Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 2, 2012

Art is… the Permanent Revolution

Filed under: art,Film — louisproyect @ 7:57 pm

While many of the DVD’s I received from Hollywood studios in conjunction with NYFCO’s 2011 award meeting held last December sit collecting dust on a shelf beneath my television, real film pleasure in recent months has been delivered in the form of documentaries very much in tune with my own unrepentant Marxist sensibilities. In some ways, I am their ideal “market” and only look forward to the opportunity to spread the word among the politically committed readers of my film reviews.

Now joining the trenchant anti-capitalist documentaries The Robinson Trilogy and The Forgotten Space is Art is … the Permanent Revolution opening today at the Quad Cinema in New York. To get straight to the point, this is the first film to really get to the heart of the matter of the connection between art and politics, a question that has absorbed me ever since I joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967. For those familiar with Leon Trotsky’s political career, you will of course recognize that this was a question that preoccupied him as well. One of the major obstacles to my getting involved with a revolutionary organization was what can only be described as a prejudice against what I viewed as “propagandistic” art.

Paul Marcus, one of the three artists profiled in this truly remarkable work, has a wry take on this question. He says that some of the greatest art in history was propaganda, explaining that most art through the modern era was trying to sell Christianity. He asks what’s wrong with selling another message, like humanity?

The tendency to write off leftwing art as nothing but propaganda is deeply engrained in bourgeois society, a function no doubt to regard every assault to the status quo as illegitimate, if not criminal. In 1925, Upton Sinclair challenged this wisdom in a book titled Mammonart that can be read in its entirety here . In his inimitably outspoken manner, Sinclair identifies the big six lies about art and politics. The last three relate very much to the film under consideration:

Lie Number Four: the lie of Art Dilettantism; the notion that the purpose of art is entertainment and diversion, an escape from reality. It will be demonstrated that this lie is a product of mental inferiority, and that the true purpose of art is to alter reality.

Lie Number Five: the lie of the Art Pervert; the notion that art has nothing to do with moral questions. It will be demonstrated that all art deals with moral questions; since there are no other questions.

Lie Number Six: the lie of Vested Interest; the notion that art excludes propaganda and has nothing to do with freedom and justice. Meeting that issue without equivocation, we assert:  All art is propaganda. It is universally and inescapably propaganda; sometimes unconsciously, but often deliberately, propaganda.

As commentary on the above, we add, that when artists or art critics make the assertion that art excludes propaganda, what they are saying is that their kind of propaganda is art, and other kinds of propaganda are not art. Orthodoxy is my doxy, and heterodoxy is the other fellow’s doxy.

Marcus, whose specialty is woodcutting, is joined by Sigmund Abeles, an etcher, and Ann Chernow, a lithographer, all of whom have chosen the print as their primary form of expression rather than one-of-a-kind paintings or sculpture. As the film is subtitled “Protest and Prints”, this makes perfect sense since the print is economically viable as a form of mass expression and–that dirty word—propaganda.

During the Mexican revolution, artists such as Jose Guadalupe Posada, a mentor to Diego Rivera, made their work available for pennies. But Abeles probably spoke for all three by when he openly questioned whether any protest art, including Guernica, stopped a bullet. One cannot escape the feeling that the three make art attacking injustice for at least one reason, namely as an individual statement approximating civil disobedience. Considering the suffering that the great political artists have endured over the years, it is a risk that considered well worth taking, especially by Honoré Daumier, a lithographer, and Otto Dix who worked in etching. Daumier was the ultimate stiff-necked rebel, whose caricature of the French king as Gargantua led to six months imprisonment at Ste Pelagie in 1832. Dix, like Daumier, created scathing satirical works about the bourgeoisie. Eventually he fell into disfavor with the Nazis who booted him out of the German Academy for making ”Bolshevik-Jewish art” detrimental to the fighting spirit of the German people.

Abeles’s medium is etching, a process that uses acid to cut into the unprotected parts of a metal surface to create a design. Along with engraving, it was originally a way for the feudal aristocracy to shop for a suit of armor. Instead of having the entire suit sent from a shop, they’d request a facsimile in the form of an etching made from the engraved lines in the armor.

In addition to learning about their political commitments, we learn all about what goes into their craft as the camera looks over their shoulders in the studio. We also learn about their influences, men and women who frequently shared their political convictions as well as their talent for printmaking.

Abeles says that despite being a hundred percent Jew, he has the greatest affinity for a Goy (Yiddish for gentile), that is Goya, the Spanish artist whose “The Disasters of War” is seen in the film, along with hundreds of other eye-opening prints. Watching Permanent Revolution is an experience like going to a virtual museum catering to the tastes of the politically committed rather than the jaded frequenter of Madison Avenue galleries. He also cites Kathe Kollwitz as a major influence, adding that in art is possible to choose your ancestors unlike blood relatives.

Ann Chernow is shown working in lithography, her latest work in progress making the connection between war and oil. She is seen putting the final touches on a lithograph that has crosses in the foreground and an oil well in the back. Like every other work shown in the film, it is extremely powerful both politically and artistically.

We also meet James Reed who owns and operates a lithography press that looks a half-century old. In a film that prioritizes the importance of working people in art, it is only natural that it includes someone like Reed who is not that different in many respects from the old-time pressmen and women who worked in the bowels of a largely dying print industry.

Paul Marcus explains why he is drawn to woodcuts. Since you are technically limited to black and white, you are allowed to create images that lend themselves to political struggle. In a world where splitting the difference is customary, especially in the horse-trading of electoral politics, it is reassuring to see someone who would obviously have no problem with the sixties dictum: if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

Marcus is particularly edifying in his discussion of Rembrandt, an artist who like Kollwitz had an affinity for the lower classes. When he got tired of painting the gentry, his career took a turn for the worse even though his art achieved its greatest stature.

Director Manfred Kirchheimer was born in 1931 in Germany and came to the US with his parents who were fleeing Nazi persecution as a five year old. He spent 24 years in the in the NY film industry as an editor, director, and cameraman, editing over 300 films for the documentary departments of American television networks, with subjects ranging from cultural programming such as Leonard Bernstein in Venice, for CBS to biography for Time-Life Films as in Khrushchev Remembers. In other words, he is a real pro like the artists depicted in the film.

He is also as politically committed as his subjects, making documentaries that really matter as the press notes relate:

Kirchheimer’s own films explore various aspects of urban life, whether it is the city’s architectural environment or its graffiti or the docking of an ocean liner (Colossus on the River,1963). Haiku (1965), made in collaboration with Leo Hurwitz, captures a set of dances by choreographer, Jane Dudley. Leroy Douglas (1967) concerns the reaction of fellow workers in New York’s garment district to the death in Vietnam of a young black colleague. Claw (1968), a fable in the guise of a documentary, argues that styles of contemporary urban development subordinate human values to economic ones. Claw was chosen to launch the Museum of Modern Art’s landmark exhibit, “The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age.” Short Circuit (1973), a semi-documentary, made at the height of the Black Power movement, examines the reaction of a white middle class male with liberal politics to the encroachment into his Manhattan neighborhood of a black population and culture. Bridge High (1975) is a choreographed paean in black and white to a suspension bridge.

In a brief conversation I had with Kirchheimer on Friday, I learned that his mentor was Leo Hurwitz, a documentary filmmaker I had not heard of before but was anxious to learn more about after learning about his connection to the director of this great new film. It is worth mentioning that Hurwitz was one of America’s outstanding radical filmmakers and like the artists discussed in this film victimized for his politics. The January 19, 1991 obituary in the NY Times described an exemplary career:

In a long career that began with newsreels depicting the hunger marches of the Great Depression, Mr. Hurwitz made 15 principal films, including “Native Land” in 1942, co-directed by Paul Strand, narrated by Paul Robeson and with a musical score by Marc Blitzstein, and “Dialogue With a Woman Departed,” a four-hour visual poem to his late second wife and co-worker, Peggy Lawson, that won an International Film Critics Prize in 1981.

Mr. Hurwitz was a native of Brooklyn and a graduate of Harvard University. He was a cameraman and co-writer of the script for Pare Lorentz’s landmark documenatary on the Dust Bowl, “The Plow That Broke the Plains.”

In 1936 he helped found Frontier Films, the first nonprofit documentary production company in the United States, for which he made “Heart of Spain” on the Spanish Civil War and “Native Land,” about American labor struggles of the 1930’s.

My strongest possible recommendation for Art is … the Permanent Revolution, a film that both politically and artistically committed people will be watching fifty years from now. Go see it now at the Quad Cinema.

Joe Thompson Dies at 93; Helped Preserve the Black String Band

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 4:39 pm

NY Times March 1, 2012

Joe Thompson Dies at 93; Helped Preserve the Black String Band

By

“I got the name of being a pretty good fiddle player,” Joe Thompson once said. “I even been to Carnegie Hall playing fiddle.”

He also played at the Kennedy Center in Washington and at folk festivals from coast to coast, including one at the Smithsonian. The National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a National Heritage Fellowship. And he is credited with helping to keep alive an African-American musical tradition — the black string band — that predates the blues and influenced country music and bluegrass.

Yet until 1973, when he was in his mid 50s, not many people outside North Carolina had ever heard him play.

Mr. Thompson always said death would come when “the good Lord sends the morning train,” and the train arrived on Feb. 20. He died at 93 in a nursing home in Burlington, N.C., said Larry Vellani, a musician and a friend of Mr. Thompson’s.

He was born not far from there, in north-central North Carolina, and one of his earliest memories was of squirming on the floor as his father played the fiddle. His father had learned the instrument from his own father, a slave, and taught him in turn.

Joe Thompson made the strings for his first fiddle from screen-door wires, and by the time he was 7, he was playing a real fiddle at dances while propped on a wooden chair, his feet not yet reaching the floor, according to an account given to the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award Program. Later on he and his brother Nate and a first cousin, Odell Thompson, formed a string band, with Nate and Odell on banjos, and well into their teens they played their music — something like square dance music, only more rhythmic — all over North Carolina.

“People loved to see us come,” Mr. Thompson said in an interview with American Legacy magazine in 2008. “Every year we would shuck corn and strip tobacco, then hoop it up with a big dance.”

Then came World War II, and Mr. Thompson, entered the Army, serving in a segregated unit in Europe driving a bulldozer. After the war, fiddling became less and less a part of his life. By the postwar years, black string bands were, at most, a local hobby. Mr. Thompson bought a four-room house on an unpaved country road and began a 38-year stint working in a furniture factory.

That was where he was in 1973, Mr. Vellani said, running a rip saw, when Kip Lornell, then a graduate student in ethnomusicology, decided to check out rumors that some masters of the old-time string-band music were still around. Stopping by Mr. Thompson’s house, he heard him and his cousin play — his brother had moved to Philadelphia by then — and urged them to look into performing at folk music festivals that were springing up.

They did, and soon they were invited to perform across the country, from Massachusetts to Washington State. They played in Australia. In 1989, they recorded “Old-Time Music from the North Carolina Piedmont” for the Global Village label. The musical folklorist Alan Lomax included the three Thompsons in his American Patchwork documentary film series. And in 1990 Joe and Odell Thompson were onstage at Carnegie Hall as part of its Folk Masters program.

Mr. Thompson was in fine fettle. “Holding his bow about five inches from the end, Joe Thompson draws a scratchy, rakish tone from his fiddle, full of higher overtones,” Jon Pareles wrote of the performance in The New York Times. “He breaks melodies into short phrases and often adds double-stops that suggest modal harmonies.”

After Odell Thompson died in car accident in 1994, Joe almost quit. But he went on to record a solo album, “Family Tradition,” on the Rounder label in 1999. He received the National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 2007 and performed that year at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.

String-band music, which combines fiddle, banjo and sometimes other instruments, owes much to African-American traditions. Banjos originally came from Africa, and though violins are European in origin, slaves were taught to play them for their masters as early as the 17th century.

Paul F. Wells a former president of the Society for American Music, wrote in the Black Music Research Journal that slaves were most likely the earliest musicians to combine violin and banjo. In the 19th century, both whites and blacks — sometimes separately, sometimes together, as in Mr. Thompson’s Piedmont region — created the exuberant music that both black and white string bands played, the white bands at square dances and the black bands at their own dances, called “frolics.”

But there were differences. Black fiddlers played in a style that was more rhythmic, syncopated and African in character, and called the tunes “Negro jigs.” As music became more commonly recorded in the 1920s, the black string-band tradition receded. Black music was veering toward the blues, while white string bands were categorized as “hillbilly,” playing music that is acknowledged to be the precursor of today’s bluegrass and country music. The influence of black string bands on white country musicians slipped from memory.

As if this slight wasn’t enough, Mr. Thompson complained in a 2004 interview with a North Carolina newspaper that when Elvis Presley started singing the blues, “people thought that was white people’s music, too.”

“That messes black people up,” he said.

Joseph Aquilla Thompson was born on Dec. 9, 1918, on a farm near Mebane, N.C., where he lived most of his life. Mr. Vellani said in an interview that a stroke Mr. Thompson had in 2001 had hurt his fiddling but not his strong singing voice.

Mr. Thompson’s first wife, the former Hallie Evans, died in 1987. He is survived by his wife, the former Pauline McAdoo Mebane; his sons Arthur James Snead and Hassel McCoy Evans; four stepchildren; eight grandchildren; 14 great-grandchildren and five great-great-grandchildren.

The Thompsons may have been the last black string band still active, said Wayne Martin, folklife director for the North Carolina Arts Council. But Mr. Thompson planted a seed for the future. In 2005, three young musicians started coming to his house every Thursday to learn the old ways. They formed a band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, “mostly as a tribute to Joe,” they said. Their 2010 album, “Genuine Negro Jig,” won a Grammy for best traditional folk album.

“He lived long enough for people to get what it was he had to share,” Mr. Vellani said.

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