While many of the DVD’s I received from Hollywood studios in conjunction with NYFCO’s 2011 award meeting held last December sit collecting dust on a shelf beneath my television, real film pleasure in recent months has been delivered in the form of documentaries very much in tune with my own unrepentant Marxist sensibilities. In some ways, I am their ideal “market” and only look forward to the opportunity to spread the word among the politically committed readers of my film reviews.
Now joining the trenchant anti-capitalist documentaries The Robinson Trilogy and The Forgotten Space is Art is … the Permanent Revolution opening today at the Quad Cinema in New York. To get straight to the point, this is the first film to really get to the heart of the matter of the connection between art and politics, a question that has absorbed me ever since I joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967. For those familiar with Leon Trotsky’s political career, you will of course recognize that this was a question that preoccupied him as well. One of the major obstacles to my getting involved with a revolutionary organization was what can only be described as a prejudice against what I viewed as “propagandistic” art.
Paul Marcus, one of the three artists profiled in this truly remarkable work, has a wry take on this question. He says that some of the greatest art in history was propaganda, explaining that most art through the modern era was trying to sell Christianity. He asks what’s wrong with selling another message, like humanity?
The tendency to write off leftwing art as nothing but propaganda is deeply engrained in bourgeois society, a function no doubt to regard every assault to the status quo as illegitimate, if not criminal. In 1925, Upton Sinclair challenged this wisdom in a book titled Mammonart that can be read in its entirety here . In his inimitably outspoken manner, Sinclair identifies the big six lies about art and politics. The last three relate very much to the film under consideration:
Lie Number Four: the lie of Art Dilettantism; the notion that the purpose of art is entertainment and diversion, an escape from reality. It will be demonstrated that this lie is a product of mental inferiority, and that the true purpose of art is to alter reality.
Lie Number Five: the lie of the Art Pervert; the notion that art has nothing to do with moral questions. It will be demonstrated that all art deals with moral questions; since there are no other questions.
Lie Number Six: the lie of Vested Interest; the notion that art excludes propaganda and has nothing to do with freedom and justice. Meeting that issue without equivocation, we assert: All art is propaganda. It is universally and inescapably propaganda; sometimes unconsciously, but often deliberately, propaganda.
As commentary on the above, we add, that when artists or art critics make the assertion that art excludes propaganda, what they are saying is that their kind of propaganda is art, and other kinds of propaganda are not art. Orthodoxy is my doxy, and heterodoxy is the other fellow’s doxy.
Marcus, whose specialty is woodcutting, is joined by Sigmund Abeles, an etcher, and Ann Chernow, a lithographer, all of whom have chosen the print as their primary form of expression rather than one-of-a-kind paintings or sculpture. As the film is subtitled “Protest and Prints”, this makes perfect sense since the print is economically viable as a form of mass expression and–that dirty word—propaganda.
During the Mexican revolution, artists such as Jose Guadalupe Posada, a mentor to Diego Rivera, made their work available for pennies. But Abeles probably spoke for all three by when he openly questioned whether any protest art, including Guernica, stopped a bullet. One cannot escape the feeling that the three make art attacking injustice for at least one reason, namely as an individual statement approximating civil disobedience. Considering the suffering that the great political artists have endured over the years, it is a risk that considered well worth taking, especially by Honoré Daumier, a lithographer, and Otto Dix who worked in etching. Daumier was the ultimate stiff-necked rebel, whose caricature of the French king as Gargantua led to six months imprisonment at Ste Pelagie in 1832. Dix, like Daumier, created scathing satirical works about the bourgeoisie. Eventually he fell into disfavor with the Nazis who booted him out of the German Academy for making ”Bolshevik-Jewish art” detrimental to the fighting spirit of the German people.
Abeles’s medium is etching, a process that uses acid to cut into the unprotected parts of a metal surface to create a design. Along with engraving, it was originally a way for the feudal aristocracy to shop for a suit of armor. Instead of having the entire suit sent from a shop, they’d request a facsimile in the form of an etching made from the engraved lines in the armor.
In addition to learning about their political commitments, we learn all about what goes into their craft as the camera looks over their shoulders in the studio. We also learn about their influences, men and women who frequently shared their political convictions as well as their talent for printmaking.
Abeles says that despite being a hundred percent Jew, he has the greatest affinity for a Goy (Yiddish for gentile), that is Goya, the Spanish artist whose “The Disasters of War” is seen in the film, along with hundreds of other eye-opening prints. Watching Permanent Revolution is an experience like going to a virtual museum catering to the tastes of the politically committed rather than the jaded frequenter of Madison Avenue galleries. He also cites Kathe Kollwitz as a major influence, adding that in art is possible to choose your ancestors unlike blood relatives.
Ann Chernow is shown working in lithography, her latest work in progress making the connection between war and oil. She is seen putting the final touches on a lithograph that has crosses in the foreground and an oil well in the back. Like every other work shown in the film, it is extremely powerful both politically and artistically.
We also meet James Reed who owns and operates a lithography press that looks a half-century old. In a film that prioritizes the importance of working people in art, it is only natural that it includes someone like Reed who is not that different in many respects from the old-time pressmen and women who worked in the bowels of a largely dying print industry.
Paul Marcus explains why he is drawn to woodcuts. Since you are technically limited to black and white, you are allowed to create images that lend themselves to political struggle. In a world where splitting the difference is customary, especially in the horse-trading of electoral politics, it is reassuring to see someone who would obviously have no problem with the sixties dictum: if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.
Marcus is particularly edifying in his discussion of Rembrandt, an artist who like Kollwitz had an affinity for the lower classes. When he got tired of painting the gentry, his career took a turn for the worse even though his art achieved its greatest stature.
Director Manfred Kirchheimer was born in 1931 in Germany and came to the US with his parents who were fleeing Nazi persecution as a five year old. He spent 24 years in the in the NY film industry as an editor, director, and cameraman, editing over 300 films for the documentary departments of American television networks, with subjects ranging from cultural programming such as Leonard Bernstein in Venice, for CBS to biography for Time-Life Films as in Khrushchev Remembers. In other words, he is a real pro like the artists depicted in the film.
He is also as politically committed as his subjects, making documentaries that really matter as the press notes relate:
Kirchheimer’s own films explore various aspects of urban life, whether it is the city’s architectural environment or its graffiti or the docking of an ocean liner (Colossus on the River,1963). Haiku (1965), made in collaboration with Leo Hurwitz, captures a set of dances by choreographer, Jane Dudley. Leroy Douglas (1967) concerns the reaction of fellow workers in New York’s garment district to the death in Vietnam of a young black colleague. Claw (1968), a fable in the guise of a documentary, argues that styles of contemporary urban development subordinate human values to economic ones. Claw was chosen to launch the Museum of Modern Art’s landmark exhibit, “The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age.” Short Circuit (1973), a semi-documentary, made at the height of the Black Power movement, examines the reaction of a white middle class male with liberal politics to the encroachment into his Manhattan neighborhood of a black population and culture. Bridge High (1975) is a choreographed paean in black and white to a suspension bridge.
In a brief conversation I had with Kirchheimer on Friday, I learned that his mentor was Leo Hurwitz, a documentary filmmaker I had not heard of before but was anxious to learn more about after learning about his connection to the director of this great new film. It is worth mentioning that Hurwitz was one of America’s outstanding radical filmmakers and like the artists discussed in this film victimized for his politics. The January 19, 1991 obituary in the NY Times described an exemplary career:
In a long career that began with newsreels depicting the hunger marches of the Great Depression, Mr. Hurwitz made 15 principal films, including “Native Land” in 1942, co-directed by Paul Strand, narrated by Paul Robeson and with a musical score by Marc Blitzstein, and “Dialogue With a Woman Departed,” a four-hour visual poem to his late second wife and co-worker, Peggy Lawson, that won an International Film Critics Prize in 1981.
Mr. Hurwitz was a native of Brooklyn and a graduate of Harvard University. He was a cameraman and co-writer of the script for Pare Lorentz’s landmark documenatary on the Dust Bowl, “The Plow That Broke the Plains.”
In 1936 he helped found Frontier Films, the first nonprofit documentary production company in the United States, for which he made “Heart of Spain” on the Spanish Civil War and “Native Land,” about American labor struggles of the 1930’s.
My strongest possible recommendation for Art is … the Permanent Revolution, a film that both politically and artistically committed people will be watching fifty years from now. Go see it now at the Quad Cinema.