Pride, Activism, and Radicalism of Identity

Deborah Kass, Double Red Yentl, Split (My Elvis), 1993. Screenprint and acrylic on canvas. The Jewish Museum, New York.

For the month of June, the Jewish Museum invited writer and activist Adam Eli to explore works of art in the Jewish Museum collection that celebrate Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month through four themes: persecution, empathy, activism, and the diversity of identity. Part four of the series explores activism.

In my Pride Month collaboration with the Jewish Museum, works from the Jewish Museum collection have been used to tell the history of oppression in gay and Jewish communities, as well as how these violent histories have led to a tradition of empathy. With the New York City Pride Parade this Sunday, we are now turning empathy into action. This week’s theme is activism.

I am proud to say that both the gay and Jewish community have shared a long history of activism. Many famous gay and Jewish activists such as Abraham Heschel, Noam Chomsky, Diane Arbus, Allen Ginsberg, and Susan Sontag are represented in the Jewish Museum collection. Activism can take on many forms, but sometimes simply being yourself has the power to change the world. The artist Deborah Kass, in describing the inspiration for her portraits of Barbra Streisand, once explained:

Deborah Kass, Six Blue Barbras (The Jewish Jackie Series), 1992. Screenprint and acrylic on canvas. The Jewish Museum, New York.
Barbra didn’t change her name, didn’t change her nose. My friends’ older sisters were getting nose jobs at this point. That Barbra didn’t was a really big deal. And her sense of herself and of her difference as the source of glamour and power — being this proud Jewess was very radical.
She was revolutionary by virtue of simply being herself.

In today’s digital age, social media has democratized fame, giving anyone online the opportunity to craft an identity. We take on the challenge to be radical in owning our identity, but no longer need to be a celebrity like Barbra Streisand to change the world.

Ross Bleckner, Double Portrait (Gay Flag), 1993. Oil on canvas. The Jewish Museum, New York.

Ross Bleckner is an artist who has confronted the evolving question of identity over time in his work. His painting Double Portrait (Gay Flag) recreates artist and activist Gilbert Baker’s iconic rainbow flag from 1978. However, Bleckner’s colors are darker than the original. The sixth panel to the right, traditionally violet, appears as a blue so dark that it could be black. Bleckner’s revision also added a three-dimensional, low relief Star of David symbol at the top center of the flag to indicate pride in his cultural as well as sexuality identity.

In altering the original rainbow flag, Bleckner’s painting is a statement on change and the adaptability of activism. On June 8, 2017, the City of Philadelphia adopted a new version of the Pride flag that now includes a brown and black stripe to represent LGBT people of color. The new flag, like all change, has been met with a mix of acceptance, push back, and controversy. I, like Bleckner, am fully supportive of altering the flag. Bleckner’s work is a reminder that no symbol is sacred or unchanging. The movement changes and so must we.

Andy Warhol at the opening of The Jewish Museum exhibition Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century, 1980.

The only exception to the rule of change is perhaps Andy Warhol. As an artist and leading figure of the Pop art movement, Warhol possessed the unique gift to make any image — whether a glamorous movie star or a can of soup — iconic. In 1980, Warhol was commissioned to depict the renowned luminaries of Jewish culture: Sarah Bernhardt, Louis Brandeis, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, George Gershwin, Franz Kafka, the Marx Brothers, Golda Meir, and Gertrude Stein. The image of each of these subjects in his Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century series could be described as “iconic,” with the exception of Louis Brandeis.

Andy Warhol, Louis Brandeis from Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century, 1980. Screenprint on paper. The Jewish Museum, New York.

Louis Brandeis was the first Jewish U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Before his appointment, Brandeis championed progressive causes such as the right to privacy, defending labor laws, fighting against big corporations, monopolies, and mass consumerism. Later in his career, Brandeis was named “The People’s Attorney” because he often refused payment to “protect the interest of the people.” Brandeis was not particularly glamorous and his name also lacks the recognition of Warhol’s other subjects in the portrait series, such as Kafka or Einstein. Brandeis’s legacy was defined by his activism to make the world a better place. By including Brandeis in this series, Warhol frames the fight for social justice as an integral (or iconic) part of being Jewish.

Nicholas Buffon, The Stonewall Inn, 2017. Foam, glue, paper, paint. Courtesy of the artist and Callicoon Fine Arts, New York

Our final work of art, while not part of the Jewish Museum collection, is currently on view in The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin through August 6. I was very excited when I saw Nicholas Buffon’s diorama of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City’s West Village which was recently declared a National Monument. Most people know Stonewall as the “birthplace of the gay rights movement.” What a lot of people do not know is the active role Stonewall continues to play in activism today. In the afternoon following the Pulse Orlando Massacre, the entire New York City gay community gathered at Stonewall. Exactly one year later, we gathered there again for a memorial rally. When the Pride Parade passes the Stonewall Inn, everyone erupts into cheers and kisses.

Marching in the Pride Parade is a form of activism, so I hope to see you this Sunday, June 25 at the NYC Pride Parade!

— Adam Eli, Guest Contributor