GUESTCRITIC

Looking Backward to Looking Forward

Irving Howe’s luminous volume World of Our Fathers begins with a stirring portrayal of the climate of fear and hopelessness after the assassination of Alexander II in 1881, which drove Eastern European Jews out of the Russian Pale, follows with a description of the staggering hardship and culture shock Jewish immigrants encountered upon their arrival to New York’s Lower East Side (which bolstered their social and political awareness, giving rise to the Jewish labor movement and the culture and Yiddishkeit), and concludes with an examination of Jewish contributions to New York intellectual life, followed by their gradual dispersion onto the green lawns of suburbia. The book is an epic narrative of two generations of “bedraggled and inspired” Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side, but it is also a chronicle of human struggle above and beyond any one opinion or ideology; it is also a book about the negotiation between tradition and modernity, between communal and individual expression.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Howe’s memorable account reminds me of Gaston Bachelard’s oft-cited disdain for psychoanalysts, and any others who “try to explain the flower by the fertilizer.” Yet, when a collective effort yields to some higher aspiration, something beyond the ambition of any one individual, the resultant achievements suggest that the various components of the fertilizer do, in fact, have something to do with the flower. Willem de Kooning wisely said, “the desire to create a style beforehand is a mere apology of one’s own anxiety.” We ought always to embrace the whole realm of our experience, despite its pressures and encumbrances, simply because it’s only through the entirety of lived experience that the outcome can be expansive, complex, and capable of moving us, “emotionally, morally, psychologically, intellectually, and historically, depending on a host of subtle considerations,” as my friend, the late art historian and theorist David Craven has observed.

In the spirit of resistance rather than resignation to the established art scene in Chelsea and uptown Manhattan, young gallerists and artists alike have recognized the strain and stress, as well as the seduction, of arching uniformity, which can erode each of their abilities to stand firmly alone. They strive to find a congenial attitude toward the world. In regard to our current condition of cultural amnesia, I think of the first sentence of Theodore Solotaroff’s review of World of Our Fathers (February 1, 1976, New York Times Book Review): “The first generation tries to retain as much as possible, the second to forget, the third to remember.” Inevitably, while thinking of Howe and the old tenements on the Lower East Side, I thought to urge my fellow writers to explore the 60 galleries that dot the neighborhood, each representing eight to 10 artists on their rosters, which rounds up to nearly 600 in total, and to seek particularly artists who have not yet been reviewed. I’ll close with Charlie Chaplin’s famous comment: “Like everyone else I am what I am: an individual, unique and different, with a lineal history of ancestral promptings and urgings, a history of dreams, desires, and of special experiences, of all of which I am the sum total.”

Salute.

Contributor

Dore Ashton

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