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Letters

Vol. 34 No. 4 · 23 February 2012

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Occupy MoMA!

Hal Foster concludes his review of the Diego Rivera exhibition at MoMA by drawing a parallel between the figures in Rivera’s Manhattan cityscape Frozen Assets and the bodies that thronged the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations (LRB, 26 January). The link can be made even more concrete: on 13 January, a Friday and the one evening a week when the $25 admission fee for MoMA is waived, participants from the OWS working groups Arts and Labor, Labor Outreach, Occupy Museums and Occupy Sotheby’s, along with others from the artist-run space 16 Beaver, converged in the Rivera galleries for a large group discussion that drew in other museum-goers. The galleries were soon filled to capacity. The conversation touched on Rivera’s personal and artistic commitments to Communism and to social change, the censorship of his mural by Rockefeller and the latter’s ties to MoMA, and especially the risk that, in remounting the show at MoMA today, this history might be lost or, worse, recalled only to be locked away in the aesthetic past. Perhaps most important, the spirited exchange performed a kind of ‘collective viewership’, which Foster links to Rivera’s aspirations for the fresco and mural form, and which runs counter to the decorous consumption of individual masterpieces often encouraged by the museum environment.

The gathering then moved to the central, second-floor atrium of the museum for a general assembly, amplified by the people’s mike and drawing in other visitors. Speakers reminded patrons that ‘Target Free Fridays’ did not originate in corporate beneficence, but from the agitation of the Art Workers’ Coalition (active from 1969 to 1971), whose actions on behalf of free public access to the arts have since been plastered over with corporate branding. Others declared their solidarity with the unionised art handlers who since August 2011 have been locked out of their jobs at Sotheby’s after they refused a contract proposal that included cuts to pay and healthcare, but also the requirement that new hires be temporary and non-union.

Not only does MoMA do business with Sotheby’s – an auction house that reaps huge profits from financial speculation on our cultural commons – but at least three figures from MoMA play roles in the company as well: James Niven (MoMA trustee and Sotheby’s US chairman), Richard Oldenburg (MoMA director emeritus and honorary trustee, former chairman and now consultant at Sotheby’s US), and restaurateur Danny Meyer (who runs MoMA’s three restaurants and sits on the board of directors at Sotheby’s). As the meeting progressed, a two-storey-tall banner was dropped from the top-floor balcony overlooking the atrium; it demanded, among other things, that MoMA and Sotheby’s end the lock-out and ‘hang art not workers.’ The assembly further debated the corporatisation of the museum and other nominally public institutions, the place of art in the neoliberal austerity economy, the structural dependence even of non-profit spaces on capital, and what artists and cultural workers might do to contest the cultural and financial power coursing through places like MoMA.

Although the assembly did not present an updated image of the class iconography found in Rivera’s picture – a kind of picturing of which Foster wonders whether public art is still capable – this did not prevent it from identifying the winners and losers in the present economy and calling for change. And simply by gathering, OWS again demonstrated that ‘the politics of appearance by actual people in real space still counts.’ This suggests that rather than relying on a definition of public art posed in terms of style, content or medium, it may be more productive to ask how a public might assemble to reclaim all art as part of the commons instead of a fetish of capital, and thereby open up artworks, and the museum itself, to public dispute and reappropriation.

Foster points to the persistence of the police in Rivera’s picture and in the OWS demonstrations. But we also need to retrace the connection Rivera drew between those fingering the jewels in the vaults of culture and that vast, grey room of warehoused labour. To that end, OWS offered to donate their protest banner to the museum’s collection under certain conditions, including public acknowledgment of the AWC’s role in securing days of free museum admission and a public letter from the museum denouncing the Sotheby’s lock-out. MoMA declined.

Benjamin Young
New York

What were they doing there?

Thomas Jones uses the Costa Concordia disaster to shed a sidelight on Italian politics (LRB, 9 February). He doesn’t register that the ship was itself a reflection of Italian politics: shipbuilding subsidies allowed Berlusconi’s cronies to launch the largest liner ever designed, built and wrecked in Italy.

In 1992 a vessel just as enormous and travelling just as quickly struck an equally immovable granite object. The impact tore a 74-foot gash in her hull, but instead of sinking like the Costa Concordia, the QE2 sailed serenely on to the nearest port and discharged her passengers uninjured. To oblige a friend aboard QE2 that day who asked me to find out why he was still alive, I visited Boston’s dry dock and looked up at what appeared to be a cathedral-ceilinged tunnel in the ship’s bottom. The Corten steel plating of the outer hull was smashed upwards into a hundred-foot-long nave where the ballast and fresh-water tanks had been. The bill for repairing this vast ding in the Blohm & Voss shipyard in Hamburg was comparable to the cost of constructing the 114,000-tonne Costa Concordia’s entire hull.

The risks of allowing so vast a ship to be built so cheaply were made plain when she rolled over. Instead of crumpling stoically inward on itself, her tinfoil-thin hull split open like a sardine can, leaving only the providential proximity of Isola di Giglio to prevent a downmarket replay of the Titanic.

Russell Seitz
Harvard University

Keep them out

In his fine review of the ghost stories of M.R. James, Ferdinand Mount suggests that James hated Sidgwick as a philosopher (LRB, 26 January). But surely the real issue was Sidgwick’s support for Cambridge degrees for women, which James – described by contemporaries as a ‘women hater’ – did his best to stifle.

David Ganz
University of Notre Dame, Indiana

Watchable Communists

‘The movies actually written by Communists in the late 1930s … are almost all unwatchable,’ David Bromwich sniffs (LRB, 26 January). Well, let’s see. Bromwich also refers to this Popular Front era as ‘fair seed-time’ so let’s be generous and extend a bit to the 1940s, which is when HUAC slapped subpoenas on the Hollywood Ten and sent them to jail. Keep in mind that in those days, studio-hired screenwriters, if they were to survive, had to take whatever job was on offer. Even so, depending on whether your taste is for crass entertainment (like mine) or more elevated (like Bromwich’s), among the films written, directed or produced by those Communists were: Naked City, Graham Greene’s This Gun for Hire, Murder My Sweet, Crossfire, the sentimental but utterly watchable Till The End of Time, Thieves’ Highway (great!), Brute Force, Laura, Woman of the Year, Cry the Beloved Country, Algiers, the UK-made and rather beautiful So Well Remembered, Hotel Berlin, He Ran All the Way, Tender Comrade (oops, sorry). For brevity I have omitted the wartime and prewar anti-fascist movies some of which – always excepting Mission to Moscow – are still watchable.

Clancy Sigal
Los Angeles

Americans in Korea

I was struck by Tariq Ali’s mention of allegations that the US had used germ warfare in Korea (LRB, 26 January). I was teaching in China for a year in 1987 at the West China University of Medical Science in Chengdu. We had an elderly friend there, Stephen Yang, who was head of the department of thoracic surgery and whom we visited often. I quote from my diary written at the time:

Supper at Stephen’s and we look at old photos. Quietly he shows us an album of poor black and white snaps, his record of 1953-54 when he was a member of a small medical team in what is today North Korea. He described how they were constantly bombed by the US but the hospital was built in caves along the sides of minor tributary valleys, and the bombs were directed to the main valley so they were spared. He recalls two young American prisoners being brought in, trembling with fear, anticipating torture and death; he was able to reassure them and amazed them by recalling his days as a student in the US. In one or two pictures, there were strange sets of what looked like small metal cages. ‘Oh yes, those are the cages that contained plague infested animals dropped by the Americans. Luckily it was very cold weather and animals and viruses quickly froze to death’ was his calm explanation.

Stephen was a Quaker, a life-long pacifist, who did his medical studies in the US and Canada and returned to China in 1951. He is dead now, and I do not know what happened to his photographs.

Pat Stapleton
Beaumont du Ventoux, France

US Electoral Arithmetic

Charles Coutinho challenges what I say about the importance of the black vote to Truman’s victory in 1948 and JFK’s in 1960 (Letters, 9 February). He is right, of course, that black voters were nothing like as numerous in 1948 as they were later but I would still say their vote was decisive. The 1948 election, which Truman won by 303 electoral college votes to 189, turned on just three states: Ohio (where Truman’s winning margin was 0.24 per cent), California (0.44 per cent) and Illinois (0.84 per cent). Ohio and California each had 25 electoral college votes and Illinois had 28, so if Dewey had won all three he would have won overall by 267 to 225. Indeed, although Dewey was widely mocked for waiting through the night before admitting defeat, he did so because of the extreme closeness of the result in these three key states. Contemporary observers agreed that Truman’s stance on civil rights won him a large majority of black votes, and there were enough black voters in those three states to turn the result.

Coutinho says, quite rightly, that there was a good deal of vote tampering in 1960 in Illinois and Texas, but there is no doubt that the 68 per cent of the black vote that went to JFK won an election which was settled by just 0.1 per cent of the popular vote. He is right that Nixon won less of the Catholic vote than Eisenhower had – but this was more than compensated for by his larger than average share of the Protestant vote. Overall, Kennedy’s Catholicism very nearly lost him the election.

R.W. Johnson
Cape Town

Every Socket, Every Lightbulb

Andrew O’Hagan’s guide to the Olympic Park tells him that media organisations haven’t paid for the media centre (LRB, 9 February). ‘“No, that’s provided by us," she says. Journalists will also get free parking spaces, the only parking provision in the whole park.’ O’Hagan didn’t ask the right question. We may not have to pay for the building of the centre, but as at every previous Olympics, London 2012 will be charging for every square metre of space, every chair, every electric socket, every lightbulb you need for your media operation.

Dorrit Harazim
Rio de Janeiro

Dublin Not Untouched

About the bombing of Dublin during World War Two (Letters, 9 February): I had a friend, Mr C.B.B. Wood, who served in a special unit whose purpose was to deflect the navigation systems of German bombers so that they dropped their bombs in unpopulated areas – i.e. pastures rather than towns or villages. One night, he told me, they miscalculated and instead of sending the Germans to a pasture they sent them to Dublin.

Sarah Clark
Rockport, Massachusetts

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