Art is…The Permanent Revolutionhas a simple basic structure. It segues between philosophical ruminations about the relationship between printmaking and politics, observations of the creation of several new pieces, and montages of completed works of political art from a wide array of artists. Each part is effective—I particularly enjoyed the generous display of prints in a context where I could appreciate them for having learned something about how they were created—but they don’t mesh very well. The whole may not be less than the sum of the parts, but neither is it ever more.
The film’s thesis that block printing is intrinsically connected to political art is more postulated than persuasively argued, though woodcutter Paul Marcus does suggest that that the black and white nature of his medium can be symbolic of those who see the social world in black and white terms. Lithographer Ann Chernow focuses on how artists such as Rembrandt, who are better known for their work in other mediums and about other subject matters, often have stylistic periods or pieces that deviate wildly from their more famous styles. Both of these observations are intriguing and could have been developed, but director Manfred Kirchheimer appears more content to let the artists talk as they feel led, and absent follow up questions or promptings, the musings rarely move past the initial expression of the idea.
The artists are a little more verbose when discussing the technical process of making their art, though, honestly, not much. Master printer James Reed states that his press is of high quality but we don’t get much explanation of what makes it so. In another segment we are told that the cheapness of copper has ironically made it harder to find in plates for etchings since so much of it is consumed in electronics. Perhaps the most interesting comment made it this section is when we get just the hint of tension as an artisan complains that “illustrators” don’t always understand the mechanics of creation. Should they? Again there is the potential for a more probing discussion, particularly given the fact that Chernow had previously opined that the lack of technical skill in drawing manifests itself in inferior art even if/when the particular art piece is not in a style requiring precision. Is it that the discipline of learning the process is good in itself? That doing so forces the artist to internalize principles that will manifest themselves in their art even when technique changes? I kept waiting for the film to follow one of these threads.
In the final analysis, though, the montages of the finished art works are enough to make the film a treat for those who appreciate the medium. Political art isn’t always subtle and really doesn’t need too much mediation to be accessible. Kirchheimer might have done a better job of attributing all (rather than some) of the prints in these montages. He might have done a little less panning and zooming with the camera when showing them to us. What he did, though, is ultimately enough. There may be some who don’t get as much from the film as much as they hoped they would, but there aren’t going to be many who don’t find some part of it to their liking.