Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 12, 2014

Trotsky on Futurism

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

Leon Trotsky

Literature and Revolution

Chapter 4

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.


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.

March 30, 2013

Notes on modern art, part 1

Filed under: art,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 10:01 pm

Meyer Schapiro

It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that Picasso bankrolled the post-war French Communist party, and underwrote various causes associated with it. In 1949, for example, L’Humanité acknowledged his donation of one million francs for striking miners in the Pas de Calais. The party basked in the reflected glory, and pocketed the cash. One of its cells felicitously took his name: Cellule Interentreprise du Parti Communiste Français Pablo Picasso.

–Alex Danchev, “Picasso’s politics”, The Guardian, Friday 7 May 2010

Less than two weeks after SAC Capital Advisors, the hedge fund owned by the billionaire trader Steven A. Cohen, agreed to pay the government $616 million to settle accusations of insider trading, Mr. Cohen has decided to buy a little something for himself.

A renowned art collector, Mr. Cohen has bought Picasso’s “Le Rêve” from the casino owner Stephen A. Wynn for $155 million, according to a person with direct knowledge of the sale who was not authorized to speak publicly. Although prices for top works of art have soared to new heights recently, Mr. Cohen’s acquisition is one of the most expensive private art sales transacted.

–Carol Vogel and Peter Lattman, “Million Poorer, Hedge Fund Owner Still Buys Art”, NY Times, March 26, 2013

Why would hedge-fund billionaire Steve Cohen lend nearly half a billion dollars worth of art to Sotheby’s for a glamourous exhibition if the art isn’t for sale? Art worlders were mystified by the Sotheby’s announcement that twenty of top collector Cohen’s paintings by Picasso, de Kooning, and van Gogh — plus Richard Prince’s nude of Brooke Shields, Spiritual America — will go on view April 2 through April 14 at the auctioneer’s York Avenue headquarters.

Mystery solved: It turns out Cohen has every motive to make Sotheby’s look good. In a filing Monday with the SEC, Cohen disclosed that his SAC Capital has amassed a 5.9 percent stake in the auction house since October 1, becoming one of its larger shareholders. Sotheby’s said the decision to show the Cohen works was made by the collector and Sotheby’s top executives at a recent dinner party at his Greenwich, Connecticut, home.


You could hear them a block away; their whistles and chants preceded them. About a hundred protesters stood outside Sotheby’s at the beginning of the auction house’s contemporary evening sale, the last important art sale of the year. ”We’re fired up! Won’t take it no more!” The crowd outside Sotheby’s was made up of N.Y.P.D., the auction house’s security, students from Hunter College, union members and Scabby, the oversize balloon rat who never seems to miss a strike, as well as a Scabby-sized balloon fat cat who squeezed a cigar in one paw and a union worker in the other. Picketers hoisted cutouts of the heads of Sotheby’s COO and CEO at the ends of long poles.

The Observer was crowded in behind a wooden police barrier just in front of the door. We prodded the Teamster to tell us who the buyers were. “The Mugrabi family is already in there,” he said. “Oh! Larry Gagosian is here.” A spectacled man with a bloated face walked brusquely by and slipped into one of the revolving doors. “Steve Cohen!” our guide identified. “That was Steve Cohen, the billionaire art collector.”

–Adrianne Jeffries, “Class War? Occupy Wall Street, Unions Protest at Sotheby’s–8 Arrested, NY Observer, November 10, 2011

If there’s anything that symbolizes the paradoxical relationship between the cultural avant-garde and the capitalist ruling class it supposedly seeks to subvert, it is the replica of Tatlin’s Tower at the Museum of Modern Art’s “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925: How a Radical Idea Changed Modern Art” show that closes on April 15th. I urge New Yorkers to check it out if for no other reason to see the thirty-foot version of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International.

That being said, there is little effort made to connect that work or any other work to the social and political upheavals of the early 20th century that led Picasso, Kandinsky and others to break with representational art. The word “radical” in the exhibit’s title is not a reference to politics but to esthetics.

The recorded lecture that accompanies the exhibit is useful even if it leaves out the broader context. The show was curated by Leah Dickerman who conceives of abstract art as the happy outcome of a process that was nurtured by men and women connected through a network based on a feeling that the old ways of doing art were obsolete, either in literature, music or art. For example, Guillaume Apollinaire was a key figure. The lecture makes a big deal out of Kandinsky being inspired to strike out in an abstract direction after going to a Schoenberg concert in 1911. The unexamined question, of course, is how anybody can conceive of a painting by Kandinsky or a composition by Schoenberg as experimental a century after the fact. Abstract art became just as entrenched as the representational art it was supposed to overthrow, while atonal compositions were cranked out by the boatload in music departments all across the civilized world for most of the twentieth century.

If you can’t make it to the show, I urge you to visit the MOMA website that has some interesting material, especially the video: http://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/exhibitions/1291.

The network diagram found there is Dickerman’s key contribution to demonstrating how all these artists and writers knew each other and fed off each other. It is interesting in a six degrees of separation sort of way but obviously inadequate to describe the social forces that acted on the artists. It is a personality-driven approach to art history that is clearly in sync with the museum’s “great man” approach, even if it is offered up as an alternative in terms of the network being more important than any individual.

Screen shot 2013-03-30 at 4.03.44 PMLeah Dickerson’s Network Diagram

The mainstream press has been pretty worshipful of the show, even if New York Magazine’s Jerry Saltz made some pointed criticisms:

These days, abstraction is normal, not shocking, the expected thing in schools, galleries, and museums. Too many artists still ape the art in this show, throwing in Abstract Expressionism, post-minimalism, or surrealist twists and tics, adding things their teachers have told them about.

Really, the title of MoMA’s show could be “High Museum Abstraction: History Written by the Winners.” Or “White Abstraction.” On some level, this show is MoMA talking to itself, looking for ways around its ever-present deluded, limited narrative. If it doesn’t open up this story line soon, MoMA will be doomed to examine the imagined logic of its beautiful ­bellybutton, alone and forever.

In doing some background research on the show, I came across an article that helps to put the MOMA into context. In 1936 the museum mounted a show titled “Cubism and Abstract Art” that was very much in the same spirit of today’s show. Art was disconnected from the social and political conditions that the artists reflected. Alfred Barr, the museum’s first director and a determined modernist, curated the show that would serve as a template for other shows dedicated to High Modernism until now.

An art historian named Meyer Schapiro wrote a critique of the show titled “Nature of Abstract Art” that appeared in Marxist Quarterly, a journal geared to intellectuals opposed to Stalinism. The article can be read at http://abstractpossible.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Nature-of-Abstract-Art-Schapiro-i.pdf.

While endorsing the modernist project, Schapiro felt that the exhibition lacked the dimensions that I found lacking in the show curated by Dickerman. He complains that Barr’s catalog for the show betrays a conception of abstract art that “remains essentially unhistorical” and goes on to elaborate:

He gives us, it is true, the dates of every stage in the various movements, as if to enable us to plot a curve, or to follow the emergence of the art year by year, but no connection is drawn between the art and the conditions of the moment. He excludes as irrelevant to its history the nature of the society in which it arose, except as an incidental obstructing or accelerating atmospheric factor. The history of modern art is presented as an internal, immanent process among the artists; abstract art arises because, as the author says, representational art had been exhausted. Out of boredom with “painting facts,” the artists turned to abstract art as a pure aesthetic activity.

I was struck by Schapiro’s reference to plotting a curve, full anticipating Ms. Dickerman’s flowchart.

You can get a sense of Schapiro’s approach from his discussion of the Italian futurists in this article, who are well represented in the current exhibition:

Barr recognizes the importance of local conditions when he attributes the deviations of one of the Futurists to his Parisian experience. But he makes no effort to explain why this art should emerge in Italy rather than elsewhere. The Italian writers have described it as a reaction against the traditionalism and sleepiness of Italy during the rule of Umber to, and in doing so have overlooked the positive sources of this reaction and its effects on Italian life. The backwardness was most intensely felt to be a contradiction and became a provoking issue towards 1910 and then mainly in the North, which had recently experienced the most rapid industrial development. At this moment Italian capitalism was preparing the imperialist war in Tripoli. Italy, poor in resources yet competing with world empires, urgently required expansion to attain the levels of the older capitalist countries.

The belated growth of industry, founded on exploitation of the peasantry, had intensified the disparities of culture, called into being a strong proletariat, and promoted imperialist adventures. There arose at this time, in response to the economic growth of the country and the rapid changes in the older historical environment, philosophies of process and utility―a militant pragmatism of an emphatic anti-traditionalist character. Sections of the middle class which had acquired new functions and modern urban interests accepted the new conditions as progressive and “modern,” and were often the loudest in denouncing Italian backwardness and calling for an up-to-date, nationally conscious Italy.

The attack of the intellectuals against the provincial aristocratic traditions was in keeping with the interest of the dominant class; they elevated technical progress, aggressive individuality and the relativism of values into theories favorable to imperialist expansion, obscuring the contradictory results of the latter and the conflicts between classes by abstract ideological oppositions of the old and the modern or the past and the future. Since the national consciousness of Italy had rested for generations on her museums, her old cities and artistic inheritance, the modernizing of the country entailed a cultural conflict, which assumed its sharpest form among the artists.

Machines as the most advanced instruments of modern production had a special attraction for artists exasperated by their own merely traditional and secondary status, their mediocre outlook in a backward provincial Italy. They were devoted to machines not so much as instruments of production but as sources of mobility in modern life. While the perception of industrial processes led the workers, who participated in them directly, toward a radical social philosophy, the artists, who were detached from production, like the petit bourgeoisie, could know these processes abstractly or phenomenally, in their products and outward appearance, in the form of traffic, automobiles, railroads, and new cities and in the tempo of urban life, rather than in their social causes.

The Futurists thus came to idealize movement as such, and they conceived this movement or generalized mobility mainly as mechanical phenomena in which the forms of objects are blurred or destroyed. The dynamism of an auto, centrifugal motion, the dog in movement (with twenty legs), the autobus, the evolution of forms in space, the armored train in battle, the dancehall-these were typical subjects of Futurist art. The field of the canvas was charged with radiating lines, symbolic graphs of pervading force, colliding and interpenetrating objects. Whereas in Impressionism the mobility was a spectacle for relaxed enjoyment, in Futurism it is urgent and violent, a precursor of war.

This is about as sharp a take on futurism as I’ve ever seen and one that is sadly missing from the MOMA website or guided tour.

Schapiro was a professor at Columbia University for many years and unlike most of the Partisan Review intellectuals never stopped believing in socialism. There’s a superb article by Andrew Hemingway on Schapiro titled “Meyer Schapiro and Marxism in the 1930s” that appeared in the 1994 Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 17, No. 1. It’s one of those fucked-up JSTOR articles that Aaron Swartz liberated. I would be happy to send anybody a copy if they contact me privately. Here are some passages that should give you an idea about the character of this remarkable intellectual.

Schapiro is associated with a group of philosophers, writers, and critics who were involved in varying degrees with the anti-Stalinist left, a group which centered on the city of New York and has acquired the sobriquet of the ‘New York Intellectuals’. This group, which includes Clement Greenberg, Sidney Hook, Mary McCarthy, Dwight McDonald, William Phillips, Phillip Rahv, Harold Rosenberg, and Lionel Trilling among others, achieved its identity partly through a number of independent magazines, and initially took shape around Partisan Review in the years after 1937.

Arriving in the United States from Lithuania in 1907, when he was three years old, Schapiro grew up in the Jewish working-class district of Brownsville in Brooklyn, from where many commuted in to work in the sweatshops and factories of the Lower East Side.7 The years of Schapiro’s childhood and youth were the heyday of Jewish socialism in New York. His father, who had been influenced by the Jewish socialist Bund, was a reader of the Jewish Daily Forward and the New York Call (Yiddish and English-language socialist papers, respectively), and Schapiro himself listened to street-corner socialist speakers and joined the Young People’s Socialist League in 1916. While the Russian Revolution was in the main greeted with enthusiasm by American Jewish socialists, differences over the Bolshevik model contributed to a violent factional struggle among the strongly unionized New York garment workers in the 1920s between an intransigent left wing dominated by communists, and a socialist led right wing, which was generally more prepared to negotiate for short-term gains. These disputes culminated in the disastrous cloakmakers’ strike of 1926, which discredited the Communist Party among most of the union membership, with the notable exception of the fur workers.8 As an undergraduate and graduate student at Columbia University from 1920-28, Schapiro was doubtless somewhat removed from these struggles, but he had worked in a succession of low-pay jobs in his school years and continued to do so during his student period at Columbia. (When he made his first trip to Europe in 1923, he worked his way over as a seaman on the Holland-America Line, and travelled to Berlin without the proper papers.) Writing to the novelist James Farrell twenty years later, Schapiro recalled being barracked by fellow-students for advancing a socialist position in a freshman course on Contemporary Civilization, but that in his second and third years he lost interest in ‘social questions’, and stopped attending meetings of the Young Socialist League and the League for Industrial Democracy. However, like a substantial number of American intellectuals Schapiro was radicalized by the coming of the Depression, and by 1932 he was an active supporter of the Communist Party.

At the beginning of 1936, the party’s leaders were still denouncing Roosevelt as little different from Hoover, but on instructions from the Comintern leadership in March 1936, they began a change of course which led them to tacitly endorse the president’s re-election in November, and into support for the New Deal in the following year. ‘Public Use of Art’ appeared in the same month as the presidential election, in which Schapiro voted not for the Communist Party candidate, Earl Browder, but for the Socialist Party’s Norman Thomas who ran a disastrous campaign on the slogan ‘Socialism versus Capitalism’. While Schapiro denied being a Trotskyist, at this time he was certainly making similar calculations about which party represented the best hope for socialism in the United States as the tiny Trotskyist Workers’ Party, which had entered the Socialist Party in the spring of that year. Given Schapiro’s criticisms of the New Deal, this was entirely consistent, for the Socialist Party under Norman Thomas rejected the Popular Front as an abandonment of revolutionary principles in the interests of a discredited Soviet state. From its point of view, the CPUSA had allied itself with a government in the United States which was no more than a holding operation for capital, and socialists should work for revolutionary change rather than support- ing bourgeois regimes which were heading for another imperialist war in which the working classes of all countries would be the main losers. In addition, Thomas had already associated himself with those who doubted the entire credibility of the Show Trials, the first of which began in August 1936. The point of Schapiro’s final break with the Communist Party occurred then with the first of Stalin’s purges of the Old Bolsheviks, and he associated himself with the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky, which had been formed earlier in that year, and which issued in the Dewey Commission of Inquiry into the Charges against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials in April 1937. (Needless to say, it was Trotskyists who did most of the organizing in these bodies.)

Although Schapiro never joined either of the tiny and fractious Trotskyist parties, of his personal enthusiasm for Trotsky and his close reading of Trotskyist journals there is no doubt. He maintained relations with SWP activists such as Felix Morrow and George Novack, and in 1943 expressed willingness to write for a new Marxist magazine proposed by the former. (It is significant that although he admired Novack’s commitment to revolutionary work, he was put off by his ‘humorlessness’ and rigid political orthodoxy. Schapiro took no part in the disputes which divided the Socialist Workers Party in 1940, and felt that it should not split over the Soviet invasion of Finland. However, since he regarded the invasion as imperialist aggression, his sympathies seem to have lain more with the Shachtman-Burnham faction than with James Cannon and his followers. This, of course, means that he disagreed with Trotsky’s own position on Soviet expansion and probably also with his definition of the USSR as a ‘degenerated workers’ state’. However, of Trotsky’s stature as a revolutionary leader he had no doubt.

In my next post I will have a look at Gerhard Richter, the renowned German (mostly) abstract artist and Ai Weiwei, the Chinese conceptual artist and fearless critic of the bureaucratic capitalist system, based on two very good documentary films that came out in 2012.

December 17, 2012

Bard College and the real world

Filed under: art,bard college,literature — louisproyect @ 6:18 pm

I have been reminded over the past few months why Bard College was such a special place for me. While I tend to avoid alumni cocktail parties, it has been a kind of virtual reunion as I connect to old friends and classmates through their art. When we were all in our late teens and early twenties, we had dreams of being poets and artists—including me. I took a detour in 1967 that led to little more than a 250 page FBI file but for the others—Richard Allen, Josephine Sacabo, Dalt Wonk, and Paul Pines—who stayed true to their artistic vision, the fruits have been sweeter. I suppose the one thing we all had in common was a willingness to stay true to our youthful dreams even as we confront the American Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks—as Allen Ginsberg put it in “Howl”.

Richard Allen

The first paragraph of Richard Allen’s introduction to “Street Shots/Hooky: New York City Photographs 1970s” certainly puts us in a Moloch frame of mind:

I woke up, New Year’s Day 1970, in a straitjacket. I had no memory, of anything, at least not at first. I was in an asylum on Long Island after taking an overdose of some pills a shrink gave me. Slowly awareness arose. First, I realized had to protect myself. Await… I asked to have the jacket removed and they did. Bit by bit memories came back. I could recall details of my childhood. I remembered I’d married my girlfriend Cathy, months ago, when she turned eighteen. Cathy and I had Peter, a son, now 6 months. In a few days I felt normal. Still, I had no job. But this is not my concern. No, it’s to finish editing a short comedy, completing a film I shot while on TV men landed on the moon. The film hung in hundreds of carefully cut strips an inch to many feet long, like drying fish, unique species, needing me. I had read a book on film editing and had just started when this came along.

I suppose that despite all his flaws, R.D. Laing was on to something when he described insanity as “a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.” The war in Vietnam, ghetto rebellions, psychedelics, the breakdown of the nuclear family, all worked together to make the case that we were living in an insane world, particularly those among us who were more open to such a perception—in other words, Bard College students.

If the world was going nuts, then Manhattan was the epicenter. Ironically it was also the epicenter of sanity since many of its denizens were striving to lead a life devoted to the arts and to peace. Richard Allen’s book brings back that 70s world to life. Despite all the horrors of the time, New York was a place of astonishing visual poetry. Using mostly black-and-white film and a Leica camera, Richard captured a moment in time. With the city now being taken over by hedge fund employees living in condominiums with Duane Reade pharmacies and nail parlors on the ground floor, you can get a good idea of what things were like 40 years or so from Richard’s collection. Nearly all of the photos are of people, and what’s more interesting than the characters of Manhattan? This is especially true when the photos are accompanied by the subjects’ words. After taking their photo, Richard invited them to identify themselves and offer up their impromptu thoughts. Ivan Bankoff tells Richard that he was once “the world’s greatest ballet dancer.” John Richardson, an African-American huddled against the wind, says, “If this is for posterity, tell them I’ve read Thoreau. And I know that love is the greatest thing.”

Here are some of my favorites:




“Street Shots/Hooky: New York City Photographs 1970s” can be purchased from the Book Culture stores near Columbia University and from BookCourt in Brooklyn. (Plans are afoot to make the book purchasable from amazon.com. I will announce that when it happens.) For those who lived through the 70s and those with a curiosity about a period that still lingers on in many ways, this is a perfect Christmas gift or a gift for all seasons, for that matter.

Josephine Sacabo

Dalt Wonk

On October 26th I attended an opening for Nocturnes, the first book to be published by Josephine Sacabo and Dalt Wonk’s new venture Luna Press. If you go to the Luna Press website, you can see an intriguing video of a hand thumbing its way through the book.

Here is a photograph titled “Moon” taken by Sacabo:

Dalt wrote poems to accompany the photos. Here is the one he wrote to accompany “Moon”:

Would it be a stretch to say that the city of New Orleans, where they have lived for decades, is a primary influence on their esthetic? Although I have never been to the city myself, it seems that if any city in the U.S. could have inspired a hauntingly beautiful combination of word and image as “Nocturnes”, it is New Orleans.

Back in 1965, Bob Dylan was spending a fair amount of time at Bard. I am not sure if Dalt and Josephine ever ran into him there, but I am sure that they would feel some kinship with his take on their city found in volume one of his memoirs:

Right now, I strolled into the dusk. The air was murky and intoxicating. At the corner of the block, a giant, gaunt cat crouched on a concrete ledge. I got up close to it and stopped and the cat didn’t move. I wished I had a jug of milk. My eyes and ears were open, my consciousness fully alive. The first thing you notice about New Orleans are the burying grounds-the cemeteries-and they’re a cold proposition, one of the best things there are here. Going by, you try to be as quiet as possible, better to let them sleep. Greek, Roman, sepulchres-palatial mausoleums made to order, phantomesque, signs and symbols of hidden decay-ghosts of women and men who have sinned and who’ve died and are now living in tombs. The past doesn’t pass away so quickly here. You could be dead for a long time. The ghosts race towards the light, you can almost hear the heavy breathing- spirits, all determined to get somewhere. New Orleans, unlike a lot of those places you go back to and that don’t have the magic anymore, still has got it.

Nocturnes can be ordered from the Luna Press website.

Paul Pines

I found out about the opening for Nocturnes from Paul Pines, the poet who has kept in touch with Sacabo and Wonk over the years. A month or so before the opening, I attended a reading for Paul’s latest book titled “Divine Madness”, words that evoke both the opening paragraph of Richard Allen’s photography book as well as Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”, a poem that served as the anthem for our generation in many ways.

The epigraph to Book Three of Paul’s collection comes from Carl Jung’s “The Red Book”: “…there is a divine madness which is nothing other than the overpowering of the spirit of the time through the spirit of the depths.”

This is an appropriate quote for a book of poems that owes much to mythology, both from the Mayan Indians to the ancient Greeks and Babylonians. Paul spent a fair amount of time in Guatemala, the experience of which helped him to craft his second novel “Redemption” that deals with the genocide against the Mayan peasantry.

Every one of the poems in “Divine Madness” is a jewel but I treasure this one especially:

December sun seeps into the woods orange yolk over bare limbs drips into a grove where woodpeckers tap tiny solos

a net cast

in the wake of the day

Chinese monarch King Wen

tells us the wanderer can progress in little things

when the source of light is farthest from the earth

and bends the prism

like a bow

and he finds himself surrounded by woodpeckers tapping out their eternal question

how to hold

interwoven rhythms

in a net of changing light

“Divine Madness” can be ordered from Marsh Hawk Press.

Some closing thoughts. All of us are now in our sixties and above but it seems like only yesterday when we would be drinking “down the road” at a college pub called “Adolph’s” (named after the owner, born obviously before Hitler made the name taboo). The subject came up all the time about how Bard was totally unlike “the real world”, which for us could have been reduced to the one depicted in AMC’s “Mad Men”.

There’s always a tension between our ideals and the “real world” that in some ways is analogous to Plato’s story of the cave. It is a struggle to hew to our youthful ideals in a world that is fundamentally aligned with the insides of a cave, as testified by news reports that come our way on  a daily basis, the latest of which is the kindergarten massacre in Connecticut.

Of all my  Bertolt Brecht quotes, this is my favorite:

There are men who struggle for a day, and they are good. There are others who struggle for a year, and they are better. There are some who struggle many years, and they are better still. But there are those who struggle all their lives, and these are the indispensable ones.

Whether you struggle with a camera or a poet’s pen, or most quixotically with a propagandist’s, it is a Sisyphean task. Here’s my salute to those who never give up. Keep on keeping on.

November 26, 2012

A conversation with Yevgeniy Fiks, a Post-Soviet Conceptual Artist

Filed under: art,ussr — louisproyect @ 8:29 pm
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