- The Ethnic Avant-Garde: Minority Cultures and World Revolution by Steven S. Lee
The dust jacket of Steven S. Lee’s ingenious and important first book, The Ethnic Avant-Garde: Minority Cultures and World Revolution, features an original design in the Russian Constructivist style. A sketch of Vladimir Tatlin’s Communist challenge to the Eiffel Tower, the Monument to the Third International, transects the lower left corner, while a sepia-toned photograph of a globe and a right-profile shot of a young Langston Hughes fill the center and right. Given Lee’s explicit interest in montage, the avant-garde art of mixture, this piecemeal cover image is intellectually appropriate as well as visually striking: his book reveals unexpected contacts among Soviet modernism, transnational pilgrimage, and African American culture. But the image is also a bit misleading: when documenting Moscow’s dealings with visiting black intellectuals and other elements of the “ethnic avant-garde,” Lee discovers magical alliances as well as structural juxtapositions.
From one angle, The Ethnic Avant-Garde is a thorough and convincing deconstruction of a still-too-common conceptual opposition: that between the idea of ethnicity, typically wedded to descent and return, and the idea of the avant-garde, classically associated with succession and progress. As Lee suggests, his book borrows from the montage technique pioneered by the artistic avant-garde to mix, estrange, and renew these two concepts, assembling diverse historical sources to show how the radical aesthetic experiments of the early twentieth century also opened radical vistas for ethnic minorities. All the same, from another, equally valid angle, The Ethnic Avant-Garde is an ideologically ecumenical extension of Leon Trotsky’s model of “combined and uneven development” into the arena of modernist aesthetic theory. As Lee sees it, Trotsky’s insistence that Russia and other so-called backward nations could leap over requisite world-historical stages demonstrated that “the last could become first” (10), and proceeded to inspire interweavings of the modern and the premodern in avant-garde art as well as Marxist theory. [End Page 291]
Lee’s redeployment of Trotsky’s notion of combined and uneven development, formerly an idea of bloody consequence but now a rusty period artifact, is typical of his book’s creative recentering of what might be called the World Republic of Modernism around Soviet Moscow. Russian-speaking new modernist scholars seeking to loosen the grip of New York and Paris as global headquarters of modernity have studied the interwar Soviet capital either as a magnetic “site of cultural innovation” (e.g., Katerina Clark in Moscow, the Fourth Rome) or as an imagined “beacon of racial, ethnic, and national equality” (e.g., Kate Baldwin in Beyond the Color Line and the Iron Curtain) (1). Lee, by contrast, establishes that Moscow represented the marriage of cultural and ethnic upheavals. After Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and the Jewish American poet Moishe Nadir made their “magic pilgrimages” to Moscow in the 1920s and early ’30s, they left the city convinced that they and other minority intellectuals represented “the forefront of both modernism and revolution” (2). In Lee’s fascinated portrait of early Soviet Moscow, the historical avant-garde joins hands with a culturally pluralist historical materialism to promise that political and artistic vanguardism might deepen rather than drown ethnic particularity. The secular utopia that Lee’s minority travelers glimpsed in Moscow was one in which Mayakovsky as well as Lenin defined the good new days, in which the aesthetic avant-garde challenged itself to become “inclusive and decolonizing,” and in which minority cultures were assumed to be “revolutionary and experimental” until proven guilty (2).
Lee’s Moscow, the hub of his bold and resourceful “minority and Soviet-centered remapping of global modernism” (45), is thus also a space of hopes violently betrayed—not to mention a kind of latter-day Potemkin village thrown up to feed the dream of a genuinely revolutionary ethnic art. As Lee admits, neither Soviet multiculturalism nor Soviet artistic vanguardism could survive Stalin’s brew of mass terror and...