February 7, 2006

Che abuse.

If it weren't for that one photo, there wouldn't have been all those T-shirts, posters, and so much more:
Cherry Guevara [a popsiscle] and other examples of what could be called Che abuse are now on display at the International Center of Photography in midtown Manhattan for an exhibition titled "¡Che! Revolution and Commerce."...

The exhibit works, too, as an object lesson in the power -- and on some level, the formidable beauty -- of market economies, which can absorb and commodify anything, even their bitterest enemies. Today, there are dozens of Web sites selling stuff with Korda's Che shot emblazoned on it....

In the United States, Che's life story and ambitions seem beside the point, or maybe they've just been reduced to caricature. The guy's face is shorthand for "I'm against the status quo." He's politics' answer to James Dean, a rebel with a very specific cause. And since very few people know anything about the cause, or the rebel -- besides the basics -- the Che shirt has about it the whiff of inside info. It makes you part of the thrift-store intelligentsia, even if your real focus is beer pong.

This, in brief, is why capitalism won. It's the only system that understands that we'd all like to change the world, but we are way too lazy for that sort of thing. Especially if there's ice cream around. When you get done with a Cherry Guevara, you're left with a wooden stick with the words "We will bite to the end!" stamped on it. If there are nails in Che's coffin, this, no doubt, is what they look like.
I know a lot of people get really mad about all the Che imagery. This article takes the attitude that the runaway popularization actually defeats Che's politics. Revolution is processed into rebelliousness. Are we supposed to feel good about the way our culture drains serious meaning out of things?

I'm trying to think of a way to connect this story to the current insanity around the depiction of Mohammad in cartoons. If one has an important character at the center of a political or religious movement, will the propagation or the suppression of his image serve your cause better? Should you want to propagate but control the image, so that it's presented on your terms, with the prescribed elements of reverence (nails pounded into flesh, yes, submersed in urine, no)? And if you oppose a political or religious movement, what is the more powerful move, suppressing the image -- stop showing that Che picture! -- or diluting it with ridiculous over-reproduction?

21 comments:

nunzio said...

I think all the folks with the Che tatoos must feel a bit silly these days. I sorta feel bad for them. Then, again, graduate school doesn't last forever.

LordSomber said...

¡Tengo una remera del Che y no sé por qué!

http://yellowfeatherinherhair.blogspot.com/2005/12/che-day-keeps-critics-at-bay.html

PatCA said...

"It's the only system that understands that we'd all like to change the world, but we are way too lazy for that sort of thing."

I would disagree with his analysis. Truth be told, most people in capitalist countries are very satisfied with their lives. We don't see people emigrating from the US to Cuba, for all Cuba's superior, sanctimonious revolution talk. People in America also do indeed change the world by their generosity and by working for the Peace Corps, NGOs that fix cleft palates in Mexico, innoculate children in the Congo, plant trees in AFrica (my cousin's grad school project)... Despite its sins and its kitsch, democracy/capitalism is still the best game in town if you're seeking life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

MSM, get over it!

knoxgirl said...

There's a restaurant in Knoxville called "Chez Guevara"

jbisch said...

So many connections here. Ann, you're right to connect this to the cartoon debate and one might further connect it to christiandom's reaction to the Buddy Jesus and Bobblehead Jesus and Jesus is My Pal Tshirt phenomenons.

But I want to further make a connection to the War on Drugs. Supressing illegal substances has made them more valuable and I think the author is right to suggest that suppressing Che's image might also have made it more valuable. But if you free it up it takes away the power and mystique that it held.

Wow, that's totally disjointed. I need an editor.

somross said...

The Che image is fascinating because of its incarnations. In the U.S., students nowadays wear it as a token rebellion (I doubt many of them are Marxists or consider themselves in any way revolutionary). But in Cuba - which I visited in late 2004 with some students and faculty on a trip that also took us to Costa Rica and Nicaragua - Che is the image you see all over, and I mean all over, Havana. Not Fidel, who is aging, but Che. And - most interesting to me - it's the Che image made from the same photo as Andy Warhol's. The image has been re-appropriated to Cuba, where Che, I think, is almost a Christ figure, young handsome, revolutionary. There are no commercial billboards (some public service announcements: Wear Your Seatbelt, Don't Drink and Drive, etc.) but lots of political ones.

Henry said...

There's a restaurant in Providence, RI called "Cuban Revolution." It makes good cuban sandwiches. The cave-like interior is plastered with images of Guevera and Castro and ... Marilyn Monroe!

I think the people that run it are not being as tongue-in-cheek as I would hope (the television plays death-gray Cuban documentaries), but I take the Marilyn Monroe image as all the counterargument necessary.

* * *

patca, good points. I would add that people in free societies change the world by starting businesses and employeeing other people; by supporting stable civic institutions; by going to work each day and generating the productivity that improves lives everywhere.

Goesh said...

These cubans take a different view of Che
http://www.therealcuba.com/MurderedbyChe.htm

somross said...

Cubans in the U.S. take a completely different view - but I'm talking about Cuba, and the official point of view. Che is safely dead, also.

SteveR said...

In many of these cases it just seems to be image/idol worship and there is a disconnect from the ideas/philosophy of the person represented. Religions are as bad as any at this. Famous people do it to themselves.

I couldn't help feeling that way watching the several thousand young people jumping up and down and waving their arms while the Stones performed at the Super Bowl.
Yeah, you really can't get no satisfaction can you?

XWL said...

If he wasn't hot, there would be no cult of Che.

Gaius Arbo said...

I remember once reading an interview with Mel Brooks. He was asked about why he, a Jew, would make a movie featuring a musical based on the life of Hitler. His reply was something to the effect that only by making a monster like Hitler into a joke could the monster's mystique be defeated. I have to see if I can find that interview or the direct quote.

knoxgirl said...

It's true most people who wear the image of Che do it without any real understanding of his murderous history (and the disastrous failure of his policies). It's kinda sad.

Ann Althouse said...

Gaius: We need Mel Brooks to talk about those Muhammad cartoons! Maybe the fear of ridicule makes sense.

Gaius Arbo said...

Well, here's a more modern article with Brooks' viewpoint pretty well spelled out.

http://www.usnews.com/usnews/doubleissue/heroes/brooks.htm

Icepick said...

nails pounded into flesh, yes, submersed in urine, no....

Ugh! Who wants to submerse nails in urine anyway? What's the point?!

Gaius Arbo said...

I'd love to see Mel take that one on. He'd be brilliant. And I think his take on this is right. Deprive them of their rhetoric and symbolism, expose the absurdities and they lose their power.

Sadly, I don't think some of the folks involved would take it well.

Oh lord - funniest verification ever: xgoii
That's hysterical.....

Gaius Arbo said...

Well, in the "nothing new under the sun" department, it seems Roger Simon had a very similar take on the cartoon mess.

http://www.rogerlsimon.com/mt-archives/2006/02/calling_mel_bro.php

SippicanCottage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Slac said...

I'm sure that if Che were a subject in school, it wouldn't be any better.

I haven't seen a school yet that can take the most interesting thing and make it the most boring subject on Earth.

At least through capitalism people have the freedom to learn about Che, should they so desire.

Yupse said...

Hasta Anarquìa siempre!