Tuesday, July 25, 2017

''If that's art, I'm a Hottentot''

Robert Boyd

Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Circus Girl Resting, 1925, Oil on canvas, 38 ⅖ x 28 ½ in.

The title of this blog post is a quote that President Harry S. Truman made in 1946 on seeing the painting Circus Girl Resting by Yasuo Kuniyoshi, reproduced above. It was part of an exhibit of art purchased by the State Department. The exhibit was called "Advancing American Art," and its 117 pieces showed some of the modernist trends in American visual art. It had been assembled partly as a propaganda exhibit, to demonstrate to viewers overseas that the USA wasn't just a bunch of uncultured rubes with A-bombs and Hollywood. The show had traveled to Eastern Europe and Cuba before the reactionary Hearst newspapers and Look magazine attacked it. Look ran a headline "Your Money Bought These Paintings"with a selection of photos of some of the most inflammatory examples.

This episode was a key moment in the history of American art. The State Department was forced to sell its collection, but the mission of showing our allies (especially in Western Europe) that the USA was a free nation that tolerated and even encouraged avant garde art was still considered important; the baton was taken up by the CIA, which with the collaboration of the Museum of Modern Art began to secretly sponsor exhibitions of advanced American art in Europe and Latin America.

There is so much to unpack in this little story--the life and career of Yasuo Kuniyoshi is fascinating, and the history of the CIA and Abstract Expressionism has become a kind of conspiracy theory all its own. But for the purpose of this post, I want to reflect on Harry Truman's statement. It's exciting and flattering to artists if our leaders have sophisticated tastes, like Kennedy and Obama apparently did (or at least they successfully faked it). But most presidents, prime ministers and premiers don't. Being an art lover is hardly a prerequisite for a politician. In the USA, that's usually not an issue--for the most part, politicians have no say and no interest over what art gets produced. Occasionally an issue bubbles up and politicians try to make hay over "obscene" art. See Rudy Giuliani, for example.

But in countries where the government is the primary market for art and has a strong ideological motive for controlling art, that's not the case. The example of the Soviet Union is instructive.

Under Stalin, socialist realism became the official state-approved style in 1934. Artists who resisted this risked imprisonment or death. Stalin died in 1953, instituting a period called "the thaw." In various arts, it became acceptable to do things that had previously never been allowed. The Soviet Union's post-Stalin leader, Nikita Khrushchev, emptied the gulags of political prisoners and removed the terror that kept artists in line. There would be no more Osip Mandelstams, who was killed for writing a poem critical of Stalin. Khrushchev personally approved the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, which was the first honest depiction of life in the gulag.

Despite this, abstract art was a bridge too far for Khrushchev. There is a remarkable account of his encounter with several abstract artists at an exhibit in 1962 in the book Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. A little background is necessary. Artists and writers in the Soviet Union were very much encouraged by the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and artists had been given a chance finally to see the modernist masterpieces owned by the state that had been in storage in the Hermitage museum for decades. But there were still plenty of conservative artists still in positions of power.

There was an exhibit at the Manezh Exhibition Hall across from the Kremlin entitled "Thirty Years of Moscow Art" consisting of traditional socialist realist works. Then, mysteriously, a section of modern work was added--essentially an unofficial apartment show was moved into the Manezh Exhibition Hall. The artists were thrilled--it was as if suddenly the state was recognizing their work. But it was a trick--the head of the Artist's Union and the Central Committee Secretary--two arch-reactionaries--told Khrushchev that these artists were mocking him. So Khrushchev went over to check it out.

He walked in and was shocked by what he saw.
The artists applauded Khrushchev, but among the first words he uttered were "It's dog shit!  . . . A donkey could smear better than this with his tail." He shouted at a young artist, "You're a nice-looking lad, but how could you paint something like this? We should take down your paints and set you in a clump of nettles until you understand your mistakes. You should be ashamed. Are you a faggot [pideras] or a normal man? Do you want to go abroad? Go then; we'll take you as far as the border. . . . We have the right to send you out to cut trees until you've paid back the money the state has spent on you. The people and the government have taken a lot of trouble with you, and you pay them back with this shit."
Imagine how terrifying it must have been to be on the receiving end of that tirade.
Khrushchev demanded, "Who's in charge here?" [Eli] Beliutin was pushed forward, along with [Ernst] Neizvestny, a gruff, husky paratrooper before he turned sculptor. Neizvestny too must be a homosexual, Khrushchev shouted. "Nikita Sergeyevich," the burly sculptor shot back, after excusing himself to Minister of Culture Yekaterina Furtseva, "give me a girl right here and now and I'll show you what sort of homosexual I am."
But Khrushchev was no Stalin. There were no repercussions from this. No artists were arrested. He recognized later that he wasn't really competent to judge avant garde artwork. When Fellini's 8 1/2 won the top prize at the Third International Film Festival, it was shown to Khrushchev in his dacha. His son Sergei tried to convince that Fellini was a genius. Khrushchev told Sergei, "I don't understand a thing, but the international jury has awarded it first prize. What am I supposed to do? They understand it better than I do; that's what they're there for. Why do they always palm these things off on me? I've already called Ilychev and told him not to intervene. Let the professionals decide."

But in 1964, Khrushchev was overthrown in a coup. The neo-Stalinists were back in power and they clamped down on culture. The Thaw was over. It was impossible for avant garde artists to get official support, and many were oppressed. The most infamous example was the closing of an open-air exhibit of "unofficial" art in 1974 (so-called because the artists were not officially part of the Artist's Union, which would have allowed them to make a living from their art) by police who destroyed the art with bulldozers. However, by this time Russia was open enough that this incident embarrassed the government. Nonetheless, the world of unofficial art moved decisively underground. Artists had exhibits in their apartments and studios, careful only to invite trusted friends.

As for Ernst Neizvestny, he had a long career as a sculptor. He was ironically invited to design Khrushchev's grave four years after Khrushchev's death (it took that long for the family to get official permission to mark his grave).

Ernst Neixvetsny, Nikita Khrushchev's grave marker, 1975

Ernst Neizvetsny, Nikita Khrushchev's grave marker, 1975

(These photos are by Russian translator and scholar John Freedman from his blog, Russian Culture in Landmarks. )

Ernst Neizvestny was on the outs as an official artist until 1966, when he won an important sculpture competition by entering anonymously. In 1976, he either voluntarily left or was forced into exile (accounts vary) and moved to the U.S., where he taught sculpture. He died in 2016 in Stony Brook, New York.

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