Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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:

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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

Hockney

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

obama

See full series here

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