Alan Kaufman has gone through a lot of cocoons. A beat poet who went big with his hugely-successful anthology The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, which has sold over 100,000 copies, he also performs spoken-word poetry and is the author of the memoir Jew Boy.
Most recently, however, Kaufman has courted controversy with his newest medium of visual art — not for obscenity or incitefulness, but for being “too Zionist.” He recently declared a beginning to the Creative Zionist art movement, and, with his new book Kaufman’s Visionary Expressionism, puts out a call to arms. Below, he tells MJL about his art, his political platform, and why artists are so amenable to anti-Zionism.
Is it strange to leap, as far as your output goes, from spoken word to Jew Boy to this — does your crowd come along with you, or do you have to win over a new audience every time?
It is strange and difficult, but it’s also exciting to switch creative disciplines and each time I find, in fact, that I must reinvent myself and also win over a new audience. My audiences tend to be even more schizophrenically fractured and factionalized then just between spoken word to memoir to painting.
My last book was a novel, Matches, based on my experiences in the IDF, and fiction readers and memoir readers are entirely different constituents. Even my friends are divided about which book they prefer. In each book they encounter a very different version of me, a different style of writer, a different sensibility. And then there are the anthologies I’ve done–that’s an entirely other audience, and not necessarily one that even knows I’m Jewish/Israeli or thinks of me in those terms. To them, I am “The Outlaw Poet guy.”
In your introductory essay, you say that anti-Zionism “has become…a fashionable stance that one must adopt and adhere to in order to gain credibility and acceptance in the advancement of one’s career.” What’s behind the outbreak of anti-Zionism? And why do you think artists are so often the most guilty of this?
This is directly attributable to the growing perception that Zionism is aligned with colonialism. This view was first posited by the New Left, and for a long time was marginalized (and rightfully so). However, gradually, the views were mainstreamed in different guises until, eventually, the view of Israel as colonialist became commonly held by large portions of the intelligentsia. And, as the arts draw their core audience chiefly from left-leaning intelligentsia, any artist must make his or her accommodation with the bottom-line positions of those who operate the means of artistic production: the theaters, publishing houses, galleries, the media. In order to move forward, they must identify with a contemporary left position — a kind of instant leftist position slate — which, of course, is anti-Zionism/pro-Palestinian.
It’s especially de rigeur among artists and writers — particularly those in the university system — to conceive of Israel as a bully, the Arabs as oppressed and colonized indigenous peoples, etc. and to express such views with the indignation of converts and apostles as this perspective on Zionism and Israel is now integral to academic life in America and Europe, and throughout the West. Woe to he or she, particularly to those starting out in academia or the arts, who dares to dissent! If you are an artist or writer, and a vocal Zionist, chances are better then good that you are not going to land that teaching job or art show. And your fellow artists and writers will detest you.
At the core of your art is a call for membership of the Zionist Arts Movement, which you name for the first time in this book — it’s really a flag you’re planting in the soil. Who are you calling to? Are there people whom you’d say are already members, but just don’t know it?
As the economic and political situation continues to worsen, Jews who have never before thought of themselves as Zionist will pay attention to the call, despite any previous objections — rooted usually in fearful misunderstandings — that they may have felt about Zionism. For their own personal experience as Jews in the emerging contemporary scene of political instability and economic catastrophe will bear out the necessity and relevance of Zionism and of a related Zionist arts movement.
These days, we Jews are increasingly under the gun. There is a worldwide jihad against us. And we are more and more criticized, in soft ways and hard, among those of our host cultures in which we had assumed ourselves to enjoy an unarguable place, a permanent home, such as France, Britain, and the U.S.
I just read an issue of Newsweek in which almost half the issue was related to Jews. The War in Gaza. The impact of the Madoff scandal. The Jews are back centerstage as a world problem — which, of course, is not good. The last time we saw this was in the 1930’s-40’s.
Your portraits of Moses and Yakov have a kind of punk flair and, at the same time, a Gothic brusqueness to them — both radical departures from the traditional view of the forefathers. What influenced you to depict them this way?
Its the product, in part, of my contemporary Pop cultural sensibility meeting old world or ancient themes. There’s also a comic-bookish element to some of the portraits, a taste of Marvel. I paint my prophets as I see them, through the lens of my aesthetic, which is as influenced by the Ramones, DMX and Patti Smith as it is by Herzl and the Torah. However one must add in there too Max Beckman, Francis Bacon, Chaim Soutine, Mark Rothko and RB Kitaj.
There’s a series of paintings around the founding of the State of Israel that are among the most abstract in the book — pained, chaotic, bathed in reds and blacks and almost hellish. What were your influences in this particular series? Why did you want to represent Israel’s founding like this?
Israel was founded, literally, from out of the ashes of a world that had subjected Jewry to Hell — in Auschwitz, at Babi Yar, throughout Europe, throughout the world. Jews burned alive, buried in mass graves, ostracized, expelled. The world’s face was smudged with smoke and ash, its eyes reflected back burning pits in which my people burned.
Israel was not only born out of fire but also born into fire. We continue to die as Jews, in wars and by acts of international terrorism. Today the very existence of the State is faced with Iranian nuclear annihilation and the growth of murderous Islamic extremist groups, sworn to destroy every last living Jew in Israel. Our miracle is our unvanquished faith and courage: that we stand in the fire and yet we live.
What goes through your mind as you’re painting?
It’s really more like what goes on in my hands, heart and guts. I touch base with an almost mystical sense of fierce hope and anguish both. As I paint, I am engaging in an historical act on behalf of my people
Sometimes, I feel acute anguish, my people’s pain, my pain, an outcry, and I seek to paint that. I do not run from pain or death or mortality but seek to put it on the canvas. Or, if I’m writing, to set it down in words. All my writing, all my painting, is a dialogue performed with the Jewish people, past and present and future.
My greatest pride came in a recent art show about the besieged southern Israeli town of Sderot. An Israeli woman and her friends clustered around my painting, looking and whispering, and she turned to me and asked: “Tell me: how did you know to express so accurately what we in Israel are feeling?”
In the basic dialogue, there’s no difference for me. A short, rapid, viscerally intense experience; a kind of explosive performance within a limited space of time, a day or a week, say. Usually a poem or painting take me no longer then that. However, a book is often a matter of years, and that’s quite a different experience.
Sometimes I do all three: work on a book, paint and write poetry. It’s absolutely exhausting. Still, its a good way to live. If one must die of something, to die of writing and painting is a good death.
And what you love will in the end kill you, of course. But only so that when gone, if you did your work well, you may yet live on through the work to inspire future generations.
Alan Kaufman will be speaking on behalf of the Creative Zionist movement at several Bay Area locations throughout March. Find out more at his publishers, Miriam Books.