Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 2, 2016

Art Bastard

Filed under: art,Film — louisproyect @ 3:07 pm

On May 29th the NY Times reported on how some of the world’s great art is being squirreled away in secretive warehouses and away from art lover’s prying eyes for one reason and one reason only—they are commodities to be traded not things of value to be appreciated.

With their controlled climates, confidential record keeping and enormous potential for tax savings, free ports have become the parking lot of choice for high-net-worth buyers looking to round out investment portfolios with art.

“For some collectors, art is being treated as a capital asset in their portfolio,” said Evan Beard, who advises clients on art and finance at U.S. Trust. “They are becoming more financially savvy, and free ports have become a pillar of all of this.”

And just a few weeks earlier it also reported on the connection between this sordid, money-grubbing art business and the Panama Papers:

The papers reveal that a collection of modernist masterpieces assembled by Victor and Sally Ganz, a Manhattan couple, and auctioned for $206.5 million at a landmark sale at Christie’s in New York in 1997, was not actually sold by their family, but by a British financier who had secretly bought it months earlier.

According to Mossack Fonseca documents, the British billionaire currency trader Joe Lewis — or rather, one of his shell companies — was the seller at the auction, apparently in some kind of partnership with Christie’s. It was all a massive “flip,” a quick resale that was early, if undisclosed, evidence of just how much art was being treated like a commodity.

If this sort of thing depresses you, my strongest recommendation is to see “Art Bastard” that opens tomorrow at the Angelika and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York. You will walk out of the theater afterwards in an elevated mood upon discovering that there is at least one artist who rejects being part of this commodified racket, making you feel like Diogenes who at long last has run into an honest man.

That artist is Robert Cenedella who was born in 1940 and still going strong. Perhaps my greatest surprise at the wonderful film about his life and career is that I had never heard of him before. When the publicist for the film emailed me, there was a head’s up about his lack of name recognition:

At once a portrait of the artist as a young troublemaker, an alternate history of modern art and a quintessential New York story, ART BASTARD is as energetic, humorous and unapologetically honest as the uncompromising man at its center. If you don’t know his name, it is not entirely surprising. He clearly doesn’t have the household recognition or the gallery footprint of a Warhol, Lichtenstein or Koons. Yet, this is central to the point of ART BASTARD – because Cenedella’s story has something else: a rich, flawed, color-flecked humanity replete with political and personal passion that may be more revealing, and relatable, than just another expected story about another 15-minute-museum-superstar.

Good lord, were they right!

The film’s title is a double-entendre. It evokes Cenedella’s shrewd observation: “You can bastardize everything else in your life, but if you compromise with your art, why be an artist?” It also refers to the fact that he is “illegitimate”. When he was only six years old, his mother informed him in an offhand manner that his real father was an English professor named Russell Speirs and not Robert Cenedella Sr., the man she was married to. Within a few years, the man he knew as his father would be blacklisted from radio, where he had enjoyed a successful career writing basically apolitical material as was the case with another victim of McCarthyism named Dalton Trumbo.

Unlike Dalton Trumbo, the senior Robert Cenedella, a leftist by his own admission, was not in the CP but like Trumbo he refused to name names. Whatever he lost in income was only partially made up for by a feeling of standing up for what is right but that was the only choice that he could live with. His son surely must have been influenced by his example since he would soon be expelled from high school for writing a satirical letter about the atom bomb drill to the school’s principal.

As a kind of autodidact, Cenedella haunted NY’s museums as a teen bent on a career as an artist whether or not he got a high school degree. He was especially drawn to the renaissance masters such as Vermeer, whose paintings convinced him of the power of representation even if the art market would soon be dominated by abstract expressionism.

If his aesthetic would be based on representation, the sensibility would be defined as social especially after he began studying at the Art Students League in New York where he fortuitously ended up with George Grosz as an instructor. His innate sense of satire and social awareness were reinforced by Grosz whose acidic paintings of the Weimar bourgeoisie and the fascist movement marked him as one of the 20th century’s most important artists of the left.

From early on, Cenedella focused on the street life of New York with an affectionate look at ordinary people who walked its streets and who rode the subways:

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59th Street Station

By 1965, two things began to weigh heavily on Cenedella’s mind. The first was the war in Vietnam. While he does not describe himself as a political artist, he states that he is always thinking about politics as this drawing of LBJ would indicate:

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The other preoccupation was the art world itself that he saw as dominated by trends that were calculated to make the artist rich even if it sacrificed his or her deeper spiritual or ethical beliefs. Fed up with pop art and all the other junk that gets featured at the Whitney Biennials, he mounted a “Yes Art” exhibition at the posh and trendy Fitzgerald Gallery on Madison Avenue that thumbed its nose at the commodified art world. Victor Navasky, the publisher emeritus of the Nation Magazine who is interviewed in “Art Bastard”, wrote about the show in his “The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power”:

So it is appropriate that during pop art’s heyday, when the art world was celebrating Andy Warhol’s rendering of the Campbell’s Soup can, Cenedella, who by now was Grosz’s protégé in the best Dada tradition, mounted a show called Yes Art! Everything about Yes Art! was upbeat, including the S & H Green Stamps—a supermarket promotion—which were given away with the paintings. Whereas Warhol had offered his renditions of Brillo boxes, Cenedella offered the Brillo boxes themselves. (Why get an expensive imitation when you can get the real thing?) Cenedella explained, “If a Yes artist folds your Brillo box it will cost $6.75. If you fold it yourself it costs $5.75.” The Yes Art! show, held at a chichi Upper East Side gallery, also featured a live statue named Sophia Blickman.

In 1968 Navasky, who was co-editor at the time with Marvin Kitman (also interviewed in the film) of the satirical magazine The Monocle, commissioned Cenedella to make art based on the Communist Manifesto that you can see on Cenedella’s website (http://www.rcenedellagallery.com/).

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I urge you to visit the website but even more importantly to go see “Art Bastard” even if you are living in someplace in the Midwest. The price of a round trip ticket to NY will be worth being able to see the most inspiring documentary about making art that I have ever seen in my life.


May 14, 2016

Art, Literature and Culture From a Marxist Perspective

Filed under: art,literature — louisproyect @ 8:19 pm

If you look at the table of contents of Tony McKenna’s brilliant collection of articles titled “Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist Perspective”, you will be struck immediately by the seemingly eclectic combination of high and popular culture with Vincent Van Gogh sitting cheek by jowl next to Tupac Shakur. This, of course, leads to an interesting question as to the merits of such a distinction. Keep in mind that Charles Dickens was basically the Stephen King of his day. Also, keep in mind that English literature only began being taught in the British university as a substitute for religion. Until then, students read Shakespeare or Henry Fielding only for entertainment as Terry Eagleton pointed out in “Literary Theory, An Introduction”:

If one were asked to provide a single explanation for the growth of English studies in the later nineteenth century, one could do worse than reply: ‘the failure of religion’. By the mid- Victorian period, this traditionally reliable, immensely powerful ideological form was in deep trouble. It was no longer winning the hearts and minds of the masses, and under the twin impacts of scientific discovery and social change its previous unquestioned dominance was in danger of evaporating. This was particularly worrying for the Victorian ruling class, because religion is for all kinds of reasons an extremely effective form of ideological control…

Fortunately, however, another, remarkably similar discourse lay to hand: English literature. George Gordon, early Professor of English Literature at Oxford, commented in his inaugural lecture that ‘England is sick, and . . . English literature must save it. The Churches (as I understand) having failed, and social remedies being slow, English literature has now a triple function: still, I suppose, to delight and instruct us, but also, and above all, to save our souls and heal the State.’ Gordon’s words were spoken in our own century, but they find a resonance everywhere in Victorian England. It is a striking thought that had it not been for this dramatic crisis in mid-nineteenth- century ideology, we might not today have such a plentiful supply of Jane Austen casebooks and bluffer’s guides to Pound.

What is striking about Tony McKenna’s approach to both high and “low” culture is the rigor and subtlety—all conveyed within the context of Marxist dialectics. Although every article expresses this, probably the most sublime application is the final article on a comedian I had never given much thought to, especially now since he has begun doing commercials for Verizon: Ricky Gervais. The title of the article is “From Tragedy to Farce: The Comedy of Ricky Gervais as Capitalist Critique” and it is a pip. As is the case with a number of the articles in the collection, I became highly motivated to have a look at the works examined that were unknown to me, starting with “The Office” and “Extras”. In probing such works and giving them the respect they deserve, McKenna implicitly makes the case that they are the equal to most socially aware fiction being written today if not their superior.

In “The Office”, Gervais plays a character that will be familiar to you if you’ve ever worked in an office as I had for over 40 years until my retirement in 2012. As David Brent, Gervais is always spouting buzzwords like being proactive and performance orientated. I remember the first time I heard the phrase “grow the firm” back in 1981 when I was a consultant at Mobil Oil. Grow the firm? Since when does an object get attached to the verb ‘to grow’? I got used to it in the other offices I worked in over the years but remained jarred every time I saw a leftist talking about “growing the party”.

Brent uses his authority to make his underlings a captive audience for his amateur stand-up comedy, something that symbolizes “all the falseness and alienation of the corporate logic that they are subjected to on a day-to-day basis.” After Brent gets axed by the firm, a paper company called Wernham Hogg, he returns for a reunion at the office and once again does a comedy routine. For the first time, the workers laugh from the heart. (Season One of “The Office” can be seen on Amazon.com.)

I recall watching a few minutes of “Extras” on HBO but never got hooked. After reading McKenna’s analysis, I can’t wait to watch the first season on Amazon streaming (the complete series is available on DVD for $14.95). As the title implies, this is a comedy about the film and TV industries’ lower-tier. Gervais plays a character named Andy Millman who doesn’t care for his job and hopes to make it as a scriptwriter for a series he has been presenting to television executives without much success. In the same way that David Brent lords it over his subordinates, the A-Team actors Millman cohabits with are “surreal, bizarre, and sometimes even tyrannical”.

Referring to Karl Marx’s Capital, McKenna distinguishes between Millman trying to navigate between use values and commodities. The scripts represent use value to him even though he is marketing them to men who view them exclusively as commodities. Meanwhile, his crappy job as an extra represents the commodification of labor. As Marx wrote in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, “…the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working.”

Once Millman’s script is bought by the BBC, the tensions between use and exchange value become unbearable. The production team is intent on making the story more commercially viable and “audience friendly”. (One imagines that this was the kind of metamorphosis that “The Office” went through after being adopted by NBC with Steve Carrell standing in for Gervais.)

Growing more and more frustrated with the surgery being performed on his script, Millman resorts to a desperate action. At a rehearsal buffet table, Millman runs into an actor named Williamson who had been terminated from a TV show for refusing to dumb down his character. He then decides to follow his example since he was at least able to “retain his integrity”.

Once the rehearsal is ready to start again, Millman confronts the producers and insists on the show being done his way or the highway. As he is making his demands upon them, they are all startled by the sounds of a sudden loud noise near the buffet table. The now unemployed but integrity-retaining actor has attempted to stuff his jacket with food items that have just tumbled to the ground. Starkly confronted by the fate that awaits him, Millman “makes a cringing come-down and offers to meet any of his producer’s demands”. McKenna’s shrewd commentary on this scene is one that is bred by an engagement with Marxism and having endured working class realities, including years spent working as a cashier in Tesco’s, England’s Walmart.

Now, the scene is great because it does exactly what it should: it makes you snort laughter through your nose. But at the same time, it exhibits a more general truth – the power of the imperatives of exchange at the level of the modern-day writer’s or artist’s social existence and the way in which more abstract and high-minded moral principles easily evaporate in the face of those realities.

The scene with Williamson marks a turning point in the series because it is then when Millman abandons his fight for the integrity of his script and takes solace in the comforts which are provided by the commercial success of the sitcom – the wealth and fame it cultivates. But in abandoning the script’s use value to the prerogatives of exchange, Millman has in effect lost the semblance of himself – for the script was a product of his own essential nature; the void that opens in the aftermath is one he seeks to mask with the palliative of his celebrity status. This too has profound consequences for his existence in that his celebrity is something illusory, forever threatening to vanish, and the compulsion to assure it is driven by the need to make sure that he is always moving in the highest social circles, that he is forever in the papers, that he is seen at all the right restaurants and clubs.

One cannot say whether McKenna came to insights such as these if he hadn’t experienced working-class life. Too much of cultural and artistic analysis is burdened by academic baggage of the sort that you might hear at an ALA conference and—even worse—a vulgar Marxism that uses mutually exclusive ratings such as “revolutionary” or “reactionary” in the same way that film reviewers such as myself are forced to choose between “fresh” and “rotten” at the film review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes. At its worst, you end up with something like the atrocious Jacobin article on the recently deceased Merle Haggard that described him as “a hippie-hating hawk in the sixties and seventies, a dutiful Reaganite in the eighties, and a petulant chest-pounder during the first Gulf War, when he broke a mid-career spell of semi-obscurity with a song criticizing antiwar protesters.” This, of course, is the sort of thing you could have read in the Communist Party’s press in the 1930s when “Socialist Realism” reigned supreme.

As a sign of McKenna’s ability to see art and culture dialectically, he has an article on a Russian émigré author named Andrei Makine I am totally unfamiliar with. He focuses on a novel titled Brief Loves that Last Forever whose main character is obviously based on Makine himself. He is haunted by the crimes of Stalinism but has become too cynical to pin his hopes on the small and scattered Russian left that hopes to lead a new revolution that will restore the lost values of 1917. His treatment of these young people are fairly one-dimensional and the results of a rigid ideology that is widespread among an earlier generation of Soviet dissidents. While critical of the politics of the novel, McKenna embraces the psychological and dramatic qualities that are essential to all great literature just as we approach the novels of Solzhenitsyn.

Although a committed socialist, McKenna can empathize with Makine having his own bad reaction to a British leftist who told him that he was a “counter-revolutionary” at a meeting. Apparently he had run into someone who was the counterpart of the Haggard-hater at Jacobin. Ultimately, there is a relationship between the inability to understand Merle Haggard or Andrei Makine and that of failing to break out of the comfortable sect existence of most of the British and American left. It is an ability to think dialectically that not only clouds one’s vision of art and culture but to see how Syrian rebels have a just cause even if some right-winger writing for the Murdoch press praises them as well. Being able to see politics as a contradictory phenomenon in which a higher level of both theory and practice involves resolution at a higher level is a challenge that the left must meet in order to effectively fight for socialism. My strongest recommendation is to read Tony McKenna’s book as an exercise in Marxist dialectics. Not only will it help you to understand Tupac Shakur and Vincent Van Gogh better; it will arm you for the big battles we face down the road.

Like all hardcover books nowadays from commercial publishers such as Palgrave/Macmillan, Tony McKenna’s comes at a steep price. Don’t let that dissuade you. Have a visit to your local library and take out a copy. If you are in a small town where pulp fiction prevails, put in an Interlibrary Loan Request. Go ahead, if you aren’t up to that task, then you aren’t open to making a revolution which will be a lot more onerous.


April 22, 2016


Filed under: art,Film — louisproyect @ 6:26 pm

“Hockney” opened today at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and at Metrograph in New York, and at Laemmle Theaters in Los Angeles. It is an exquisitely beautiful documentary about one of the world’s most respected artists who was born into a working class family in Bradford, England seventy-eight years ago. He shares that background with Andy Warhol whose father was a coal miner from Pittsburgh. Like Warhol, David Hockney is gay with the major difference being a willingness to represent the male figure erotically but by no means as daring as a Robert Mapplethorpe photo.

Essentially, Hockney’s paintings are a throwback to the 19th century, concentrating on portraits and landscapes but done in a way that is distinctly modern. Whether you have never seen his work or are familiar with it like me, the film is a totally engaging museum-like tour of paintings that are a feast for the eyes. As a human being, Hockney is by no means exceptional. His life is all about his work and completely absent of the kind of drama Van Gogh or Basquiat experienced. Unlike Picasso, who he regards as his major influence, he never painted anything like “Guernica”. Even during the depths of the AIDS epidemic, his paintings were more mournful than angry. Oddly enough, his only other “social” concern has been about tobacco, a weed that he is devoted to. Early in the film, he states that he is often tempted to put up a pro-smoking billboard in health-conscious Los Angeles.

His most representative work is devoted to swimming pools in Los Angeles. Notwithstanding the seeming banality of the subject, each one transforms the material into something that becomes as sublime as Monet’s lily pads. Despite the contempt that many people hold Los Angeles in, Hockney was smitten with the city from the start. He explains that it had the aura of motion pictures that mesmerized him in his humdrum home town in the 1950s. Born in 1937, he describes himself as belonging to the “pre-TV” generation. Going to the “pictures” was a big occasion for him and his parents so the idea of being near Hollywood inspired him.

He was also drawn to the beach and surfer world like a moth to a flame. There were obvious homoerotic reasons for that as well as his fascination with the interaction of sunlight and water, something that was reflected in all of his landscapes that have the ability to render a reality more real than reality itself.

Perhaps the most engaging aspect of the film is Hockney’s ability to explain how he has evolved as an artist and even more importantly to communicate the spirit of his work. In one memorable moment, he muses on the famous swimming pool paintings. When you see someone standing next to a pool about to dive in, you see his or her dappled reflection in the water. The contrast between the two representations of the human form are meant to create a kind of dynamism that gives the images much more interest than their ostensibly mundane origins. Hockney is very articulate and intelligent so listening to him is an experience that no museum tour can compare to.

Despite his advanced years, Hockney remains active in his studio. Always one to borrow eclectically from the various techniques other artists have introduced, his latest work contains images captured on the IPhone and IPad. For a glimpse into his work, I strongly recommend a visit to http://www.hockneypictures.com/.


November 24, 2015

Punks, Poets and Provocateurs

Filed under: art — louisproyect @ 5:56 pm

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Last month the NY Times reported that it “was welcome news to learn this week that Peter D. Barbey, a Pennsylvanian with an inherited fortune derived from clothing and textile businesses, had bought The Village Voice with the goal of returning the newspaper to its central position, long since vanished, in the city’s cultural firmament.” Now I don’t know if the paper has already gone through the changes that Barbey sought but the most recent issue has an article that is journalism at its best, a profile of a photographer named Marcia Resnick who I became acquainted with in the 1980s through one of my closest friends, a woman named Laura Kronenberg who was one of Marcia’s closest friends as well.

The article is an amazing tale of how Marcia became one of the city’s best known and respected chroniclers of a now lost Bohemia, driven out by the high cost of real estate—the same economic pressures that forced Laura to move to Williamsburg where she lived a sad life until her death in 2010. In some ways Laura’s death from alcoholism was related to the loss of Manhattan as a hothouse for artists and poets. Perhaps if it were still a place for a poet, a photographer, a musician or a sculptor to get a foothold, Laura would still be alive. It is a credit to Marcia’s innate talents that she remains a powerful and respected presence in the city.

Marcia made many famous photographs over a long career that continues to this day but none as famous as this one of John Belushi:

The story of this photo can be seen on the website “This Long Century”:

In early September 1981 I spotted John Belushi in the New York after hours club AM PM. I asked him when he was going to do a photo session with me for my series Bad Boys: A Compendium of Punks, Poets and Politicians. He said, “Now”. I didn’t believe him, until upon returning home at six am I saw a limousine waiting in front of my building. I turned on the music as John and his entourage filed into my loft. I then directed John to an area lit by strobe lights and I began shooting.

John paced around like a caged animal, fidgeting incessantly. He seemed unable to sit still for my camera, uncanny for someone known for being deliberate and fluid when performing. “Where are the props?”, he queried. I first gave him sunglasses, then a scarf. He requested a beer, then a glass. After donning a black wool ski mask that he took off a nearby mannequin, he settled into a chair. Only his eyes and mouth peeked through the openings in the mask. The large, ominous and anonymous ‘executioner’ had finally reached his comfort zone.

A year after she took this photo, I accompanied Laura up to Marcia’s loft to hang out. In 1982 I was working as a consultant at Mobil Oil and working through the final stages of what amounted to PTSD from my days in the Socialist Workers Party, a cult-sect I had left in late 1978. It had manifested itself as a low-grade fever and kept me from enjoying life.

At the time Marcia was married to Wayne Kramer, the guitarist for MC5, the legendary Detroit based rock group that had been managed by John Sinclair, the leader of the White Panthers. Maybe because I was so shell-shocked by my time in the SWP, it didn’t occur to me to chat with Kramer about 60s stuff. I was also too ready to lump any “downtown” people into the general category of Bohemia, a lingering prejudice from my Trotskyist days.

As it turns out, Marcia was much more politically committed than I ever realized, not that Laura had much interest in filling me in. Her main topic of conversation when it came to Marcia was her photography and the wild times they used to have scoring drugs and hanging out with Andy Warhol’s entourage. As was the case with Laura, the “sixties” meant cultural as well as political rebellion. The Voice article states:

Soon after graduation, Resnick moved to Manhattan to attend NYU on a full academic scholarship. Almost immediately she started gravitating toward the Sixties counterculture then emerging on college campuses across the country. She joined the Students for a Democratic Society and began participating in anti-war marches. In 1968, when she was seventeen, she read Burroughs’s Junkie and promptly asked a friend to inject her with heroin every day for a week. It would be her first experience with hard drugs. (“I wanted to experience it and sought it out,” she says.)

On the advice of an NYU professor, Resnick transferred to Cooper Union and thrived for three years while she developed as a photographer and artist. She documented the Columbia University protests of 1968, and a photo of her at the demonstration, her body blocked by a police officer’s baton, appeared on the front page of the New York Times.

Marcia also had developed a feminist consciousness:

More specifically, she wanted to confront men — especially after returning from a trip to Egypt in July 1977, where she recalls being leered at and objectified by the men she encountered.

“You have to look at the time it was — it was right after women’s lib got big,” she says. “Men always photograph women. I was interested in what it would be like to photograph men. What kind of exchange would occur. The female gaze is very different.”

Of course, Egypt has gotten much worse since 1977. Women are not just leered at, they are raped and usually with impunity in a nation where all rights have been attacked under the rubric of a “war on Islamic terrorism”.

Besides the interesting information the article provides about Marcia’s evolution as an artist, it is a powerful commentary on the transformation of New York into a hedge fund manager’s amusement park. Everywhere you look, old and affordable neighborhoods are being transformed into condominiums, CVS’s, HSBC’s, and restaurants where a pasta dish cost $35.

“Everything is different,” Resnick says, shifting her gaze from one side of Canal Street to the other. She and Bockris have just hopped out of a cab at the corner of Canal and Washington in Tribeca. They’re making their way to Resnick’s old loft, where she lived from 1975 until 1990, and where the majority of the photos in her book were taken. Resnick now lives in the West Village, having sold the space to Lou Reed’s widow, Laurie Anderson. Even as a lifelong resident of a city that never stops changing, she’s amazed at how different her old neighborhood looks. “That building wasn’t here. Neither was that one,” she says, gesturing toward a pair of shiny new condos that flank the red-and-white-brick ex-warehouse that served as her home and studio for those fifteen years. She shakes her head. “Let’s cross the street.”

Today’s journey to Tribeca began in the East Village, where Resnick and Bockris sipped coffee at Veselka, the popular Ukrainian restaurant, and reminisced about the old days. Though he’d initially resisted the idea of seeking out the old loft, Bockris, 66, eventually hailed a cab, telling the driver to head west.

“This part of Christopher Street used to have more small businesses, mom-and-pop shops,” Resnick pointed out during the drive.

“I’m glad the Village looks mostly the same,” Bockris had offered. “This is Hudson, right? I used to walk up this street from my place to Marcia’s place.” As the cab neared Canal, Bockris had his hand poised on the door handle.

Now Resnick is in disbelief. “That’s my building: 530 Canal Street,” she says. “I used to have river views, but now my river views are blocked!” She pauses to watch some construction workers next door as they put the finishing touches on the interior of another steel-and-glass luxury residential complex to the west of her old building. “It was just this summer last time I was here. How’d that happen so fast? It’s amazing.”

Back in the sixties, when I was at my dogmatic worst, I used to sneer at the counter-culture. When I visited Laura in the late 60s at the Bowery loft she shared with her husband Tony Long, a good friend of mine who died in 2001, we used to argue about whether I had made the right decision to join the SWP. She was opposed to the war in Vietnam but did not think that socialist revolution made any sense. After I lost touch with Laura for the next 10 years as I lived around the country building party branches in Boston, Houston and Kansas City, we finally reunited at a high school reunion and remained good friends until her untimely death.

Now that I am a bit older and wiser, my view of social change is a lot more nuanced than it used to be when I saw an American revolution as a repeat of the 1930s with the added dimension of gays, Blacks, feminists et al. I suspect that in many ways the loss of creative expression in places like New York as it turns into a haven for Russian oligarchs living in $20 million apartments will deepen the alienation of ordinary people against what Allen Ginsberg called “moloch” in 1961. Long before I became a political rebel, I was a cultural rebel. When things begin to change for the better in this lost society, the two strands will likely come together and pose a challenge to the status quo unlike any we have seen since the 1960s or maybe its entire history for that matter.

For information on Marcia’s new book “Punks, Poets and Provocateurs” that the Voice article was celebrating, go to http://www.marciaresnick.com/.



January 16, 2015

World leaders on the toilet

Filed under: art — louisproyect @ 1:39 pm


See full series here

December 17, 2014

The Lenin Museum

Filed under: art,Gay,ussr — louisproyect @ 6:55 pm

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 Representing a men’s room stall at the Lenin Museum, where gay men cruised

It would be hard to imagine any art show more topical than “The Lenin Museum” that opened at the James Gallery in the CUNY Graduate Center on 365 Fifth Avenue (at 34th Street) in New York on November 14th and runs through January 17th. As a statement on the troubled relationship between gay people and the state in Russia, it is not to be missed. The show is the latest in a series by conceptual artist extraordinaire Yevgeniy Fiks, a Russian émigré whose work I have been following with keen interest for the past two years.

In conceptual art, the ideas take precedence over traditional aesthetic and commercial considerations. Since much of it is one-time installation, it is hardly the sort of thing that you can take home and mount over a mantelpiece. While many of its adherents have taken it up as a challenge to the tyranny of the gallery, someone like Damien Hirst creates conceptual art that caters to the decadent-minded hedge fund speculator with a taste for the transgressive.

Fiks has created his own niche, one that is dedicated to the examination of the Soviet legacy. As someone left-of-center, he is intrigued by the experience of official Communism, both in the USSR and in the USA, the home of this 42-year old artist for the past twenty years.

Fiks is a mischievous sort who in some ways hearkens back to the glory days of Dadaism, when every work of art conveyed a bit of the spirit of Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. that depicted the Mona Lisa with a mustache. Nothing expresses that more than his “Lenin for your Library?”, a project that involved sending copies of Lenin’s “Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism“ to 100 major transnational corporations including the Gap, Inc., Coca-Cola, General Electric, and IBM as donations to their corporate library. He received 35 response letters with 14 companies accepting the donation.

Fiks’s latest show is more somber. It deals with one of the most troubled legacies of the former Soviet Union that persists until this day, namely homophobia. In 1917 the young Soviet state decriminalized homosexuality. At the time the socialist movement was finally tackling this medieval prejudice, especially in the Weimar Republic where Magnus Hirschfield organized the First Congress for Sexual Reform in 1921. In a key article on socialism and homosexuality, Thomas Harrison wrote about the possibilities that were opening up at the time:

In 1923, the Commissar of Health, N.A. Semashko, on a visit to Hirschfeld’s Institute, assured the Germans that Soviet legalization was “a deliberately emancipatory measure, part of the sexual revolution.” Two years later, the Director of the Moscow Institute of Social Hygiene Grigorii Batkis, in a pamphlet, The Sexual Revolution in Russia, described Soviet policy as “the absolute non-interference of the state and society in sexual matters, so long as nobody is injured and no one’s interests are encroached upon. Concerning homosexuality, sodomy and various forms of sexual gratification, which are set down in European legislation as offenses against morality — Soviet legislation treats these exactly the same as so-called ‘natural’ intercourse.”

In 1934, Stalin recriminalized homosexuality, a measure that was consistent with the Bonpartist retreat from the early 20s when the heavens were being stormed. Even under the threat of repression, gay men and women were determined to hold on to the gains of 1917. In May 1934, Harry Whyte, the editor of Moscow’s English newspaper, The Moscow News, sent an open letter to Stalin titled “Can a Homosexual be a Member of the Communist Party?” that is part of the installation. Whyte stated:

Since I have a personal stake in this question insofar as I am a homosexual myself, I addressed this question to a number of comrades from the OGPU and the People’s Commissariat for Justice, to psychiatrists, and to Comrade Borodin, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper where I work.

All that I managed to extract from them was a number of contradictory opinions which show that amongst these comrades there is no clear theoretical understanding of what might have served as the basis for passage of the given law. The first psychiatrist from whom I sought help with this question twice assured me (after verifying this with the People’s Commissariat for Justice) that if they are honest citizens or good communists, his patients may order their personal lives as they see fit. Comrade Borodin, who said that he personally took a negative view of homosexuality, at the same time declared that he regarded me as a fairly good communist, that I could be trusted, and that I could lead my personal life as I liked.

The title of the show “The Lenin Museum” is a reference to a favorite cruising spot, the men’s room of an institution that housed Lenin memorabilia of the sort that Fiks keeps returning to in his remarkable career. An article on “Sex in the Soviet closet: a history of gay cruising in Moscow” in the Moscow News (the only reliable newspaper in Putin’s Russia) will give you a sense of what will await you at this stunning show:

One day in 1955, a railway stoker named Klimov entered the GUM department store, looking for a bite to eat. While inside, Klimov, 27, stopped by the bathroom.

“In the toilet a young lad came up to me, shook my hand and said, ‘Let’s get acquainted,'” Klimov later recalled. The man’s name was Volodya. He invited Klimov to the Lenin Museum.

“He bought the tickets with his money, and we went straight to the men’s toilet.”

An intimate encounter began, but they were interrupted by a pair of strangers.

Several weeks later, the men happened to meet in the GUM toilet again. This time, they opted for the secluded woods of Sokolniki Park.

From 1933 to 1993, homosexuality was officially outlawed in Russia under Article 121 of the Soviet Criminal Code. But all the while, the Communist capital’s most famous landmarks served as pick-up spots for gay men.

In a new photo book, titled “Moscow” and published by Ugly Duckling Presse, Russian-American photographer Yevgeniy Fiks captures the city’s Soviet cruising grounds as they look today. They are familiar to any resident of the city: the square in front of the Bolshoi Theater, Alexandrovsky Sad, Okhotny Ryad metro station.

Most of the spots are usually crowded. But in Fiks’ photos, they stand empty.

“This book is a type of kaddish [mourning prayer] for the lost and repressed generations of Soviet-era gays,” Fiks said.

October 5, 2014

Monument to Cold War Victory

Filed under: art,ussr — louisproyect @ 4:13 pm

Cold War Exhibit Release-1

Cold War Exhibit Release-2

September 19, 2014

A Gift to Birobidzhan

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

fiks receptionOpening night reception for A Gift to Birobidzhan

fiks photoYevgeniy Fiks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

L’Chayim Comrade Stalin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

September 13, 2014


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

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

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

Inside the Schinasi mansion

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 3, 2014

Hanging out in Coyoacan

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

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