Friday, April 29, 2016

Isadora Duncan Goes To Washington

Idealism met reality in Washington on April 16th, when Harvard University's Center for Hellenic Studies hosted "Maenads and Muses: A Celebration of the Dances of Isadora Duncan and the Greek Ideal." It was a historic clash of civilizations--the beauty, transcendence and inspiration of imaginary Athenian festivals amidst the horse-trading, log-rolling, and lobbying activity in Our Nation's Capital in the midst of an election cycle. Director Gregory Nagy deserves kudos for organizing such a memorable "outreach" performance.

Costumed in flowing gowns inspired by Greek vases, sculptures, and bas reliefs, the Duncan Dance Project company brought to life the beauty, grace and transcendence pioneered by the heroic dancer from San Francisco; one who tragically ended her life as a Soviet citizen living in exile in Paris in a freak  automobile accident due to the type of flowing scarf used in her idiosyncratic recreations of archaic dance (a scarf given to her by movie director Preston Sturges' mother). 

The Center's terpsichorean celebration lasted all afternoon and on into the evening hours, and as befits a research institution, the program featured an academic panel, reception, and "talkback."  Thus the spectacle of dance performed in nature combined with scholarly and academic discussions of the influence of Greek ideals on aesthetics and philosophy. 

Although the festivities lasted until 9 pm; I attended only the first act in the day's offerings, from 3-5 pm: "Dances of Nature, Love and Friendship by Isadora Duncan," an afternoon gambol in which the Duncan Dance Project and local guest dancers skipped, leapt, and frolicked amidst grasses, trees, and shrubbery to recorded music by Chopin, Schubert and others in a delightful reincarnation of the art spirit. 

Seeing the dances much as Duncan must have performed them sparked interest in her legacy, leading to compulsive web-surfing of Isadora sites on YouTube and Google, screening Karel Reisz's 1968 "Isadora" starring the radical (and sometimes naked) starlet  Vanessa Redgrave, with Jason Robards and James Fox (screenplay by redoubtable BBC radio host Melvyn Bragg); then pursuing the "Delsart v Stanislavsky" debate over theatrical styles, a cursory study of which made it clear Isadora's poses owed more than a little to gestures used in silent film melodramas.

Of course, Washington being Washington, one could not escape political implications of a salute to Greek civilization by a daughter of the American frontier. Isadora was a Communist who became a Soviet citizen, marrying Sergei Yesenin in 1921 (they separated in 1923), because she held it represented the future. Her progressive bona-fides are beyond question--she believed in revolution, free love, and practised polyamory with women as well as men. Yet underlying her progressive vision was a today unfashionable commitment to Greek ideals of beauty and democracy, as well as an American "do-it-yourself" approach to natural dance that owed much to New England Transcendentalism, as is apparent in her choreography. Isadora was not a classically trained dancer, and her "barefoot" style rejected the restraints of toe-shoes or dancing on point familiar in classical ballet. Her nature-worship, combined with her liberation from restraints, may have been Dionysian...but in another way she was an American original, whose improvisatory approach and lack of technical expertise contributed further to her charms as a performer--Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley come to mind as similar phenomena closer to our day.

In this individualism, this exceptional quality, she was not only a romantic, she embodied the almost libertarian sense of self championed by writers such as Ayn Rand, who as an anti-Communist likewise developed a cult of artistic personality reminiscent of Isadora Duncan's circle of admirers and "Isadorables." There is a clear commitment to personal liberation, to an aesthetic of freedom, in both women's work. Perhaps the Athenian ideal, the Greek Hero, may equally lead to Libertarianism as Socialist Revolution...if not to Objectivism.

Naturally (if not conventionally), the legacy of Ancient Athens in America dates from the founding of the Republic, on Greek and Roman models, by founders steeped in Enlightenment ideals, who themselves attempted to perfect Classical models. The toga worn by Isadora is not so different from the toga worn by George Washington in his statue by Horatio Greenough, now on display at the Smithsonian Museum. And the Greek columns of Isadora's sets are of a piece with the columns, statues and bas reliefs found on the Capitol, White House, Memorials, Museums and government offices of Washington today. 

This perhaps is the greatest gift Isadora Duncan and the Center for Hellenic Studies had to offer a contemporary audience: a reminder that American institutions are the fruit of Classical Civilization; that ideals such as democracy, republicanism, liberty and freedom spring from a shared heritage of what  Edith Hamilton called "The Greek Way."

In reminding us of our inherited Western Civilization, Isadora Duncan stands in memory as an almost-Greek tragic heroine, who sacrificed herself for Art. And, in the tradition of New York Harbor's Statue of Liberty--likewise clad in neo-classical robes, likewise linked to France, an inspiration to the nation. In fact, Duncan paid homage to the French civilizational ideal in her dance to the "Marseillaise," which she composed and performed during the First World War. As she wrote in her autobiography, My Life:

Coming from bleeding heroic France, I was indignant at the apparent indifference of America to the war, and one night, after a performance at the Metropolitan Opera House, I folded my red shawl around me and improvised the "Marseillaise." It was a call to the boys of America to rise and protect the highest civilization of our epoch--that culture which has come to the world through France. The next morning the newspapers were enthusiastic. One of them said:

"Miss Isadora Duncan earned a remarkable ovation at the close of her program with an impassioned rendition of the "marseillaise," when the audience stood and cheered her for several minutes...Her exalted poses were imitative of the classic figures on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Her shoulders were bare, and also one side, to the waist-line, in one post, as she thrilled the spectators with the representation of the beautiful figures (of Rude) on the famous arch. The audience burst into cheers and braves as the living representation of noble art."

Professor Nagy and the Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies deserve our gratitude for a heroic effort to promote the values of Western Civilization in our National Capital, in the presentation of "Maenads and Muses: A Celebration of the Dances of Isadora Duncan and the Greek Ideal." 

Friday, April 15, 2016

Russian Lessons for the Next President

"Russia Policy for the Next Administration" panel at CGI
(l-r) Michael Purcell, Andrew Kuchins, Thomas Graham, Nikolai Zlobin

Washington, DC is getting ready for the election of a new President, and so think-tanks are jockeying for position to influence the incoming administration, whether Democrat or Republican. 

In that context, yesterday's Center on Global Interests panel at the City Club of Washington headlined "Russia Policy for the Next Administration" was indeed "of interest." 

An all-star troika of Russia-watchers opined on the past, present, and future of relations between the two nuclear superpowers, and it was a sobering discussion. Basically, the panel argued that American policy towards Russia--whether in the Ukraine, Syria, Europe, the Middle East, the Far East, or in relation to China--has failed. Relations are worse than at any time since the end of the Cold War. While Russia was helpful in negotiations with Iran on nuclear weapons, and Syria on chemical weapons, it has otherwise gone from strategic partner to strategic adversary, complicating American relations with the rest of the world. American "meddling" in Russian internal politics has turned the average Russian citizen, as well as the Russian government, anti-American. Russia is getting stronger, not weaker; sanctions are not stopping military re-armament; and Putin remains both popular and potent, despite American opposition. The next President, therefore, will need to re-think Russia policy in order to avoid establishment of a New World Order in which resurgent Russia and booming China are able to outperform the military and economic power of the United States. NATO expansion, which had been intended to reassure, pacify and economically strengthen Europe, has instead resulted in fear, war, and economic uncertainty. 

The experts who shared these gloomy conclusions spoke from personal experience in the corridors of power.  Harvard Ph.D. Thomas Graham was the National Security Council Russian guru from 2002-2007, and currently works for Kissinger Associates. His outlook was bleak, and offered little cause for optimism to listeners in the room. Russia may be only a regional power, but the regions involved are those which affect American national interests...and our attempted strategic partnership with Russia had failed.

Likewise, Johns Hopkins Ph.D. Andrew Kuchins, who ran the Carnegie Center in Moscow, had little sunshine to offer, other than suggestions that the US President stop insulting Vladimir Putin, and reduce attempts at interference in Russian domestic politics. Russia is no longer weak, is not badly run, and needs to be dealt with on its own terms, rather than on terms of American wishful-thinking, Kuchins seemed to say. Negotiations would have to be conducted on a basis of mutual respect, rather than domination. Russia was just not going to accept American hegemony over the former Soviet space.

The most interesting moments came during the Question and Answer session, when the audience of Washington insiders peppered the experts with tough problems. One retired intelligence analyst shouted that Russia would become a Sunni nation by 2050, that he had seen the demographic projections--both classified and unclassified. Russians were not having children, while Muslims were having large families. Therefore, Islam was the future of Russia, he maintained.

Both Graham and Kuchins seemed skeptical of these claims. Yet to me, this outburst helped to explain what otherwise has seemed a perplexing American policy toward Russia--one which appears to support Chechen terrorists, as well as other Muslim-Brotherhood affiliated groups in the former USSR. Some influential American experts obviously believe that "demography is destiny," and since Muslims have higher birthrates, pursuing a form of identity politics similar to American "diversity" program would lead to an increase in American influence. Thus, American indulgence towards those whom the Russians see as  bloodthirsty terrorists resulted in horrible public blowback when the US-supported Tsarnaev Brothers, a family brought to the United States by the CIA, blew up the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. 

Moderator Nikolai Zlobin, himself a historian, responded quickly to the analyst, that the former Soviet Union had a larger Muslim population than post-Soviet Russia. That fact, which some in the audience did not seem to understand, spoke volumes. Russia has been dealing with Islam for hundreds of years, it is nothing new, it is an essential element of Russian history. Islam is one of the four official national religions recognized by the Russian state (the others are Judaism, Buddhism, and Russian Orthodoxy). The attempt to use Islam against Russia had been tried by the Ottoman Empire, the Germans in World War I and World War II, and the United States in the Cold War. It has failed every time, because, in the words of the famous cliche, when you scratch a Russian, you find a Tatar. Russian ideology--whether today's nationalism or yesterday's Soviet approach--was historically concerned with what Stalin called "the nationalities issue." Russification of Sunni Muslims in the Russian Empire, Soviet Union, or "near abroad" has been a consistent pattern. The Hammer and Sickle resembled an Islamic Crescent and Orthodox Cross. That American experts continue to believe in the "weaponization" of Islam against Russia--at a time when the United States and Western Europe are subjected to increasingly violent attacks in the aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2015, struck this listener as dangerous and suicidal.

Demography is not destiny; and the trajectory of history is unknown. It may very well be that the intelligence expert is on the wrong side of history; that his demographic data will not track with ideological or national self-identification; and that Vladimir Putin has a better sense of Russia's national interest than the Islamist apologists in America's Intelligence Community--who have lost Russia, may lose Europe, and could possibly lose America if they are permitted to remain in power much longer.

Another questioner, from TANAM, a company affiliated with RUSATOM, pointed out that sanctions on Russia were hurting the American nuclear power industry, which depends on cheap, high-quality Russian nuclear fuel to run American reactors and provide cheap electricity. Panelists offered him little hope of a speedy resolution. But the point was clear: American sanctions on Russia are hurting Americans, too.

After listening to the panel presentation and audience discussion, it became clear that a Hillary Clinton Presidency could only offer more failed policies, such as the so-called "Reset," that led to the current stalemate with Russia. 

On the other hand, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders would seem to have a good chance at developing truly new approaches to Russia. Trump, as the author of "The Art of the Deal," would be in a good position to negotiate a "new Yalta" that many Russians had asked for, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Sanders, as a socialist who spent his honeymoon in Russia and youth on a communist Kibbutz in Israel, would understand the deep-seated motivations and history affecting the former Soviet space, and deal with Russians as equal partners--which is all they are asking, if the panelists are to believed.

The take-away: Big changes could be in store for Russian-American relations if Bernie or Donald are elected in November.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

A Canadian Clash of Civilizations

L-R: Louise Arbour, Simon Schama, Nigel Farage, Mark Steyn
April Fools Day 2016  was an appropriate date for the Munk Debate over: "Be it resolved, give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..." The timing was perfect, a week following co-ordinated Islamic fundamentalist terrorist attacks on Brussels' airport and metro system which killed 32 and wounded 300, for which Syrian-based ISIS claimed credit. In the event, the topic turned out not to be a "Global Refugee Crisis," rather continued admission of so-called Syrian refugees to Western nations. The relevance made for a mesmerizing debate, perhaps because the debaters have been personally involved in these sorts of issues for years. Two of the debaters were Canadian, two were British--one of each spoke on either side.

Yet despite apparent similarities among the debaters's demographics, there was at least one stark distinction between the two teams that highlighted underlying premises of two different civilizations. The Pro team came from the ranks of progressive trans-national globalists who believed in EU and UN hegemony over nation-states. The Con side were nationalists who support Brexit and the sovereignty of nations. Thus, the Munk debate over refugees may be seen as part of a larger conflict between Globalists and Nationalists-- a true Clash of Civilizations.

Canada could not have been a more appropriate location, since that nation has been home to its own Clash of Civilizations since hastily cobbled together in 1867 by the British to forestall an American invasion. In turn, Canada has struggled against Quebec secession ever since--a civilizational clash between French-speaking Catholics in one province versus English-speaking Protestants in 11 others that has resulted in a crazy-quilt political system that nearly collapsed in an orgy of violence, murder and terrorism in the October Crisis 1970, when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (father of the current Prime Minister) imposed martial law under the War Measures Act to crush the Front de liberation du Quebec (FLQ). Thus Canada's own recent battles in its Clash of Civilizations resonated strongly with contemporary terror in Paris and Brussels.

Arguing the Pro side were Louise Arbour, C.C., G.O.Q., a French-Canadian former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and President of International Crisis Group, renowned for her prosecution of sexual assault as a crime against humanity. Simon Schama, C.B.E. is currently University Professor of History and Art History at Columbia University, previously taught at Oxford and Cambridge, works as a BBC broadcaster and is author of notable books including The Embarrassment of Riches, Citizens, A History of Britain, The Power of Art, and The Story of the Jews

On the Con side were Nigel Farage, founder of UKIP and Member of the European Parliament and Mark Steyn, English-Canadian and part-Belgian Flemish author of America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It and Climate Change: The Facts, defendant in a 2007 Canadian Islamic Congress complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Commission against his article "The Future Belongs to Islam" in Maclean's Magazine, as well as an current defendant in the Mann v. Steyn defamation lawsuit for his allegations of "Hockey Stick" climate-change data fraud. 

The Francophone-Canadian argued the Globalist position in favor of Syrian refugees; the Anglophone-Canadian took a Nationalist stand against it. In the end, Steyn crushed Arbour just as Trudeau crushed the FLQ, with overwhelming moral and intellectual force, as you can see in this clip:

Although other commentators have credited Steyn and Farage's citation of European rape statistics as determinative--especially in the face of a feminist prosecutor who sent people to jail for rape as a war crime--in my opinion the decisive argument in Toronto was Mark Steyn's appeal to the Canadian experience with Quebec separatism, a Clash of Civilizations the existence of which (unlike Islamic Fundamentalism) no one in Canada denies. By extending the analogy to Northern Ireland, and to European fragmentation overall, Steyn exposed the root causes of irreconcilable cultural religious conflict that underlie the refugee debate, in a way that any Canadian could instantly comprehend. Canadians clearly do not want, "One, two, three, many Quebecs," as Ho Chi Minh used to say about the Vietnam War. One such conflict is quite enough for Canada, thank you very much. Steyn did not think it a good idea to import any more. And the audience in Toronto clearly agreed with him.

Which you can see from the polling results, in which Steyn and Farage won over 22 percent of the studio audience by their presentation (or uncharitably, where Arbour and Schama lost 22 percent of their supporters by theirs):

Debate Results


77% PRO23% CON


55% PRO45% CON
Con wins with 22% vote gain.
- See more at:

Friday, March 25, 2016

Shakespeare's Hit Parade

The Complaint of a Lover Forsaken of His Love, 1611-1656

A Poore Soule sate sighing, by a Sicamore Tree.
     O Willow, willow, willow:
His hand on his bosome, his head on his knee,
     O Willow, willow, willow,
     O Willow, willow, willow,
Sing O the greene Willow shall be my Garland.

(mp3 recording:

This old English ballad above is perhaps best known to contemporary audiences from its inclusion in Othello, Act 4, Scene 3, as sung by Desdemona:

DESDEMONA [Singing.]
The poor soul sat singing by a sycamore tree.
Sing all a green willow:
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
Sing willow, willow, willow:
The fresh streams ran by her, and murmur'd her moans;
Sing willow, willow, willow;
Her salt tears fell from her, and soften'd the stones;
Lay by these:
[Singing.] Sing willow, willow, willow;
Prithee, hie thee; he'll come anon: --
[Singing.] Sing all a green willow must be my garland.

In her Folger Shakespeare Library 400th Birthday Lecture on March 17th, 2016, "From Script to Stage to Script," Oxford Professor Tiffany Stern, author of Documents of Performance in Early Modern England,  sourced Desdemona's song to the ballad sheets from the wonderful EBBA website hosted by the University of California, Santa Barbara; a treasure trove of the type of songs most famously published by Bishop Thomas Percy in 1765 as Reliques of Ancient English Poetry.  

Professor Stern did a thorough and scholarly job of tracing origins and uses of these sorts of popular ballads in Shakespeare's plays, and argued that these sorts of songs, both in performance and in print, promoted Shakespeare while Shakespeare’s plays, on stage and in print,  in turn promoted ballads.

In her talk, Professor Stern made it clear that whether the song had been written by Shakespeare, or whether Shakespeare inserted a hit song from a ballad sheet, it was notable that Shakespearean drama had parallels to contemporary product placement and franchising in hits like Star Wars. Songs in Shakespeare's plays were in a sense the "Top 40" of the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages; theatrical performances concluded with wild dancing as the cast performed a jigg by the likes of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, Samuel Scheidt, and others Europeans. Hence, "the jig is up" for The End. 

As Professor Stern pointed out, ballad-sellers likewise hawked their wares at the theatre door, in markets, and along the highways and byways of rural England, just like local bands performing cover versions of Rock & Roll Hits. 

My guess is that while sometimes Shakespeare paid the ballad-seller for a song, there may also have been time when payola and plugola at work (though Professor Stern did not go into that) as ballad-sellers 'paid to play,'  to plug their songs on the stage of the Globe or Blackfriar's theatre, or into Hamlet or Othello or The Tempest

However, although Professor Stern is active in the British theatre, as well as a consultant to Shakespearean companies, at her Folger talk appeared to miss the ordinary quality of Shakespeare's musical relationship between song and stage, thus underestimated the extent to which songs have been integral to the stage and screen from Shakespeare's time to the present day. 

What Professor Stern described as an apparently unusual phenomenon struck this listener as merely the way playwrights and scriptwriters have been tied to popular music, whether live or on screen, from Aristophanes to Spielberg.

In her concluding remarks, Professor Stern suggested a need to further investigate whether songs began in plays, or plays utilized pre-existing songs, or something else. That may be a suitable academic project for individual cases. But rather than there being an overarching rule governing this pattern in all the theatre, my educated guess would be that in Elizabethan England, as today, inspiration could go either way: Songs could be written for a play, plays could be based upon a song, or a song and play could be composed simultaneously. 

While there are many possible approaches, I doubt there could be a firm rule, because of the nature of show business itself, where as screenwriter William Goldman famously said, "no one knows anything." The only formula is that there is no formula.

For example, the American Society of Composers and Performers (ASCAP) has an interesting website entitle: Music, Money, Success & the Movies, which states:

Whether the score is dramatic, soothing, romantic, comedic or foreboding, it is an integral part of the fabric of any motion picture.

Music in the movies is an essential element of the filmmaking process and is one of the main factors that helps to determine box office success or failure. Think of a motion picture without music - whether it's an orchestral or synthesizer score, a brand new hit song or a long time standard - and you'll begin to realize the value and contribution of music and lyrics to film. And whether you're a producer, a director, an agent, a composer, a songwriter, a studio executive, a music supervisor, a business affairs executive, or anyone involved in film, or who wants to get involved.
What ASCAP says shows that not much has changed. A song could be a "brand new hit song" or "a long time standard" or something composed just for the film--ditto for a play. Understanding the way music is used today goes a long way to explaining what Shakespeare was up to, as a showman, businessman, writer, producer, actor, and impressario. He included songs of his day because of their value and contribution of lyrics and music to the production.
As ASCAP explains:


Most successful motion pictures use hit songs to create a period flavor, establish a mood...
Most successful motion pictures use hit songs to create a period flavor, establish a mood, give an actor a chance to sing, make people laugh, make people cry, elicit emotions, and create interest in the movie through successful soundtrack albums and hit singles. A film producer who wants to use an existing song in a motion picture must secure the permission of the music publisher to use the composition in the film. Once an agreement is reached as to a fee, the producer will sign what is known as a synchronization or broad rights license, which will give the studio the right to distribute the film theatrically, sell it to television, use the song in motion picture theater trailers or television and radio promos, and sell videos. The synchronization fee received by the music publisher is shared by contract with the songwriter.
As Part One of this website concludes, the ballad-sellers of Shakespeare's day had much in common with Tin Pan Alley, the Brill Building, and ASCAP of today:
Part Two reveals what you need to know about getting your songs into movies and making the right deal. There is nothing worse than to see a film open to rave reviews with a hit soundtrack and an Oscar nomination and know that your song could have been in it... but wasn't...
Likewise, Part Two notes that music composed for a motion picture soundtrack could also be quite lucrative:
The world of the feature film background music composer is not only one of the most creatively stimulating and financially rewarding areas of music, it is also one of the most demanding in terms of musical expertise and training, conducting experience, and discipline in the meeting of rigorous timetables and deadlines...Having a song in a motion picture or composing a score to a film can open up an unlimited number of opportunities and prove to be a lifetime annuity for writers and music publishers.
Bottom Line: Shakespeare's ballad-sellers would probably have been quite familiar with ASCAP's world-view. To understand the relationship between song and stage in Shakespearean  Theatre, it might be a good idea to start with a description of the relationship between composers and producers today, which may not be as different or as hard to understand as one might fear. Shakespeare used music then the way Hollywood uses music now:

For as Lorenzo concludes in The Merchant of Venice (Act IV, Scene 1):

Since naught so stockish, hard, and full of rage
But music for the time doth change his nature.
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

America's Museum of the Politically Incorrect...

Viktor Pivovarov
(Russian, born 1937)
Plan for the Everyday Objects of a Lonely Man, 1975
Enamel on fiberboard
67¼ x 51¼ in (171 x 130 cm) x 4
Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers
Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union

Across the street from the world headquarters of Johnson and Johnson in New Brunswick, New Jersey sits the Zimmerli Museum of Rutgers University, home to the largest and perhaps best collection of "Forbidden Art" in the world, and certainly in the United States: The Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union, assembled by Norton Townshend Dodge, a millionaire (his father was one of Warren Buffet's original investors) Maryland economics professor who spent the 1950s and 1960s buying art in Russia during economic research trips. 

The collection, originally housed on an 800-acre farm in rural Maryland, is comparable only to that of the Savitsky Museum in Nukus, Karakalpakstan, known to the French as 'Le Louvre des steppes,' and to Americans as subject of Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev's documentary film: The Desert of Forbidden Art, (as well as a recent controversy involving its director, Maranika Babanazarova, and the government of Uzbekistan).

Thanks to the Dodge Collection, one does not need to caravan  thousands of leagues to the fabled Khorezm Khanate in the oasis between Kyzyl Kum and Kara Kum deserts, in order to see Art that Stalin denounced, and that the Communist Party banned. 

One need only drive to New Jersey.

There are some 20,000 works by a thousand artists from the former Soviet Union given by the Dodges to the Zimmerli museum in 1991, forming a collection originally curated by Professor Alla Rosenfeld, author of Moscow Conceptualism in Context and From Gulag to Glasnost: Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union.

Dodge's life and work are also subject of a 1994 nonfiction book by novelist John McPhee, The Ransom of Russian Art.   There is even a documentary film about the collection, on YouTube, The Russian Concept: Reflections on Russian Non-Conformist Art.

In 2012, the Zimmerli renovated what was now known as its Dodge Wing, highlighting 126 artworks by Grisha Bruskin, Eric Bulatov, Ilya Kabakov, Vitaly Komar, Alexander Melamid, Irina Nakhova, and Oleg Vassiliev, well-known in the New York and International Art World. Others, such as Victor Pivovarov, Boris Shesnikov, and a currently featured artist Vagrich Bakhchanyan may be better understood by Russian (and former Soviet) art mavens who visited the retrospective entitled "Accidental Absurdity" that closed on March 6th.

Sadly, Bakhchanyan committed suicide in 2009.  Although he had been an eminent illustrator in Russia, drawing for the "12 Chairs" section of Literaturnaya Gazeta, as well as making his own avant-garde works "off the books," his American art career never fully flowered, perhaps because anti-Soviet art was as politically incorrect in New York as in Soviet Moscow. There is a moving documentary about him on YouTube, entitled Vagrich and the Black Square, that speaks to his doubly marginalized fate. 

Bakhchanyan's audience in America therefore tended to be among Russian emigres who understood, in the words of Zimmerli associate curator Julia Tulovsky, "Bakhchanyan was an artist who recontextualized the absurdity of everyday life in the USSR to evoke a larger truth about humanity with profound clarity and wit... This is especially true of the slogans he created by subverting official propaganda." 

For example, he turned "We are here to turn life into a fairytale," into, "We are here to turn life into Kafka."  According to Tulovsky, the joke "remains an established colloquialism in former Soviet communities to reference the past (the words fairytale and Kafka sound very similar in Russian). 

The Kafka-esque nature of the Communist system is nowhere more dramatically portrayed than in Boris Sheshnikov's room-size installation, based upon paintings, drawings and prison notebooks depicting his imprisonment in a Siberian prison camp called Vetlosian from 1946-1954. Although he claimed his art to be apolitical, there can be no doubt that the mere documentation of camp life makes Kafka much more striking than just something to be read in a college literature class.

Which brings us to what Tulovsky told me is the masterwork of the collection, Victor Pivovarov's 1974 "Plan for the everyday objects of a lonely man," seen at the top of this blog post. In it, the artist, a children's book illustrator by profession, depicts the limits of the world in which he has autonomy--his apartment, desk, chair, apple, glass of tea, window, weather, and the time he has to enjoy them. Little things, but important things, which any individual deeply appreciates as escapes from the Kafka-esque environment which otherwise surrounds him.  

The sad beauty of that universe says all that needs to be said about the power and limits of Political Correctness. In providing a home to The Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union, the Zimmerli Museum of Rutgers University has done great service to the arts, to freedom, to the Russian soul, and to America.

It's worth a detour to New Brunswick, New Jersey, to see it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Rise of Trump & Sanders Signals Rise of American Independents

In a blog post titled The Math and the Map, Mark Steyn analyzed Presidential election results from George Bush the First to the present, to conclude that Democrats have may an advantage over Republicans for the foreseeable future due to demographic trends. He blamed Karl Rove's "Red State/Blue State" strategy:

The red state/blue state division has been horribly unhealthy in a civic sense: It's given us the worst of all worlds - a hyperpartisan public discourse that provides a tedious and pointless vaudevillian cover for the cozy bipartisan Washington conspiracy that's screwing over your future 24/7 regardless of who's in office. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia, Rethuglicans are always at war with Demo-rats, and hey, let's toss another trillion into the great sucking maw of the federal leviathan.

Steyn's analysis of the electoral map discusses America's low voter turnout, but in hewing to a demographic determinist worldview fails to analyze what seems a far more significant development--the rise of Independents at the largest voting bloc in the USA, significantly outnumbering either registered Democrats or Republicans. 

Interestingly, according to the Gallup Poll, 42 percent of Americans now identify as Independent, versus 29 percent Democrat and 26 percent Republican.  

Eight years ago, in 2007, 39 percent of Americans identified as Democrats, and 28 percent Republican. Which means the GOP has lost 10 percent of their electoral market share while Democrats saw 25 percent of their party voters disappear during the same period. 

Which is to say, both parties have been shrinking--but the Democrats have been shrinking more than twice as fast. The rate of change is as significant as the raw numbers involved. And these statistics make one question a purely demographic approach to elections. If Gallup trends are correct, something other than demography is at work.

My guess is that Americans are "voting with their feet" and exiting the two established political parties in disgust. This anti-establishment sentiment is reflected in the rise of Donald Trump in the GOP and Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party.

It does not hurt either candidate that they were not Party loyalists. Because Americans are voting against both parties. An analysis of the Gallup numbers suggests there is room for new parties among the American electorate at this time. However, it may be the federal regulatory and financing regime established by statute and custom (especially after Ralph Nader cost Al Gore the Presidency in 2000) makes it too difficult for third and fourth parties to compete--until the Supreme Court declares such thumb-on-the-scale incumbency protection unconstitutional, as a violation of the First Amendment.

Which is why both parties are facing insurgencies. Unable to challenge the GOP and Democratic parties externally, the now vocal majority has been forced to do so internally, which explains the bitterness and intensity of the 2016 Election.

In conclusion: the rise of Trump and Sanders signals the rise of American Independents.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

I Have Seen The Hail, Caesar!

Hail, Caesar! is funny for old movie buffs. It pays homage to Hollywood Westerns, Musicals, Drawing Room Melodramas, Film Noir, and Bible Epics, among other genres. It has an All-Star cast, plus nice singing, dancing, and rope tricks. You could play Trivial Pursuit for hours with cinematic references both missed and noticed.

However, in addition to being superb entertainment, the film is  filled with astute political analysis, for the major plot device, upon which the entire story of Hail, Caesar! hinges, is the infiltration of 1950s Hollywood by Communists at every level--from movie extras to screenwriters to stars.

In this film, they work as a criminal gang which calls itself "The Future." Which makes Hail, Caesar! a meditation on the past--a form of Ancient History, with the studios as our American equivalent of Roman Ruins: The Glory that was MGM! The Grandeur that was Paramount!

The type of Biblical Epic in which George Clooney stars in Hail, Caesar! has become so politically incorrect these days that it is now the province of fringe production companies or Mel Gibson. Yet in the 1950s, "the Story of the Christ" was bread-and-butter to Hollywood studios.

In Hail, Caesar! the pivotal Communist cell--named as such by narrator Michael Gambon (Harry Potter's Dumbledore)-- is composed of screenwriters who kidnap and brainwash Hollywood star Baird Whitlock (Clooney) in a Malibu beach house. They subsequently attempt to turn over the ransom money along with a defecting Musical Comedy star to a waiting Soviet submarine, so that it might be used by Moscow to spread revolution--because, they say, merely putting Communist messages in Hollywood films is no longer enough.

In a telling scene, the Hollywood cell is joined by a Professor Marcuse (John Bluthal, Professor Pacoli in The Fifth Element), smoking a pipe and speaking with a German accent, just as the real-life communist professor, who served as intellectual father to the New Left during the 1960s, did. Marcuse's critique of "false consciousness" is alluded to in Bluthals dialectical explanation of history and economics to the kidnapped Clooney.  In his real-world essay "Repressive Tolerance," Marcuse also called for censorship of politically incorrect perspectives:

They would include the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movements which promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, or which oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc.

A leading light of the Frankfurt School, as Wikipedia tells us, Marcuse had been an OSS agent during World War II, CIA analyst after that, and eventually chief of the US State Department's Central European section until 1951, when he went into academia and gave birth to the theories calling for revolutionary alliances between students, intellectuals and oppressed classes other than workers (such as Blacks, Hispanics, Women and Homosexuals), since the working class had become unreliable due to material prosperity. He was an influence on Angela Davis, Abbie Hoffman, and others, as well as a friend of scholars like Barrington Moore and Noam Chomsky (who criticized his work).

While presented as satire, the Hollywood cell in Hail, Caesar offers a convincing portrayal of the type of thinking prevalent among Hollywood Communists, including stultifying "study group" meetings, endless discussions of economics and class struggle, and the reading of Soviet Life magazine in luxurious beach houses. The Soviet submarine is undoubtedly a cinematic reference to the 1966 comedy, The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming. The naive faith of the screenwriter-kidnappers in Communism, as portrayed by the Coen Brothers, is one of the finest depictions of the mechanics of the Red Menace in the history of American Motion Pictures.

The Coen brothers are telling us with their nostalgic pastiche of 1950s movies, that the Golden Age of the studio moguls has ended forever--and that, unfortunately, Hollywood is no longer able to continue what Parker Tyler called the "Magic and Myth of the Movies" because that studio system is dead.

Which means that Hail, Caesar is a very funny movie with a very serious message--because "The Future" has arrived, and every one of the genre pictures shown in the film could no longer be made today due to withdrawal of toleration advocated by Profesor Marcuse, as enforced by his Hollywood disciples today.

So, go out and see Hail, Caesar! before the protests begin...