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Neues Deutschland Report on a Discussion about Realism and Formalism in the School of Applied Arts in Magdeburg (April 24, 1951)

This report on a discussion of certain works of art at the School of Applied Arts in Magdeburg, published in Neues Deutschland in April 1951, showed the concrete repercussions of Stalinist cultural policy in the GDR. A peace poster did not meet the demands of Socialist Realism because it missed the political goal of motivating viewers to fight against “warmongers.” Likewise, glass windows and book covers reflected an inadequate understanding of social reality and were also dismissed as “formalistic.”

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If You Pick up a Drawing Pencil, You Must become a Political Person

Recently, at the School of Applied Arts in Magdeburg, during an enlightening discussion by students about Realism and Formalism, fundamental issues were debated on the basis of various student works.

One design by [student] photographers for a peace poster depicted two hands raised beseechingly in a plea for peace. The moderator, Stadtrat [city councilor] Germer, commented on this poster: “The point is not to explore what the artist wanted to say, but what his work expresses. The pleading gesture does not correspond to the real situation of the struggle for peace. We know from the study of history that one cannot get peace by pleading for it. To whom should the plea be addressed? We do not have to ask the Socialist nations and the people’s democracies for peace. They are leading the struggle for peace. The people of other countries, too, want peace and are fighting to preserve it. Only a small but dangerous band of monopolists, headed by the American Wall Street magnates with their military and agents, are interested in war. They make millions from war. Should we ask them to forego their billions in the interest of humankind, given the behavior they are showing us in Korea? They have to be forced into it by having the peaceful people of the entire world lead the battle against war preparations. The powers of peace are a real force, and it is possible to prevent war. The poster, however, obscures the real power of the camp of world peace and does not call for a struggle against the warmongers.”

The artist has thus made a mistake. Does that already make his work formalistic?

Realism is not characterized by the fact that the content is primary, i.e. here the longing for peace, and the form secondary, i.e. the depiction of the desire for peace through two hands and the words “Help maintain peace,” but by the fact that the content must be true and realistic, and that the depiction must express this unmistakably. The desire for peace is no longer the unfulfillable desire of millions of individuals, but the militant demand of the organized global peace camp.

Giving form to the untrue is just as formalistic as giving form for the sake of the form, which also proceeds from the unreal.

The poster is thus formalistic.

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