Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 8, 2010

Hard Times

Filed under: art — louisproyect @ 7:40 pm

On July 29th I attended a panel discussion and reception for a show titled “Hard Times” at the Salmagundi Club on 47 Fifth Avenue through an invitation from my old friend Fred Baker, a veteran film maker whose “Lenny Bruce without Tears” is about the best introduction to the groundbreaking comedian.

Fred’s son Garin was one of the artists whose work was being showcased. While I would have attended any art show that old friends and their family had a role in, I was especially eager to see what artists had to say about the Great Recession we are living through. It turns out that they had plenty to say, including Fred Ross—one of the panel discussion participants.

Fred delivered a slashing polemical attack on modernism that made a point that I found hard to disagree with, namely that representational art and representational art alone was capable of commenting on the human condition of the sort we associate with the classic realist novels of Balzac, Victor Hugo, Dickens, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck et al. When you stop and think about it, it is virtually impossible to disagree with this. There are lots of things you can say about a Jackson Pollock painting, but everyone would have to agree with the proposition that it can say nothing about unemployment, hunger, homelessness, etc. Of course, some critics would insist that is a good thing. After all, they might be making a point in somewhat more sophisticated terms that was attributed to Hollywood producer Louis B. Mayer: “If you want to deliver a message, send a telegram.”

These are points that have interested me for a very long time and that I have written about in the past. Go to http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/culture.htm and you will find this:

Art and Revolution: a six part series
Abstract Expressionists

Jackson Pollock
Ben Shahn
Andy Warhol
Trotsky’s theory of art
Clemente, Basquiat, Haring

I brought along my trusty Panasonic camera and put together a Youtube movie featuring some remarks by Fred Ross and interviews with Fred Baker and Garin Baker that I am sure you will find interesting if you have ever grappled with the problem of art and politics.


  1. Hi Lou,

    this is a very valuable record of a significant event. I am convinced more and more that a change for the better, that is a shift to the Left, is coming. Shows like this are preparing the way. What one is seeing is the construction of a new avant garde. Such are the forces bearing down on us, that a socially conscious avant garde simply has to emerge. I also think that Joaquin’s recent post on the kind of American Left we will get and which we need is the kind of messy swampy really alive process that this tape captures.


    Comment by Gary MacLennan — August 8, 2010 @ 10:55 pm

  2. This seems a little bit of a trick, Lou. You say you’re talking about modernism vs. realism, but your examples of ideals is a string of novels. If you stick to novels, it is perfectly possible to have a great modernist or even post-modernist novel that is also a great political novel. Two examples that come to mind: _Max Havelaar_ by Multituli, and _Wizard of the Crow_ by Ngugi wa Thiongo. I personally think they are both genius and a huge pleasure to read. But I should warn you that I didn’t think so at the beginning of either — they both change course dramatically and unexpectedly 45 and 62 pages in respectively. I wouldn’t have continued with either if I hadn’t been encouraged by someone I respected. But boy was I glad I did.

    As for painting, pure abstraction with no representational reference at all was a very short-lived, if very loud-mouthed, period of modernism. It seems wrong to make it the essence of modernist painting. Most of modernism consisted of a mixture of abstraction with reference. And as Guernica shows, nothing inherent stops you from making an archetypally modernist work that is also powerful political art.

    Comment by Michael Pollak — August 9, 2010 @ 12:42 pm

  3. I would say that even if modern art employs representation, it is still adamantly opposed to social commentary. For example, surrealist art is heavily representational but dwells mostly in the subconscious realm. Also, I would not consider Picasso to be the typical modernist. His aesthetic roots seem much more in the 19th century.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 9, 2010 @ 12:57 pm

  4. What about the Russian Futurists of the 1920s? It seems to me that there was emerging within the early Soviet Union modernist movements that were very much concerned with doing social commentary. But they got nipped in the bud by Stalin.

    Comment by Jim Farmelant — August 10, 2010 @ 5:21 pm

  5. […] Hard Times: A video report on an art show about the current economic situation that raises interesting questions about the relationship between representational art and the human condition https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2010/08/08/hard-times/ […]

    Pingback by #343: Workrights Rallies Sat Aug 21 « GPJA's Blog — August 16, 2010 @ 6:54 am

  6. […] the Hard Times show I reported on last August, this show was not quite so partisan. Although the curators were not […]

    Pingback by Engineers of the Soul « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — October 31, 2010 @ 4:10 pm

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