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A Conservative Russian Lion With Real Mass Influence – The Painter Ilya Glazunov

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How to best view the paintings:  Many of the pictures in this article are part of a high-definition slide show of 22 images which can be activated by clicking on most of the images in this article.  This will load the images in high quality, which may take a while with a slower internet connection, (we don’t recommend doing this on your phone unless you are on wifi) but it is worth the wait, because it allows one to examine the paintings in detail, which is especially interesting for the historical “passion play” series, as the one above this text. To go to the slide show directly, click here.  (The slide show will not work on mobile devices)

Alternatively, the Glazunov museum has a very comprehensive website in English, where one can view paintings in high-def.   At the lower right-hand corner of each image there is the option “View in Full Screen”. Click on this, and then again on the image, to see it in high-definition.


There is currently much talk of a renaissance of conservatism in Europe and America.  The phenomenon of a “New Right”, “Alt Right” and other “Rights” has been widely discussed in the New Yorker, Breitbart, Buzzfeed, the Daily Beast, and elsewhere.  

Serious discussion of monarchism, skepticism of non-European cultures and immigrants, table-turning historical revisionism, and much else has burst onto the scene in a way unthinkable just a few years ago.  Such are the fruits of the age of Trump. 

Western conservatives will no doubt find it interesting that these subjects are actively discussed in Russia, and have been for 30 years, since the crumbling of the USSR. 

One of Russia’s most effective, consistent, articulate, and profoundly conservative voices happens to be a popular painter.  That his medium is visual is significant because his ideas can theoretically cross linguistic barriers, although they have yet to do so, but they connect to millions of Russian in a way that written and spoken words never can. 

A subject of debate and fascination in Russia, a profile of him and his ideas is the subject of this article.

While filling out a form, under “profession“, Glazunov, arguably the most popular artist in Russia, impishly wrote in: “A frenzied whirlwind of service“

The answer speaks volumes about the hyper-active 86 year old, who is, in fact, far more than a prominent artist.  He is a unique phenomenon, straddling the worlds of art, history, politics, art collecting, social activism, and academia, wielding remarkable influence.

Russia Insider is primarily a political publication, and what will be of most of interest to our readers is the improbable fact that since the fall of the USSR, Glazunov has consistently been one of the most articulate and influential advocates of a profound political conservatism which harks back to another century, with the influence, resources, and ability to have his ideas seriously and widely discussed in Russian society.

For years he has been warning of the negative effects of immigration on Europe, which he believes is dying.  In 2003 this issue was the subject of a major painting entitled “The Death of Europe”.

Very well-known in Russia with an active presence in the media, and heatedly discussed by his fans and detractors, little has been written about him in English.  A Google search turns up a 30 year old short and completely inadequate article about him from the NYT in 1988, and little else of quality.  Not that Glazunov isn’t well known in Europe.  The reason most likely is that he speaks fluent French and Spanish, but not English, so his reach and relationships are far better known in these worlds, than in the Anglo-saxon.

Conservative with a capital “C”

To begin with he is a monarchist, and believes that democracy is a scam which would best be done away with.  He argues that Russia’s greatest achievements in every area – geographic expansion, economic growth, military glory, architecture, literature, Christian life, painting, decorative arts, population growth, public morality, international power, and harmonious relations within a highly diverse multinational empire, and with its many neighbors – all were attained under the rule of the Tsars, and that most of what happened since then has been an unmitigated disaster.

Furthermore, he believes Russia should return to a uniquely Russian system of social organization which reached its zenith in the mid-19th century called “Soslovie”. There exists no exact European equivalent, but the closest one is the medieval “Estates of the Realm”, the orderly division of society into various functions – knights, merchants, clergy, farmers, etc. 

The soslovie system gave social status, and sometimes hereditary titles to individuals, uniting them in a sense of civic pride and unity in service to their sovereign. Not limited to upper classes and nobles, it extended well into the middle classes, the Tsarist bureaucracy, and even the peasantry. Readers of 19th century Russian literature may well have wondered at the many titles carried by its diverse characters, like “Collegiate Assessor”, or “Provincial Registrar”. For an explanation of this unique system, see the Wikipedia entries: Social Estates in the Russian Empire and Table of Ranks

The main point for Glazunov, is that this mobilized the citizenry, gave their lives noble meaning and purpose, and allowed for harmonious cooperation while lessening the emphasis on competition and personal enrichment, the driving forces in a pure meritocracy.  He stresses that this is very different from the Marxist concept of classes, which emphasizes conflict between social strata, and very different from the Indian caste systems, which are more rigid and exclusionary.

He speaks out publicly again and again that Russia is fundamentally hamstrung because it lacks an elite which truly has the interests of the country at heart, as opposed to their own, and that only once that is in place, can the country truly thrive, as it did in the 19th century, for example. He believes this elite has to be titled nobility.

He looks down his nose at the United States, whom he sees as a parvenu nation of cultural bumpkins, culturally capable of nothing more profound than Mickey Mouse and held in the thrall of a crass consumerist obsession with money and commerce.

In contrast to the values of the marketplace, he calls for placing spiritual and political ideals in first place.  He believes that patriotism, service to society and its head, a monarch, are far more important than filthy lucre.

He is a pious Russian Orthodox Christian, embracing the church’s historical role as the essential partner in a ruling duopoly of temporal and spiritual power.

The eccentric musings of a man of the arts, not to be taken seriously?  

Actually no, he has an audience of millions who agree with him, and reaches people not just with his famous paintings, but in books, movies, TV appearances, and public speeches.

The head of the Russian church, Patriarch Kirill, in a televised visit to Glazunov’s museum, at one point turned to the cameras, and explained that Mr. Glazunov deserves special praise, because “visual memory” is more powerful, emotional, and immediate than verbal or theoretical, and therefore Glazunov is worth a thousand writers and chatterboxes, because he has reminded the nation in pictures of the glory of orthodoxy, of Russia’s military and spiritual triumphs, of her greatness. 

Mr. Putin has also made a televised visit, as have dozens of other celebrities and dignitaries. Mr. Glazunov keeps a guest book for VIPs, and it contains a mind-boggling list complete with glowing compliments of famous names: prime ministers, movie stars, artists, museum directors, ecclesiastics, academics. 

Although he is known foremost as a painter, in fact the „Glazunov Phenomenon“ extends far beyond the walls of museums and exhibition halls. 

Let’s start with a partial list of the man’s achievements.

Public shows of his paintings have been far and away the most popular not only in the history of Russian art, but perhaps of any contemporary artist ever. Crowds have famously waited in lines for 8-10 hours, week after week, as visitors to his exhibit in enormous halls climbed into the millions.  These astonishing attendance rates occurred during the perestroika years, and the following decade, and were driven as much by his political message as the aesthetic appeal of his paintings.

Russians were eager for a new take on politics, and his ideas found a huge and enthusiastic response among broad masses of everyday Russians. His fans reach into the highest levels of government, which in 1997 created a large museum just to house the prodigious quantity of this work.  It stands in a grand building a block from the Kremlin across the street from the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow’s equivalent of the Metropolitan in New York, or the Tate in London. 

As if this wasn’t enough, in 2014, Glazunov has been given an equally grand building for a new museum to house his mind-boggling personal collection of priceless paintings, icons, antiques, posters, books, and historical costumes.  The value of the collection is estimated in the hundreds of millions of $. He has no peer in Russia in his success as a private collector. He has christened the new museum “The Museum of ‘Soslovie’”, Soslovie being the system of nobility, social ranks and hierarchies described above, which he advocates a return too. It is a grand political statement:  “We need to bring this back.”

But we are just getting started.  

In 1996 he created a major art academy to teach ultra-conservative realism in painting.  (See below for more about his view that modern art is at best a sick joke, and most likely a satanic plot) Located in the center of Moscow in a prestigious old building, it has become an important force in the world of Russian art, churning out about 100 graduates per year whose artistic education is an exact replica of that of the Tsarist academies which were disbanded after the revolution. (See here for the academy’s website (only in Russian). If you scroll down the page you will see a photo gallery, and yes, they accept foreign students.)

The academy has published an art book featuring the works of its graduates, which are truly astonishing in their level of expertise.  Here is a link to a Russian internet store which carries it.

Glazunov has also had a major impact in the field of political activism.  In the 1960s he started a social movement to preserve architectural landmarks in Russia, which ended up having profound influence, saving hundreds of churches from destruction, and inspiring generations of writers, filmmakers, and many others, who embraced his ideas and developed them. Dozens of leading conservative Russian thinkers, writers, and political leaders point to Glazunov as a guiding light who opened their eyes to a new understanding of Russia’s past and future.

At the time, he called for the reconstruction of the massive Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Russia’s largest cathedral, famously dynamited by the Bolsheviks in the 30s, calling the demolition an affront to Russian history and patriotism. The idea seemed outlandish at the time and was roundly denounced by the Communist authorities of the day, but 35 years later, in the year 1999, this is exactly what came to pass, with Glazunov again leading the public campaign for what many admit is miraculous.  

Today, Glazunov can gaze at the golden domes of the cathedral from the windows of his museum with ironic satisfaction. He also practically single-handedly created a painting genre he calls „Passion Plays“.  These are enormous canvases occupying the whole wall of a large exhibit hall, filled with sometimes hundreds of figures representing ideas from his political and historical thinking. These are the paintings he is most famous for in Russia, where they are wildly popular. Of Glazunov’s 9 monumental canvases of this size, 5 of them are of this genre. You can see them all in high-def here: (see technical note at beginning of this article). Of particular interest are “The Market of Our Democracy” (1999), a stinging indictment of the market reforms urged on Russia by the West, and “The Great Experiment” (1990), and equally blistering critique of the Communist experience in Russia. 

Glazunov is also an accomplished author who has collected his political, religious, historical, and social ideas in two massive volumes entitled „Russia Crucified“ (available only in Russian), which tells his life story and passionately argues his case for conservatism.  It is a fascinating and compelling collection of erudition on an improbably wide range of subjects – primarily history, but also political philosophy, archeology, literature, mythology, and religion. 

Type „Илья Глазунов“ into Youtube search, and you will find several full-length documentary films (all in Russian) recounting his remarkable life story, often with him as a lively and skillful chief narrator.  Furthermore there are dozens of clips of him appearing on news and talk shows, where he expounds at length on his ideas to eager interviewers. Watch him give speeches before crowds of admirers.  He is an accomplished speaker, entertainer, witty, urbane, profound, passionate, truly remarkable. 

And finally, to top it off, he was chosen to lead the restoration of the stupendous Grand Kremlin Palace in the late 1990s, the massive Tsarist palace which is the main structure inside the Moscow Kremlin. (Wikipedia) The palace was built in the mid-nineteenth century to celebrate the greatness of Russian autocracy, a fitting assignment for Glazunov, the convinced monarchist.

So art is only a part of the man’s life, and in the art world he is highly controversial, with many detractors. Critics say he is a mediocre artist, rather a skillful networker and politician who produces "kitsch“ which appeals to the masses, who became wealthy by collecting and trading art, then used his wealth and influence to have museums given to him.  His complete and utter dismissal of any modern art hardly endears him to the chablis and cheese crackers crowd, let alone the „installation art“ types, whose work he finds frankly preposterous.  

But his admirers are many and not exactly artistic ingenues.  They include many of Russia’s most respected writers, such as Alexander Prokhanov, Valentin Rasputin, and Vladimir Soloukhin (admittedly all arch-conservatives themselves), and many, many others.  But why rely on the opinions of others – we have tried to include a wide variety of his works in high resolution in this article. Judge for yourself.

But back to his deeply conservative ideas:

  • He thinks the masonic movement destroyed Russia, culminating in the Russian civil war, the destruction of the monarchy, and the massacres of Russians right up into WW2. To Glazunov, the masonic movement, and its course through Russian history, was evil’s most successful manifestation.

  • The Decembrists (a 19th century revolt by nobles, many of them inspired by masonry, seeking a constitutional monarchy which was foiled) deserved everything they got, and then some.   Detests what they represent.  Traitors and scoundrels.

  • Ivan the Terrible was a great sovereign, completely misrepresented by Russophobic western historians, starting with the moniker “Terrible”, which he wasn’t, not in the least.

  • He is fascinated with Russian icons (paintings), of which he has a staggering collection.

  • Slavs were a great civilization predating any European analogs.  Says it is complete nonsense that the Slavs „invited“ the Vikings to rule over them – more western lies.

  • Absolutely and completely thrilled that Crimea is again Russian.  He produces vast quantities of historical data and arguments proving that Crimea has been inhabited by Russians since the dawn of time, that the Ottoman occupation was a brief interlude, and that Catherine the Great and Prince Potemkin rightly gave them the boot.

  • Obsessed with history, which is the subject of most of his paintings.  He emphasizes the importance of knowing and honoring your country’s history and accomplishments.  Tries to convey this knowledge in his paintings.  He likes to paraphrase Disraeli: “History is not the battle of classes – it is the clash of races and religions.”, and again “Ideological positions are always based on religious and ethnic foundations.”

  • The Bolsheviks were a murderous thugs who committed genocide against the Russian people on a scale without historical parallel.

  • He is very concerned about the demographic crisis in Russia – insists that this be corrected soon before it goes too far.  He recommends supporting traditional family values and encouraging families to have as many children as possible, 3-4 at the least.

  • Fascinated with old things, the beauty of old things.  An incessant collector.  Dismayed at the lack of respect for old beautiful buildings, churches, etc.  Believes they carry the soul of the nation.

  • The experience of Russia in the 90s was a genocide similar to the tragedy of the 1917 revolution. A complete disaster and atrocity.

  • In 2003 he warned that immigrants are descending on Europe and will destroy her unless they are stopped. Believes Europe is dying, that all hopes lies with Russia.

Glazunov’s views on this last point are fascinating and have clear historical and political origins. He begins by giving his definition of art, which he explains must consist of three things: 1.) It must contain an understanding of the battle of good and evil in this world, 2.) It must be devoted to showing the beauty of this world and the love which underlies it, and 3.) It must be aware of the beauty and mystery of the spiritual world. He quotes one of his favorite Russian artists, Vaznetsov who explained: “My art is a candle before the face of God”, and another of his favorites, Vrubel, who argued that the goal of art is to awaken the great possibilities of the human spirit.

Further he explains that the first practitioners of modern art were Communist revolutionaries of the late 19th and early 20th century, many of them from Russia – Malevich, Kandinsky, etc.  After the revolution, these artists thought of themselves as the “Avangard of Communist Art”, as “Commissars”, whose historical role was to smash the old art, just as their counterparts in the political world were massacring the upper classes, and blowing up the churches, attrocities of which these Commissars of the art world undoubtedly approved. 

Glazunov argues that the art they produced can not be described as art at all, rather as anti-art, an effort to destroy real art. He states flatly: “The black square is not art”. He says that evidence that the new, communism-inspired art cannot be art is that it does not have a national character, claiming, as communism claimed, to be international, universal. Glazunov insists that all art has to be national, which accurately reflects the reality of the world, and it also is by nature, aristocratic, but that it should at the same time be democratic, reflecting the thoughts and values of the people.

He points out that it is a great irony that although the Communist Comissars of the political world have been relegated to the ash-heap of history, they still reign supreme in the museums and university art departments of the West, something he finds an abomination, because he equates them with the blood-thirsty killers of Communist Russia.

When asked who he considers examples of the last true practitioners of art, he names Mikhail Nesterov (Russia – d. 1942), Arnold Boecklin (Germany – d. 1901),  James Whistler (USA – d. 1903), and John Sargent (US/UK – d. 1925).   The impressionists – no, they don’t cut it because they do not reflect the reality of the world, which he stresses, does not mean that art has to be realistic. But the impressionists reflect the world not as it is, which is already moving away from art.  Van Gogh?  A madman, not an artist.

Glazunov argues that art existing separately from the real world is essentially a Satanic fantasy.

In person, Glazunov is animated, jovial, jowly, warm and generous, plying his guests with delicious Russian veggie pies, sweets, and gallons of tea, eyes twinkling, sometimes pounding his fist for emphasis, eyes flashing.

He starts the discussion with the announcement that we live in an age of stark battle between Good and Evil, and that if you don”t understand this, you understand nothing.

He give the impression of a man in a hurry, as if he urgently wants to warn the world of the error of its ways, a voice in the wilderness.

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Ramón Estévez regrets his name change to Martin Sheen | Culture

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At the beginning of the sixties, Ramón Estévez was desperate. His first steps as a television actor had gone well, but he felt stuck in that medium and wanted to get into theater and film. However, at the time, his name held him back: there were few successful Latinos in the United States. “Whenever I called for a position, whether for work or for an apartment, they answered me hesitantly when I gave my name, and when I arrived, I found the position already filled.” He said in 2003. And so, Ramón decided to create an artistic name by merging the name of Robert Dale Martin, the CBS network’s casting director, who had helped him in those essential appearances on the small screen, and that of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, who, as Estévez’s little sister Carmen recalls, “regularly appeared on TV.”

This is how Martin Sheen came about, and owing to his great talent, he triumphed first in theater and, later as an actor in the movies, notably: Badlands, Apocalypse Now, The Departed, and Wall Street. However, the identity of Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estévez did not disappear: this name remains in all of Sheen’s official documents (passport, driver’s license and marriage license)… and in the actor’s soul. Last week, in an interview with Closer magazine, he confessed that one of the great regrets of his life was his change of name. He speaks with pride of the obstinacy of his son Emilio, who kept it despite “his agent’s advice to change it”. In relation to his own decision, he reflects: “Sometimes they convince you, when you don’t have enough insight or even enough courage to stand up for what you believe in, and you pay for it later.”

Martin Sheen in 'The West Wing' reunion, last October.
Martin Sheen in ‘The West Wing’ reunion, last October.

Over time, Sheen recovered his Galician roots, the land where his father, Francisco Estévez Martínez, was born. His father was an immigrant who left Parderrubias, in Salceda de Caselas (Pontevedra), for Cuba at the age of 18 in 1916. He left with no Spanish, a language he learned on the Caribbean Island. In the early 1930s, he emigrated to the United States to a modest Irish neighborhood in Dayton (Ohio), where he married another immigrant, Mary-Ann Phelan.

Martin Sheen’s life has been profoundly marked by his childhood. His father worked at NCR Corporation, an industrial conglomerate that began manufacturing cash registers. Shortly after his marriage, the company sent him to the Bermuda Islands where his first children were born. Sheen was the seventh of ten children (nine boys and one girl), and the first to be born in Dayton, in 1940, after the family moved to the US. His left arm was clasped by forceps during birth, leaving it three inches shorter than his right arm. As a result of this, the character that Sheen interprets in the series The West Wing of the White House, President Josiah Bartlet, puts on his jacket with a strange twist of the body. As a child, he suffered from polio which kept him bedridden for a year, and at the age of 11 his mother died. Thanks to the support of a catholic charity and his own father’s efforts, the family remained united against the distribition of children to orphanages or foster homes, a common practice at the time.

Martin Sheen abd Francis Ford Coppola during the recording of 'Apocalypse Now'.
Martin Sheen abd Francis Ford Coppola during the recording of ‘Apocalypse Now’.

He was the eccentric of the family: he decided to go into acting. Against his father’s objections, Ramón, the most reserved son only enjoyed the theater and decided to study acting. “You don’t know how to sing or dance!”, his father told him, to which his son replied: “You love westerns and in those nobody sings or dances”. “But you don’t ride a horse either!” was his father’s comeback. Despite this discouragement, he moved to New York, following in the footsteps of his idol, James Dean.

In the mythical episode Two Cathedrals of The West Wing, he explains how the character President Bartlet reflects the experiences of his own childhood and adolescence. Estévez/Sheen: a practicing Catholic and relentless campaigner against global warming, a man in favor of civil and immigrant rights, he was arrested several times during demonstrations outside the White House. His activism began when he was just 14 years old in a golf club where he worked. He led a strike of caddies, protesting against the club members’ use of bad language in front of children.

Actor Martin Sheen takes part in a "Fire Drill Fridays" protest calling attention to climate change at the U.S. Capitol in Washington
Actor Martin Sheen takes part in a “Fire Drill Fridays” protest calling attention to climate change at the U.S. Capitol in WashingtonJOSHUA ROBERTS (Reuters)

And then there’s the Spanish context. Francisco Estévez did not teach his children Spanish, but the Estévez family went back to their roots. Francisco was able to return to his hometown in Galicia in 1967 (just as Sheen landed his first big role in In the Custody of Strangers), where he began building a house, while making regular trips back to Dayton. He would never see this house finished. He died in Dayton in 1974, and was buried with his wife and son Manuel, who had died in 1968. His only daughter, Carmen, ended up working as an English teacher at a school in Madrid, where she married. For years people in Madrid have bumped into Sheen during his visits to his sister. Carmen finished building her father’s house and inaugurated a river promenade dedicated to his memory. Indeed, she has kept the memory of the Estévez alive in Salceda de Caselas.

The Camino de Santiago, a dream come true

In the early years of the 2000s, Sheen, his son Emilio Estévez and his grandson, Taylor, walked the Camino de Santiago. In Burgos, the grandson met a girl, and at the end of the walk he decided not to return to Los Angeles, but to remain in the Castilian city, where he got married. Influenced by that experience, Sheen and Estévez made the film El camino (2010), in which both co-starred and the latter directed. A few months ago, Sheen spoke proudly of El camino, a great success, and a faithful portrayal of his spirituality. During filming, at a lunch under huge pergolas at the back of Burgos cathedral, Sheen explained: “I am a Catholic, and a lot of that spirituality is in this movie. I have had an extremely happy life, with the normal highs and lows of a career. I have survived disease and my family is wonderful [his four children, including Charlie Sheen, are actors]… I believe in a church that does incredible work in the Third World. Other things, like some of the pronouncements from the Pope [at that time, Benedict XVI], are more difficult for me. I live my faith, and it is between God and I.” A few meters from Sheen and the journalist, at the long tables, was a strange group that didn’t not look like actors: “That’s my wife, that’s my sister and her husband, that my best childhood friend… I’ve invited them to come and have a good time with Emilio, Taylor [who worked as an assistant] and me”. Taylor Estévez currently works as a stunt coordinator in California.

Martin Sheen at the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral with his sister Carmen, 2009.
Martin Sheen at the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral with his sister Carmen, 2009. Andres Fraga

Carmen Estévez says that for decades the family did not understand their father’s deeply Galician sense of humor, until they realized that for much of the time he was not being serious. This sarcasm was inherited by his son Ramón/Martin, and he made a display of this in Burgos. In response to a question about his career, he said: “With my resume full of bad movie titles, what can I say. I’m an actor and that’s how I’ve supported my family. But I’ve been in about 10 films that I can be proud of…” at which point he dropped his cup of coffee and blurted out: “See? For gloating over my career. Divine punishment”.

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Buzz Lightyear: To Lesbians and Beyond | Culture

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Buzz Lightyear and Alisha Hawthorne in a still of 'Lightyear' (Disney/Pixar, 2022).
Buzz Lightyear and Alisha Hawthorne in a still of ‘Lightyear’ (Disney/Pixar, 2022).Pixar (AP)

The first homosexual kiss in a Disney movie has been more than expected. Many of us wanted to see it in Frozen: some interpret the ice princess’s song “Let it Go” as a reference to being gay. Lots of people awaited it in Luca, where the love between protagonists Luca and Alberto was at times more obvious even than that of the cowboys in Brokeback Mountain. We longed for a legendary, effervescent kiss, the fruit of a rebellious and passionate love. It was going to be a vindictive kiss, full of fireworks. It would be one of those kisses that precede the mythical The End, when the screen fades to black behind the lover’s mouths. It was a kiss that was going to take everything over. Above all, it was going to be the great kiss of the 21st century, undoubtedly the century of homosexual visibility and the century of the gender revolution, the moment when women fall in love and kiss for the first time and do all of it on the big screen. (Well, not all of it.)

The first lesbian kiss in Disney history appears in the recently released Lightyear, and it has sadly led to the censorship of the film in 14 countries in the Middle East and Asia. The kiss takes place in 1995, that is, 27 years ago. The first homosexual kiss of the Disney Pixar factory recognizes that it is years late. It is a 90′s kiss. It comes not from the 21st century, but the 20th. How? The film starts with the following premise: in 1995 Andy, the protagonist of Toy Story, went to the cinema to see Lightyear. This is the movie he saw then. Lightyear, therefore, is not the end of the saga but its prequel. In addition, the controversial kiss does not happen between a young protagonist and her girlfriend, but between two mature women who have been married for years. We are not facing a rebellious kiss, much less a political or ideological one. This kiss is not intended to be a novelty or to make anything visible. It is an absolutely conventional gesture. Thank you, Disney Pixar for going beyond my wildest dreams when it comes to normalizing visibility. And thank you for listening to your workers and refusing to remove the scene. In the long run, it will be more profitable to sacrifice box-office earnings than dignity.

In addition to being between two women, the kiss happens between two mothers, on the day that they celebrate their son’s birthday. It is not the classic Disney kiss, a culmination of the romantic love between the leading couple, but a stolen moment of quotidian happiness. It is a fleeting kiss, insignificant in the history of lovers. It lasts just seconds. It is not charged with any special meaning in the love story. It speaks of a way of building affections and meaning different from that imposed by the traditional heterosexual canon: seemingly unimportant gestures of are everything. It represents a kind of love where kisses do not represent a turning point in the lovers’ lives, but rather small anchor points in their story history. In this gesture, romantic love is not ultimately the center of life but part of it. In Lightyear, we witness the anodyne kiss on the lips between space explorer Alisha Hawthorne and her wife, and we realize that partners are not at the center of any story, but rather one of those fragments that give meaning to life. It is a sapphic kiss in the sense that it is another way of building love, more horizontal, quieter and healthier.

Alisha—a female, lesbian and black—does not have as much screentime as Buzz Lightyear—male, white and the story’s protagonist. She is the protagonist’s friend, confidante and inspiration. Together they are trapped on an uninhabitable planet due to a mistake he made. From that moment on their lives run parallel but radically different–almost like the story of lesbian and heterosexual love. She adapts to the circumstances and begins to live the life that has befallen her, without rejecting its difficulties. The conditions are not the best, but Alisha falls in love–with a woman–and celebrates her luck. Together they have a son. Along the way, she takes care of those she loves, she has a granddaughter, she fights and she investigates. She fills her life with meaning, and she dies. Buzz, on the other hand, insists on “finishing the mission,” “being important,” “saving the world,” “succeeding,” “being a hero,” “doing things alone” and “being the first.” Buzz, who will never know love, embodies many of the traditional values of heteronormative love, starting with the desire for protagonism and the sense of a linear life narrated through love or milestones, leading only to deep, intimate failure.

Lightyear attempts to travel into space to escape from the planet where he is trapped, failing over and over again. Additionally, though, time is altered every time he subjects his ship to hyperspeed. Every time he returns, a few minutes have passed for him and a few years–four, ten or twenty–for Alisha. He burns through life, while she lives it. In one of the final moments, Buzz Lightyear explains to Alisha’s granddaughter why he and her grandmother became space rangers. “We just wanted to be important,” he says. “Trust me, she was,” she says. And the hero understands that his whole life has been a huge misunderstanding. He will have to return home, knowing that his home is the one he has tried to flee all his life.

The film is a masterpiece, full of action, emotion, humor and imagination. Its commitment to diversity includes a warrior over seventy years old, a rebel whose role is essential in saving the world. No one is talking about the old woman for the simple reason that old age remains invisible even when it occupies the center of the scene. The film also gives us Sox, an adorable robotic cat that demonstrates how the only technology that works is that which helps people, not that which attempts to change them. It is truly one of the great Pixar movies, much more than action and stars.

At this point, it had gotten hard to explain why we humans want to keep going to infinity and beyond. But there is a moment, at the end of the film, when we understand: when the elite protectors of the universe excitedly observe the bronze statue of Alisha, a black lesbian woman, the source of meaning for humanity, because she is the one who knew how to live a small life with greatness.

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George Michael revisited: binge-eating ice cream, sex and ecstasy | Culture

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George Michael abhorred fame and avoided interviews. Over his 30-year career, the singer of “Faith” released only four studio albums as a solo artist. But his figure left a lasting impact on popular culture. The public’s fascination with him lingers even today, as demonstrated by the recent release of both a documentary and a book about his life, just when the artist would have turned 59. The two works depict the pop star’s life from dramatically different perspectives.

The musician himself worked on the film George Michael: Freedom Uncut with his former collaborator, David Austin. It follows the career of one of the best voices in pop, starting in the eighties and ending in 2016, the year of his death. Narrated in the first person, the documentary gives a partial glimpse of the star. In contrast, journalist James Gavin’s book George Michael: A Life explores the singer’s dark side in great detail. The biography chronicles Michael’s addiction to GHB, also known as liquid ecstasy, his depression and his dependence on sex. According to the account, Michael spent his later years sinking into drugs and prostitution and alienating his friends, including Andrew Ridgeley, the other half of Wham!. Gavin spoke with more than 200 friends and acquaintances of the artist, resulting in a portrayal of an emotionally fragile and insecure man. According to the author’s thesis, which several friends corroborate but his family denies, the performer died not of a heart condition, as was said at the time, but of an intentional overdose: suicide.

The documentary film focuses on the eighties and nineties, the artist’s creative peak. The book, meanwhile, primarily describes his last years of life, when he made headlines more for his arrests than for his music. Both are pieces of a puzzle that the artist created before the public over three decades.

It is difficult to understand the career of George Michael, who would turn 59 this June 25, without delving into his biography. Born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou in 1963, he rose to worldwide fame alongside his school friend Andrew Ridgeley. Together they formed Wham!, a group adored by teenage girls and despised by critics. Michael enjoyed a global fame that he never wanted. He felt undervalued as an artist, relegated to the status of a teen star. He also didn’t take well to playing the role of a heterosexual idol in order to sell records to the female public. He was ready to embrace his sexuality, but society wasn’t. At the time, both Elton John and Freddy Mercury were married to women. In Spain, Miguel Bosé walked hand in hand with Ana Obregón. A mainstream artist couldn’t afford to be gay.

George Michael in Rotterdam.
George Michael in Rotterdam. Rob Verhorst

Still, George Michael represented his sexuality with a certain impudent joy in public. In his later years, looking back, Michael said his sexuality had been an enigma, even to him, but his music was always honest. “I do want people to know the songs I wrote when I was with women were really about women and the songs that I’ve written since have been fairly obviously about men,” he said. “So when it comes to my work I’ve never been reticent about defining my sexuality.” George Michael was sex. His music was too.

On his first solo album, he broke away from his good-boy image to present himself as a sexually liberated man–in a trajectory later imitated by many pop artists, including Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. His first solo song, “I Want Your Sex,” was dedicated to a man, but his then-girlfriend, makeup artist Kathy Jeung, appeared in the music video. “[Kathy] was in love with me but she knew that I was in love with a guy at that point in time. I was still saying I was bisexual,” he explained in a 2004 interview with the British magazine Attitude. The song caused controversy for defending promiscuity in the harshest years of AIDS, and its explicitly sexual lyrics were censored on several radio networks.

In the music video for his second single, “Faith,” Michael played the role of the American macho, wearing a leather jacket, jeans and cowboy boots, combined with close-ups of his butt swaying to the beat. The singer was asserting himself as a mature composer. At the same time, he was sexualizing himself. The song made him a worldwide success. He began to rub shoulders with pop royalty, including Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince. At that time, pop stars were at the heart of popular culture. But only George Michael used his role to confront record companies and eventually renounce media overexposure.

If singers were kings, MTV was their palace. In the 1990s, a good music video could boost a song’s sales and its artist’s fame. That’s when George Michael decided to disappear. He barely promoted his long-awaited second album, much less commercial than the first. Its first music video, “Freedom,” featured the five most important top models of the moment. The video was directed by first-timer David Fincher, who before revolutionizing Hollywood already revolutionized MTV. It has gone down in history as one of the best video clips of all time.

Freedom: Uncut, the new documentary, focuses on that creative stage of the singer. Some of the participants in that video, such as Cindy Crawford, Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell, give interviews about Michael, and the film includes discarded footage that Fincher did not use. While the documentary focuses on his art, it also touches aspects of his personal life, including the deaths of his mother and Anselmo Feleppa, his great love, who died of complications from AIDS in 1993.

The two deaths had a devastating effect on Michael, and they triggered the spiral that Gavin focuses on in his book. The author calls the singer a “pathetic, lonely and broken figure.”

George Michael did not publicly come out of the closet. He was wrenched out in the most shameful way possible. In September 1998, a plainclothes officer made a pass at him in a public restroom in Los Angeles, California. When the artist played along, he was arrested. Searching him, police found marijuana and crack. The former leader of Wham! was fined only $810, but the media’s penalty was devastating. Tabloids on both sides of the Atlantic lashed out at him. It was no longer the eighties, but a scandal like that could still end anyone’s career. He explained himself the best way he could: with a song. The video clip for “Outside,” the single from his greatest hits album, was based on the famous incident. It portrays several men dressed as police kissing in the bathroom of a club, while a press helicopter records different couples having sex. Michael took control of the narrative, as sexual and as honest as ever.

George Michael, during a show in Paris, 2012.
George Michael, during a show in Paris, 2012.Francois Mori

But no song could silence the news that followed. A few months later, the musician was arrested again after a car accident. The police found him “drenched in sweat” with “eyes open and pupils dilated.” It was his seventh arrest in 12 years. In the biography, Gavin expands on this stage, at the time portrayed by the press at the time in a disjointed and sensationalistic way. The author places it in the context of the impulses of a depressed, frustrated man taking refuge in drugs and sex. “For Michael, GHB seemed heaven-sent,” the journalist writes about the drug, a central nervous system depressant closely associated with sex parties. “Apart from fueling his sexual compulsiveness, it made a depressed, self-hating man feel attractive. It brought joy where there was little. GHB gave him confidence … but it also took him to a new and terrifying level of self-destruction.”

Gavin describes one of the music industry’s brightest stars as a lonely, friendless man, secluded in his mansion. He spent his days watching episodes of his favorite soap opera, Coronation Street, while binging on Haagen Dazs ice cream and junk food and using GHB. The author writes that the singer held parties with prostitutes and large amounts of drugs in his mansion in north London.

The journalist’s description is consistent with statements made this week by Kenny Goss, who had a relationship with the singer between 1996 and 2009. In an interview on the English program Piers Morgan Uncensored, the art dealer recounted that everyone around him knew that Michael would die soon. “I spent a lot of time worrying about him,” he recalled. “What’s the line he says in one of his songs? He says, ‘I can see it in your eyes when you look at me that way, it tears me in two’. And it really did.”

George Michael died on Christmas day of 2016. The official report says that the death was due to heart failure. His fans remembered him with “Last Christmas,” a song that many read as a Christmas carol, but which actually tells a tragic story about heartbreak and distrust. “All my songs are autobiographical,” the singer used to say.

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