Saturday, December 20, 2014

Judith Scott (1943-2005)

She couldn’t hear, couldn’t speak and had Down syndrome.  She spent years in an institution, until her twin sister rescued her.  Yet today, her textile pieces are held in museums throughout the world and sell for tens of thousands of dollars.  This profoundly disabled person was at the same time a great artist, whose work has bought pleasure to many. 

Judith and Joyce Scott were twins, born into a middle class family in Cincinnati, Ohio.  As small children, the two girls were dressed alike, played together, and were encouraged to participate equally.   Joyce later wrote:

"At first we lived unaware and unafraid. In the sandbox where we played, pouring sand in each other's hair, wiggling toes in wetness, making our leaf and stick dishes and dinners, we still felt only the innocence of our soft skin and earthy explorations. But the forces pulling at us and threatening us grew as we grew. No longer wrapped in the protective web of our family's ties alone, we soon joined the neighborhood. There Judy was seen as different - and to a few ignorant and fearful souls, different meant dangerous. Our next-door neighbors refused to let her in their yard. Currents growing, doors slamming shut."

But Judith was born with Down syndrome, and after an attack of Scarlet Fever, she also lost her hearing.  When she was tested for entry to special school, her deafness meant that she did not respond to verbal questions, and so she was thought uneducable.  At age 7, her parents, acting on the medical advice of the time, sent her away to a residential institution for people with profound intellectual disability, where she would stay for the next 35 years.   Very distressed at being parted from her sister, Judith was seen as a disruptive presence on the wards.  Joyce wrote:

"The State Institution was a terrible place - worse than terrible - full of the awful sounds and smells of human suffering and abandonment. It still lives in my nightmares. That Judy is not haunted, that she has not been destroyed is a testament to the human spirit and most especially to hers. There is no doubt that institutional life has left its mark. Her habit of stealing small bits and pieces, of hoarding things, of being initially suspicious of strangers and of tending to isolate herself, these all reflect those terrible times. Her incredible ability to persevere and to sustain her focus, to hear her own inner voice, may also come from those years of crowded aloneness."

However, in 1986, her sister Joyce fought to get Judith out of the institution, and Judith lived together with Joyce and her family in California.  Later she moved into a community home, which meant that she enrolled at Creative Growth Arts Center, in Oakland.   She started in the painting class, where she showed no particular talent.    Several years later, she saw people working with textiles with a visiting fiber artist, Sylvia Seventy.  Judith Scott immediately gravitated to that medium, and created her own way of working.  

Her pieces consist of found objects, which she carefully wrapped in coloured fibre.  She would appropriate any object lying around the studios that she felt like, to act as the core of her sculptures, including once an electric fan, and at least one set of car keys. Each piece might take weeks of careful wrapping and weaving and knotting until she was satisfied.  Sometimes reminiscent of the figures of Alberto Giacometti, the results might look like strange animals or totem poles, or cocoons.  Often, they come in pairs.  As soon as she had finished one artwork, she would begin on the next one.

Judith worked as an artist for five days a week for eighteen years, and produced over 200 sculptures.  Her work is collected in public museums, such  as MOMA, New York or the American Museum of Folk Art, and private collections all over the world: she has become one of the most famous of all Outsider Artists.   As well as a critical study by John MacGregor, she was the subject of four different documentary films, in which she appears as almost regal, wearing a large hat, and firmly determined to make her work in the way she wanted, often carrying the large pile of glossy magazines, which she liked to look at.  Critic Eve Sedgewirk talks of her as "the holder of an obscure treasure".  Rachel Adams writes: "Looking at a piece by Judith Scott, our eyes are invited to function as organs of touch, sensing the texture and heft of the artifact, becoming aware of the relationship between our own bodies and the work of art."

Until the end, Judith remained very close to her sister and to her sister’s family, and it was in Joyce’s arms that she died of heart failure, aged 61.


Judith Scott’s work can currently be seen in an exhibition called Bound and unbound at Brooklyn Museum until March 29 2015. 

There’s also a review of the show in the New York Times

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937)

It’s a romantic tale: a young communist struggling against an authoritarian regime is arrested on a treason charge.   A dramatic trial follows, and he is consigned to a long sentence, separated from his wife and family.  In prison, he rallies his comrades, organizing education sessions.   It could be the story of Nelson Mandela, except that this would-be revolutionary came from a poor family, not aristocratic stock.   And while Mandela’s tragedy had a redemptive ending, that of Antonio Gramsci ended in tragedy.

Antonio Gramsci, born in Ales, Sardinia on 22 January 1981, was the son of a minor civil servant, of Albanian descent.  As a child, he was frail, and he grew up stunted and hunchbacked.  The family attributed his disability to him being dropped by a servant.  But it seems rather to have been the result of Pott’s disease (tuberculosis of the bones).

Gramsci’s hard childhood became harder when his father was imprisoned for alleged administrative irregularities.  “Nino” had to leave school at the age of 12 and work in the local tax office,  continuing his studies in the evenings.  Later, he was able to finish the final three years of secondary school, and he then went to sixth form in Cagliarii, where he lodged with his brother Gennaro.  Around this time, he began to read socialist magazines and meet other young people for political discussions.  Aged 19, he published his first political article in a Sardinian daily.  The following year, he won a scholarship to the University of Turin, where he enrolled as a student of Letters.  He was lonely, broke and exhausted, but he made friends with Angelo Tasca and Palmiro Togliatti, two other future leaders of the Italian left.

Despite his ill-health, he continued with his studies, but by 1916, he was as devoted to journalism as to research.  Turin was a hot-bed of trades unionism and socialism: he wrote theatre reviews, articles critical of the war and of nationalism.   His intellectual and political life would always be as much about culture as about revolution.

The Russian revolution filled Gramsci and other socialists with hope and excitement, although a popular uprising in Turin in 1917 was easily crushed, and all the revolutionary leaders were arrested.  Gramsci was now secretary of the Turin section of the Italian Socialist Party.   The following two years, the Biennio Rosso, were a time of revolutionary fervor in northern Italy, and Gramsci was at the forefront.   He was one of the founders of L’Ordine Nuovo, a socialist review, which operated under the slogan: “Educate yourselves because we'll need all your intelligence. Stir yourselves because we'll need all your enthusiasm. Organize yourselves because we'll need all your strength.”  In 1919, Gramsci was briefly arrested.  The factory council movement – echoing the Russian Soviets – spread through Turin  and other northern industrial cities.  In April 1920 a general strike was observed in Turin, but not in the rest of the country.  In 1921, Gramsci was one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party.  The following year, in poor health, he travelled to Moscow as a delegate to the Communist International.

Shortly after arrival, illhealth forced Gramsci to spend time in the Serebranyi Bor Sanatorium, where he met his future wife, Julia Schucht, a Russian violinist.

Back in Italy, Mussolini’s Fascists came into power that autumn.  L’Ordine Nuovo was shut down and communists and socialists in Turin were violently assaulted.  Executive committee members of the PCI were arrested, and a warrant was issued for Gramsci.

In April 1924, Gramsci was elected to the Italian Parliament.  Trusting to his immunity as a deputy, Gramsci returned to Italy after a two year absence.   Gramsci spoke about the need for unity of the left, in the face of the Fascist threat.  Matteotti, a Socialist deputy who had denounced Mussolini in the parliament, was murdered by Fascist thugs.  By now, the Communist Party was organizing clandestinely through cells and its leaders were meeting in secret.  In 1925, Gramsci made his only parliamentary speech, criticizing the banning of opposition groups.

In 1926, Julia, who was expecting their second child (Giuliano) returned to Moscow.  Unlike other Communist leaders, Gramsci remained in Italy.  He wrote a letter to the Russian Communist Party to criticize the split between Stalin and Trotsky, saying “today you risk destroying your own handiwork”, but in Moscow Togliatti suppressed the letter. 

On 8 November Gramsci was arrested by the Fascists, as part of a crack down after an assassination attempt against Mussolini.  He was charged under a new law on public security and sentenced to five years imprisonment.   He was sent to the Italian island of Ustica with other political prisoners. Here he started classes for the other inmates.  His friend Pierro Sraffa, an economist, opened an account at a Milan bookshop so that Gramsci could be supplied with the books he needed to continue his work in prison.

In 1927, Gramsci was moved back to the mainland, eventually ending up in Milan. Subject to illness and insomnia, he was interrogated many times.  His sister in law Tatiana Schucht moved to Milan in order to be able to help him.

In May 1928, Gramsci and 21 other PCI leaders faced a show trial.  Chillingly, the Prosecutor declared of Gramsci: “We must prevent this brain from functioning for 20 years.”  He received one of the heaviest sentences of 20 years, 4 months and 5 days.  First, he was sent to prison in Turi, near Bari, where he was imprisoned in crowded conditions.  He was now suffering from a uremic disorder which left him unable to walk.

In January 1929, he was given permission to write in his cell, and on 8 February he began the first of his famous Prison Notebooks.  He would write notes on politics, culture and history.  Here, he developed his famous notion of hegemony.  By this he referred to the way that a regime governed not just be coercion, but also by winning consent.  He was one of the first to understand the role of the battle of ideas, and the need to create what he called a “counter hegemony”, based on cultural struggle.  He also developed his notion of “organic intellectuals”, by which he meant people from the working class, as opposed to traditional intellectuals of academia.   These ideas make him one of the few Marxist writers who still influences contemporary thinking, decades after the fall of communism.

As well as Gramsci’s theoretical writings, he also wrote letters to his family and his friends, sometimes scolding, sometimes passionate, often touching, as when he shared memories of his Sardinian childhood with his two sons, the younger of whom he would never meet.

Over the years, successive appeals reduced Gramsci’s sentence and improved his access to books and newspapers.  But his suffering continued as his health deteriorated.  When his mother died in 1932, the news was withheld from him because his family did not want to further undermine his well-being.  Tatiana continued to visit Gramsci and provide him with assistance.  Meanwhile his wife, her sister, was unwell in Moscow.  In 1933, Gramsci was moved to the prison hospital of Formia.  In 1935, as his health continued to deteriorate, he was moved to the Quisisana clinic in Rome.

In 1937, Gramsci’s reduced sentence expired on 21 April.  His plan had been to return to Sardinia when his health improved.  But on the evening of 25 April, he suffered a stroke.   Two days later, he died, with Tatiana at his bedside.  He was buried in Rome, after a funeral which was attended by a few friends and many more secret policemen. 

Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks had been smuggled out of his prison cell and taken out of Italy for safe keeping.  Later, his writings would be strongly influential in the development of western Marxism and the postwar political strategy of Eurocommunism which repudiated violent revolution in favour of democratic struggle and cultural action.

Gramsci is by no means the only disabled revolutionary in history.  The French revolution had Jean-Paul Marat with his skin diseases and Georges Couthon with his paraplegia.  Another Marxist, Che Guevara, had severe asthma.  But I find Gramsci especially admirable, not just because of his heroism in the face of repression and illhealth, but also because of his humanity.  He was no Leninist centralist trying to seize power, but a libertarian socialist committed to popular consent.  He was not a tiresome political obsessive, but someone with wide ranging interests in folklore and literature.  I’ve still got my own black notebook from 1991, where I’ve written down quotations from his letters show how he is one of the most poetic of revolutionaries:

“The cycle of the seasons, the progression of the solstices and the equinoxes, I feel them as if they were flesh of my flesh; the rose is living and will certainly flower, because the heat leads in the cold, and under the snow the first violets are already trembling.  In short, time has seemed to me a thing of flesh, ever since space ceased to exist for me.” (To Tatiana, July 1 1929)

“When a man has no chance of making plans for the future, he continually chews over the past, analyzing it.  Gradually he gets to understand it better in all its aspects.  He thinks especially of all the stupidities he has committed, of hios own acts of weakness, of everything it would have een better to do or leave undone or the things he was in duty bound to do or leave undone.” (To Guilia, February 9 1931)

Gramsci had a fondness for quotations, which I share. His own favourite saying was “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”, a thought which has always inspired me.  In that notebook I also wrote down a quotation which expresses Gramsci’s unblinking realism:  “Turn your face violently towards things as they exist now”.   Although I was once a student communist, I no longer share Gramsci’s Marxist analysis.  This does not stop me admiring his courage or his intellectual achievements.  

Radio 4 Great Lives

Monday, June 23, 2014

Garrincha (1933–1983)

"a phenomenon, capable of sheer magic. It was difficult to know which way he was going to go because of his legs and because he was as comfortable on his left foot as his right, so he could cut inside or go down the line and he had a ferocious shot too." (Mel Hopkins, Wales full back)

Manuel Francisco dos Santos was born in Pau Grande, Brazil, in total poverty, the grandson of slaves.  He was barely educated, and went on to lead a fairly disastrous life, dying of alcoholism before his fiftieth birthday.  The one thing he could do was play football.  Dribbling, corners, free kicks, people asked whether he was from another planet, such were his skills.  He could even head the ball, despite his shortness.  On four separate occasions in his career, he scored direct from a corner.  With Pele, he was probably the greatest soccer player that Brazil has ever known, and he even has a soccer stadium named after him.   And he was born disabled.

It was his sister who named him Garrincha, after he was born with a deformed spine and a left leg six centimeters shorter than his right: he was always small for his age, and his right leg bent outwards and his left leg bent inwards.  To fans, he was known as Alegria do Povo, “joy of the people” or Anjo de Pernas Tortas, “angel with bent legs”.  And it was watching Garrincha that fans first started chanting “Ole”, the bullfighting cry, as he feinted and tricked defenders with those extraordinary and unpredictable legs.
He was 20 when he joined Botafogo, scoring a hat trick in his first team debut.   Before that, he had been playing for his factory team.  He went on to score 232 goals in 581 matches during his twelve years playing for the club.  

He didn’t play in the 1954 World Cup.  But his reputation for extraordinary dribbling meant that he was in the squad for the next competition, held in Sweden in 1958: he played with a 17 year old named Pelé, and Brazil went on to win its first World Cup.  Brazil would never lose a match with both Pelé and Garrincha on the team.

Four years later in Chile, Pelé was injured early, and so Garrincha got the solo glory, knocking out England with two goals in the quarters and repeating his feat against Chile in the semis.  The British press described him as "Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney and a snake charmer all rolled into one."  Again, Brazil won the Cup, and Garrincha was named best player of the tournament, and won the Golden Boot as leading goalscorer.  He also got the girl, as a glamorous samba singer entered the team dressing room after the match to embrace him in the shower (she would later become wife number two).  
In 1966, luckily for England, Garrincha had problems with his knee, and Brazil lost to Hungary – his only defeat in 55 internationals.

Off the pitch, Garrincha partied as hard as he played.  He is said to have lost his virginity aged 12, to a goat.  Later he drove over his father while drunk.  The father was also a drunk, and cachaca was Garrincha’s undoing too.  Women were often the casualties, including the mother-in-law whom he killed in a drunken car accident in 1969, and her daughter, his second wife Elza Soares, that samba singer, who left him after he attacked her in 1977.  He had at least 14 children, including impregnating local girls when he went on tour with his team. 

As with George Best and Paul Gascoigne, it's questionable whether the sins of a genius should be forgiven. In Brazil, a dismal domestic record did not prevent you becoming a superstar, with the stadium in Brasilia being named after him in 1974.  When he died of cirrhosis of the liver on January 20, 1983, once again a pauper, thousands of fans came to view his body at the Maracanã stadium and pay their respects to the man who had won them their first two World Cups.

As the South American writer Eduardo Galeano wrote:

“In the entire history of football no one made more people happy. When he was out there, the pitch was a circus ring, the ball a tamed animal, the match a party invitation. Garrincha nurtured his pet, the ball, and together they created such mischief that people almost died laughing. He jumped over it, it gambolled around him, hid itself away, skipped off and made him run after it. And on the way, his opponents ran into each other.”

Link: Garrincha in action