“Who would ever want to leave New York?”
Andy Warhol asks this question with a fantastically faux sense of incredulity in his quasi-autobiographical magnum opus, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. He posits this question with a wink and nod directed towards the reader — by refuting what was supposed to be a rhetorical query in the very next paragraph by mentioning his enjoyment of LA’s sunny skies, the Hollywood elite, and the sexual proclivities of Parisians who he dearly misses. If we read this with the assumption that Warhol is a fellow of sound mind — a leap for some, I know — a logical step forward must be to realize he’s very intentionally jamming the signals of any reader trying to make sense of his view. I question at times his ability to play 4D chess at this level, but the message remains, flashing its green light into Long Island Sound, agitating us to row against the content current.
Warhol’s primary audience, the cosmopolitan stateless elite — the individuals who have had their iron grip on the throat of the art world for at least the past two centuries — have taken these lines of text by the artist to interpret him as a model of their ideal global citizen, a bohemian visionary who hopped from cultural capital to cultural capital. Late in Warhol’s life it became vogue in this community to refer to oneself by the city in which they reside — as evidenced by the wave of individualized yuppie subcultures whose idiosyncrasies are laid bare in the works of Bret Easton Elis, John Barth, and David Foster Wallace. In this model, an individual like Warhol was subsumed into the mold of the quintessential New Yorker — a creature altogether different and separate from the Americans who surround him. This categorization, however seems lost now that a New Yorker in its most base form now occupies the Oval Office, elected en masse by disenfranchised Americans. The divorce of the metropole from its greater mass of countrymen — once taken for granted in the Empire of the Habsburg’s and still a reality in the United Kingdom, is being steadily eroded by a newfound sense of nationalism that has bubbled up in every state in the West, with its torch lit first in this century by the American electorate.
The art establishment, perhaps the most ossified ideological regime in the entire world, has naturally been slow to pick up on this. Expressions of American Nationalism by the taxi driver that takes them to gallery receptions are treated with a sense of petit-bourgeois nausea — the waving of the Mexican flag by La Raza protestors in front of Trump Tower is tolerated in the same way that they would tolerate a toddler holding up her stick-figure scribble — a patronizing, half-interested smirk of approval — done mostly in the hope she moves onto bigger and better things that they can later co-op and subsume. America outside of the 50-block radius from 42nd to 96th Street is a scary, backwards place. This is to be expected — and corrected when possible and applicable, hopefully by figures like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Linda Sarsour. But nationalism in Europe — the very idea elicits a horror of the most abject kind. We all know what becomes of the European who loves his country. This cannot be tolerated, under any circumstances, and the art community at large, must rally behind Madame Merkel to crush it without remorse, of course.
The good global citizens who travel behind the lines — lines once called the Iron Curtain, to document people expressing their love of home after being crushed by two successive waves of identity-oriented terror — Nazism and Stalinism, are now hailed as agitprop heroes, the new wave of Frank Capra’s. One of these individuals, who piques my interest because of his atypical story and approach, is Tomas Rafa, who is wrapping up his exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, titled New Nationalisms.
Great directors from Eastern Europe — Tarkovsky, Eisenstein, Polanski, Wadja, et al, were auteurs who demonstrated a control over their frames that were so precise to encourage careful analysis of every single shot, no matter how short — no matter how little superficial visual information was presented. I’ve always asserted that this identifies a sort of pathos among the directors who gnashed their teeth on the Eastern side of the Iron Curtain — an economy of expression doubtlessly driven by scarcity, but also by a deep reverence for the film form rooted in Poland’s deeply mystical brand of Catholicism and Russia’s transcendental Orthodoxy. What intrigues me most about the new directors emerging from the post-Soviet states is how these traditions are either being upheld or subverted — what the next generation of men and women working with the medium does, whether it be narrative, documentary or in video art. Rafa’s work definitely posits itself in the arena of subversion — but to simply declare it degenerate or dishonoring the masters would be to do damage to what he’s attempting to represent here, which I think is more profound than the shock-artists at the PS1 wanted to present — at least going by their program. There is that classical precision, that shout of homage to the masters, a transcendent traditionalism hidden amongst the chaos on screen.
The video on display in New Nationalisms strikes me as a deft — if long in the tooth — mix of cinema verite and traditional documentary work brought into the realm of “video art” by tics in presentation, form and screening method. We are presented, unceasingly, almost rhythmically, with cut after cut of the nationalist protests and counter-protests materializing across the Eastern Bloc. At times it is difficult to make out basic facts presented to us — the numbers of protestors, the city that it occurs in — who or what is being protested. What becomes clear in the entropy are recurring symbols — the shiny scalps of skinheads, the thick-rimmed glasses that adorn the faces of Antifa — and most poignantly, the flags of causes — whether they be Antifa or the Nationalists’, often waving in cold Baltic winds.
But I should caution in regard to New Nationalisms — TV KWA this is not. There is no aggressive manipulation of footage by an editing wizard, merely a shaky coalition of freeze-frame, text, and jump cuts, which in spite of their crudeness, work altogether symphonically. That being said, the piece does date itself at times with this sort of uninspired approach. The presentation has been marketed by the curatorial staff as “nouvelle vague” and “raw” — loaded terms which do more to obfuscate what I think Rafa is trying to do: present some short cuts on hard-right activity bubbling up in Eastern Europe, with what seems to be a particular focus on the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland with an intimacy and knowledge that is often lost in meandering VICE documentaries and tone-deaf MSNBC fear-mongering segments.
I find Rafa interesting because he’s documenting from the perspective of a true local — a native of Žilina, Slovakia — born under the specter of Stalin’s everlasting shadow in 1979. This imbues the chaos he presents to us with a type of “in-my-backyard” sort of intimacy, one that is lost when surrendered to the cameras of the media-industrial complex. This isn’t the the work of a jumbled, mealy-mouthed coastal cosmopolitan from the United States, who has known no other reality than late capitalism, nor is the work of a dyed in the wool ideologue of Slavic nationalism. His documentary-work-cum-video-art piece is simply presenting what he sees in his hometown — currently torn asunder by a nativist skinhead invasion and a generally unwelcome Romani community straining municipal resources. The rather simple presentation of the scenario is where I am in agreement with MoMA — this is indeed a radical act. Where I disagree with MoMA is where I disagree with most curatorial staffs — the need to qualify and quantify these acts portrayed on film for self-hating shitlibs desperately searching for a refuge of right-wing refutation in the age of Trump.
When you exit the PS1, the Museum of Modern Art’s accessory gallery in Long Island City — you find yourself immersed in a bubble of gentrification in what was once a thriving community of Greek immigrants. These men and women arrived following their country’s devastation by Nazi Germany after the Second World War and built for themselves a new Athens in the confines of the 19th century Steinway construction sites. I came of age in this community, and while not Greek by ethnicity, was immersed greatly in its cultural milieu, understanding and appreciating its cultural heritage to the point of later studying classical sculpture in Greece herself. There remain no traces of this once thriving community, pushed out by skyrocketing rent prices and new developments which are now the part-time residences of these very same cosmopolitan internationals.
A prominent battle cry by the skinheads of Žilina can be roughly translated to “save our city, save our people”, and the “far-right” nationalists seem equally suspicious of Fukuyama’s late capitalist “end of history” as they are of Communism’s active destruction of it. Tomas Rafa’s piece often uses freeze-frames shortly after cuts, which provide a breathing space of sorts to analyze in some depth the subjects he presents on camera. The skinheads I viewed were individuals who seemed less unreasonable and more unmoored. This doesn’t excuse the depravities of their racism — for they forget that they were once the Untermensch — but the what I sense from them is deep confusion in lieu of deep conviction. I would not argue that Rafa’s camera treats them with sympathy — as they are not sympathetic and deserve none — from him or the audience, but he does treat them with essential human empathy, as much as the medium of video can provide. His work is not exploitative, as much as the curatorial staff seems to want it to be, or at least markets it as.
As I walked to the Queensboro Plaza station after viewing the project, sauntering along Jackson Avenue, in the remnants of a community which I became a man in — but now no longer recognize — I wonder, what if the Greeks had tried to defend the community they had built here. This is not to say they didn’t — but attempted to do so in the way that the Slovakian nationalists now “defend” their town. Would a wave of video artists at the height of the Bush presidency and Bloomberg mayorship descend upon them with video cameras in tow, waiting for a single misstep, a single lost temper? If they did, I could only hope that an individual like Tomas Rafa would’ve been there to document it, and pray that a museum curator could never get their grimy hands on it.