About a fifth of the way through “Socialist Realism” — a book-length essay on art, politics, sexuality and identity — author Trisha Low discusses the style of art that gives her book its title. It comes in the context of a discussion of Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, who died in 1935. The work he produced at the end of his career, Low notes, “suggests he’s succumbed to a state-mandated socialist realism.”
Socialist realism is the state-approved style implemented by the Soviet Union in the 1930s, “meant to inspire the masses to become the kinds of citizens the Soviet Union needed most.” The nature of socialist realism points to something essential with which she’s grappling: What is the relationship between political beliefs and artistic aesthetics? And what happens when the two of them are at odds?
These questions aren’t rhetorical. Over the course of “Socialist Realism,” Low delves into her own history to find answers. She comes from an affluent family in Singapore but, since moving to the United States, has identified with more underground movements. She writes about her time being part of a DIY organization in college and her involvement with the local punk scene there, as well as taking part in a May Day protest in California. Is that paradoxical? Quite possibly, but then, Low embraces the paradoxical.
When writing about Singapore, she notes that “taxes mean that Singapore’s free-market wealth is ostensibly reinvested in its citizens — housing and health care are effectively socialized.” While that idea might sound appealing to some, Singapore’s crackdown on dissent seems far less palatable. It’s one of several instances where, in art and politics, easy classifications are impossible to make.
Paradoxes also arise in Low’s discussion of the work of performance artist Chris Burden. She observes that “for Burden, any effort we make is ultimately futile, destined to be absorbed back into the systems in which we exist.” That comes as she describes his performance piece “Doomed,” which ended abruptly when an employee of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art “placed a glass of life-sustaining water within his reach.” Did that gesture ruin the work? Did it save Burden’s life? What does it mean when the answer to both questions is “Yes”?
Low frequently moves around in time and space in the narrative, and it’s a testament to her skill as a writer that this feels organic rather than jarring. She invokes a disparate array of artists, family members and relationships past and present, and the cumulative effect is powerful. In her personal experience and in the art she describes, Low embraces the specifics of her own experiences and aesthetics but renders them into something thought-provoking for numerous readers. The result is one of the most evocative books you’re likely to encounter this year.
Tobias Carroll is managing editor of Vol. 1, Brooklyn. He lives in New York.
By: Trisha Low
Publisher: Coffee House Press, 166 pages, $16.95.