were strapped to a machine, which performed a certain working process, dozens of times in a row. Reasoning that this way the movement would become automized and the worker would be able to perform this task with the efficiency of the machine. The American Frederic Taylor and his exploitative manufacturing ideology served as a role model to the Russians here. Along with Nietzsche, who wrote in the notes to ?Willen zur Macht? (?Will to Power?) that he was attempting an economical justification of virtue and that man must equip himself with machine-virtues.
Failure And Our Modern World Of Perfection
Even though the machine has become an integrated and stable part of today?s world, Gastev?s extreme views, thank God, have stayed an unrealized fantasy. However, capitalism and commerce have caused values like efficiency and functionality to become a new kind of religion in the modern world, with very few people seeming to find this questionable.
The Russian avant-garde and their ways of dealing with an environment, radically altered by the machine, seem extremely up-to-date. Faced with the perfection of the machine, there were many artist who stressed failure, as a vital human trait and embraced its uniqueness. The possibility of mistake became increasingly valuable. Malevich for example, the inventor and only follower of Suprematism, was convinced that art only comes into existence when rationality is turned off. And Kruchenykh admired the infantile as an expression of the irrational, unconscious, and the defective. The zaum? poet was also interested in mistakes like slips in speech and printing errors. In connection to art he was fascinated by the way they could increase the recipient?s attention. At the same time, he believed they reflected the disorder and coincidence, he regarded as the basis of artistic creation. And of course the ever-mysterious Tatlin, who constructed a complex flying machine, the Letatlin, that could not fly. Living in this late modern age, decades after the Russian avant-garde, we have to realize the right of imperfection, the right to be wrong, to fail, to fuck up, to go astray, to lose, to waste time, to break down in a society that has written ?BE PRODUCTIVE!?, as a seemingly ideology-free motto, on its banners.