In what follows, I aim to tackle the issue of the politicisation of arts and aesthetics under the Romanian communist regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu. To this end, I will focus on how these cultural-political requirements influenced both art criticism and artistic production. According to the Frankfurt School philosopher Theodore Adorno, there is a significant difference between committed art and propaganda.[1] In his understanding, art should oppose itself to society (in this way becoming autonomous), but at the same time it must still persist as a part of society’s mechanisms (becoming committed). Historian Dennis Deletant reminds us that in July 1971 Nicolae Ceauşescu imposed the aesthetic principles and directives of the ideologically based Socialist Nationalist Humanism and its cultural policy.[2] Invoking the intellectual aura of the notorious Romanian historian, Nicolae Iorga, Ceauṣescu posited: “Anticipating the principles of our aesthetics today and, indeed, voicing a fundamental aim of true art of all times, the great Romanian historian Nicolae Iorga said ‘the man who does not create for his whole nation is not a poet.’”[3] Operating in a discourse analysis fashion, we easily surmise what “poet” is supposed to entail and how her/his creation is expected to awaken minds and souls. Yet, what remains more difficult to pinpoint is the suspended question of what the “whole nation” is supposed to mean and how an artistic piece can occasion a unanimous aesthetic appeal and response in “the whole nation.” This politicisation of art and aesthetic discourse during Ceaușescu’s regime generated a consistent body of “official,” state sponsored art.

One of the most conspicuous traits of socialist aesthetics and art criticism was that arts were committed to convey the “beautiful” as instantiations of political ideals, working class’ taste, industrial and rural revolutionary developments and the like. The 18th century aesthetic category of “beautiful” read in a socialist register was supposed to be a reflection of the “real.” The most significant peculiarity of “Socialist Realism” was the so-called “Reflective Theory” (Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov’s). In this vein, early Marxist aesthetic theories put forth the bond between the arts and the economic base as essentially a reflective one. Thus, Marxism has been the initial instance of a politically motivated aesthetic theory, which underlines the didactic role of the arts and its use for political purposes. “Reflection theory” holds that the value of art lies in its being a recorder of social happenings. In this framework, the artist must reflect in her/his art what the political leader deems that reality to be.

Conceiving of art as a form of social engineering is a concept of which the ancient Greek philosopher Plato would have ratified. In Plato’s thinking, as in the “Reflective Theory of Art,” political reflections are elemental and unavoidable. By the same token, the didactic imperative has been the only one adequate for artistic production and consumption (reception) of artistic products. According to this theory, embraced by the Romanian socialist cultural ideologues, there existed not aesthetic qualities (i.e. ugly, beautiful, interesting, expressive), but phenomena and objects possessing aesthetic qualities. In other words, more often than not, if the subject-matter of a painting was rendered beautiful, the painting itself was labelled beautiful, irrespective of its execution or formal choices. The ideological “beautiful” of socialist aesthetics was not supposed to be necessarily pleasant at sight. Beauty was not meant as pure aesthetic feelings of pleasure—irrespective of the artwork’s function or message—as in the Western aesthetic theories of beauty. Thus, state socialist aesthetics has envisioned artistic beauty as married to political function and not as pure feeling of pleasure or cognitively unaffected aesthetic perception. Similarly, socialist aesthetics disallowed the “fetishism of form,” the prioritisation of the interest for decorations in the artists’ creations, the cultivation of experimental techniques for “the sake of experimentation,” and elitist interpretations of the art work.[4]

In the same register, the working class was expected to engage in art criticism and to provide food for thought for artists, who in turn were expected to educate the masses through arts and culture.[5] As writer Gheorghe Crăciun posits, not only was the idea of artistic experiment regarded with hostility and repudiation but also the term as such. The term experiment was included into the artistic critical vocabulary in 1980, after a long interval of constant negotiations and re-brandings. Crăciun recalls that “in 1978 the magazine ‘Vatra’ published a page of prose under the heading ‘Literature and Experiment,’ but how difficult it was to print it, how often it was delayed… It was not just a victory against the party’s victorious progress towards the massive ideologisation of culture, but also against Romanian literature itself.”[6]

The same deleterious treatment was given to the terms avant-garde and conceptualism.[7] Magda Cârneci argues that both terms are rich in connotations. To begin with, the concept of avant-garde had a peculiar fate during any communist regime because it used to be politicised by hegemony (i.e. the unique Communist Party was regarded as the “avant-garde of the working class”). Correspondingly, the term avant-garde was avoided—when the artistic critical context referred to daring, radical audaciousness in the aesthetic sphere—while the term innovation came to replace it.[8] By the same token, conceptualism and conceptual art had a restricted reverberation both in communist artistic practice and art criticism. This constraint could be explained by the fact that “the communist censorship did not appreciate the aesthetic terminology lacking a clear political motivation, nor ambiguous terms from a cultural point of view.”[9] Interestingly, conceptual art—understood as a cultural practice from the 1960s—has a strong critical-political dimension by using language and concept as its main medium. Originally, the term avant-garde was connected to the idea of a leading social and political role for art (for example in Henri de Saint-Simon’s writings).[10] Thus, the artist was considered by Henri de Saint-Simon as an avant-garde leader of society. Yet, at the same time, avant-garde also represents “a language of revolt.”[11]

Interestingly enough, this de-materialisation of artistic production has been also regarded as a stance against art’s commodification. Communists declared their goal that in art the artist was to be the ruler, the producer—i.e., of the working class—over the consumer. At the same time the market and the usual system of consumption were dismissed. A politically and economically totalitarian state was supposed to become “a total work of art” (Golomstock), and this was exactly what constituted the avant-garde project from the very beginning.[12] In Boris Groys’s view, these utopian demands of the artistic avant-garde were never fulfilled, and for this reason they remained just a foundation for criticism of the ruling consumerist society.[13] In my view, these utopian demands demand more reflection and analysis, rather than audacious criticism.

One of the privileged art genres was monumental mural painting, as well as monumental sculpture. Both of these embellished the ubiquitous state socialist Houses of Culture and other public institutions of culture and education.[14] The public display and the impressive sizes of these pieces were valued in line with the ideal of aesthetic education of those years. Above all, the mural painter, Sabin Bălaṣa’s, work was highly regarded as utterly beautiful art. His monumental mural paintings reveal a dreamy epic about Romanians’ origins and continuity on the Romanian territory, angelic communist leaders, bygone national heroes and surreal workers. The all-too-cherished artistic values of the Romanian national communism were dually revealed in his work by embracing a personal and autochthonous style. By repudiating Western experimentalism and post-modernist tendencies in art, Sabin Bălaṣa put forth an art of cosmic romanticism inspiration. The formula cosmic romanticism (his own aesthetic device) connoted an art style that combined nationalistic elements, symbolist devices, mythological scenes (allegedly inspired from Romanian history) and surreal imagery.

Although he did not display realist images but rather idealised situations and characters, his art passed as beautiful and revolutionary. For his frescoes Bălaṣa has been awarded many prizes, including Arta magazine prize for mural painting in 1970. After his death, Monitorul Oficial publishes the catalogue titled Monumental Art of Sabin Bălaṣa (2013). The Forward is an attempt to argue that the artist’s search for beauty has been a constant of his art irrespective of the political constraints. However, during Ceauṣecu’s era not all beauty was equally prised on political grounds while Bălaṣa’s art received both financial and art critical recognition.

Not the same type of appreciation was given to Corneliu Baba’s sculpture in white stone titled The Miner. The fragile representation of the miner who works underground revealed a supposedly heroic character of the working class. However, Baba’s Miner was sightless. Conceived in the Classical Greek statues’ style, his eyes had no pupils. The blank stare on white stone puzzled the communist commission of guidance to such an extent that they decided to drill two black holes into the statue’s empty eyes and to paint the statue in black.[15] As the painter Dan Hatmanu recalls, the communist committee of guidance found the sculpture ugly and “unrealistic.” Correspondingly, they decided on the spot to beautify it. According to their cannon a sleepy miner could not be beautiful and “good art.” Unlike Sabin Bălaṣa’s Homage to the Miners (1974)—where the miners look attractive, aesthetically appealing and ready to start working in the glossy company of surreal minerals—Corneliu Baba’s sculpture conveyed the unspeakable tiredness of those who work underground.

Beauty in art was supposed to follow political function. According to this cannon, the “dogma of formal beauty,” which was so common in aesthetic modernism, became obsolete, disruptive and even dangerous in the eyes of the regime. The political, functional beauty desideratum dominated the whole art world, and the artists of that moment struggled to get rid of any trace of formalism in their work. As Ion Grigorescu recalls: “They were to become their own secret police… art was to depict the heroes and the dreams of communism… I am remembering an episode in which a painter, one of my colleagues, painted a huge piece of meat and a knife. He wanted to sell this painting in a special shop for artworks called Consignaţia [Consignement], but in order to be sold every painting should receive at this time (it was in the 70s) an approval from an official responsible with art production. This painting did not receive any approval to be sold because it could be interpreted as a need of food, as a lack of meat in Romanians alimentation. The artist must be more careful in choosing the subject-matter in the future.” [16]

According to Ion Grigorescu, the moment of crude controversy in Romanian art criticism during Ceauşescu’s regime was sparked in 1975 within the exhibition entitled Art and History. The chief critique of the exhibition had been formulated by the National Committee for Art and runs like this: “Comrades, these ancestors (Romanian historical figures as Stephan the Great, Vlad Ţepeş, the Old Mircea) are too sad and too ugly in a way… Mircea Spătaru’s sculpture of the Great Stephan without hands is ludicrous. Something has to be done in this sense…”[17] The cultural hegemony of the moment sponsored a type of art which uplifted the ugly aesthetic detail and turned it “beautiful” for the sake of political purposes. A work of art was expected to convey clarity of message; the reflection of the real as it “really” was supposed to be, and that beauty connected to political function.

The necessary theoretical support for this cultural policy also arrived from aestheticians and literary theorists’ writings which were disseminated through the cultural magazines of those years. For a general overview of the official written art-press dealing with the visual arts in the communist period, a researcher can consult art magazines such as Arta Plastică, which was renamed in 1969 as Arta, Vatra, Scînteia and Almanahul Flacăra (among others). In the later period of Ceauṣescu’s era (especially beginning in 1974), “experimentation was belittled, ironised, suspected of cosmopolitanism and mimeticism, and accused of sterility, unintelligibility and even betrayal of the interests of… art.”[18] This does not mean that experimentalism did not proliferate unofficially both in visual arts and literature (or musical production). However, this text has a limited purpose. It elaborates on the official aesthetic vocabulary of the Romanian National Communism and on the ways in which this cultural-political strategy has been reflected in both artistic production and art critique.

Maria Alina Asavei is researcher and lecturer at the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University in Prague.