The Politics of Revolutionary Art Today: what news is really newsworthy?

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Today’s New York Times carries two splashy articles of interest to revolution-watchers, but a third, short piece buried in section C makes the most useful commentary on the way things are. The first article details the backlash of the Parisian intelligentsia to a new video game set during the French Revolution; the second article reviews Jennifer Lawrence’s role as leader of a people’s revolt in the Hunger Games series (Mocking Jay, Part One). Neither of them will surprise you much. The video game has incited anger because of its inaccurate portrayal of the Revolution, and especially its sympathetic depiction of the royal Bourbons. Reporter Dan Bilefsky suggests that such outrage is misplaced, given other more important issues facing the country, and dismisses the whole event in ironic ridicule, announcing: “only in France could a video game provoke an earnest philosophical debate over the decadence of the monarchy, the moral costs of democracy, the rise of the far right, and the meaning of the state.” Describing the sequel to the Hunger Games franchise, Manohla Dargis notes that the heroine’s “very survival has made her an existential threat to Panem” and that her bellicose actions in this installment “serve as a rebuke to the Capitol,” until the end at least. It appears that the film winds down to a rote handling of gender and war, where “Katniss Everdeen stands gaping at the rescue, with widening and watering eyes.” If it is unsurprising that an American reporter would scoff at the French outrage over the memory of the First Republic, it is also unsurprising that a Hollywood film would treat its heroine like “the girl.” Both media—the NYT reporting on French foibles, and the Hollywood film industry’s treatment of young women—can be counted on to perpetuate those stereotypes.

HAACKE-GALLERY6-superJumboFor a bracing wake-up call on the people’s power to change the world (or rather our impotence), readers have to look a little deeper into the paper. I suggest you look into the work of Hans Haacke, reviewed by Ken Johnson on page C24. Haacke’s work foregrounds the role of money, notably the money of the billionaire Koch brothers, who have helped conservative causes rise to unprecedented prominence in American affairs. It does so by making novel use of artistic media, such as the 13-foot-tall “Gift Horse” sculpture (soon to be displayed in Trafalgar Square in London), whose leg is harnessed to the London Stock Exchange. Or consider “Circulation,” which operates through a system of transparent tubes piping water–and power–across the gallery floor. As Johnson notes, this kind of art provides “sane thinking about the real world and its interwoven systems.”
Haacke’s exhibit at the Paula Cooper gallery is unlikely to lull observers into a feel-good sense of our superiority. It will most likely gnaw at your consciousness by reminding you of your insignificance.

And for that reason, exactly, it deserves our attention.

How Does it Feel to be a Revolutionary? Hari Kunzru seizes the day.

Hari Kunzru my-revolutions

No book captures so passionately the effervescent anxiety of revolutionary action better than Hari Kunzru, My Revolutions,* a book I just discovered by chance.  Should be required reading for any student of revolution of any period.  It is one of those books you have to put down now and then, simply to make the experience last longer.

Consider the passage below, which relates the thoughts of an underground group of young activists during the build-up to their most radical phase.  It begins with a reproach against violence, and ends with … well, you’ll see.

Q:  Your gesture is infantile.  The revolution will be led by the working class.  A terrorist is just a liberal with a bomb, arrogantly presuming to lead the way.

Rubbish.  You’re covering up your cowardice with quotations.  Change is imminent.  It’s happening around the world.  The slightest pressure will tip the balance in our favor.

One spark, a thousand fires burning.

We were so impatient.  We wanted the time to be now.  Of the core group, only Matthias and Helen remained seriously troubled by what we’d done.  We were supposed to be protesting against war.  Surely a peaceful gesture would have been better?  I accused them of fetishizing nonviolence, telling them they’d just internalized the state’s distinction between legitimate protest and criminality.  Leo and I were censured for our individualism, but the logic of confrontation did its work.  By the end of the meeting, everyone was in agreement.  We would go further.

*Hari Kunzru, My Revolutions (New York: Plume / Penguin, 2009), 173-74.

A whirlwind week for revolution watchers

This has been a whirlwind week for revolution watchers world-wide. Ukraine remains unstable, Syria is flashing into red-hot crisis-mode, and now there is the Hong Kong situation or the “Umbrella Revolution” unfolding before our eyes!
Not to mention the mock demonstration mounted by Chanel during Fashion Week in Paris….

Karl Lagerfeld leads a demonstration Paris Oct 2014

As seen in the photo, from the October 1 New York Times, Karl Lagerfeld led a group including Gisele Bünchen holding a bullhorn through a fake city street set up in the Grand Palais. The placards announce, “Boys Should Get Pregnant Too!” “Tweed is better than Tweet,” and “Be Your own Stylist.” (A couple in the back are in French but illegible in the photo.)
Perhaps the most obnoxious is the one announcing, “Be Different!”

Really, Chanel?

Is that the most politics you can muster?
Whatever happened to the feisty French spirit of engagement or solidarité?

The mock demonstration of Lagerfeld et al. is tasteless, weird, and one might even say crudely irresponsible, given the many injustices encountered daily in France, and the legitimate revolutions trying to stay afloat these days, and whose freedom-fighters could use some support. Check out the photo of the protesters in Hong Kong, from the same day’s paper.

Hong Kong Protesters October 1 2014
Consider the words of Martin Lee, whose article in today’s New York Times provides riveting reading. He begins, “At the age of 76, I never expected to be tear-gassed in Hong Kong, my once peaceful home. Like many of the other tens of thousands of nonviolent protesters in the Hong Kong streets last Sunday, I was shocked when the prodemocracy crowd was met by throngs of police officers in full riot gear…”
And especially read this part: “What would be worse, of course, is if the mandarins in Beijing conclude that global censure is meaningless, that over-reacting with tear gas and violence against peaceful protesters will cost them nothing but a few weak protestations from the world community.”

Hey, readers from the world community, that means you! that means us.

Dolce & Gabbana’s Medieval line: Nostalgia for a Very Old Regime

Dolce & Gabbana 2014 3Dolce & Gabbana 2014 2.jpegOn this dank, grey autumn day, as the rain comes lashing against the attic windows, I write in celebration of going elsewhere, ailleurs, through the beauties of fashion photography.
There have certainly been a lot of strange-looking affects lately, in the feathery and box-like looks featured in the New York Times. So imagine my surprise on opening the September W, and finding the Middle Ages come walking off the page. And they are gorgeous!
Girl knights in diamonds and black beaded tresses,
Queens in red flowing and gauzy long dresses.
Pouting young peasant boys gazing with love
These are a few of my favorite things.
Thank you, Dolce & Gabbana, for making the past look so luscious. The ongoing recycling of past styles—as described in Chris White’s now classic article on the “Hot Baroque“—and here, is what makes Dolce & Gabbana such a fabulous line to watch.

p.s. Dear Chris, Did you know that your article is the all-time favorite posted on “A Revolution in Fiction”? Congratulations! Write some more!

François Hollande and Louis XVI?

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This just in from our friend Sonja Stojanovic (Ph.D. candidate at Brown Univ.): a recent article in the Wall Street Journal is tarring François Hollande with the same brush as is usually employed on Louis XVI! What could a myopic, timid-looking head of state who is enjoying the worst-ever popularity ratings have to do with the grandson of Louis XV?!
Read it for yourself and find out:
Jonathan Fenby, “French Malaise, from Louis XVI to Hollande,” Wall Street Journal (September 10, 2014).

The Reason for their Success (of New York and of the French Revolution): Taking Care of Land and Water, Together

The success of New York city may seem unrelated to the success of the French Revolution. But the central reason for the former (according to Russell Shorto’s article in today’s NYT)—that stewardship over the land and water are crucial to the creation of a cohesive, successful community—is also a cornerstone of the latter.

The source of New York’s greatness, according to Shorto, is a tolerant spirit and an entrepreneurial energy married to a collective concern for the water and land of the island. As he writes: “The Dutch [founders of New Amsterdam] maintained the balance between the individual and the collective out of necessity, for water management continued — and continues to this day — to be vital to protecting their country. Funnily enough, because of climate change, the rest of us are all in that same place today. We don’t just need to rebuild infrastructure to guard against flooding. We need to embrace concepts like regional planning, to acknowledge that there are issues in which individual and even municipal autonomy have to be sacrificed to the greater good.”

What is the connection to the French Revolution? I would have been stymied to explain, had I not spent the weekend in the company of an excellent guide: Jean-Laurent Rosenthal‘s book, The Fruits of Revolution: Property Rights, Litigation, and French Agriculture, 1700-1860 (Cambridge UP, 1992).

Rosenthal explains that medieval institutions were remarkably resistant to change, because the people involved—that is, the individuals, groups, and the king—would have had to bear the redistributional consequences of land and property reform. And they preferred not to. Despite the efforts by King Louis XVI and his ministers, nothing changed…. until 1789.

“The high degree of uncertainty in Old Regime property rights ensured that, in the absence of reform, conflicts over the ownership and control of land and water would no doubt have continued to monopolize the energies and resources of landowners. Because of the very uncertainty of property rights, however, reform could not have occurred without dramatic redistribution. Since redistribution of property was contingent on political change, it is impossible to separate the Revolution’s economic reforms from the Revolution itself” (179). So it was worth it, for the good results produced by the Revolution could not have come about any other way.

The Dutch have known it since time immemorial. The inhabitants of New York realized it in the 17th century. The French were forced to admit it in the 19th century. And the rest of the Western world is now waking up to the fact today: we will not survive unless we work together to protect our land and natural resources. How can such a mentality take hold? Through an engaged citizenry who can see beyond private interest for the public good. Are we ready for that challenge? One can only hope…

Life mirrors literature again! (Thank you, Victor Hugo)

I think that literature can inspire action and change your mind.  Not forever, but at least now and then, in little ways.  And I think I may be living proof of it as of last night.

(First, you should know I spent most of the summer working on an essay on teaching the revolutionary spirit through Les Misérables!)

  Around 7:30 last night, my husband Rich and I had an experience that, in retrospect, seems like it was uncannily similar to Les Misérables, Book Eight, “Le Mauvais pauvre” (chapters 1-7).  Remember the scene, where Marius looks through a hole in the wall (Judas de la Providence), and is stunned to witness the abject poverty of the family next door?  The stunner is this line: “Il était en quelque sorte, lui, le dernier chaînon du genre humain qu’ils touchassent, il les entendait vivre ou plutôt râler à côté de lui, et il n’y prenait point garde!” (2:28; “he was in some way the last link of the human race that they touched, he heard them live or rather breathe beside him, and he took no notice!” [744]). Empathy fills his heart, and he is spurred to kindly action thereafter (at least for a while).  

Here’s what happened to us.

Rich and I were sitting on our front porch after dinner, watching the lightning flashes illuminate the darkening sky, when we saw a boy wobbling by on a slightly too-big bicycle, with a large black dog running alongside him.   At first, we thought: wow that is amazing; what a well-trained dog.  It is unusual to see a dog that stays alongside its owner on a bike. 

But soon we realized that the dog was not obeying her young owner, rather it was running all around and the boy was trying to coax the dog to come with him.  Meanwhile, even though the street was quiet at that time of twilight, there was still some traffic now and then.  Every time a car (or worse yet one of those obnoxious SUVs going too fast on our street—speed limit 20 MPH), travelled by, we would brace and anxiously watch in fear of the boy or the dog getting hit by a car. 

After a few minutes of watching that, we couldn’t stand it anymore.  So we put on shoes, grabbed a dog leash and ran out to help the boy.  The dog is a large, frisky puppy and clearly not obedient yet, but she is friendly and we easily got her on a leash.  We tried to show the boy how to ride and hold onto the leash at the same time, but it was clearly not going to work with such a strong dog and a little boy.

So I gave him the leash and I got on his bike, and rode alongside him to his house, which turned out to be right around the corner.  But oh so far from our comfortable world.  The boy lives on Yukon Street, literally two blocks away from us, but around the corner toward the ghetto.  His house is rundown, the front gate is broken, trash lies in the street, and worse, no one was at home when we got there and the front door was locked. 

I stayed with him for a few minutes when a big black Cadillac drove down the alley and it was his mom and little sister.  They had been out driving around the neighborhood trying to find him and the dog.  The mother, Orlene, was visibly shaken, just like we would be if our young child went missing around twilight on a summer night.  After she calmed down, opened the house door, and ushered the kids in, we got to talking.  She is a single mom of four kids, ages 7-17, and clearly has her hands full.  She works as a school aide in the South Bend schools.

After talking a bit, I said, “How old is your son?”  When I learned he is 10 years old, I perked up and said, “Would you like to enroll him in a class I teach for free at the public library?”  And she was very interested.  Next thing I knew, we were headed out for another little walk—Orlene, her daughter, and their dog—back to my house!  They sat on the front porch while I ran inside to get a flyer for the class, “Write YOUR Story” and now the boy (whose name is Zondré) is going to be one of my students! 

While we were talking on the front porch, Orlene told me the story of Gilgamesh.  I did not know that story—and what a wonderful story-teller she is! 

It was a magical moment.  Right here on Riverside Drive in South Bend, Indiana.

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