Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Oh I could kick myself!

Early this past spring, I saw a couple pieces pointing to a major exhibition of the paintings of Alice Neel that was coming to NYC, and I made a vague mental note to go see it. Too vague, because now I see that the exhibit came and went and I missed my chance. Damn damn damn! I've always liked what little I've seen of her work in magazines and books but have never seen any of the actual paintings in person. What I didn't know is that she was a communist throughout her adult life, throughout her artistic career, and that this world view directly influenced her art, her ideas about art. I would have definitely gotten myself to the exhibit if only I'd known.

I know now, thanks to this very interesting Political Affairs interview with author and CUNY professor Gerald Meyer. The whole is worth reading but here are some snippets.
When we think of portraiture, it seems like an elite genre of art. Portraits are painted of kings, of very rich people, people who want themselves memorialized. There is often an element of glorification in it. But Neel takes that art form and applies it to poor and working-class people, minority people, dignifying them, individualizing them, and immortalizing them. It is very moving. You get a sense of them as social actors, as part of what is going on in society, and that they are, in fact, part of something that commands our attention. ...

In social realism, there is something beyond description which points in a certain direction, in a direction that makes us say that what we are seeing is unacceptable and therefore requires change. Or perhaps in what we are seeing or reading about, or watching in the theater, we get the sense that the subjects themselves are going to do something about the situation they are in, that it is not tolerable. Therefore, the art becomes critical of reality, so it is not just a description of reality but a description that embodies a criticism of it. I think you have that in Neel. There is a sense that these people don't deserve to be poor, and that they are capable of doing something about it. They are not just victims.
I find this last point particularly refreshing, since social (or socialist) realism is so uniformly trashed by prevailing trends of bourgeois cultural criticism. It buoys me too, since it fairly well describes what I'm mostly trying to do in my own writing. And of course it all makes me desperate to see Neel's paintings next chance I get.

Meyer has a longer piece,"Alice Neel: The Painter and Her Politics," in the Columbia Journal of American Studies, which I'm going to read when I can grab the time.