Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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.

October 31, 2017

Ai Weiwei and the refugee crisis

Filed under: art,Film,refugees — louisproyect @ 10:21 pm

Until February 11th, 2018 New York City will be hosting a public art exhibit by Ai Weiwei titled “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors”, an ironic reference to the refugee crisis that is the subject of his documentary “Human Flow” now playing at the Landmark W. 57th and Angelika theaters in New York.

The exhibit is divided into two types of works. The first are structures such as those seen in this video:

The Public Art Fund, which funded and organized the exhibit, describes the Washington Square and uptown structures as follows:

Ai often visited Washington Square Park when he lived nearby in the 1980s, drawn to its vitality as a hub for creative and political expression. His 37-foot-tall steel cage echoes the iconic form of the marble arch, which commemorates George Washington leading the nation toward democracy. While seeming to create an obstruction, Ai opens a passageway through its center in the silhouette of two united figures. Visitors are able to pass through, reflected in an undulating ribbon of polished stainless steel. Their outline takes its form from Marcel Duchamp’s 1937 Door for Gradiva, created to frame the entrance to Andre Breton’s art gallery in Paris. This is fitting reference to the immigrant conceptual artist since Duchamp used to play chess in Washington Square Park, and once notoriously made his way to the top of the park’s arch with a group of other bohemian poets and artists.

For the entrance to Central Park, Ai has created a giant gilded cage that simultaneously evokes the luxury of Fifth Avenue and the privations of confinement. Visitors are able to enter its central space, which is surrounded by bars and turnstiles. Functioning as a structure of both control and display, the work reveals the complex power dynamics of repressive architecture.

The other structures are described as fences and tend to be less ambitious. All of them are meant as metaphors for the enforced isolation of refugees behind fences. Although it is not obvious at first blush, there is a fence positioned vertically between the two red buildings at 48 East 7th Street that is described as followed on the Public Art website:

Since the 19th century, successive waves of immigrants have settled on the Lower East Side. Many who landed at Ellis Island made it their home. Throughout the city, lamppost banners portray those arrivals, as well as notable exiles and contemporary refugees. Works that combine images and texts about the conditions and experiences of refugees replace bus shelter advertisements. Also in this historic neighborhood, a narrative series at Essex Street Market depicts refugees’ epic journeys, while fence installations at 189 Chrystie Street and 248 Bowery appear unexpectedly, spanning rooftops between buildings.

There are also a series of bus stop shelter installations whose meanings are probably obscure to those waiting for a bus.

Considering the description at Public Art, they would be lost on most people as well:

The artist’s structures installed around ten JCDecaux bus shelters in Brooklyn, Harlem, and the Bronx embellish transportation infrastructure to highlight the fundamental human right of free movement. Making subtle reference to the Art Nouveau curves of Hector Guimard’s famous Paris Metro entrances, Ai brings a new aesthetic to the utilitarian language of metal fencing while incorporating additional public seating for passersby. As a complement to the sculptural installations surrounding this urban street furniture, the artist has also created artworks from documentary images to be displayed on this bus shelter and others city-wide. Like all of the works in the exhibition, it subverts our traditional expectations, here co-opting spaces generally reserved for advertising to call our attention to the dire circumstances faced by millions of displaced people.

Here’s an example of a replacement ad that is part of the bus stop installations:

Finally, there are hundreds of banners that appear on lampposts around the city such as this on Park Avenue between 89th and 90th Street about 5 minutes from my apartment building:

It depicts a refugee on the island of Lesvos, Greece, which has served as the entry point into Europe for hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Senegal, Syria, Somalia, Cameroon, and elsewhere. “Human Flow” spends a considerable amount of time on Lesvos, where Weiwei shows great compassion for the refugees. To be honest, I am not sure what effect a banner such as this will have on people living on Park Avenue since they are rightfully described in the 60th and 5th structure as living in a gilded cage. In fact, for all practical purposes, we are living in a new Gilded Era.

I had mixed reactions to the two structures I filmed above. In Washington Square, I asked a number of people what they thought about the structure and the refugee crisis. An Australian tourist taking iPhone snapshots replied that they had problems with refugees there and left it at that. A New Yorker and self-described lesbian told me that she had no idea what the structure meant and had no idea that there was a city-wide exhibit by Ai Weiwei on the refugee crisis. Others appeared to be the typical selfie-taking tourists and not worth wasting time on. The most considered response was from a German woman tourist who thought the whole thing was unfortunate and was leading to big problems in her country because it pitted poor Germans against the newcomers who blamed the refugees for a cut in their own benefits. The whole encounter in Washington Square left me depressed.

It was a different story uptown. I spotted a couple looking to be in their sixties inside the gilded cage who turned out to be literature professors from St. Paul’s University in Japan on vacation here. He was a transplanted New Yorker and she was originally from Japan. He did most of the talking and sounded like someone who wrote for Salon. They were both deeply sympathetic to Ai Weiwei and outraged by the tsunami of xenophobia sweeping the planet. I suppose that their viewing of Ai Weiwei’s work was the polar opposite of the selfie-taking tourists in the Village. The two takes illustrate the great divide worldwide, which is not so much between the left and the right but between those who still have a heart and brain versus the great Idiocracy.

A few words about “Human Flow”.

I attended a press screening a couple of months ago but never got around to writing a review, mostly because I have been so burnt out over the refugee crisis, particularly how it affects Syrians. I have easily written a dozen film reviews about the refugee crisis in both narrative and documentary genres. I was just at a loss for words after seeing “Human Flow”.

Returning to it now, I can recommend it as a powerful work even if it can leave you exhausted (especially at 140 minutes.) It is a world tour of the refugee crisis with stops in Lesvos as mentioned above, the Mexican border, Rohingya and Palestinian refugee camps.

Throughout it all, Weiwei interacts with the refugees trying to mix compassion with his own self-deprecating humor. It is a film worth seeing, especially if you have not seen one on the refugee crisis before.

Keeping in mind that Nazism was made possible by the scapegoating of Jewish refugees from an economically devastated Eastern Europe who flooded into Germany in the 1920s, “Human Flow” is deeply relevant to our period.

Given Ai Weiwei’s take on the super-rich on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I wonder what he would say about Xi Jinping, the current “socialist” leader of China. As an expatriate from China who is deeply familiar with the hypocrisy of its billionaire Communists, I only hope that he will find time to hold their feet to the fire in his next public art exhibit.

Ai Weiwei’s father was Ai Qing, one of China’s leading poets and a powerful figure in the Communist Party. In 1957 he made the mistake of opposing the persecution of Ding Ling, another Communist leader and writer, during an “anti-rightist” campaign. Accused now of “rightism”, Ai Qing was banished to a state farm and his work went unpublished for another 20 years.

Obviously, Ai Weiwei inherited both his father’s talent as well as the courage of his convictions. He was the chief architect for the 2008 Olympics stadium in Beijing that he eventually disavowed. In a statement, he not only attacked China for cracking down on dissidents but—warming the cockles of my heart—lashed out at Stephen Spielberg for his cozy connections to the CP bosses: “All the shitty directors in the world are involved. It’s disgusting. I don’t like anyone who shamelessly abuses their profession, who makes no moral judgment. It is mindless.”

Like the late Roger Ebert, Ai Weiwei became totally involved with the Internet to get out his ideas, both through blogging and Tweeter. After a mammoth earthquake in Sichuan in 2008 that cost the lives of more than 5000 children due to shoddy construction, he created a work in their memory that like Maya Ling’s Vietnam Memorial is simply a list of their names. He used Twitter to gather together the names of the children.

A year later the Chinese cops conducted a raid on his apartment and beat him so badly that he required emergency brain surgery.

Not content to use physical violence, the state has also tried to pressure him into keeping quiet through legal persecution over alleged tax evasion. If you enter aiweiwei.com as a URL, you will be directed to fakecase.com that has the facts on the latest round of repression. On April 6, 2011, Xinhua News Agency reported: “Ai Weiwei is suspected of economic crimes and is now being investigated according to the law.” Considering the amount of corruption at the highest levels that the top officials of the CP are engaged in, it is a stunning exercise of chutzpah for the state to single him out for obviously trumped-up charges.

For $2.99 you can watch a great documentary on Ai Weiwei titled “Never Sorry”. Never Sorry? Doesn’t that mean something like Unrepentant?

October 22, 2017

Russian Revolution: a Contested Legacy

Filed under: art,Russian Revolution — louisproyect @ 8:52 pm

One of the ironies of post-Communism is that two of the artists making the most radical statements in N.Y. right now are émigrés from China and Russia respectively, the two nations that were at one time the top fixations of the Cold War establishment. While Chinese and Russian émigrés tend to be seen reflexively as new-found admirers of American freedom (especially of free markets), Ai WeiWei and Yevgeniy Fiks are throwbacks to the day when artists were expected to be the visual counterparts of the poets that 19th century radical Percy Bysshe Shelley called the “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”.

I plan to post about WeiWei’s “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” later this week but now will report on a show at the International Print Center in New York that features the work of Yevgeniy and another Russian émigré named Anton Ginzburg. Titled “Russian Revolution: a Contested Legacy”, it is the most thoughtful and necessary show you are likely to see during the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, whose legacy was trashed in the NY Times Book Review today by a motley crew of Cold Warriors.

Curated by Masha Chlenova, an art historian at the New School, it reflects the spirit of the Russian revolution in a dual sense. It is a spirit that animates the human being and leads to greater aspirations but is also the spirit in the sense of a ghost whose presence haunts someone like Hamlet or Scrooge.

In the catalog for the show Chlenova sets forth the dialectical method that is severely lacking in the NY Times:

The exhibition Russian Revolution: A Contested Legacy at IPCNY uses a similar strategy. It celebrates the centennial of the Russian revolution by highlighting those genuine objectives that are important to preserve today: namely its pursuit of individual freedoms, such as the emancipation of women; racial equality and the rights of ethnic minorities (especially Jews) as part of a push towards internationalism; and sexual and gay liberation. While the rhetoric of individual freedoms and civil rights in the Soviet Union outlived their actual implementation and thus largely lost credibility by the mid- to late 1930s, it is important to remember the real gains that did take place, even if their lifespan was limited.

To capture the emancipatory spirit of the heady days of the revolution as well as contemporary examinations of how to recapture that spirit, Chlenova has curated works from the early Soviet Union as well as Yevgeniy and Anton Ginzburg’s artistic meditations on the past.

While Stalin was cracking down on the opposition in the late 20s, there are some works on display in the show that demonstrate the living spirit and rebelliousness of its artists who would eventually be pushed aside by the Socialist Realism imposed by the bureaucracy by the mid-1930s. Among them is a poster for a lottery to raise funds for Birobidzhan, the Jewish state that Stalin decreed.

Like much else that was happening until the Stalinist regime imposed a totalitarian straightjacket on society, Birobidzhan was an experiment that both expressed the top-down nature of the regime that decided for the country’s Jews where they would live as well as a genuine pioneering spirit that captured their imagination.

Among Yevgeny’s works on display is one titled “Leniniana” that fully expresses the overall theme of the show. It is based on Aleksandr Gerasimov’s iconic “V.I. Lenin at the Tribune”, a work that while anticipating the sort of adulatory and culturally degraded portraits of Stalin and Mao also captured the burning embers of 1917. For many Russians, 12 years of growing bureaucratization were not sufficient to extinguish the memory of last century’s greatest revolutionary uprising.

Gerasimov

Fiks

Yevgeniy’s portrait of an absent Lenin was part of a series of works painted in 2008 that were united around the theme of Lenin’s place in Russian history. By removing Lenin from a series of paintings such as the one depicted in the show, he challenges us to come to a deeper understanding of what he represented. He describes the aim of the paintings on his website:

This project is a post-Soviet “Leniniana,” a “Leniniana” of denial and repression, which questions Lenin’s place in the Russian historical narrative as well as the place of the legacy of the Russian Revolution in that narrative today in general. This project presents Lenin as a silenced figure of the post-Soviet era. The project suggests that only through return of this figure (as any other repressed historical figure) from the repressed of our collective memory, can the narrative of Russian history regain its wholeness.

As a gay, Jewish man, there is probably nobody more qualified than Yevgeniy to understand the dual character of the former Soviet Union. Like most people with a deeper and unbiased understanding of Soviet history, Yevgeniy knows that the Bolsheviks took radical steps to decriminalize homosexuality in the 1920s while the Soviet state reintroduced repressive laws in the 1930s as part of a general retreat from the revolution’s ambitious social goals.

The troubled past of the Soviet Union’s relationship with society’s underdogs—gays, Jews, and Blacks—have been the enduring themes of his work that I have documented since meeting Yevgeniy in 2012. I invite you to see the record of my interaction with this great artist over the years and even more so to see the show at the International Print Center that continues until December 12th.

A conversation with Yevgeniy Fiks, a Post-Soviet Conceptual Artist: https://louisproyect.org/2012/11/26/a-conversation-with-yevgeniy-fiks-a-post-soviet-conceptual-artist/

A Gift to Birobidzhan: https://louisproyect.org/2014/09/19/a-gift-to-birobidzhan/

The Lenin Museum: https://louisproyect.org/2014/12/17/the-lenin-museum/

 

May 12, 2017

Andrzej Wajda, Art and the Struggle for Freedom

Filed under: art,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 12:44 pm

COUNTERPUNCH
May 12, 2017

“Afterimage” opened theatrically in NYC at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on May 19th, to be followed at the Laemmle Theaters in LA a week later. Made in 2016 by Polish director Andrzej Wajda in his ninetieth year and just before his death, it incorporates the dominant theme in a filmmaking career going back to 1955—namely the Polish national struggle that has been defined by its relationship to Russia for hundreds of years.

“Afterimage” is based on historical events surrounding the Stalinist persecution of Władysław Strzemiński, an abstract artist who paid dearly for speaking out against Socialist Realism in 1950, just as the Polish United Workers’ Party was consolidating its grip on the nation. Strzemiński, who lost an arm and a leg as an officer in WWI, never let that disability stand in the way. In 1918, he attended classes at the First Free State Workshops (SVOMAS) in Moscow, where he first made contact with Casimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin. He became Poland’s most passionate advocate of Russian futurism and returned to his country in full support of the Russian Revolution and the bold artistic experimentation of the Communist nation’s heroic early years.

In 1945 he co-founded the State Higher School of the Visual Arts (SHSVA) in Lodz, where he lectured on art theory and history. The school created a Neo-Visual Room that displayed a collection of his work that was based on the theory of Unism that was a synthesis of 20th century modernist trends, including Constructivism. This was a movement initiated by Vladimir Tatlin in 1913 for which art and revolution were mutually reinforcing. The Constructivists sought to make art accessible to the public and frequently created works for public festivals and street designs in the 1920s. For Strzemiński, this aspect of Constructivism was less attractive—no doubt a function of the USSR having turned into a Stalinist nightmare for workers and artists alike.

Unism stressed the complete unity of paintings based on internal laws emerging from visual affinities regardless of their origins. The title of the film originates from the importance of afterimages in this theory. As Strzemiński tells his students in the early moments of the film, they are what is left in the imagination after you close your eyes. Indeed, one of his experiments was to record optical impressions caused by looking at the sun such as the 1948 painting “Sun’s Aftersight. Woman at the window”.

The film begins brilliantly with Strzemiński customarily sitting on the floor of his apartment on the upper floor of a drab building in Lodz while he works on his latest canvas. All of a sudden a massive red sheet as tall is the building is draped across the edifice and covers his windows, robbing him of the necessary sunlight the “afterimages” artist relies on. He rises himself clumsily upon his one good leg, takes up his crutches and opens the windows. Without bothering to see what the red fabric was all about, he takes a kitchen knife and cuts large holes in order to continue with his work. Seconds later, we see what he took a knife to—a monumental portrait of Stalin. That was just the beginning of his clash with the New Order.

Continue reading

November 8, 2016

Birobidzhan

Filed under: art,Film,Jewish question,Stalinism,ussr — louisproyect @ 10:54 pm

Thirteen years ago I had the good fortune to review a documentary titled “L’Chayim, Comrade Stalin” by Klezmer musician Yale Strom that served as an introduction to the Jewish Autonomous Region of the USSR that Stalin declared in 1934. My review began:

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 F. 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.

Clearly, Birobidzhan continues to grip the imagination of filmmakers, artists and scholars based on recent works I have had a chance to examine.

A few days after I reviewed “Finding Babel”, the film distribution company Seventh Art Releasing got in touch with me and asked if I would be interested in watching “Birobidzhan”, a film made by Belgian director Guy-Marc Hinant in 2015. Hinant is also a poet and music producer specializing in the avant-garde. As such, it is clear that he approaches the material from a different angle than Yale Strom whose film was much more conventional despite sharing the same passionate engagement with the subject. Much of “Birobidzhan” consists of evocative images of the region that are not directly related to the history such as the blurred images of a speeding freight train or an ominous and unexplained burning field. As is the case with most art films, and this certainly qualifies as one, such devices are evaluated on the basis of whether they help to lend emotional weight to the film and Hinant succeeds on this basis.

Like Strom’s film, we see the efforts of the dwindling number of Jews still living in Birobidzhan today trying to reconstruct a Jewish identity both culturally and religiously. Unlike the Hebrew-speaking Zionist entity, the Jews of Birobidzhan are devoted to Yiddish, the language that was blessed by Stalin with official status. Watching young kids in a classroom learning to read and write Yiddish is a moving experience as is seeing a somewhat older group rehearsing a musical play in the local theater that looks like a production from Second Avenue in the 1920s, and finally a chorus of septuagenarian women singing “Hava Negila”, a song that we sang in Hebrew school in the late 1950s. It is worth noting that the song has an iconic status in Israel as it is the first modern folk song to use Hebrew lyrics and is as almost as well-known as the Israeli national anthem. Somehow it seems less threatening in this context.

In some ways, it would have been better for the Jews to have made Birobidzhan their homeland rather thn Israel since it truly was a land without people that could accommodate a people without land. The film notes that long before 1934, Jews were settling in the remote and desolate territory in Siberia simply to escape the anti-Semitism that persisted in the USSR after the October revolution. Unlike Israel, where Yiddish was practically banned as a language linked to the ghetto and victimhood, Birobidzhan was devoted to Yiddish culture and even created the Sholem Aleichem library that contained more than 35,000 Yiddish titles. During his campaign against “bourgeois nationalism”, Stalin had all but 4,000 of them burned.

When Stalin launched the great repression of the 1930s, Birobidzhan was swept into the bloody whirlpool. Like Isaac Babel, some of the leading intellectuals and journalists who had migrated to Birobidzhan were charged with supporting Leon Trotsky and executed, including Joseph Liberberg—the first chair of the Jewish Region’s Council of People’s Deputies. An article on Liberberg shows the promise of the early USSR:

The mid-1920s were an exciting time to be involved in Jewish culture in the fledgling Soviet Union, where—for the first time in history—Yiddish culture and scholarship received state support. Liberberg left his university to post to head a new Jewish culture department at the All-Ukrainian Ukrainian Academy of Science.

Liberberg along with Nokhem Shtif organized the Jewish division, a scholarly institution specializing in Jewish studies. The initiative for its creation came from high party circles who supported the work of scholarly institutions in minority cultures throughout the Soviet Union.

The department evolved into the Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture in 1929. This became the leading Jewish cultural institution in Ukraine and attracted scholars and cultural activists from around the Soviet Union and throughout the world. A charismatic and ambitious director, Liberberg was not afraid to employ people who had previously held non-communist political positions.

As director of Ukraine’s most elite Jewish cultural institution — the republic with more than 60% of the Soviet Union’s Jews — Liberberg found little time for his academic work. He did get around to publish An Economic and Social History of England in 1927, co-edit October Days: Materials on the History of the October Revolution, also in 1927, A Dictionary of Political Terminology and Foreign Words, in 1929, The Bibliological Miscellany, in 1930, and a later addendum to that volume.

When I think about the murder of people like Liberberg and Babel, I never regret my decision to have become a Trotskyist in 1967 no matter the sectarian baggage this entailed. “Birobidzhan” is a glimpse into a what truly might have been described as “A different world is possible”. With all of the terrible things that took place in the USSR, we should never forget that in its youth it was a symbol of freedom, social justice and the possibility of a life lived outside of capitalist exploitation.

Seventh Art has told me that the film should be available on home video in January 2017. My advice is to check http://www.7thart.com/films/Birobidzhan in a couple of months to see if it has become available.

The one thing that always struck me about those Whitney Biennial Exhibitions is that the conceptual art that dominated the show was missing a key ingredient: a concept. That has never been the case with my friend Yevgeniy Fiks who I regard as America’s most accomplished conceptual artist. As someone who tackles the big topics of our day–the persecution of gay people, Jewish identity, the legacy of the Soviet Union and the power of big corporations among them—Fiks has the eye and the hand that can render the concepts into memorable art.

Last Saturday I attended the opening for his show Pleshka-Birobidzhan, 2016 that imagines Stalin having created a Homosexual Autonomous Region after the fashion of Birobidzhan. (Pleshka is the word for an area where gays “cruised” in Russia. The Bolshoi pleshka was the most renowned.)

Fiks explains his goals on his website:

The exhibition Pleshka-Birobidzhan engages the relationship between identity, fiction, and history by recreating an oral story about a group of Soviet gay men who travelled from Moscow to Birobidzhan in 1934 into an art installation. The oral story is set in 1934 soon after homosexuality was recriminalized in the Soviet Union and after the Soviet Jewish Autonomous Region, of which Birobidzhan became the capital, was established.

The exhibition reenacts this Soviet gay oral story in a series of artworks that comprises the exhibition. This includes a series of 17 collages titled Pleshka-Birobidzhan which starts the narration. The collages depict gay men at several gay cruising sites a.k.a. pleshkas in 1934 discussing the recriminalization of homosexuality under Stalin as a failure of the October Revolution, the creation of the Jewish Autonomous Region in the Soviet Far East, and a dream of a gay Soviet utopia. The collages also depict the journey of a group of disillusioned gay men in fear of persecution to Birobidzhan, where upon their arrival found themselves in the middle of the Gay and Lesbian Autonomous Region — which appeared to exist alongside and at times overlapped with of the Soviet Jewish Utopia there.

This is a brilliant concept that 30 seconds after entering the Station Independent Projects gallery at 138 Eldridge Street, Suite 2F had my head spinning over the connections between being gay and being Jewish. As the ultimate outsiders in Soviet society in its Stalinist phase, all the two groups sought was to live in peace and freedom in urban settings where tolerance was the norm. Even if the Jews made the best they could out of life in Birobidzhan, most certainly would have preferred to enjoy the life of “rootless cosmopolitans” as Stalin referred to them in the post-WWII purges.

Like Hitler, Stalin had an atavistic hatred of Jews and homosexuals that was part of the Great Russian backwardness that swept across the USSR in the late 1920s as the dictator was pushing for social norms having more to do with Czarism than the socialist dreams of the earlier period.

If you are based in NYC, I strongly urge you to visit the gallery since there is no substitute for seeing the works rather than images on the Internet. If you can’t do so, check out http://yevgeniyfiks.com/section/441807-Pleshka-Birobidzhan-2016.html for a sample of the work including this stunning collage that mixes what I assume to be idealized portraits of Jewish workers or farmers in Birobidzhan with a dancer I surmise to be Vaslav Nijinsky.

birobidzhan

This is not Fiks’s first engagement with Birobidzhan. Two years ago he had an exhibition titled “A Gift to Birobidzhan” that I wrote about here. An excerpt from the press release explains the concept:

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.

You can take a virtual tour of “A Gift to Birobidzhan” here.

Finally, I should refer you to Masha Gessen’s newly published “Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region”. Gessen, a lesbian, is the sister of Keith Gessen, an n+1 editor who along with Fiks was introduced to me by Thomas Campbell, an activist based in Russia close to the radical art movement.

Gessen, like Fiks and her brother, is an astute analyst of Russian society and politics as well as an emigre. This is an excerpt from the book that will once again remind you of why Stalin was one of the 20th century’s greatest criminals. Although Hitler killed far more people,  the overthrow of Soviet democracy made it all the more difficult for those of us trying to make a better world and consequently led to the deaths of millions in the Third World who could not count on true solidarity from a Kremlin far more interested in short-term deals with imperialism. If Russia has continued to live up to the ideals that Birobidzhan writer David Bergelson held dear, the world would look a lot more different today and a lot better.

The man who made Birobidzhan famous had the gift of knowing when to run. That he lived into his late sixties is testament to his outstanding survival instincts. On his sixty-eighth birthday, he was shot to death, a final victim of the century’s most productive executioner. He had been a writer who preferred to leave his stories ragged and open-ended, but his own life, which ended on what became known as the Night of the Murdered Poets, had a sinister rhyme and roundness to it.

David Bergelson was born on August 12, 1884, in the village of Okhrimovo, a Ukrainian shtetl so small there might be no record of it now if it were not for Bergelson’s association with it. Three and a half years before his birth, Czar Alexander II was assassinated by a group of young revolutionaries that counted one Jew, a woman, among them. Five persons were hanged for the crime, but it was the Jews of Russia who bore the brunt of the national rage. After some years of acquiring greater rights and freedoms, as well as hope, the Jews found the law closing in on them, herding them back into the shtetlach. Pogroms swept through the Pale, brutalizing the enlightened modern Russian-speaking Jews along with their traditional parents. Into this bleak, dangerous world came the surprise ninth child of an older couple.

The parents were rich and pious. Bergelson’s father, a grain and timber merchant, spoke no Russian; he belonged to the last generation of Jews who could achieve wealth, success, and prominence entirely within the confines of the Yiddish-speaking world. His wife was younger and of a different sphere: a cultured woman, a reader. David Bergelson’s education was an unsuccessful attempt to merge his parents’ worlds. He was tutored by a maskil—a product of the Jewish enlightenment movement—who taught him to speak and write in Russian and Hebrew, in addition to his native Yiddish, but not, as the young Bergelson found out later, well enough to enable him to be admitted to an institution of higher learning. His father died when David was a little boy, his mother when he was fourteen, and David’s wanderings commenced. Losing one’s anchors—and any sense of home—is essential for developing an instinct for knowing when it’s time to run.

The teenager left the shtetl and stayed, by turns, with older siblings in the big cities of Kyiv, Warsaw, and Odessa, subsidizing their hospitality out of his share of the family inheritance. He had a home, and a family, only so long as he could pay for them. This is another good lesson. One always has to pay to belong, and to have a roof over one’s head.

One thing Bergelson seems to have always known about himself was that he was a writer. Any young writer must find his language, but rarely is the choice as literal—and as difficult—as it was for Jews writing in the Russian Empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the cities between which Bergelson was moving, he was surrounded by Yiddish, Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, and Lithuanian speech. His command of these languages ranged from poor to limited. Then there was Hebrew, the language of his father’s prayers and a new movement’s dreams; as a teenager, Bergelson went through a period of fascination with the work of Nachman Syrkin, the founder of Labor Zionism. (Syrkin himself wrote in Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, German, and English.) Bergelson tried writing in Hebrew and failed—it may be that his command of it was insufficient for writing, or it could be that the language, in his hands, did not lend itself to the modernism he was attempting. He switched to Russian, but this expansive language failed him, too, perhaps because he wanted to write stark, sparse prose and Russian demanded flowery vagueness. He finally found his voice in his long-dead father’s living language, Yiddish.

Full: http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/59374/where-the-jews-arent-by-masha-gessen/9780805242461/

November 1, 2016

Fin del Mundo (End of the World) by Artist Robert Cenedella

Filed under: art — louisproyect @ 1:06 pm

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:

Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 10.59.32 AM

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:

Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 11.01.41 AM

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/).

Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 11.05.59 AM

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.

 

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