Siqueiros’ Machine Gun IV: What Is To Be Done Properly: The Gangsta Stalinism of Siqueiros

April 29, 2011

Pandora hastened to replace the lid; but, alas! The whole contents of the jar had escaped, one thing only excepted, which lay at the bottom, and that was RHETORICAL AUDACITY. So we see at this day, whatever lame tendentiousness abounds, the Balls still remain to just follow through on rebranding bullshit as if it was the truth.  

Useless Idiots: The Leninist Avant-Reargarde

While Lenin and Trotsky can at least claim to have backed up their Viagra-infused braggadocio with some serious wet work, their ‘avant-garde’ cultural familiars amounted to little more than lukewarm flatus. Contrary to Žižek and Watson’s revisionism Lenin and Trotsky regarded their modernist hangers-on accordingly, half-heartedly pandering to them when it helped the Bolshevik brand but otherwise dismissing them with barely-disguised disdain[1], in the same manner Lenin dismissed his progressive liberal defenders as ‘useful idiots’. The disdain was well earned, as Andre Breton et. al. kept their art pretty distinct from their politics, with the former being largely avant-as-usual (ooohh, here’s a little anti-bourgeois Freudian frisson, ooohh, here’s the mildest of formal experimentation!) and the latter amounting to little more than manifesto-signing. This is most apparent when one compares the paragon of soft-Bolshevist modernism, Diego Rivera, to the unrepentant Stalinist daring of his contemporary, David Alfaro Siqueiros. 

Siqueiros vs. Rivera: The Mexi-can & the Mexi-can’t-we-all-just-get-along

In Frida, Julie Taymor’s paean to liberal banality, the political tensions between Rivera’s Trotskyism and Siqueiros’ Stalinism are represented by a token debate between Alfred Molina and Antonio Banderas, hosed down by Ashley Judd’s (as Tina Modotti) insistence that we all just dance our politics away…and dance they do, with Siqueiros’ cipher of unpleasant contrarianism removed, to pop up later as a cipher of villainy when Siqueiros strafes Trotsky’s compound of art and life with his machine gun of philistinism and destruction. As the movie is about that heroine of student walls and identity feminism, Frida Kahlo, all the character development (such as it is) and sentiment is, unsurprisingly, directed toward Rivera’s Refuge Society for Loser Bolsheviks and its can’t-we-all-just-get-along aesthetic. This is best represented by Rivera’s mural for the Rockefeller Centre, which is depicted in the movie as the height of stickin’-it-to-the-Man-itude. Wow, a mural featuring Lenin bringing peace and gayness to the world was too hard even for Nelson Rockefeller[2]! Wheew, it would be pretty hard to top that for artistic cred…oh, wait, how about this? 

Rather than commissioned interior decoration for plutocrats, Siqueiros’ contribution to art in the U.S. was three street murals done in L.A. During one of his frequent expulsions from Mexico for being too hardcore, Siqueiros  

was the first to use an industrial spray gun to paint the mural onto the cement exterior wall—a technique which would impact the work of future generations of mural and graffiti artists, and a pivotal influencer of the Chicano Art Movement. (http://www.artdaily.com/index.asp?int_sec=2&int_new=41194)

 

Straight Outta Olvera St.

Unsurprisingly two of these murals were quickly whitewashed by the local burghers, for fear the radical political aesthetic would influence lumpen homies, as it did. But Siqueiros was never satisfied with just one radical artistic innovation and his drive to use new techniques and mediums, spaces, styles and genres[3] makes the ‘experimentalism’ of, say, Frank Zappa, look like the muzak they play to crash test dummies. For an example just check out Collective Suicide:

 

Collective Suicide

Siqueiros was passionately committed to technical innovation. He believed that revolutionary art called for revolutionary techniques and materials and considered the paintbrush “an implement of hair and wood in an age of steel.” Collective Suicide offers a compendium of the radical techniques the artist explored as part of the Siqueiros Experimental Workshop he founded in New York in 1936. He airbrushed paint across the top third of the panel and used stencils to depict the vast army of invading seventeenth-century Spanish conquistadors on horseback (lower right) and Chichimec Indians leaping to their deaths to avoid subjugation (left). The swirling vortexes are pools of fast-drying commercial lacquer typically used on cars. A member of the workshop later recalled that they applied this paint “in thin glazes or built it up into thick gobs. We poured it, dripped it, splattered it, and hurled it at the picture surface.” Siqueiros’s radical experiments proved influential for Abstract Expressionist artist Jackson Pollock, in particular, who was a member of the Workshop.” (http://moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?object_id=79146)

 Compare this to Rivera’s tedious Trotskyite realism and its yawn-inducing agit-prop-by-numbers theme and style.

 Siqueiros was just as hardcore a political activist, with Jim Tuck noting that with

the possible exception of André Malraux, no individual associated with the arts has been involved in direct political action more than David Alfaro Siqueiros. Student agitator, soldier, leader of an assassination squad — Siqueiros was all of those things. (http://www.mexconnect.com/articles/309-the-artist-as-activist-david-alfaro-siqueiros-1896%E2%80%931974)

 And Malraux’s ‘politics’ consisted of little more than policy committees and ministerial meetings.

 By fifteen Siqueiros had already led a student strike at the San Carlos Academy, to force changes in teaching methods, which lasted six months and ended in complete victory for the students. Seven years later he was a Revolutionary captain and organiser of the Congress of Soldier Artists. His ongoing militancy meant he was jailed and exiled repeatedly and his political consistency was such that he continued to be in the thick of the action into his old age, as noted by radicals who came of age in the 60s:

‘I like all the muralists,’ [José] Vera said, ‘but Siqueiros to me meant more because he was actually getting arrested, just like my friends that would get hurt in the demonstrations or whatever they were involved in. To know that this guy would actually be there and risk getting arrested … he was standing with the people and walking with them.’ (http://blog.theautry.org/2010/09/04/david-alfaro-siqueiros-keeping-the-faith-in-a-master/)

 Crazy Buccaneer Stalinism

Despite his street-fighting-man cred Siqueiros is still pretty much persona non grata in the lefty avant-garde circles that lionise Rivera, Kahlo and all the other avant-Trots. Though easily one of the most daring and committed radical artists of the twentieth century Siqueiros’ unapologetic association with Stalin disturbs the heart-warming humanist circle jerk of right-on platitudes and earnest sincerity that constitutes the ‘legitimate’ left art cannon.  

For all the huffing and puffing about Lenin and Trotsky being beyond the liberal pale their cultural analogues fold neatly into the bourgeois art narrative, just as their politics does. Rather than representing a politics that dare not speak its name, Lenin and Trotsky are basically viewed in the liberal mainstream as, at best, misguided romantic fools or, at worst, just another bunch of manipulative politicians (so a mix of Jerry Rubin and Tony Blair). Rather than a shocking Return of the Repressed their re-invocation is just an embarrassing Disinterring of the Kitsch. Lenin and Trotsky are safe kitsch icons; one need only check out my local ‘Kremlin Bar’, festooned with as much hilarious Leninist hyperbole as lame pseudo-Cyrillic text. They are about as scary to liberals as the King of Tonga and only gain notoriety as a gateway drug to Stalinism. The latter represents a far more threatening dialectical anti-humanism that does not just clump atrocity next to an unrelated sappy love story (I killed a bunch of people then I went home, cleaned up and cared for orphaned puppies) but scorches the Earth of pity and due process. Stalinism baffles left-bourgeois rationalism with its rigid dictates and arbitrary whims and Siqueirosian Stalinism goes beyond the bureaucratic limits of official state-Stalinism, attacking rational continuity in a manner almost as shocking as a risqué Frank Zappa joke. 

While Siqueiros was obviously no Zappa he did at least try to upset bourgeois mores by attempting to assassinate Trotsky:

In the great Stalin-Trotsky schism that split the communist world, Siqueiros was firmly on the side of Stalin. So firmly that in the early morning of May 24, 1940, he led an attack on Trotsky’s house in Mexico City’s Coyoacán suburb. (Trotsky, granted asylum by President Cárdenas, was then living in Mexico.) The attacking party was composed of men who had served under Siqueiros in the Spanish Civil War and of miners from his union. After thoroughly raking the house with machine gun fire and explosives, the attackers withdrew in the belief that nobody could have survived the assault. (http://www.mexconnect.com/articles/309-the-artist-as-activist-david-alfaro-siqueiros-1896%E2%80%931974)

 While a Leninist, or even a straight Stalinist, would officially deny such an outrageous act (though laugh about it with their mates), Siqueiros openly boasted about the attack, to the point of embarrassing the Communist Party leadership who authorised it: “The Stalinist press alternated between proclaiming Siqueiros a hero, and, on the other hand, a ‘half-crazed madman and ‘irresponsible adventurer’” (http://www.marxist.net/trotsky/life/life.htm).

This crazy piratical political methodology finds great resonance in Siqueiros’ own metaphorical description of his anti-Trotsky adventures: “I had…to enter the business by the skylight, instead of doing it normally through the door.” (http://www.revolutionarydemocracy.org/rdv6n1/trotsky.htm) In the same court deposition Siqueiros wackily claims that the object of the ‘raid’ on the Trotsky compound was to gather documentary proof of Trotsky’s complicity with the reactionary Hearst newspaper chain. Yet he still demonstrated a revolutionary awareness that made Zappa’s ‘prescience’ look like a mole’s tarot reading, as at “that time Siqueiros was not to know that Trotsky was supplying information to the FBI about the international communist movement through the US consulate in Mexico.” (ibid.) Not only that, but Siqueiros also managed to foresee the fate of Trotsky and render it as a form of future poetic justice: “Trotsky attacked only what [progressive Mexican President] Cárdenas had done for the defence and development of his policies. His pick-blows were not against the arch, yes, not against the columns.” (ibid.) Ahh, the mot juste!

Shortly before the attack, Siqueiros had been censured for mishandling Communist Party funds. Isaac Deutscher, Trotsky’s biographer, believed that Siqueiros planned the attack to get back into the Party’s good graces. Describing Siqueiros as a ‘Latin American buccaneer,” Deutscher describes him as a man in whom “art, revolution and gangsterism were inseparable.’ (http://www.mexconnect.com/articles/309-the-artist-as-activist-david-alfaro-siqueiros-1896%E2%80%931974)

This very apt description demonstrates how even those who seek to condemn Siqueiros do so from a prudish sense of restraint, highlighting the radical daring of their target. The petulant inability of Trotsky apologists to grasp Siqueiros sees him described as a cynical buccaneer and “a zealous Stalinist” (http://www.wsws.org/mobile/articles/2010/sep2010/kah2-s11.shtml), not to mention an ugly, big-nosed stinky-pants[4].

It may be that Siqueiros passionately believed in Stalin, to whatever degree he was aware of Stalin’s policies. He may very well have wet himself with delight at the idea of purges, prison camps and censorship. On the other hand he may have been, as Deutscher claimed, a gangster opportunist who went with the only communism that could get him out of debt. He could have been both of these things or none of them, he may just have been deliberately contrary to upset the cosy, sycophantic Trotskyite wank-athon in Rivera’s circle.

 Siqueiros himself claimed that “Stalin is the cause of the greatest hatred for the bourgeoisie everywhere” (http://www.revolutionarydemocracy.org/rdv6n1/trotsky.htm) and this obviously includes neo-Jacobin bourgeoisie like Watson and Žižek. Once that Stalinism is strapped to the art-revolution-gangsterism of Siqueiros all pretence to a hardcore anti-bourgeois aesthetic from a Lenin-in-Becoming, Trotsky-via-Zappa or even an Asian Dub Mao[5] are exposed as so much wack reformist huffing and puffing.

 


[1] In case my previous sarcasm has not made it abundantly clear both Lenin and Trotsky were actually rather old-fashioned and bourgeois in their tastes. Lenin’s conservative aesthetics are reasonably well known and well represented in the following rant from On Literature and Art: “We are too great iconoclasts in painting. The beautiful must be preserved, taken as an example, as the point of departure even if it is ‘old’. Why turn our backs on what is truly beautiful…? […] We are good revolutionaries but somehow we feel obliged to prove that we are also up to the mark in modern culture! I, however, make bold to declare myself a ‘barbarian’. It is beyond me to consider the products of expressionism, futurism, cubism and other ‘isms’ the highest manifestation of artistic genius. I do not understand them. I experience no joy from them.” The same resort to the mystified subjectivism of ‘it feels right’ that Lenin would have easily scoffed at as bourgeois ideology, if it were used to defend capitalist economic relations (or even most bourgeois social institutions), is here used by Lenin himself to defend fine art. Even Trotsky, the supposedly clear-eyed materialist enemy of aesthetic mystification, is a 19th Century bourgeois at heart: “The products of artistic excellence must be evaluated first and foremost on the basis of their own laws, that is to say the laws of art.’ (Trotsky qtd. in Roger Taylor’s Art, an Enemy of the People: 79)

[2] Who chose Rivera because he was his mummy’s favourite artist.

[3] Examples include using pyroxylin, a substance related to gun-cotton, which dries with amazing speed, painting frescoes on concrete and a process of using cameras to project designs on to walls.

[4] “At the same time the NKVD had a larger network in Mexico City, around Siqueiros and codenamed after his flaring nostrils, Horse” (http://www.workersliberty.org/story/2009/11/06/leon-trotsky-and-annihilation-classical-marxism). Ho, ho, ho, this is a dig that Watson would have been proud of.

[5] Check out the hilarious reading of Maoism through Asian Dub Foundation in Critique of Exotica. Straight from the Watson template Hutnyk is funkier and more political than you, as well as more tendentious than a genocidal spin-doctor. He invokes Maoist ‘permanent revolution’ as the only means to resist the evil forces of capitalist recuperation; without any of that inconvenient ‘actually-existed-permanent-revolution’, which involved simply more accumulation of power and wealth through wave after wave of paranoiac purges – how many more purges were needed to avoid the capitalist sell-out? As with Watson there is a superficial infatuation with Adorno but a fear that his negative dialectics might go beyond their role as a mere anti-liberal device. Hutnyk (CoE: 153) is quick to hose down any suggestion that negative dialectics would end the need for The Party to properly discipline such ‘negativity’ into ‘balanced’ solidarity: “Surely there can and must be an organisational form that that deploys the persistent critique and does not codify and violate to that degree of excess? The whole point of Mao’s cultural revolution and the squeamishness that vested interests have attached to its history (its violence) would need to be evaluated here.” Hmmmm, yes, what a tough evaluation that is, for the Cultural Revolution was such a fine balance between organisational form and persistent critique as all difference was purged. Sure, there were the risible walls of criticism and the Hundred Flowers Campaign that merely aped the weakest bourgeois ‘freedom of expression’ but, fortunately, they were all jokes.

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One Response to “Siqueiros’ Machine Gun IV: What Is To Be Done Properly: The Gangsta Stalinism of Siqueiros”

  1. Hi there, I ran into your page from mixx. It’s not something I would regularly read, but I liked your perspective on it. Thanks for creating something worth reading!

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