Tools for Redress: A Century of Political Art Between “Zero Tolerance” and “The Left Front”

In the fall of 1929, the same month as the collapse of the American stock market, editors from the leftist magazine New Masses met in New York City to form a federation of artists, writers, and intellectuals. Initially unaffiliated with any political party, the magazine and its newly established federation, the John Reeds Club, aligned themselves with the American Communist Party barely a year later. The JRC expanded outside of New York and immediately began exhibiting the works of its artists, drafting in 1932 a manifesto in which they called upon “all honest writers and artists to abandon decisively the treacherous illusion that art can exist for art’s sake, or that the artist can remain remote from the historic conflicts.” Today, a selection of this art can be found at The Left Front: Radical Art in the Red Decade, 1929-1940, an exhibition at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery named after the JRC’s own publication.

Despite the movement’s self-portrayal as a literal avant-garde against – among other things – painting that “loses itself in abstractions or trivialities,” its nine-hundred artists embodied a multitude of visions as to how the new-world order might come about. For instance, Mabel Dwight’s Danse Macabre (1934) is a realistic satire – a sort of lithographic political cartoon in which marionettes of Uncle Sam and John Bull hang, worrying, to the sides of a samurai armor-clad Hitler, his neo-Classical heroes and goons. Death in a gas mask is the only spectator of these political theatrics. Other artists revert to social mysticism, portraying a sort of mechanized apocalypse that might eventually allow for the world’s rebuilding. In Rockwell Kent’s Solar Fade-Out (1937), supposed remnants of a distant city stand in supplication, holding one other beneath a sun that’s revealed in its full glory just before or after a passing eclipse. Many members of the JRC and the subsequent American Artists’ Congress disagreed with what they felt to be an emphasis on negativity.

For others still, the idealistic influence of the Soviet Constructivists is apparent. A charcoal drawing of Henry Simon’s set design for the Chicago Worker’s Theater depicts the sort of iron-wrought set commonly constructed by Vsevolod Meyerhold for his Bolshevik theater; or, in the case of Sergei Tretyakov’s 1924 play Gas Masks, the staging of a four-night theatrical performance in the Moscow Gas Works factory. Simon’s lone figure stands boldly before and halfway-above Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International: an iron, glass, and steel structure taller than the Eiffel Tower.

Like many of the ideals of the Soviet Union, the construction of Tatlin’s tower was never achieved. In 1939, the country, only seventeen-years old, signed a non-aggression treaty with Nazi Germany, which also contained secret outlines of the division of a conquered Europe between the two superpowers. This compromise on ideals had repercussions in the American continent, particularly among the former JRC members, who had listed the fight against fascism as one of their six tenants. Members of the AAC began to disaffiliate. The Partisan Review, a magazine founded by the JRC, also distanced itself from its former Communist sympathies with a 1937 re-launch, and in 1939 it published Clement Greenberg’s Avant-Garde and Kitsch. Greenberg continued to write for The Partisan Review and elsewhere until the 1950s, when he and his followers had revitalized – under the name of “formalism” – what the JRC had once condemned as the bourgeois aesthetics of abstraction. By the midcentury, The Partisan Review’s editorial body was staunchly anti-Communist and supportive of American interventionism.

Following World War II and the occupation of France, the portion of veterans who might have once attended a specialized art school instead went to university on their G.I. Bill benefits. The result was a relocation of the art epicenter from Paris to New York City and an influx of educated artists who carried with them a deep suspicion of the idealism of the pre-war movements. In her comprehensive book Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, Claire Bishop characterizes this change as “a celebration of the everyday worker … replaced by a re-evaluation of everyday objects and experiences as a point of opposition to cultural hierarchy.” Today, MoMA PS1’s exhibition Zero Tolerance contains contemporary works in this political tradition; works that, for the most part, have eluded any attempts at an idealized representation, but nonetheless subscribe to the Left-Front belief that art can be a tool for mobilizing the masses against oppression.

In one gallery is a photograph of Joseph Beuys from 1968. (The influence of his dictum, Everyone is an Artist, hangs heavily at the MoMA PS1.) Beuys, then an art teacher at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, is escorted out of the school following the deliberate over-enrollment of his classes. The title of the work is scrawled across the photograph, and Beuys wears a grin that renders his face skeletal beneath his German brow as he walks through an eerily fascistic crowd of leather-clad officers.

“Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system,” Beuys said in a famous lecture. “To dismantle in order to build a social organism as a work of art.” The hurdle that many of the works of Zero Tolerance face is in the attempt to mobilize the viewer while avoiding the portrayal of a vision or ideal to aspire toward. This paradox is resolved in various ways.

Rirkrit Tiravanija’s series Demonstration Drawings (in which he commissioned Thai artists, many of them former students, to create a series of photorealistic pencil drawings “depicting responses to power, oppression, and global capital”) fills an entire room with sketches of gatherings from around the world: pro-democratic demonstrations in Thailand, grieving families holding photos of desaparecidos, trade union marches, protests against Don Imus, and on and on. The inherent ephemerality of the Happenings is archived here, and while altogether the drawings do not present a unified vision, they do suggest a larger turmoil. In describing change accomplished through protests in their book Multitude, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri compare the process to a swarm: “If one looks inside a network … one can see that it is indeed organized, rational, and creative. It has swarm intelligence … [However,] the members of the multitude do not have to become the same or renounce their creativity.” The sense of Demonstration Drawings is of this very swarm at work. One experiences a sort of zooming out, a revealing of the macrocosm of political unrest.

In fact, many of the works at Zero Tolerance seem to fit this model: the universality of artistic creation has resulted in a swarm of artistic Happenings that do not represent an idealized world, but are archived or monumentalized in the MoMA’s galleries in order to inspire other subversion actions and further the swarm. There is a video of Pussy Riot’s guerrilla concert at an Orthodox church, which resulted in the band members’ imprisonment. Chinese artists Zhao Zhao and Song Dong both photographed little acts of subversion (gluing a stone and freezing one’s breath on Tiananmen Square, respectively) that nonetheless affected fleeting change to the space of conflict.

Others reveal their romantic roots by aestheticizing events. Artur Żmijewski  Democracies presents actual footage of public demonstrations across a row of monitors, intermittently cutting between violent clashes and peaceful gatherings. The clamor of the many videos is deafening. The clips themselves are short, often shot on handheld cameras, like the kind of voyeuristic videograms found online. Igor Grubi  East Side Story is composed of two videos, each played on separate conjoined walls, which document an event and an artistic re-enactment of it. The title, of course, is a reference to the play West Side Story, a tale of love among immense violence. To the left, neo-Nazis in both Belgrade and Zagreb protest two separate gay-pride parades. “Kill, kill the faggots,” they chant. Both events quickly turn violent, but the videographer does not run, and cuts only intermittently. To the right, four dancers re-enact the Zagreb protest in the very square where it occurred, several years later. They torque mid-movement, fall to the ground, and passerby smile or laugh, apparently not thinking of the violence that took place only feet from them.

Both The Left Front and Zero Tolerance contain works that subscribe to an aesthetics of participation rather than formal or painterly attributes. Where the movements differ, though, and what the two concurrent shows make apparent, is the movement away from a desire to represent an idealized space, and rather a desire to record artistic actions in a space of conflict. The JRC could rest assured that for many, art remains a tool for redress. Whether we’re healing from the trauma of abandoned idealism or simply struggling to remember the travesties of today, the work seems to want for us, desperately and for our own sake, both.



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