Saturday, 24 July 2010


Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny's
by Pablo Leon de la Barra
contribution to the 'Rotterdam Dialogues' publication
as part of 'The Curators' symposium

At the Curators Summit at Witte de With in Rotterdam I tried to trace the genealogy of the term 'radical chic' which was the title of our conversation 'Radical-Chic curating: Curatorial Practice vs. Curatorial Fashion?', a touchy subject because nobody wants to be branded as a ‘radical chic curator’, which produced a talk which avoided talking about the topic...

The term 'radical chic' was originally coined by Seymour Krim in a November 1962 article for The Village Voice where Krim wrote a critique about The New Yorker magazine, arguing that it was wrapped in a self-protective cocoon immune to the action on the streets. The term was later popularised by Tom Wolfe in his text 'Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny's' published on the June 8, 1970 issue of New York Magazine (1). Wolfe's text focuses on the cocktail held on August 1966 by composer Leonard Bernstein (principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic but also composer of the musical 'West Side Story') and his wife Felicia at their 13-room penthouse duplex on Park Avenue for some of New York’s high society to meet and raise money for the Black Panthers. A series of issues were at stake that night, including if the Black Panthers would eat the Roquefort cheese morsels wrapped in crushed nuts and asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs served as canapés and if these were going to be served by black or white servants (actually they were white Latin American servants, as Felicia had grown up in Chile). As Wolfe wrote "Why not do without servants altogether if the matter creates such unbearable tension and one truly believes in equality?" Most of the guests gathered are there because of what Wolfe calls some kind of "nostalgie de la boue, a romanticizing of primitive souls", without being totally aware of the political implications of what was at stake. The Black Panthers would be invited to the Park Avenue penthouse and then would go back to their segregated neighbourhoods. At the meeting, Don Cox, Field Marshal of the Black Panther Party, read the 10 point manifesto, which included setting free all black men who were in jail arguing that they have not had fair trials because they been tried by predominantly middle-class-white juries. He also talks about the programmes they would like to implement, including taking their black kids on tours to the white suburbs so they could see how their oppressors live. Details of the party were afterwards published in the New York Times, and the Bernsteins were backlashed not because they were seen as frivolous supporters of radicals, but because as a Jew he supported a group who was supporting the Arabs against Israel. Bernstein was also thought to be homosexual, and it’s said that under recommendation by his 'mentor' Dimitri Mitropoulos who was conductor of the New York Philharmonic he had married Felicia to quiet the rumours and in order not to sabotage his opportunity of becoming director of the Boston Symphonic. Berenstein left Felicia in 1973 and went to cohabit with his lover Tom Cothran, who later died of AIDS, but all this is another story...

As Wolfe wrote: "Radical Chic, after all, is only radical in style; in its heart it is part of Society and its traditions. Politics, like Rock, Pop and Camp, has its uses; but to put one’s whole status on the line for nostalgie de la boue in any of its forms would be unprincipled." As curator Nat Muller noted in her text 'Masters of the Anecdotal: "The Curators" Have Little to Say' in her blog 'Passing in proximity...' (2): "Radical chic and elegant slumming is still about producing a legibility of otherness which remains safe and contained."

On her text 'The Geopolitics of Pimping' by Suely Rolnik (3), she discusses the effects of neoliberalism in somatizing culture: "One of the problems of the politics of subjectivation that artistic practices face has been the anesthesia of our vulnerability to the other – an anesthesia all the more devastating when the other is represented by the ruling cartography as hierarchically inferior, because of his or her economic, social or racial condition, or on any other basis." Further on Rolnik continues "(The) pimping of the creative force is what has been transforming the planet into a gigantic marketplace, expanding at an exponential rate, either by including its inhabitants as hyperactive zombies or by excluding them as human trash. In fact, those two opposing poles are interdependent fruits of the same logic; all our destinies unfold between them. This is the world that the imagination creates in the present. As one might expect, the politics of subjectivation and of the relation to the other that predominates in this scenario is extremely impoverished." Which brings us back to the question of if curatorial practices should be self reflective (exhibitions about exhibitions, artists doing work about other artists) or if exhibitions can become tools for future revolutions (even if it’s only an 'aesthetic' one)? But then again, that is another story...

1. You can read the complete text of Tom Wolfe's 'Radical Chic' at
2. For Nat Muller's blog:
3. For Suely Rolnik's text:

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