09/06/2011 09:57 pm ET Updated Nov 06, 2011

Where Art & Politics Collide

The place where art and politics collide is an automobile accident in which no one is wearing a seat belt. The couple in the front seat is flung through unlatched doors onto the asphalt. The ambulance that arrives is too late and too ill-equipped to save anyone.

In America today, to mix art and politics in any literal sense is considered either passé or taboo, but in the 1930s it was a vein of practice mined by many writers and artists. The mounting atrocities in Europe and the long, slow unraveling of the American economy simply unmoored the American Dream -- setting many adrift. Adrift not only philosophically and spiritually, though this is something, but I mean literally adrift. Americans were unmoored from their jobs, their immediate and extended families, and their communities as they relocated to survive. The 1930s were a time when it must have seemed necessary to have a point to make.

I have just completed a literary biography, Alive Inside the Wreck: A Biography of Nathanael West -- and in doing so, did a great deal of reading on what I'll call our "recent" history. As it turns out, there was much about this history I was never taught and did not know. While I knew much about Stalin and Hitler, I did not know the true scope of their terror and killing -- some 14 million dead over more than a decade. This number and all attached to it is offered up in a brilliant book by Timothy Snyder -- Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. Together, Stalin and Hitler led regimes that starved to death, or let die, or murdered in battles and city streets and in death camps, 14 million women and children, boys and men. They did this, it appears, to counterbalance monumental personal insecurity and historical national shame, and in search of a national supremacy they believed would finally make them and their nations unshakable. It did not.

Recently a well-known political artist of this period was in the news again -- George Grosz, a German who fled Europe and emigrated to the United States. For a time, beginning in 1932, Grosz worked in the United States on the literary magazine Americana. Nathanael West, too, worked on this little satirical magazine and published in it his first piece of fiction on the subject of Hollywood -- "Business Deal," which appeared in October 1933. He would later expand on this theme in The Day of the Locust.

Once again, politics and art collide. The New York Times reported recently that the son of George Grosz was battling with New York's Museum of Modern Art to recover from their vaults two paintings and a watercolor lost "in the midst of Nazi persecution." Again, given my work on the matter, I find the Times' phrase "in the midst of Nazi persecution," entirely understated. Still, the legal argument seems to center not on "proof of ownership," but on whether the current "statutes of limitations" on this and similar claims should exist at all. MOMA appears to believe it should (as do certain members of the judiciary), while the relatives of those destroyed by this history believe it should not. The Times quotes Charles A. Goldstein, counsel to the Commission for Art Recovery, "The statute of limitations was never intended to cover something like wartime mass pillaging of property."

I do not know what was "intended," but it doesn't make sense to me that righting such a horrendous wrong should have a time limit. I am equally sure that MOMA could afford to return these paintings to the artist's family, or offer financial compensation to keep the paintings so that they might stay in the collection and be viewed by the public -- if such an arrangement could be made with the family.

I must admit that even though the circumstances were tainted with trouble, I was pleased to see the name of George Grosz in the news. It reminded me of his diabolical artworks of decaying decadence, of modernity as mob scene, and so on -- work that greatly influenced Nathanael West and S.J. Perelman and so many other American writers and artists. It reminded me that while so much "political art" is temporal, local, subtractive -- well, so much art is, actually -- sometimes an artist fishes from the stew of their times the essence of the trouble, our trouble, a trouble that does not dissipate with time or change with political regime. Sometimes the artist or writer shows us exactly as we are--as we will always be.

With this said, I must confess that I began this piece of art and politics not abstractly, but grounded in the specific--in the life and times of Nathanael West. West was "Alive Inside the Wreck" of the world. West lived at the intersection where art and politics collide. It was West and his wife Eileen who died in an automobile accident in which no one was wearing seat belts. It was West and his wife who were flung from the car through unlatched doors onto the asphalt. It was for West and his wife Eileen that the ambulance arrived too late and too ill-equipped to save them. I was talking about them.