- The Ethnic Avant-Garde: Minority Cultures and World Revolution by Steven S. Lee
In Steven S. Lee’s The Ethnic Avant-Garde: Minority Cultures and World Revolution, the critical category of the ethnic avant-garde promises to help organize our understanding of artistic innovation and revolutionary politics across time and space and through racial and ethnic identities. Moreover, the category offers hope for reimagining political radicalism in our conflict-ridden present.
The book recenters modernism from Western Europe to Eastern Europe, from Paris to Moscow, and from Beijing to San Francisco. The author uses the avantgarde to signify both a new sociopolitical model that would incorporate ethnicity into radicalism and an artistic experiment that would have long-lasting impact. Lee uses images and art objects, such as the model for Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1920), also known as “Tatlin’s Tower,” to read texts and social movements across national borders and ethnic and racial boundaries. Thus, the lines of political and artistic innovation are redrawn, reimagined, and de/recentered from the West to the East.
Focusing his study mostly on African American artists such as Langston Hughes and Claude McKay, who found a nurturing environment in the communist experiment of the Soviet Union, Lee situates his criticism in two centers: Moscow during the interwar era of the Soviet Union, and in the United States post-World War II. The argument spans almost one hundred years, focusing on three peaks of popularity for the ethnic avant-garde in political-artistic discourse: the interwar era, the Cold War era, and the 1970s through the present. Arriving at a new center of the ethnic avant-garde in the Bay Area with its liberal engagement of ethnicity and literary innovation, he closes with a close reading of I Hotel (2010), the recent novel by Karen Tei Yamashita set in San Francisco.
Lee opens with the statement that this “book is about minorities drawn to Soviet communism and the avant-garde” (1), where they found a home away from US racism. The interwar era was a fleeting moment when art and revolution coincided with cultural difference, “visions of world revolution in which the ethnic other took the lead” and when a “utopian potential” existed for minorities to be both “revolutionary and experimental,” resulting in the avant-garde becoming “inclusive and decolonizing” (2). Lee uses this brief moment of fusion between ethnicity and the avant-garde to assemble a grouping of diverse artists and writers who were drawn to or visited interwar Moscow. The interwar-era avant-garde serves as a model for future radicalism in both art and politics [End Page 228] elsewhere. After establishing the ethnic avant-garde and situating it historically, Lee finds other instances of experimentation with art and equality, calling the ethnic avant-garde a “transnational optic” that would make it possible to “discern unexpected connections among radical artists and writers from many different countries” (4). The critical category aims to dismantle the divide between high and low art and create alliances across racial, ethnic, and national lines (among blacks, Jews, Asians, Latinos and Russians). Ultimately, the critical optic of the ethnic avant-garde groups together unlikely communities for the sake of world revolution and global modernism—a movement centered in Moscow for a brief period and now relocated to the Bay Area.
Lee brilliantly uses the category of the ethnic avant-garde to recover a brief moment, but when he moves beyond the concrete boundaries of the interwar era and the USSR, the ethnic avant-garde often becomes wishful in its hope to instigate new movements in art and politics. When Lee focuses on the interactions between African American and Jewish American artists who sought acceptance and artistic fellowship in Moscow, his argument is valid, with excellent analyses of the various interactions and collaborations between Soviet artists and American writers, such as McKay, Hughes, or Irving Howe. The argument’s strength lies in Lee’s thorough research and painstaking attention to detail in order to show the mutual...