This is Part 2 of the Timeline of Left Political Art. See Part 1, 1900-1944, on Huffington Post.
I might have justifiably started this timeline of political art with the year 1932, when Stalin's forced famine in the Ukraine killed 7 million people. Or 1933, when the first Nazi concentration camps at Orienburg, Dachau and Buchenwald opened. Or 1937, the year of the Japanese Rape of Nanjing. Sadly, as savage as their affronts to civilization are, none of these horrific events set precedents in history, nor generate an art of sustained protest and examination of conscience, comparable to the year 1945.
For the better part of the year, an unprecedented mass of humanity around the world is either in the line of fire or following the barrage of carnage and barbarism flooding each radio dispatch and cinema newsreel heralding the Axis Powers' defeat. Accomplished with unfathomable technology and power, the world's populations quickly come to realize they are no mere wartime generation. And all this is before the day arrives upon which history is torn in two, a day whereby the survivors of 1945 can no longer look back to the dawn of humanity without seeing that, overnight, an irreparable breach has torn their reality so radically, it separates them from all who have lived and died before them.
Most demarcations of historical epochs are necessarily vague. Not this one. History is split to the precise second at 5:29:54 a.m., July 16, 1945, and detonated at the set coordinates of the Jomada del Muerto desert of New Mexico. It can also be confirmed that among the casualties of that first atomic blast count the utter annihilation of Modernism's Utopian spirit--the promise that for decades had been issued with each new social, political, and artistic manifesto, each new government administration and technological advance, as if the moderns were some tribal people awaiting the arrival of their messiah. We know how the director of the project to make the first atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, famously announces that messiah's arrival by citing the Hindu Vedas' deity of Death and Destruction. Eminently prepared and candid, Oppenheimer was doing no more than putting the survivors of 1945 on notice that their utopian technology had just delivered them the obscene capacity for unleashing any and all inhospitality onto nature and humanity.
Today we look back at the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki almost as if they were isolated events. But in the course of 1945, it was one more devastation piled atop the accumulated shock still reverberating psychically throughout the world at hearing of the atrocities at Nanjing, the firebombing of Europe, the Holocaust and death camps, the forced labor and genocide of the Gulags, and the virtual devastation of the once revered laws, guiding institutions, and moral authorities that now are seen as leading the world so far astray.
We who have been born since 1945 think we can compare the events of the Second World War to 9/11. But not really. Any cognizant adult alive between 1937 and 1945 who didn't live in a jungle or in a mountain cave was informed of some battle or massacre or collapse comparable to 9/11 each month, week--and in 1945, seemingly, each day. We might better understand the conservative 1950s when we think of the survivors of 1945 willingly living for a decade and more in retreat, or in some haze of bewilderment. It is a bewilderment that understandably compelled many survivors to disassociate themselves with the ideologies and institutions of the new, especially those proposed, now erstwhile, utopian political ideologies advocated by both the Left and the Right--the same ideologies that either left them bereft of a defense against fascism, or delivered them into its hands.
Looking back on those first few decades after the Second World War, we are able to see how the shock, disillusionment, and anxiety of world populations that extended well into the late 1960s explains the new isolation felt by the Left. The Marxist states have been proving themselves unable to sustain the exuberance of revolution and must resort to mass persecution to implement their ends. The betrayal begins almost from the start of the October 1917 Revolution in Russia, but doesn't fully convince the Left until well after 1945, when the undeniable evidence for the crimes of Stalin, Mao, and a host of other smaller Communist dictators, prove they resort to wholesale slaughter. For this reason, the designation "Left" will in some places in the timeline be used as it was by the intelligentsia and journalism of the day when referring (especially in Parts 3 and 4) to the propagandistic art of China, Vietnam, Cuba, Africa, and the Middle East. At other times the shift of the Left will follow the change in perception of the same world regimes when their acts of repression and persecution become publicly disclosed. And yet, we can still ascertain that, more often than not, by the 1960s, the art that stands oppositionally against the powers that would deprive populations of individual civil liberties is designated to be the art of the Left -- despite that some of that art, like the ideologies they disseminate, is later regarded to lead to dead ends or more social controls.
The effect of these dead ends and exposed controls in the 1950s is to shift to moderate and middle societal models that deflect accusations of communism -- now equated in the West with totalitarianism. This in turn propels some artists further to the extreme left, perhaps in compensation for the loss of numbers. What is certain is that by the 1950s, the effort to abort all totalitarianism becomes the global agenda eclipsing the idealism of all or any former utopias. And since that time, no global event, movement or ideology has proven capable of reviving the Utopian vision -- or of dispersing the specter of nuclear capability. Not the formation of the United Nations; not the fall of the Berlin Wall; not the dissolution of that brooding behemoth, the Soviet Union; not even the evolution of a global economy high on international trade and credit. The vision of the fire clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have dimmed with the years, but with each new global crisis, its fallout still rains down on us in some world-encompassing war of the imagination. That much we are reminded of everyday in the aftermath of the Iraq War, the instability of the Pakistani-Indian border, the prospect of Iran's acquisition of nuclear capability, and of course by 9/11.
As for discerning what defines Left and Right politics in art, save for those artists who adhere to some explicit variety of pictorial social realism or conceptualist activism throughout their careers, we may have to consider what period it is to which we refer to a given movement, group, or individual artist being considered. In a capitalist artworld that assimilates even the most politically revolutionary art that shows signs of being convertible to a high-yielding commodity, today's political iconoclasts can become tomorrow's blue chip investments. Left and Right in some of this art, especially in the American art movements that dominate the art world from the 1960s on, must thereby be judged by weighing the expressed social and political intents of the artists off the assimilation or disregard of the artists' work by the culture receiving it. Which is why some of the entries here prove more arguably of the Left than assuredly. In 1957, when Guy Debord writes that the "abundance of televised imbecilities is probably one of the reasons for the American working class's inability to develop any political consciousness," he hadn't yet realized that those imbecilities -- or at least their signage -- were about to be taken up as the fodder of Pop Art. And to this day, Pop Art, like Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, has its fervent advocates on both the Left and the Right.
TIMELINE OF LEFTIST SOCIAL AND POLITICAL ART, PART 2: 1945-1966 (with an overlap of art from 1941-45 not seen until after the Second World War).
People who have read Theodor Adorno best remember his tortured admonishment of 1949: "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." And it truly must have seemed obscene to attempt to justify proceeding with poetry at a time when all the arts were being indicted for failing to tame the brutality that had risen up to consume centuries of advancing culture, government and law. Adorno may not have been an Existentialist, but whatever sympathies he held for the philosophy, which justifies the persistence of poetry and art even in the aftermath of the tens of millions murdered, might have compelled him to amend his view. Some seventeen years later, at the height of Existentialism's popularity, Adorno wrote, "Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream." And elsewhere, that suffering "demands the continuation of the art that it forbids."
The obsession with Existentialism, of course, has everything to do with the events of war culminating in 1945. In the sudden void of viable political theories, Existentialism defines itself as a philosophy divorced from the theories of the past. Preoccupied with existence--immediate, direct, and primal--Existentialism seeks to erase all trace of the tyrannical notion of essence--that is, absolute, distinct, and unalterable identity, the kind that so often insisted it possessed the truth, like no other.
Essence is what threatens the postwar intellectuals fleeing the impositions of identity. Which really means they are fleeing the authorities -- the religions, nationalisms, ethnicities, biological and social sciences and their academies -- presuming to define our identities for us. No generation before the postwar, nuclear intelligentsia understood the universal strivings for freedom, and if not freedom, mere existence, in more universally shattering terms. At a time when freedom and democracy were entering the ideological lexicons around the world, Existentialism, with its abstract conception of freedom bound to recognized responsibility, heralded free will as a basic prerequisite of human existence. "We represent freedom which chooses," wrote Sartre, "but we could not choose to be free. We are doomed to freedom."
1941-44: Despite their contempt for the "degenerate art" of the Jews (see Part 1), the Nazi propagandists find that the deportation of Jewish artists and intellectuals who have achieved international recognition poses a serious threat. While the world is being assured that the Reich is instituting the resettlement of the Jews in the East, the Nazis find that the deportation and extermination of internationally-recognized artists and writers will sound an alarm when they're found missing. For the sole purpose of propaganda, the Nazis deport artists to the Czech ghetto of Theresienstadt (Terezín in Czech). Publicized as the "gift" that the Führer gave to the Jews, the camp becomes the site at which propaganda films are made to mis-impress the world with scenes of Theresienstadt as a colony of happy and healthy Jewish artists, poets, writers and musicians. The camp is even temporarily beautified when the National Red Cross insists on being allowed to inspect the camp. During the visit, concerts and readings are staged for the Red Cross officials. Upon their departure, the camp is reconverted back into the wretched and disease-ridden way station to the extermination camps.
1941: During the thirty-six weeks that the German Luftwaffe bomb England, Henry Moore sketches the crowds huddled together on the platforms of the underground London subway system known as the Tube. After the war, the series becomes one of Moore's most beloved series among Britons.
1944: The Soviets liberate the German Majdanek and Sobibor extermination camps in eastern Poland. For the first time the full extent of Nazi inhumanity is witnessed by the allies. In response to the images of piled corpses released to the public, Picasso paints Charnel House, his internalization of a pile of cadavers in various states of decomposition. Jean Fautrier, a painter who had worked with the French resistance, paints a series he calls Hostages, consisting of obliterated faces or body remains of little more than the fragments of torn skin and crushed bone. Some of his paintings depict flayed skins that would not be recognizable were it not for the outlines of fingers and toes.
1945: The defeat of Japan hinges on the world's first and only two atomic bombs used as weapons. The combined death toll of the incinerations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is estimated to be 185,000 civilians. Although much art has been made in commemoration or condemnation of the event and its aftermath, and despite that the imagery is ubiquitous in popular culture, no single great work of art has emerged from direct use of the iconography of the mushroom cloud. The image seems to hold out an obscene challenge that no authentic genius wishes to take up.
1945: With the Pacific war ended, Japanese officials begin a program of whitewashing Japan's military and administrative actions during the war. One of those actions is to permanently erase masterpieces of Army propaganda from public memory. We to this day still don't know the extent of the propaganda produced by the Great Japan Army Painters' Association, the war effort's employment of several hundred artists to glorify the Army and the Emperor before citizens and captives alike. We have no idea how many artworks were destroyed by the Japanese to hide their atrocities. We only know that 153 war paintings that had been confiscated by the US occupying forces remain in storage in Japan's national museum. To this day, successive prime ministers have kept the paintings from being shown for fear of offending the neighboring nations depicted. The Chinese in particular could react with outrage over depictions of the massacre of Nanjing depicted as a glorious triumph for the Emperor.
In the decades since the war ended, the few Japanese artists willing to admit they served their Emperor by painting wartime propaganda about the Japanese conquests and defeats have publicly offered their post-war art as proof of their renunciation of war. One of them, the esteemed artist Shu Ogawara, is only different in offering us his war propaganda painting as well. He is also one of the few Japanese artists who doesn't shun responsibility for making propaganda under a feudal conscription. "I am responsible for the war paintings. If I do not take responsibility, who does? I leave others to make a judgment."
1945-55: The end of the war is met with a new generation who take up Existentialism in theory and its application in art to embody their own astonished disillusionment with a civilization that couldn't or wouldn't eradicate the onslaughts of the fascist powers. And yet, as with the avant-garde movements of the first half of the century, to be a radical artist or writer in the postwar culture doesn't mean that the artist is also radically Left politically. The same goes with the Existentialists and those artists whose work, as with the Action Painters, bore close affinities to Existentialism.
The artists and intellectuals informed by Existentialist writing at times chose sides. In the Albert Camus vs. Jean-Paul Sartre debate, this might mean that, in political terms, they advocated the abandonment of Marx (Camus) vs. the rehabilitation of Marx (Sartre). As writers negotiate to what extent the human will can surmount the adversity of an indifferent reality, sculptors and painters retreat from the very thought of the masterpiece--which failed to tame the barbarous impulses of nations. The artists instead retrieve and embody the primal mark of the most primitive humans. This mark is seen as their trace--their assertion and proclamation of their existence and persistence in a world of adversity. The Action Painters who look to the individual and direct mark as the trace of their being, can be seen as rejecting a cultural history associated with the corrupt will to power. This in itself is an act of revolt that identifies the artists on the side of the Left, despite that their art would later be associated with corporate institutions and CIA backing (see 1950-2011).
1945-1947: Three fateful and momentous state partitions -- of North and South Korea; of Palestine and Israel; and of India and Pakistan -- are worked out by foreign nations near simultaneously. All three brand the new nations as persistent hot spots marked by indeterminate wars and escalating instability that radiates global ramifications for the next six decades.
1945-49: With the war over, homebound African-American soldiers are faced with having to again contend with Jim Crow laws in the South and unofficial segregation in the North. Jacob Lawrence, who had enlisted in the United States Coast Guard in 1943 and served on the first racially integrated warship in the U.S. since the Civil War, would see to it that race wouldn't be a barrier for his art. Before enlisting, Lawrence, who could only afford tempera paint when he began his pictorial narratives, had already developed an iconic style that helped him gain renown as one of the first African-American artists to become celebrated for painting the history and struggles of African-Americans. His Migration of the Negro series, begun in 1940, made a name for Lawrence when Fortune magazine published selections from the series in 1941. Lawrence's depictions of the great flight of African-Americans from the South to the North drew from the stories his parents told of their own migration. Upon completion of the series' 60 panels, Lawrence spent the remainder of the 1940s, including his free time with the coast guard, depicting contemporary African-Americans at work. The scenes, which rank Lawrence among the mid-century's most astute visual commentators on the labor of the working poor, have a straightforward yet vibrant quality because Lawrence had witnessed such scenes while growing up in the all-black neighborhoods of New Jersey and Harlem.
1945-46: From the beginning of Mohandas Gandhi's advocacy of non-violent civil disobedience, numerous Indian and foreign artists have sought to portray the most famous of freedom fighters. Among the last portraits made of Gandhi, those most acclaimed are by Polish-born British expressionist painter Feliks Topolski. Although Gandhi gives Topolski free access to sketch and paint Gandhi as he goes about his public affairs, he will not consent to a sitting. It may be to our benefit, as the haste to which Topolski must render the spiritual and political leader makes the work bristle with a nervous energy that conveys Gandhi to be as restless as the news coverage of his famous country-wide marches have made him out to be. It may also be this quality that has prompted some of the more superstitious of Topolski and Gandhi enthusiasts to gush that the sketches are premonitions of the Mahatma's assassination despite their being made two years before.
1946-1969: Although we associate the modern Civil Rights movement with the 1950s and 1960s, many of the people who would become the heroes of the 1960's Civil Rights struggle grew up knowing the art that Elizabeth Catlett produced in the 1940s. The adversities and challenges facing postwar African-Americans are a recurring theme in her work, though she also is known among the Left for her depictions of Native and Latin American life and politics. Unlike many of her peers, Catlett never shrank from portraying difficult subjects, such as the Ku Klux Klan and the lynching of innocent blacks. A series of linoleum prints entitled, I Am A Negro Woman, and which she produced in the 1940s, remains one of her most widely admired bodies of work for its direct confrontation of white supremacy.
1947-1975: The House Committee on UnAmerican Activities (HUAC), an investigative committee of the U.S. House of representatives, begins a series of Communist witch hunts that divide the nation for the better part of the 1950s and 1960s. At the same time that Senator Joseph McCarthy accuses the Democratic party of "20 years of treason" and harangues the American Civil Liberties Union as a front for the Communist Party, the HUAC investigates the Hollywood film industry. More than 300 artists -- including directors, radio commentators, actors and screenwriters -- are boycotted by the studios. Some, like Charlie Chaplin, leave the U.S. to find work. Others write under pseudonyms. Only about ten percent succeeded in rebuilding their careers within the entertainment industry.
1948-51; Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, various European Leftist, avant-gardist and theoretically-inclined political groups--the best known being COBRA and The Lettrist--form in reaction to what they perceive as the defeat of the Surrealist and Dada projects by capitalism and their absorption into Western capitalist "Kulture."
1949: Existentialist author Simone de Beauvoir releases The Second Sex, a commentary on the historical treatment of women that, in terms of modernist theory, launches what becomes known as the second wave of feminism. The Second Sex continues to prove relevant to both today's third feminist wave and transgendered individuals for having refuted the essentialism of biological determinism that held gender as defined at birth, and replacing it with the theoretical framework that a later generation will use to assert that gender is a construct subject to choice.
1949-53: On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong renames the 2,200-year old nation of China as the People's Republic of China, and its capital is renamed Beijing. While Communists around the world celebrate the birth of the new nation, Chiang Kai-shek and some two million Nationalist Chinese take refuge on the island of Taiwan. Marxists in the West hold out hope that the new Communist Government will revive the utopian dream of a flourishing Communist State that had been betrayed by Stalin.
1950-53 In June of 1950, the Korean War breaks out. The war is in large part a measure of the growing competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and the developing dance of Soviet-Chinese relations. It was American and Soviet administrators at the end of the war with Japan who agreed to divide the peninsula along the 38th Parallel, with American troops reinforcing the border from the south and Soviet troops to the North. In 1948, the North declares itself a Communist government. Mao Zedong, fearful that the U.S. and its allies will use whatever victory is gained in Korea as impetus for the imperialist occupation of Manchuria, joins in the anti-Western effort.
1950-1982: The artists Maruki Iri and Maruki Toshi in 1950 begin the first of fifteen panels painted over a span of thirty-two years, depicting the moment of detonation and the immediate and horrific consequences of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Having lost relatives and numerous friends in the first days after the explosions, and more who succumb to radiation-related diseases and injuries over the succeeding years, the husband and wife team spare viewers no horror as they expressionistically depict the annihilation of those lucky enough to perish in the first seconds of the explosion, and with each new panel, the excruciating suffering and chaos in the lives of those who survive for hours, days and longer. Despite the carnage, moments of tenderness permeate scenes with dying lovers in embrace, the elderly and the newborn alike being clung to by survivors desperately trying to keep them alive or cremating their remains. The artists paint their own experiences as two of the hundreds of thousands of survivors who, having lived far enough outside Hiroshima and Nagasaki to be spared suffering, risked their own health to descend on the sites of devastation to care for those in the throes of death, or who survive despite massive burns and injuries. The Marukis also take pains to show not only the Japanese stricken by the blasts, but also American POWS and Korean residents among those who suffer and die. In 1967, the panels finished up until that point are installed permanently in the Maruki Gallery for the Hiroshima Panels, in Higashi-Matsuyama. In 1995, the artists are nominated for a Nobel Peace prize for the series. The panels are accompanied by descriptive poems written by the couple. A fragment of the poem that accompanies Fire reads: "In an instant all burst into flames and the ruins were ablaze. The dead silence of the vast desert broken. Some fell senseless under fallen debris, others desperately digging out. All consumed by the crimson. Glass shards pierced bellies, arms and legs were lost. People fell and were taken by the fire."
1950-1970: A new white collar class emerges in force in North America and Western Europe as unprecedented and spreading affluence expands the overall middle class. The rise of the combined economic and political power of the middle classes, through increased labor and government representation, launches an economic boon that is marked by an increase in the conspicuous consumption of goods. In the United States, this is accompanied by the mass migration of white populations to the suburbs, which spawns the myth of the American dream of everyone owning their own home with a lawn and white picket fence. In terms of art, the avant-garde that has since the late 1930s and early 1940s migrated to New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Toronto, increasingly reflects the Liberal middle class as it comes to embrace the new Keynesian theory of capitalist economics. This means advocating government spending of federal social and cultural programs, and the dispersal of corporate charity as economic stimulus and cultural enrichment. During the economic boon, the Left gradually shifts its focus away from revolutionary collectivization of the means of production, and onto the institutional protection of cilvil liberties, as guaranteed by a country's constitution. Throughout the 1950s, the political, social and economic philosophies that arise out of this expansion of affluence are imported to non-Western nations, an influence that exacerbates tensions between the West and the Communist and Socialist nations now crystalized into the Cold War.
1950-2011: In the West, the artists and their advocates on the Left, and the cultural and governmental institutions on the Right, begin to square off in what becomes known as the Culture Wars. In many respects the Culture Wars are a miniature reflection of the Cold War waged by the US and its European allies with the Soviet Block and China. The CIA and the U.S. Information Agency in particular fund major cultural magazines and traveling exhibitions, while Moscow is known to support the peace movements in Europe. Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s and Minimalism in the 1960s are especially susceptible to being "co-opted" by both Left and Right because of their visually apolitical or politically ambiguous formalism -- the empty slate to be written on at will by political ideologists. As the Culture Wars and the ever-spiraling prices of blue-chip art entrench the Professional Left of universities and journalism against the Corporate Sponsorship of Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and Pop Art, the three art movements become identified with mainstream patronage. By the late 1960s, all three are largely abandoned by the Left in the U.S., in favor of Conceptual and Performance Art. In Europe, the Situationist's anti-art interventions are taken up by artists on the Left, while painting and traditional tendencies in sculpture increasingly become perceived as commodities manipulated by the elite class and its multi-national corporations.
1957-1972: By far the most influential of the European art groups on the Left, the Situationist International absorbs many of the members of earlier radical groups hailing from Algeria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Holland, Italy and Czechoslovakia. In June 1957, the Situationist manifesto is written by its co-founder and chief theorist, Guy Debord. Called the "Report on the Construction of Situations," Debord borrows heavily from Jean-Paul Sartre, Georg Lukács and Bertolt Brecht, yet his pronouncements still have considerable resonance today, particularly among European artists. From the outset, Debord defines capitalism as the target of the Situationist intervention for effecting the most liberating change of society and life. "Capitalism has invented new forms of struggle (state intervention in the economy, expansion of the consumer sector, fascist governments) while camouflaging class oppositions through various reformist tactics and exploiting the degenerations of working-class leaderships."
What sets Debord's manifesto apart from other Leftist tracts of its day is his recognition of "the continual and rapid increase of leisure time resulting from the level of productive forces our era has attained." Debord sees not only "a battle of leisure is taking place before our eyes, a battle whose importance in the class struggle has not been sufficiently analyzed," he also is acutely cognizant that the entertainment media of capitalism is the new opium of the masses. Debord writes at the beginning of the television age that the "abundance of televised imbecilities is probably one of the reasons for the American working class's inability to develop any political consciousness."
All art made by the Situationists, which become known as "situations," is conceived as an onslaught of interventions (in French, détournements) on the everyday routines, entertainments, advertising, and productions of capitalism. What initially is conceived as a modest hijacking of capitalist media and spaces and their displacement with "situations" of art and poetry, by the late 1960s becomes re-conceptualized as a project of regaining free life without the capitalist trappings of art. Debord writes that situations begin "beyond the ruins of the modern spectacle," with the spectacle defined by Debord as the array of capitalist entertainments and promotions keeping people alienated from the natural world. Like Brecht in the 1930s, Debord sees the most potent weapon the artist holds against conformity is the ability "to break the spectators' psychological identification with the hero, so as to draw the audience into activity by provoking their capacities to revolutionize their own lives."
1956-1973: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is freed in 1956 from exile for a letter he wrote nearly fifteen years earlier containing "libelous speech" about Soviet leaders and "anti-Soviet propaganda." After spending eleven years in various Gulag labor camps, Solzhenitsyn is allowed to return to Russia. He immediately begins writing The Gulag Archipelago in secret. As a compilation of hundreds of eye-witness accounts by prisoners of Soviet concentration camps and forced labor that begins with Lenin in 1918, the discovery of his manuscripts become life threatening due to the severity of the crimes he is exposing and the subversive quality of his writing. Under observation as a former prisoner and because other of his writings are being scrutinized by the government agency of the Union of Writers, the KGB seizes manuscripts for far less threatening fiction that Solzhenitsyn is also writing at the time. Writing now in secret at the homes of friends, he hides chapters of his manuscripts in various locations to prevent the entire work from being discovered and seized by the KGB. In 1967, Solzhenitsyn completes the three volumes of The Gulag Archipelago, and it is smuggled out of the country. In 1973, when the KGB discoverers a manuscript for the first volume, Solzhenitsyn gives the go ahead to publish his book in the West. The publication causes him to be deported from the Soviet Union and stripped of his Soviet citizenship.
With the publication of The Gulag Archipelago, the illusion of the Soviet model of a revolutionary state is permanently shattered for intellectuals globally. The Gulag's penal system, forced labor and executions become indisputable, and what becomes known as the Old Revolutionary Left, or specifically the advocates of Leninist- and Stalinist-Marxism, fall into disrepute, and ultimately despair, as the failure and betrayal of the premiere state-implemented Marxist utopia becomes certain.
1947-69: Although art made by Lesbians about real, living Lesbians (as opposed to Greek and Roman myths) can be traced back to fin de siècle Paris (see Part 1), art about queer men made by queer men doesn't appear prominently until after the Second World War. Still, it is almost a quarter-century before Stonewall that Kenneth Anger makes his landmark homoerotic film, Fireworks, in 1947. The film's protagonist, a young man who yearns for love, entertains the kind of abject-masochistic fantasies of being brutalized by thugs just so he can be rescued by a handsome and valiant sailor. What seems an embarassing cliché today, is no less than the first significant film of any kind openly expressing queer male desire without apology or embarrassment. Soon after Anger's films become known, queer iconography begins to permeate underground cinema and figurative painting in Hollywood, New York, London, Paris, and Tokyo. Some of the art reinforces the stereotype of the abject queer, eager to be physically imprisoned and abused to obtain sex -- including Jean Genet's landmark film, Un Chant D'Amour. The abject tendency may take some time to reach Tokyo, but when it does, no less than writer Yukio Mishima poses as photographer Kishin Shinoyama's St. Sebastian, the iconic Roman martyr killed in the name of male desire. By the 1950s, a more natural and life-affirming homoeroticism permeates figurative paintings, most noteworthy among them being the art of Paul Cadmus and Francis Bacon, and shortly after, David Hockney. All show they bear no qualms about displaying explicitly homosexual liaisons without the clichés.
1959-2007: In the first decades of the 20th Century, industrial architecture is heralded by critics and portrayed by artists as the pinnacle of Modernism and the promise of the utopia to come. By the 1960s, the very same structures begin to be torn down for their obsolescence in a culture that will soon be referring to itself as Postmodern and Dystopian. In 1959, well ahead of the curve of Leftist theory and cultural commentary on the demise of industry in the West, the husband and wife team, Bernd and Hilla Becher, begin making photographic art out of their site visits to the vanishing industrial architecture of Germany. When they begin to document the declining industrial plants of the rest of Europe and the United States, the photographs they compile into grids of structuralist-typology become championed by Marxist and other Left-cultural critics for its semiotic implications of a Western-capitalist civilization whose industry is in decline and dispersed to the nations and cultures outside the West. On the architecture they photograph and its valuation, Hilla Becher comments: "They were constructed with no consideration of so-called beauty and serve their functionality alone. Which means that when they lose their function they are no longer entitled to exist, so they are torn down."
1961-1989: Planners vs Public. Since the mid-19th century, New York City had been a planner's metropolis, with the public a voiceless mass of onlookers swept aside to make room for the designs of public thoroughfares, private and public architecture, and public art. That changed in the 1960s, after Jane Jacobs, a journalist for Architectural Forum, published her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961. When urban planning mogul Robert Moses began implementing his Lower Manhattan Expressway project, a 10-lane thoroughfare that would demolish Washington Square Park, and much of Greenwich Village, SoHo, Little Italy, Chinatown, and the Lower East Side, Jacobs led the fight to preserve lower Manhattan from the wrecker's ball and won. Jacobs, however, didn't win in the battle to save the much beloved Pennsylvania Station, which was designed by McKim, Mead and White, and the building was demolished and replaced by New York's most hated building, Madison Square Garden. The loss of Penn Station did lead to the formation of New York's Landmarks Preservation Commission, and the city's Landmarks Law, in 1967. The law arrived in time to stall the scheduled demolition of Grand Central Station, until a campaign led by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis took the battle for preservation all the way to the Supreme Court, where it won 6-3.
1956-70: If there is a Leftist ideology to be found in Pop Art, it is in the prolonged look it provides at our own indulgence in the orgy of the modern fetish commodity. There's little question that the Pop Artists weren't about to pander to Marxists or any other authoritarian party line, but they are the first artists since the Surrealists to make reflexive use of signs inherited from high modernist (and sometimes Marxist) structuralist criticism, only now infused with a new sense of American entrepreneurial irony. Pop Art, with its images culled from the media that surround us (billboards, newspapers, and shopping aisles), lingers over banality as it challenges viewers to differentiate between the artwork and the commodity packaging itself. In this sense, Pop Art is the direct descendant of Magritte's painting of a pipe with the French words inscribed at the bottom: "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" ("This is not a pipe."). This time the popular imaging comes without instructions, but it does come with a deeper, two-part negation of traditional realistic representation. The Warhol Campbell Soup cans painting is not only not a stack of Campbell soup cans, it's also not an advertisement for the Campbell brand. Salivation at the sight of the image is allowed, just so long as we make certain that we salivate while thinking about why and how we feel so compelled.
Pop Art revived content in art, but only by reflexively turning that content in on itself to critically mirror the modes of production, commodification, and promotion that had in a few decades wholly revolutionized the texture and functions of everyday Western life. In place of the modernist myth of "art for art's sake," Pop Art analyses how our desire and its gratification are made the motivating forces underpinning capitalism's potential for branding all life.
1960-69: The Vienna Actionists, a loose-knit group of anti-commodity artists, came together frequently to make an art of transgressive action that challenged the precepts of reason, morality, and belief systems, including political ideology. If the artists Günter Brus, Otto Mühl, Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler have to be labeled politically, they are best described as anarchist in their refusal to align with any centrist or canonical authority. The violent, ritualistically Dionysian mock-savagery that some of their performances take on, though more theatrical than real, put the artists constantly at odds with the Austrian law and police for taking risks that some audience members deemed dangerous. The artists served jail sentences for breaking laws of moral decency, public exposure, and degrading symbols of the state. They remain important to art history because, besides being some of the earliest action art performed, and the first to introduce animal blood and carcasses as artistic media to be carved and torn apart before the audiences' eyes, they also saw to it that theirs is the most spectacularly documented performance art in photography and film. As a result, their documentation has had a large impact on the happenings and performance art of the 1960s and 1970s, and they can be said to have anticipated the political actions of the Yippies of the late 1960s. Hermann Nitsch has since staged several large-scale ritualistic actions with dozens of performers drenched in animal blood (obtained from slaughter houses), which he assembles under his Orgien Mysterien Theater.
1963-75: With Minimalist art proclaimed by artists as freed of all metaphysical and cultural content, art becomes reduced wholly to materialist principles and the critique of its production and processes, structures and systems of aesthetics. At the start, the work is considered by some to be the ultimate socialist realization of materialism (though not always via Marx). But within a few years, the quick assimilation of minimalist art into the mainstream art-market and it's identification with the corporations that eagerly purchase and publicly install it, Minimalism, like Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art before it, become one of the darling aesthetics and art commodities of the affluent and powerful. It is this quiet complicity in the face of world power structures that ultimately undermines Minimalist art's value for the Left.
1964: The same year that Stanley Kubrick's satire Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is released, Mao Zedong makes it known that China has gained nuclear capability, and joins the "Nuclear Club" with the US, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France. We forget that the film had the resonance that it did precisely because of how terrifying China had come to seem to the West. Since the mid-1950s, Mao has murdered an estimated 48 million people who resist his disastrous campaign, "The Great Leap Forward," engineered to accelerate state collectivization of industry and agriculture despite formidable and widespread resistance. The logic of the anti-Red theorists at the Pentagon goes: If Mao would murder that many of his own people just to save face with outside nations, why wouldn't the dictator be willing to sacrifice a war that would kill many more of his people to wipe out the U.S. or the Soviet Union? Kubrick's black comedy, ever mindful that the most intriguing humor is that which churns our fears as it makes us laugh, has the effect of unleashing anti-nuclear protests in many of the nations in which it is screened.
1965-1990: As art students in Moscow, Vitaly Komar & Alex Melamid become a team in 1965. In 1968, the pair join the Moscow Union of Artists, during which they evolve into political satirists. After the pair develop a version of Soviet Pop Art that combines the irreverence of Dada with the visual style and apparent iconography of official Soviet Socialist Realism, they proceed to lampoon the severe political correctness of Soviet art history -- a dangerous prank under Leonid Breshnev's regime. Two years after they are expelled from the Union of Artists for "distortion of Soviet reality," the pair are arrested and their paintings confiscated. It is likely they are spared more serious consequences because they are becoming widely known among artists, critics, and collectors in the West.
1966: Gillo Pontecorvo releases the film, The Battle of Algiers, his chronicle of the bloody revolution of the Algerian nationals against the French colonialists in the late 1950s. The film is quickly proclaimed a masterpiece of neorealist cinema for its convincing, but wholly cinematic, mimicry of documentarian styles. At the same time, it casts a sympathetic light on the use of violence among colonized peoples in their struggle for independence. The film helps to bring attention in the West to the 1961 book The Wretched of the Earth by Algerian revolutionary, Frantz Fanon, in visualizing Fanon's call to the colonized peoples of the world to take up arms against their colonizers. The film is studied intensely throughout the late 1960s by students and activists in Europe and America planning their own revolutionary strategies. Reports claim that the Pentagon for a time used the film to train American soldiers in the guerilla tactics of insurgents. The invaluable service of revolutionary women delivering and retrieving weapons beneath the veil of hijab, or in their market baskets, introduced Westerners to the first serious and dignified portrayal of Arab and Islamic women in the West. Similarly, the Algerian's ancient but highly effective chain of information relay, in which messages are passed by way of dozens of unnamed contacts, all of whom are strangers to one another, brilliantly assures the arrest of any one link in the information chain ends with him. With the French shown to be strategically outmaneuvered despite their superior armed forces, the film brought a new level of respect for Arab cultures among the Left, in particular those with revolutionary and anti-colonial agendas.
Next: Timeline Part 3. 1967-1990. (The timeline has been expanded to 4 parts.)
Read other posts by G. Roger Denson on Huffington Post in the archive.