Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Yes, but is it art or is it "parasitism," Eddie?

Joanna Lumley

My senior year of college I was accepted at The American University in Washington, D.C. Before moving to Washington, I went with a friend to Paris, France. While there, I read much more than I should have. Many of the books I brought with me were, appropriately, set in France. Somerset Maugham’s Razor’s Edge comes to mind. But I also took along a few books that The American University required almost all of its incoming freshmen to read. And, although I had taken the Advanced Placement Test that would allow me to skip college English composition courses, I wanted to share the common experience of other entering freshmen by reading all of the books that other students were reading. I was very democratic. One of the books was John McPhee’s book, the Pine Barrens.

I read the short book cover to cover and, twenty years later, I recall that it was a well-written and reasonably interesting description of a scenic part of New Jersey I had never heard about before. Why this book had been chosen by The American University’s English faculty over other more artistic or influential books I’ll never know. Perhaps people who actually took English composition found out when they went to class. In any event, I hadn’t heard from John McPhee since then, until a year or two ago my younger brother mentioned McPhee was one of his favorite authors. Luckily for me, McPhee has accommodated even those readers who, like me, are on strict literary diets of Russian history and literature. His book, The Ransom of Russian Art, is entirely engrossed in Soviet culture.

In the Ransom of Russian Art, McPhee briefly but intelligently tells the story of an odd, mysterious American art collecto--Norton Dodge--who gradually acquired the world’s largest collection of dissident Soviet art, some 9,000 pieces in all, now housed at Rutgers’s University. Like the Pine Barrens perhaps, McPhee tells a simple but fascinating nonfiction story with a strange blend of journalistic narrative and academic context. Interestingly, McPhee pays equal attention to the collector and the collected. One the one hand, the reader gets a glimpse into the mind of a bizarre but benign man who managed to turn something akin to a mild psychological problem—namely obsessive compulsive disorder or hoarding--into nothing short of a public service to humanity. On the other hand, McPhee helps readers to get to know the Russian dissident artists whose work ended up on the collector’s farm and, ultimately, at Rutgers.

As somebody who has begun to collect Russian history and literature books, I was as interested in Norton Dodge's collecting impulse as I was in the Russian art itself. Why are some of us compelled to collect things? What is the difference between collecting and hoarding? When is collecting an expression of individuality and when is it an expression of pyschological insecurity or inordinate materialism? What does one do with a collection? How does one set limits on the types of things that fit into a collection and the types of things that don't? I'm not sure that Norton Dodge has any particular self-knowledge in this area, but, from the outside looking in, it quickly becomes apparent that the right kind of collecting can serve a useful social function and be an expression of individuality. Dodge's obsession helped Soviet artists to survive a dismal regime, and grants modern viewers a window onto to an important period of artistic expression, especially insofar as Russian abstract art was relatively isolated from its Western counterpart.

One sees that dissident artists were brave, bohemian, creative (even for artists), and incessantly artistic even in the context of governmental oppression. Better yet, McPhee uses dissident art to illuminate the nature of the Soviet Union. As the lives of the Russian artists demonstrate, Soviet tyranny survived Stalinism. For example, Soviet artists were either certified by the state as official artists, or they were forced to seek other employment. Without a job, Soviet dissident artists could be found guilty of the crime of “parasitism.” Additionally, if they were not connected by personal bonds with official artists in some way, many dissident artists had no access to basic art materials, such as acrylic paint or canvas, and no separate studio space. They were forced to be creative about the materials upon which they relied. Abstract art in general was nearly criminalized, except in design work, and the Soviet regime sometimes put artists into labor camps or mental hospitals to punish ideological or artistic transgressions. In one memorable line, a former dissident artist said something to this effect: "You can't imagine the extent to which fear dominated our lives. It was similar to how modern Americans must feel with the perpetual fear of not exercising enough or taking enough vitamins." In a more terrifying line, one artist said: "There is no exaggeration in Orwell."

Social Realism was the only game in town, and even the reformer Khrushchev told avant-garde artists that their work was worthless and represented a betrayal of the investment the state had made in them. Khrushchev openly threatened avant-garde artists with labor camps and declared war against them. Artists also suffered from police persecution, KGB surveillance, physical harassment (and perhaps an occasional murder), and the regular travel restrictions that were imposed on Soviet citizens. In fact, Soviet dissident art suffered from a lack of contact with foreign sources (though there obviously was some), an almost non-existent private or public art market, and Soviet restrictions against travelling to see Russians who happened to live in other cities.

The Ransom of Russian Art also tells the story of how Russian artists did manage to subvert the system and survive. Clearly, some form of public sphere or intelligentsia did spring up after Stalin died. And one of the most interesting things about this history of dissident art, is the way in which McPhee uncovers the layers of international intrigue and spying that enveloped Soviet art. With some prompting, the collector himself, while denying any specific ties to the CIA, admits that the CIA was everywhere at the time, and prevalent in most American organizations or associations that had anything to do with the study of Slavic culture or language. Clearly, McPhee is not convinced that much of the collector’s dissident art collection cannot be traced to CIA funding sources.

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