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The Untold Sixties: When Hope Was Born

An Insider's Sixties On An International Scale

NOTE: The material in this section was written
during the early and mid-Seventies when it was still quite
fresh in the author's mind and is also based upon
his large collection of Sixties documents. For
further information, see the book outline by clicking here.

"The Great Communist Take-Over Plot"
New York, April 1970

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Since  this book has now been published, many of its chapters have been abridged, though the summary and four chapters can still be found in their entirety.

One of the most amusing episodes in the Coalition's history was to occur that spring. Starting in early March we had begun to hear reports from one or two members about an important new organization for artists. It had originated in Chicago and had, we were told, already achieved successes far beyond our own slender accomplishments. This group, called Artists United, had already managed to rally all the artists in Chicago around, a program embracing both artists' rights and the more standard goals of radical politics. It was reported to us that artists throughout the Midwest were beginning to form their own chapters.

A resolution was proposed that the Coalition should find out more about this group and try to learn the secret of their great success so that we could perhaps join with them in various actions. As I have said, resolutions came easy to the Coalition, and this one passed quickly amid a warm glow of socialist solidarity. The only problem a few of us had with this account was that it had been related to us by an artist named Lou Stettner. Lou was a middle-aging trade unionist whom I had found to be a fine drinking companion but was otherwise a rather doctrinaire old leftist who kept talking about the need to unionize ourselves to "lock out" what he called "scab artists"

I had tried pointing out to Lou that the art world didn't quite work like that, if indeed it ever could or should, but Lou stuck to his argument. And if some of us were skeptical, I suppose there was also a certain disinclination among New Yorkers to believe that anything significant could really be coming out of Chicago.

Two weeks later Lou and a black artist friend of his were at it again, recounting yet further triumphs of Artists United and its slow but inexorable advance eastward through Detroit ant Cleveland, uniting all artists in its irresistible wake. We were told there was a chance that one of their organizers might soon be in New York, and wouldn't it be a good idea him to talk to us and advise us of their methods? Once again a resolution was readily forthcoming with the needed invitation, though for some reason the organizer didn't show up as scheduled.

Finally, towards the end of March, every single member, of the Coalition received in his mail an invitation to the first meeting of Artists United in New York. It was scheduled for April 3 at "MUSEUM," the very place where our own meetings were normally held. April 3 fell on a Friday, but for some reason the upcoming meeting had not been mentioned at our regular Coalition session the preceding, Monday. It was clear that the letters must have been put in the mail, using our own mailing list, the very day after our meeting.

The invitation was dominated by a large drawing of a fist, and this message was further spelled out in capital letters reading "THE CULTURAL FIST OF THE MOVEMENT." The program this group advocated seemed remarkably similar to the Coalition's. Naturally, my curiosity was aroused, and I went to the meeting. I found that a few other Coalition members had been equally curious and had also come to see what was going on. Prominently in authority were Lou Stettner, his black artist friend, and what I will call, after having consulted with a militant feminist friend, two mousy little girls. I recognized them as art students vaguely associated with the Coalition. And sitting in a. corner of the room, trying to look unobtrusive but not quite succeeding, was a white-haired, elderly gentleman whom all the others seemed to be looking to for guidance. Like Lou, he had the looks of a brusque trade unionist and an edgy authoritative voice.

One of the girls called the meeting to order, stating that strict parliamentary procedure would be followed. She pointedly observed that this group did not wish to fall into the procedural errors that characterized the meetings of the Art Workers Coalition. And indeed a strict procedure was followed, as though they had been rehearsing it for three nights previously. There were further references to the Coalition and boasts that their own group would quickly surpass our attainments, for they were not limiting themselves to visual artists but embraced all of the arts. I smiled to myself at this, reflecting how much trouble we had with just our own people, but I purposely refrained from any comment.

About an hour into the meeting, a girl whom I had seen at a few Coalition meetings gained the floor after trying in vain several times to do so and to my pleasure launched into much the attack I might have made. She chided the group for attacking the Coalition and told them it was very transparent who they were. She said she had no doubt as to their identity as she had been brought up a "red diaper baby" in a communist family, and she had seen the party make the same mistake over and over again, just as they were doing tonight, destroying an existing political movement by creating what she called "sectarianism" within it. I started to laugh and was warned that I was out of order. Then another Coalition member tiptoed over and whispered to me that he was leaving, that the only reason he had stayed that long was that he had seen me there.

I told him I too would be going soon, that I just wanted to see how it would develop. By now they had muzzled the girl, and I purposely broke their order to speak up in her defence, saying that if that was how they were going to keep order, then I didn't see how they were going to get artists to work with them. I was given a stern lecture for my outburst, and as the girl who had spoken out was now leaving I decided to accompany her. Outside, she reiterated what she had said upstairs—she was genuinely disturbed by this group and told me she feared the Coalition was doomed. I told her not to worry, as I didn't see how their approach could be effective.

But the problem didn't go away. The very next Monday, Lou and his friends were back on their feet describing what a great meeting Artists United had held the other night, and it was a shame that more of us hadn't come. Fortunately enough, there would be another meeting that very Friday. I purposely held back any challenge, as I didn't want to add to our own group's curiosity. But I rose to say that I was quite intrigued by the group and that as I happened to be going to Chicago later that week, did Lou think he could put me in touch with their leadership there, so I could come back with a report on their activities? Lou was forced to say yes in public, although he didn't have any addresses on him just then. I told him also in public not to worry, I would contact him by phone before I left town.

As luck would have it, I ran into Lou the next day, and between his not really knowing whether I was bluffing about going to Chicago and my insisting that I now had second thoughts about the group and had decided two organizations might be better than one, he gave me the address and phone number of someone to contact in Chicago. He really had no choice but to give it to me in any case, for if I were to claim at a subsequent meeting that he had refused me the address, a number of questions might have been asked.

As luck would have it, we really were going to Chicago, as it was Ilene's home town and we were able to combine the showing of our light machines with some tourism for a few days. We ended up staying in the attic of some artist friends, and I immediately called the number Lou had given me. After some difficulty I got through to someone who gave me another number, at which I finally reached an artist named Mark Rogovin. Mark seemed on his guard when I asked him if Artists United was holding any of its great mass meetings and demonstrations I had heard so much about in New York. I finally managed to persuade him that I was eager to attend one so that I could bring back a favorable report of it to New York. If he had been briefed on the phone by Lou, it had not been a very thorough job. After some hesitancy Mark invited me to a big function taking place that very weekend on the South Side and gave me all the details I needed to get there.

Accordingly, Ilene and I took the "El" down to South Fifty-Fifth Street and started to walk away from the University to the edge of the black section. There, in a field house belonging to the Chicago Parks Department, we found the concert Mark had told me about, which was billed as "A Tribute to Paul Robeson." No one who knows of Robeson's remarkable multifaceted career can doubt his genius nor the enormous contributions he made to American democracy and the advancement of his own people, however overshadowed this may have become for many by the aftermath of the Fifties and McCarthyism. But having dutifully recorded this observation, I must go on to say that this particular concert, if it can be called that, marked the absolute low point, artistically and politically, of almost any performance I have ever attended.

A heavier, more ham-handed series of amateurish sketches in song, poetry and dance, all celebrating Robeson, the black people, and the Soviet Union, could not possibly be imagined. The Soviet Cultural Attaché from Washington, was even present (mainly because of a show of soviet art going on elsewhere in Chicago) and made a little speech.

[This chapter has been abridged pending publication...]

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This book excerpt is Copyright © 2000
by Alexander Gross. It may be
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