Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 29, 2020

Ursula Von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own

Filed under: art,Film — louisproyect @ 7:36 pm

Now available as VOD on Amazon, iTunes and Vimeo, “Ursula Von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own” is a film biography of one of the most renowned monumental sculptors in the world, a male-dominated field. That in itself would be extraordinary but Von Rydingsvard rise to the top against odds that would have daunted anybody, male of female, sets her apart.

She was born in Germany in 1942, when her Polish parents were swept into that country after Stalin and Hitler carved up their country. After WWII ended, they lived in displaced peoples camps until 1950. That year, the family resettled in Connecticut at a time when American policy toward refugees was relatively humane. With seven children, her father had a tough time keeping them housed and fed, usually working two jobs. His anger over the hand fate dealt him as well as a mean streak he was born with led him to verbally abuse and beat his children.

There were few signs that Ursula could have transcended such a mean environment other than her being chosen by her classmates to do all the artwork for school functions. Not long after graduated high school, she married a man whose schizophrenia was only latent at that point. After he suffered a number of psychotic episodes, she separated and took their baby daughter with her to New York, where she survived on food stamps and minimum wage jobs until she landed a job as a public school teacher.

With the money she put aside as a teacher, she bought a loft on Spring Street in Soho in 1975, when she was 33 and ready to start a career as a sculptor. Like other artists, she had become disenchanted with minimalism and was ready to take a new approach. Using 4×4 cedar beams of the sort that could be bought at any lumberyard, she began to carve them into an object looking more organic than the typical modern piece, usually attaching them into larger edifices that often looked like inverted tree trunks. Her work drew the praise of art critics and led to major commissions and teaching jobs at Columbia and Yale.

I have to admit that monumental sculpture is not my favorite genre but as a story of a woman defying all obstacles toward achieving her dream, “Ursula Von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own” is an inspiring documentary.

May 24, 2020

St. Marks Place

Filed under: art,bard college,Film — louisproyect @ 8:07 pm

Click to play

As I watched Richard Allen’s six-minute film “St. Marks Place”, I couldn’t help but remembering what I wrote about the old New York of my youth in a piece about the pandemic:

Slowly but surely, everything that endeared New York to me has died largely because of the predatory nature of real estate development as symbolized by the evil presence in the White House.

Jeremiah Moss, who blogs at Vanishing New York, just posted about the photographer Robert Herman, who jumped to his death from the 16th floor of his Tribeca apartment building last Friday night. Herman’s suicide note read, “How do you enjoy life?”

Like Jeremiah, Richard has the old New York in his heart, reflected not only in the film but in his book of photography titled “Street Shots/Hooky: New York City Photographs 1970s” that captures the vitality of the city before it became gobbled up by CVS’s, HSBC’s and 75-story condos filled with hedge fund managers. I am not sure about the availability of the book but if it piques your interest, drop me a line at lnp3@panix.com and I’ll put you in touch with Richard. The last time I saw him in NY, he had a carton of the books that he was dropping off at local bookstores, at least those that hadn’t been put out of business by Amazon.

Photos from Street Shots/Hooky: New York City Photographs 1970s:


Of all the people I knew at Bard, there were only three that I have been in touch with in recent years. One was the great poet Paul Pines who died of lung cancer in 2018. Now there are two people I remain in touch with, Richard who will be making films until he dies and Jeffrey Marlin, my chess partner who will be writing fiction until the grim reaper carries him away. All three of us are prime candidates for a COVID-19 torpedo attack but we hope that social distancing will keep us going.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know that the four years I spent at Bard College and the eleven in the Trotskyist movement were very intense. In the first instance, spiritually and socially. In the second, politically. And at Bard College, my memories of Richard are most vivid.

He was part of a crowd that included Kenny Shapiro, Blythe Danner, Lane Sarasohn, and Chevy Chase. I loved Blythe and Chevy but couldn’t take Kenny, who died in 2017. Despite my distaste for Kenny, I have to admit that he was very talented. When he graduated Bard, he moved to NY and developed an off-off-Broadway show called “Channel One” that featured Lane, Chevy and Richard’s satire on network TV. Eventually, that became a movie called “Groove Tube”.

If you go to Richard’s Vimeo channel, you can see Richard bouncing off a brick wall in a brief film (this was in the days of Super-8) followed by a very young Chevy Chase in bell-bottom jeans performing in a homage to the days of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

But for the best slapstick comedy, I recommend Richard’s “One-armed bandit” that won the Sony Pictures Classic Short Film prize at the 2018 Asbury Park Music and Film Festival. Look carefully and you’ll see Chevy playing a cop in the final moments.

May 28, 2019

Thomas Nozkowski (1944-2019): an extraordinary artist by any measure

Filed under: art,obituary — louisproyect @ 3:11 pm

Yesterday, there was an obituary in the NY Times about an artist named Thomas Nozkowski, who was extraordinary by any measure. Dead at the age of 75 from pancreatic cancer, he was best known for his small-scale abstract paintings that were a conscious rejection of the oversized canvases of Jackson Pollack, et al. Long associated with the Pace Gallery in New York, you can see his work and relevant information about the artist on their website.

Since I am not a trained art critic, I will only say that his work reminds me of Henri Matisse and Joan Miro’s. Here is an untitled painting that I found particularly beautiful:

What interests me more is the unusual path he followed in becoming an artist. To start with, he came from a working-class family. His father worked in an Alcoa Aluminum factory and then as a postman. His mother worked also in factories and as a bookkeeper.

While he was part of my generation that radicalized during the Vietnam War, his break with the status quo had more to do with his attitude toward his chosen profession. As Frances Stonor Saunders pointed out in her “Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War”, abstract expressionism was exploited by the CIA as proof that artistic freedom in the West trumped the hackneyed socialist realism of the USSR. While Nozkowski was little interested in an open rebellion against the well-entrenched abstract expressionism, he sought an alternate path as described in W magazine:

Then one day around 1970 he remembers walking into a SoHo gallery and seeing a 45-foot painting. “I looked at this thing and thought, This is crazy,” he says. “It was for the institutions that we’d been hating. Where does this go? A lobby, a bank, a museum, a rich person’s house, come on. At the time my paintings were a healthy 90 by 110 inches. Nice wall-filling items. And I said, I don’t want to do this. I want to do paintings that hang in my friends’ apartments.

He told John Yau, the author of a monograph on his work, that such large-scale works were nothing but “an extension of imperialism…it occupied whatever space it wanted to without regard for others”

Like many artists, Nozkowski had a “day job” before earnings from his work could sustain him. In his case, it was working for magazines, first at Time Magazine and then as the production director of Mad Magazine. He also designed hundreds of books. He told Hyperallergic Magazine that his specialty was pop trash: UFOs, Movie Tie-Ins, Disco Dancing, Celebrity Biographies and Bermuda Triangle books. He confessed that he even wrote one of those. You can even buy a copy of his work at Mad Magazine from Amazon.com.

Screen Shot 2019-05-28 at 10.39.53 AM

For many years, Nozkowski lived in a refurbished synagogue on the Lower East Side but moved to Ulster County in the Catskills, not far from where I grew up. He bought a house near the Shawangunk Ridge, a mountain range I used to be able to view from the rear window of the house I grew up in Woodridge, N.Y.

In a 2015 post, I wrote about my affinities with the Shawangunk Ridge that included this brief video clip.

In an interview with Dylan Kerr for Artspace, Nozkowski stated that his recent paintings were related to drawings that the artist did for the magazine Esopus:

I do a lot of walking in the area of the Hudson Valley where I live, on the Shawangunk Ridge, and I’ve worked with a lot of organizations preserving land on the Shawangunks. There’s an area near Kerhonkson where several hundred acres of land have recently been acquired by non-profits, and I’ve spent the last two years hiking around this area, mapping it and so forth. I decided to do drawings from this area for Esopus, and in fact I even drew a map of where the trails were for the magazine, so in theory someone could follow the map and find the locations. Not a chance that anyone will, of course, but that was the idea.

Here’s a lovely video of Thomas Nozkowski hiking up around the Shawangunks, talking about art.

May 8, 2019

Thomas Cole, William Cullen Bryant, and the American Indian

Filed under: art,indigenous,literature — louisproyect @ 6:41 pm

In the past couple of months, I have begun to work intensively on a film titled “Utopia in the Catskills” that is inspired by an article in the leftist PM newspaper from 1947 with the same title. It celebrated Woodridge, NY, my hometown that had a thriving co-op movement inspired by the Rochdale principles and a Communist Party cadre that was based in the poultry farms in the next village.

Originally, I had intended only to focus on the southern Catskills that was the home of Woodridge and the mostly Jewish resort industry. I decided to include some material on the northern Catskills in order to put Woodridge into context but soon figured out that the Utopia theme was just as appropriate to the northern Catskills, where the mountains can actually be found. By the time you get to Woodridge, the only mountains to be seen are those of the Shawangunk Ridge that is connected to a range in Pennsylvania.

The segment on the northern Catskills will deal with the mountain lions and their extinction since the question of species extinction looms so large today. It was the mountain lion that the Catskills are named for, after all. The word for cats in Dutch is Kaaters and for river is Kill. When Henry Hudson’s crew explored the mountains when the Half Moon was docked near Bard College, my alma mater, they saw mountain lions in profusion. By 1900, they had been hunted to extinction. It will also deal with the ethnic cleansing of the Lenape Indians who made the Catskills their home—the Mohicans and the Munsees.

I also decided to include something about the Hudson River School artists since I had fond memories of Olana, the castle at the top of the mountain overlooking the Rip Van Winkle Bridge that I visited in 1962 with a classmate. About 5 minutes after walking around, we were approached by a caretaker who asked us politely to leave since uninvited visitors upset Mrs. Church. This was Frederick Church’s daughter-in-law who still lived in Olana and was in her 90s by then.

Somewhere along the line, I discovered that Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School, was a better match to the theme of Utopia since he was an early 19th century Romantic who believed that wilderness was the salvation of the world. Now that de-growth has become a major issue dividing the left, it made sense to see Cole in the same terms as re-wilding the Catskills, a project that would re-introduce the mountain lion.

In the course of researching Cole, I discovered that his best friend was William Cullen Bryant, a poet, journalist and a key figure in the Democratic Party that first came to power with the Andrew Jackson presidency between 1829-1837. Both Bryant and Cole were preoccupied by the major changes in American society under Jackson. They were ambivalent about the growing commercialization of the country that threatened the wilderness depicted in Cole’s paintings. To give you an idea of his work, compare his painting of Kaaterskill Falls with the drone video immediately beneath it.

Born in Lancashire, England, Cole developed a great animus toward the industrial revolution for what it was doing to traditional life and to nature. He read poetry in great depth and identified with Oliver Goldsmith whose “The Deserted Village” that contained the lines “But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride, When once destroyed, can never be supplied.” He also loved Wordsworth who had the same love of nature and hostility toward a “progress” that was turning England into a collection of “satanic mills”, to use William  Blake’s immortal words.

In his “Essay on American Scenery”, Cole expressed his unease with the direction the USA had taken:

It was my intention to attempt a description of several districts remarkable for their picturesqueness and truly American character; but I fear to trespass longer on your time and patience. Yet I cannot but express my sorrow that the beauty of such landscapes are quickly passing away–the ravages of the axe are daily increasing–the most noble scenes are made desolate, and oftentimes with a wantonness and barbarism scarcely credible in a civilized nation. The wayside is becoming shadeless, and another generation will behold spots, now rife with beauty, desecrated by what is called improvement; which, as yet, generally destroys Nature’s beauty without substituting that of Art. This is a regret rather than a complaint; such is the road society has to travel; it may lead to refinement in the end, but the traveller who sees the place of rest close at hand, dislikes the road that has so many unnecessary windings.

In the same essay, Cole celebrates “primitive” nature but shows a certain wariness about the primitive peoples who called it home:

A very few generations have passed away since this vast tract of the American continent, now the United States, rested in the shadow of primeval forests, whose gloom was peopled by savage beasts, and scarcely less savage men; or lay in those wide grassy plains called prairies.

At the time, there was widespread support for imposing “civilization” on the wilderness. As a leading Democrat, William Cullen Bryant gave his support for Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal policy that forced the Cherokees to embark on a “Trail of Tears”. Despite both Bryant and Cole’s adaptation to the colonizing system, they still admired the American Indian to a large extent because their Romantic aesthetic and ethical values made them partial to the “Noble Savage” mythology that can be found in the novels of James Fenimore Cooper who loved the Catskills as much as them.

Cole was an admirer of Cooper’s novels, so much so that he drew upon “Last of the Mohicans” for several of his paintings. Below is “Landscape Scene From the Last of the Mohicans; The Death of Cora”:

In keeping with the sense of inexorability of Indian decline that prevailed under Jackson’s exterminationist presidency, “Last of the Mohicans” ends with these words:

Chingachgook grasped the hand that, in the warmth of feeling, the scout had stretched across the fresh earth, and in an attitude of friendship these two sturdy and intrepid woodsmen bowed their heads together, while scalding tears fell to their feet, watering the grave of Uncas like drops of falling rain.

In the midst of the awful stillness with which such a burst of feeling, coming as it did, from the two most renowned warriors of that region, was received, Tamenund lifted his voice to disperse the multitude.

“It is enough,” he said. “Go, children of the Lenape, the anger of the Manitou is not done. Why should Tamenund stay? The pale faces are masters of the earth, and the time of the red men has not yet come again. My day has been too long. In the morning I saw the sons of Unamis happy and strong; and yet, before the night has come, have I lived to see the last warrior of the wise race of the Mohicans.”

You get the same sense of the inevitability of Indian removal in William Cullen Bryant’s “The Prairies”, written in 1832:

The red man came—
The roaming hunter tribes, warlike and fierce,
And the mound-builders vanished from the earth.
The solitude of centuries untold
Has settled where they dwelt.

A decade later, Bryant wrote “The Fountain” that seems to approve Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act even though it contains lines that are consistent with the “Noble Savage” stereotype found in Cooper as well as many other 19th century authors:

I look again–a hunter’s lodge is built,
With poles and boughs, beside thy crystal well,
While the meek autumn stains the woods with gold,
And sheds his golden sunshine. To the door
The red man slowly drags the enormous bear
Slain in the chestnut thicket, or flings down
The deer from his strong shoulders. Shaggy fells
Of wolf and cougar hang upon the walls,
And loud the black-eyed Indian maidens laugh,
That gather, from the rustling heaps of leaves,
The hickory’s white nuts, and the dark fruit
That falls from the gray butternut’s long boughs.

But this hunting and gathering society is soon leapfrogged by the more productive farmers that conquered the Catskills and the prairies:

So centuries passed by, and still the woods
Blossomed in spring, and reddened when the year
Grew chill, and glistened in the frozen rains
Of winter, till the white man swung the axe
Beside thee–signal of a mighty change.
Then all around was heard the crash of trees,
Trembling awhile and rushing to the ground,
The low of ox, and shouts of men who fired
The brushwood, or who tore the earth with ploughs.
The grain sprang thick and tall, and hid in green
The blackened hill-side; ranks of spiky maize
Rose like a host embattled; the buckwheat
Whitened broad acres, sweetening with its flowers
The August wind. White cottages were seen
With rose-trees at the windows; barns from which
Came loud and shrill the crowing of the cock;
Pastures where rolled and neighed the lordly horse,
And white flocks browsed and bleated. A rich turf
Of grasses brought from far o’ercrept thy bank,
Spotted with the white clover. Blue-eyed girls
Brought pails, and dipped them in thy crystal pool;
And children, ruddy-cheeked and flaxen-haired,
Gathered the glistening cowslip from thy edge.

However, this is not the final verdict of history. Growing alienated from the mammon-worshipping Jacksonian presidency that had cost the lives of countless Cherokees and encouraged the expansion of slavery that would convince Bryant to join Lincoln’s party, he ends “The Fountain” with a rueful note:

Is there no other change for thee, that lurks
Among the future ages? Will not man
Seek out strange arts to wither and deform
The pleasant landscape which thou makest green?
Or shall the veins that feed thy constant stream
Be choked in middle earth, and flow no more
For ever, that the water-plants along
Thy channel perish, and the bird in vain
Alight to drink? Haply shall these green hills
Sink, with the lapse of years, into the gulf
Of ocean waters, and thy source be lost
Amidst the bitter brine? Or shall they rise,
Upheaved in broken cliffs and airy peaks,
Haunts of the eagle and the snake, and thou
Gush midway from the bare and barren steep?

Will not man seek out strange arts to wither and deform the pleasant landscape which thou makest green? That’s a question his best friend answered in the affirmative when he painted “River in the Catskills” a year after “The Fountain” was written.

 

It is the first landscape that depicts a railroad train. If  you look carefully,  you will spot it just above the man in the red coat. While not exactly agitprop, the painting was a commentary on the threat to the Catskills posed by capitalist development, especially the tanning and lumber industries that were the counterpart of Bolsonaro’s declaration of an open season on the Amazon rainforest for ranchers and miners.

As editor of the New York Evening Post, the newspaper founded by Alexander Hamilton and now a propaganda outlet for Rupert Murdoch, Bryant defended the values that most of us associate with the American Revolution until we had a chance to read Howard Zinn. Growing increasingly disgusted with the direction the country had taken, Bryant wrote an essay in 1837 that warned against the annexation of Texas—and implicitly slavery:

The question how long an empire so widely extended as ours  can be kept together by means of our form of government is  yet to be decided. That this form of government is admirably  calculated for a large territory and a numerous population we  have no doubt, but there is a probable limit to this advantage.  Extended beyond a certain distance, and a certain number of  states it would become inconvenient and undesirable, and a  tendency would be felt to break up into smaller nations. If the  Union of these states is destined to be broken by such a  cause, the annexation of Texas to the Union would precipitate  the event, perhaps, by a whole century. It is better to carry out  the experiment with the territory we now possess.

We don’t know exactly what Thomas Cole thought of Bryant’s poem but it moved him sufficiently to make a sketch that would be part of a series of paintings based on “The Fountain”. I tend to agree with the blurb that the Metropolitan Museum attached to a page on the sketch:

The poem evokes several eras of American civilization through incidents that occur at a forest stream. In this scene, a wounded brave (modeled after the Hellenistic sculpture known as the “Dying Gaul,” which Cole had seen in Rome) symbolizes the plight of many American Indians in an era of forced relocation.

 

May 3, 2019

Angels and Demons

Filed under: art,Counterpunch,literature — louisproyect @ 3:15 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MAY 3, 2019

Newly released by Zero Books, Tony McKenna’s aptly titled “Angels and Demons” is a collection of profiles of some very good and some very bad people in the past and present. It is the kind of book that is hard to find nowadays and a throwback in some ways to Lytton Strachey’s “Eminent Victorians” or Edmund Wilson’s “Axel’s Castle”. Like Strachey and Wilson, he evaluates prominent individuals against their social backdrop and from a decidedly radical perspective. It is a book that has the author’s customary psychological insight and literary grace. As we shall see, it demonstrates a remarkable breadth of knowledge about disparate cultural, political and intellectual strands that is seldom seen today in an age of specialization.

Your natural tendency is to think of human nature when people are categorized as either angels like Jeremy Corbyn or demons like Donald Trump. However, it is instead powerful historical forces that act on individuals and bring out their worst and their best, especially during periods of acute class tensions. In today’s polarized world, it is easy to understand why we end up with either a Corbyn or a Trump. As William Butler Yeats put it, the center cannot hold.

Continue reading

November 30, 2018

At Eternity’s Gate; Lust for Life

Filed under: art,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:17 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, NOVEMBER 30, 2018

Last week, after watching a press screening of Julian Schnabel’s biopic of Vincent Van Gogh titled “At Eternity’s Gate”, I was so struck by its divergence from the memories I had of Vincent Minnelli’s 1956 identically themed “Lust for Life” that it struck me as worth writing about the two in tandem. While I have grave reservations about Schnabel’s politics and aesthetics, I can recommend his film that is playing in theaters everywhere that are marketed to middle-brow tastes, the kind of audience that listens to NPR and votes Democratic. These are the sorts of screeners I get from publicists throughout November to coincide with NYFCO’s awards meeting in early December, the “good”, Oscar-worthy films that Harvey Weinstein used to produce until he got exposed as a serial rapist.

Willem Dafoe is superb as Vincent Van Gogh in “At Eternity’s Gate” even though at 63 he can hardly evoke the almost post-adolescent angst of the artist who died at the age of 37. Like Willem Dafoe, Kirk Douglas not only bears a striking resemblance to Van Gogh in “Lust for Life” but was only 3 years older than the artist at the time of his death. Since “Lust for Life”, as the title implies, emphasizes turbulence, Douglas was just the sort of actor who could bring that vision of Van Gogh to life. In Minnelli’s adaptation of the Irving Stone novel, Van Gogh’s life was a succession of crises that finally became too much to bear.

Stone’s work faced the same obstacles as Van Gogh’s paintings that never sold in his lifetime. It was rejected by 17 publishers until its debut in 1934. Stone was not particularly known for his politics but did take the trouble to write a novel in 1947 based on the marriage of Eugene V. Debs and his wife Kate who had no use for socialism. The title was “Adversary in the House”, an allusion to her.

However, there must have been just enough politics in “Lust for Life” for screenwriter Norman Corwin to feature in his script. The first fifteen minutes or so of the film depicts Van Gogh as a lay priest in a coal-mining village in the region of Borinage who immerses himself into the daily life of super-exploited workers. As a hobby, he makes drawings of the miners and their families as a kind of homage to the people in need of what Marx called an opiate.

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October 11, 2018

Art and the capitalist mode of production

Filed under: art — louisproyect @ 6:31 pm

Unlike the Corvair, a commodity worth more after its destruction

I had at first considered the possibility of concluding my review of 3 films dealing with the commodification of art with an attempt at situating this tendency within Marxist theory but abandoned that plan because the literature on the topic was much more expansive than I had realized and because my review would have been far too long and perhaps abstruse for most CounterPunch readers. In this article, I want to take a tentative look at one analysis and conclude with my own take.

Shortlisted for the 2015 Deutscher Memorial Prize, Dave Beech’s “Art and Value” rejects the idea that the paintings and other art works sold at Sotheby or Christie’s auctions are capitalist commodities. While I have not read his book, I did read the introduction that is online here. I was struck by the influence that the Brenner thesis has on his approach:

The many ways in which art and artists have adjusted to capitalist society require special study, but I shall neglect all those that have nothing to say about whether art corresponds to the capitalist mode of production. Both the nature of the capitalist mode of production and its relationship to the pre-capitalist mode of production was elucidated during the Marxist debates on the transition from feudal- ism to capitalism in the 1950s and the Brenner debate in the 1970s.15 These debates, which did not put any emphasis on the fate of art, have an enormous bearing on the question of art’s economic and political ontology, if we pursue the Marxist analysis of art’s mode of production.

This suggests to me, especially through its use of the term “capitalist mode of production” rather than “capitalist system”, that Beech uses wage labor as a litmus test for using the word commodity. If you applied that test to slavery, then you would conclude that slaves existed outside the sphere of capitalist commodity production. While nobody would ever mistake what Renoir was doing with picking cotton, it seems to me that both were involved in commodity production within the capitalist system.

Although Beech is not exactly a Political Marxist, he clearly shows their influence. Perhaps they wouldn’t invite him into their club since it is Maurice Dobb that gets cited far more than Brenner in the introduction. For those of you not familiar with these arcane and acrid debates, Dobb had a series of exchanges with Paul Sweezy that anticipated Brenner’s slashing attack on Sweezy in the 1977 NLR. As it happens, Dobb did not meet Brenner’s exacting standards since he argued that slavery and colonialism were essential to the origins of capitalism in England alongside the enclosure acts.

Focused on the “transition” question, Beech writes: “Instead of theorising art’s relationship to capitalism through the concepts of commodification, culture industry, spectacle and real subsumption, all of  which have a superficial ring of truth, the key to understanding art’s relationship to capitalism must be derived from questioning whether art has gone through the transition from feudalism to capitalism.”

Referring at length to Dobb’s analysis of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, Beech draws a distinction between the commodity production that has existed from time immemorial to that which exists under capitalism. By this standard, the artist is not involved in capitalist production since he or she is an independent proprietor having more in common with the guild artisans of the Middle Ages:

The artist is also a commodity producer today insofar as she owns her own ‘petty implements’ and, unlike the wage labourer, continues to own the product she produces. However, since the independent craftsman was neither a capitalist nor a wage labourer, and handicraft production does not conform to the capitalist mode of production, then the artist can be a commodity producer without this fact suggesting by any means that the artist has been economically transformed by the capitalist mode of production. Thus, the evident ‘commodification’ of art is not proof that art has become capitalistic.

It is easy to understand why it is difficult to understand art production in conventional Marxist terms. To start with, art is one of the few commodities that is neither consumed like food or wine, nor integral to the functioning of the capitalist economy such as a lathe, a truck or a computer. Once it is produced, it is meant to be preserved for eternity unless it is something like Banksy’s “Girl with Red Balloon” that after being auctioned off at Sotheby’s auction for a cool $1.4 million was shredded by remote control. In keeping with the torrid and irrational art market, its value increased immediately upon its destruction.

The other quality unique to art is that it is meant to be unique—that is to say, never repeated. Except for lithographs and other such works, the artist aspires to novelty both within his own body of work and within the artistic population as a whole. Of course, when an artist has achieved a measure of fame, he or she may defy this convention as Andy Warhol did with his Campbell Soup and Brillo Boxes. Surely, if this is how he started out, the paintings would have never sold for millions.

Obviously unwilling or unable to define the social role of the artists, Beech assigns the term economic exceptionalism to define their relationship to the capitalist system even though they are outside the sphere of the capitalist mode of production:

In presenting this study, I hope to achieve two related objectives: to provide a new basis for the economics of art, and to develop a coherent theory of economic exceptionalism in general using art as a lens through which exceptionalism can be understood. This book also contains the first ever account of a Marxist theory of art’s economic exceptionalism, developing the argument that art is exceptional specifically to the capitalist mode of production. Art’s economic exceptionalism – that is to say, art’s anomalous, incomplete and paradoxical commodification – explains art’s incorporation into capitalism as the very basis of art’s independence from capitalism, because it shows that art has not been fully transformed by the capitalist mode of production.

This sounds more reasonable than the rigidly Brenner/Dobb framework defined at the beginning of the introduction but I will defer judgement until getting my hands on “Art and Value”. I should add that Beech is an artist himself and involved with the Freee [not a typo] Art Project that incorporates his socialist values.

I think that Beech is right to identify the transition to capitalism as key to understanding the role of the artist but I would approach it from a different angle. Under feudalism, the artist was funded by the church or the court. This includes both composers and artists who were expected to write Masses and paint Nativities to earn their keep. Secular works were also permitted but only under the strict guidelines put down by the aristocrat they worked for.

The bourgeois revolution allows them to go off on their own. Composers made independent livings as suppliers of symphonies, chamber music and operas to the various institutions now benefiting from subsidies by the manufacturers rather than the landed gentry or church.

For most of the 19th century until the early 20th century, they had about the same social weight as providers of high culture. What eventually allowed artists to achieve considerable fortunes was the emergence of the museum/gallery/auction world that capitalized on the catapulting of artists into the stratosphere. When he died, Picasso was worth $500 million while his contemporary Claude Debussy died in debt. Leaving behind a score like “La Mer” that could be purchased for very little, relatively speaking, the composer was not entitled to royalties once the work fell out of copyright. Unless you can draw people to pay for a concert ticket, that score will not generate revenue. In a museum, art will also generate revenue but not accrue to the living artist who made it. His or her interest in having it on display is to escalate his profile in the art market and hence his or her income.

Part of the difficulty in assigning a specific social role to the artist of any sort including painters, composers, novelists, etc. is that they occupy a middle position in class society—the so-called petty bourgeoisie. Occupying the same position as a guild artisan of the Middle Ages, they enjoy the possibility of becoming as wealthy as any capitalist. Unlike the more traditional petty-bourgeoisie such as doctors, lawyers, farmers, etc., the painter or sculptor has limitless horizons even if 99 percent of those in the business will likely make little more than a factory worker—if they are lucky.

The United States is in an odd position today with the petty-bourgeoisie constituting a major swath of the population even if supposedly the growth of capitalist property relations would force them into the working class. Fortunately for the left, the artists, rap musicians, professional athletes, novelists, poets, college professors, and fashion designers are on our side. It is the farmer, lawyer, doctor and shopkeeper we have to contend with and many of them constitute the base of the Republican Party.

 

October 10, 2018

The commodification of art examined in 3 documentaries

Filed under: art,Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 1:05 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, OCTOBER 10, 2018

The three documentaries considered chronologically in this review deal with various aspects of the commodification of art. Opened on October 19that the Quad Cinema in New York, “The Price of Everything”, an HBO documentary directed by Nathaniel Kahn, explains why paintings by the old masters are now auctioned off routinely for fifty million dollars and up. Now available on Youtube for $2.99 and worth every penny is “Art Bastard”, a tribute to artist Robert Cenedella who turned his back on the auction houses and posh galleries that are held up to scrutiny in the first film. Finally, there is the 2009 “Art of the Steal”, directed by Don Argott and now available on YouTube for free, chronicles the liquidation of the Barnes Foundation collection by the unscrupulous museum potentates, foundations and politicians in Philadelphia that its founder Albert C. Barnes loathed. That the documentary can be seen for free probably reflects the eagerness for its makers to get the broadest exposure.

I strongly advise seeing the three films in tandem since put together they will give you a keen sense of the cultural decay of late capitalism that puts a price tag on everything. Essentially, the commodification of art is just as injurious to the body politic as fracking, a profit-seeking assault on the environment that was fostered by Governor Ed Rendell, who also led the assault on the Barnes Foundation when he was mayor of Philadelphia. All the people you hear from Sotheby’s and Christie’s in the first film and the smooth operators who paved the way for the destruction of Barnes’s legacy are exactly those you would hear bemoaning Donald Trump on MSNBC. At least Donald Trump doesn’t have their fake patrician pretensions.

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January 17, 2018

Beuys; David Hockney at The Royal Academy

Filed under: art,Film — louisproyect @ 8:33 pm

“Beuys” opens today at the Film Forum in New York. Like fellow German artist Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys was simultaneously one of the world’s most respected artists in the post-WWII period as well as a critic of the capitalist system.

In 2003, I wrote about a documentary titled “Gerhard Richter Painting” that can be seen on Amazon Video for $2.99 and that would be a good companion piece to the one on Beuys. When Richter crossed the border to 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 as well as the Socialist Realism of East Germany. Richter is on record as saying that “The best thing that could have happened to art was its divorce from government.” Since his paintings have sold for more than $30 million, it is understandable why his artwork has grown more abstract and less political. It is unlikely, for example, that any hedge fund billionaire would want to have portraits of Red Army Faction members on their living room wall.

Unlike Richter, Beuys always saw art as a much more overt instrument of political struggle against capitalism. It would have been the last thing one might have expected from someone who flew fighter planes for Hitler’s Luftwaffe during WWII. In 1940, the 19-year old joined the air force and served until being shot down over Crimea in 1944. The crash resulted in a disfigurement of his skull that was concealed by a trademark fedora that he began wearing as young artist out in the public.

After returning home after the war, he spent nearly a decade on a friend’s farm trying to overcome what sounds like post-traumatic stress disorder. The only respite from his depression was making hundreds of drawings and small sculptures, which eventually led to a career as an artist and a professorship at the Dusseldorf Art Academy in 1961. The press notes state:

One of his best-known works from this period is Sled (1969), which he called a “survival kit”: an elemental means of transport carrying a felt blanket, a lump of fat, and a flashlight. Sled alludes to Beuys’s oftrepeated story of crashing his warplane during a blizzard and being rescued by Tatar nomads, who treated his wounds with fat and wrapped him in felt to keep him warm. Whether true or not, the story is a powerful metaphor for the rebirth of both an individual and a nation after the horrors perpetrated by National Socialism.

In the 1970s, Beuys became a conceptual artist often using himself as the focus of what might also be described as performance art. The documentary has startling footage of “I Like America and America Likes Me”, a 1974 work that brought together the artist and a live coyote in an enclosed New York gallery space. Beuys, who is enclosed rather precariously in a cloth tarpaulin, allows the animal to bite off pieces from the costume, while holding it back rather gently with a cane. The piece called for overcoming the rift between humanity and the natural world, a need that would seem to apply in spades to the invasion of Central Park recently by coyotes and the panic it has engendered. I would have given anything to see what Beuys had to say about this trend, who dying in 1986 was spared the depravity of a Trump administration bent on turning the entire country into a combination strip mall and golf course.

Not long after he began making explicitly political art and until his death, Beuys was a passionate supporter and member of the Green Party in Germany. He was part of the party’s leftwing and eventually became marginalized because the leadership feared that the German voter would not identify with someone as eccentric as Beuys. To connect his artwork with his political beliefs, he embarked on his most important project in 1982, the 7000 Oaks. This was an ambitious reforestation project that finally resulted in the planting of seven thousand trees throughout Germany, especially in areas destroyed by bombing during World War II.

The film was directed by Andres Veiel, a 58-year old whose works both in film and theater but generally with a political focus. Der Kick (The Kick), for example, was about the 2002 murder of a teenager by three neo-Nazi teenagers in East Germany, In a director’s statement in the press notes, he stated:

In the film, Beuys persistently and subversively deals with issues that continue to remain relevant 30 years after his death, like a radical democratization that doesn’t shy away from new banking and monetary systems, or equal opportunities in a world of increasing inequality. Beuys insisted on the possibility that the world can be changed based on the capabilities of each individual person: “Nothing needs to remain the way it is.”

Unquestionably, David Hockney and Gerhard Richter are the two most important living artists today. At 80 and 85 respectively, they can’t keep up the same pace as when they were younger but both are going strong. Evidence of Hockney’s continued vigor and relevance are two shows at the Royal Academy of Arts that are the subject of a documentary titled “David Hockney at The Royal Academy Of Arts: A Bigger Picture 2012 & 82 Portraits and One Still Life 2016” that according to the publicist will be in cinemas across United States of America, from January 23rd. In truth, the only theater where the film will be showing is in Cape Cod, Massachusetts—not a place where many of my readers live, I’m afraid. My advice, however, is to check the film distributor’s website to see if it will be screened in your city since it is quite a fascinating film about an artist as unlike stylistically from the two somber Germans indicated above.

The documentary could not be more elementary in cinematic terms, consisting of Hockney being interviewed by two different curators at the Royal Academy. The first show is made up of landscapes done by Hockney in Yorkshire, England, a place he left long ago to make a home in Los Angeles, a place featured in his most famous paintings. They are all intensely sensual and use color in a way that are reminiscent of Matisse. Grouped with Pop Art, they do not feature soup cans but instead swimming pools that expressed the languid and hedonistic character of Tinseltown. A “Bigger Splash” is typical:

Obviously, Yorkshire bears little resemblance to Southern California. Instead, it is the sort of place that inspired landscape artists like John Constable and Claude Monet. In the interview, Hockney stresses the importance of light and color that binds him to classic art of the 18th and 19th century. Since some of the landscapes were done on an iPad, they have the added interest of seeing how the technological envelope can be pressed, even when you are you entering your ninth decade. While Hockney does not offer the kind of analysis that an art historian would be capable of, the main benefit of this half of the film is the opportunity it affords to see some ravishingly beautiful work.

The 2016 portrait show has a bit of an irony. Hockney threw in a still-life with the intention of making sure that all of the three major genres would be covered at the Royal Academy: landscapes, portraits and one still-life.

The 82 portraits are all of people Hockney know personally and never took more than 3 days to complete. This is a major feat to be carried out by someone his age. As he points out in the interview, the only activities he carries out nowadays are painting and reading. As is the case with the landscapes, you can look forward to what amounts to a filmic version of one of those museum tours but led by the artist himself.

Worth mentioning is a book co-authored by Hockney and Martin Gaylord titled “A History of Pictures: From the Cave to the Computer Screen” that came out in December, 2017. A review in the NY Review of Books that was coupled with a look at a retrospective now showing at the Tate suggests that there are some affinities with Beuys, who also saw the emancipatory quality of art:

Equipped with the versatility to picture however he pleases, Hockney chooses to picture whatever pleases him. He celebrates his friends and lovers, their agreeable homes and gardens, and places and particulars (an ashtray, a lampshade) that snag his workmanlike curiosity and ask to be disassembled and customized pictorially. If Hockney has thus become a recorder of styles and mores, he has been so unsystematically. After what he now calls his “homosexual propaganda” pictures of the early 1960s, little about the work has seemed specifically political: his responses to the AIDS crisis, for instance, can only be inferred obliquely. This is not to say that Hockney is without ideas about his art’s human purposes. On the contrary, his recent book written with Martin Gayford, A History of Pictures, argues that approaches to picturing such as his own aim to emancipate our imaginations, which might otherwise fall back into a “prison,” a disengagement from the world through which we move, a blinkering that makes it “look duller.”

 

December 30, 2017

The Square

Filed under: art,Film — louisproyect @ 9:48 pm

Among the batch of DVD’s received from Magnolia, a film distribution company specializing in edgy independent films, was one called “The Square” that I nearly discarded since I assumed that it was the very fine documentary about Tahrir Square. I probably should have remembered that the film was made in 2013. Sigh, how time flies when you’re not having fun.

Instead, this is a new Swedish narrative film currently being shown at the IFC Center and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center at Lincoln Center that is wickedly entertaining. Directed by  Ruben Östlund, it stars Claes Bang as Christian, the director of an ultra-modern art museum that is the Swedish version of the Whitney in N.Y. It is a combination of a morality tale and satirical sketches only loosely connected to the plot.

At a dinner party celebrating the opening of a show titled “The Square” that is based on liberal bromides about people trusting each other, a muscular bare-chested performance artist named Oleg begins stalking the men and women in formal wear as if he were a chimpanzee. He walks on all fours using a device that is attached to his arms and makes his ape-like perambulations both realistic and frightening. His lower teeth protrude from his lips giving every indication that they are capable of tearing off a piece of flesh. He was hired for the event to supposedly educate the crowd about not allowing someone’s appearance to prejudge their worth. Oleg, I should add, is played by Terry Notary who trained the actors in the recent round of Planet of the Apes films how to move.

At first, he seems harmless, walking around sticking his finger in a tuxedoed man’s ear or jumping on top of a table and howling. As his behavior becomes more threatening, a hush descends on the gathering that is clearly becoming worried about what Oleg will do next. When he squares off against the largest man there in an imitation of the kind of alpha male rivalry that takes place in chimpanzee bands, it results in the man fleeing for his life. It has begun to dawn on the wealthy liberals there that Oleg has jumped the shark.

In another scene, Christian—who is the homo sapiens version of the dominant male in a chimpanzee band—hooks up with an American reporter for a one-night stand. (She is played by Elisabeth Moss, best known for playing Peggy Olson in “Mad Men”.) While waiting for her in bed, he spots an actual chimpanzee walking nonchalantly around the living room where he finally takes a seat on the sofa and begins thumbing through an art journal. It is a perfect moment.

We also see a British artist who is apparently based on Julian Schnabel, one of the biggest assholes in the art world, giving a talk to the same kinds of people in a private lecture at the museum. It is likely they are major donors. I was puzzled by the artist wearing pajamas as he lectures the audience but learned just as I began writing this review that Schnabel is in the habit of giving speeches in pajamas as well. As he begins his pompous and meaningless explanation of his work, someone in the audience begins yelling “asshole”, “scumbag”, “get the fuck out of here”, etc. every 30 seconds or so. When people in the audience begin to murmur nervously, someone pipes up that the poor fellow has Tourette’s and should be tolerated. That, of course, allows him to continue his assault on the artist. We are left wondering whether it is the Tourette’s speaking or just him sounding off on a self-important idiot.

I should add that the real Julian Schnabel gets taken down in a documentary in the same spirit as “The Square”. Titled “Guest of Cindy Sherman”, it can be rented for $3.99—a bargain at twice the price.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around Christian’s attempt to retrieve his wallet, smartphone, and cufflinks that were pickpocketed from him in a con game near the museum. When his assistant discovers the stolen phone’s signal in a housing project obviously occupied by the very people the upcoming show is supposedly designed to solidarize with, the two go there late at night to put flyers in the mailbox of all the residents demanding the return of his property or else. He eventually regains the property but also the unwelcome attention of a swarthy 11-year old boy who demands that he apologize for accusing him of theft. After seeing the flyer, his parents assumed that he was the guilty party and punished him. The youth has a way of putting Christian on the defensive and making his hypocrisy about human solidarity painfully obvious.

Ruben Östlund’s last film was “Force Majeure” that dealt with a similar theme, the moral failings of a handsome and successful man who abandons his wife and children when an avalanche plows into the ritzy ski resort they are vacationing in. His work is not overtly political but it sheds light on the tendencies of bourgeois society to make us act like animals. Indeed, despite the argument that we are a step ahead of our ancestors the chimpanzee, one might conclude that we come in a distant second-best.

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