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Two Essays
by David Chorlton

Capitalist Realism
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 enemy was.
     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.

David Chorlton was born in Austria and was taken to England within weeks, before he could protest. After growing up in Manchester, he moved to Vienna in 1971 and seven years later he came to Phoenix. That leaves twenty-two years of writing, operating with small presses, and carrying on a parallel life as a visual artist.


David Chorlton's publications are poetry collections. They include:

OUTPOSTS, a book from Stride Press in England

FORGET THE COUNTRY YOU CAME FROM, a book from Singular Speech Press

THE VILLAGE PAINTERS, a chapbook from Adastra Press

ASSIMILATION, a recent chapbook from Main Street Rag

Several of these, and others, are accessible through, but David Chorlton is the most reliable source at 118 West Palm Lane Phoenix AZ 85003 


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