Once upon a time, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin, was the skinny Elvis of Soviet communism. His carefully constructed image symbolized for many the purity of the communist ideal before it was corrupted by the fat Elvis of Stalinism and the dead Elvis of late Soviet bureaucracy.
TOUGH LOVE FOR THE ARTS
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The truth about Lenin, however, is something else. Most of the horrors we associate with Soviet communism—the KGB, the gulag, the show trials, the use of famine to control large populations, the crushing bureaucracy—weren't Stalin's creation, but Lenin's. Stalin was more ruthless, it's true, but excusing Lenin on those terms is like excusing the American torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib because the techniques used were milder than those of Saddam. Lenin was nothing less, and not much more, than a murderer, though murderer may be too mild a term; sociopathic totalitarian bastard would be closer to the truth. Freedom of thought, expression, and action are the last things on earth Lenin would have tolerated or endorsed.
So, skinny commie or not, Lenin has been thoroughly disgraced, and the political argument against him settling in the "Artists' Republic of Fremont" would appear to be irrefutable. But the Fremont Chamber of Commerce seems to have bought into the idea that Lenin stood for the same things it does. When the statue was offered to the neighborhood by the family of the late Lewis Carpenter, a lecturer in physiosociology and an art connoisseur who had bought the work in Slovakia in 1989, the chamber grabbed it. And there it stands today, grim faced and determined, marching forward in the cause of world revolution—which will apparently begin somewhere down Leary Way.
And what does the Fremont chamber say in its defense? In an argument both simplistic and hypocritical, it hoists the sacred shield of art: "If art is supposed to make us feel, not just feel good, then this sculpture is a successful work of art," the chamber says on its Web site. "The challenge is to understand that this piece means different things to different people and to learn to listen to each other and respect different opinions. From an artists [sic] standpoint, all points of view are valid and important." Really? Name a single artist of any real worth who believes that "all points of view are valid and important." Second, the idea that different people have different opinions isn't a "challenge," it's a fact of life (one of the facts that Lenin, by the way, tried to change by murdering those who disagreed with him). Finally, and here's a real challenge, find a single piece of art anywhere in Fremont that is designed to make anyone feel anything other than "good."
For that matter, try to find any art in Fremont at all. Art, thank God, isn't what Fremont deals in. What Fremont deals in is kitsch. Fremont is built on kitsch, defined by kitsch, thrives on kitsch. Waiting for the Interurban and the Troll are international kitsch landmarks. The little art and antique stores sell nothing but kitsch. The regular neighborhood businesses and restaurants traffic in kitsch. Even the main intersection, with its adorably infuriating absence of right angles, is kitsch.
Don't misunderstand me. None of this is meant as an insult. Kitsch has its place, and that place is Fremont. A truly meaningful, emotional work of art would upset the ecology of the entire neighborhood. Which isn't to say that the Lenin statue is art, either—it's not. But at the same time, it isn't kitsch— it's propaganda. Propaganda, though equally one-dimensional in purpose, is kitsch with a monster's face. Some propaganda, once it's lost its immediate reason for being, may become kitsch, but usually only if it was docile to begin with. Think of That Man May Use It Freely, the mosaic that adorned the lobby of the old City Light building (now in the Knight Gallery at the Museum of History & Industry), and its glorification of the wonders of hydroelectric power. Or, for that matter, of the Space Needle and the monorail, working pieces of propaganda for a technological future that never arrived and that are now working models of kitsch. But don't expect a statue of Hitler to appear in Fremont anytime soon, even accompanied by the disclaimer that it's only designed to make people "feel." In the kitsch capital of the world, or anywhere else for that matter, there's no place for a piece of work like that, or for a statue of Lenin.
So what is to be done?
Hauling it away, either back to the Carpenters', who still own the statue and are asking $250,000 for it, or to a museum or a junkyard, isn't the answer. Jarring as it is, like it or not, the piece has established its place in Fremont.
No, the solution lies in the neighborhood itself. If I can coin a new word here, Lenin must be Fremontified. Some movement has already been made in this direction. Community members covered the statue with garlands and lights for the holidays, and a group of guerrilla artists (one of whom, I confess, is related to me) has twice over the last two years Super Glued a large yellow concrete duck to the great leader's cap.
But this process must be taken further. The first step is for Fremont to buy the statue. Then, topple him in a large and public ceremony. Once that's done, leave him there to become a kind of community canvas, so that anyone, as long as they observe certain conditions—nothing permanent, nothing damaging—can decorate the fallen dictator in any way they see fit. Let grade-school classes take turns decorating and desecrating him. Let graffiti artists tag him in easily washable paints. Conduct "Tie-Dye the Tyrant" contests. Once a year, in conjunction with Burning Man, set him on fire. The possibilities are endless.
In this way, instead of being a figure of violence, revolution, and tyranny, he'll become a symbol, and a victim, of the eccentric expressive freedom that Fremont celebrates. And when the novelty fades and the traditions have fallen away and no one any longer cares what happens to him, truck him off to a museum, or sell him to some private collector. Or, better yet, dump him in the deepest pit you can find.