Review: Art Is…the Permanent Revolution

The premise of this brief portrait sketch is as modest as the standard-definition, full-frame format in which it was photographed.

Art Is…the Permanent Revolution
Photo: First Run Features

The premise of this brief portrait sketch is as modest as the standard-definition, full-frame format in which it was photographed: Look over the shoulders of three non-household-name American political artists, and one lithograph printer, as they riff on the last era of U.S. foreign and domestic policy with their instruments and orally dissect the crafts tradition to which they belong. And the result, which ushers us through the production of a lithograph, a wood engraving, and an etching from nearly conception to the completion of usable mass-copy templates, doesn’t quite rankle us with irascible, grassroots pontificating the way we’d expect, or perversely desire.

Yet as Kirchheimer punctuates these slight, matter-of-fact interviews with digitized political cartoons from some of Europe’s most hallowed names (Rembrandt, Goya), unaccompanied by contextualizing annotations, an art historical underbelly of graphite, acid, and guar gum begins to emerge. The product is, like the etchings and engravings the film demystifies, a kind of compromise between quality and quantity, clarity and humanity; it certainly doesn’t make an alternative case for the genius of any one artist (with the exception of figures like William Gropper, who concentrated on caricatures), but it does suggest that insofar as painters and draftsmen have responded to their social environments with readily reproducible images, they have been revolutionaries of an often overlooked ilk.

That saber of popular caprice cuts both ways. Sigmund Abeles, who toils on a war-themed etching through the movie’s duration, reminds us that his most recognizable work is a grimly anti-Vietnam lithograph, impressions of which are now housed at the Whitney Museum in New York, among others. (Abeles, despite providing few comments about his non-political work, additionally paints with an emboldened, informed aesthetic as mature as it is unsettling.) But divorced from the up-kicked sands of protest that clouded national opinion toward its policing action impetus, the piece still possesses a sinister ineffability, as does the work of the dozens of others from as many eras on display—especially the black-and-white cartoons bearing bulbous-faced police and spindly corpses.

Abeles underscores, too, the painstaking quality of the methodology required to conjure such effects on the printed page as well as on the painted canvas, even noting at one point that when people ask him what he was thinking when he created a particular work, he usually answers “everything,” even the groceries; etching and lithographs require so much meticulous labor to produce that in the end their development becomes a skilled job like any other. That he and the other artists who participate in the film are so sober, monk-like, and industrious while venting their political bile is, finally, the true revolution—one that, as Ann Chernow points out, can even coincide with the demands of being a stay-at-home mom.

 Director: Manfred Kirchheimer  Distributor: First Run Features  Running Time: 83 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2012  Buy: Video

Joseph Jon Lanthier

Joseph Jon Lanthier is the director of What Should I Put in My Coffee? His writing has also appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal.

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