Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 19, 2014

A Gift to Birobidzhan

Filed under: art,Jewish question,Stalinism,ussr — louisproyect @ 7:05 pm

fiks receptionOpening night reception for A Gift to Birobidzhan

fiks photoYevgeniy Fiks

For people who have been following the Unrepentant Marxist for the past few years, you are probably aware that I am a big fan of Yevgeniy Fiks, a post-Soviet Conceptual Artist I interviewed in 2012 and whose last show on the USSR’s mixed encounter on Black people I wrote about earlier this year.

Although Fiks is decidedly left-of-center, his art is not in the socialist realist tradition to say the least. His strategy is much more subversive. By “flanking” his subject, he defies pat interpretations of sexuality, race, imperialism, the former Soviet Union, and other topics that could inspire boring and didactic treatments.

Although I love everything that he does, my favorite “work” by Fiks was his “Lenin for your library”, a sly assault on corporate stupidity and humorlessness that was described on the Winkelman Gallery, where he has exhibited in the past, as follows:

100 copies of “Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism” by V.I. Lenin were sent out to the addresses of World’s major corporations, including Gap, Coca-Cola, General Electric, and IBM among many others. In an enclosed letter, it was stated that the book was a donation to the corporate library. Out of 100 copies, 14 were accepted and “thank you” letters were received. 20 copies were returned together with letters stating various reasons for rejection, including a particular focus of the library or their policy not to accept any gifts or donations from private individuals. The fate of the remaining 66 copies remains unknown.

It was the same spirit of playfulness, which might be described as a David Letterman gag geared to those who have read Tristan Tzara, Fiks conceived of A Gift to Birobidzhan, described in the initial publicity as follows:

In 2009, artist Yevgeniy Fiks originated a project called A Gift to Birobidzhan. Established in the Soviet Union in 1934 as the Autonomous Jewish Region of the USSR, Birobidzhan was for a time considered a rival to Israel. Although located in a remote area near China, Birobidzhan caught the world’s imagination. In 1936, two hundred works of art was collected in the United States by activists as the foundation for the Birobidzhan Art Museum. The collection included works by Stuart Davis, Adolf Dehn, Hugo Gellert, Harry Gottlieb, and William Gropper among others. The collection was first exhibited in New York and Boston, and in late 1936, it was shipped to the Soviet Union. The collection never reached its final destination in Birobidzhan. By late 1937, Stalin had purged the leadership from Birobidzhan at which time the collection vanished into government or private hands.

Taking this microhistorical narrative as his starting point, Fiks invited 25 contemporary international artists to donate works of their choosing to the existing museum of Birobidzhan. After initially agreeing to exhibit and accept the works into its collection, the museum in Birobidzhan conditionally retracted the offer, in part to avoid confrontation with a conflicted past and the fact that Birobidzhan now consist of a small Jewish population. Granting Fiks the role of steward, the artists agreed to let Fiks store the collection until it could reach its intended destination.

A Gift to Birobidzhan of 2009 was an attempt to repeat and complete — seventy years later — the gesture of “a gift to Birobidzhan” in 1936. As of 2014, it remains still a rejected gift and a “state-less collection,” packed in boxes in Fiks’ apartment in the Lower East Side. A Gift to Birobidzhan evokes the utopian promise of Birobidzhan — a Socialist alternative to a Jewish state — as a point of departure for discussions on broad 20th century’s impossible territorial politics, identity, national self-determination, and a common “seeking of happiness.” At present, we find that many of the same questions from the early 20th century have resurfaced again.

For those outside of New York City, you will be able to take a “virtual tour” of the exhibit here. Here’s a work that I kept coming back to:

VyDaVy, “JEWISH LUCK” (еврейское счастье), two 25”x32” laminated prints. Ink on paper, gold leaf, 2009

Jewish luck is Jewish luck. It is black or white. It comes and goes. But there is always something inside that stays forever

(If you would like to take a “real tour” of the exhibit, contact me at lnp3@panix.com and I will put you in touch with Yevgeniy.)

Finally, I should state that the show had a particular resonance for me as a Jew and as someone who has become particularly inflamed over ancillary questions. As a firm believer that Ukraine was to Russia as Ireland was to England—as Lenin once put it—I found the Kremlin demagogy about the existential threat to Jews posed by EuroMaidan obscene. Almost as obscene as the increasingly rabid defense of Israel’s war on Gaza and the McCarthyite attacks on pro-Palestinian professors, all in the name of defending “the Jewish homeland”. As I told Yevgeniy at the show, the Jews would have been much better off in the sparsely populated Birobidzhan than in Palestine, where carried out a wholesale expulsion of the indigenous population.

Eleven years ago I reviewed a documentary titled “L’Chayim Comrade Stalin”, long before blogs had been invented. I reproduce my article below along with a trailer for the film that can unfortunately not be seen online in all the usual places like Netflix. My advice is to track down a DVD from a research library. They don’t even have one in the Columbia University library. Good luck!

L’Chayim Comrade Stalin

posted to http://www.marxmail.org on February 3, 2003

When he was a young boy, Yale Strom noticed two “sidukah” (charity) boxes in his father’s shop. One was the omnipresent blue Jewish National Fund box intended for Israel that my own father kept in his fruit store. The other was targeted for Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region that Stalin decreed in 1932. His curiosity about the lesser-known Jewish homeland became the seed for his documentary “L’Chayim Comrade Stalin,” now showing at the Quad Cinema in NYC.

Based on interviews with current and past residents and archival material, including a altogether charming Soviet feature film of the period promoting settlement, the film not only sheds light on an under-documented aspect of Stalinist rule, it also inspires a variety of reactions to the “Jewish Question.” (Strom utilizes a graphic of these two words writ large in red repeatedly through the film as a kind of leitmotif.)

Most of the older veterans of Birobidzhan make clear that the project tapped into youthful idealism. Combining a belief in communism with a desire to create a cultural homeland for the Jews, they came to the Siberian hinterland with great hopes. Despite the fact that anti-Semitism prompted Stalin to create the settlement in a geographically remote area, the settlers did not necessarily view this as a kind of internal exile. Stephen Cohen points out eloquently in his biography of Bukharin that Stalin’s despotic “revolution from above” did not preclude a kind of egalitarian zeal from bubbling to the surface. Despite repression, many people felt that they were on a great adventure to build a new society, including the Jews who came to Birobidzhan.

It was not only Russian Jews who came to this remote, mosquito-infested region that was closer to Korea than to Moscow. IKOR, an international organization of Jewish Communists, actively recruited people in more or less the same manner as people were recruited to construction brigades in Nicaragua in the 1980s. A widow of an US electrician recounts the arduous journey that brought them to the desolate outpost with nothing but their clothes and a generator that her husband intended to bring on-line for the settlement. Like a 1930s version of martyred engineer Ben Linder who died from contra bullets, he understood that in the cold, rainy Siberian wilderness, electricity could dramatically improve the quality of life.

At its peak, Birobidzhan only included about 45,000 Jewish settlers. Most were poorer Jews from rural Byelorussia or the Ukraine, who were trained to cobble shoes (like my mother’s father) or make hats. The Soviet film shows a bearded Jew struggling and finally succeeding to yoke two oxen to a plow. This image evokes a long standing theme that falls under the general rubric of the “Jewish Question”. There is a tendency among early Zionist theorists and Marxists alike to explain Jewish weakness and isolation as a failure to develop the full range of skills and occupations found in society as a whole.

The absence of Jewish farming in particular spurred not only the agrarian colonizing efforts in Birobidzhan, it also led to similar efforts in my own Sullivan County in the 1800s. Farming experiments were an expression of the “Enlightenment” tendency in Judaism that also produced colonies in Argentina, New Jersey and Palestine. The very earliest farmers who settled in Palestine were not Zionists as much as they were agrarian socialists.

After the USSR allowed Jews to emigrate, most of Birobidzhan’s citizens flooded into Israel. Now there are only 17,000 left. Strom’s interviews with those who stayed behind are among the film’s most poignant moments. One elderly woman named Rivkele explains that she only speaks Russian nowadays and has almost forgotten her Yiddish, the official language of the Jewish Autonomous Region. She is also married to a Russian, as are her children. One gets the impression that such Jews are rapidly become assimilated in the same fashion as Jews elsewhere in the world, including the USA. Rather than having to worry about the secret police arresting a man for toasting a baby at a circumcision ritual for coming into the world as a Jew (an event that the documentary details), they have to worry more about the inexorable process of unfavorable demographics and the natural tendency of a secular society to erode particularistic customs and religious beliefs.

Although the economic changes in the post-Communist USSR have been largely negative (one interviewee spits out that “you can’t eat freedom”), they do include a cultural latitude that allows the remaining Jews in Birobidzhan to study their customs, re-familiarize themselves with Judaism and–most intriguingly–to learn Yiddish. Just as I studied Hebrew at the age of 11 and 12, these young Jews now study Yiddish, a dying language. During a Q&A session after the film, Strom hinted at the class/cultural divide between Hebrew and Yiddish. His own father had become an activist of the Hashomer Hatzoir, a left-leaning Zionist group that favored Hebrew, a language that presumably would sever all ties to the ghetto where Yiddish first arose. Meanwhile the Jewish Bund, a socialist organization that disavowed Zionism and linked Jewish emancipation with the emancipation of the working class in general, adopted Yiddish as its official language. They saw this language, with all its underdog associations, as the appropriate medium for a people seeking to abolish the underdog status once and for all.

I would only add that I regret not having learned Yiddish instead of Hebrew growing up. Not only is that language infinitely more expressive, it is rooted in the lived experience of the Jewish people rather than an artificial construct to recreate a Biblical state that some scholars, including many in Israel, believe never existed.

Yiddish, a mongrel language, perhaps expresses best the true cultural legacy of the Jewish people. As a people without their own distinct territory, they mix with and absorb local influences as well as influencing the gentile population that surrounds them. This has always seemed much more attractive to me than the idea of separating oneself from the unbeliever and erecting fences to maintain that purity.

Russian Jews have always embodied this kind of rich dialectical interpenetration. Recently I discovered that despite many flaws in Arthur Koestler’s “The Thirteenth Tribe,” there is still ongoing research that partially confirms his original thesis, namely that the Jews of Eastern Europe and Russia descended from the ancient Khazar kingdom in Turkey. Today, the evidence seems to point in the direction of a link not between all Jews in this area but a subgroup called the “Mountain Jews”, about whom I had knew nothing beforehand.

From www.khazaria.com, we learn about the cultural aspects of the Mountain Jews:

Occupations. According to historian Ken Blady, the Mountain Jews used to be agriculturalists and grew such crops as grapes, rice, tobacco, grains, and marena (madder). In later years most of the Mountain Jews were forced to get involved in business, so they became traders, tanners, jewelers, rug-weavers, leather-workers, and weapon-makers. A small number of Mountain Jews remained farmers as late as the 20th century.

Cuisine. The foods of the Mountain Jews are outstanding. I have personally eaten the Mountain Jewish versions of chicken shashlik (shish-kebab) and dolma (stuffed grape leaves), and I liked the way the food was prepared and the vegetables and sauces that were used with the meats. There are many very good Mountain Jewish and Persian restaurants in New York City and one of the Persian restaurants is called “Khazar” after the Persian name of the Caspian Sea.

Hospitality. The Mountain Jews were generous to guests, just like their Caucasian neighbors. Ken Blady says that this hospitality probably originated with the Jews themselves: “As one of the oldest inhabitants in the region and the people who brought monotheism to Caucasian soil, it may well have been the Jews who wove the biblical patriarch Abraham’s practice of hachnosat orchim (welcoming guests) into the fabric of Daghestani culture. Every guest was treated as if he were personally sent by God. In every Jewish home a special room or hut covered with the finest carpets was set aside for guests. Every host would… lavish on them the finest foods and spirits….” (p. 165-166)

Music and dance. Instruments used by Mountain Jews included the tar (plucked string instrument) and saz (long-necked fretted flute) (Blady, p. 166). Saz is a Turkic word. Blady also says that there were “many talented musicians and wonderful storytellers among the Mountain Jews” (p. 167). Furthermore: “The Mountain Jews were graceful in their movements, and were excellent dancers…” (p. 168).

Courage and independence. Like the Khazars, the Mountain Jews were “skilled horsemen and expert marksmen” (Blady, p. 166). They loved horses and nature. Mountain Jews knew the value of self-defense and carried and owned many weapons (especially daggers).

Dress. Mountain Jews wore clothing like that of their neighbors in the Caucasus.

Charity. Blady explains that all Mountain Jewish towns had a “house of kindness and charity” which helped poor and sick people.

****

This kind of cross-culturalism is truly inspiring. It is tragic that the holocaust not only destroyed the lives of millions of Jews, who lived in a similar kind of cultural gumbo, it also unleashed an experiment in ethnic purity that has brought nothing but misery to the people it displaced and an embrace of militarism and chauvinism that were alien to traditional Jewish society, either secular or fundamentalist.

These, at least, are my reactions to Yale Strom’s first-rate documentary. What others are stirred to think will largely be a function of the beliefs that they bring with them when they see the film. At the very least, his film will act as a catalyst on the mind and on the heart. Highly recommended.

Swarthmore website on the Jewish Autonomous Region: http://birobidzhan.swarthmore.edu/

September 13, 2014

Altina

Filed under: art,Film,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 5:42 pm

Altina Schinasi, the subject of the documentary “Altina” that opened yesterday at the IFC in New York, was like Peggy Guggenheim—a member of the Jewish haut bourgeoisie who opted for a bohemian life in the arts.

The daughter of a Turkish Sephardic Jew who made a fortune in the nascent machine-rolled cigarette industry after migrating to the USA in the 1890s (his factory was on 120 and Broadway, now the location of Columbia University Teacher’s College and my old office), she lived a life of great privilege. The 35-room Schinasi mansion, now a New York City landmark, is and was the only privately owned and fully detached home in the city.

Inside the Schinasi mansion

Her entry into the art world was through the back door. She made a name for herself as a window dresser in New York’s chichi department stores and from there into fashion design. Her biggest achievement was the harlequin eyeglasses that became a fashion accessory for women defying Dorothy Parker’s doggerel: “Men don’t make passes at women who wear glasses.”

Like many wealthy Jews, her sympathies were with the left. This, of course, was still at a time when a sense of noblesse oblige existed and before the state of Israel converted this layer into the equivalent of Good Germans.

She became close to Georg Grosz, the German expressionist painter and Communist after he went into exile in the USA and won a nomination for best documentary of 1960 about Grosz’s struggle against Nazism. During the worst days of the Red Scare, she hid blacklisted director John Berry in her Beverly Hills mansion until he could make a getaway to Europe.

After completing this film, she turned her attention to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Freedom March, for which to she acquired film rights. Vittorio De Sica, the Italian director of “The Bicycle Thief” and a Communist sympathizer, was to direct the film. But since the civil rights movement remained controversial in the early 60s, she failed to line up funding.

Her most celebrated artwork, once again eschewing the rarefied atmosphere of the galleries, was her “chairacters”, furniture that had a vaguely erotic feel as the image below would indicate:

Peggy Guggenheim had the reputation for having a ravenous sexual appetite and supposedly slept with 1,000 men in Europe. Altina Schinasi was probably a runner-up if we take the word of her last husband at face value. Her last husband Celestino Miranda, a decades-younger Cuban refugee she had taken on as a studio assistant, tells us that she was a tiger in bed even in her seventies. Altina Schinasi died in 1999 at the age of 92. This remarkable documentary will give you a flavor of the Jewish wealthy when they were at their best.

September 3, 2014

Hanging out in Coyoacan

Filed under: art,bohemia,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 1:30 am

August 12, 2014

Trotsky on Futurism

Filed under: art,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 10:58 pm

Leon Trotsky

Literature and Revolution


Chapter 4
Futurism

Its Bohemian Origin – The Break with the Past – The Component Elements of Russian Futurism. – Mayakovsky and the Revolution – Futurism, a Line Between the Creative Intelligentsia and the People.

FUTURISM is a European phenomenon, and it is interesting because, in spite of the teachings of the Russian Formalist school, it did not shut itself in within the confines of art, but from the first, especially in Italy, it connected itself with political and social events.

Futurism reflected in art the historic development which began in the middle of the ’nineties, and which became merged in the World War. Capitalist society passed through two decades of unparalleled economic prosperity which destroyed the old concepts of wealth and power, and elaborated new standards, new criteria of the possible and of the impossible, and urged people towards new exploits.

At the same time, the social movement lived on officially in the automatism of yesterday. The armed peace, with its patches of diplomacy, the hollow parliamentary systems, the external and internal politics based on the system of Safety valves and brakes, all this weighed heavily on poetry at a time when the air, charged with accumulated electricity, gave sign of impending great explosions. Futurism was the “foreboding” of all this in art.

A phenomenon was observed which has been repeated in history more than once, namely, that the backward countries which were without any special degree of spiritual culture, reflected in their ideology the achievements of the advanced countries more brilliantly and strongly. In this way, German thought of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries reflected the economic achievements of England and the political achievements of France. In the same way, Futurism obtained its most brilliant expression, not in America and not in Germany, but in Italy and in Russia.

With the exception of architecture, art is based on technique only in its last analysis, that is, only to the extent to which technique is the basis of all cultural superstructures. The practical dependence of art, especially of the art of words, upon material technique, is insignificant. A poem which sings the skyscrapers, the dirigibles and the submarines can be written in a faraway corner of some Russian province on yellow paper and with a broken stub of a pencil. In order to inflame the bright imagination of that province, it is quite enough if the skyscrapers, the dirigibles and the submarines are in America. The human word is the most portable of all materials.

Futurism originated in an eddy of bourgeois art, and could not have originated otherwise. Its violent oppositional character does not contradict this in the least.

This is a chapter in “Literature and Revolution”. Read full here

August 11, 2014

Fascist art

Filed under: art,Fascism,zionism — louisproyect @ 7:41 pm

When Frank Rosengarten went over to Italy in 1956 to work on his dissertation, he planned on researching Vasco Pratolini, a novelist best known for “Il quartiere”, a work known as “The Naked Streets” in English. He had been told that Pratolini was a Communist, an affiliation that made sense given the strong identification he had with his working-class protagonists. He seemed at first blush to have all the right connections, developing a friendship with Roberto Rossellini during WWII, fighting with the partisans against Il Duce and the Nazis, and developing a whole body of work that was similar to that of Ignacio Silone if not as well known.

Eventually Frank discovered to his complete surprise that Pratolini was a card-carrying member of the Fascist party until the late 1930s:

The fact is – and it is a difficult fact to grasp – young Pratolini looked on Fascism as marking a revolutionary turn in Italian history, a new order that would redeem the working class and establish a society of equals, based on labor, with the state assuming the role of disciplinarian, making sure that private interest groups would never threaten the lives of the Italian masses. He even believed that Fascism had a universal and liberating role to play in the world. His disillusionment therefore was doubly painful. The empty space in his ideological universe was filled by the only political force that, in his view, in the Italy of 1943 to 1945, could bring about the revolution that Fascism had left unrealized, namely the renascent Italian Communist Party led by Palmiro Togliatti. And behind Togliatti there was the great Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci, whose writings Pratolini began to read, in fragmentary and clandestine publications, in 1944 or 1945.

I doubt that Frank, who died a couple of weeks ago after a year long battle with prostate cancer, was well enough to have attended the show on Italian Futurism at the Guggenheim but I am sure he would have been reminded of Pratolini.

I attended the show yesterday with long-time friend and Marxmail co-moderator Les Schaffer and was amazed to discover how a generation of Italy’s most talented artists could have lent themselves to the fascist cause. As we walked down the ramp, the paintings and other art works had the same kind of bold spirit and experimental drive as Russian art of the early 1920s.

One artist covered the same bases as Pratolini but in reverse order. Born in 1881, Carlo Carrà became famous for his 1911 painting “The Funeral of the Anarchist Galli” that commemorated the death of Italian anarchist Angelo Galli, shot by police during a general strike in 1904.

The Funeral of the Anarchist Galli

Wikipedia on Carrà:

Carrà was indeed an anarchist as a young man but, along with many other Futurists, later held more reactionary political views, becoming ultra-nationalist and irredentist before and during the war, as well as by Fascism after 1918 (in the 1930s, Carrà signed a manifesto in which called for support of the state ideology through art). The Strapaese group he joined, founded by Giorgio Morandi, was strongly influenced by fascism and responded to the neo-classical guidelines which had been set by the regime after 1937 (but was opposed to the ideological drive towards strong centralism).

For the movement, modern transportation had the same kind of charisma that Christian symbols had for artists of the renaissance. Their works were filled with homages to airplanes and railroad trains. Within Futurism, it was a subgenre called arte meccanica. This 1922 work by Ivo Pannaggi titled “Speeding Train” is emblematic:

Speeding Train

In the same year that he painted “Speeding Train”, Pannaggi co-wrote the “Manifesto dell’Arte Meccanica Futurista” (Manifesto of Futurist Mechanical Art) with fellow Futurist Vinicio Paladini. The Manifesto was couched in Marxist language and saw machinery as a “key to bridging the gap between the proletariat and bourgeoise” as Wikipedia puts it. It would seem that “bridging the gap” between proletariat and bourgeoisie was a theme that allowed some of these artists and novelists to become seduced by fascism, especially when there were such benefits to be gained. After Pratolini became a fascist spokesman, he landed a cushy job with the Ministry of Education.

Even though Pannaggi’s Marxism was questionable at best, it was too much for Futurism’s czar Filippo Marinetti to put up with. Again from Wikipedia:

Marinetti is known best as the author of the Futurist Manifesto, which he wrote in 1909. It was published in French on the front page of the most prestigious French daily newspaper, Le Figaro, on 20 February 1909. In The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism, Marinetti declared that “Art, in fact, can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice.” George Sorel, who influenced the entire political spectrum from anarchism to Fascism, also argued for the importance of violence. Futurism had both anarchist and Fascist elements; Marinetti later became an active supporter of Benito Mussolini.

The Sorel connection is interesting. In the early 20th century he had many supporters on both the right and the left, as I discovered doing some research on José Carlos Mariátegui. Mariátegui, the father of Peruvian communism and a major influence on my own pro-indigenist Marxism, extolled Sorel in his writings. This is no surprise considering Mariátegui’s exposure to the Italian left during his stay in Italy from 1920 to 1923. Sorel was a favorite of the Italian anarchist movement and clearly had an impact on those who had a “voluntarist” streak.

Over and over the exhibition makes reference to the rise of nationalist fervor that led to Mussolini’s rise to power. As many of you probably know, Il Duce started off as a socialist. I would strongly recommend that you watch Marco Bellochio’s “Vincere”, a 2010 biopic about Mussolini that can be seen on a Netflix DVD. Starting out as a socialist, he capitulates to war fever at the outset of WWI and makes fiery speeches about the nation having to redeem itself in battle before advancing toward socialism.

Unlike Hitler, Mussolini was less prone to impose esthetic strictures on Italian society. While by no means a Futurist ideologically, he was happy to accept their toadying salutes. It was only around 1937 that pressures from Hitler forced him to adopt a more “traditionalist” outlook in sync with the campaign against degenerate art taking shape in Germany.

A show on “Degenerate Art” is on display at the Neue Galerie on 86th Street, just 3 blocks south of the Guggenheim where the Futurism show is running. Both exhibitions close on September 1 and I urge fellow New Yorkers to grab both.

Les and I stopped by the Neue Galerie before heading over to the Guggenheim. Both of us were intrigued by the inclusion of Emil Nolde in the “degenerate art” exhibition mounted by the Nazis in 1937. Nolde was not a Communist like George Grosz. In fact he was a card-carrying Nazi until his modernist inclinations put him outside the Hitler cult. This 1912 woodcut titled “The Prophet” was included in the degenerate art exhibition, just one of more than a thousand works by Nolde that were seized by the Nazis. Nolde was a German Dane, who considered Expressionism to be an echt-Aryan style, a view shared by Joseph Goebbels.

The Prophet

After 1941 Nolde was prevented from making any new paintings, so total was Hitler’s opposition to anything that smacked of modernism. Intent on continuing his work, Nolde took up watercolors since they—unlike oils—did not produce a strong odor, something that would allow the Gestapo to catch Nolde in the act of creating art.

The Neue Galerie was funded by Ronald Lauder, the Republican billionaire heir to the Estee Lauder cosmetics empire, former Ambassador to Austria, and President of the American Jewish Congress. Using his enormous wealth, Lauder interjects himself both in American and Israeli politics. A 2002 profile on Lauder by Michael Massing in the American Prospect gave the lowdown on a Jewish counterpart to the Koch brothers:

Politically, however, he seemed out of step with most American Jews; in 1989, while seeking the Republican nomination for mayor of New York, he ran to the right of Rudolph Giuliani. And, on Israeli issues, he was a vocal Likudnik, with long-standing ties to Netanyahu. While Lauder was seeking the conference chair, the Jewish press carried reports that he had helped bankroll Netanyahu’s campaign for prime minister. Such foreign contributions are illegal under Israeli law; Lauder denied the reports, but that did little to mollify his opponents.

If you go to the American Jewish Congress website, you’ll find a “talking points” page that repeats all the usual hasbara bullshit. Lauder showed up in Israel in July on behalf of the AJC, where he turned the victim into the criminal and the criminal into the victim, as Malcolm X once put it. The Jerusalem Post reported:

According to Lauder, a former US ambassador to Austria and deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO affairs, the international media have not adequately portrayed the “hundreds of rockets” that have been fired into Israel by Hamas as intercepted projectiles make for boring stories.

“They can’t show rockets being blown up in the air by one side. That’s not a story. And the result is that there is this fanning of anti-Semitism.

“There are no pictures to be seen, so they have reporters reporting on what’s happening in Gaza and they hear stories about children being killed and things like that and the result is that the Arab communities all over hear that the Israelis are going after them,” he explained.

As a long-time observer of political/cultural trends, it strikes me as a crowing irony that someone like Lauder can fund a museum that decries Nazi suppression of great art while at the same time cheering on an assault on a defenseless people that is widely regarded as taken from the Nazi playbook, to the point where rightwing Israelis carry signs saying “One People, One State, One Leader”—a Nazi slogan.

It is also deeply ironic that the modernism of the 1920s and 30s became an instrument of corporate power during the Cold War and is now brandished by someone like Ronald Lauder who would most certainly be the target of George Grosz, the Communist artist whose animosity for such bourgeois pigs was so prominent in most of his work. The Nazis knew who their enemy was when they included Grosz’s work in the Degenerate Art show. One would only hope that a new generation of artists would begin to develop the backbone to picture Lauder in the same way Grosz depicted the Lauders of his day in the 1926 “Pillars of Society”:

Pillars of Society

June 21, 2014

Left Forum 2014: panel on art and gentrification

Filed under: art,housing,Left Forum — louisproyect @ 8:03 pm

This is the third in a series of videos I made at the recently concluded Left Forum.

As I will point out, the topic might be of great interest to those who have looked askance at the “art market” but unfortunately the presentations were not that great. I do urge you watch the video, however, since the speakers were genuine authorities in the field of how artists often unwittingly serve as the shock troops of gentrification.

As a New Yorker, this is a topic that interests me a great deal since I have seen any number of neighborhoods in New York undergo gentrification through a process that follows a familiar pattern. Artists looking for a cheap studio will buy or rent commercial lofts, often in violation of building codes, and then turn them into living lofts. Two old friends, now deceased, bought a loft on the Bowery in 1969 for that very purpose. Around the same time, further to the West, Soho was being transformed after the same fashion. I am not sure how many artists are now operating in Soho, an area that is punctuated by Moncler, Gucci, and Armani boutiques.

Soon to follow was Tribeca, an area that followed the same pattern. Besides the boutiques, Soho and Tribeca are fabulous places for hedge fund managers to live. With their tattoos and their French bulldogs, they feel utterly bohemian.

As artists kept getting priced out of Manhattan, they explored other places, eventually “discovering” Wiliamsburg. Before long Williamsburg became “Soho-ized” as artist Su Friedrich pointed out in her documentary “Gut Renovation”, about which I wrote:

Friedrich’s documentary is an angry and deeply personal look at the 20 years she has spent in a Brooklyn neighborhood that I always considered a bohemian stronghold even if there were obviously attempts to gentrify it. As is the customary practice in New York, artists like Friedrich flock to somewhat seedy but charming neighborhoods in search of cheap industrial lofts to turn into studios. The most famous example is Soho, the area “South of Houston Street” that is nothing but a warren of overpriced restaurants and boutiques nowadays. The only artists who remain there are those who are successful enough to mount shows in Madison Avenue galleries, a snooty area that the once downscale Soho now resembles.

Friedrich is a remarkable personality whose flair for vitriol is worth the price of an admission ticket. She is not above accosting well-heeled couples on the street that are toting shopping bags from Bloomingdales and accusing them of destroying her neighborhood. In one priceless moment in this darkly comic saga, she yells at a bunch of real estate agents and developers from the window of her loft. She is both shameless and priceless.

The artist/gentrification nexus appears outside of New York. One of the most egregious examples is Braddock, Pennsylvania, a destitute small city near Pittsburgh that was once home to steel mills. In the largely African-American city, a white Mayor has called for the transformation of Braddock by appealing to artists (implicitly white) to settle there. In my article on Braddock, I call attention to what the Levi blue jean corporation said during the time it was running commercials filmed there:

The muse for Levi’s® new campaign is Braddock, a town embodying the demise of the blue collar base that is taking radical steps to reverse its decay.  Braddock now faces a new frontier of repurpose and new work in what was once a flourishing industrial mecca.  Since 2001, John Fetterman, the mayor of Braddock, has taken his fight for social justice in Braddock to the masses by enlisting the help of modern pioneers – artists, craftsmen, musicians and business owners – to rebuild and revive the town.   As it rebuilds, Braddock has become a model for how any city, in any part of the country, can prevail as a symbol of hope and change.

As opposed to this cynical bullshit in the name of social justice, put forward at a time when Braddock’s only hospital was being shut down, Tony Buba fought for true working-class values as opposed to blue jean iconography.

I would call your attention to an article written by Martha Rosler, one of the two panelists in the video. Titled “The Artistic Mode of Revolution: From Gentrification to Occupation”, it makes some essential points about the art/gentrification problem. This “solution” to America’s deepening urban crisis of poverty and social decay is being offered to Detroit today after being dubbed a success in Pittsburgh, another hollowed out metropolis. Rosler writes:

This repopulation and transformation of cities—from spaces bereft of shops and manufacturing, starved of resources, and inhabited by poor and working-class people or squatters living in ill-maintained housing stock, into spaces of middle-class desire, high-end shopping, and entertainment—took at least a generation. It also required the concerted effort of city leaders. New York’s Soho and East Village had proved, by the late 1970s, that the transformation of old warehouses and decaying tenement districts into valuable real estate could be accomplished by allowing artists to live and work in them—if nothing else, city government recognized or identified with such people and understood their needs. Those elected officials who might, in an ear­lier era, have supported organized labor, found that such constituencies were fading away. Artists, in addition, were not going to organize and make life difficult for city governments. In the following decades, the Soho model became paradigmatic for cities around the world. (Another popular tactic was to attract small new industrial shops, mostly high tech ones.) But no matter how much the arts (whether the performing arts or the institutionalized visual arts in museums) have been regarded in some cities as an economic motor, that remedy is not applicable everywhere, and not every city has proved to be a magnet for the arts. A new urban theory was required.

 

May 8, 2014

Devil’s Knot; Llyn Foulkes One Man Band

Filed under: art,Film — louisproyect @ 11:00 pm

My first reaction to “Devil’s Knot”, a narrative film based on the West Memphis , Arkansas crime and punishment saga, was why bother. Already given peerless documentary treatment by Joe Berlinger in the HBO “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” trilogy, anything else would seem superfluous including, I should add, the 2012 “West of Memphis” documentary directed by Amy Berg that I passed by for this very reason.

For a good part of the film, I had the impression that I was watching something from the Lifetime Cable Network that offers “problem” movies about dysfunctional families and the like targeted mostly to women. It was only after remembering that the film was directed by Atom Eyogan, an Armenian-American who is always interesting even when he misfires, I stuck with it. As the film progressed, I saw more and more of the touches that make an Eyogan film memorable. He has a way of putting his personal stamp on any subject he tackles, including the genocide of his people.

For those who are unaccountably unfamiliar with the case, it was basically a modern version of the Salem witch-hunt. When three eight-year-old boys were found dead in a secluded stream, the police arrested three teenagers who were supposedly offering up the bodies to Satan in a ritual sacrifice. The conviction was based on one of the accused’s Goth-style clothing, love of heavy metal and dabbling in witchcraft just like any other alienated teen, as well the coerced confession of another who was developmentally impaired.

The first inkling of Eyogan’s characteristic off-kilter sensibility was a scene in which the mother of one of the dead boys was being interviewed on TV wearing her son’s Cub Scout neckerchief tied around her head. When asked by the interviewer why she was doing it, she giggled and said that it was her way of commemorating her son. Watching from a distance, her husband approached her later and told her that they were supposed to be in mourning and to stop acting like it was a game. Eyogan’s goal was to clearly show the interaction between husbands and wives who had suffered the tragedy, something that was obviously impossible for the documentary filmmakers who did not have such access. Sometimes fiction becomes necessary.

Reese Witherspoon played the bandanna-wearing mother, a kind of role she has been accustomed to, namely a plainspoken Southern woman. (She played June Carter, Mrs. Johnnie Cash, in “Walk the Line”). But in a complete surprise, actor Colin Firth, known mostly for his portraits of the educated gentry including the stuttering King George in “The King’s Speech”, was superb as a Ron Lax, a private investigator for the defense attorneys. In one of the film’s key scenes, Lax tries to get the truth from Damien Echols (James Hamrick) in his jail cell. While clearly repelled by the youth’s Goth pretensions, he saw him as a victim of a mob mentality.

Eyogan has been making films since 1977, when he was 17 years old. He came up as an old-school director, developing his chops on TV shows such as “The Twilight Zone” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” rather than the NYU film school/Sundance Festival route. I count his 1994 “Exotica” as an indie classic (not available from Netflix or Amazon; if you get a chance to see it, don’t miss it.) While by no means a perfect film, it is a good introduction to the work of a very talented director and the West Memphis case if you haven’t seen the documentaries.

“The Devil’s Knot” opens on Friday, May 9th, at the AMC 25 Theater in New York.

Also opening on Friday, May 9th, at the Film Forum in New York is “Llyn Foulkes One Man Band”, the greatest documentary I have ever seen about an artist. Granted, I have only seen a handful before this one but it would be difficult for me to imagine something more engaging. Since Ninety percent of a documentary’s appeal is the subject matter, I would naturally be drawn to a subject described in the press in the following terms:

During the seven years chronicled in the film, artist and musician Llyn Foulkes uses hammers and saws to create, destroy, and recreate a pair of large-scale, three-dimensional paintings, one that costs him his marriage, while trying to keep afloat in the fickle art market.  With interviews from veterans of the 1960s Los Angeles art scene such as Dennis Hopper and George Herms, the film reconstructs Foulkes’s uncompromising, up-and-down career as he was kicked out of the legendary Ferus Gallery and walked away from a successful career as an L.A. pop artist.  Structured like one of Foulkes’s constantly reworked paintings, the film tracks his artistic struggles, ending as he is at last rediscovered by the international art world at age 77.  With music written and performed by Foulkes on a massive, fanciful, self-invented musical instrument he calls “The Machine,” Llyn Foulkes One Man Band is an intimate portrait of an artist battling his own demons as well as the perceived demons of the art world.

I don’t often crib press releases but this sums up the film perfectly.

The film consists almost entirely of Foulkes discussing his work and his ongoing struggle against the superficiality and commercialism of the art world. In the 1960s, he became highly marketable because of his rock landscapes (one seen below) that were his trademark works just like Andy Warhol’s Campbell soup cans. After a couple of years, he gave them up precisely for the reason that he did not want to be Andy Warhol.

Eventually Foulkes became famous (or infamous) for working on a painting for over a decade, something that expressed his deepest yearnings to aspire to the heavens but that made making a decent living almost impossible.

In trying to explain why he keeps reworking a canvas, he says that it is like life itself. You are never satisfied with your relationships or your achievement as a human being. That same struggle is expressed in making fine art.

The one man band of the title refers to Llyn Foulkes’s “Machine”, an instrument that might remind you of Red Grooms’s witty paintings. When Foulkes’s art career was in the doldrums, his Spike Jones performances at the machine were remarkable enough to get him a guest spot on the Johnny Carson Show. Foulkes is a terrific songwriter and performer. If you like Tom Waits and Leon Redbone, you will love Llyn Foulkes.

My highest recommendation for this wonderful film, one that had me laughing or smiling in its entirety.

January 20, 2014

The Wayland Rudd Collection: the Red and the Black

Filed under: african-american,art,ussr — louisproyect @ 6:13 pm

Wayland Rudd

For a number of years now, Russian émigré artist Yevgeniy Fiks has been examining the cultural legacy of the USSR, both within its borders and in the U.S. Although politically to the left, Fiks is no simple dispenser of Soviet nostalgia as is prominently on display in the Back to USSR restaurant in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. (But if you ever find yourself there, don’t miss the Red Snapper. It is to die for.)

No, Fiks’s interest is in revealing the contradictions of being a Communist, if I might be indulged in using a bit of Marxist/Hegelian jargon. In his last show at the Winkleman Gallery on far West 27th Street, an area that was devastated by Hurricane Sandy, he focused in on the Red/Gay hysteria of the 1950s when being a Commie and a “fag” was deemed inimical to American values. As anybody familiar with the Soviet Union can attest, gays had it just as bad. Despite the early Soviet Union’s openness to different forms of sexual identity, Stalin’s counter-revolution included a law enacted in 1933 that made homosexuality punishable by a 5-year prison term.

In November 2012, I conducted an interview with Fiks that my readers would find most interesting, I’m sure. He covers his various projects, including portraits of CP’ers in the USA as well as his rather witty experiment in donating copies of Lenin’s essay on imperialism to major American corporation’s libraries.

I also invite you to check out Fiks’s website where he describes his esthetic in these terms:

My work is inspired by the collapse of the Soviet bloc, which led me to the realization of the necessity to reexamine the Soviet experience in the context of the history of the Left, including that of the international Communist movement. My work is a reaction to the collective amnesia within the post-Soviet space over the last decade, on the one hand, and the repression of the histories of the American Left in the US, on the other.

I’ve been interested in discovering and reflecting on repressed micro-historical narratives that highlight the complex relationships between social histories of the West and Russia in the 20th century. Having grown up and having been educated in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, my work is about coming to terms with the Soviet experience by carving out a space for critique both without and within the Soviet experience. Having lived in New York since 1994, I’m particularly interested in the history of the American Communist movement and the way it manifests itself in the present-day United States.

My work has been influenced by the writings of Susan Buck-Morss about discovering sites of the “post-Soviet condition” in today’s US and the effects of the Cold War on present-day American society and culture, and I am interested in the activist use of that legacy.

His latest installment in this ongoing project that I had the good fortune to attend on Friday evening–once again at the Winkleman Gallery–is devoted to the experience of African-Americans in the former Soviet Union. The key figure that unites the visual art on display is émigré Black actor Wayland Rudd, who moved to Russia in 1932 to escape American racism. He became an icon in the USSR, with a fame that rivaled Paul Robeson’s. On display in the gallery are a number of works that might not have an obvious relationship to Rudd but that invite meditation on the underlying tensions between Black identity and official Communism.

The exhibition is crowned by Fiks’s 200 plus collection of Soviet posters, etc. that deal in one way or another with the image of Black people. They range from the heroic to at least one piece of advertising that evokes the Aunt Jemima picture of old.

To be sure, whatever racial stereotyping existed during the worst days of Stalinism, there was nothing to match the naked bigotry on display in a post-Soviet world:

Financial Times (London,England)
June 14, 2003 Saturday

Black in the USSR Xenophobia is on the increase in Russia, propelled by groups of violent extremists. Their victims, says Hugh Barnes, range from embassy elite to a few hundred black students, marooned when the collapse of the Soviet system cut off their financial support

Vladimir Putin raises a glass to a packed hall of distinguished guests and foreign academics, mostly from developing countries, nearly all black. They are graduates of Moscow’s Patrice Lumumba University, now renamed Friendship University. Founded in 1970 at the height of the cold war to educate students from Africa and Asia, the university was named in honour of the Congolese leader assassinated by the CIA, and it was designed to inculcate its graduates with the values of Soviet socialism. The Russian President makes a toast to higher education – “a great tradition always open to talented young people, independent of class, wealth, religion or ethnic origin”. There is applause. “I want to repeat: in Russia, dear friends, you are always the most welcome guests.” More, rapturous, applause.

Outside the hall, in the main plaza of the university, a gang of 20 skinheads attempts to mount the latest in a series of racist attacks. Similar attacks have, in the past, resulted in murders. On this occasion, only the presence of a reinforced security cordon to protect the visiting dignitaries (rather than the university’s remaining black students) foils the attempt to wreak havoc. Inside the Friendship University all is official friendship. The incidents outside are not commented on, now or afterwards.

Yet Russia is suffering from a rise in xenophobia. The Russian leader has warned of “inflammatory slogans and fascist and nationalist symbols, which threaten human rights and lead to pogroms and people being beaten up and killed”. Most of those who are being beaten up and killed are the students at Friendship University and elsewhere, marooned when the collapse of the Soviet system cut off their financial support. But others are the kind of people who applauded the president in the hall: visiting dignitaries and diplomats.

By targeting the embassy elite, the swastika-emblazoned thugs have spread concern through the ranks of foreign envoys living in Moscow. A Madagascan, a Kenyan and a Malian diplomat were set upon by racists last year, and skinheads attacked the wife of South Africa’s ambassador as she was shopping in an upscale neighbourhood, burning her with cigarettes.

Wayland Rudd’s decision to move to the USSR was completely understandable given the terrible oppression Black people faced in Jim Crow days. You can read Black autoworker Robert Robinson’s “Black on Red: My 44 Years Inside the Soviet Union” to get another glimpse into the émigré experience. The Wikipedia article on Robinson refers to others who made the journey:

He described acquaintances in the Soviet Union: Henry Smith, a journalist; Wayland Rudd, an actor; Robert Ross, a Soviet propagandist from Montana; Henry Scott, a dancer from New York City; Coretta Arle-Titz, actress and music professor; John Sutton, an agronomist; George Tynes, also an agronomist; and Lovett Whiteman, an English teacher. He noted meeting in the 1930s the American writers Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson, who had traveled to the Soviet Union.

One of the works on display in the gallery was a book by artist Suzanne Broughel that collected the statements of participating artists in the show, including Yevgeniy Fiks who commented on his own experience as an émigré. In Russia, he was a Jew but in the U.S. he was a Russian.

In a brief chat with Yevgeniy at the show, I mentioned to him that I saw all sorts of contradictions involving Jews, Communists and Blacks growing up in Woodridge, New York—a village that the leftist newspaper PM described as a working-class Utopia in 1947. In the late 1950s there was a thriving group of leftists that included both Communists and American Labor Party activists that was spearheading an organizing drive of mostly Black workers in Woodridge’s plantation-like commercial steam laundry that served local hotels. So popular was the left in my village that even my father held a brief membership in the American Labor Party. But whatever messages the party was propagating on Black-white equality were lost on my father who was always sure to unload spotted fruit to the “schvartzes”, as he put it.

I am not sure of the status of this documentary-in-progress but it will surely add to the body of knowledge about the Red-Black connection once it is completed:

June 15, 2013

Three films of note

Filed under: art,Film,Russia — louisproyect @ 8:51 pm

Opening yesterday at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York, “Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story” combines the strands found in two other excellent documentaries about artists. Like Gerhard Richter who was born one year after him in Germany, the 82-year-old Ungerer knew World War Two horrors firsthand from growing up in Alsace. In Strasbourg, the capital, French citizens were forced to speak German or go to jail. Once France was liberated, there was a drive to destroy German-language books in retaliation. Needless to say, a sensitive young man with a passion for free expression, especially in the arts, would be drawn to the USA, which after the end of WWII had the reputation for being the freest place on earth.

Not long after resettling in New York, Ungerer launched a career as a commercial artist using his particular off-kilter sensibility to make advertisements that belonged in the Museum of Modern Art. His main influence starting out was the legendary New Yorker magazine cartoonist Saul Steinberg whose minimalist style could convey in a few lines what it would take a thousand words to express.

His next step was to begin writing children’s books with the same kind of offbeat sensibility that endeared him to children everywhere. His books were filled with menace and darkness; all reminiscent of his youth in Alsace and calculated as he put it to help them discover the light. His work was a major influence on Maurice Sendak, who is interviewed throughout the film.

In a trip to Texas during the Jim Crow era, Ungerer was shocked to discover separate accommodations for Blacks and whites. That impelled him to begin making art with a message. By the time the Vietnam War started, he was primed and ready to become one of the most original and most trenchant poster artists against American intervention. He held nothing back. Ironically, he attributes his straight for the jugular style to the Nazi propaganda posters he was exposed to as a youth.

Susceptible to all the social upheavals of the 1960s, Ungerer discovered the sexual revolution and wasted no time launching a new career as a master pornographer. His sexually explicit and often sadomasochistic drawings were an acquired taste but nobody could question the power of his art.

Except perhaps for the censors who decided that his children books should be removed from the public libraries and the unofficial black listers who made him as unemployable in the 1960s as a CP’er was in the 1950s. This led him and his family to look elsewhere to make a living. Like Ai Weiwei, the artist profiled in another documentary, Ungerer was persecuted for his un-American values. In some circles, fucking is obviously as subversive as socialism.

Ungerer is altogether captivating subject. The film consists of him reminiscing about his past and brilliant examples of his work, much of it rendered as animation. This is a film that will remind people like me how powerful the transformative movements of the 1960s were and encourage younger people to keep their ammunition dry for the upheavals that are bound to occur down the road, especially those who believe in the revolutionary potential of art.

Also opening yesterday at the Village East Theater in New York is “In the Fog”, a Russian film that is a happy reminder that the Russian film industry continues to rebound nicely from the devastating impact of the Yeltsin years when Hollywood became part of the battering ram of privatization.

Like “White Tiger”, another excellent Russian film I reviewed recently, “In the Fog” is set during WWII but unlike “White Tiger” it does not exactly follow the Great Patriotic War narrative. Instead it is an existential saga that poses the dilemmas faced by men and women forced to make difficult choices under the gun.

Around the time I joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967, I read Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Existentialism is a Humanism”, an essay that mapped to my own transitional state of mind. I still retained some of the French existential ideas that I had absorbed at Bard College as an undergraduate and others at the New School when I found myself embarking on a new course of revolutionary politics. Sartre’s essay was meant to highlight the difficult choices that people faced that did not lend themselves to a pat Marxist analysis:

As an example by which you may the better understand this state of abandonment, I will refer to the case of a pupil of mine, who sought me out in the following circumstances. His father was quarrelling with his mother and was also inclined to be a “collaborator”; his elder brother had been killed in the German offensive of 1940 and this young man, with a sentiment somewhat primitive but generous, burned to avenge him. His mother was living alone with him, deeply afflicted by the semi-treason of his father and by the death of her eldest son, and her one consolation was in this young man. But he, at this moment, had the choice between going to England to join the Free French Forces or of staying near his mother and helping her to live. He fully realised that this woman lived only for him and that his disappearance – or perhaps his death – would plunge her into despair. He also realised that, concretely and in fact, every action he performed on his mother’s behalf would be sure of effect in the sense of aiding her to live, whereas anything he did in order to go and fight would be an ambiguous action which might vanish like water into sand and serve no purpose.

“In the Fog” is the aptly named story of a Byelorussian partisan who comes to the house of a railroad worker who is believed to have betrayed three other workers who derailed a German train. Since they were hung and he was released, the partisans concluded that he was a collaborator. Part of the human drama involves the survivor arguing with the three fellow workers in a flashback about the drawbacks to sabotage. The Nazis will undoubtedly kill many villagers in retaliation. Do they want to be responsible for their deaths?

This is essentially a two-character film with Sushenya the railroad worker (Vladislav Abashin) trying to convince Burov the partisan (Vladislav Abashin) of his innocence. There is always a sense of impending doom as the Nazi army and the local cops acting on their behalf close in on the men. However, this is not an “action” film but much more about the tensions that exist during a state of war between revolutionary justice and the need for both fairness and mercy. The fine line between the two is often so thin as to be invisible.

“In the Fog” is based on a novel by Vasil’ Bykaw, Byelorussia’s most important author who was a WWII veteran who died in 2003. Like all great movies, I am always motivated to read the novel that they may be based on. Although Bykaw was not that ideological, there is one scene that suggests his judgments about the Stalin era. The bureaucrat who is in charge of the local railroad station is a Nazi flunky who beats the men as the mood hits him. One of the three railroad workers who ends up hung tells the others, “He was the same way under Stalin”.

Just before he died, Bykaw became part of the movement against Alexander Lukashenko, the vile autocrat who ran Byelorussia like the railway boss. Based on the evidence of the moral and philosophical foundations of “In the Fog”, it is not difficult to understand why Lukashenko would have felt the need to suppress the mass movement. As is the case with Tomi Ungerer, the artist is often part of the true vanguard of a revolutionary movement.

Unfortunately I was not able to see “Student” until after it closed at Anthology Film Archive. For those with a taste for politically hard-hitting and artistically daring fare, you can watch “Student” at mubi.com, a fee-based streaming service that might be described as the not-Netflix.

This is a very free adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” with an utterly impassive and mostly taciturn Kazakh student living in poverty while attending a local university. He has a part-time job as a gopher on a movie set that features director Darezhan Omirbayev playing the director of a cheesy b-movie starring the girlfriend of a business/gangster who drives around in an oversized SUV surrounded by hulking bodyguards. When “the student” (Nurlan Bajtasov, his character is never named) accidentally spills tea on her lap, a bodyguard spirits him into a room on the set, locks the door, and beats the living crap out of him.

The next day he attends a college class in which the instructor lectures the students about the need for a society divided into classes with the rich on top of the poor. How else will anything get done without social stratification, she asks. You need to learn how to survive just like animals in the jungle. The strong kill the weak. That is how society advances.

Taking this lesson to heart, the student buys a gun and robs a Khazak version of a convenience store. Unlike Dostoyevsky’s novel, the act has no underlying philosophical meaning. It is just the act of someone trying to survive in the post-Soviet jungle.

Darezhan Omirbayev, who also wrote the screenplay, is obviously angry about what is happening in Kazakhstan. His camera lingers on the sight of the ultramodern high-rises that are home to the country’s petro-millionaires.

In an interview with the director at mubi.com, he was asked:

Dostoevsky’s novel was called “an encyclopaedia of Russian society of the 60s of 19th century”. Did you make it to create something similar about the modern Kazakh society?

His reply:

This is to be judged by the viewers, not by me. I based my film on this novel not accidentally. Marcel Proust said once: “Dostoevsky’s style is a bit clumsy, but the power of his novels is in their compositional harmony and beauty”. And this beautiful composition came thanks to those problems and ideas that troubled Fyodor Mikhailovich. And plus, some prose is very keen to be filmed – and “Crime&Punishment” is among of such. I was impressed much by the sequence where Raskolnikov, having murdered the old X, forgets to shut the door and an accidental person steps in. Also, this novel has a social undertone which is very actual nowadays. The 60s of 19th century were the period of launching capitalism that bred the conflict in a Russian society. The reaction of young minds was quite harsh, and Dostoevsky made it to catch that zeitgeist. The same process is currently going on in modern Kazakhstan: there’s too big financial gap between people and that troubles the youth of Kazakhstan very much.

Indeed.

April 8, 2013

Notes on modern art, part two

Filed under: art,Film,postmodernism — louisproyect @ 8:10 pm

I received two documentaries focused on artists who are arguably among the most important in the world as part of the year-end bounty of screeners meant to help NYFCO members pick winners at our December 2012 meeting. “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” and “Gerhard Richter Painting” are both now available on Netflix screening and very much worth watching. Around the same time I viewed them, the MOMA show on the birth of abstract art had begun. In my last post on modern art, I tried to get to the bottom of its origins using the analysis of Meyer Schapiro. With Ai WeiWei and Gerhard Richter, you are confronted by the dialectic of art and politics operating in an epoch that might be described as post-modern if not necessarily subscribing to the ideology deployed in its name. In following up on their work, I have learned a great deal about the current state of fine art that is worth sharing with my readers.

Before examining Ai Weiwei’s work and activism, it’s necessary to get a handle on conceptual art, the genre that he works in. I think most of you are aware of some of its more famous objects, even if you are not familiar with the precepts of its makers. For example, New Yorkers must have vivid memories of “Piss Christ”, the photo of a crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist’s urine that received funding from the National Endowment of the Arts, something that pissed off Senator Jesse Helms.

Piss Christ

This is the kind of work that is often on display at the Whitney Biennial in New York, widely interpreted as “subversive” in the sort of transgressive fashion we associate with postmodernism. It should not surprise anybody that some of conceptual art’s pioneers viewed Marcel Duchamp’s work in the Dadaist genre as a forerunner, especially his 1917 “Fountain”, a porcelain urinal signed R. Mutt.

If Dadaism was an expression of disdain for the bourgeois rationality that led to WWI, then conceptual art had a similar birth in the 1960s when napalming peasant villages in Vietnam led many young artists to conclude that art had to be delinked from bourgeois culture. Among them was Joseph Kosuth, born just 5 days after me, who considered Wittgenstein’s linguistic theories and Freudian psychoanalysis a major influence on his work. Kosuth was the art editor at Marxist Perspectives, a journal published by Eugene Genovese in the late 70s through the early 80s. Due to the impossibly dysfunctional archives at The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research I was not able to read the Kosuth articles.

In 1990 Kosuth curated the “The Play of the Unmentionable” show at the Brooklyn Museum to answer the likes of Jesse Helm. He included erotic Japanese woodblock prints, a 19th-century painting of a black youth eating watermelon, sculptures by Auguste Rodin of lesbians embracing, and furniture from the Bauhaus, the avant-garde German design school closed down by the Nazis.

Betraying the Wittgensteinan obsession with language and the philosopher’s infamous predilection for the inscrutable, Kosuth’s work almost always includes some text whose purpose is unclear. For example, his most famous work “One and Three Chairs” has a physical chair, a photo of the chair and a text panel with a dictionary definition of a chair. On the MOMA website, a page devoted to this work states:

But is this art? And which representation of the chair is most “accurate”? These open-ended questions are exactly what Kosuth wanted us to think about when he said that “art is making meaning.”

For what it’s worth, this work was constructed in 1965 just as the war in Vietnam was intensifying. A year later I would be studying Wittgenstein at the New School, convinced that such pursuits were useful only for maintaining a student exemption from the draft.

Another conceptual artist also chose her words carefully and arguably with a more outright political intent. Born on the very same day as me, Barbara Kruger became very famous and very wealthy for creating photos overlaid with provocative text and eventually just for works that amounted to electric signboards like the one that carries the latest news in Times Square.

When I worked at Goldman-Sachs in the late 80s, they had one of her signboards in the cafeteria. Back in 2000 I forwarded a nasty swipe at Kruger by Judith Shulevitz titled “Barbara Kruger, Ad Industry Heroine” with my preface:

Back in the late 80s, when I worked in Goldman-Sachs’s new corporate headquarters, I always got a chuckle over how the powerful investment bank had decided to festoon the walls with ‘avant-garde’ art. This was especially glaring in the cafeteria, which served as a mini-gallery for some “daring” neon signs created by Barbara Kruger, who has an exhibition at the Whitney Museum in NYC right now. These signs had slogans like “You think you can escape commodification — You can’t”. Standing on line behind some bond salesmen in $1200 suits, I couldn’t imagine them being disturbed by her archly ironic postmodernism. Now if Goldman-Sachs had decided to put up some of Mike Alewitz’s murals of striking workers, that would have been a different story.

Another well-known conceptual artist is Damien Hirst who is pretty open about his bid to become the artist favored by the world’s one percent. Lately Hirst has been encrusting his work with precious jewels instead of text like other conceptual artists. This approach has generated significant revenue as reported by The Economist in 2008:

Alexander Machkevitch, a Kazakh mining magnate with a taste for metallurgical themes, bought six lots in the evening sale: a large stainless steel cabinet filled with manufactured diamonds, a pair of gold-plated cabinets containing more lab gems, three butterfly canvasses and a spot painting with a gleaming gold background for a total of £11.7m. Other buyers from the region included Maria Baibakova, Vladislav Doronin, Victor Pinchuk and Gary Tatintsian.

In keeping with the financial collapse that began in 2008, Hirst’s work has devalued considerably, with the resale market reflecting a 93% drop in prices.

Perhaps the brick-and-mortar character of the Chinese economy, largely devoid of the postmodern financialization of the world of Goldman-Sachs and hedge fund billionaires, lends a different character to the work of Ai Weiwei who I knew only by reputation. “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” is not only valuable as an introduction to a most revolutionary figure; it also shows in a highly dramatic fashion what it means to face censorship and repression in a “communist” country.

The film points out that Ai Weiwei became a conceptual artist through his exposure to the thriving downtown New York City art scene of the early 1980s when he was studying at the Parsons School of Design. One wonders if his “20 Chairs From the Qing Dynasty” might be paying homage to Kosuth’s work:

When he returned to China in 1993, he began producing provocative works geared to his country’s traditions. He let a valuable Han dynasty urn to fall from his hands and break. He also painted the Coca Cola logo on other valuable pieces, or after applying garish-colored paint over them presented them as cheap counterfeits. The obvious statement was that China was for sale.

Ai Weiwei’s father was Ai Qing, one of China’s leading poets and a powerful figure in the Communist Party. In 1957 he made the mistake of opposing the persecution of Ding Ling, another Communist leader and writer, during an “anti-rightist” campaign. Accused now of “rightism”, Ai Qing was banished to a state farm and his work went unpublished for another 20 years.

Obviously Ai Weiwei inherited both his father’s talent as well as the courage of his convictions. He was the chief architect for the 2008 Olympics stadium in Beijing that he eventually disavowed. In a statement he not only attacked China for cracking down on dissidents but—warming the cockles of my heart—lashed out at Stephen Spielberg for his cozy connections to the CP bosses: “All the shitty directors in the world are involved. It’s disgusting. I don’t like anyone who shamelessly abuses their profession, who makes no moral judgment. It is mindless.”

Like the late Roger Ebert, Ai Weiwei became totally involved with the Internet to get out his ideas, both through blogging and Tweeter. After a mammoth earthquake in Sichuan in 2008 that cost the lives of more than 5000 children due to shoddy construction, he created a work in their memory that like Maya Ling’s Vietnam Memorial is simply a list of their names. He used Twitter to gather together the names of the children.

A year later the Chinese cops conducted a raid on his apartment and beat him so badly that he required emergency brain surgery.

Not content to use physical violence, the state has also tried to pressure him into keeping quiet through legal persecution over alleged tax evasion. If you enter aiweiwei.com as a URL, you will be directed to fakecase.com that has the facts on the latest round of repression. On April 6, 2011 Xinhua News Agency reported: “Ai Weiwei is suspected of economic crimes and is now being investigated according to the law.” Considering the amount of corruption at the highest levels that the top officials of the CP are engaged in, it is a stunning exercise of chutzpah for the state to single him out for obviously trumped up charges.

My strongest recommendation for watching this documentary. It will show you how conceptual art can be a powerful weapon against the status quo, as long as those creating it know who the enemy is.

If “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” is carried along by the force of the subject’s personality, the opposite can be said about “Gerhard Richter Painting”. Mostly giving the impression of being camera-shy and self-effacing, the 81-year-old artist originally from East Germany is content to let his work speak for itself. Most of the film’s action reminds me of documentaries I have seen about the designers Valentino and Karl Lagerfeld that focus most of all on their work in the studio as they prepare a collection for their next show. Since fashion design is probably the art that has most in common with the grand old days of aristocratic or bourgeois patronage, it is not surprising that world class designers fit comfortably into the life-style of their benefactors.

For an artist like Richter, whose works command the highest price tag of any living artist, there’s not much sign of him enjoying a life of privilege. He is seemingly content to live for his work and rather indifferent to celebrity and the luxury it affords.

Unlike any documentary about art I have ever seen, this one is all about the production of work. Approximately 90 percent of it depicts Richter working on his latest series of abstract paintings that are executed through the use of a squeegee. He applies (throws, more accurately) different colored paint on a huge canvas and works them over with the squeegee until he is satisfied with the results. The benefit of the film is seeing a major artist at work. Imagine how this generation could have gained from a similar treatment of Jackson Pollock. Indeed, that would be the artist with whom Richter has the closest kinship.

Richter is a throwback to the modernist tradition embodied in the MOMA show. In 1955 he submitted a painting titled “Communion With Picasso” as part of his BA in East Germany—a sure sign that modern art rather than socialist realism was his preference.

Although I can certainly recommend the film, it is regrettable that it does not have much to say about works that don’t fit into the squeegee mold. He also works in a photorealist style, one that can also be regarded as “post-modernist” in the same vein as conceptual art.

When Richter arrived in West Germany to seek political asylum in 1961, he hooked up with a group of artists who described their work as a “Capitalist Realism” that repudiated the consumer-driven art doctrine of western capitalism. The 1963 work titled “Bombers” speaks for itself:

Another Richter work that speaks for itself, and which also was omitted from the film, was his “October 18, 1977” that consisted of fifteen paintings based on photographs of moments in the lives and deaths of four members of the Red Army Faction (RAF), referred to as the Baader-Meinhof gang by the tabloid press. On October 18, 1977, the bodies of three leaders of the RAF found in their cells and widely regarded as having been murdered by the German state police.

Finally, there’s Richter’s painting from 2009 titled “September”, a reference to 9/11:

Interestingly enough, the work appears to be an amalgam of his photorealism and the “smear” technique used in his squeegee paintings.

In an interview with Rolf-Gunter Dienst in 1970, Richter was asked how he interpreted his role as a painter in German society. He replied:

As a role that everyone has. I would like to try to understand what is. We know very little, and I am trying to do it by creating analogies. Almost every work of art is an analogy. When I make a representation of something, this too is an analogy to what exists; I make an effort to get a grip on the thing by depicting it. I prefer to steer clear of anything aesthetic, so as not to set obstacles in my own way and not to have the problem of people saying: ‘Ah, yes, that’s how he sees the world, that’s his interpretation.’

In my next and final post, I am going to comment on how some leading Marxists (Alex Callinicos, Alan Woods, et al) grapple with the challenge of contemporary art.

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