If its title sets down a possible definition of the thing itself, Art Is . . . The Permanent Revolution concerns itself with a secondary question: What does an artist do? Director Manfred Kirchheimer answers two ways in this lightly argued but forcefully illustrated look at the historical and philosophical interplay between the artisanal process and political art. Portraits of three artists at work form the documentary’s modest narrative backbone. All three were inspired by artists such as Goya, Masereel, and Daumier to engage with the times, but what is most likely to engage audiences is their toil: We learn about soft-ground etching, stop-out varnish, and gum arabic, though less exotic implements—including a wooden doorknob and two folded MetroCards—are also essential in the studio. The long hours and intricate levels of woodcutting, copper engraving, and lithography seem to build meaning into the subject matter (in two cases the Iraq war). Kirchheimer alternates between the pleasures of process and an illustrated history of politicized art; stories of arrests and bans have the inadvertent effect of making you wistful for a time when an anti-war woodcut was treated like a dangerous weapon. Bound together, these images, produced across centuries, form a larger, contiguous critique of who we are and what we do to one another.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 29, 2012