Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 2, 2016

Art Bastard

Filed under: art,Film — louisproyect @ 3:07 pm

On May 29th the NY Times reported on how some of the world’s great art is being squirreled away in secretive warehouses and away from art lover’s prying eyes for one reason and one reason only—they are commodities to be traded not things of value to be appreciated.

With their controlled climates, confidential record keeping and enormous potential for tax savings, free ports have become the parking lot of choice for high-net-worth buyers looking to round out investment portfolios with art.

“For some collectors, art is being treated as a capital asset in their portfolio,” said Evan Beard, who advises clients on art and finance at U.S. Trust. “They are becoming more financially savvy, and free ports have become a pillar of all of this.”

And just a few weeks earlier it also reported on the connection between this sordid, money-grubbing art business and the Panama Papers:

The papers reveal that a collection of modernist masterpieces assembled by Victor and Sally Ganz, a Manhattan couple, and auctioned for $206.5 million at a landmark sale at Christie’s in New York in 1997, was not actually sold by their family, but by a British financier who had secretly bought it months earlier.

According to Mossack Fonseca documents, the British billionaire currency trader Joe Lewis — or rather, one of his shell companies — was the seller at the auction, apparently in some kind of partnership with Christie’s. It was all a massive “flip,” a quick resale that was early, if undisclosed, evidence of just how much art was being treated like a commodity.

If this sort of thing depresses you, my strongest recommendation is to see “Art Bastard” that opens tomorrow at the Angelika and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York. You will walk out of the theater afterwards in an elevated mood upon discovering that there is at least one artist who rejects being part of this commodified racket, making you feel like Diogenes who at long last has run into an honest man.

That artist is Robert Cenedella who was born in 1940 and still going strong. Perhaps my greatest surprise at the wonderful film about his life and career is that I had never heard of him before. When the publicist for the film emailed me, there was a head’s up about his lack of name recognition:

At once a portrait of the artist as a young troublemaker, an alternate history of modern art and a quintessential New York story, ART BASTARD is as energetic, humorous and unapologetically honest as the uncompromising man at its center. If you don’t know his name, it is not entirely surprising. He clearly doesn’t have the household recognition or the gallery footprint of a Warhol, Lichtenstein or Koons. Yet, this is central to the point of ART BASTARD – because Cenedella’s story has something else: a rich, flawed, color-flecked humanity replete with political and personal passion that may be more revealing, and relatable, than just another expected story about another 15-minute-museum-superstar.

Good lord, were they right!

The film’s title is a double-entendre. It evokes Cenedella’s shrewd observation: “You can bastardize everything else in your life, but if you compromise with your art, why be an artist?” It also refers to the fact that he is “illegitimate”. When he was only six years old, his mother informed him in an offhand manner that his real father was an English professor named Russell Speirs and not Robert Cenedella Sr., the man she was married to. Within a few years, the man he knew as his father would be blacklisted from radio, where he had enjoyed a successful career writing basically apolitical material as was the case with another victim of McCarthyism named Dalton Trumbo.

Unlike Dalton Trumbo, the senior Robert Cenedella, a leftist by his own admission, was not in the CP but like Trumbo he refused to name names. Whatever he lost in income was only partially made up for by a feeling of standing up for what is right but that was the only choice that he could live with. His son surely must have been influenced by his example since he would soon be expelled from high school for writing a satirical letter about the atom bomb drill to the school’s principal.

As a kind of autodidact, Cenedella haunted NY’s museums as a teen bent on a career as an artist whether or not he got a high school degree. He was especially drawn to the renaissance masters such as Vermeer, whose paintings convinced him of the power of representation even if the art market would soon be dominated by abstract expressionism.

If his aesthetic would be based on representation, the sensibility would be defined as social especially after he began studying at the Art Students League in New York where he fortuitously ended up with George Grosz as an instructor. His innate sense of satire and social awareness were reinforced by Grosz whose acidic paintings of the Weimar bourgeoisie and the fascist movement marked him as one of the 20th century’s most important artists of the left.

From early on, Cenedella focused on the street life of New York with an affectionate look at ordinary people who walked its streets and who rode the subways:

Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 10.59.32 AM

59th Street Station

By 1965, two things began to weigh heavily on Cenedella’s mind. The first was the war in Vietnam. While he does not describe himself as a political artist, he states that he is always thinking about politics as this drawing of LBJ would indicate:

Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 11.01.41 AM

The other preoccupation was the art world itself that he saw as dominated by trends that were calculated to make the artist rich even if it sacrificed his or her deeper spiritual or ethical beliefs. Fed up with pop art and all the other junk that gets featured at the Whitney Biennials, he mounted a “Yes Art” exhibition at the posh and trendy Fitzgerald Gallery on Madison Avenue that thumbed its nose at the commodified art world. Victor Navasky, the publisher emeritus of the Nation Magazine who is interviewed in “Art Bastard”, wrote about the show in his “The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power”:

So it is appropriate that during pop art’s heyday, when the art world was celebrating Andy Warhol’s rendering of the Campbell’s Soup can, Cenedella, who by now was Grosz’s protégé in the best Dada tradition, mounted a show called Yes Art! Everything about Yes Art! was upbeat, including the S & H Green Stamps—a supermarket promotion—which were given away with the paintings. Whereas Warhol had offered his renditions of Brillo boxes, Cenedella offered the Brillo boxes themselves. (Why get an expensive imitation when you can get the real thing?) Cenedella explained, “If a Yes artist folds your Brillo box it will cost $6.75. If you fold it yourself it costs $5.75.” The Yes Art! show, held at a chichi Upper East Side gallery, also featured a live statue named Sophia Blickman.

In 1968 Navasky, who was co-editor at the time with Marvin Kitman (also interviewed in the film) of the satirical magazine The Monocle, commissioned Cenedella to make art based on the Communist Manifesto that you can see on Cenedella’s website (http://www.rcenedellagallery.com/).

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I urge you to visit the website but even more importantly to go see “Art Bastard” even if you are living in someplace in the Midwest. The price of a round trip ticket to NY will be worth being able to see the most inspiring documentary about making art that I have ever seen in my life.


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