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

Assassin's Creed Unity videogame-super  French Revolutoinrs_634x971-140910121501-634.mockingjay.cm.91114

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.

Thermidor Fun Facts Day Eight: La Nuit de Varennes

The 1982 film by Ettore Scole, La Nuit de Varennes, describes the events of June 20-21, 1791, when the royal family fled Paris and was arrested in the eastern city of Varennes. The originality of Scole’s film is that he never shows the king directly, but rather portrays events from the perspective of other travelers on that same road that same night. Which one of the following people is not a character in Scole’s film?
a. The American patriot Thomas Paine, played by Harvey Keitel
b. The noted seducer Casanova, played by Marcello Mastroianni
c. The novelist Restif de la Bretonne, played by Jean-Louis Barrault
d. The orator Georges-Jacques Danton, played by Gérard Depardieu

Revolutionary comfort. The Jacobins must be spinning in their graves…

Air France Revolutionary ComfortThe new campaign that is being launched by Air France to American consumers juxtaposes two incongruous terms: “revolutionary” and “comfort.” This marketing ploy would have been inoffensive, if the artist had not coiffed the model with a revolutionary bonnet rouge complete with cockade, placed her in an gilt chaise, and set the whole scene in the most famous symbol of wealth and privilege: the Versailles gardens. The French revolutionary tradition has sold out in the name of comfort, this ad seems to suggest. Vive le capitalisme?

What do women want? Invisibililty

Riding coat RedingoteSophie Hicks wears Celine 16womens-well-philo-slide-H2S5-slideThe latest version of women’s styles en travesti, exemplified by yesterday’s dour black and white portrait of London architect Sophie Hicks looking stern in Céline, brings to mind the fashion’s most outspoken proponent during the 1780s and 1790s: Marie-Antoinette. While Caroline Weber championed the queen’s “heroic” adoption of equestrian styles in her 2006 book, suggesting that dressing as a man was proof of her strong character and visionary fashion sense, Marisa Linton in her 2013 book reminds us of another reason for dressing like a man: invisibility. As the New York Times article states, “Invisible. That is what Phoebe Philo’s clothes for Céline make you feel. … Simply invisible. A woman in a perfectly cut shirt and a pair of pants. And, oh, what a relief!” What better reason to dress like a man, especially if one needed to sneak out of the castle at night to attend meetings of the Austrian Committee.

Revolution beer, an intriguing newcomer to the market

Revolution beer clenched fists for saleA visit to the website of Revolution beer, brewed in Chicago, makes for an interesting foray into the ambiguities of revolutionary popular culture as it is understood today in the USA. The brewery’s icons, which draw heavily on Soviet propaganda and Maoist imagery (brawny hunks and clenched fists feature prominently), promote the drink primarily as a working man’s brew. The few women included such as on the “Bottom Up Wit T-Shirt,” available through its gift shop, are also defined by their hard bodies and toughness, as her slogan declares: “This working woman don’t drink no girly beer.” But what makes Revolution beer revolutionary? The website tries to make capitalism sound compassionate by stressing the founder’s ties to the neighborhood: “He worked to promote local businesses and manage the Logan Square Farmers Market. While working at the Chamber, he found a cool, old building on Milwaukee Avenue with a nice tin ceiling.” As fellow admirers of the revolutionary spirit, we wish the folks at Revolution Brewing well. But we hope that in the future they might do something really revolutionary with their clout, instead of becoming yet one more trendy product vying for the beer-drinker’s cash. How about it, CEO Cibak?

Re-invigorating Teaching the French Revolution: the role of Lego? by Kate Astbury

devise for Astbury

Kate Astbury has been working with school pupils aged 9 and 10 as part of a scheme to teach them research skills. The pupils had a day at the University of Warwick where they learned how to evaluate historical sources and where they were introduced to the collection of Revolutionary prints held at Waddesdon Manor (see http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/french/research/previousprojects/revolutionaryprints)
The pupils particularly enjoyed hunting for the hidden images of the royal family in prints from the post-Terror period.
They then returned to school to undertake their own research projects. They were asked to
- Work in pairs to take one event or theme of the Revolution and examine how the prints can be used to reflect what people felt at the time
- Present their findings as a story board or a newspaper front page or a news bulletin or an essay.
Pupils from Allesley Primary School, Coventry, produced the stop animation video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xM9en0m87pU ) using Lego figures.
You can see more about the Revolutionary prints in a video made by Dr Astbury: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/knowledge/culture/revolutionprints

Two Thumbs down for Maureen Dowd

ImageJust in case this does not make it into the New York Times, I reprint it here for the readers of “A Revolution in Fiction.”

Letter to the editor, Sunday Review, New York Times

July 7, 2013

Dear Editor,

Can you spell trite?  I am very disappointed that the NYT would stoop to print the essay by Maureen Dowd (“Goodbye Old World, Bonjour Tristesse”).  A journalist with any moxie would have sought out the French people who are pushing beyond these old clichés and fueling the intellectual marketplace with events that put a novel spin on the past and embrace all kinds of people into a multi-cultural present-day France.  Consider Martial Poirson whose new exhibit at the Musée de la Révolution française joins together popular culture from around the world to show how people have repurposed the past to harness present-day hopes for democratic change.  Or Laurent Loty, the mastermind behind the big banners wrapping the walls of the Université Paris-Diderot, which reproduce quotes of the 18th-c. philosopher Diderot in order to prompt enlightenment of a non-sectarian sort, quotes such as “Élargissons Dieu” (which can mean either “Let’s release God” [as in, from prison], or “Let’s give more space to God” or “Let’s make God bigger”).

Get real, Maureen Dowd.  France is vibrant, exciting, and full of talented active people.  It just takes a more talented reporter to find them.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 899 other followers