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JOHN STRAUSBAUGH: Boris Lurie and NO!art (2021)

In the summer of 1993, Clayton Gallery hosted an art exhibition called "NO!art." It was a small show of maybe a dozen pieces, but there was no missing the tone — ugly and negativist. The painting was intentionally "bad." Messy collages of images ripped from tabloids and old porn were slapped in the viewer's face as angry reminders of everything vulgar and filthy in the world just outside.

When John saw it he told Calyton he thought it was nice of him to give a few punky East Village artists a little space for a show. Clayton explained that yes, the work was East Village all right — but it all dated from 1959 to 1964. As far as he knew, this was the first time any of this work -- Boris Lurie, Isser Aronovici and Aldo Tambellini -- had been shown in the U.S. in almost 30 years.

Clayton had met Boris two years earlier, at a screening of Ari Roussimoffs Shadows in the City at Millennium on East 4th Street. He met Harry Smith that night as well. Everybody knew about Harry. But Clayton had never heard of Boris. Few people had at that point.

Clayton introduced John to Boris, and John wrote about him in NYPress in February 1994, surely the first press Boris had gotten in America in years. The article began:

In the bleak winter light filtering through a snow-covered skylight, Boris Lurie's little studio on E. 6th St. is almost impassably cluttered with the kind of mess an artist accumulates over 30 years.

The shadows are dense with rolled canvases, pieces of stretchers, cans of paint, brushes standing in jars, interesting flotsam picked up on the streets, haphazardly stacked drawings, pages torn from magazines, worktables piled with less identifiable junk, a mattress on the floor, a toilet that doesn't look like it works, and over everything that kind of furry, lint-gray dust it takes years of dedicated neglect to build up. All four burners on a little gas stove are lit, but they don't penetrate either the gloom or the cold. Someone's plumbing upstairs is busted, and there's a steady, desultory drip of brown water through a spot in the ceiling.

Lurie finds a narrow space and a few broken little chairs to settle into. In his late 60's, he has rounded, sad-eyed, Russian-Jewish good looks accentuated by a trim gray moustache and the soft vestiges of an accent in his speech. He's dressed like a stevedore against the cold, in a wool watch cap and heavy sweater. As we talk we flick our cigarettes into a rusty tin can on the concrete floor between us. It bothers me a little to watch him smoke; he's just been in the hospital for a pacemaker operation…more

NO!art was a moment in art history that art history has chosen to forget. Like the roughly coterminous Pop Art crowd, Lurie and the NO!artists worked with commercial and pop culture imagery. But where Pop Art was essentially the work of ironists exulting in the sleek surfaces of Camelot consumerist culture, the NO!art group burrowed into the dark and cloacal downside of that booster zeitgeist.

NO!artists burned dolls and melted toy soldiers and scrawled NO! like graffiti tag across their canvases. They were pro-Castro and anti-military. They organized group exhibitions with titles like DOOM Show (protesting JFK's nuclear build-up) and "The American Way of Death," an installation of coffins and mortuary art. They constructed ugly sculptures of smashed televisions and street garbage, desecrated crucifixes and the American flag, and in one infamous show, filled an Uptown gallery with sculptures that looked like piles of feces—the SHIT Show.

Had it come along later than the 60s, there's little doubt that NO!art would have become some kind of media demon-darling. NO!art did get some press—some of it even mildly supportive—but its ultimate legacy was best summed up by New York Times and Art in America critic Brian O'Doherty, writing in 1971:

It is extremely difficult to produce a kind of art that histories will pass over in silence, that the art magazines will dismiss, that will embarrass collectors and be offensive to most other artists. [NO!art] succeeded in achieving this large negative. more

Today, the only book devoted to documenting the scene is the one Lurie produced himself with the help of hipster chronicler Seymour Krim. Lurie began it in 1969 and spent two decades failing to find a publisher for it. It finally came out as a fat paperback, simply called NO!art, published in Germany in 1988 and never distributed here. The copy loaned to me by Patterson sheds a few more pages every time I open it—more traces vanishing before my eyes.

That Lurie was in New York at all in the 1950's was a bit of a miracle

Back to the beginning.

Boris Lurie was born into a prosperous Jewish home in Leningrad in 1924. His father, an industrialist, was a businessman who did well even under the Communists. Boris wanted to be an artist from a young age. His father told him he was crazy. "Boris, who's going to buy that shit?"

Papa Lurie moved the family to Riga, Latvia, in 1925. In 1940, Soviet tanks rolled into Riga as the USSR forcibly annexed Latvia. Then, in 1941, Germany invaded and pushed the Soviets out. As the Germans approached, many Jews fled Riga. Apparently Boris' father hesitated, perhaps hedging his bets, maybe thinking that if he could prosper under the Communists he could do the same under the Nazis. He was wrong. The SS rounded up all of Riga's remaining Jews. They kept the males they thought could be put to work, including Boris and his father, and massacred the females, including Boris' mother, grandmother, girlfriend, and one of his two sisters. The other sister escaped to Italy and then the US.

Boris and his father spent the entire war in various concentration camps, including Buchenwald-Magdeburg in eastern Germany. They both survived, when millions of others perished. One wonders if Boris' father did somehow get by with the Nazis. Prisoners at Magdeburg were used as slave labor making munitions for the Wehrmacht. A successful industrialist might have been useful to the SS as a manager or overseer. Pure speculation.

Speaking about it a half a century later, Boris was fatalistic. "You are condemned to death, and you know it very well. You try to cheat the fates and play your luck. It's all an accident whether you succeed or not. I guess it helped to have a robust constitution and a certain amount of brains, too, but it was more luck than anything else. It was totally unpredictable."

In 1945, as the Allies penetrated Germany, the camp guards fled. Lurie escaped along with other prisoners, hiding in the woods, pursued by the local police until "finally the Occupation troops arrived." Since he spoke English, he was employed as a translator by U.S. Army counterintelligence. In 1946 he and his father were allowed to come to New York. "I was very impressed with New York. Especially coming from Germany, which was totally destroyed, the cities completely flattened. The last place we were stationed was near Frankfurt. Frankfurt was nothing, just stones. So to come to New York was a shocking experience."

Still wanting to pursue his art -- no doubt to his father's dismay -- Boris headed below 14th Street, where artists lived and worked because of the extremely cheap rents. He and an artist friend got a cold water flat on Columbia St. on the Lower East Side.

"We took out the walls and made a studio out of it. It was $15 a month. But no electric at all, no hot water. I was really amazed that in New York they'd have buildings with no electricity. That was the real Lower East Side. I saw the Lower East Side in the very last, short period of its existence. Within a couple of years it was all gone. They all moved to the suburbs or whatever."

Lurie's art, largely self-taught, didn't fit a 50s art scene increasingly dominated by the Abstract Expressionists. His work was figurative as opposed to abstract. His imagery in the early 50s didn't directly address the war and the Holocaust, but it was already showing a grim and abject view of humanity, especially in a series he called "Dismembered Women" -- fleshy nudes, somewhere between Reubens and the Venus of Willendorf, with their limbs rearranged. Was he thinking of the women in his family? Boris believed he was making art that socially engaged; the Ab Ex painters wanted to make art that was spiritual, transcendental and removed.

"Abstract Expressionism became very esoteric and secretive," he remembered. "It was a funny combination of things. On the one hand it was very Existentialist. On the other, they were America Firsters. They wanted to build up an American art, they hated everything European. They talked like longshoremen, a very rough, working class language. And drinking a lot. And very patriotic Americans at the same time, though most of them had not served in the war. Most of them were 4-Fers. So it was a little contradictory."

The art scene on the Lower East Side was beginning to coalesce around East 10th Street, where cheap storefronts were easily coopted as galleries, often artist-run coops. In one basement on E. 10th St. was the March Gallery, "a cooperative gallery that slowly folded, and we took it over. The co-op movement was a terrific thing." Artists showed what they wanted, "and they had their own audience, an audience which wasn't oriented to sales. You'd get the appreciation of your peers based on their own true feelings. It was a great period, but gradually they lost interest. They wanted to get into the uptown galleries. We took that cooperative idea seriously."

"We" included Sam Goodman, "who originally was an Abstract Expressionist, then he had a conversion and became a sort of social junk sculptor. He went crazy over junk." And Stanley Fisher, "who was originally a poet. He published a book called Beat Coast East," which Lurie illustrated. He began to do collages.

It was probably Sam Goodman who pushed Boris to bring his Holocaust experiences to the foreground in his work. Beginning in '59, the three of them organized themed shows and invited other artists to participate. The Vulgar Show, Doom Show the inevitable NO!Show and so on. The work was raw, anti-esthetic and anti-art and anti-pretty-much-everything in ways that were viscerally shocking, sometimes provoking an actual physical response. In one show's introduction, Lurie wrote: The price for collaboration in art is—as in the concentration camps—excremental suffocation.

He began doing collages roughly mixing pin-up nudes, porn and BDSM photos with news photos of piled-up death camp corpses. The porn photos were often ripped and crumpled so that the models look "dismembered" and as brutalized as the camp prisoners. The collages were built up in scabrous layers, the photos slapped down on top of one another as though Lurie had punched them down with his fists. In a horrific one called Railroad to America, a buxom cutie pulling down her undies to bare her fleshy buns at the pornographer's camera seems to be rising out of a death camp boxcar overflowing with the gaunt limbs and dull faces of corpses.

The "NO!Show" consisted of that word splashed and stenciled all over paintings, walls, photos of politicians, planks of wood, etc. It prompted a critic to nickname the group's esthetic NO!art, which stuck. As more artists participated, the shows completely filled up the basement with haphazard environments, a big and spontaneous art mess. Swastikas and hand grenades, torn and defaced posters, newspaper headlines, dead flowers, hundreds of plaster-cast penises, mushroom clouds.

From the article:

For a movement that has vanished from history, it's worth noting that these shows drew healthy crowds. Mostly other artists, but also some pretty high-powered art press—O'Doherty, Dore Ashton, Thomas Hess of Art News, Tom Wolfe.

Everybody came to the March Gallery," Lurie says. "They made the scene. All the Pop artists came." James Rosenquist (The F-111) was a friend of some NO!artists; Warhol was there. "They went around looking at what was going on." Some Abstract Expressionists, like de Kooning and Franz Kline, "were very sympathetic personally, but they weren't knocking themselves out to help us." Though Lurie adds that Elaine de Kooning, "in spite of the fact that she was not too sympathetic to what we were doing, conveyed to Hess that this was something important." How did they all react?

"People were very upset," he replies with a grin. "That went for practically everybody. The Abstract Expressionists didn't like it, and the Pop artists didn't like it. They felt threatened by it on two counts. First, they were all hoping to get into the mainstream, the galleries Uptown. They really felt that we were rocking the boat, ruining their chances. And second, they didn't like the social propagandistic aspects of it."

The thing is, had the Lurie crowd aimed more to please than to dismay, the early 60s was a good time for a new, identifiable art movement to make its presence felt in New York.

"The novelty of Abstract Expressionism had given out," Lurie explains. Art investors and promoters "were looking for a new product." Unfortunately for NO!art, "the new product had to be as different as possible, but at the same time not insulting…something that is pleasant, that affords good conversation, that's easy to understand." And that, he says, was Pop.

Like NO!art, Pop was a rejection of Abstract Expressionism's esthetic purism and other-worldliness; like NO!art, Pop art imagery came straight out of the real world of fighter jets and sexy advertising and commercial graphics—"but they used it in a contrary sense," Lurie says. "Pop cleaned it up. They made it palatable. Also, Pop had a campy attitude, which we didn't like at all. It was sort of tongue-in-cheek, no politics or social subject matter…We always felt that Pop Art was celebrating the environment of consumers, not knocking it in any way." In his book he characterizes Pop as a fitting background for Park Avenue Cocktail parties.

Agreeing with Wolfe's sarcastic chronicles of that era, Lurie firmly declares that "Pop Art was a 100 percent businesslike promoted project…The process of organization I witnessed myself. It was exactly the same as you promote a new stock on the New York Stock Exchange. The group was assembled, the people who would promote it bought it up at very low prices, and then they promoted it. They were investors."

The main collectors and Medician patrons of Pop—Robert Scull, Leon Kraushaar, Dick Bellamy, names that became legendary in art-money history—were businessmen. They used Leo Castelli's gallery (and Castelli himself came from a business background), but Lurie insists "it wasn't Castelli who started it. People think that's how Pop Art started, because Castelli promoted it. He offered the space, and I guess he liked it, but the real push was by this group of very cold-blooded investors."

And, he says, "They were very smart in promoting it—even as a protest movement. So they had it both ways. They promoted it differently in this country than in Europe. For instance, Andy Warhol had that series of photographs of death chambers. This was not shown here. They showed it in Paris. The people in Paris thought it was social criticism. What was shown here was the cans of soup. They were very careful about how they did that." On the other hand, he also declares, "After we started NO!art, we really didn't care if we sold anything. And furthermore," he smiles, "we didn't sell anything."

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An art collector with the iconic name of Gertrude Stein came to the March Gallery shows and, unlike most other collectors, liked what she saw. But then she was an unusual collector. A New York native, she came from a family tradition of anarcho-syndicalism; the revolutionary Emma Goldman was her godmother.

In 1963 she opened Gallery Gertrude Stein in a basement on 81st near Madison Ave. She sold things like Kandinsky and Klee out of a back room, but the front space was devoted to bringing NO!art uptown.

Their short reign there culminated in '64 with the NO!Sculpture Show aka the "Shit Show." Goodman and Lurie filled the space with what seemed to be piles of excrement —actually, sculptures of plaster extruded from plastic bags and pipes and then realistically painted. All different kinds of shit, from long, firm logs to a mountainous 500-lb. bloody stool to squishy-looking splatters that formed the signature NO! logo. The New York Times called it the ultimate revolution of the subject matter. People came into the gallery, thought it was real shit, and actually imagined that they could smell the stink. "Boris, who's going to buy that shit?"

From the article:

When I say to Lurie that the appearance of NO!art must have been something of a bombshell in the Uptown gallery environment, he replies, "Yeah, but it was a quiet bombshell. In some instances, when we got reviews it pulled in some people, but otherwise there weren't hordes like we had on 10th St." And uptown drew a different kind of people, he writes: not artistes, but a middle-ages crowd of what appeared pleasure-seeking "neurotic" well-off types, a crowd hard to define, amorphous, jelly-like.

Tom Wolfe noted in his review of the show: Shocking the bourgeoisie is getting tougher and tougher…These people are frustrating. They still won't come right out and be shocked. They, the culturati of the New York art world, look right at the mounds lying there on the floor, and talk about them in terms of the usual, their mass, their tension, their thrust, their plastic ambience and so forth.

Quite a bombshell.

The only ones at the time who could help promote our work was that Pop group," Lurie says. "That was Gertrude Stein's home, that they would come in and start to buy something. This was nixed immediately by Scull, who came in and didn't say a word. After he left Gertrude Stein came up to me and said, 'You might as well pack up. Forget about the whole show. Nothing is gonna happen.'"

Then again, when they put on the "Shit Show," Kraushaar "was very interested," Lurie says. "He wanted to buy some pieces." Pop's backers, he claims, wanted to spread out to more galleries "to show that Pop Art is a very wide, popular movement. They were looking for a kind of satellite galleries they could use for second stringers. So Kraushaar had his eye on the Gallery Gertrude Stein. What they would have done, most likely, would be to pick one or two people out of us and help them a little bit, and at the same time squash the whole team."

In his book, he relates that when Kraushaar came up to Goodman and congratulated him personally, Sam Goodman retorted unexpectedly: "I shit on you, too!" A short self-conscious aggressive and defensive man, Kraushaar turned green and walked out. The "Shit Show" was, perhaps, inevitably, the NO!art group's last excremental fling. I'd like it understood, Goodman declared, this is my final gesture after 30 years in the art world. This is what I think of it.

"It fell apart," Lurie says. "Gertrude Stein continued on her own with a couple of shows." Lurie became preoccupied by personal and family crises. Goodman died of cancer in '67, his passing unnoted in the press, and "Stanley Fisher went off on a different tack. He got into Zen, organized a commune." He died in 1980. A few NO!art participants found success doing other kinds of art: Dorothy Gillespie, Michelle Stuart, Jerome Rothenberg, Allan Kaprow, the sculptor Kusama.

"I haven't shown in New York ever since then," Lurie says. "In the first place, nobody was chasing after me asking me to show," he laughs. "And I didn't organize anything on my own. I didn't have anybody to work with. I got involved in other areas. And I thought also that it was a totally desperate situation at the time, because the Pop Art had taken over absolutely everything, so there was no hope."

He didn't stop working, and his style is largely unchanged. He has continued to show in Europe, most recently in Cologne in 1988. In Germany, a certain level of interest in and support for NO!art was maintained by the art publishing house Edition Hundertmark, which eventually published Lurie's book NO!art and promoted other avant-fringe movements like Fluxus and the controversial Austrian Aktion artist Hermann Nitsch. In the U.S., meanwhile, NO!art "was mentioned by certain people, like Lucy Lippard in her book on Pop Art, but basically it totally disappeared."

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Clayton continued to be friends and work with Boris until Boris' death.
He adds:

Boris was complex and conflicted. He had secrets, including one bombshell that didn't drop until after he died. He dressed Lower East Side, working class, cheap, like his clothes came from K-Mart, but he carried himself like an aristocrat. There was an elegance to the way he stood, a regal stature, the way he held his cigarette. He'd been born into privilege and wealth, after all, and it showed. You pictured him in a tux looking around the ballroom. Dash Snow had a similar affect. He could walk into the Whitney wearing torn jeans and a ripped-up jacket, but his body language said he deserved to be there, and he always got in. Boris had that. Not arrogance, but a self-assured presence.

When Boris and his father arrived in New York, his father invested in real estate. Boris was handsome, young, the rich man's son. They called him Boris the Lion. He had a German shepherd, drove a sports car, went around with an aristocratic French woman, very elegant, who was in the upper echelons in fashion or advertising.

When Boris' father died in 1964 he left Boris a building on East 77th Street on the Upper East Side. That's something Boris did not reveal to John as they huddled in his East 6th Street studio. He also didn't tell him that he actually lived in an apartment on East 66th Street just off Madison Avenue. It was the Upper East Side, the wealthiest neighborhood in Manhattan, about as far from the Lower East Side as you could get. But his apartment was as cluttered and unkempt as the studio. All kinds of paperwork plastered on the wall and stacked up around an old typewriter. More tin cans for ashtrays. Stove blackened from years of use without ever being cleaned. Rust stain in the porcelain sink from a drip that had dripped for years. Mice running in and out from under the bed, which was hardly ever changed. An old couch and a little tv in the living room. Everything impoverished and degraded. It was like he was recreating a barracks in a concentration camp.

I don't think he was playing the starving artist, but he did feign being poor. He pinched pennies until they hollered. He lived like a man of no means. Dinner for him was a can of sardines. He permitted no luxury in his life. I think he was living in the concentration camp in his head. It was a prison survival lifestyle.

But he really was conflicted. As much as he acted like he rejected the mainstream art world, he got very excited in 1993 when a curator of the Whitney Museum's upcoming "Abject Art" group show contacted him about including a few of his pieces. Boris got the pieces organized, and then somehow, the way I understood it, the Whitney never came to collect them. I put together a NO!art show in my gallery. It ran at the same time as the Whitney one. And there's this: You know who else lived on East 66th Street? Andy Warhol. He lived a few doors down from Boris. To me that suggests that as much as Boris railed against Pop Art, at least a part of him wanted that success, wanted to be in that crowd. I think he was always hedging his bets, the way his father had.

He didn't preserve his own art. When the curator Estera Milman was planning the Boris exhibition that would be mounted in Iowa in 1999, they found his artwork crammed into the basement of the 66th Street building. A lot of it was stuck together because water had been dripping on it, because Boris rarely fixed the pipes or anything else. His friend Dietmar Kirves came over with his son. Dietmar is an artist who'd worked with Joseph Beuys before meeting Boris in 1978. Boris and Dietmar were very deeply kindred spirits. Dietmar is a very German, very hard-edged anarchist of the old school, no compromise. He hooked No!Art up with the German publisher Edition Hundertmark. Dietmar understands the No!Art philosophy implicitly and was instrumental in inspiring Boris to continue it. He and his son spent a lot of time separating the works and repairing them. In 1999 Dietmar started the No!Art website, an extraordinarily deep and meticulous archive of everything and everyone associated with the movement. (https://no-art.info/index.html) Boris declared Dietmar the director of No!Art's eastern headquarters, Clayton its western HQ.

In the mid-1990s, when I was traveling in Germany and Austria with the Wildstyle & Tattoo festival I helped organize, I went to Stuttgart to buy a stack of No!Art books from Edition Hundertmark. Boris asked me to take a copy to the director of the Pompidou Center. I took a night train from Berlin to Paris, met this gentleman, handed him the book, explained briefly about Boris and No!Art. He was very gracious, considering that he must have been thinking what the hell. I took a train straight back to Berlin.

I also went to Buchenwald for Boris, to reconnoiter it for an exhibition of Boris' art. The director of Buchenwald Memorial, Dr. Volkhard Knigge, walked me around the camp and I sized up the exhibition space.

I should point out that I did all this on my own dime. Boris never offered to reimburse me for any of it.

In late 1998 I flew with Boris to Germany for the opening of his show at the Buchenwald Memorial, Boris Lurie: Werke 1946-1998. The Memorial must have paid for our airfare. I know Boris didn't. We stayed in the captain's quarters. Buchenwald was cleaned up but it wasn't dressed up yet. East Germany was still deep in debt and going through lots of other problems. If you visit the concentration camp memorials now, I'm not saying it's like going to Macy's, but they're much more fixed up than they were then.

Boris strutted around Buchenwald like the returning victor. He was in high spirits, swaggering, Boris the strongman, Boris the invincible. "I'm back you fuckers!" He was delighted to see they had his old prisoner serial number, 95966, on the wall. "Look, Clayton, that's me!" The show was his triumphant return, his triumph over the Nazis, over death, and he made them pay and pay. It was the most difficult and expensive show they'd ever mounted there. Then came the day, one of the most unforgettable of my life, when I watched all that swagger, all that bravado get crushed out of him. It wasn't at Buchenwald, but at Dora, a camp nearby, where prisoners were used as slave labor to build Wernher von Braun's V-2 rockets in the mine shafts. It was a cold, damp, morbid day, fog shrouding the trees, a single railroad car like the ones they used to transport prisoners. We were met by a young former East German guy, a cliched intellectual, skinny, long white fingers, in a trenchcoat. He led us around, describing the inhuman things that went on there in heavy, depressing, Edgar Allen Poe detail. He took us into the mountain. It was even damper and colder in there, oppressively gloomy, with incandescent lights strung up overheard on their wires, like a construction site.

The young man went on about how many thousands of prisoners died inside this mountain working on the rockets. And as he talked, I watched the weight of it all crush Boris. It penetrated his psyche. He'd always had this steely discipline, this defense in his mind that let him talk about the Holocaust and make his ugly art without betraying emotion, much less weakness. I watched it crumble that day in the mine, and he was never the same after that. It was like he was shell-shocked. After this he started breaking down physically -- his legs started to go, he had his first stroke. Something had fractured in his head and broken his spirit. He had lost his imperviousness. We've all known older people who were powering along, doing fine, and then something happens -- a trip on the stairs, say. It shakes their confidence, and suddenly they're an old person. They lose their spirit, their drive. I think that's what happened to Boris. Everything about the inside of that mountain was the perfect environment to make that happen.

His health deteriorated a lot in his last few years. He died in 2008. That's when his biggest secret of all came to light. When he died, Boris the cheap, penniless artist left an estate worth 80 million dollars! He'd made it playing penny stocks on Wall Street. Eighty million dollars! Eating sardines out of the can. Living in squalor. Maybe he never escaped the concentration camp after all.

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Dietmar and I continue to keep the spirit of NO!art alive as an international movement, as you can see from his website. Gertrude Stein runs the Boris Lurie Art Foundation to promote his work and legacy.

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About JOHN STRAUSBAUGH: He is an author and journalist who has been a regular contributor to the New York Times, The Washington Post, and The New York Press. Strausbaugh worked as a contributor and editor of The New York Press from 1990 until late 2002, when the paper was sold to Avalon Equity Partners. He has since produced several non-fiction works on American popular culture. His books include E: Reflections on the Birth of the Elvis Faith (1995), Rock 'Til You Drop (2003), on rock and roll nostalgia, and Black Like You (2006), an exploration of race relations in American pop culture. more

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