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This report is taken from PN Review 66, Volume 15 Number 4, March - April 1989.

The Velvet Prison Mark Thompson
Miklós Haraszti's The Velvet Prison: artists under state socialism (published by I.B. Tauris at £10.95) is a very witty and provocative book, no less interesting for being often flagrantly untrue. The author's thesis is that modern socialist states have achieved a sort of censorship which is qualitatively different from all previous attempts at cultural control. 'Traditional censorship presupposes the inherent opposition of creators and censors; the new censorship strives to eliminate this antagonism. The artist and the censor - the two faces of official culture - diligently and cheerfully cultivate the gardens of art together.'

Individualism and autonomy in art are Romantic, bourgeois - historically limited to a brief period which is now all but over, although a few poor souls still can't face the fact. And, Haraszti goes on to claim, the vast majority of artists have in fact no complaints about their contract with the socialist state; they get an assured income, and even more important, are relieved of existential isolation and given purpose: granted the privilege of being 'truly needed', they become 'social planners' - in Stalin's still apt phrase, 'engineers of the soul', whose work clearly matters. In exchange the artists give their loyalty to the state and the state's conception of society and its needs.
 
But, Haraszti goes on, you are missing the point if you insist that this relationship remains coercive. 'The consensus of state socialism is built out of the compromise of professionals, critics, planners, and artists', he says, ...


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