Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You...But, When Your Country Comes Asking, Get it in Writing!

Yevgeniy Fiks, whose current exhibition in our gallery has garnered some significant attention, including an artforum.com Critics' Pick by Colby Chamberlain, has another series of work that has haunted me since I was first introduced to it. Most of the paintings in this series were sold before we started working with Yevgeniy, so it wasn't possible for us to present an exhibition of them (although we do have a few in the office) but along side the dialog being stirred up by Yevgeniy's Adopt Lenin project, I have long wished to discuss the issues raised by his Songs of Russia series. As that may not happen any time soon in the gallery, I thought I'd take this opportunity to discuss them here.

I'll let Yevgeniy's own words about the series tell the story behind them:

This series of oil paintings is based on imagery borrowed from Hollywood films about Russia made in 1943-1944 at the behest of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in order to garner more support for the Soviet Union during WWII, and to change the opinion of the American public toward the USSR. The films "The North Star" and "Song of Russia" (both by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) and "Mission to Moscow" (Warner Brothers) were essentially pro-Soviet propaganda produced in Hollywood that presented Stalin's Russia in a very favorable light. All three films completely matched both the aesthetics and rhetoric of Stalin's Socialist Realism of the 1930s and '40s. These were essentially Socialist Realist motion pictures -- both in terms of form and content -- and yet, produced in Hollywood and sanctioned by F.D.R. himself.

What makes these films unique is that they were produced in the USA during the Second World War, that is between the anti-Soviet hysteria that followed the October Revolution and the "Cold War" era. These films were made possible only during 1943-1944 when the goals of the American and Soviet propaganda machines coincided. The project "Song of Russia" reflects this forgotten chapter of the history of American cinema and narrates about the artificiality of the process of enemy construction.

What makes these films even more interesting is that after WWII, during McCarthyism and the "witch hunt," it's precisely these films that became the focus of the hearings of the Committee on anti-American activity and communist infiltration in Hollywood in the US Congress. As a consequence, many of the creators of these films were blacklisted for they couldn't prove direct orders of the Roosevelt administration to produce these films.

What Yevgeniy calls "the artificiality of the process of enemy construction" (and its flipside: "ally construction") is something I've always seen as intellectually lazy, opportunistic scapegoatism, and although its political use throughout the world suggests it's seen as an easy way to move or motivate large masses of people, personally I find it so loathsome a tactic as to permanently soil the reputation of any leader who resorts to it. These are harsh words for me to direct at FDR, who has always been a hero of mine, but we saw the inhuman results of this tactic unchecked in the hands of Hitler in WWII, and it buggers (Update: beggars?) belief that Roosevelt couldn't connect the dots and see why it's too uncontrollable a weapon to unleash without taking extra measures to protect those asked to deliver it. In short, why the f*ck didn't FDR leave some "get out of jail free" cards for the artists he asked to serve their country?

Particularly loathsome in this sad chapter of American history (and I simply can't stomach the woman, what can I say) is this trivia bit from the IMDB listing for "Song of Russia":
This film was the subject of inquiry by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in October 1947. Testimony as to the distortions of Soviet life presented in the film was provided by Ayn Rand, screenwriter and author of "The Fountainhead" and 'Atlas Shrugged".
So it's not even that FDR exposed the patriots who heeded his call to this later blacklisting that makes the back of my neck furl, it's that other pathetically self-serving, parasitical artists would lunge at the opportunity to promote themselves through the process. Even if that's unfair to Ms. Rand (and she was simply offering her unbiased opinion), I honestly don't care. She knew what her testimony would mean for her fellow filmmakers and what HUAC was all about.

Even as I write about this and feel the venom oozing out through my text, I do wonder why I still care. This is ancient history, right? Manipulating the masses to hate one group of people, then like them just a little bit, then hate them again...these are obvious tactics to us and we don't fall for that kid's stuff any more, right?

Consider this an open thread.

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19 Comments:

Blogger Iris said...

Firstly, I want to comment: beautiful paintings! I love how they were executed in a technique that highlights both Soviet and American propaganda (Hollywood). The painting technique very much reminds me of the communist school, while the actors expressions, the composition is very much Hollywood like.

Then to answer your question, Ed, which I know was rhetoric, but I feel a need to answer it anyway: no, of course this is not ancient history, it is called human nature, and nothing has changed. The only tiny difference is that during WW2 it was apparently very clear in the whole world who 'the bad guys' were, it was easy for everyone else to feel good when compared to Hitler and the Nazis. But apart from that part in history, usually it isn't clear at all, there isn't such a polarity visible, the world is mostly a gray area. Struggles are often made behind the scenes, and the pulling strings are as invisible as can be. But it always was, and still is, all about power. The power to control. Whether through religion, politics, idealism, patriotism, some social revolution, or money. Or all or several of the above. Even spirituality and art.

It is human nature to want to control the outcome of things, to want to be god-like. To want to be protected, assured of a better future, to want to not be afraid. Those who know how to tap into this fear, can carry great, enthusiastic crowds behind them. They gain power, they can start wars, they can cause death and destruction. It's human nature. Only few great leaders are motivated by love and a will to serve. It's very sad indeed. Well, in fact, it is ancient history, and it is also the present. We do fall for it, all the time.

9/17/2008 10:22:00 AM  
Blogger sarah said...

This tact can be seen today and in most action films. The "bad guys" in the films are always whom ever we, as Americans, are at odds with, be it Russia in the 80's (when Rocky fights the Russian), the Japanese before that or today with any Arab nations. Though it is not (that we know of) directed from the government, it doesn't help American opinion of the other country or those people of said national backgrounds living here in the states.

9/17/2008 10:30:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was wartime, and everything that helped the war effort needed to be done, even taxing the rich at a %95 rate, while currently in our "war on terror" we cut their taxes. Now THATS sick. Of course they kep all those factories built and provided for, which helped all in the post war boom and rebuilding of Europe and Japan.

It is ancient history, few left who dealt with it, and far worse was happening, continued oppression of black folks, segregated military, Japanese internment, but it was total war and so be it, til afterwards. When thngs didnt change, that restarted the civil rights movement, which began the day slavery was institued, the 60s were just when white folks finally got it. And Ayn Rand was a self delusional"superwoman"(fascist)LOL!

Stalins Russia was a terrible place, though he was a native Georgian. As Churchill said, he would make a deal with the devil himself, to defeat Hitler. And we did. Things happen when you lie, for good or evil.

This actually smacks of 1984, when three superpowers constantly fight and realign, to keep the masses in fear and busy waving the flag, when the wars were for those in charge, not about defeating an enemy that didnt really exist. Crossed with Rollerball, where a few international companies have taken over the earth and want to destroy the idea of the individuals ability to make a difference, making him a eunuch, and easy to control.

Art has become this through the third way, Andy Warhols way, pop idolization, which focuses the masses on a few, to identify with them, total airheads who are clueless, and so just commodities for the few to control and pacify the masses. You know, opium of the people kinda thing.

So there are many ways to control theh masses. Fear, greed, idolization. All are in play, dont focus on just one, or you may be caught up in another.

9/17/2008 10:31:00 AM  
Anonymous Bambino said...

Absolutely love love those paintings. For some of you it might look so strange but for me it's somehow little bit romantic.

9/17/2008 10:34:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"it buggers belief"? Is that some kind of gay thing?

9/17/2008 10:39:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Is that some kind of gay thing?

It's some kind of British thing.

Google is your friend. ;-)

9/17/2008 10:43:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Google IS my friend. There are 390 citings for "buggers belief" and over 200,000 for "beggars belief". You do the math.

9/17/2008 10:48:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

hmmm...might be my mistake.

post has been updated.

9/17/2008 10:52:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ed, you are fabulous.

9/17/2008 11:07:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Ed, you are fabulous.

Is that some kind of gay thing? ;-)

9/17/2008 11:09:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

ROTFLOL

9/17/2008 11:55:00 AM  
Anonymous Ken Hagler said...

I suspect it never even crossed Roosevelt's mind that there would ever be any negative consequences for producing commie propaganda. Politicians are notorious for not considering what will happen after they leave office, or that their political opponents might ever be in power. We see the same thing today, with the Busheviks working overtime to turn the US into Soviet Union v2.0 without showing the slightest indication that they've even thought about what it will mean to them if the Democrats ever decide to stop losing presidential elections.

I rather suspect that the venom you mention is itself an example of that manipulation to hate a group. Ask yourself, if those movies had been made by Nazi sympathizers making propaganda about how wonderful the Third Reich was, and the author testifying against them before the HUAC was a famous Communist author who had escaped from the Nazis, would you still hate her so much?

9/17/2008 12:59:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Ken, I think the focus of FDR's propaganda (and while I disagree with his methods, I understand his goals) was to demonstrate a kindred spirit with the working people of the USSR, not its political leaders or thinkers, making it less "commie propaganda" than classist propaganda perhaps, or leftist propaganda perhaps. I think the distinction is important.

"if those movies had been made by Nazi sympathizers making propaganda about how wonderful the Third Reich was, and the author testifying against them before the HUAC was a famous Communist author who had escaped from the Nazis, would you still hate her so much?"

I hated Rand long before I knew she sold out her fellow filmmakers, so it's hard to answer entirely objectively, but I suspect the answer is no and see your point.

9/17/2008 01:21:00 PM  
Blogger lookinaroundbob said...

"so its hard to answer entirely objectively"...
Ahhh objectivism. Rand's philosophies were alot of things; mostly cruel, and kind of ---"republican" but I think she followed them pretty closely-Do what is good for you...and let the chips fall where they may.

9/17/2008 03:11:00 PM  
Blogger namastenancy said...

I despise Ayn Rand as much as you do but she was born in Russia and, as a young girl, was a fervent Communist. Somewhere along the way, she became aware of the evils of Stalinism and after she escaped from the Soviet Union, spent the rest of her life reacting to the terrible conditions of her early environment.

War makes strange bedfellows and FDR was no exception. A couple of Hollywood films while Russia was engaged in a life-and-death struggle probably didn't seem like much at the time. Who could have predicted McCarthy, HUAAC and all that followed in 1943/1944?

9/17/2008 03:36:00 PM  
Blogger William said...

Ed,

I can no longer talk to one of my friends whose gotten wrapped up in conspiracy theory. What he fails to recognize is how his world view is now based on dualism, demonization, scapegoating, and coded rhetoric. Check out this link if you think enemy construction is a thing of the past. The bit on coded rhetoric is especially important when "community organizer" clearly means something else out of certain Republicans' mouths.

9/17/2008 07:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

For my family, communism represents thieves and murderers, so if there was a choice to make for a country between suffering McCarthism or Stalinism, I think I would gladly suffer a little Ayn rand.

But if the current economic crash is a sign that everyone is getting poor, than tomorrow they might get together under some large slogan (or worst: religion) and simply enter your gallery and take away everything as if it was theirs. In fact it's already happening in the worst parts of towns: they call it street gangs.


Still, I'm glad that Yevgenyi is getting critic pick for his "ironisation" (is that a word?). Most focussed social gathering are very fetishistic: communists, nazis, islamists (the wardrobe, the qu'ran). Art, as Damien well demonstrated in his current work, is also extremely fetishistic. The other day I was saying, "if you give me a picture of a Damien Hirst, I have seen it", but anyone could have replied "no way, a Damien doesn't mean anything until the dead animal is in its liquid right in front of you". That's where all the poetry got lost: ideas don't really count anymore. Everything is about owning and holding that Lenin.


Cedric Caspeyan

PS: I usually try to catch Artforum's critic picks, but I don't think I'm going to New York.
Maybe one day hop to catch Louise Bourgeois, but the offerings in museums or galleries this month don't enthrall me (except maybe Keith Tyson). Edward asked recently "what are you looking forward to", but I can't see anything. Oh no... wait! There is
that very good artist at David Zwirner, but he's presenting his most boring work. Too expensive to install the big stuff, huh? Winkleman deserves his pick for trying something different.

9/18/2008 11:34:00 PM  
Blogger David Cauchi said...

Well, 'buggers belief' is very funny. Much better than 'beggars'. Here is some completely unrelated bugger fun (and, no, it's not what you think!).

I've never heard of something making 'the back of my neck furl'. Did you make that up? It's great.

I also love that ironic 'we don't fall for that any more, right?' Yeah right.

9/19/2008 12:33:00 AM  
Blogger Belvoir said...

The FDR film program sounds fascinating, and the paintings are beautiful.

Just want to chime in with my loathing of Ayn Rand, as well. Hateful woman. She DID betray her fellow artists-although her status as an artist was questionable, no beguiling weaver of prose, she.

Whenever people cite Ayn Rand as a favorite, on the Net or in real life, run the other way. She's a darling of MBA grads and junior traders on Wall St. because she seems to dignify selfishness, and an heroic sense of themselves as self-made. What a laugh.

The events in the finance world this week seem to have made a mockery of their boasting, self-reliant, bootstrap narcissism, as they go running to the Government they despise for a bailout, a rescue.

ANYway, must check out those beautiful paintings some more. Thanks.

9/21/2008 03:56:00 PM  

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