- Artist Eli Valley writes about the phenomenon of Jews erasing Jews and the use of visual language to combat the rising tide of fascism around the world. He also points out some interesting history about the Degenerate Art exhibition that isn’t widely known:
“Degenerate Art” has become synonymous with the Nazi war on free thought and expression. Less known, but even more shocking, is that the term had been popularized by none other than Zionist pioneer Max Nordau during his career as a cultural critic, five years prior to his denunciation of diaspora Jews at the First Zionist Congress. Obsessed with the notion of modern art as a signifier of mental and physical deformity, Nordau condemned it in terms astonishingly similar to his condemnation of diaspora Jews. “Degenerates, hysterics, and neurasthenics are not capable of adaptation,” Nordau wrote of modern artists. “Therefore they are fated to disappear.” Although their targets did not entirely overlap, Hitler directly drew from portions of Nordau’s work in Mein Kampf, while eliding the source.
There is much to ponder in the way an early Zionist’s denigration of modern art and diaspora Jewry mirrors the ideological monstrosities that would soon envelop Europe. As my talk at Stanford neared, the polemicists and opinion writers—many of them Nordau’s philosophical descendants—who insisted my art was “Nazi-like” because of its grotesqueries, because of its hyperbole, and because it skewers petty fascists, were not just exposing themselves as ignorant of a century of exhilarating art that raged against the most despicable forces in history. They were also operating within that history, treading the path of the very movement they insist they despise. In their insistence on removing a supposedly profane element from both the Jewish community and the artistic landscape, they were direct heirs to the most abominable, antisemitic movement in Jewish history. That they claimed to be doing so out of dire concern for Jewish welfare is obscene.
The film is long (3 hours 29 minutes), and Scorsese, in a wonderful interview with Philip Horne (Sight and Sound, November) says how happy he and his great editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, were to be working for Netflix and not a movie studio. He was not, as Horne puts it, ‘under pressure to bring a film down in length’. It isn’t too long, but its length changes its mood and meanings, and makes it more disturbing. It’s as if the gangster movies I just mentioned had turned into meditations rather than action pictures.
This is not how the early parts of The Irishman feel. We see Sheeran in Italy killing prisoners of war. They dig their own graves and he wonders what they are thinking. Don’t they know what’s happening to them? They seem surprised when they finish the job and get shot, falling back into the pit. Next we see him in America driving a truck full of sides of beef. Well, full until he delivers the sides for a good price to the wrong people. He is tried for this, and not only goes free but gets to hear the judge tell the prosecution off for attacking a poor working man. He likes this because it is just how he sees himself. It’s a hard world and you have to be hard to live in it. He knows what the phrase about painting houses means before he hears it from Hoffa – it means bumping people off, the reference is to spattered blood. In one telling sequence we see him completing one of his first commissions and then returning home to learn that a local shopkeeper has treated his small daughter, Peggy (Lucy Gallina), roughly. He grabs his daughter and drags her back to the shop, where he beats up the man, smashes the shop door and tramples on the man’s hand. The girl stands by, not exactly shocked but certainly horrified. Later she sees her dad stuff a gun into a bag before he leaves the house late at night. When she asks where he is going, he says: ‘To work.’ Later, when no one is supposed to know that he has committed his most significant crime, his daughter quickly figures it out. Sheeran, telling the story, says she ‘disappeared from my life that day’. At this point she is a grown person (played by Anna Paquin), and even later, when he talks to another of his daughters at the nursing home, he still doesn’t understand what Peggy’s problem was. He was only trying to keep everybody safe, they just don’t know how dangerous the world is.
In its insistence on what history cannot capture, Coates’s polemic resembles recent scholarly arguments on the historiography of slavery. Saidiya Hartman, in her powerful essay “Venus in Two Acts,” similarly points out that the historian’s main tool, the archive, often obscures black people’s experience of slavery. Instead, the enslaved are abstractly listed as monetary values in logbooks, discussed as property, and so on. Coates agrees in Between the World and Me that history too often hides this human experience—not only in the age of slavery but also in its afterlife.
I’m a Native comic, and — more importantly, have been a Native person for my whole ass life, and I am used to great comedians and sketch shows trying to do some bit about Native people. Long before white people were mad at Dave Chappelle for being transphobic, I was gently irritated with his shitty Native joke. Every fucking medium you can think of, from movies to tv shows, Broadway to school plays, radio to your casual passerby on Halloween all having their own dumbass take on Native identity and shit. Lord, even the great Dolly Parton’s new show has a reference to someone’s “spirit animal.” After nearly 30 years of this, I figured out that I could either take it on the chin and keep watching the show, or stop singing Dolly Parton songs at karaoke. And I do a sick “Jolene.”
And honestly, I couldn’t be mad at Fred Armisen, because as we all know, he is not a human person, but is the physical embodiment of Portland’s most trite white liberals. When five white environmentalists from Portland get in a circle and shout “Earth,” “Fire,” “Wind,” “Water,” and “Heart,” Fred Armisen is the person who appears.
“The greatest ideological barrier to the achievement of proletarian class consciousness, solidarity and political action is now, and has been historically, white chauvinism,” Ignatiev wrote. “White chauvinism is the ideological bulwark of the practice of white supremacy, the general oppression of blacks by whites.” He argued that it would be impossible to build true solidarity among the working class without addressing the question of race, because white workers could always be placated by whatever privileges, however meaningless, management dangled in front of them. The only way to change this was for white working-class people to reject whiteness altogether. “In the struggle for socialism,” Ignatiev wrote, white workers “have more to lose than their chains; they have also to ‘lose’ their white-skin privileges, the perquisites that separate them from the rest of the working class, that act as the material base for the split in the ranks of labor.”
Many scholars have cited Ignatiev’s letter as one of the first articulations of the modern idea of “white privilege.” But Ignatiev’s version differs from the one we often use today. In his conception, white privilege wasn’t an accounting tool used to compile inequalities; it was a shunt hammered into the minds of the white working class to make its members side with their masters instead of rising up with their black comrades. White privilege was a deceptive tactic wielded by bosses—a way of tricking exploited workers into believing that they were “white.”
- This musician based in Haifa, Jowan Safadi, has created this catchy song about the reality facing Palestinians:
Required Reading is published every Saturday, and is comprised of a short list of art-related links to long-form articles, videos, blog posts, or photo essays worth a second look.