Interview with Osha Neumann, Part OneSeptember 24, 2013
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Osha Neumann is a well-known Bay Area activist and artist who has participated in every major tactical shift in radicalism and art over the last fifty years. He was a member of the infamous Up Against the Wall Motherfucker anarchist street gang in New York City. During the ‘60s, the Motherfuckers battled churches, public figures, art and corporate institutions, the press, and the police while providing community services for many people on the Lower East Side. Neumann subsequently participated in the Free Land for Free People project at the Black Bear Commune in Northern California before studying law in the Bay Area. He became a civil rights lawyer and activist, providing legal services to homeless and working against discriminatory legislation. He has continued to participate in local activism, especially against evictions at the Albany Bulb homeless encampment and against police misconduct in Berkeley. Neumann is the author of Up Against the Wall Motherfucker: A Memoir of the ‘60s With Notes for Next Time and the yet-unpublished Doodling On the Titanic: The Making of Art in a World on the Brink. As an artist, he has remained resolutely outside the art world and the art market. His work ranges from public interventions to public murals as well as the much-loved, site-specific figurative junk assemblages in the Albany Bulb.
On June 3, 2013, Neumann sat down with artist, educator, and activist Elizabeth Sims as part of the series "Let's Stay Together" at the Public School, in Oakland, to discuss his long history of radical practices. In Part One presented here, they discuss his history with the Motherfuckers and the conditions that led him to eschew traditional artmaking in favor of activism.
Art was neither rational nor irrational, though, and seemed like a way around that dichotomy.
Osha Neumann: I was born into a family of German-Jewish intellectual exiles. My stepfather (or perhaps my father because there’s some question about my paternity) was Herbert Marcuse and my father was Franz Neumann. They both were members of the Frankfurt School. I grew up thinking that my parents understood everything about the world, and that reason and thought were what stood against fascism. The problem was that I felt like I was never going make it in the world of reason; if the fight was between reason and irrationality, I was clearly on the wrong side. Art was neither rational nor irrational, though, and it seemed like a way around that dichotomy.
[In the 1960s] I lived in New York in a Lower East Side railroad apartment, where the bathtub was in the kitchen next to the sink. I made paintings of this [scene] until that ceased to be meaningful. Then I walked around the Lower East Side at night, gathering up pee-stained mattresses and whatever awful junk I could find. I made huge collages until my apartment was full of these things. While all of this [work] was closing in around me, outside there was fervor in the streets. On the Lower East Side were refugees from America—these dropout kids who the media called hippies—caught up in the countercultural revolution going on and in the protests against the Vietnam War, which all of us had to deal with in a visceral way. Very graphic images of the horrors of that war were pouring down on us while we faced the fear and potential of being drafted. I could no longer stay in my apartment and paint; I was drawn into what was happening on the streets.
Elizabeth Sims: The Situationists were writing a lot about art as this sort of safety valve for rebellious pressure or as a kind of prescribed enclosure for creativity. Did you feel obligated in any way to stop making traditional art or were you just personally compelled to stop doing it?
ON: I had no idea about the Situationists. I had moved 180 degrees from being an intellectual; I was not interested in concepts. I was writing art reviews for some art magazines, so I was aware of what was going on in the art world but essentially felt that the limitations people were putting on artists were arbitrary. There was no order that made sense, and once I got rid of what I knew to be artificial constraints, I knew I would be lost. But at the same time, the kind of liberation that I felt when I had a blank canvas in front of me and could do whatever I wanted on it was very constrained. Instead, the world itself could be liberated, and that was far more exciting and compelling than what I was doing.
ES: Was there any feeling of loss when you gave up a traditional practice of making art?
ON: Absolutely not. I never looked back. There was only the desire to plunge in completely and to become part of this flow, this movement, out in the street. I was thirsting to be part of what was happening: the power, the danger, and the risk of it. The first thing that I did as part of a group during Angry Arts Week was to disrupt high holy mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral with images of mutilated children. I didn’t think of it as an art project, but it was totally exciting and liberating to do that, even as we were [arrested]. I felt freer in handcuffs than I’d felt before.
ES: At this time, you joined the Motherfuckers, which grew out of Black Mask and was formed by Ben Morea and Dan Georgakas. The Motherfuckers participated in the students' strike at Columbia University, helping to occupy the math building, and were responsible for organizing the Garbage for Garbage protest, in which you dumped uncollected refuse from the trash strike into the fountain at Lincoln Center and called it an equitable exchange for the kind of culture that they were providing. The group is also infamous for hurling cow’s blood at Dean Rusk, the Secretary of State, during a foreign policy association banquet and for Occupy the Fillmore East after negotiations for a free community night failed. But the Motherfuckers also created a real community for people who were at loose ends. You ran free stores and crash pads and held community feasts. You also had a neighborhood watch that stood up against police harassment.
We organized a community to create solidarity but also to provide defense for these kids.
ON: There was a divide culturally and politically. There was a student political movement that was engaged in various forms of politics, using demonstrations and political rhetoric. Then there was the hippie counterculture—tune in, drop out, flower power—[flourishing] amongst kids who couldn’t make it and who were coming to the Haight or the Lower East Side. They were incredibly vulnerable and naïve to think they could make peace of this whole shit pile of a world. We didn’t believe that; we thought the system had to be fought. We talked about flower power with thorns. So we organized a community to create solidarity but also to provide defense for these kids. The police were coming down on them, and we felt that they needed protection. So we would organize to protect them. I don’t know whether we actually protected them or actually brought down more heat on them, because we were constantly battling the police.
ES: How do you feel, looking back, about the value of the group as a social model for radicals today? Could you speak about attracting and organizing people and the issues of power and hierarchy that sometimes occur with this kind of organizing?
ON: One can go too far in either extolling and romanticizing or putting [the Motherfuckers] down. First of all, we were a small group of people who were active for maybe two years, maximum. The core group was never more than fifteen or twenty people. Ben Morea identified as an anarchist while I came from a Marxist background, but I was not interested in that kind of discussion at that time. Instead, I felt one needed to constantly push the boundaries, and the truth would emerge through that transgression. In some ways, it was—and people called it—“a street gang with analysis” and with anarchist affinities.
We were right about some things and profoundly wrong about other things.
The group had a charismatic leader in Ben Morea and cult-like qualities because Ben really was the driving force behind it. When I was in the Motherfuckers, I felt to be outside of the Motherfuckers was to be nothing. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like; it would be a defeat to be less radical than we were. We were right about some things and profoundly wrong about other things. There were issues around race; we were living on the Lower East Side, which was primarily a Puerto Rican ghetto. There were families struggling with real issues, but they were irrelevant to us.
Obviously you don’t create a revolution with just a small anarchist group and some Lower East Side hippies; that’s not going to be sufficient. All the problems that beset us about maintaining a radical vision of liberation and of the power of transgression or of civil disobedience, as well as of enlarging it so that we can bring in all those other folks, are still there. We still need to figure out how to find a balance between energy and structure. It’s partly that we’re up against something enormous and partly that we haven’t figured out how to maintain continuity and structures from one generation to the next. We haven’t solved these problems yet.