Arielle Angel (editor-in-chief): This Monday, I attended the DOC NYC US premiere of While We Watched, a documentary by Indian filmmaker Vinay Shukla about NDTV news anchor Ravish Kumar and his lonely crusade against deepening ethnonationalism and crumbling democracy in Narendra Modi’s India.
Here at Jewish Currents, we’ve long been struck by the parallels between India and Israel’s rightward rush (to say nothing of the effects on their global diasporas). Indeed, as a closer observer of Israeli politics, it’s impossible to watch this film without drawing parallels to the Israeli context. Focusing as it does on the media’s near-total conscription into Modi’s strongman nationalism—a bait-and-switch that offers an enemy in Kashmir and India’s Muslim minority instead of jobs or basic services—it’s not hard to make the connection to Benjamin Netanyahu’s own media echo chamber, described by Elisheva Goldberg in this magazine a few years ago. In any event, the film paints a bleak picture of a democracy in freefall, where every channel but one resembles Fox News (truly they must be taking notes; the Tucker Carlson vibes are strong).
Kumar is an earthbound hero: When a journalist from a local outlet calls to say he’s doubting the ability to do honest work after witnessing the attacks on NDTV (among other things, the network’s broadcast signal is mysteriously disrupted in a number of locations, and Kumar himself is forced to travel with full-time security), Kumar does not readily provide the inspiration the caller craves. I’m also doubting, he says. I’m the same as you. A running motif of the film is cake—an office tradition on an employee’s last day—as one by one NDTV staffers tired of the stress and the attacks leave the office for greener pastures. Each time, Kumar bows his head toward his sad slice in a corner of the room before offering half-hearted well wishes. It’s worth knowing, though it isn’t explicitly stated in the film, that most of the other ultranationalist anchors depicted started out at NDTV. They were not always that way. Kumar may have doubts, but it does not seem like he is going to quit. Then again, it may not be up to him, as Kumar reminded us himself at a talkback after the film; NDTV is in the middle of a hostile takeover by billionaire Gautam Adami, which will almost certainly curtail the already circumscribed freedoms the network now enjoys.
The film is making its way through the festival circuit now, so unfortunately, I don’t know where it will screen next, but keep an eye out for it—I’m sure it will soon get wider distribution. It left me considering what becomes of dissenters when a society’s slide toward totalitarianism is too far gone to stop. Either way, Kumar reminds us, sometimes you fight not for victory, but to show the world that there was “someone on the battlefield.”
Nathan Goldman (managing editor): I recently read my second book by Nobel laureate Annie Ernaux: Happening, a slim memoir chronicling the author’s pursuit of an illegal abortion in 1963, translated from the French by Tanya Leslie. While the book’s direct and unapologetic account of an infuriatingly stigmatized medical procedure is bracing, it’s perhaps most thrilling for its philosophical undercurrents. As she recalls each step in the harrowing process of accessing the clandestine care she needs, Ernaux meditates on the metaphysics of the formless forces that shape her predicament: the fetus within her and the law that surrounds her. The fetus entirely consumes her internal sense of time, shifting the outward temporality of her young life inward; what was once “a series of meaningless days punctuated by university talks and lectures, afternoons spent in cafés and at the library, leading up to exams and the summer vacation, to the future” contracts into “a shapeless entity growing inside me which had to be destroyed at all costs.” The law, meanwhile, choreographs her entire world—including her own writing—against her: “The law was everywhere. In the euphemisms and understatements of my diary; the bulging eyes of [Ernaux’s former fellow student] Jean T; the so-called forced marriages, the musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the shame of women who aborted and the disapproval of those who did not.”
Together these two enemies represent the same single formidable obstacle: reality. “If only I didn’t have this REALITY inside me,” the young Ernaux writes in her diary; decades later she describes the law as an “invisible, elusive reality.” What she needs is something that is outside reality, to circumvent and obliterate it. Indeed, the stigma around abortion clouds it in a haze of non-being—searching for some sense of the procedure itself, she realizes that “although abortion was mentioned in many novels, no details were given about what actually took place. There was a sort of void between the moment the girl learns she is pregnant and the moment it’s all over.” She finds an even more extreme lacuna in her conversation with a doctor who refuses to put himself on the line to help her: “Neither of us had mentioned the word abortion, not even once. This thing had no place in language.”
In one sense, Ernaux’s task is to bring the concrete physicality of abortion into language—to render the unspeakable speakable and turn nothing into something. (“These things happened to me so that I might recount them,” she reflects near the book’s conclusion.) But Ernaux is also interested in elevating abortion from its social negation into a more essential kind of nothingness. Early on, she writes that her “investigation” into this era of her life “must be seen in the context of a narrative, the only genre able to transcribe an event that was nothing but time flowing inside and outside of me.” In the same passage, Ernaux compares her determination to write the book to her resolve to obtain the procedure—a thrilling reversal of the ubiquitous analogy between a book and a child. It’s fitting, then, that Happening itself aspires to the same sort of nothingness Ernaux found in her abortion: the radiant banality of everyday life.
David Klion (newsletter editor): Sometimes a cultural phenomenon just bypasses us; we know it’s there in the background for years, we have some glancing familiarity with it, we’re aware that it’s good and that lots of people like it, but we never really focus on it. For most of its 30-year existence, that was how I experienced the Wu-Tang Clan, the massively influential hip-hop collective that emerged out of Staten Island when I was a kid and achieved its commercial peak the year of my bar mitzvah. Yes, I knew it existed; yes, I could probably name around half of the ten rappers who have been part of the group; yes, I’d listened to “C.R.E.A.M.” and a handful of other tracks, registered that Method Man played a secondary character on The Wire, and heard about the Martin Shkreli fiasco. I had a sense that these guys were a big deal and for good reason, but they hadn’t yet become a big deal to me personally.
For whatever reason, 2022 is the year I decided to fill this gap and get really into the Wu, beginning with their classic debut album Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers and continuing with Wu-Tang Forever and the solo debuts of GZA, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, and the rest. I watched the first two (of a planned three) seasons of Hulu’s Wu-Tang: An American Saga, a kind of extended biopic, as well as the Showtime documentary miniseries Of Mics and Men, and dug up old interviews on YouTube and in Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s wonderful New York City atlas Nonstop Metropolis, which includes a conversation with RZA about growing up in the shadows of the two Staten Island housing projects that produced much of the group. I even listened to improbably successful mashups of Wu-Tang’s output with that of the Beatles and Fugazi. I approached Wu-Tang with the same obsessive passion that I brought to the Star Wars franchise back when Wu-Tang was actually new and relevant.
Plenty of other acts, from Bob Dylan to my colleague Mari’s beloved Taylor Swift, merit this kind of geeked-out fandom, but Wu-Tang is especially rewarding—in part because the members embrace fan culture in their own right, not only of hip-hop but of kung fu movies and comic books, but also because the group is so stacked with superstar MCs who invite comparisons and rankings and bouts of individual obsession. That said, I don’t have a single favorite; who’s to say whether GZA’s lyrical cleverness is more impressive than Ghostface’s frenetic flow, Method Man’s goofy charisma, or RZA’s prophetic intensity and sick beats? And why is Inspectah Deck not at least as famous as any of the above? (A very unfortunate basement flood, it turns out.) I’m just marveling that so much talent came out of one corner of one borough at one time, and that it took me this long to appreciate it. 2022 is also the year I became a dad, and as the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard said, Wu-Tang is for the children.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): As I walked through the marvelous Morris Hirschfield show at the American Folk Art Museum, initially I ignored the display case filled with shoes. Why, I wondered, were they there? They were, however, part of the show—a key part,for Hirschfield had patented a slipper design. The shoes turned out to be as delightful as the paintings, and they also provided a clue as to how to interpret the latter.
Hirschfield, a Polish Jewish immigrant and self-trained artist who lived, as a 1943 Newsweek article put it, “in the wilds of Brooklyn” (specifically, Bay Ridge) often posed his mainly female figures against striking backgrounds, sometimes clothed and sometimes nude. But the backdrops, the subjects, and their clothing or lack thereof shouldn’t distract viewers from what clearly mattered above all to Hirschfield: their shoes—ornate, colorful, simple yet loving constructs.
There are also barefoot works in which the figures’ feet, like the rest of their bodies, are not photographically plausible. The catalog of the show, wittily and appositely titled Master of the Two Left Feet, is accurate, and is not mocking Hirschfield when it describes that flaw in his technique. There is much that is “wrong” in Hirschfield’s paintings, from female anatomies to strangely painted animals, buildings, and nature settings, but it is the assemblage of these “wrong” elements that makes every painting in the show so right.
As with the work of any great artist, a Hirschfield painting is immediately recognizable: a uniform spirit and sensibility animate every canvas. Inspired sometimes by classical works, sometimes by showgirls, and sometimes by a unique personal architectural sense, not a single work here is boring.
Hirschfield’s importance was noted in his lifetime, and his work was praised and exhibited in a solo show at MoMA in 1943 by and among the Surrealists; the most important supporter and collection of modern art of his time, Peggy Guggenheim, was also an admirer. The Folk Art Museum show also includes a room showing his works alongside those of better-known artists like Magritte. Compared to that of the more trained Surrealists, Hirschfield’s surrealism was totally spontaneous, made from the stuff in the mind and talent of an immigrant who scuffled to make a living with no hope—and perhaps no desire or expectation—of recognition. The museum—which doesn’t charge an admission fee, by the way—gives Hirschfield his rightful place in the pantheon not only of outsider art, but of art tout court.
The richly illustrated and informative book accompanying the show, Master of the Two Left Feet, by the art historian Richard Meyer, is an excellent guide to the show, the work, and the life of this extraordinary artist. It’s an essential acquisition both for those who make it to New York before the show closes on January 29th, 2023 and for those who don’t.