Alexander Melamid speaks in sweeping terms, which is exactly how you might expect a 70-year-old Russian émigré to see the world. “If the system sucks, everyone sucks within the system,” he boomed. “You cannot be right within the wrong system.” This can be intimidating at first. After all, Melamid is the co-founder, along with Vitaly Komar, of Sots Art, what is sometimes referred to as “Soviet Pop Art.” This is someone whose work many of us have read about in art history books, and so his declarations hold considerable weight for us comparatively smaller people.
But if it were up to Melamid, he’d have those books destroyed.
Turns out that many of his grand statements are followed by boisterous laughter and ironic self-deprecation, and Melamid has endearing, approachable features: wild gray hair and glasses that won’t keep slipping down his face, no matter how many times he pushes them up. “I look back on my life and see that I’ve wasted it on something that has no meaning. It’s like a priest who says, ‘Oh, mama mia! God doesn’t exist— what have I done my whole life?’”
Cheryl Kaplan, the International Editor at Large for his magazine, Artenol, chuckled. “You can take the Russian out of Russia, but you can’t take the Revolution out of the artist,” she said.
It is Melamid’s continued commitment to “revolution” that has inspired the artist, along with his small editorial team, to take on the modern art world at the level of media, which they understand to be just as screwy as the rest of it. Hence, Artenol, which ran its first issue in June, joins Melamid’s Art Healing Ministry as part of a therapy plan for treating a very particular, very dangerous disease. As Melamid sees it, art has lost touch with the people, and therefore art has lost its way.
Artenol, as a print magazine, specifically seeks to address (and offer an alternative to) esoteric art criticism and mainstream media’s lack of any meaningful art coverage. “The only time that art is really covered in mass media, is a Sotheby’s auction, or when a painting is stolen,” Cheryl explained.
“And you know why that is?” Melamid interrupted. “Because people are afraid, they are afraid to write about art.”
He continued. “Even New York Magazine or the Times, when they write about art, I cannot understand what the hell they are writing about,” he laughed. “But it’s just artists or collectors who read this stuff anyway, because for anyone else outside of this world, it doesn’t make any sense. The point is to open it up — art enjoys all of these things for being not-for-profit and good for the society, so it’s about, ‘Hey, deliver the goods.'”
Artenol is right on point in its assertion that most art-specific publications read more like “trade magazines,” often inspiring confusion and boredom from anyone who isn’t a professional or a collector. But Melamid’s mission requires much more than simply publishing approachable art writing. It also requires authentic debate.
Together, he and Cheryl Kaplan have organized the first iteration of what they’re calling “Artenol Presents: The Great Debate.” It might seem a little random to assign your editor the duty of organizing debates, however it just so happens that Kaplan, an artist and filmmaker, has coordinated many multi-disciplinary, dynamic debate series for at least the last decade. She named Deitch Projects, the Royal Academy of Arts, and the Serpentine Gallery in London as venues where she’s staged these intellectual take-downs. “In the debate itself, I never call myself a moderator,” she explained. Rather, she calls herself an “instigator”– as in someone who “instigates ideas.”
While debate may have been the realm of the ultra-nerd set in high school, Cheryl’s track record could hardly be characterized as stuffy. Artenol’s Great Debate is no exception. Melamid, who is never one to make subtle statements (see his work, Yalta Conference, which features the likeness of Comrade Stalin sitting beside E.T. while Hitler creeps up behind them), loved Kaplan’s idea of holding the debate, not at a university, or in the style of a town-hall meeting, but inside the ring at Overthrow, a boxing club on Bleecker Street. “The place has an incredible history,” Kaplan beamed.
Admittedly, the metaphor is a little clunky, but it demonstrates how serious Melamid and his crew are about fomenting change. They’re willing to take up — well, not arms exactly, but metaphorical fisticuffs.
And funny enough, Kaplan– who’s actually boxed herself and was told she was a “natural”– found out she has a bit of a family connection to the sport too. “I haven’t been a heavy weight or a light weight champion yet, but apparently my Great Uncle Sam had boxed in Madison Square Garden,” she revealed.
Overthrow is located inside a building that functioned for more than 40 years as what the Times dubbed the Yippies’ “spiritual headquarters.” The building at 9 Bleecker Street also served as the party’s publishing offices from 1973 through 1979, and it’s where the activist group (originally known as the Youth International Party) co-founded by Abbie Hoffman in 1967, printed its publication The Yipster Times. Later on, the paper was renamed Overthrow.
But after the Yippies allegedly stopped making payments on their $1.4 million mortgage (they’d bought the building in 2004 along with the AIDS Brigade) for five years (a company called Centech that was collecting the mortgage brought charges against them) the building went into foreclosure. And after an extended legal battle, the activists were forced to leave– the group lost what was for decades their headquarters and, for some members, their home.
But in a classic case of gentrification-guilt, the new tenant of 9 Bleecker Street– a boxing gym owned by Joey “The Soho Kid” Goodwin, a guy who described himself as a “grass-roots marketer” to B+B back in 2014– has pledged to keep the political spirit of the building alive, and least in so far as he said the Yippies were engaging in “branding.”
But on the realer side of things, the gym actually helped the building’s former tenant and Yippie activist, Dana Beal, organize a fundraiser back in 2014. As Goodwin told us back then, “I think we can be the lesser of two evils.”
In a way, The Great Debate offers a too-perfect continuation of this building’s combative history.
Kaplan had plenty of kind words for Goodwin. “He’s been a huge supporter of this,” she said. The organizers are hoping that, by challenging the way we think about discussions in terms of their venue, audience members (who are being encouraged to participate in the debate) will be moved to the kind of excitement and engagement rarely seen at sober, mic-and-podium affairs.
“Take the artist events out of those spaces, at least bring it somewhere— god forbid those white galleries!” Melamid roared.
Cheryl chimed in: “We look at this as — how do we make the debate physical?” she asked. “It’s like when people are watching boxing, there’s the immediate energy and anxiety of it. The hope is that people will start shooting questions back and forth — not that we want people to come to blows, but at least to come to blows in terms of ideas being one way or the other.”
This ethos corresponds to what they’re doing with the magazine as well, where Melamid and his team are trying to encourage writing that reads “like [how] words are spoken,” Cheryl explained.
She invoked a time when people took soapboxes to public spaces and shouted their bit to whoever cared to listen. “I think in a lot of ways, Artenol is this strange physical and mental soapbox to let that kind of talking happen,” she explained. Today, most of the disagreement and polemics we encounter are digital back-and-forths, what Cheryl called “spit firing” on the internet. “People talk about social media, but it’s a detached and removed event,” she mused. “What we want to do with this debate is to let that argument happen in real time.” And that means welcoming “the anxiety that actually comes with despair or real disagreement.”
This whole idea of bringing art back to the people — a very socialist vision of the power and place of art– seems very much genuine, if not a little overly optimistic. In fact both Kaplan and Melamid were committed to getting everyone around us on board. They invited the waiter (“a nice guy from India”) and an older French man sitting next to us along with his much younger brunch date.
“We’re inviting everyone,” Kaplan smiled.
This effusive personability might seem strangely at odds with the essence of Artenol’s mission– to spur disagreement. “I think we’ve come out of this strange period of reticence, where you know, you think about art as have this probing side, but in fact people are very hesitant to disagree with one another in public,” Cheryl pointed out. “We could disagree or say something when we were having coffee [with our friends], but the moment it goes into the public realm, the behavior and the demeanor are like a public performance or public art. We’re trying to break that down.”
Even if our instinct to be polite is to be ignored, there are still more hurdles to be cleared before people can really enjoy and feel comfortable engaging in combativeness, particularly if perceptions about their intellectual prowess are on the line.
But Melamid sees other values as more important than self-preservation. “I’ve been thinking for a long time — there are two different things: there’s political freedom and then there’s personal independence,” he explained. “We’re getting more political freedom throughout the world but we’re losing personal independence. In Russia, where I come from, there is no political freedom, but there is much more personal independence. They can punch you in the face with no repercussions.”
Not that he’s encouraging actual violence or anything, but Melamid said it’s important to “reintroduce independence into the world of our freedom.”
Greater independence then, Cheryl argued, should inspire greater interest in speaking about particularities. “The idea behind Artenol and the Great Debate is to let particular things be observed, which is what art, philosophy, science, and choreography are supposed to do— which is to isolate issues,” Cheryl said. “It’s not necessarily ‘political art,’ but it’s about ideas.”
The debate will bring together three respectables, each with overlapping concerns and very different paths. Alva Noë is a philosopher best known for 13.7: Cosmos and Culture, his regular column for NPR and his most recent book Strange Tools, which argues that art is an essential means by which humans understand the world they live in and our place within it, and therefore has biological roots — ideas that will be front and center at the debate.
Jeffrey Gibson is an an artist whose work is featured on the flyer above. “He’s incredibly forthright,” Cheryl described him in glowing terms. “When people look at these punching bags, they are these amazing pieces of craft, but it’s not like he’s in the business of creating decorative Everlast punching bags –rather he’s taking decoration out of art by using it.” She added that his Native-American background “is really very fascinating,” but at the same time, “it’s something he never wanted to have in his work.” Nevertheless, Gibson’s work, with its use of traditional, intricate beading techniques, immediately reads as Native-American inspired. “I guess I was interested in him because he chose to discard something that was really sort of uncomfortable for him,” Cheryl concluded.
Moriah Evans, a choreographer, offered an interesting counterpoint to both Gibson and Noë. “Part of philosophy is looking for how these disturbances are happening,” Cheryl said. “But I would say that Moriah Evans, as a choreographer, is also looking for how to disturb things.”
But Artenol doesn’t want this to be a typical conversation about art, in fact Alexander is deadly serious about the need for a total rethinking of how we approach art.
“The whole enterprise from the beginning to the end, is worthless,” he declared. He told me to check out his website, FreedomFromArt.org. “It’s just one tiny paragraph– and that’s what we have to demand from everyone, from our culture– to be free from art.”
The site reads: “The Freedom from Art Foundation is a non-for–profit entity devoted to promoting the truth about the corrosive effect of a totally false ideological notion of the magnanimity of Art and its supposedly beneficent value for humanity, carried out by parental authority and educational organizations.The goal of the FFAF is to unshackle individuals from the fetters of Art, as a semi-religious institution promoted by the intellectual and moneyed scum of the earth.”
Of course, Melamid doesn’t want to kill off all art. But he does want to smash art as we know it.
Cheryl agreed that the art world has been overtaken by extraneous concerns. “It’s almost like artists have been on a constant trail of campaigning for something, and if they’re constantly canvasing for the next gig, then they’re not actually focusing on having a dialogue, or a debate or disagreement, or making the work that they really need to make.”
The two both ascribe to the classic conception of the role of the avant-garde. “We’re trying to 100 percent challenge everything, every single aspect,” Cheryl declared. “If you’re not really challenging things, then you cannot be an artist, you cannot be a thinker, you cannot be a writer. You have to challenge.”
“It takes time to teach people how to smash other people’s noses,” Melamid agreed. “The greatest artist who ever lived was Michelangelo, and he had the broken nose. Why?”
Artenol Presents: The Great Debate, Why Do We See So Little? will be held on Friday Dec. 11th, 9 pm at Overthrow Boxing Club, 9 Bleecker Street in Manhattan, free with RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org (ignore the address on the flyer above).