After the Thaw, the arts were allowed to flourish, under certain guidelines. The artists’ union, which had existed since collectivization campaign, lessened their restrictions. Modern art emerged, and art for the sake of art became the prevailing trend. Art could be a profitable industry. If your work was acclaimed, you could open your own art studio and make a good living for yourself.
However, by 1962, Khrushchev decided that the art industry had gotten out of hand. The modern art trends disturbed him not only because they did not tout the party line, but also because the type of art that was being made emphasized the individual perspective.
The Soviet premier had long been able to interject their ideas on the art world through censorship. They controlled the artists’ union, which meant that they decided who could join and what members could publish. This meant that although Stalin and Lenin had not studied or practiced art, they created the trends and decided what art was.
Khrushchev decided to step into this same role. By speaking about art he hoped to pressure the artists to conform to the Socialist realism ideal that he deemed appropriate for Soviet artists.
Some golden quotes of criticism from Nikita:
“I don’t like jazz. When I hear jazz, it’s as if I had gas on the stomach. I used to think it was static when I heard it on the radio.”
“Or take these new dances which are so fashionable now. Some of them are completely improper. You wiggle a certain section of the anatomy, if you’ll pardon the expression. It’s indecent. As Kogan once said to me when she was looking at a fox-trot, ‘I’ve been married 20 years and never knew that this kind of activity is called the fox-trot!”
To Zheltovskii: “You’re a nice-looking lad, but how could you paint something like this? We should take down your pants and set you down in a clump of nettles until you understand your mistakes. You should be ashamed. Are you a pederast or a normal man? Do you want to go abroad? Go on, then; we’ll take you free as far as the border. Live out there in the ‘free world.’ Study in the school of capitalism, and then you’ll know what’s what. But we aren’t going to spend a kopeck on this dog shit. We have the right to send you out to cut trees until you’ve paid back the money the state has spent on you.”
None of the artists whom he criticized as personally as Zheltovskii responded to the comments for fear of being sent to a gulag or killed for speaking against the Premier. However one man decided it was worth the risk. Ernest Neizvestny responded to the comments made about him by tearing off his shirt and showing Khrushchev the scars he had received on the Ukrainian front during the Great Patriotic War. In the ensuing argument, Neizvestny was threatened with being sent to a Uranium mine, however, this threat was never carried out. However Neizvestny was kicked out of the Artists’ Union, and he would be readmitted and kicked out many times before he finally emigrated from the USSR.
Interestingly, in 1971, when Nikita Khrushchev died, it was Neizvestny who was given the grant to create the leader’s tombstone. The work he created featured a bust of Khrushchev surrounded by opposing forces of chaos made of white and black stone. By speaking against Khrushchev, Neizvestny was not only allowed to stay alive, he was also able to win the Premier’s respect.