The Socialist Realist aims of reforming and purging western influence, and sanctioning of correct forms of expression, were expansive across the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. Comrade Zhdanov extended his polemics against cosmopolitan cultural forms and criticised Soviet “predilection for and even a certain orientation toward modern, western bourgeois decadence.” Regardless of the relative effectiveness of the macro-imposed state aesthetic on artists, handfuls were keen to resist not only in their artistic philosophy, but also in their own ways of living and expression. See Orange Alternative. See Midnight Authors. These two differing groups, differing political eras, differing countries, and differing lifestyles both relied on the absurdity of Socialist Realism and socialist society to provide the fertile ground for expression.
Orange trumpet? Got it. Orange hat? Affirmative. Banner: Long Live Dwarves? Check. Handfuls of candy? Yes. Are these the ingredients for social subversion? Not exactly, unless you are a member of the Polish police in the late 1980s. Ingredients for dialectical art? Precisely, if you are a member of Orange Alternative in the late 1980s. First conceived by drawing dwarves on painted-over Solidarity symbols on city walls, the mastermind of Orange Alternative, Major Waldemar Fydrych viewed the political and social system he was born into as inherently absurd and thus it should be viewed as art in itself. Polish politicians were seen as the avant-garde of the art world; the referendum – a useless political measure – an act of Dadaism. Politicians, not philosophers, were the true surrealists who managed to overcome rationalism. Moving from graffiti-scribbled dwarves to happenings, Orange Alternative reached its height in Spring 1987 and Autumn 1988 by celebrating such events as Children’s Day, International Day of Peace, and a demonstration against heat on August 1st.
Major believed that the art created by Orange Alternative was dependent upon not only its members creating happenings, but also on the active participation of the police and politicians. Major called his artistic approach “Socialist Surrealism”, of which everyone was a limb in the artistic body. One particular happening involved Orange Alternative members congregating in public while wearing t-shirts reading “Galloping Inflation”. Police started to disperse the crowd, Orange Alternative began to run, the police followed: indeed, inflation was a-galloping thanks to a little help from the government. In hopes of creating a Movement of New Culture based on happiness, irony and humour, Major used happenings as part of a “surrealistic revolution”.
Socialist Surrealism carved itself from elements of 1980s’ Polish socialist society by means of street happenings. Similarly, members of a loose underground group of Czechoslovak authors in the 1950s, Půlnoční autoři, proposed a heterodox aesthetic theory of writing and living, which called forth not “poetry of life” in the Socialist Realist eye, but rather a “poetry of embarrassment” or “Total Realism”. Common representations of ‘Total Realism’ included senility, dementia, defecation, sexual intercourse and idiocy – a Czech literary trend that can be traced further back to Hašek’s Švejk and as a social trend to the fool/jester in Rudolf’s cosmic court.
While Orange Alternative included thousands of individuals across Poland, Půlnoční autoři were a small group. Ivo Vosedalek, Honza Krejcarová, Vladimír Boudník and Egon Bondy were among its founding members, which also included the generation-older Bohumil Hrabal. Many were members of the inter-war avant-garde group, the Czechoslovak Surrealist Group led by Karel Teige, but broke away from them as some felt that the surrealist aesthetic put forth by Czechoslovak Surrealist Group was no longer capable of reflecting the world into which they were thrust. Following the 1948 Communist coup, the group began to publish a samizdat journal of poetry, “Půlnoc”, that took advantage of Stalinist slogans and attempted to imitate Stalinist aesthetics in unsuccessful embarrassment.
Krejcarová published poems in what was called a “hard-sex” style, combining banal everyday routines with Freudian symbolism and momentary erotic adventures. Bondy, certainly more well-known in the Czech Republic, produced a small corpus based on exceptionally honest accounts of private human biological (mal)functions. These texts gained their widest exposure on the Plastic People of the Universe’s 1978 album Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned, when the Plastic’s lyrics first went “Czech.” The album was recorded and banned in Czechoslovakia, printed in England, released in France. A trans-euro Total Realist epidemic.
Towards a Happier Contemporary Time
The Socialist Surrealism of Major and Total Realism of the Midnight Authors both viewed the senselessness of socialist society as lying in between the banality and monstrosity of the state aesthetic. Orange Alternative and Midnight Authors, however, had differing approaches of how to interact with a society based on this irrationality. While Major had meaningful contact with the socialist society in order to create the art he saw necessary, his 1950s Czech counterparts were more inclined to theft, vagabondage, begging, and anti-social activities of any kind.
Their own respective ties to the established opposition are also convergent: Bondy, later in life, did not sign Charta 77 although remained involved in Charta discussions, while Major and Orange Alternative were awarded an artistic prize by Solidarity in December ’87, Major believed that Solidarity was not revolutionary enough in structure to cause a mentality shift among young Poles.
Regardless of their differences, the two movements created a foundation for artistic reaction in their respective countries that served and influenced other’s interpretations of socialist society and how people could interact with it. In 1988-1989 in Czechoslovakia, a group similar to Orange Alternative sprang up, calling themselves “The Society for a Happier Present” (Společnost pro Veselejší Součastnost [SVS]). Using happenings as their main form of action, SVS staged events on Prague’s Wenceslas Square that saw them brandishing cucumbers as police batons and watermelons as helmets – their own interpretation of the Czech Public Police. These members also staged a run for political prisoners, which saw individuals running along Prague’s “Avenue for Political Prisoners” and signing postcards to be sent to such imprisoned individuals as František Starek and Ivan Jirous—two of the biggest names in the post-1970 Czech Underground. In the early formations of the Underground they were intertwined personally and philosophically with Bondy and his Total Realist poetry. Those who took part in the happenings reported that it was the first time they were exposed to Bondy’s poetry and Orange Alternative’s happenings; the –isms of Bondy and of Fydrych, both reacting against preposterousness, became bedfellows for Prague’s late-80’s youth.
From the 50s to the 80s to Today: Social Commemoration
In contemporary times, it is hard not to see the effect of Socialist Realism, Socialist Surrealism and Total Realism. While we can witness Socialist Realism artistically in museums, history books, or on the streets we walk, the last two have had different incorporation into the social memory of Poland and Czechoslovakia. Warsaw, with the help of the Polish Cultural Fund, has preserved the last of Major’s remaining dwarves, while the city of Łodz plans an international centre for happenings and has also asked artists to design an Orange Alternative statue. Additionally, it is rumoured that the mayor of Łodz once wore a little orange hat while giving a press conference.
In Prague, the social commemoration of Bondy has been a bit less – perhaps due to the fact that he was an active informant and collaborator with the State Secret police since Milada Horvaková’s trial – but still has been present. Bondy passed away on April 9th, 2007 in Bratislava and within two months the National Theatre in Prague had already begun an alternative production of Bondy’s major works.
Although from two different nations in dissimilar socio-political contexts on either side of Stalin’s death, these two mismatched communities and lifestyles both used and manipulated the nonsensical and incongruous reality of socialist society and of Socialist Realism to create a change in people’s everyday actions and lives. These artistic movements, however tiny or grand, were not only a part of a local scene, but affected and influenced those across borders and across generations and continue to be recognised and lauded contemporarily in both Poland and the Czech Republic.