Louis Armstrong: simply the best

August 4, 2017 at 9:10 am (civil rights, culture, good people, jazz, Jim D, modernism, music, New Orleans, Sheer joy, United States)

Louis Armstrong: born August 4 1901, died July 6 1971


Above: possibly his greatest recording, West End Blues (1928). For a detailed analysis, read what the of the Director of the Louis Armstrong House Museum (in Queens, New York), Ricky Riccardi, wrote, here.

Louis Armstrong never knew the date of his birthday. As Terry Teachout writes in his excellent biography Pops – A Life Of Louis Armstrong (2009):

‘Until the day he died, Louis Armstrong claimed that he was born on July 4, 1900. He said so in Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans and Swing That Music, his two published memoirs, and on innumerable other occasions, and although at least one biographer found the date too pat to be plausible, it was only in 1988 that a researcher located an entry in latin for “Armstrong (niger, illegitimus)” in the handwritten baptismal register of New Orleans’s Sacred Heart of Jesus Church. According to that record, Louis Armstrong was born on August 4, 1901, the natural son of William Armstrong (known as Willie), who spent most of his adult life working in a turpentine factory, and Mary Ann Albert (known as Mayann, though her son spelled it different ways over the years), a fifteen-year-old country girl who came to New Orleans to work as a household servant.’

What was never in doubt is the simple fact that Louis was born  at the absolute bottom of the US socio-economic pile. He was black, his mother was an alcoholic and an occasional prostitute and his father deserted the family before he was born. He seemed destined for a life of poverty and petty crime until a Jewish family, the Karnoffskys, took him under their wing and encouraged his musical talent (including lending him the money for his first cornet). Louis never forgot them and wore a Star of David under his shirt for the rest of his life. That early experience also seems to have conditioned his approach to the race question. He was proud of his Afro-American roots but never a seperatist. He almost always had at least one or two whites in his All Stars – a policy that his manager Joe Glaser encouraged for commercial reasons but that Armstrong believed in as a matter of principle. His closest musical friend was the white trombonist Jack Teagarden, to whom he (allegedly) said on their first encounter, “I’m a spade and you’re an ofay. We got the same soul – so let’s blow.”

Armstrong is, simultaneously, by far the best known figure in jazz and one of the most underrated. The reasons for this have little to do with music and everything to do with image, perception and ideology. Most of today’s jazz fans (despite the sterling efforts of Wynton Marsalis, Stanley Crouch and others) know little of Armstrong and see him as an avuncular buffoon singing lightweight pop songs in a gravel voice. He’s not considered a real jazz musician like, say, John Coltrane or the oh-so-cool Miles Davis. And then there’s that “Uncle Tom” tag. We’ll come to that in a moment.

What is all too easily forgotten in any discussion about Armstrong is the straightfact that he was the single most revolutionary exponent of the most revolutionary music of the Twentieth Century. Long before he became the jovial entertainer the world remembers, he almost single-handedly created jazz as we know it today.

Anyone who doubts this should listen to Armstrong’s first recordings, made with his mentor Joe ‘King’ Oliver’s band in 1923: Olver and the others chug along in the staccato semi-ragtime rhythm that characterised early jazz. Armstrong (playing second cornet to Oliver) uses triplet-based quarter and eighth notes, riding on a 4/4 beat that only existed inside his head. It was the rhythm that that twelve-to-fifteen years later would be called “swing” and make Benny Goodman, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller and a lot of other (mainly white) bandleaders rich and famous. That rhythm, together with the concept of the virtuoso solo, improvised over the chords of the tune, which Armstrong also pioneered, was the springboard for Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and most of what followed in in jazz, up to this very day.

It is of course true that had Armstrong never been born, someone else would have made these musical breakthroughs sooner or later – they were almost necessities waiting to happen. Phillip Larkin (an unstinting Armstrong fan)  oversimplified matters, but had a point when he wrote that Armstrong “simply did what everyone else was doing (but) twenty times better.” We know that Armstrong’s New Orleans contemporary, the clarinet and soprano sax virtuoso Sidney Bechet, was playing along similar lines in the early twenties, with a power and imagination that came close to matching Louis’s. But Bechet was a (literally) wayward character who spent a lot of time travelling in Europe while the epicentre of jazz was the US and, incresingly, New York. He lacked Louis’s personal warmth and although he recorded quite extensively, he didn’t achieve widespread public recognition until he settled in France in the 1950’s where he became something of a folk-hero in his final years.

To understand Armstrong, the man and the performer, you have to understand something of the society he was born into. New Orleans at the turn of the century was a hotbed of vice and violence. It was also, in comparison to the rest of the USA, relatively tolerant in racial, social and cultural matters. The French had founded the city and brought with them a tradition of opera, symphony, dances and parties. This had melded with the work-songs and “shouts” of the black slaves. As a result New Orleans was, as far as can be judged, the birthplace of jazz. The city’s mixed-race “creoles” constituted the vast majority of early jazz musicians of note. It is a myth that early jazz was the preserve of Afro-American “negroes”. In fact creole musicians emphasised their French and/or Spanish heritage and tended to be quite disparaging towards negroes like Armstrong and Oliver.

On New Year’s Eve of 1912 Armstrong was arrested for some high-jinks with a pistol and sent to the “Colored Waif’s Home” – a borstal, albeit a relatively enlightened one for its time. In fact, Louis often stated that being sent there was the single best thing that ever happened to him, mainly because the Home had a band and he soon became lead cornet in it. Years later, in the 1930’s, Louis revisited the place, found his old room and immediately snuggled down on the bunk.

From the Waif’s Home Armstrong went on to become second cornet with King Oliver in Chicago (jazz followed the black migration to the new industries up there), star trumpet soloist with Fletcher Henderson’s sophisticated big band in New York, and then to make the legendary Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings with his old New Orleans confrères Kid Ory (trombone) and Johnny Dodds (clarinet). Listening to the Hot Fives (recorded between November 1925 and December 1927) is an education in personal development: Armstrong soon outstrips and overwhelms his old comrades, making their contributions sound anachronistic, stilted, and generally surplus to requirements.

By the early 1930’s Armstrong was an international star and one of the first black American entertainers to tour Europe; Paul Robeson and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (a big influence on Armstrong) were the only others. At this point a big contradiction becomes apparent: Louis’s stage persona was by then that of an extrovert, exuberant virtuoso. Personally, he was completely insecure (remember that visit to the Waif’s Home), always in need of a tough guy (like the ex-Capone man Joe Glaser) or strong woman (notably second wife Lil and final wife Lucille) to look after him. And even after all the plaudits and awards, he desperately needed the approval of an audience. After the last performance of his life (undertaken against medical advice), he watched a TV review of the show in his hotel room and was devasted by the slating he received; he turned to Joe Glaser with tears in his eyes and asked: “You’ll still book me, Joe?”

Louis ‘mugged’ and played the harmless black minstrel to white audiences throughout his life. Younger black musicians and performers accused him of being an Uncle Tom and there was a tiny grain of truth to the charge. Billie Holiday famously said (affectionately) “Louis toms from the heart” and Sammy Davis Jr. (less affectionately) denounced him for being willing to play for segregated audiences. Terry Teachout comments, “Sammy Davis, after all, had a point: the All Stars did play for segregated audiences, and Armstrong never complained to Glaser about it. ‘I never question owners of dance halls or my manager about the racial patterns of places I am contracted to play… I have been with Joe Glaser too many years to worry about where I play and for whom,’ he had told a reporter for the Courier  in 1956. Nor would he ever take part in civil-rights demonstrations.’My life is music,’ he explained to a reporter. ‘They would beat me in the mouth if I marched, and without my mouth I wouldn’t be able to blow my horn…”

But there was one occasion when even the apolitical Armstrong was unable to contain his inner rage in the face of racism: in 1957, three years after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision required public schools to de-segregate and allow black puils to enroll. But in Little Rock, Arkansas, Governor Orval Faubus openly defied the court’s decison and the Federal Government, ordering the state’s National Guard to join with a mob of howling bigots outside the city’s Central High School to intimidate and obstruct nine black children who were trying to enroll.  Louis, on tour as usual, watched these scenes on his hotel televison shortly before he was interviewd by a cub reporter from a local paper. When the subject of Little Rock came up Louis exploded with rage, calling Faubus a “no good motherfucker” (later changed to “uneducated plowboy”) and denouncing President Eisenhower as “two faced” with “no guts.” He continued: “The way they’re treating my people in the South the government can go to hell,” and vowed that he would not agree to tour the Soviet Union for the State Department, calling Secretary of State Dulles “another motherfucker.” The young reporter had the scoop of a lifetime and Associated Press put the story on the wires.

Eisenhower later sent the army into Little Rock to enforce de-segregation and ensure the Nine were admitted to the school. Whether or not Armstrong’s intervention was a decisive factor in forcing Eisenhower’s hand is still a matter of debate, but the fact that a much-loved and generally apolitical figure had spoken out so strongly must surely have had some effect.

But this was an uncharateristic moment. Louis was not a political person and certainly no black militant. His background and natural inclinations made him an instinctive integrationist. And he generally let his music speak for itself, as when he sang Nobody Knows the Trouble I Seen on the Ed Sullivan Show during the Montgomery bus boycott or performed You’ll Never Walk Alone with the All Stars for a segregated black audience in Savannah, Georgia.

Louis’s sheer humanity is summed up by the New Orleans guitarist Danny Barker (quoted in James Lincoln Collier’s 1983 biography Louis Armstrong – An American Genius), describing Louis on tour, in the dressing room:

“…He be sittin’ down in his underwear with a towel around his lap, one around his shoulders an’ that white hankerchief on his head, and he’d put that grease around his lips. Look like a minstrel man, ya know…an’ laughin’ you know natural the way he is. And in the room ya see, maybe two nuns. You see a street walker dressed all up in flaming clothes. You see a guy come out of the penitentiary. Ya see maybe a blind man sitting there. You see a rabbi, ya see a priest, see. Liable to see maybe two policemen or detectives, see. You see a judge. All of ’em different levels of society in the dressin’ room and he’s talking to all of ’em. ‘Sister So and So, do you know Slick Sam over there? This is Slick Sam, an ole friend of mine.’ Now the nun’s going to meet Slick Sam. Ole Notorious, been in nine penetentiaries. ‘Slick Sam, meet Rabbi Goldstein over there, he’s a friend of mine, rabbi good man, religious man. Sister Margaret, do you know Rabbi Goldstein? Amelia, this is Rosie, good time Rosie, girl used to work a show with me years ago. Good girl, she’s a great performer. Never got the breaks.’ Always a word of encouragement, see. And there’d be some kids there, white and colored. All the diverse people of different social levels…an’ everybody’s looking. Got their eyes dead on him, jus’ like they was lookin’ at a diamond.”

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Art: Russian avant-gardists against capitalism and Stalinism

March 31, 2017 at 9:35 pm (Art and design, culture, history, modernism, revolution, socialism, stalinism, USSR)

Liubov Popova Space Force Construction 1920–1
Above: Spatial Force Construction, by Liubov Popova, 1920-21

Hugh Daniels reviews Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932, at the Royal Academy until 17 April.


The first room in this exhibition is dedicated to images of leaders. While one side is dominated by pictures of Lenin, the other largely has images of Stalin. This opening seems designed to confirm a pre-assumption which many visitors are likely to hold ― that the art of the Soviet Union was designed to glorify its leaders and normalise their rule. Yet, in the wake of Lenin’s death in 1924, there was actually considerable debate among artists over how he should be commemorated and how his image should be used.

In 1928, the avant-garde, “left” artist Aleksandr Rodchenko vociferously argued that Lenin ought not to be deified or fetishised and that images should not be used to secure state-authorised truths, but to encourage new forms of critical vision. Rodchenko’s own memorial to Lenin, exhibited at the Paris Expo in 1925, was a design for a workers’ club, largely centred on spaces and resources for collective self-education. Rather than securing an icon of state power, Rodchenko remembered Lenin by giving workers tools with which they could ask questions and formulate their own ideas.

This curatorial “oversight” exemplifies an exhibition which continually glosses over the complexity of the artistic debates which raged after the revolution. In a later room dedicated to modernism, a painting by Wassily Kandinsky is placed near another by Liubov Popova. Both are abstract and viewers are led to assume that these artists were working along similar lines.

However, Popova was vehemently opposed to Kandinsky and the principles of his practice. Like most of her constructivist peers, Popova conceived of her paintings not as autonomous art objects, but effectively as props to help both her and her audience to think through design principles. She believed that, by encouraging reflection on the formal and material qualities of different compositional methods, artists could contribute towards a renewal of engineering, architecture and design in the fledgling socialist nation. Like other constructivists, she saw this as a challenge to the power of bourgeois specialism. Popova thought Kandinsky was a bourgeois artist, producing rarefied commodity objects and thus failing to acknowledge the questions posed to art by the revolution.

What form should art practice take in a socialist society? How would it contribute towards the construction of a new world? However we feel about the different approaches taken by these artists, it is vital to see that their work represents not a shared commitment to modernism, but a debate over the meaning and the fate of the revolution at a time when these questions had no definitive answer.

The RA exhibition makes the relatively unusual decision to combine modernism and socialist realism in one exhibition and to dedicate more space to the latter, whereas western art history has traditionally viewed the former as far more valuable. It is certainly worth studying the cultural products of Stalinism, just as we study other aspects of its history. Here, however, it feels as if the originality of this gesture is taken as its own justification, especially since the exhibition ultimately does little to challenge received understandings of its content beyond implying that socialist realist paintings are worth viewing. The exhibition reproduces a thoroughly standard account of Russian art after 1917.

This narrative is extremely convenient for western institutions, because it presents post-revolutionary Russian modernism as a continuation of liberal, bourgeois, post-enlightenment culture, which was snuffed out in the dark days of barbarous state communism. Exponents of this perspective commonly suggest that the avant-garde was purged because its complex abstract designs could not easily be used for propaganda purposes. Communism is thus presented as a thoroughly instrumental worldview, which sees no value in culture except as a political tool. It is no coincidence that this story was largely fashioned in the USA at a time when American institutions were presenting themselves as both inheritors and saviours of all that was good in European culture.

All this exhibition really adds to the standard account is an acknowledgment that Stalinist artists could be skilled in their manipulations, producing a cult of the healthy proletarian body, which has a clear sensual and ideological appeal, rather than being an utterly transparent sham. This view fails to acknowledge that the most radical avant-gardists made work in ways that were absolutely inimical not only to authoritarianism, but also to capitalism.

The Russian avant-garde established artistic and political principles which presented a significant challenge to all forms of hierarchical rule. In inviting both her fellow artists and her audience to critically examine the formal principles of design, Popova was not just offering new kinds of imagery, but radically questioning what Marx called the “relations of production”, challenging the control that technocrats and specialists held over the production of social wealth.

A good art historian should aim to place us back in the moment of an artwork’s construction, when the possibilities it conjured were still open. By closing down the debates of this period and failing to properly acknowledge those strands of Russian art which ran against the grain of both the bourgeois tradition and Stalinist oppression, this show instead presents us with a totally binary situation in which the only options are bourgeoisification or barbarism.

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John Berger RIP

January 3, 2017 at 12:23 am (Art and design, culture, literature, Marxism, modernism, posted by JD)

Image result for picture John Berger

From: Felix Stalder
Date: 2 January 2017
Subject: <nettime> John_Berger (5 November 1926 – 2 January 2017)

John Berger is dead. He died today, at the age of 90. Obits are surely
being written right now. However, Sally Potter’s birthday thoughts
from last November seem a more apt and personal way of remembering.
“Ways of Seeing was, together with Robert Hughes’ “Shock of the New”,
one of the first books about art I read as teenager. It stayed with me
ever since.

As if as a testament to his continued relevance, the LA Review of
Books published today a long article on his theory of art.

That theory evolved considerably between the 1950s and the 2010s.
Yet two threads hold it together with the tenacity of spider silk: a
critique of the political economy of art and a sophisticated account
of its human value, each rooted in a committed but elastic Marxism.

A Marxist art criticism of any real subtlety has to be elastic,
because it must deal with a problem Marx himself diagnosed but
failed to solve. Berger puts it like this:

A question which Marx posed but could not answer: If art in the last
analysis is a superstructure of an economic base, why does its power
to move us endure long after the base has been transformed? Why,
asked Marx, do we still look towards Greek art as an ideal? He began
to answer the question […] and then broke off the manuscript and
was far too occupied ever to return to the question.

https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/a-smuggling-operation-john-bergers-theory-of-art/

H/t: Bruce R

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Jazz memories of the 1950’s: The Street

April 16, 2016 at 12:37 am (BBC, culture, gigs, history, jazz, Jewish music, London, modernism, posted by JD, TV)

This is fabulous stuff: musician Dennis Rose’s amateur film of the jazz life (as lived by young professional musicians) in Soho of the early 1950’s, watched and commented upon thirty or so years later by participants Ronnie Scott, Benny Green, Laurie Morgan and (perhaps surprisingly) comedian Bill Maynard, amongst others. This went out in the 1980’s as part of a BBC2 jazz week, but hasn’t been seen since. Prepare yourselves for a lot of working class East End Jewish humour and political incorrectness:

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An initial attempt at a socialist and humanitarian response to the Paris massacres

November 15, 2015 at 6:29 pm (capitalism, democracy, Europe, fascism, France, Human rights, humanism, internationalism, iraq, islamism, Jim D, Marxism, Middle East, modernism, Racism, reactionay "anti-imperialism", solidarity, terror, turkey, war, workers)

What follows is a statement drawn up by myself. It is based in part upon the AWL’s statement in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. I have not discussed it or “cleared” it with anyone. Critical comments are welcome -JD:

To massacre ordinary workers enjoying a drink, a meal, a concert or a sporting event after work, is a crime against humanity, full stop.

What cause could the Islamist killers have been serving when they massacred 130 or more people in Paris? Not “anti-imperialism” in any rational sense — whatever some people on sections of the left have argued in the past — but only rage against the modem, secular world and the (limited but real) freedom and equality it represents. Only on the basis of an utterly dehumanised, backward looking world-view could they have planned and carried out such a massacre. Such people are enemies for the working class and the labour movement at least as much as the capitalist ruling class – In fact, more so.

Modern capitalism includes profiteering, exploitation, and imperialism, but it also includes the elements of civilisation, sexual and racial equality, technology and culture that make it possible for us to build socialism out of it.

Lenin, the great Marxist advocate of revolutionary struggle against imperialism, long ago drew a dividing line between that socialist struggle and reactionary movements such as (in his day) “pan-Islamism” [in our day, Islamism]: “Imperialism is as much our mortal enemy as is capitalism. That is so. No Marxist will forget, however, that capitalism is progressive compared with feudalism, and that imperialism is progressive compared with pre-monopoly capitalism. Hence, it is not every struggle against imperialism that we should support. We will not support a struggle of the reactionary classes against imperialism.”

We, the socialists, cannot bring back the dead, heal the wounded, or even (unless we’re present) comfort the bereaved. What we can do is analyse the conditions that gave rise to the atrocity; see how they can be changed; and keep clear critical understanding of the way that governments will respond. This must not be mistaken for any kind of attempt to excuse or minimise this barbarity or to use simplistic “blowback” arguments to suggest that it is simply a reaction to the crimes of “the west” or “imperialism.”

Immediately, the Paris massacre is not only a human disaster for the victims, their friends and families, but also a political disaster for all Muslims, refugees and ethnic minorities in Europe. The backlash against this Islamic-fundamentalist atrocity will inevitably provoke anti-refugee feeling and legislation, attacks on civil liberties and hostility towards all people perceived as “Muslims” in Europe: that, quite likely, was at least one of the intentions of the killers. The neo-fascists of Marine LePen’s Front National seem likely to make electoral gains as a result of this outrage.

The present chaos in the Middle East has given rise to the Islamic fascists of ISIS, and their inhuman, nihilist-cum-religious fundamentalist ideology.

Throughout the Middle East, the rational use of the region’s huge oil wealth, to enable a good life for all rather than to bloat some and taunt others, is the socialist precondition for undercutting the Islamic reactionaries.

In Afghanistan, an economically-underdeveloped, mostly rural society was thrust into turmoil in the late 1970s. The PDP, a military-based party linked to the USSR, tried to modernise, with measures such as land reform and some equality for women, but from above, bureaucratically. Islamists became the ideologues of a landlord-led mass revolt.

In December 1979, seeing the PDP regime about to collapse, the USSR invaded. It spent eight years trying to subdue the peoples of Afghanistan with napalm and helicopter gunships. It was the USSR’s Vietnam.

The USSR’s war had the same sort of regressive effect on society in Afghanistan as the USA’s attempt to bomb Cambodia “back into the Stone Age”, as part of its war against the Vietnamese Stalinists, had on that country. In Cambodia the result was the mass-murdering Khmer Rouge, which tried to empty the cities and abolish money; in Afghanistan, it has been the Islamic-fundamentalist regime of the Taliban. In Iraq the West’s bungled attempts to clear out first Saddam’s fascistic regime and then various Islamist reactionaries, and introduce bourgeois democracy from above, have been instrumental in creating ISIS.

Western governments will now make a show of retaliation and retribution. They will not and cannot mend the conditions that gave rise to this atrocity, conditions which they themselves (together with their Arab ruling class allies) helped to shape. Ordinary working people who live in war-torn states and regions will, as ever, be the victims.

Civil rights will come under attack and the efforts of the European Union to establish a relatively humane response to the refugee crisis will be set back and, quite possibly, destroyed.

These blows at civil rights will do far more to hamper the labour movement, the only force which can remake the world so as to end such atrocities, than to stop the killers.

Public opinion will lurch towards xenophobia. Basic democratic truths must be recalled: not all Middle Eastern people are Muslims, most Muslims are not Islamic fundamentalists, most of those who are Islamic-fundamentalist in their religious views do not support Islamic fundamentalist militarism. To seek collective punishment against Muslims or Arabs, or anyone else, is wrong and inhuman.

The first, and still the most-suffering, victims of Islamic fundamentalist militarism are the people, mostly Muslim, of the countries and regions where the lslamists are powerful.

The only way to defeat the Islamists is by the action of the working class and the labour movement in such countries, aided by our solidarity.

Refugees seeking asylum in Europe do not in any way share blame for this massacre. In fact, many of them are refugees because they are fleeing Islamic-fundamentalist governments and forces like ISIS. To increase the squeeze on already-wretched refugees would be macabre and perverse “revenge”.

We must remake the world. We must remake it on the basis of the solidarity, democracy and spirit of equality which are as much part of human nature as the rage, hatred and despair which must have motivated the Paris mass-murderers.

We must create social structures which nurture solidarity, democracy and equality, in place of those which drive towards exploitation, cut-throat competition and acquisitiveness and a spirit of everything-for-profit.

The organised working class, the labour movement, embodies the core and the active force of the drive for solidarity, democracy and spirit of equality within present-day society. It embodies it more or less consistently, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on how far we have been able to mobilise ourselves, assert ourselves, broaden our ranks, and emancipate ourselves from the capitalist society around us.

Our job, as socialists, is to maximise the self-mobilisation, self-assertion, broadening and self-emancipation of the organised working class.

We must support the heroic Kurdish forces who are fighting and defeating ISIS on the ground in Syria and Iraq, opposed by the Turkish government. We must demand that our government – and all western governments – support the Kurds with weapons and, if requested, military backup: but we will oppose all moves by the governments of the big powers to make spectacular retaliation or to restrict civil rights or target minorities or refugees.

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George Grosz: artist, satirist and “cultural Bolshevik”

May 22, 2015 at 7:18 pm (anti-fascism, Art and design, capitalist crisis, culture, Germany, history, humanism, Jim D, modernism, satire, sex workers, war)

Between now and June 20th you have the opportunity to see ‘The Big No’, an exhibition of work of one by the greatest left-wing satirical artists of the 20th century: George Grosz. It’s at the London Print Studio (W10) and admission is free of charge.

Grosz was a founder of the Berlin Dadaist movement who created hundreds of drawings that savagely depicted the corruption, injustice and decadence of the Weimar republic. Along with Helmut Herzfeld (who became John Heartfield) he introduced photomontage to the mainstream. Many of his his drawings are composed like photomontages.

The drawings use superb fine-pen draftsmanship while the paintings are composed of bold brush-stokes, to convey shocking images of extremes of wealth and poverty, sexual exploitation and the broken survivors of WWI.

The Big No (named after Grosz’s autobiography A Little Yes and a Big No) features two portfolios of his drawings: Ecce Homo (Behold The Man), published in 1923 and Hintergrund (Background) from 1928. Ecce Homo was the subject of a four year legal case, with  Grosz and his publisher accused of both pornography and bringing the German military into disrepute. They were acquitted, but in 1933 the Nazis had all the plates destroyed and the drawings publicly burned. We are able to see the work now because in 1959, after Grosz’s death, his widow and sons licenced a facsimile edition of the portfolio.

The Nazis denounced Grosz as a “cultural Bolshevik” and his work (together with that of fellow modernists, Jews and leftists like Kandinsky, Kokoschka, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Otto Dix) featured in the notorious 1937 “degenerate art” exhibition organised by the Nazis. By then Grosz had fled with his family to the US, where he remained for the rest of his life and where his son Marty became a well-known jazz guitarist.

Grosz wrote, ‘In 1916 I was discharged from military service. The Berlin to which I returned was a cold and grey city. What I saw made me loathe most of my fellow men; everything I could say has been recorded in my drawings. The busy cafés and wine-cellars merely accentuated the gloom of the dark, unheated residential districts. I drew drunkards; puking men; men with clenched fists cursing at the moon; men playing cards on the coffins of the women they had murdered. I drew a man, face filled with fright, washing blood from his hands… I was each one of the characters I drew, the champagne-swilling glutton favoured by fate no less than the poor beggar standing with outstretched hands in the rain. I was split in two, just like society at large…’

This exhibition is simply unmissable. I don’t know whether or not it’s going to appear anywhere outside London, so even if you don’t live in capital, I’d recommend a special visit. And how appropriate that it’s appearing in one of the less affluent parts of London, at studio whose stated mission is to “empower people and communities through practical engagement with the visual and graphic arts.”

GROSZ - On the threshold 

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Radio 4 gives Gramsci a (reasonably) fair hearing

September 2, 2014 at 4:49 pm (AWL, BBC, capitalism, class, democracy, Disability, history, intellectuals, Italy, Jim D, literature, Marxism, modernism, socialism)

It’s not often that the bourgeois media gives an anti-Stalinist communist leader and thinker a fair hearing – or, at least, allows that person’s thought and record to be presented in a balanced and objective manner.

But today’s ‘Great Lives’ on BBC Radio 4, introduced by the former Tory MP Matthew Parris (a good broadcaster, despite his politics) gave the life and thought of Antonio Gramsci affair hearing.

Dr Tom Shakespeare, a disability activist and former Euro-Communist, supported by Professor Anne Sassoon (‘expert witness’) presented a sympathetic and generally fair profile of Gramsci that is well worth listening to, here.

Naturally, I don’t agree with the Euro-Communist slant of the presentation, but that doesn’t detract (much) from the quality of the case put forward by Shakespeare and Sassoon, which will, hopefully, introduce a lot of new people to the ideas of this heroic figure and giant socialist intellect.

Once you’ve listened, you could do a lot worse than move on to this…

Antonio Gramsci

Gramsci
A collection of articles discussing the life and ideas of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci

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Ravel Day on Radio 3

March 6, 2014 at 2:05 pm (BBC, culture, film, France, Jim D, modernism, music, wireless)

Today (Friday 7th March) BBC Radio 3 clears its schedule on Maurice Ravel’s birthday for a day devoted to the composer’s music.

Following on from similar focuses devoted to Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Schubert and Webern, March 7 will celebrate the great impressionist’s music through recordings dating from the 1930s to the present day.

Performers involved include pianists Pascal and Ami Rogé in a recital from Wigmore Hall (including a two-hand arrangement of Boléro), the Nash Ensemble, and New Generation Artist mezzo Clara Mouriz. There will also be a series of downloads called Ravel Revealed exploring aspects of his life.

Now, of course, there’s a lot more to Ravel than Boléro (my personal favourite is  Daphnis et Chloé) but I couldn’t resist bringing you this 1934 film (below) as a foretaste:

Better than Torville and Dean, eh?  George Rafters all round!

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Polly Toynbee on “limp liberals”, women’s rights and cultural relativism

December 23, 2013 at 3:50 pm (Afghanistan, Guardian, history, Human rights, imperialism, islamism, misogyny, modernism, posted by JD, Racism, reactionay "anti-imperialism", relativism, religion, secularism, women)

In view of some appalling tripe that’s appeared recently on the subject of gender segregation, cultural sensitivity and (alleged) racism, this 2001 Graun article by Polly Toynbee is worth revisiting. Come to think of it, it’s probably the best thing she’s ever written, and quite surprising that the Graun agreed to publish it:

Above: the traditional custom of Suttee

Limp liberals fail to protect their most profound values

Those who enjoy western freedoms excuse the inexcusable elsewhere

A 19th-century general in India confronted an angry delegation complaining that the suppression of suttee was an attack on their national culture and customs. He replied: “It is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and hang them. Build your funeral pyre and beside it my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your national custom – then we shall follow ours.” No moral or cultural relativism there: a burning widow feels the same pain whatever her culture.

Swirling about in the sea of debate on this war there is a fuzzy idea on the soft left of an Islamic cultural otherness that supersedes basic human rights. There is a plea that in respecting certain customs, beliefs and punishments in some Muslim countries, we should somehow overlook the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Some on these pages protest about “intolerant liberalism”, calling for greater understanding of other cultures and accusing secular liberals of neo-colonial, cultural supremacist attitudes towards some Muslim countries. But that risks something worse – a patronising anthropological view of interesting natives who are not people like us, quaint in their time-honoured habits that must remain undisturbed by outside influence. This soft tolerance permits faraway peoples to persecute women, gays, free-thinkers or unbelievers as part of a way of life to be respected and preserved. Apologetic about the brute force of the west, those who themselves enjoy freedoms of every kind excuse the inexcusable in other cultures, romanticising them as more spiritual, less materialist. It is a kind of limp liberalism that will not defend its own most profound values. 

Hard-headed liberals have no problem in opposing the Taliban, Bin Laden and equivocators who start with a cursory side-of-the-cigarette-pack homily that says September 11 was atrocious before piling on the “buts” that imply the US had it coming. Hard liberals have always been very tough on the moral failings of the USA at home and abroad – without blurring distinctions between the Taliban and America. Hard liberals hold basic human rights to be non-negotiable and worth fighting for. They do not turn the other cheek, understand the other guy’s point of view or respect his culture when it comes to universal rights. Promoting liberal values everywhere from Burma to Saudi Arabia, Iraq to Chechnya is not neo-colonialism, but respect for a universal right to freedom from oppression. That was what Tony Blair’s conference speech implied. 

On Afghanistan, limp liberals only distinguish themselves from the old left by adding rather more hand-wringing. Limp liberals are always on the side of peace because it is more morally comfortable. They claim a monopoly of pity, castigating the other side as heartless armchair warriors. They hesitate because the outcome is uncertain: no one can guarantee things will end well. But they will never be to blame for anything, because they never stood up for anything, always seeking third way escapes from hard choices. “If only people would just sit down and talk…”, though conversation with Bin Laden is not on offer. All sane people worry that this war may not be proportionate, may not stop terror attacks or make life in Afghanistan better. But the pacifist position this time is exceptionally odd. What would they do? When G2 asked a string of people recently, the alternatives were hopeless to non-existent. On these pages, there has been much flailing about, lack of alternatives hiding in anti-US bluster. A Gandhian response is a possibility – until you listen to Bin Laden. Understanding racial and cultural diversity is essential, but this time understand what? 

What is now alarming is the united opposition to the war from almost all British Muslims. The shocking fact is that barely a single leading Muslim is to be found who supports it. Thought for the Day speakers (always the moderate of every faith) are against it. One of them, Dr Zaki Badawi, president of the Muslim College, calls Bush a warmonger, says Bin Laden is a random target picked off a shelf and no good will come of it: he fears greatly for relations between Muslims and others when this is over. The head of the moderate Islamic Council brought into Downing Street with the archbishop and the Chief Rabbi came out declaring the war unjustified. The Muslim News, which features pictures of Tony Blair giving away their annual awards, is full of nothing but angry opposition to the war, (plus the suggestion that Israel attacked the World Trade Centre). So however often the prime minister declares this is not a war on Islam, to them it feels so. However much they detest the Taliban, they cannot support an attack even on these hated Muslims. 

Despite sects and schisms, Islam is united in feeling threatened and it is not just extremists on the streets of Pakistan and Palestine, it is almost everyone. For Britain this has a lethal potential. It underlines how alienated most still feel from the mainstream, how threatened, how culturally uncertain. Unfortunately it unites the peaceful with the violent. On my screen emails full of casuistry attempt to explain away warlike parts of the Koran as allegory: “In classical Arabic idiom the ‘cutting of hands and feet’ is often synonymous with destroying one’s power.” That is not how the Taliban read it, hacking away at limbs. So while the peaceful fail to separate their faith utterly from this violence, Bin Laden gets perilously close to creating his Armageddon war of the cultures. 

What went wrong? Why was the Downing Street/ White House tea and sympathy with Muslim leaders of no avail? The crucial missing ingredient was turning on Sharon and Israeli extremists at the same time as the onslaught on the Taliban. What is needed at once is this world coalition to press Israel back inside internationally agreed borders, to shut down the settlements and to establish a permanent UN force along the border with a free Palestine. Then it is for Palestinians to create a non-corrupt government that will not waste the generous aid they need. No doubt horrific suicide bombings of Israelis would try to destroy any peace, but reprisal by Israeli tanks would be forbidden and prevented. The world would again guarantee in blood and money the rights of both the state of Israel and the state of Palestine. Like Northern Ireland, it wouldn’t work any magic: fighting would continue, but little by little, despite recurring outbreaks, it would gradually subside over the decades. 

What matters is that the Islamic world should for the first time see the west act even-handedly. It matters that the west admits its past errors and draws a line under much shameful history. This shaky global coalition offers a chance to do better in many places, through international joint action. It means demonstrating that human rights values are indeed universal and not western.

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Birmingham’s new Library: the last “people’s palace”?

September 3, 2013 at 5:05 pm (Art and design, Brum, culture, Cuts, Jim D, labour party, literature, modernism, reformism, socialism)

A “last hurrah for local pride“?

 
The new Library of Birmingham: rubbish outside (above); magical inside (below)

To the opening ceremony of the new Library of Birmingham in Centenary Square today: an occasion made all the more powerful by the superb choice of anti-fascist Malala Yousefai to do the deed. In an inspirational speech, emphasising the emancipatory power of books and learning, Malala brought forth laughter by calling us (and herself) “broomies” – oh well, she hasn’t yet had time to pick up the accent. For the record, she called Brum her “second home” after “my beloved Pakistan.”

The new building itself is superb in every respect, except its outer appearance, which is a gigantic, square and over-decorated cake. The interlocking ornate circles on the outside are, supposedly, intended to represent Birmingham’s history of metalwork and jewellery manufacture. Unfortunately they weren’t manufactured in Brum or the Black Country, but in Switzerland.

Frankly, I think the “old” (ie: previous) library, designed by the now almost-forgotten modernist John Madin and completed in 1974, is a much more handsome building, and I’d been hoping it would be retained and given a new role. Sadly, I overheard Birmingham Council’s Deputy Leader Ian Ward today, telling someone that it’s going to be demolished.

But enough carping: once you’re inside, this is, indeed, a “people’s palace,” as architect Francine Houben of designers Mecanno, describes it. It includes everything you’d expect of a modern library (ie “an open information hub for the City”), plus a “library within a library” for children, massive archives accessible to the public, elevated gardens with stunning views of the city, and -right at the top- the reconstructed 1882 Shakespeare Memorial Room with Europe’s most extensive collection of Shakespearian manuscripts and Shakespeare-related literature.

This is, truly, a “people’s palace” and credit is due to Council / Labour Group leader Albert Bore (someone I’ve had clashes with in the past) and the Labour leadership of Birmingham City Council, who drove the project forward against Tory opposition at local and national level.

But this is likely to be the last such civic project in the UK for the foreseeable future. With the present cuts and the emasculation of local government finance by the Coalition, the idea of another £189m public project like this would now be unthinkable.

So why the hell was Tory / Coalition Minister for Culture Ed Vaisey invited to attend and speak at the opening ceremony?

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