It’s been hard to figure out how to write this, but I really feel like I need to write down exactly how I became more comfortable with studying political theories. I’ve avoided them my entire life, largely because I thought of myself as an “artist” and felt that these things were best kept separate. It isn’t that I didn’t understand the truism that “everything is political”, it’s just that it seemed like a sure way to avoid the really considering issues rather than confronting the state of the world.
Most political art, in my experience, is really boring. There are exceptions, to be sure, (Guernica comes to mind, and Ben Shahn) but mostly I was more comfortable just changing the subject when things went that way. Most political discussions, inevitably, lead to preaching to the converted.
A while ago, I was invited with my wife to a sort of “going away party” for an activist that was seriously ill: Leslie Feinberg. I don’t get out much, and I hadn’t met Leslie before. I wasn’t simply a “plus one” according to my wife, who had been working with Leslie and her partner for quite some time on a variety of projects—Leslie really wanted to meet me. Apparently, my wife has been known to talk about me a bit.
When we arrived at the gathering, everything was just, well, friendly. I could see the Leslie showing some pictures on a TV screen to someone, and I was immediately struck by the images. They were not the usual amateurish cliches you usually see— no weird filters, nothing that resembled advertising at all. The pictures were quite “real” for lack of a better word. They were all taken from a high perspective (an apartment balcony, turns out). They reminded me a lot of Andre Kertez’s photographs of Washington Square in the last years of his life; somewhat sentimental but not forced at all, natural and touching.
I watched for a while, and then went over and spoke to Leslie briefly; I talked about Kertez (one of my lifelong heroes) and decided that I really needed to send over a copy of one of my monographs for her to look at. Though Leslie was weak, she really seemed interested. She looked the book over when I sent it, and expressed thanks when she returned it, with the gift of one of the photos that I had admired so much.
There was just a vital energy surrounding Leslie, you just felt better about everything being around her. When she passed, I just felt like the world was a poorer place. Her last words, “Remember me as a revolutionary communist” have stuck in my head.
As I read more and more about William Morris, and have conversations with Leslie’s partner Minnie Bruce Pratt, the more I become interested in the politics behind radical movements. E.P. Thompson’s book, as a matter of fact, was specifically crafted to rescue Morris from the land of bourgeois tapestries and fine books and place him squarely in the center of radical politics.
The problem I’ve always had with politics also centers on a corollary to the truism that “everything is political.” The old saw that “groups are always formed to exclude people” has always seemed to be more significant to me. A perennial outsider and a white heterosexual in the land of gender activists, I fully expected to feel at least a little uncomfortable when visiting Leslie. I wasn’t in the slightest. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more welcome anywhere as I was that day at the “going away party.”
Minnie Bruce, when detailing the fascinating history of the movements that she was involved in over dinner a week or so ago, noted that there were always strong currents of isolationist thinking among the activists she was involved with. I never sensed any of that from Leslie; she was a radical bent on bringing people together, at least in my limited experience of her. The dissolution and fracture of social movements has become increasingly fascinating as I read about William Morris. The pattern seems to be quite familiar.
When Leslie chose to make the most important aspect of her life to be her revolutionary communism, it changed me. Suddenly, it felt more important to pay attention to politics and strive to understand the systems better. They wouldn’t have been my choice of parting words, but they were hers. What I remember about Leslie was her warmth, and sensitivity, and above all else her energy on her way out. The world got smaller when she passed.