The charming, sly, and irrepressible movie sorcerer Orson Welles cast his last spell with the little seen and arguably less understood F for Fake (1973). It’s one of those strange and enchanting movies that still feel ahead of their time — a fiendishly clever pseudo-documentary that is like the hall-of-mirrors sequence in Lady from Shanghai extended to 90 minutes. Ostensibly the movie is about an art forger, Elmyr de Hory (seen in the film signing a painting “Orson Welles”), and his biographer, Clifford Irving, who turns out be a fraud himself. Down the rabbit hole we go, meeting Howard Hughes and Pablo Picasso along the way.
Towards the end of the film there’s a (seemingly — since nothing is quite as it seems in this movie) heartfelt paean to Chartres cathedral as the premiere human achievement (made, Welles notes, by anonymous craftsmen not celebrity artists) that is worth the price of admission alone. Welles’ lyrical language in this passage owes something I think to John Ruskin’s The Nature of Gothic.
The discourse of craftsmanship deals heavily in questions of authenticity versus artificiality, honesty versus deception, natural versus synthetic. F for Fake is Welles’ own meditation (if that’s the right word for a movie so dizzying and rapid-fire) on Picasso’s old adage that art is a “lie to tell the truth.” As his own star dimmed, Welles showed young upstarts like Jean Luc Godard how the cinematic essay should be done — intoxicating, intelligent, breezy, adventurous and fun.
Mr. Turner is a handsome film with a complex and charismatic performance by Timothy Spall as the irascible British Romantic painter, JMW Turner. Not since Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire has an actor used inarticulate grunts and mumbles so effectively and expressively. While the portrayal of Turner is sympathetic without being sycophantic, the quality of the film is marred, in my view, by a bizarre characterization of art and social critic, John Ruskin (played by Joshua McGuire, who is certainly having fun), as a lisping, foppish nitwit. An otherwise powerful and affecting film does itself a disservice by treating one of the towering intellects of the nineteenth century—not to mention Turner’s most articulate and ardent admirer—with such contempt. There is no doubt that Ruskin could be a strange and pathetic figure, but to portray him as a simpering nincompoop is just historically wrong. (To give just one clue to Ruskin’s influence, George Bernard Shaw once said that Ruskin’s Unto This Last converted more of the English working class to socialism than Karl Marx.) In trying to contrast Turner’s earthy potency to Ruskin’s critical grandstanding, the filmmakers have to overlook the fact that Ruskin (in addition to being one of the Victorian era’s great prose stylists) was a brilliant draftsman and watercolorist in his own right.
I sat down to pen a lengthy defense of Ruskin in light of this character assassination but discovered to my relief that a writer over at The Guardian had already done the work:
On behalf of John Ruskin, I would like to sue Mike Leigh for defamation of character. In Mr Turner, Leigh’s astonishing and sweepingly beautiful new film, the painter’s greatest champion has been traduced. Ruskin, played by Joshua McGuire, is a simpering Blackadderish caricature of an art intellectual: a lisping, red-headed, salon fop.
I almost felt physically sick when I saw him onscreen…This posthumous portrait is unconscionable.
Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si, has generated a massive amount of press coverage, commentary and controversy. I really appreciate a Pope who short-circuits the easy and predigested categories of “red” and “blue” politics: he is too liberal for conservatives and too conservative for liberals (meaning, I guess, that he’s an orthodox Catholic). This has caused mass confusion bordering on hysteria among the culture warriors bent on “us vs. them” logic. “Laudato Si” is a plea for a rapid and holistic response to the environmental crisis, and the terms in which Pope Francis couches his argument are familiar to anyone interested in the Arts and Crafts movement. “The post-industrial period may well be remembered as the most irresponsible in history,” Pope Francis writes, decrying the evil effects of economic industrialization on the poor and the environment. There is a suspicion of so-called “progress” and the way technology “tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic” and sacrifices the economically and ecologically vulnerable along the way. There is an aesthetic as well as moral and spiritual dimension to the Pope’s plea for urgent action: ““The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish.”
For William Morris, the beauty of the natural world was the source and summit of artistic expression. His socialism was in no small measure a response to how capitalism degraded and exploited the environment for profit. An active member of early environmental and conservation organizations, Morris understood that a vital aspect of restoring joy and dignity to labor would be reintegrating workers with their environment. Labor should belong to the natural cycle of things, not to a system of exploitation and destruction for profit or gain. No one, he wrote, should be “allowed to cut down, for mere profit, trees whose loss would spoil a landscape: neither on any pretext should people be allowed to darken the daylight with smoke, to befoul rivers, or to degrade any spot of earth with squalid litter and brutal wasteful disorder.” Morris would have approved, I think, of Pope Francis’ simple assertion that “everything is connected,” and the implications that follow for how to “care for our common home.”
A Guardian article/interview with Chicago-based artist, Theaster Gates, makes it clear that the “poster boy for socially engaged art” has a lot in common with William Morris. It’s unsurprising that Morris’s commitment to art as anti-capitalist activism would resonate with contemporary artists. His interest in the relationship between craft, labor, and the environment still seems ahead of its time, not to mention his trenchant criticisms of a capitalist system in which art is reduced to an exchangeable commodity, sold to the highest (richest) bidder, such as the recent sale of a Picasso for a mind-boggling $179 million.
Asked if he were a superhero Gates says he would be the Unknown Craftsman: “You know! Mask and cape, making anonymous interventions, changing the city forever.” Sounds like a man after Morris’s heart. Gates, son of a roofer, adheres to a “philosophy of pride in things done well, made well,” which he calls part of his “strategy of hope” for urban renewal and repurposing houses in low-income neighborhoods. His first show at White Cube was called My Labor is My Protest, an apt expression for Morris’s insistence that joyful labor would help combat social ills. Like Morris, Gates is interested in workshop practice and communal production, investing in wood and metal shops. When asked directly if William Morris influences his work, he answered:
“I think, as William Morris realised, as new power structures emerged, some things were being lost for ever. I am into that. I’d rather have a communal cinematheque than Netflix, so I’ll make one. The people I work with, they love each other now. They are like family. All of the scales are exciting for me, from wanting to make a pot to getting 60 people to make something well. It’s the same feeling. We believe in the things we make.”
The fact that Gates, one of the most exciting contemporary artists working today, shares many of the same values as William Morris (and is confronting many of the same entrenched social problems) proves the ongoing relevance of Morris’s thought. I think Morris would consider Gates one of history’s “pilgrims of hope,” using labor as a form of protest and work as a form of communal uplift and renewal.
With all the Left Front hullabaloo dying down, I’m finally able to catch up on some overdue reading from the last couple of months. That includes reviews of shows I desperately wish I’d had the time and travel funds to see this past year. Particularly Anarchy and Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy, 1860-1960, a National Portrait Gallery exhibition curated by Morris biographer Fiona MacCarthy that closed earlier this year. The exhibition received predictably mixed reviews. I say “predictably” only because Morris remains a controversial and divisive figure — someone whose promethean energy (which found channels in poetry, design, publishing, and socialist politics) is impossible to adequately capture in a single exhibition.
The review begins promisingly enough by protesting that the exhibition reduced Morris to liberal pieties (fair enough: turning firebrands like William Blake and Morris into homegrown heroes evinces the culture industry’s endless ingenuity at de-fanging radical criticism). But it turns out that Jones is impatient with the exhibition’s “nostalgic assumption that [Morris] must be cherished as a hero of the left,” an assumption that “invites the obvious – yet here never contemplated – response that his social vision failed.”
This is a bizarre argument. Morris remains a hero to the left precisely because (not only his) social vision failed (a vision that included environmental conservation, joyful labor, and beauty-infused everyday life) and global capitalism continues to dominate the world economy. Morris vehemently protested the environmental degradation, worker exploitation, and violent imperialism attendant to the “rise of the consumer society”; that is exactly why his social message is as vital and necessary today as in his own time. And in a sentence as condescending as it is ill-informed, Jones writes that Morris “never seems to have understood that his bids to set up alternative, small-scale workshops making things that were unquestionably luxuries would not threaten capitalism at all, but give ideas to entrepreneurs.” Morris never pretended his company threatened capitalism, and it was a source of acute anger that he spent his career (in his own words) “Ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich.”
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In a weird bit of non-logic, Jones objects to the way the exhibition so takes for granted “that Morris is an inspiring hero that it forgets to set out a coherent case for his creative achievement.” Well, isn’t making Morris the subject of an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery already a (not particularly tacit) case for creative achievement? And asking whether Morris was a great designer (as Jones says he wishes the exhibition had done) would be like asking whether Matisse was a great painter … in an exhibition about Matisse. What’s the point? And Jones seems to have forgotten his skepticism regarding Morris’s designs by the end of the review when he claims that Morris’s “creative brilliance” “helped to build modernism.” But Jones doesn’t even try to make his own case that “Morris was a true revolutionary, but his vision led not so much to the Red Flag as to Matisse’s Red Studio,” since there is simply no case to make. For an informed discussion of the link between Morris and modernism, see Nikolaus Pevsner’s Pioneers of Modern Design: From William Morris to Walter Gropius. When a review is as both negative and nonsensical as Jones’s, it has the opposite effect of making me even more eager to see the exhibition. Unfortunately I’ll have to settle for the exhibition catalog.
I’ve been posting individual reviews of The Left Front as they’ve come to my attention, but now that the exhibition has closed at the Grey Gallery, I thought it would be useful to have them all (at least the ones that I know of) collated in one place. One of the great pleasures of curating the exhibition has been the thoughtful, intelligent responses it inspired.
New York Observer: “Seeing Red: NYU’s Grey Gallery Revisits America’s Socialist Moment in Full” by David Ebony (2/2/15). “Today, as union members make up less than 10 percent of the U.S. workforce, and economic disparity gets more extreme by the day, it might be the time for artists and the intelligentsia to take another look at America’s “socialist moment” that is so thoughtfully and skillfully illuminated in this show.”
Artforum.com: “Critic’s Pick” by Jason Farago: A “large and important exhibition.”
Hyperallergic.com: “Picturing a Communist Revolution in the U.S.” by Becca Rothfeld (2/16/15): “Different artists disagree as to how communist convictions are best or most effectively visualized, and the best part of The Left Front is the methodological tension that underwrites the varied approaches on display.”
Artefuse.com: “The Left Front at the Grey Gallery,” by Daniel Gauss (2/12/15): “…the predominant approach in this show is to document the social wrongs of the time, and there’s something really amazingly exciting and fun, even 70 years down the line, about seeing artists just laying the naked truth of the corruption, exploitation and abuses of their society out there for anyone to see.”
The Indypendent: “The Red Decade: Art with a Gritty Heart” by Gerald Meyer (3/10/15). “This show powerfully contradicts the canard that the Communist Party imposed social realism as the sole aesthetic style on artists.”
Cartoonbrew.com:“The Left Front” by Stephen Persing (2/20/14): “Co-curators (and Northwestern doctoral candidates) John Murphy and Jill Bugajski have done a fine job of scholarship and, I hope, started the ball rolling for future studies of the period.”
Thomas Seely of Art Uncovered was kind of enough to host me and Jill Bugajski on his podcast to discuss The Left Front. Thomas asked interesting, relevant questions and it was a pleasure to discuss with him some of the exhibition’s central themes and ideas. One of the most abiding pleasures of working on The Left Front was giving interviews and gallery talks with my co-curator, Jill, whose intellectual curiosity and articulate enthusiasm never ceased to inspire and educate me. At this point we’ve done television, print and podcast interviews, and I’ve appreciated every opportunity to promote an exhibition I feel really passionate about, and get the word out about artists I consider wrongly neglected or overlooked. (I’m also pleased that people keep bringing up Henry Simon’s Industrial Frankenstein, since it’s one of my personal favorites from the show, but one that had a precarious life on the checklist until we finally installed.) Check out The Left Front interview and other Art Uncovered podcasts here.
Another very thoughtful take on The Left Front courtesy of David Ebony, writing for the New York Observer. I’m really gratified that Mr. Ebony grasped an important (though not overt) motivation for curating the show in the first place: using the 1930s as a lens through which to consider the relationship between art and politics today:
In the context of today’s relentlessly market-driven art world, with its emphasis on individualistic expression, and success gauged in terms of auction results, the concept of “culture workers” seems a bit like a fantasy that took place in a remote time and place.
This is a crucial point to make about the activist art of the 1930s. I’ve been asked by visitors and journalists whether I think The Left Front is a “dark” or “pessimistic” exhibition. It certainly features art with bleak subject matter: breadlines, police brutality, exploited workers, and the twin evils of industrialized capitalism and fascism. Yet there is a less obvious optimism in the artworks: namely, the profound and deep-seated optimism about the power of art itself. The power of art to change hearts and minds, and the power of artists as “culture workers” linking arms with the organized working class. As Ebony writes:
In one sense, “The Left Front: Radical Art in the ‘Red Decade,’ ” is a study of idealism, an examination of a less cynical time, when artists believed that they could actually change the world, or at least contribute to progressive causes in meaningful ways. Theirs was a grass-roots effort, in which artists bravely ran against the grain of the status quo. Whether or not they were successful is practically irrelevant, as their noble aims remain poignant and prescient.
Today, as union members make up less than 10 percent of the U.S. workforce, and economic disparity gets more extreme by the day, it might be the time for artists and the intelligentsia to take another look at America’s “socialist moment” that is so thoughtfully and skillfully illuminated in this show.
Roslyn Bernstein of Guernica (the masthead: “a magazine of art & politics”) has offered a thoughtful and ruminative take on The Left Front. She was kind enough to spend time with me and my co-curator, Jill Bugajski, in the Grey Gallery, asking us questions as we gave her an unofficial tour of the exhibition. The interview happened soon after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, so the resonance of recent events with The Left Front (which features a strong dose of controversial political and social satire) was on our minds. As the first paragraph suggests, the exhibition also had a personal resonance for Roslyn:
My association with the left goes back to my high school years in Long Beach, NY. It was there, in a friend’s basement, that I first read issues of the Communist Party newspaper, The Daily Worker. Several of my friends’ parents had been thrown out of the New York City school system during the McCarthy years and they had gone into hiding in this small beach town, 45 minutes outside the city. Occasionally, I saw flyers and posters in the basement, too, demanding better working conditions and higher wages for the proletariat; they were left over from rallies in Union Square and from secret meetings in Greenwich Village.
I’ve been a longtime reader and fan of J. Hoberman’s movie reviews for Village Voice, so it’s very gratifying to see his thoughtful take on “The Left Front” for Tablet magazine. He’s correct to note that “many, if not most, of the artists in “The Left Front” are Jewish immigrants or their children. In an essay “On the ‘Jewishness’ of American Jewish Radical Artists,” included in the handsomely designed free broadsheet available at the show, historian Ezra Mendelsohn suggests that the most “Jewish” thing about these artists was “their commitment to universalism”—whether a revolt against parochial tradition or a prophetic vision of a new world.” This is a good point (by Hoberman via Mendelsohn), but would only add that this “commitment to universalism” and “prophetic vision of a new world” dovetailed with the artists’ utopian investments in Communism. “The Left Front” became (for me) an interesting case study in curatorial emphasis; the same artists who appear in the exhibition (Topchevsky, Todros Geller, Louis Lozowick, etc.) could appear in a show about Jewish artists, immigrant artists, or artists employed by the Works Progress Administration. One of the main goals of “The Left Front” was to reclaim a political identity for artists either neglected by art history generally, or else slotted neatly into Cold War narratives of American Abstract Expressionism triumphing over stodgy social realism. So I especially enjoyed Hoberman’s cheeky headline, “Occupy Wall Street! The Jewish CP-Friendly 1930s Version.”