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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Artist Avram Finkelstein on UMass Boston, Activism, and His Work

Avram Finkelstein talks with The Mass Media about his work, his time going to school in Boston during the 70s, and his responsibility as an artist.

Avram Finkelstein talks with The Mass Media about his work, his time going to school in Boston during the 70’s, and his responsibility as an artist.




You’ve been written about in the New York Times. You’ve had your work in the Whitney. Why UMass Boston?

Well, Aaron Lecklider from American studies–he and I met when I was speaking at Helen Molesworth’s show about ACT UP. I was speaking the opening night, and then Aaron reached out to me because he was doing some work around the American left, and in particular, he had some interest in lesbian and gay artists who were doing work on that topic.

He has such a great understanding of the period, the work, the issues, the topics, that I said yeah, there was room to collaborate with him on this. It was Aaron’s invitation, having arranged it with the gallery, that made it possible.

You’re fairly leftist. I would put you in the category of radical queer artist. Would that be accurate?

Yeah, I would say so. I wouldn’t shy away from that description.

So how do you feel the UMass Boston audience received your radical queer art?

I was very moved by the reception, and I felt like everybody I spoke to was moved by the work as well. I got this really strong connection, and I walked away feeling like I wasn’t 100% sure I would have gotten the exact same response from an art audience in New York.

I think some of it might have to do with being contextualized by the American studies department in a larger historical context. There’s a whole aspect to my work that I feel needs explaining in certain contexts, but this was a context where I didn’t feel like I had to explain anything. I felt like every reference was completely understood.

There are a lot of historical references that aren’t art references, and people seemed to be able to connect the dots between the AIDS crisis, the history of art, cultural production in the 20th century, and the history of social engagement or social movements. It’s a little hard to understand if you didn’t have the same upbringing that I had.

The left is much more than my background. The left is just how I was raised. I don’t see myself as a specimen that represents the left; I see myself as a person, and this is my family story, but the story is also a political one. I felt like this was a context in which I didn’t have to explain that.

How was this audience different?

It would be hard for me to explain exactly why they were different because I was only there for a week. I don’t really know, but I can make assumptions. I’m guessing that because the work may have actually been new to a lot of people, they were coming at it from a fresh and possibly more honest perspective.

In New York, given that the work that I’ve been involved with is an established part of the art world, people make presumptions about it. They think they know what they’re looking at without really seeing it. The reputation of the work is preceding it in a way.

I felt that this was not really a consideration in the way that the audience was viewing the work there. I think part of it is that it’s compact, and part of it is that the work isn’t just the work that I’m known for. It encompasses that, but it steps aside. It has elements of it and references to it. For people who knew something about the history of my work, they saw that in it, but people didn’t have to know that in order to read the show as a complete entity unto itself.

Also, Aaron is so completely plugged in to all of the layers of context: the Jewish references, the left references, the Communist Party references, the AIDS references, the LGBT references, he got all of that. It encouraged me to not be fearful about how it might seem or be read.

It was a very honest show, and a deeply emotional show for me. Some of the larger canvases, I was basically working on them on the floor because they were too large to work with on a wall. The experience was very immersive and extremely emotional because they’re family portraits. They’re not just statements about the left or observations about AIDS. They’re personal; they’re about my life, my losses, my family.

I feel like I had an opportunity to be particularly honest.

What do you think of Boston?

I went to the Museum School in Boston, so I actually know Boston very well. It’s where I went to college.

I love Boston; I have a huge affinity for it. When I went to college in 1969, it was a very different city. At the height of the anti-war movement, you could hitchhike around the city. The entire city felt like it was political and alive and had very vital young communities. It probably still feels that way, but it felt particularly that way to me.

The reason why I chose the Museum School was that the Museum School had just started to stay open 24 hours a day, and it was basically a poster factory for all the anti-war demonstrators in the area. They would produce the posters there and then the rest of the schools would come pick them up to wheat paste around the city.

I came to visit the school with my mom, and I was actually on the waiting list for Cooper Union in New York, which is where I had always wanted to go. But I walked into the Museum School lobby and I saw that basically the entire first floor was posters lying on the floor from the studios on either side of the main hallway, where people were just cranking out posters.

I looked at my mom and said, “This is where I’m going.” My first apartment was in Kendall Square, and I could hear the riots in Harvard Square from my apartment. It felt like home to me.

Do you feel like that radical activism should come back? Is it needed?

Yes, I do think it’s needed. I think that social and political engagement is an essential obligation that we have toward society and one another. I’m Jewish, and Jews really feel connected to the world in this regard. There’s a proud history of social engagement in the Jewish left, so yes, I feel that this is an essential part of life.

I do feel that what we’re told about the political situation at any given point isn’t always true. It’s what we’re told. If UMass is any indication, it’s a much more political world than we’re allowed to think of it as being.

We might not have a sense of it because this is not a political moment culturally, but that doesn’t mean that Boston is not political.

You talk about political engagement, but how does someone engage politically if they aren’t you? What if you can’t exhibit your radical artwork in a gallery because you are a mathematician?

The way we think of that social engagement, the way we think of our society or our culture, is very molded by what we’re told to think about it, which has to do with American capitalism and with the way capitalism is attached to us with images in an image culture.

But I feel like finding a personal self is a totally different thing that has nothing to do with that. I think that politicization is really the ongoing process of taking the next step, whatever that is for you. It’s not about being a Communist Party member. It’s about, if you’re a mathematician, taking the next step toward participating in society for you in your place, your age, your context, your class setting, whatever that means. For you, that is political engagement.

It’s like coming out as queer. That can mean many things. It’s an ongoing process, step by step. I see politics that way as well.

When you first came out, and when you first began your AIDS-related activism, there was a silence surrounding issues like AIDS and queer rights that is hard to fathom for those born decades later. How did you break that sort of silence?

Your information is not incorrect, but I know people who are HIV-positive and have been HIV-positive for decades, who are not out about it. In a way, most people feel like the AIDS crisis is over, but it isn’t for a lot of people. People hide the things that are difficult; that’s one example of it, but there are many other examples of it.

You’re right that there were moments of bravery when we were forced to confront things. In terms of the AIDS crisis and ACT UP, I didn’t really have a choice because I knew people were dying. I knew that I had to. There were really two choices. One was to do nothing about it, in which case people would continue to die, and the other was to try to do something. Maybe it would work, and maybe it wouldn’t. If it didn’t work, I would try something else.

There are certain moments when your back is against the wall and when you have to do something whether you want to or not. You have to make that bold move. You have to come out. You have to go on the record, and that’s part of being a conscious person who feels responsible to the world.

What issues do you think would galvanize conscious people in this day and age?

I certainly have evidence at UMass from every single person I spoke to–I didn’t speak to everyone, only a handful of people–that people there are fully engaged and conscious of class in particular. I think that class is the dirty little secret of the American mind. We work at the idea that we’re a classless society, that anyone can climb the social ladder, and to some extent that might be true.

But you have to manage your fantasies about what that actually means. Anyone who’s bound by their class in any way realizes that it isn’t really true that anyone can be president. Being president involves huge amounts of money.

So on the one hand, we repeat this trope that anyone can be president as a representation of the American dream. But anybody who realizes that they’re going to have to work for a living and that they’re going to work until their grave, which is practically everyone I know, including myself–there isn’t a golden parachute for these people, and they know it.

That is the primary issue in America. It always has been. It was during the AIDS crisis; it still is.

If young people are primarily engaged with this issue of class, do you think they might forget earlier struggles, such as the AIDS crisis and early gay rights struggles?

There is a tremendous amount of hand-wringing among people in the left who are older about social engagement among people who are younger. There’s a couple of things I would say about that.

One is that it would be a terrible thing if there was a resurgence of the AIDS crisis in America in the gay community, and there’s a very good chance that there might be because of some very unsafe practices. On the one hand, there are rationales for that. On the other hand, that’s exactly how the outbreak started. People are putting themselves at risk. It’s a part of human sexual nature to take risks, and there’s every chance that the crisis could explode again.

Protease inhibitors are very complex, and for the long-time survivors who are held together with those medications, there are huge health implications from just being on those medications. It’s not a cure. That’s part of the systematic institutionalization of the idea that pharmaceutical interventions are curative. There’s really no money in a cure. There’s money in pharmaceutical intervention.

So if you take a critical look at it, the AIDS crisis is not over; it never has been. I feel like as a Jew, the burden of history is my responsibility, and that’s really something that younger gay men in particular should look over and know.

But I don’t really feel like we’re in a political moment where young people aren’t aware of the world. Young people are much more prolifically involved than we’re allowed to think of them as being. If you’re young in America now, you’re paying so much money you could buy a building in Brooklyn, which is what you have to pay to go to college now. I don’t think there’s a young person in America who isn’t aware of the intricacies of class in particular.

When people describe the political feeling in America, they describe it as a pendulum swing. It swings to the left. It swings to the right. I don’t actually see it that way; I see it more as a spiral. It’s referring to the left; it’s referring to the right. But it’s not going back and forth; it’s going forward.

I believe that progress is slow, but it’s there, so I don’t have the despair that some people have when they describe the state of American politics and young people in America. My experience at UMass Boston is proof of this.

Whenever I teach or speak in a school, there seems to be an appetite among young people to try and recover the past; there’s a hunger for it. Schools like UMass have a much greater chance of having that conversation and having it be heard than an art gallery in New York or a museum in New York.

I’m very heartened. That’s my short answer.

What were you hoping for UMass Boston students to learn from your show?

I think this particular show is very vast, and I give all credit to Aaron because he was so insightful that he encouraged me to make it vast.

It’s a show about the entire twentieth century, both in terms of cultural production and politics. It’s the story of my father and myself, and between the two of us, we were politically involved in the American left for an entire century. It’s the story of art and America during that century. There are references to fauvism, there are references to early collage work, there are references to cubism, there are references to Kandinsky, to Gorky, to Matisse, to the post-modernists, to abstract expressionism…then there’s this very layered narrative about becoming queer, culturally and personally.

It’s all woven together as a family portrait. It’s a very vast, complex show, and I would hope that people would be able to peel away the layers to see the interconnectedness of the personal and the political in a very vibrant way. “The personal is political” is a cliche, but it’s so completely true.

In this case, this is what the show is about. It’s about connecting the dots between your personal journey and the journey you have through the world and the journey that the world has in its own self-discovery. I’m hoping that people will be able to see it in all of its layers and spend time considering the connections.

Aaron describes the assembly of pieces as a method, and it is. There are references in the star to the wallpaper and the chair in the “Worker’s Apartment.” There are references in “Worker No. 5” to the AIDS motif on the chair. There are references between my mother’s history as a biochemist and my experiences with AIDS. Every single piece is connected to every other piece.

One of the students who walked into the show was moved to tears. She said she thought the show was basically formal references to calligraphy in those large collages. She had looked at it and made these assumptions about what it was about. Then she read the documentation and looked at all of the work as a whole, and began to realize that that isn’t at all what it’s about. I’m hoping that people will spend some time and think of the entire show as one piece.

You talk about “connecting the dots” between yourself and the wider world, and that’s what a lot of college students are doing. Many people at UMass Boston are becoming truly aware of themselves and the world for the first time. What is your advice to them?

What I would love to say is this. I don’t know how people afford to go to school now. My school was 3000 dollars a year, and I had to work to go there. I don’t know how somebody goes to school for 100,000 dollars. I wouldn’t want to be in that position.

As a consequence of that huge financial burden, people become very obsessed with what they need to know in order to survive the workplace, with what they need to learn in school in order to get skills that will get them a job to help them repay that huge debt.

I think they overlook the fact that school is also a halfway house between the cloister of your family and the world that surrounds you. It’s an opportunity to think critically about everything that you’re told, to not just worry about the syllabus and what you need to do to graduate in order to get a job.

I think that you really need to open up a parallel level of realization about it, that it’s your chance to imagine the world and pay attention to it. To pay attention to your people, your college, your fellow students is an opportunity that only comes to us once in a lifetime. I would hate to think that people are opting out of that because of the financial pressure.

I hope that students would have a little bit of the luxury to absorb the world around them at the same time that they’re worried about getting a job.