Between the 1930s and 1950s the revolutionary socialist (ie Trotskyist and, later, Shachtmanite) press in the USA made use of the wit and skill of talented cartoonists such as ‘Carlo’ (Jesse Cohen). In an Era of Wars and Revolutions, a new collection of their work, gives a snapshot history of the times: the rise of the mass industrial union movement in the USA, the great strike wave of 1945-6, the fight against ‘Jim Crow’ racism, World War Two, the imposition of Stalinism on Eastern Europe, and more.
Sean Matgamna (editor of In an Era of Wars and Revolutions) writes:
That “one picture can be worth a thousand words” is true, but only up to a point. A photograph or a painting cannot properly nail down, explain or explore ideas. A complicated piece of writing has no visual equivalent.
Yet a well-done cartoon is a powerful political weapon. A few bold strokes by an artist can convey an idea more vividly and fix it more firmly in the viewer’s mind than would an editorial or an article.
A cartoon is drawn to convey an idea, a point of view, an interpretation of what it depicts, and its meaning. Cartoons by their nature simplify, caricature, exaggerate, lampoon, and play with archetypal images.
A cartoon is highly subjective, yet it draws on commonly recognised symbols. The image, idea, interpretation fuse in the drawing. Drawn to convey an idea of people, things, institutions, classes, states, and of their inter-relationships, a cartoon distills the artist’s conception of what is essential in those people, events, entities, institutions, relationships.
The cartoonist is licensed to distort everyday reality so as to bring out a view, a “seeing”, analysis, critique, historical perspective of it. Its ciphers, emblems, archetypes vary to allow for the artist’s individual slant (like, in this collection, Carlo’s characteristic rendition of the top hat-fat archetypical bourgeois laughing at the gullibility or helplessness of workers).
All of a cartoon, all its details and references, are consciously or subconsciously chosen to convey a point of view, a nailed-down perception, a historical perspective. In old socialist cartoons the worker is always bigger and stronger than his enemies. He needs only to be awakened to an awareness of his strength.
It is almost always a “he”. The socialists who drew these cartoons were, themselves and their organisations, militant for women’s rights, but little of that is in their work.
One of the difficulties with old socialist cartoons for a modern viewer is that the stereotype-capitalist wears a top hat and is stout or very fat. In some early 20th century British labour movement cartoons he is named, simply, “Fat”. Fat now, in our health-conscious days, is seen as a characteristic of lumpenised workers and other “lower orders” people.
Much contemporary comedy is a hate-ridden depiction of the poor, the disadvantaged, the excluded, the badly educated, by physical type – fat and slobby. Where most of the old racial and national caricatures have been shamed and chased into the underbrush, no longer tolerable to decent people of average good will, the old social-Darwinian racism against the poor is rampant still, unashamed and not often denounced.
Even so, the old symbols, the fat capitalist and the big powerful worker, are still intelligible. They depict truths of our times as well as of their own. These cartoons still live.
They portray US politics, governments, the class struggle, the labour movement, America’s “Jim Crow” racism, Stalinism at its zenith, Roosevelt’s New Deal, Harry Truman’s “Fair Deal”, Senator Joe McCarthy, McCarthyism. They present clean and stark class-struggle socialist politics, counterposed to both capitalism and Stalinism.
A few are from the 1920s, but mainly they cover the quarter century after the victory of Hitler in Germany in 1933. and the definitive consolidation of Stalinism in the USSR.
Across the decades, they still carry the emotional hostility to the master class and solidarity with their victims that they were drawn to convey; the socialists’ abhorrence of the Stalinist atrocities that discredited and disgraced the name of socialism (they themselves were often among the targets); the desire, hope and drive for a re-made world — a socialist world. They blaze with anger and hatred against the horrors of America’s all-contaminating Jim Crow racism.
These cartoons were of their time, and what their time and earlier times led socialists to expect of the future. They were often mistaken. Government repression during World War Two was less fierce than the severe persecution of socialists and militant trade unionists in World War One and afterwards, led them to expect.
In the later 1940s, like most observers, they saw World War Three looming. In fact, the world settled into a prolonged “balance of terror” after Russia developed an atom bomb in 1949 and the USA and Russia fought a proxy war on Korean soil which ended in stalemate. The economic collapse which the experience of the 1930s led them to expect did not come (though in fact the long capitalist upswing took off only with the Korean war boom of 1950-3). Plutocratic democracy in the USA, during the war and after it, proved far less frail than the Marxists feared it would.
Over many years I have collected photocopies of these cartoons, buried as they were in files of old publications for six, seven or eight decades. I think others will be moved by them too.
What Peadar Kearney wrote fifty years after their time of the Fenians, the left-wing Irish Republicans of the 1860s and 70s, speaks to the socialists of the era covered by this book as well:
“Some fell by the wayside
Some died ‘mid the stranger,
And wise men have told us
That their cause was a failure;
But they stood by old Ireland
And never feared danger.
Glory O, glory O,
To the bold Fenian men!”
From the Dockland & East London Advertiser:
Artist ‘censored’ by Tower Hamlets Council at Bangladeshi exhibition
Above: Saif Osami with some of his work at the Brady Arts Centre
By Adam Barnett, Reporter
A Bangladeshi artist has criticised the Council after he was told some of his work was too controversial for public display
Above: one of the pieces deemed “too controversial” by Tower Hamlets Council
Saif Osmani, 32, who was born in Whitechapel, was invited to show his work at the Brady Arts Centre in Hanbury Street as part of a season of Bangladeshi drama and art.
But when Mr Osmani arrived on November 2 he says he was told by a council arts officer that four of his pieces, which combine the Pakistani and Bangladeshi flags, might anger “hardliners” and would not be shown.
Mr Osmani, who lives in Stratford, said: “I was told that due to the political situation in Bangladesh I was unaware of what this series of paintings could trigger with the ‘hardliners’.
“I can’t see why these events happening thousands of miles away have started dictating this exhibition here in the UK.”
Tower Hamlets Council declined to say who its arts officer meant by “hardliners”.
Mr Osmani said the rest of his work was moved to a corner of the room near the toilet and was later hidden by a pull-up banner.
Akhtar Hussain, of art group Avid Art Agency, said: “It is an absolute disgrace that this level of censoring is taking place in the name of political correctness at an event which was supposed to celebrated British and Bangladeshi arts, but instead curtails the content of the art on display.”
A spokesman for the council said: “We are clear that there has been no censorship in relation to this exhibition.
“As with any public space the council does have the right to decide what is exhibited and in this case the pictures chosen were fully discussed and agreed between the artist and a member of the council arts team.”
The exhibition runs until November 22 at the Brady Arts and Community Centre in Hanbury Street.
Assuming that the article is accurate, this would appear to be an outrageous act of censorship. But what exactly are the political motives that lie behind it? And who are these “hardliners” who might be angered by the paintings? Any information from readers would be most welcome.
Ive only just discovered QualiaSoup, an artist and thinker whose YouTube videos present the case for rational, critical thinking and the scientific method. It’s excellent stuff, that anyone with religious hang-ups, belief in the “supernatural,” tolerance of backward ideas in the interests of “open-mindedness” and indeed quite a few people who consider themselves “Marxists,” would do well to watch and ponder. Here’s an example:
P.S: It transpires that QualiaSoup has a brother, TheraminTrees (!)
Steve Bell’s ‘If’ strip in the Graun has recently been concerning itself with imagery about Murdoch, Netanyahu and a glove puppet, plus references to a so-called ”Aunty Semitic” “Trope.” Guardian readers who are unaware of the background to this will have been mystified as to the meaning of it all – but then that’s not unusual with a Bell cartoon. Regular readers of Shiraz should be aware of what lies behind it: a Bell cartoon back in November was was widely criticised for reproducing the long-standing antisemitic “trope” (ie: “stereotype”; in this case, that of the puppet-master, as widely used in Nazi and contemporary Middle Eastern propaganda). Eventually, the Guardian‘s reader’s editor agreed (to a very limited degree) with the criticism. Bell refused acknowledge even the possibility that his cartoon was ill-judged and seems to have been smarting ever since.
dropped in and sensitivities are talked up .. the very word
‘antisemitic’ becomes devalued…
“.. they throw it around with such abandon. If there really is
antisemitism it’s actually getting ignored…”
“Blonds make the best victims” – A. Hitchcock
First things first: last night’s BBC 2/HBO film The Girl was absolutely superb – by far the best new work to be seen on Brit TV over the Christmas season. If you missed it, make sure you catch up via iplayer or whatever, asap.
Briefly, this was the story of Alfred Hitchcock’s choice of the previously unknown Tippi Hedren to star in The Birds (his follow-up to Psycho) and his obsession with her, culminating in a campaign of bullying and intimidation when she rejected his blundering advances. Finally, Hitchcock sabotaged her career by refusing to either release her from her contract or to use her in any more films, apart from the rather unpleasant Marnie.
His behaviour, these days, would be considered completely unacceptable and probably place him beyond the pale in the eyes of polite society.*
Once again we are confronted with the old conundrum: to what extent is it possible to separate a great artist from the more unpleasant aspects of his (and, it would seem, it is usually “his” rather than “her”) personality? As an admirer of Philip Larkin I have difficulty coming to terms with evidence of his misogyny and racism, just as admirers of Eliot and Pound have (or should have) difficulty with the fascist sympathies of those two, and Picasso enthusiasts ought to be at least concerned by his Stalin-worship (which lasted into the 1950s). As for unacceptable sexual practices, the superb sculptor and designer Eric Gill probably leads the field, though I’ve no doubt there have been plenty of other major artists with similarly hideous sexual proclivities. Benjamin Britten‘s interest in adolsescent boys has long been the subject of speculation, though in fairness it should be stated that there has never been any evidence that he engaged in paedophilia.
Anyway, The Girl, based as it was upon Tippi Hedren’s own accounts (in interviews) of what happened, pulled no punches and made no effort to excuse or explain-away Hitchcock’s behaviour. But, thanks to a masterful performance by Toby Jones, we feel pity as well as disgust. Hitchcock was, by his own description, a fat, ugly walrus of a man who had only ever had sex with his wife (for whom the term “long suffering” scarcely suffices) and, now in his sixties, was impotent anyway. According to Jones’ portrayal, he appears to have felt that Hedren simply owed him a tumble for having made her a star.
The question that The Girl poses but doesn’t answer, is to what extent Hitchcock’s sexual obessions contributed to the dark, ambiguous power of his best work.
As well as Jones’ extraordinary portrayal, Sienna Miller gives a strong (in every sense of the word) performance as Tippi Hedren and Imelda Staunton deserves a mention for her profoundly sad Alma Hitchcock.
Why is the left quiet about Pussy Riot? Панк-молебен “Богородица, Путина прогони” Pussy Riot в Храме
“It was a sin against God and God is judging it; and all Christians should know this…
“For the Orthodox Church, like for Muslims, of course the authorities and the church are understood as one thing. Our Ideal is the unity of the church and the authorities, and unity of the people and the authorities.
“in this way, we are decidedly different from the west. I think attempts in the west to seperate the spiritual sphere and secular sphere is a historical mistake. Such a division is not characteristic to any civilisation except the west” – Vsevolod Chaplin, Senior Priest, Spokesman of the Russian Orthodox Church and advocate of harsh punishment of Pussy Riot.
Above: The three members of the Pussy Riot band — Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich — rejected charges of hooliganism for performing a “punk prayer” in Moscow’s main cathedral against Vladimir Putin’s return as president.
A group of brave, smart, peaceful but militant young women confront a thuggish, authoritarian President and a corrupt church hierachy and have already been jailed without trial for five months: what’s not to like about Pussy Riot?
Yet the “left” has, on the whole, been strangely reticent about supporting them: why?
A number of possible explanations present themselves:
1/ They are anarcho-feminists and conceptual artists, not leftists.
2/ (Following on from #1): they have no clear demands or programme.
3/ They already have celebrity support from the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Peter Gabriel and Stephen Fry.
4/ Much of the western “left” is actually rather sympathetic to Putin, because he’s part of the pro-Assad/Iranian axis that they, more or less openly, support. Many of them also seem to have a built-in predisposition to support dictators and to despise any form of democracy.
5/ Pussy Riot are being done not just for “hooliganism” against the Putin regime, but also for “religious hatred” – a concept that much of the western “left”, having discovered the joys of Islamic fundamentalism, now supports (in the sense of agreeing that insulting and/or criticising religion is Bad and should be illegal). The semi-literate SWP blogger Lenny “Seymour” Tombstone, for instance, recently coined the term “theophobia” and meant it as criticism (in his case, of Christopher Hitchens). Pussy Riot are nothing if not “theophobic.”
Objections #1 and #2 don’t really stand up, given that much the same could be said of the “Occupy” movement that most of the far-left had no hesitation in supporting. #3 has also never been a problem for the “left” before now: the so-called Stop The War Coalition, for instance, is very happy to accept ‘celebrity’ endorsement.
Which leaves us with #4 and #5: almost certainly the real reasons. And despicable ones at that.
Support Pussy Riot!
Here’s what they now face seven years in jail for doing (the “punk prayer”):
What’s going on with Pussy Riot, explained, here.
Good(ish) piece by Suzanne Moore in the Graun, here.
The nearest thing there is to an “official” Pussy Riot site, here.
Above: “ugly, insecure and grotesque”
Marx and Engels gave a materialist explanation of the origin of the aesthetic sense itself. They noted that man’s artistic abilities, his capacity for perceiving the world aesthetically, for comprehending its beauty and for creating works of art appeared as a result of the long development of human society and were the product of man’s labour. As early as in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx pointed to the role of labour in the development of man’s capacity to perceive and reproduce the beautiful and to form objects also “in accordance with the laws of beauty” (Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 3, Moscow, 1975, p. 277).
This idea was later developed by Engels in his work Dialectics of Nature, in which he noted that efforts of toil “have given the human hand the high degree of perfection required to conjure into being the pictures of a Raphael, the statues of a Thorwaldsen, the music of a Paganini” (see pp. 128-29 of this book). Thus both Marx and Engels emphasise that man’s aesthetic sense is not an inborn, but a socially-acquired quality.
The founders of Marxism extended their dialectical view of the nature of human thought to analysis of artistic creativity. In examining the development of art together with that of the material world and the history of society, they noted that the content and forms of art were not established firmly once and for all, but that they inevitably developed and changed according to definite laws along with the development of the material world and of human society. Each historical period has inherent aesthetic ideals and produces works of art corresponding to its particular character and unrepeatable under other conditions. Comparing, for example, the works of Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci and Titian, Marx and Engels emphasised that “Raphael’s works of art depended on the flourishing of Rome at that time, which occurred under Florentine influence, while the works of Leonardo depended on the state of things in Florence, and the works of Titian, at a later period, depended on the totally different development of Venice” (p. 177).
The problem with the Shard is that it is ugly, insecure and grotesque.
The ‘lets build the tallest building’ game is best left to children and the insecure. Dubai is obsessed with having the tallest building because it is not a place which really exists. It is a city literally built on sand, like some wrongheaded parable. It has a great deal to prove. Sydney throws up skyscrapers despite the plentiful space available because Australia is so deeply insecure about its importance. London never needed to. Confident cities build low because they have nothing to prove. And there is no use saying, as Ken Livingstone did on the Today programme this morning, that we have run out of space and need to build up. The building is empty. There is no demand for what it is offering -Ian Dunt
P.S (from JD): I like handsome, well-designed skyscrapers, including some of Piano’s previous work.
Invisible: Art about the Unseen 1957 – 2012 – review
Hayward Gallery, London
Jonathan Jones writes on art for the Guardian and was on the jury for the 2009 Turner prize
I accidentally scared a gallery technician witless while exploring the Hayward Gallery’s exhibition of invisible art. I was standing in a room of thick, velvety darkness. A technician pushed through the black curtains and became aware of someone else in the gloom. Apparently spooked, he asked: “Who’s that?”
It was a relief to see someone else scared, because The Ghost of James Lee Byars already had me seriously unnerved. This work of art consists of no more than its six-word title and a darkened room. Yet its atmosphere is palpable. Six words are enough to tell a hell of a ghost story, it turns out.
The American artist James Lee Byars conceived this freak-out in 1969. An enigmatic and morbid storyteller, he imagined his own death, not just in this work but in pieces with the resonant titles This is the Ghost of James Lee Byars Calling, and The Perfect Death of James Lee Byars.
Eventually, in reality, he died in Cairo in 1997. Judging by the terror it can inflict on Hayward contractors, I would guess the invisible image of Byars is creating quite a folklore behind the scenes.
Or perhaps they are dreading the critics. What, eight quid for a gallery full of invisible paintings? This exhibition courts tabloid headlines and bluff empirical sarcasm. It is, like Jerry Seinfeld’s sitcom, a show about nothing. But it succeeds because it is in on the joke, which it makes unexpectedly profound. Quite frankly, there is more art here, despite it being invisible, than in a lot of stuff galleries lure us to see.
There are indeed some invisible paintings in the show, white surfaces marked with materials that include “Brainwaves” by the Swiss artist Bruno Jakob. There is a drawing that fills a huge gallery and yet is almost impossible to find since the Taiwanese artist Lai Chih-Sheng has traced all the lines along floor tiles, corners of walls and fittings to make a drawing that is a near-invisible web-like echo of the place.
Yet the real heart of the exhibition is not so much in works that are barely there as in the thing they allude to, the unseen itself. As you put on a surreal buzzing headpiece to negotiate Jeppe Hein’s invisible maze or speculate on which gallery-goer may be the actor hired by Bethan Huws to behave just like a visitor, the notion of a world beyond appearances takes on a strange and powerful reality.
This exhibition is a seriously brilliant jest. It is a genuine history of an idea in art, a fascination with the immaterial and imperceivable that can be traced back to the audacious claims of Yves Klein in late 1950s Paris to create invisible atmospheres and “air architecture”, most famously in his 1958 exhibition of nothing, The Void. But it is also an absurd story. Carsten Holler exhibits an invisible car, one of a field of futuristic vehicles he designed for a utopian race. There is its starting place, painted on the gallery floor. But the supercar, called The Invisible, is for you to imagine.
The magic of the exhibition, its bizarre inversion of gallery-going, is that you do indeed imagine it. The car seems to be there. You don’t step on its starting block, in case you scratch the unseen paintwork.
Nearby is an empty white plinth. The air above it is cursed. The artist Tom Friedman got a witch to curse a zone hovering above the pedestal. As soon as you know this you do not want to put your hand into that evil space.
Why? Because nothing demands something of us. The human mind fills blanks with images and ideas; that is what a ghost story is, a way of filling darkness. This exhibition reveals that when artists, from Klein to Chris Burden, who hid himself on an elevated shelf in a gallery in 1975, started to deny that art had to be seen, they opened up a theatre for the imagination.
In the Hayward Gallery, the ghost of Byars haunts The Ghost of James Lee Byars. The visible world, as Plato pointed out, is a veil concealing truth.
Remind you of anything?
Amid all the hoopla surrounding the Titanic centennial, I thought I’d just mention what I consider to be by far the best film yet made about the disaster. ‘A Night to Remember’ was made in 1958 , nearly forty years before James Cameron’s saccharine ‘Titanic,’ on a fraction of the budget and with none of the sophisticated special effects. Yet the earlier film, directed by Roy Ward Barker and starring Kenneth Moore (as second officer Herbert Lightoller) is more accurate and exciting. The human interest element is far better written and acted than the overblown Winslet – Di Caprio nonsense in the Cameron film. Lee Randall (a self-confessed ‘Titanic “fan” since childhood’) has written in The Scotsman: “One of the most poignant moments in cinematic history is when an elderly couple retires to a pair of deckchairs to await the end together (a scene much repeated but never bettered). I’m welling up thinking about it now.”
Even the final sinking in ‘A Night to Remember’ was filmed in something close to ‘real time’ (just 37 minutes shorter than the actual event). And the meticulous technical accuracy is so impressive that (unlike a lot of nautical films of the time), you’d never guess that the vessel itself was a model, filmed in a pool (to be precise, an open air swimming pool in Ruislip at 2.00 am!).
I have only just discovered, however, that the film was based upon an eponymous novel by one Walter Lord, and adapted by Eric Ambler. Ambler (author of, amongst other novels, Journey into Fear, The Mask of Demetrios and Epitaph for a Spy) was one of the finest adventure writers of the twentieth century, and a leftist and antifascist who saw through Stalinism before most. He deserves to be better remembered and I’ll probably write about him again sometime. I’m sure his work contributed enormously to the artistic success of the film: