Back when East was East and West was West, the USSR was home to
a school of artists dedicated to illustrating the willing sacrifice
in hard work of the Russian people as they marched in and out of
factories, or bent to their labor in the motherland's golden fields.
In brushstrokes as muscular as the people in the pictures, these
scenes belonged to the genre known as Soviet Realism. To western
viewers, accustomed to abstract paintings and conceptual art, this
work lacked sophistication and was rated as propaganda. Neither
a factory gate nor a glistening scythe was painted without an agenda.
Any aesthetic impulse was subjugated to the message that the Soviet
Union was strong and would endure through billowing, industrial
smoke or burning sunlight. The Soviet Realists lost their power
in translation. No matter how confident their drafstmanship, their
value to Americans was to show how unimaginative the art of the
It hadn't occurred to me that a parallel
school of painters was hard at work extolling American values until
I discovered a counterpart to Soviet Realism in Cowboy Art. Each
October, I saw the walls of the Phoenix Art Museum emblazoned with
the flames of sunsets and camp-fires as dust sprayed from beneath
a stagecoach with Indians racing in pursuit, and with a jaw cut
from the same mold as that of a Russian steelworker a lonely cowboy
gazed reflectively across the sagebrush. Competitive in every domain,
the superpowers invite a comparison in art as in life. The Cowboy
Artists of America were the equals of anyone in Moscow when it came
to holding a brush steady. Both controlled and free markets produced
dazzling light effects. The main stylistic difference lay in the
almost photographic impression some of the Americans made, which
resulted from technical superiority more than drawing skill, as
slide projectors became standard equipment for rough and ready western
artists. This should have not surprised us, as many Cowboy Artists
first developed their skills on Madison Avenue, where they illustrated
the American dream, before deciding to move out West and paint the
clouds as they watched them pass by. Cowboy Art was the perfect
vehicle for illustrators who longed for the creative restrictions
imposed by a realistic, very late romantic genre. Their tableaux,
like those with communist themes, appear to be painted to communicate
with the common people and not with effete gatherings at show openings.
They happen to sell to uncommon people for six-figure prices.
Only once have I ever been physically
threatened inside an art museum. This occurred in the Phoenix Art
Museum when I ventured the opinion that a particular work would
have been fine as a landscape had the artist omitted the figures
on horseback, but that he lacked the imagination to alter what was
projected onto his canvas from a color slide. A tall man with an
ornate belt buckle insisted I keep my views to myself. I countered
by referring to American principles of free speech. He, in turn,
threatened me with violence. I am lucky, I have often been told,
to be living in a country where I can make provocative statements.
My First Amendment rights are invariably pointed out to me by individuals
who disagree with my ideas when they run out of relevant arguments
and think they can convince me that this is the greatest country
in the world by telling me I have the right to be wrong and say
it out loud. The cowboy was the only person I have met who responded
to my views by polishing his fist on his jeans.
The Cowboy Artists of America have
outlasted their Soviet rivals. I used to make jokes about this comparison
and speculated on finding Soviet art in Scottsdale galleries. The
Cowboys and Communists had too much in common for me to expect anything
else. Both glazed over discomforts, be they of herding cattle, harvesting
wheat, or fighting Indians. Sentimental and unchallenging, both
glorified the systems which fostered them. Their styles were so
related that I expect Russians responded to their paintings with
an echo of the Americans' "You could almost touch it."
Soviet painting is part of history
now the Cold War is over. The propaganda value is down, but the
dollar value seems to be rising. For all my old jokes, the first
time I saw a sunburned worker on the wall of a Scottsdale gallery
I was taken by surprise. It is hard to say who won the art war.
The Cowboys still show annually at the Phoenix Art Museum while
the Soviets occupy some wall space in galleries whose specialty
remains capitalist realism.
Watching Is Believing
From behind their armor of cleanliness, the two young men at my
door have come to persuade me that theirs is the one true religion.
I know it is hopeless to debate them, but I engage in conversation
until all three of us realize the incompatibility of our world views.
Another day, another ring, and two women offer me a copy of a magazine
that promises dull reading despite the utopian landscape in the
center spread. Again, I take up some of their points and they respond
by reading from printed material pulled from their briefcases. I
ought to save us all time and say I am not interested. That would
be a lie. I really am interested in what drives anyone from house
to house, risking insults, to inform the occupants of impending
catastrophe. These visitors introduce me to a strange kind of idealism,
an obsession with something other than commercial interests, and
in the United Sates I find this refreshing.
Electronic evangelism, on the other
hand, strikes me as both sinister and entertaining. Demons fly in
all directions from the radio speaker, and I am still amused after
my twenty years in this country by the ostentatious displays of
dress and hair-art blending with emotional excess on the television
screen. The fun gives way to an uneasy feeling when the preachers
betray themselves as politicians in sheep's clothing and I always
end up thinking that people who pray in crystal cathedrals should
not throw stones.
Between 1959 and 1964, I was forced
to stand with fellow scholars in the assembly hall each morning
while a hymn was sung and the Lord's Prayer was said before we returned
to our classrooms. It never occurred to me that this was more than
a routine. As for indoctrination, I was never affected one way or
another. Being told to do something took all the meaning from the
act itself. What I have come to resent about these daily prayers
is the division that took place when a small group of Jewish boys
met in an adjoining classroom for their own prayers before joining
the rest of us for the profane business of the day. The sounds of
the short Jewish service carried through the walls and met with
giggling at the strangeness of something we did not understand.
The message was that the Jews were not part of our community. Only
after leaving school, when I worked for a company that employed
several Jews, did I break down the prejudice that school had established
a "them" and an "us." The Church of England represented little more
to me and most of my schoolmates than the imposition of authority
through state religion.
Nobody in my family went to church.
I first attended a church with some regularity during the nineteen
seventies when I lived in Vienna and liked to go the Russian Orthodox
Church on Jaurèsgasse. On my visit to Moscow in 1971, I experienced
my religious conversion in an onion-domed church where a small congregation
met. Mostly old women, the celebrants moved from icon to icon in
mysterious light while a choir behind an ornate screen sang hypnotically.
My conversion did nothing for my faith, rather it persuaded me that
the aesthetic of ritual is an undeniable force. When I discovered
this ritual within walking distance of my apartment, I began to
attend many Saturday evening services so as to satisfy an appetite
for sensual theater.
There is no Orthodox church within
walking distance for me anymore. Instead, I sometimes encounter
groups meeting in the nearby park to proclaim their faith through
loudspeakers. With chains dangling from the belts holding up their
jeans, these heavily amplified believers gather to publicize their
redemption from whatever transgressions they enjoyed before they
bought T-shirts bearing the face of their Lord. I am reminded of
Rasputin, whose formative years in Siberia were spent honing a philosophy
that blended sin and prayer in a delicious froth he whipped into
a frenzy. Rasputin was a full-service savior, offering first the
opportunity to sin, then the blessing from his own, strong hands.
Not one to accentuate the aesthetic approach, he would have been
a major presence between Pat Robertson and Kenneth Copeland on the
magic screen. Rasputin also knew that religion and politics go together,
although he would have to dress with more panache to make it in
the New World.
My attitude to religion was built
through exposure to painting and music. Discrediting the churches
that spoke through El Greco, Monteverdi, and Ockeghem is more difficult
for me than discrediting those with 1-800 telephone numbers. On
the other hand, an eloquent critique of religion can impress the
believer too if he is open-minded. My friend Hanjo, a theology student
when I came to know him in Vienna's Augustinerkeller, introduced
me to Luis Bunuel's film, The Milky Way, which dissects Catholicism
with a surreal knife. On our way out of the cinema, Hanjo smiled
as he said that he had rarely seen religion dismembered as effectively
as Bunuel had done, but he could neither discard the argument nor
hold back his admiration for the insights of the film.
What I miss during those doorstep
debates is a cultural basis for the inevitable disagreement. A population
as large and varied as that of the United States is going to disagree
on most issues, and rarely as passionately as on religion, so the
best we can hope for seems to be stretching each other's minds to
accommodate an understanding of why we do or do not believe in gods.
While awaiting enlightenment, I watch
the presidents of the country pick up their Bibles for photo opportunities
and consult with Billy Graham, as George Bush did, before signalling
for the bombing to start. I listen to the talk-show hosts invoke
the Holy Spirit as they fight an increase in the minimum wage. And
I still take advantage from time to time of a peek at the Christian
Broadcasting Network. I tell myself it is only a show, but I know
better; anything that has eroded my tolerance as much as televangelism
has must be a dangerous force.