Artemy Lebedev

§ 36. They were expendable

May 25, 1999

The distance that the dead have gone...

E. Dickinson

Antiques, be it a 1930s letterhead that has passed out of use, or a 1950s shop sign, are a sumptuous delight to the eye. Not because they are obsolete. Their loveliness is revealed in the thought of their creator who shaped them in this particular manner because it was the best way.

What prevents our contemporaries from making equally good things, think before publishing anything, see a sophisticated connoisseur, not a half-educated rube in a customer? Upbringing is to blame for that.

It’s not parents’, nannies’, teachers’ or professors’ fault. The blame is entirely on the environment. It is the environment that nurtures one of the main human qualities—taste, and the ability to tell the beautiful from the plebeian.

All the people who did their bit in creating the style of the 1920—30s didn’t get their knowledge and notions of the good from a night school. However, their every work bristles with revolutionary energy.

The light graphics of the 1930s were superseded by the imperial grandeur, but no one can rebuke the 1950s for cultural squalor.

With the advent of the Khrushchev era there was a drastic reverse shift to the utter deprivation of creative expression. It was understandable in view of the fact that the relatively progressive Soviet leader spearheaded a radical cost cutting crusade, kicking off an ambitious project of erecting cheap 5-story shacks with 2.50 m ceilings that people dubbed “khrushchoba,” cross-breeding Khrushchov’s second name and the Russian word “slum.”

Obiter dictum

The 2.50 m ceilings were not an invention of the Bolsheviks’ pundits dead set on penny-pinching efforts, but rather Le Corbusier, a Swiss architect. This “Picasso of architecture” developed the Modulor concept, a scale of harmonic measures linked with natural human proportions. The pivotal points of the Modulor were the navel, chest, head, hand stretched upward etc. The whole thing was underpinned by an airtight theoretical base designed to prove that these measures could make human life happier and human perception richer. The Modulor’s next point was a 2.50 m ceiling height that would provide people an easy-to-touch sky with easy-to-pick stars...

...but obtuse humans still longed to have at least 3 m high ceilings overhead.

Khrushchev, a much-lauded tide-turner, set out on a prolonged cost slashing spree. Each allegedly ill-spent dime might prove enough to charge one with malfeasance. The whole of the 1960s became a hasty farewell party for good architecture, design and creativity in general that was looked upon as an unaffordable cost item.

Ever since we have been haunted by stenciled price tags that have cut down our idea of retail store décor to a small set of familiar forms. Ever since our money has taken on a look of flimsy bills issued by an occupation government. Ever since we haven’t had a chance to relish new fonts or fondle a well-bound book.

The reign of Brezhnev, another Kremlin ruler, shortly set in, but similarly failed in giving brilliant artists to the world. Brought to a complete halt, the country saw its creative resources pumped dry.

All of today’s Russians aged below 40–50 spent their boyhood and girlhood amid drab and dreary landscapes inspired by the scrape-and-save attitude to creative work that prevailed during the Brezhnev stagnation. Young and lusty people caught in the mire of dismal boiler houses, panel buildings, ceaseless series of street lamps, street signs and shop windows, three fonts and one stencil for all purposes, have grown up deprived of the sense of the beautiful.

This generation’s irregular attempts to do some art have resulted in what we are seeing around us: a world through the eyes of a worm.

One out of a thousand pushed aside the musty curtain to see a magnificent world that waits to be adorned. The rest remained wretched daubers.

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