STORY and PHOTOGRAPHS by FRIDERIKE HEUER
“If it is true that all thought begins with remembrance, it is also true that no remembrance remains secure unless it is condensed and distilled into a framework of conceptual notions within which it can further exercise itself.” — Hannah Arendt, On Revolution
IMAGINE BEING A YOUNG CHILD ripped out of your familiar surround, transplanted into a world completely foreign to you, including a new language. Imagine being raised Jewish and now being settled in a Christian school. Imagine being entrusted with an adult secret, urged not to tell that you will be leaving, unable to fill in the gaps about the reasons, a dark cloud over your mind too young to understand the facts, but old enough to pick up the feelings: pure fear. Your guess: Germany, late 1930s? Guess again: America, during the McCarthy era in the 1950s.
I had a chance to talk to artist Ruth Ross about her upcoming exhibition, Red Scare, at Gallery 114 in August, and to look at her beguiling work – fabric collages, cyanotype photography and embroidery – which deals with that childhood trauma at the same time that it provides a memory cue for all of us to think back to the days of communist witch-hunts, and perhaps forward to possible witch-hunts of our own, now and in years to come.
Ross was born to a young Jewish couple, Ethel and Eli Ross, both members of the Communist Party of the United States, deeply engaged in the fight against racism and the struggle for social justice and improvement of the lives of workers. Their social circle, and indeed close friends, included many such idealists, some compelled to fight fascism in Spain, sacrificing their lives to combat that scourge.
Their circles overlapped with those of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, accused and convicted of espionage for providing the Soviet Union classified information on the Manhattan Project, executed by electric chair in 1953, leaving two young boys orphaned. They insisted on their innocence to the very last. It was later confirmed that Julius had indeed handed over some secrets, though less crucial ones than was claimed, and an innocent Ethel was convicted on false testimony of her brother-in-law, who tried to protect his own family.
Ross’s parents were shellshocked, and decided to leave the country to a place their meager funds would take them and their two children, ending up in Puerto Rico. What do we know about the times that would warrant such a life-changing decision? Was it based on justified fear or mired in hysteria? What could compel a couple deeply entrenched in their Brooklyn, New York neighborhood, their work, their organizations, their family, comrades and friendships, to choose displacement?
The 1950s American psyche was accosted with the Red Scare — with powerful political forces inciting widespread fear of a potential rise of communism, anarchism or other leftist ideologies. Fear of hostile outsiders was, of course, nothing new to Americans. Starting in colonial times until the early 19th century it focused on Catholics, who were seen as inferior and unassimilable, a fear stoked further by mass immigration of Irish Catholics in the 1830s and 1840s. The arrival of Italians, Slavs, and Jews from Southern and Eastern Europe prompted a new nativist upsurge:
By the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan had gained hundreds of thousands of members, with their membership exceeding 4 million people. Fear-mongering worked: New federal immigration laws severely dented the numbers of people allowed to immigrate. Fears of foreign ideology — fascism, anarchism, Marxism, undermining American ideas of exceptionalism and manifest destiny, eventually culminated in decrying the specter of communism during the times of the Cold War. (Ref.)
People who are afraid often seek a protector. If protecting allows you to yield power, then it is in your interest to feed fear, particularly in those who are not (yet) aligned with the Zeitgeist or the desired ideology. If instillation of fear squashes dissent and weakens both individuals and organizations that threaten your power or the profits you derive from the system that you support, then you become pretty good at figuring out what scares people.
In the 1920s, during the first Red Scare following the Bolshevik revolution and during a strengthening of the labor movement, it was often mob rule and mob violence that affected union members or other progressives, with one particularly horrid example close to us geographically, in Centralia, Washington. A detailed description and analysis — not for the faint of heart — can be found in Cal Winslow’s When Being a Red Meant Risking your Life.
During the second Red Scare in the 1950s, Senator McCarthy’s and friends’ approach to generating and sustaining anticommunist actions welcomed more allies in their fight against those who threatened old regimes or existing local hierarchies, be they class, religion, race, or gender.
If you wanted to bust unions that organized labor across racial lines; fight pluralism; undermine civil rights organizations offering critiques of capitalism, racism, and gender oppression; silence writers, artists, and journalists who advocated internationalism and peace; or oppress gay people who were seen as a threat to American masculinity, you needed loyalists in place to help with the task: in the administration, in law enforcement, in the court system, with neighborhood snitches and the occasional violent mob.
So what did Ruth Ross’s parents face, as members of a despised and feared political party? Or if labeled as Rosenberg acquaintances? They knew about the fate of some of the latter. Joel Barr, a college friend of Rosenberg, disappeared in Paris. Another college friend, Morton Sobell, went to Mexico (and was later extradited), where another, Alfred Sarant, had already gone into hiding. William Perl was convicted of perjury.
The more likely scenario, though, was what tens of thousands of leftist or progressive people faced in those years:
You were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), with but a few unsavory options. As Benjamin Balthaser wrote in a March 2022 essay for Jacobin, reviewing the book In Contempt: Defending Free Speech, Defeating HUAC:
“If you testified, you would be called upon to publicly denounce communism and then ‘name names’ of other Communists and former Communists, then subjecting them to the same investigation. If you refused to testify, then you could be cited under the Smith Act, which effectively banned membership in the Communist Party. If you were not a citizen, you could be further indicted for failing to register as a Communist. … if appearing at the hearing and refusing to answer questions on the grounds of the First Amendment right to free speech and free association, then you could be indicted and sent to prison for contempt and noncompliance with a congressional committee.
“The other punishments of the Red Scare were less legalistic but no less devastating. As the Supreme Court ruled, Communists and former Communists could be legally denied jobs, fired from jobs they had, denied federal student aid and research funding, and denied a place to live. There were no rights a Communist had that the state or a private citizen was bound to respect.
“And in many cases, vigilante violence solved what the state could not: torchings of Communist and left-wing summer camps, labor halls, personal homes, and public beatings, most famously at Peekskill, New York, were common.” (Ref.)
No wonder, then, that many, like the Rosses, decided to start over, with so many activists silenced and organizations weakened.
At home, labor unions could often not be counted on as allies in either antiwar or student struggles. The energetic Jewish left, as well as African-American civil rights fighters, had lost access to progressive institutions and could not longer trust many in their communities, with both the American Jewish Committee and the NAACP backing the Red Scare and even the execution of the Rosenbergs. (They tried to score political victories in a Cold War milieu by rejecting and denouncing “communist” allies who’d helped make those victories possible.)
No surprise, either, that the situational causes were too complex to explain to a child — a child who could only try to comfort her mother with the plea to stop crying on the day of the execution of an innocent acquaintance.
MEMORY IS A STRANGE BEAST. Composed of actual facts, revised notions after a change in circumstances, integration of facts supplied by others or derived from non-memory sources like dreams and suggestions, conceptually geared toward helping us function in our worlds, it cannot always be trusted. Unless we are on the witness stand, though, veracity of fact does not exactly matter.
What matters is the construction of a narrative that helps us understand our world, our reactions, our path and our sorrows. In a funny way, that is the opposite of the Arendt quote I prefaced these thoughts with. Her assertion that “no remembrance remains secure unless it is condensed and distilled into a framework of conceptual notions” referred to the assessment of the historical role played by the American and the French revolutions in securing a memory true to fact.
I had chosen the quote because I believe we must accurately remember the role that red-baiting or any kind of baiting (I’ll get there in a moment) plays in a democracy or any system that aspires to uphold democratic values. It’s a topic brought to the fore by Ruth Ross’s work, and one that made me think about politics and justice, topics that loom large in a relatively recent biography of Ethel Rosenberg, Ethel Rosenberg — An American Tragedy, by Anne Sebba, a book that inspired Ross to dedicate herself to this project.
Yet what Ross’s art does, in particular her depictions of her personal odyssey and that of her parents, is to create a narrative that considers the world from a perspective all her own, the emotional lessons learned and worked through from painful experiences — a personal, not necessarily factual, truth. The entire project reminded me in this regard of Louise Bourgeois‘ often quoted phrase that “sewing is an act of emotional repair.” (I have never been able to find the actual reference, alas.)
With all of her embroidered and collaged imagery, Ross walks a path brilliantly laid out in a different aspect of Arendt’s work, her use of nonstandard mechanisms to help us see old assumptions with new eyes. (These mechanisms are summarized in a riveting book by Marie Luise Knott, Unlearning with Hannah Arendt, in which Knott describes them as laughter, translation, forgiveness and dramatization.)
The artist includes, for example, some black, black humor when she embroiders, on quotidian kitchen towels and old tablecloths, the image of an electric chair right among the symbolism of various identifiable parties, as if it belongs in a national gallery of power symbols. However shameful, I had to laugh, distancing myself enough from the upsetting thoughts so that I did not have to turn away from them completely to preserve emotional equilibrium, thus allowing the Rosenbergs to be remembered.
Forgiveness lingers over the inclusion of letters from a fallen friend to the artist’s father. She is able to acknowledge her father’s role, his losses, his motivating fears, even though he was a difficult man and turned his back on some of his more youthful political passions, much less his family.
Ross attributes her own emotional recovery to time spent at an upstate New York summer camp, the Lincoln Farm Work Camp, where hands-on physical work, art and politics united a group of youngsters from predominantly leftie and Jewish families, who found a place and a community there.
She spent numerous years with her mother, who had, for an interim time, left Puerto Rico to work in San Francisco and nurtured her daughter’s ambitions. Ross eventually graduated from Parsons School of Design in New York City with a degree in Graphic Design, and worked for almost two decades as an art director at Random House, all the while pursuing her art.
The notion of translation as a tool to provide new ways of seeing old things captured my interest in multiple ways. The artist translates some of the ideas of disrupted lives, harmed existences, a demise by electrocution, into visual symbols. The fabrics are frayed, some holes seem to be burnt, but above all there are loose threads hanging wherever you look — broken, ripped or snipped, if you will. I could not avoid thinking of the thread of life, so brutally cut.
Yet there was also another word floating to the surface, the German compound noun Fadenriss, literally translated as ripped thread, a rupture. It is the little sister of amnesia, the inability to remember for a short while until you pick up the thread again. It is more than losing your thread of thought, in colloquial English, and less than a total blackout that comes with the biological system’s alarm reaction to overbearing trauma.
Ross’s installations acknowledge the lack of remembering, the desire to forget, and the need to return to remembrance, all encapsulated in Fadenriss/ torn threat. They cover both the personal and the public realm, which makes it very strong work indeed.
Remembering our past is surely important in the face of a resurgence of political movements that use baiting to establish a new enemy, justifying the protection by a strongman and the establishing of legal and administrative structures that undermine pluralism.
Calls for loyalty and “cleansing” (feel free to explore the Schedule F plans devised by the previous administration for a future term, with the suggestion to purge tens of thousands of “disloyal” people from government positions) have become louder. A return to traditional, rigid gender roles is openly demanded, including calls for control over female bodies. Any non-traditional gender- or sexual orientation is not only vilified as dangerous, but also legally challenged, and certainly not given equal rights. You have trans bans on athletes and in the military already.
Schools and curricula are affected with more than a dozen bills introduced across the country to ban teaching of certain topics, specific books or specific sources, among them the Zinn Education Project. Ross’s project reminds us that public memory is short, and that will not serve us well. But maybe that is my interpretation of her work, aligned with my own interest in a Jewish approach to fascist stirrings.
Which brings me to the last technique on our list, dramatization.
“Arendt came to see human existence as a stage. The job of a writer, she came to understand, didn’t involve making an argument aimed to force the reader, through logic, to change his or her mind and come to accept what the writer had written. She wanted to spark a discussion in which readers were invited — indeed, expected — to take part. … The goal was to present a variety of ideas, perspectives and insights for the reader to sift through, evaluate, compare and contrast and, in his or her mind, synthesize into a new and personal understanding.” (Ref.)
Ross’s fabric works — her cyanotype photographs beneath semi-transparent veils; her curious dedication to feminine attributes from lace, to shoes, to flowers covering the image of a doomed life; her depiction of domestic closeness with hints of nightmare lurking in the back; death all-pervasive, from a Manhattan prison chamber to the dying fields of the Spanish Civil War — all ask us as viewers to decipher the narrative meaning.
It demands that we provide our own answers about the nature and the consequences of an intentionally designed scare, be it about communism or whatever else is handy as a useful specter.
My take? Ripped threads will be all that remains if the civil fabric is once again frayed and broken apart.
- Ruth Ross, with guest artist Diane Kendall showing Harpies Furies Mercies
- Gallery 114, 1100 N.W. Glisan St., Portland 97209
- August 4-27
- First Thursday, 6-9 p.m. August 4
- Poetry Reading: Hear award-winning writer Leanne Grabel read poems inspired by Ross’s work. 6:30 p.m. Friday, August 19
Originally published on YDP – Your Daily Picture on July 29, 2022.