Moody Park: An Untold Story

As an active participant in the original punk rock underground of 1977 Los Angeles, I created my fair share of subversive graphics designed to provoke the wider society. One arena of intervention I was involved with was the anonymous production of leaflets for mass distribution; some flyers promoted concerts, others were a “poke in the eye” aimed at an increasingly conformist society. In part, this essay is about one such handbill I designed in 1978, a crossover between benefit concert announcement and insurrectionist vituperation. But this article is also about larger issues.

Joe Campos Torres in uniform. Photographer and date unknown.

Joe Campos Torres in uniform, photographer and date unknown.

Before I provide details on the flyer, it is necessary to look back at the incident in Texas that served as the impetus for the concert. Thirty-six-years ago the police in Houston, Texas murdered a 23-year-old Mexican American Vietnam Veteran named Joe Campos Torres. The murder shook the nation, reverberated through the decades, and continues to have relevancy in the present, though today most have never heard of the killing. In this article I will weave a story with threads of history while divulging my own unique connection to those days of old.

On May 5, 1977, six Houston policemen arrested Joe Campos Torres at a bar for disorderly conduct; he was wearing his Army issued fatigues and combat boots when arrested. Instead of taking him to jail, the cops dragged him off to “the hole,” an isolated area behind a warehouse along the Buffalo Bayou in Harris County, Texas. The cops beat the Chicano Vet to within an inch of his life, then they took him to the city jail. Torres was so badly injured that officers at the jail refused to process him, and ordered that he be taken to a nearby hospital; instead his tormentors took him back to the hole for another trouncing.

The Hole - Where six Houston police officers beat and drowned Joe Campos Torres. Photographer unknown.

The Hole - Where six Houston police officers beat and drowned Joe Campos Torres. Photographer unknown.

During the beating one of the six policemen, Officer Denson, said “Let’s see if the wetback can swim,” as he shoved Torres off the raised platform of the warehouse to fall twenty feet into the bayou. His lifeless body was found floating in the bayou on Mother’s Day, May 8, 1977.

Initially only two cops were put on trial for the killing of Torres. Officers Denson and Orlando were tried on murder charges and an all-white jury found them guilty of “negligent homicide” (a misdemeanor). Their sentence was one year probation and a $1 dollar fine! It should come as no surprise that across America in 1977 the word on the street became “A Chicano’s life is only worth a dollar.” There was so much public outrage over that phony trial that Federal charges of civil rights violations and assault were brought against all six officers. That “trial” resulted in all six receiving a ten year suspended sentence for the civil rights charge, and Denson and Orlando getting a nine month prison sentence for the assault charge.

The punishment for murdering a Chicano Vietnam Veteran went from a one dollar fine, to receiving a nine month prison sentence. Discontent simmered in Houston’s Chicano community for a year, until it erupted on the 1st anniversary of Torres’ outrageous murder.

 Moody Park Riot - Photographer unknown 1978

Moody Park Riot - Photographer unknown 1978

During the 1978 Cinco de Mayo (5th of May) celebration in Houston’s Moody Park, the police attempted to make an arrest. The crowd resisted the police move and began chanting “Viva Joe Torres” and “Justice for Joe Torres!” The melee turned into a full blown riot with waves of Chicanos hurling rocks, bricks, and bottles at the police, 14 cop cars were overturned and torched. The furious crowd surged out of the park and set fire to local businesses, as unidentified shooters took potshots at the police. In a 2008 interview with Houston Public Media, retired Houston police officer Harold Barthe said that “hundreds of people were chanting, ‘Joe Torres dead, cops go free, that’s what the rich call democracy!’”

Arrest at Moody Park Riot - Photographer unknown 1978

Arrest at Moody Park Riot - Photographer unknown 1978

Needless to say, the authorities responded with overwhelming force, sending in armed SWAT squads to quell the uprising while police helicopters filled the skies. In the end, dozens were arrested and 15 were injured; property damage ranged in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. It all became a story on Walter Cronkite’s CBS Evening News broadcast.

Here I must note that the African American bluesologist Gil Scott-Heron, memorialized Torres on his 1978 spoken word album The Mind of Gil Scott-Heron. The emotive track titled José Campos Torres combined a tender and ethereal jazz background with a calmly delivered yet fiercely angry contemplation on racism and police brutality in America. A beautiful act of solidarity with Mexican Americans, the song meant a great deal to us all in 1978; I must have listened to it a thousand times. For me, it set the tone for what an artist could do, not just regarding the murder of Torres, but in confronting social injustice of any kind. I wanted to contribute something as well, and my turn was just around the corner.

Of course the authorities needed someone, other than themselves, to blame for the Moody Park violence. They arrested three communist activists who had been active in the justice for Joe Torres campaign and charged them with “felony riot.” That trio became known as the Moody Park 3, and each faced a sentence of 20 years in prison.

Groups like the Committee to Defend the Houston Rebellion started to hold events to raise legal defense funds for the trial of the Moody Park 3, one such event was a punk concert at the old Baces Hall in Hollywood. Frankly, I do not remember who asked me to create the concert announcement flyer, but knowing that three of my favorite Southern California punk bands had signed on to play the gig was enough to get me on board, that and my vexation over the murder of Torres.

I was not impressed with the ultra-left Committee to Defend the Houston Rebellion, in fact my only point of agreement with them was that the Moody Park 3 had been framed. The committee was new to punk and gravitated to it because of its reputation for rebellion, but it was clear that they did not know what they were getting into. It must be said that at the time punk was wholly repellent to the wider society, venues in L.A. had closed their doors to it, and it seemed the L.A.P.D. had made a hobby out of suppressing it. So I suppose the committee should get credit for being so bold, or is that reckless, for organizing a punk rock concert when few others would dare.

Punk concert flyer - Mark Vallen 1978 ©. Benefit concert held at Baces Hall in Hollywood, California with the Plugz, Middle Class, and Zeros.

Punk concert flyer - Mark Vallen 1978 ©. Benefit concert held at Baces Hall in Hollywood, California with the Plugz, Middle Class, and Zeros.

It goes without saying that I created the flyer in the days before computer technology. In true punk fashion the crude leaflet was made from newspaper and magazine clippings, combined with the use of rub-down letters and tone films from the Letraset company, supplies widely used in publishing at the time. Letraset also manufactured registration marks, which were used to help align colors and images; I used the symbols in my flyer to approximate the crosshairs of a rifle scope. Thousands of copies of the disposable mess were Xeroxed in glorious black and white.

Like most punk flyers from those fire-eating days, it was posted on lampposts and city walls. On the street it countered the babble of the city’s obnoxious merchandising billboards and neon signage. The flyer’s cryptic message was baffling, like some strange cabalistic language. Who on earth were the Moody Park 3 and what was the significance of the bizarre word combination - Plugz, Middle Class, Zeros? In 1978 the throwaway circular was an unsettling image to see on the streets. One must recall that the U.S. Billboard top 100 songs of 1978 included the likes of How Deep Is Your Love by the Bee Gees, You’re the One That I Want by Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta, and Boogie Oogie Oogie by A Taste of Honey.

The leaflet brought hundreds of punk rockers, mischief-makers, and juvenile delinquents to the tenebrous punk shindig. I want to make it clear that history has unfairly characterized the early L.A. punk scene as a movement of apolitical spoiled white kids from affluent communities with nothing better to do than cause trouble; the social phenomenon has been “whitewashed” and depoliticized. Sizable numbers of working class youth and minorities were involved in California’s agitated punk scene, including scads of Chicanos. The “Moody Park” punk concert at Baces Hall was evidence enough of this; there were not only Chicanos in the bands and in the audience, but the entire concert was a protest against the murder of a Chicano Vet in one of the largest Mexican American communities in Texas!

The Plugz were one of L.A.’s original punk bands, and two of their three members were Chicano. Their updated sonic rendition of La Bamba offered altered lyrics like the following, “Capitalistas, mas bien fascistas, yo no soy fascista, soy anarchista” (Capitalists, better yet fascists, I am not a fascist, I am an anarchist). La Bamba was actually a famous Son Jarocho folk song from Mexico’s state of Veracruz made famous in the U.S. in 1958 by Chicano rocker Ritchie Valens.

The Zeros were four kids hailing from Chula Vista, the second largest city in San Diego, California. Though Chicanos, some nicknamed them the “Mexican” Ramones. Their first single released in 1977 featured two songs, Wimp and Don’t Push Me Around. The later, with its snotty attitude, three chord minimalism, and defiant title, is a classic punk work. Hindsight allows us to see The Zeros as an extremely influential advance guard for a new music.

  Middle Class at Baces Hall 1978 - Photographer unknown

Middle Class at Baces Hall 1978 - Photographer unknown

The concert also included Middle Class, a group of four young white lads from Orange County, California. Their debut EP, Out of Vogue, was released in 1978, just in time to bludgeon the punks at Baces Hall.

The lyrics to the song Out of Vogue encapsulated punk’s contempt for the wider society, “We don’t need your magazines, we don’t need your fashion shows, we don’t need your TV, we don’t want to know… Get us out of Vogue!”

At the concert the Committee to Defend the Houston Rebellion attempted to present a political slide show, but anarchistic punks kept standing in front of the slide projector to block the images. When the organizers tried to present Maoist style guerrilla theater on stage between the acts, they were met by the jeers and catcalls of the nihilistic spiky rabble. All three bands played typically searing sets, with the hoi polloi diving off the stage, bouncing off the walls, and in general kicking up their heels in wild punk abandon.

So there you have it. Baces Hall was torn down long ago and standing in its place today is another one of L.A.’s hideous commercial retail plazas, replete with a hipster juice bar. Punk is as dead as a doornail and there is little opposition to the mindless, dumbed-down, commercial pap that passes for culture in L.A. and beyond. Worst of all, police departments all across the U.S. have been militarized with billions of dollars worth of military equipment from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan; police now have heavily armored, bomb resistant, MRAP fighting vehicles.

As the Clash once sang in their 1982 song, Know Your Rights, “You have the right to free speech, as long as you’re not dumb enough to actually try it.”

– // –

For more information on Joe Campos Torres and the Houston Uprising, watch the oral history series: The Case of José Campos Torres, produced by Ernesto Leon and available on YouTube: Part one, two, three, four, five, and six.

“It feels as if art is failing us”

50 years ago on February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan, New York. This short essay is a reflection on Black History Month and how the explosive social events of the 1960s helped to shape my life and viewpoint as an artist. By extension, it is also a rumination on how artists must react to the issues of race and class facing America today.

"No Justice, No Peace" - Mark Vallen 1992 © Pencil on paper. 11 x 16 inches.

"No Justice, No Peace" - Mark Vallen 1992 © Pencil on paper. 11 x 16 inches.

In the wake of four Los Angeles Police Department officers being acquitted for mercilessly beating, clubbing and kicking Rodney King after a high-speed car chase, I created the drawing No Justice, No Peace in the immediate aftermath of the riots that engulfed Los Angeles on April 29, 1992. One of the three young protesters I depicted in my drawing holds a flyer emblazoned with a photo of Malcolm X. I published my drawing as an edition of 5,000 offset litho flyers that were distributed all across the city; the leaflets bore the stencil letter headline of… No Justice, No Peace. It would not be the first time that I created an artwork that examined race in America; I had been making such images since I was a rebellious high school student in 1968.

I was only six-years old in 1960 when I saw newspaper photos of white racist thugs beating up African-Americans who dared to sit at segregated lunch counters in the South. A year later at seven-years old I saw news photos of racist white mobs beating Freedom Riders and burning their buses in Alabama. As a nine-year old in 1963, I watched television broadcasts of African-Americans marching for their human rights on the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, and was horrified to see them savagely assaulted by policemen, set upon by snarling police dogs, and attacked by cops using high-pressure water hoses for “crowd dispersal.”

There was so much more: the ‘63 dynamite bombing of the African-American 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that took the lives of four little girls; the ‘64 police kidnapping and KKK murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi; the assassination of Malcolm X on Feb. 21, 1965; the Orangeburg massacre of Feb. ‘68, where hundreds of black students protesting racial segregation in Orangeburg, South Carolina were fired upon by police with carbines and shotguns, killing three young men and wounding 28 (predating the 1970 Kent State killings). Then, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. I remember all of those events and so much more, just as if it all happened yesterday.

It is remarkable to think that in the suburban neighborhood in Los Angeles where I grew up as a teenager, I walked every Friday to a local newsstand, a hub in the community, and purchased the weekly edition of The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service, the party’s self-published newspaper. It is also striking to consider that I submitted a political cartoon to the Panther publication, sometime around 1969 or 1970 (the date escapes me). I received a letter from the Panthers that they had published my cartoon! That cartoon would be my very first published artwork; but that is a story for another time.

But concurrent with my political baptism came an aesthetic, cultural awakening. My interest in the Black liberation movement also led me to discover a plethora of African-American artists; giants like Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, John Biggers, Charles White, Betye Saar and many others. I have learned from and been inspired by many art movements: the Mexican Muralists, the German Expressionists, the American Social Realists of the late 1930s, but I would not be the artist I am today had it not been for the Black Arts Movement.

As a teenager in the 1960s, I cut my teeth on the social struggles just described, and with my understanding of art and cultural work as a necessary component to social change, I began to make art that confronted war, racism, imperialism, police brutality - the exact same problems that continue to plague us today. As a young artist in the 60’s, these themes filled my sketchbooks.

"Free Huey" - Mark Vallen 1968 © Color linoleum print. 6 x 8 inches.

"Free Huey" - Mark Vallen 1968 © Color linoleum print. 6 x 8 inches.

As a fourteen-year old in 1968, I created my first clumsy attempt at a linoleum cut.

The print was inspired by the “Free Huey” campaign the Black Panther Party was then waging on behalf of its jailed Minister of Defense, Huey P. Newton. The drive to free the Panther leader became a cause célèbre in the U.S., especially for young Blacks fed up with racial oppression.

I remember making black and white copies of my linoleum print on a Xerox Machine, a new technology at the time, and posting the facsimiles in my neighborhood. It would be my first foray into hit and run public art.

In 1970 I created a small drawing of Angela Davis after she had been arrested on trumped-up charges of murder. While Davis was never a Panther, she was an ardent supporter. It should be remembered that on Dec. 4, 1969, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark of the Black Panther Party chapter in Chicago, Illinois were murdered by the police in a raid on Hampton’s apartment… bringing the number of Panthers killed by the police up to that point to 28.

"Angela Davis" - Mark Vallen 1969 © Pen and ink, watercolor on paper. 5 x 7 inches.  Never before published.

"Angela Davis" - Mark Vallen 1970 © Pen and ink, watercolor on paper. 5 x 7 inches. Created when the artist was 16-years old. Never before published.

There were plenty of other non-Panther African-American activists that fell victim to state repression at the time, so the fear that Davis might join them was a realistic one. While I never published my ink and watercolor portrait of Davis, I was very much involved in the international “Free Angela” movement that demanded her freedom.

I am sharing these memories to make a point, that a humanist art that resists and scorns injustice must come from real world experience. Such art grows out of an understanding of history and a great love for common people; more importantly, it springs from communities of people yearning and struggling for a better life. Because of my deep involvement with the civil and human rights movement of African-Americans, I cannot view art in any other way.

The debate regarding the social role of art in America remains as burning a question as it ever was. The protests and riots in Ferguson, Missouri over the police killing of Michael Brown; the heinous strangulation death of Eric Garner at the hands of the New York Police Department and the crushing pathos of the attendant “I Can’t Breathe!” rallying cry; the mass demonstrations of the Black Lives Matter movement, all give the lie to the nonsense about a “post-racial” society having been ushered in by President Obama.

But where is the art that gives voice to these concerns? Why the full-blown torpor and inattention from the artistic community? It has much to do with the postmodern art quackery that prefers kitsch, detachment, irony, and simulacrum to hard facts and universal truths. Figurative realism and meaningful narrative, let alone heartfelt humanistic concerns, have been considered passé by art world gatekeepers for decades. Combine that toxic mix with art star celebrity worship and the near total commodification of art, and the reasons for art world apathy and unmindfulness becomes crystal clear. It should be recalled that figurative social realism was a vibrant, if not dominant school of art in the U.S. for much of the 20th century, until it was buried by abstract art in the post-WWII period. Still, there are glimmers of hope.

On Nov. 27, 2014, the chief film critic for the New York Times, A.O. Scott, wrote an essay that broached the question, Is Our Art Equal to the Challenges of Our Times? He stated emphatically that “we are in the midst of hard times now, and it feels as if art is failing us.” Scott pointed out that in decades past, “all the news you need about class divisions” could be found in painting, theater, movies, and literature. Here he explicitly wrote that he was “waiting for The Grapes of Wrath. Or maybe A Raisin in the Sun, or Death of a Salesman, a Zola novel or a Woody Guthrie ballad - something that would sum up the injustices and worries of the times.” Mr. Scott will be waiting for a long time… all we get is 50 Shades of Grey, Justin Bieber, and some ludicrous balloon dogs from the vacuous Jeff Koons. While Scott offered no answers to the crisis in art, he did ask some of the right questions. His disquiet regarding how things stand in the arts are a starting point for serious discussions on the future of art.

One thing is certain, now is the time for artists the caliber of Langston Hughes and Elizabeth Catlett to appear on the scene. It is also undeniable that the “culture industry” of 21st century America, so invested in spectacle and distraction, will not present critical artists to the public at large. But what can also be stated with certitude is that such artists will come from the people.

I AM NOT THE ENEMY

I Am Not The Enemy - Poster by Mark Vallen ©

Poster by Mark Vallen ©

I Am Not The Enemy
Free downloadable, 11 x 17 poster.

Download and publish the poster on any printer that takes 11 x 17 inch paper. Poster available here.

Print and display this poster for solidarity, unity, and compassion, and to express your opposition to xenophobia, and racism.

– // –

I first published this poster in the weeks following the heinous terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when thousands of hate crimes directed at Muslim Americans, or those thought to be Arabs, were occurring across the United States. Some of those attacks resulted in murder.

It was the case of Balbir Singh Sodhi that drove me to create my pencil on paper drawing, which I then published as a poster against hate crimes. Mr. Sodhi, a turban-wearing Sikh and proprietor of a gas station in Mesa, Arizona, was gunned down by a “patriot” that hours before, had bragged in a bar about wanting to “kill the ragheads responsible for September 11.” That murderer now sits on death row, but the racist xenophobia that motivated him is alive and growing in the United States, where anti-Muslim hatred and incitement has reached a boiling point.

On the afternoon of February 10, 2015, three young Muslims, twenty-three-year-old Deah Shaddy Barakat, his twenty-one-year-old wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and her 19-year-old sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, were found murdered in their home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. A 46-year old white man was arrested as the suspected killer.

Deah Shaddy Barakat and Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha had been married for just a month. Deah was a dental student that organized free dental care for the homeless of Durham, North Carolina. He was also raising money to provide free dental care to refugee children in Turkey fleeing the devastating war in Syria. His wife Yusor was a talented artist and videographer. Her sister Razan did fundraising for a charity group that helped deaf Muslims.

It took days for the U.S. press to notice the killings while the twitterverse exploded with horror and outrage, lambasting the media for its almost non-existent coverage of the murders. Downplaying the possibility of a hate crime, the press has been reporting that the shooter might have killed the three over an argument concerning a parking space. But the unarmed students were found in their apartment, each with a bullet hole neatly placed in their heads. That was not an argument over parking… that was an assassination. I am deeply concerned that the media hems and haws over whether or not the killer was angry over a parking space or was actually motivated by a hatred of Muslims. I cannot image the horror and alarm Muslim Americans must feel at this moment.

The murder of the three young Muslims has become an international incident. United Nations spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said: “At a time of troubling tensions stoked by those who seek to twist the teachings of faith and sow division, these three young people represented the best values of global citizenship and active community compassion to build a better world for all.”

On Feb. 11, 2015, at a daily briefing with the White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, a reporter asked a question regarding the killing of the students, “Does the White House have any reaction?,” to which Earnest responded, “There’s no specific reaction from the White House.

On Feb. 12, 2015, U.S. ally President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, sharply criticized President Obama for his “telling” silence over the murders. Erdogan remarked: “If you stay silent when faced with an incident like this, and don’t make a statement, the world will stay silent towards you. As politicians, we are responsible for everything that happens in our countries and we have to show our positions.” Erdogan chided, “I ask Mr. Obama, where are you, Mr. President?”

After mounting criticism, Obama finally made a short statement on Feb. 13, 2015. The president said the killings were “brutal and outrageous,” and that “No one in the United States of America should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, or how they worship.” That those words sound refreshing in “the land of the free” should tell you just how deep the crisis of American democracy has become.

While Obama’s words were certainly true, they also smacked of hypocrisy. The president targets people outside of the U.S. for “what they look like, or how they worship.” In five years of his drone attacks on Pakistan, 2,400 people have been blown-up by drone fired hellfire missles. While the majority of fatalities were suffered by terrorists, an estimated 951 innocent civilians were also killed, including up to 200 children. You might say that the victims of the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate were simply “collatoral damage,” but I suggest you take that up with their parents.

I do not know what more I can say. I will let my 2001 poster do the talking for me.

LACMA, BP & the Oil Workers Strike

Workers picket BP refinery in Indiana, Feb. 10, 2015. Photo Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Workers picket BP refinery in Indiana, Feb. 10, 2015. Photo Scott Olson/Getty Images.

On February 1, 2015, 4,000 workers belonging to the United Steelworkers Union (USW), walked off their jobs at nine oil refinery and chemical plants across the U.S. By Feb. 10 another 1,400 workers went on strike at two refineries in Indiana and Ohio. The strike now effects 11 oil refinery and chemical plants used by BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, Marathon Petroleum, and Lyondell Basell, including those in California, Kentucky, Texas, and Washington. The USW represents 30,000 workers that run more than 200 refineries, terminals, and pipelines. The number of workers on strike and on the picket line is over 5,000… so far.

Workers on the picket line at BP refinery in Indiana. Photo courtesy of The Times of Northwest Indiana.

Which side are you on? Workers on the picket line at the BP refinery in Indiana. Photo/The Times of Northwest Indiana.

The workers are striking because of unsafe and dangerous working conditions. Their grievances include a stop to “daily occurrences of fires, leaks, emissions, and explosions, brutal and dangerous scheduling practices,” as well as layoffs, speed-ups, and the hiring of inexperienced non-union labor.

The strike kicked-off when talks collapsed with Shell Oil, which is leading the industry-wide negotiations. BP and the other oil companies are now hiring scab labor to keep their operations going.

The work stoppage is the largest nationwide strike in the U.S. since 1980. Addressing the public and fellow workers both unionized and non-unionized, the strikers made it clear that “138 workers were killed on the job while extracting, producing, or supporting oil and gas in 2012,” a number “more than double” the fatalities suffered in 2009. The workers charge BP and the other oil giants with cutting back on safety protocols and intensifying layoffs and speed-ups to keep profits high. Here it should be remembered that 11 workers were killed when BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank into the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010.

But what does any of this have to do with the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art (LACMA)?

I have been writing in opposition to oil giant BP funding LACMA since the oily relationship was publicly announced in June of 2007. I wrote the following in a June 2010 blog post. It is a fair summation of my stance regarding LACMA director and CEO Michael Govan enthusiastically accepting money from BP; which he said was committed “to sustainable energy.”

“In 2007 Mr. Govan accepted $25 million from the oil company and in return the museum built the so-called ‘BP Grand Entrance’ on the LACMA campus. Every time an artist or arts group presents works beneath the BP Grand Entrance, it lends authority, respectability, and quiet approval to the machinations of one of the world’s biggest polluters; even if that presentation is of a ‘challenging’ nature – it nonetheless enables BP to present itself as a generous and ’socially responsible’ supporter of the arts. As one must pass through the BP Grand Entrance in order to enter the LACMA museum complex, BP has succeeded in placing its imprimatur upon every LACMA exhibit, not to mention its entire collection.”

I always viewed LACMA’s relationship with BP as an ethical dilemma for the arts community, from BP shaping an arts institution to LACMA being a partner in the oil giant’s “greenwashing” propaganda. However, the nationwide workers’ strike against BP adds a new wrinkle to the entanglement - revealing once more the difficult interface between art and capitalism.

Workers picket BP refinery in Indiana, Feb. 2, 2015. Photo courtesy of the USW.

Workers picket BP refinery in Indiana, Feb. 2, 2015. Photo courtesy of the USW.

If thousands of workers are on strike against BP because of deplorable working conditions that are literally taking workers’ lives, and BP is a major contributor to LACMA… what then does that make the museum? Is it really an impartial institution? Does it actually need to be said which side LACMA is on - with the workers, their families and friends - or with BP? Can Michael Govan and LACMA really tell the public that the museum has nothing to do with politics or the strike, when LACMA takes BP’s money and museum visitors have to walk through the “BP Grand Entrance” to enter the museum?

And what happens if the workers’ national strike against BP and the other giant oil companies grows larger, drawing in the 30,000 workers of the United Steelworkers Union and affecting the 200 U.S. sites they work at? The union represents the workers that run nearly two-thirds of the oil refining plants in the U.S.

The largest nationwide strike in the U.S. since 1980. Photo courtesy of the USW.

The largest nationwide strike in the U.S. since 1980. Photo/USW.

In the glorious labor history of the United States, a movement that gave us the eight-hour day, higher wages, better working conditions, paid vacations, and other benefits… when workers called a strike, other workers and the general population supported it.

That is how the working class in America advanced, not through the largess and goodwill of a super-rich minority, but by workers making demands on them and uniting in the cause to create a better life for the majority.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art makes use of union labor, as well as non-union labor, together with what is euphemistically referred to as “volunteer” labor. Some 350 people are employed at LACMA, but there are also security, janitorial, maintenance technicians, and other contracted laborers that work at LACMA. In June of 2012, LACMA workers were fired as the museum looked for ways to “best deploy resources,” all the while spending $10 dollars on the “Levitated Mass” project and paying director Govan an annual salary of $915,000 - twice the amount of a sitting U.S. president! What if workers at LACMA decided to walk off their jobs in solidarity with the striking workers who wage a life and death struggle with BP?

It has all happened before, you know.

El Retrato de Linda Christian

"El Retrato de Linda Christian" (Portrait of Linda Christian) - Diego Rivera, oil on canvas, 1947. 44 x 35 5/8 in.

"El Retrato de Linda Christian" (Portrait of Linda Christian) - Diego Rivera, oil on canvas, 1947. 44 x 35 5/8 in.

El Retrato de Linda Christian (Portrait of Linda Christian) has until recently been an oil painting by Diego Rivera that was virtually unknown to the general public, especially outside of Mexico.

On Nov. 20, 2012, the painting was exhibited for the first time at Christie’s auction house in New York City. But who was Linda Christian, and how did Rivera come to paint her portrait? Let me begin with a few biographical details on Christian.

In 1923 Blanca Rosa Welter was born in Tampico, a port city in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico. As fate would have it, just after she graduated from high school she met the Australian-American actor Errol Flynn, who was filming in Acapulco. Flynn became the young woman’s lover and persuaded her to come to Hollywood to pursue an acting career. Not long after her arrival in Tinsel Town, Louis B. Mayer’s MGM studio gave her a seven-year contract.

Mr. Flynn suggested a stage name for her; in 1933 he had played the character of Fletcher Christian in an Australian cinematic version of Mutiny on the Bounty, so Señorita Blanca Rosa Welter became Linda Christian. Thus began Blanca’s wild Gringolandia adventures.

Linda Christian made her U.S. film debut in the 1944 musical comedy Up in Arms, starring Danny Kaye and Dinah Shore. She played minor, decorative roles in other films, like the 1947 Green Dolphin Street starring Lana Turner, where she played a maid to Turner’s character. In 1947 Christian took a starring role in the film Tarzan and the Mermaids, the last of 12 Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weissmuller. The film was shot in Acapulco, and it was during this time that Rivera met the young star and painted her portrait.

"Portrait of Linda Christian" (Detail) Diego Rivera, 1947.

"Portrait of Linda Christian" (Detail) Diego Rivera, 1947.

Lana Turner was romantically involved with the popular American actor Tyrone Power, who as fate would have it, met and had his heart stolen by Linda Christian instead while visiting Rome in 1948.  Power, the 35-year old “handsome leading man,” married the lovely 26-year old starlet Linda Christian in a church in Rome, Italy on Jan. 27, 1949; the ceremony was attended by some 10,000 adoring fans. The press called it the “marriage of the century.”

"Portrait of Linda Christian" (Detail) Diego Rivera, 1947.

"Portrait of Linda Christian" (Detail) Diego Rivera, 1947.

Christian’s last claim to acting fame was her role as the very first “Bond Girl,” appearing as “Valerie Mathis” in a 1954 TV adaptation of Ian Fleming’s James Bond story Casino Royale. Eight years later Swiss actress Ursula Andress was inaccurately proclaimed to be the first Bond Girl for her role as “Honey Ryder” in Dr. No (starring Sean Connery). In 1959 the Celebrity Register summed up Christian’s acting career with the following: “With a sixth sense for publicity, she parlayed a small talent for acting into an international reputation as a femme fatale.”

"Portrait of Linda Christian" (Detail) Diego Rivera, 1947.

"Portrait of Linda Christian" (Detail) Diego Rivera, 1947.

In ‘47 Rivera painted the young actress as a nude figure, but Christian’s mother objected, insisting that the artist cover up her daughter’s bare breasts. A compromise was reached when Rivera painted a delicate but highly transparent lace blouse on the young woman’s torso. Honestly, I cannot imagine the alteration satisfying the mother one bit; it only heightened the eroticism of the portrait.

Talking heads and so-called art world “experts” have commented that Rivera’s use of the “kissing” hummingbirds was a sexual metaphor.  The depiction of the birds supposedly “exploring the internal cavities of flowers,” is said to be a subtle sexual reference.

"Portrait of Linda Christian" (Detail) Diego Rivera, 1947.

"Portrait of Linda Christian" (Detail) Diego Rivera, 1947.

As an avid bird watcher I would like to point out that the pair of Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds shown are both males, and that they are not probing the internal cavities of flowers, but rather are displaying the typical male fighting posture of the aggressive and supremely territorial hummingbird.

There is another aspect to Rivera’s hummingbirds that escapes non-Mexican viewers of the painting. Rivera’s love of indigenous Mexico is well known, and he inserted pre-Columbian symbols and legends into his works at every opportunity. One of two supreme deities worshipped by the Aztecs was the war god named Huitzilopochtli (in English, Hummingbird on the left). If you have ever seen male hummingbirds ferociously clashing to protect their territory, you will understand why the Aztecs adopted the diminutive bird as the emblem for their war god.

In the Aztec pantheon of gods, Huitzilopochtli was represented by the image of a hummingbird. The Aztecs made no stone, clay, or wood artifacts of the god, making 3D ritual objects of him only from corn, amaranth, and seed paste. However, hummingbird representations of the deity survived the ages in Aztec mosaics, paintings, and murals. The Aztecs believed the soul of a warrior who died honorably in battle would be reborn as a hummingbird to enjoy eternal bliss. You could say that the birds in Rivera’s painting are two such souls in paradise, or that they were fighting over the enchantress, or both.

"Portrait of Linda Christian" (Detail) Diego Rivera, 1947.

"Portrait of Linda Christian" (Detail) Diego Rivera, 1947.

Ms. Christian commissioned the painting from Rivera, and thus was the original owner of the portrait. It was never exhibited to the public and only seen outside of Christian’s home when she reproduced it as the cover art for her 1962 autobiography, Linda, my own story.

I do not know how or why, but the painting eventually became the property of Baron Enrico di Portanova, a rich playboy jet-setter that attained his vast fortune through an oil inheritance. Portanova maintained an enormous villa in Acapulco he named Arabesque, the château had 28 bedrooms, 4 swimming pools, indoor waterfalls, a nightclub, and more, including a guard tower with machine-gun toting thugs.

At Arabesque the Baron regaled his coterie of celebrity stars, moneybags, and assorted politicians with endless galas and banquets… even fêting the ignoble Henry Kissinger with Champagne and caviar.  It is distressing to imagine that El retrato de Linda Christian might have watched such dirty dealings from a prominent wall in the lavish mansion. Oh pobrecito Diego, this is why Siqueiros berated easel painting!

 "El Retrato de Linda Christian" (Portrait of Linda Christian) - Diego Rivera, 1947.

"El Retrato de Linda Christian" (Portrait of Linda Christian) - Diego Rivera, 1947.

The Baron died of cancer in March 2000 at the age of 66. Linda Christian died from cancer on July 2011 at the age of 87.

In November 2012 the di Portanova estate put Portrait of Linda Christian up for sale at Christie’s, where it was briefly exhibited at the auction house’s showing of Latin American art before it went under the gavel. The painting sold to an unidentified Mexican buyer for $578,500. If there was any justice in the world, that buyer would loan or donate the painting to the new Casa de los Vientos Diego Rivera cultural center planned for Acapulco, Mexico, where it could be adored by the viewing public forevermore.

As it stands, the painting has once again disappeared from public view, slipping back into obscurity as an expensive trophy in a private collection. Oh pobrecito Diego. ¡Oh pobres de nosotros!

L.A. Mexican Consulate: Jan. 2015

Protest in front of the Los Angeles Mexican Consulate-General, Jan. 2015 - Photograph Mark Vallen 2015 ©

Protest at the Los Angeles Mexican Consulate-General, Jan. 2015. Photograph Mark Vallen 2015 ©

In Mexico and around the world, January 6, 2015 became an international day of solidarity with the parents of the missing students from the Ayotzinapa rural teachers college in Iguala, Mexico.

Vigils and protests took place all across Mexico, as well as in 20 U.S. cities. On the evening of Tuesday Jan. 6, 2015, up to 70 protesters in Los Angeles, California gathered outside of the Mexican Consulate-General across the street from L.A.’s historic MacArthur Park. My poster, Ayotzinapa Somos Todos, played a small role in the significant demonstration. You can view an article and photo essay about the demonstration that I have uploaded on my PATREON website, where you can also become my patron and directly assist in making such poster projects possible.

Obama’s 2016 Arts Budget

Altered logo for the National Endowment for the Arts

Altered logo for the National Endowment for the Arts

President Obama has proposed a Fiscal Year 2016 budget approaching a record $3.99 trillion. It contains money for a $478 billion “public works” program for the construction of upgrades to U.S. transit systems, bridges, and highways, all financed by taxes on profits U.S. corporations have amassed overseas. It is nice that Mr. Obama is promising American workers the world, now that Republicans holding majorities in both the House and Senate of the U.S. Congress will undoubtedly block his faux “Rooseveltian” vision. Obama’s budget is a shell game designed to take advantage of the politically confused.

You see, the president could not offer a public works program earlier in his presidency when democrats had congressional majorities in the House and Senate, because he was too busy bailing out giant financial firms with hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars. But I am supposed to be writing about Obama’s proposed FY 2016 arts budget.

Let me put it this way. Our Nobel Peace Prize Laureate president has put forward a “defense” budget for FY 2016 that will total $620.9 billion. His proposed budget for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), you know, the U.S. government agency that is “dedicated to supporting excellence in the arts” from sea to shining sea… is a mere $148 million. Here I must add that Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper has grossed, in just a three week period, $31.9 million dollars; the film is expected to generate $249 million in domestic sales.[1]

When announcing his FY 2016 budget, Obama said: “Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or are we going to build an economy where everyone who works hard has a chance to get ahead?” The answer to that should be obvious; the financial aristocracy is grinning from ear to ear.

George W. Bush was certainly no friend of the NEA, but during 2009, the last year of his administration, he gave the NEA a $155 million dollar budget. What might shock the reader… or not, is that under the Obama administration the national arts budget has been consistently slashed since 2010. In that year Obama’s NEA budget was $161 million, in 2011 it was $154 million, in 2012 it dropped to $146 million, in 2013 it bottomed-out at $138 million. In 2014 it “rebounded” like a zombie from The Walking Dead by shambling back up to the shameful sum of $146 million, where it continued to limp and stumble throughout 2015. Now Mr. Obama has requested that the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) should receive a $2 million dollar increase in 2016… which is still lower than George W. Bush’s 2009 funding of the NEA!

That is no mean trick for a senator that cajoled the U.S. arts community into electing him as president. Remember the hard sell from the 2008 presidential election campaign - Barack Obama and Joe Biden: Champions For Art and Culture? Remember the excited chattering amongst artists (save for this one), that Obama was the only candidate to have a platform in support of the arts? The better question is what happened to the voices of all those artists who worked so hard at promoting Mr. Hope and Change? They have all fallen silent, or changed the subject. Laughably, some have even managed to continue packaging themselves as “subversive” artists.

Robert L. Lynch, the CEO of Americans for the Arts, the nonprofit organization that lobbies for the advancement of the arts in the U.S., said the following about the president’s arts budget:

“The Administration’s FY 2016 budget request for the NEA is moving in the right direction with a $2 million increase. Congress will especially embrace the increased focus and expansion on the NEA’s grantmaking work with arts and the military, including the Healing Arts Partnership. However, this proposed funding level still does not meet the needs of the 95,000 nonprofit arts organizations and state and local arts agencies across the country nor does it reflect the value of the arts to help power our nation’s annual economic growth reflected in U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis data showing the arts to be an annual $698.7 billion industry or 4.32 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product.”

Obama’s request to raise the 2016 NEA budget by a measly $2 million - still keeping the sum lower than it was in 2010 - should not enthrall arts professionals. It reminds me of the folk truism “they break our legs, and we say thank you when they offer us crutches,” so beautifully encapsulated by the U.K. punk band Chumbawamba in their 1987 song, Here’s The Rest of Your Life.

– // –

Reference [1] ArtsBeat/New York Times

Twittering Like A Bird

Detail of hummingbirds from Diego Rivera’s remarkable 1947 oil painting, "Portrait of Linda Christian."

Detail of hummingbirds from Diego Rivera’s remarkable 1947 oil painting, "Portrait of Linda Christian."

I have an aversion to the Orwellian truncation and mangling of English words and their meanings. Last year Lake Superior State University came up their 40th annual list of words that should be banished for their mis-use or uselessness; words like swag, foodie, curate, and enhanced interrogation. I would like to add to that list the words twitter and tweet.

As a lover of the avian world and a keen bird watcher, I know that tweeting is something birds do. Nope, you can’t fool me.

Up until just recently, to say that  someone was “twittering like a bird” meant that they were inanely chattering about trivial matters. That does not sound like me, so I am certain many will be surprised that I have finally made the giant leap into the micro-blogging Twitterverse.

twitter.com/mark_vallen

Now, instead of long-winded rants and essays, I have to learn how to express myself with twitter-speak, 140 characters sprinkled with # and @ signs. Heavens above, Pablo Neruda sheds a tear!

Although Twitter has been in existence since 2006, I must admit to not appreciating its potential until just a while ago. Specifically it was the mass protests in Mexico over the missing 43 students from Ayotzinapa Normal School, and how Mexicans were using Twitter in response, that finally woke me up and won me over.

As is almost always the case when it comes to the truly important news of the day, I was completely frustrated by the near total lack of coverage the Ayotzinapa crisis in Mexico was receiving, not just from the mainstream media as I would expect, but also from the so-called “progressive/activist” news outlets as well.

Undaunted, I turned to Twitter, and saw how the students, activists, workers, and protesters of Mexico were using the micro-blogging platform to spread their drive for true democracy, exchange images and ideas, create dissident culture, coordinate actions, and so much more. Not only that, people around the world were joining them; I wanted to jump into the fray myself, and the only way I could do that was by creating my own Twitter account.

I look forward to using the platform to post announcements of artistic happenings, as well as news and links I find interesting as I research my writing projects; spreading the Art for a Change message to a larger international audience. I promise not to “twitter like a bird” over celebrity superstars and their lifestyles.

Whether you are already a Twitter user, or have been perched on the fence about joining - I invite you to connect with me on the Twittersphere. Please visit https://twitter.com/mark_vallen and click the “Follow” button to receive regular updates!

All is Forgotten - Todo está Olvidado

Todo está Olvidado (All is Forgotten) is a subversive cartoon one can properly call satirical. It is currently “trending” on the Mexican twitter-sphere, though I have been unable to ascertain just who created it, aside from its being signed by someone named “Alex.” The Mexican artist alluded to the January 14, 2015 “survivors issue” of Charlie Hebdo published in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on that publication’s Paris headquarters and the heinous murder of its staff.

The provocative cover of the Jan. 2015 survivors issue was drawn by Hebdo staffer Renald “Luz” Luzier, and featured a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad; a single tear falls down his cheek while he holds a sign reading Je Suis Charlie (I am Charlie). The words Tout est Pardonné (All is Forgiven) float above his head.

The Mexican artist Alex mimicked the rough and ready style of the French Luz, but instead of sending a flaming arrow at the heart of Islam and all of its believers, Todo está Olvidado depicts a simple cartoonish Mexican worker, a tear of grief rolling down his cheek. He holds a sign that reads: I am Mexico. Totally standing the Hebdo cover on its head, the text floating over the sombreroed head of the worker reads, All is Forgotten - as in erased, omitted, blotted out, unrecalled… and consigned to oblivion. But what has Mexico and the rest of the world forgotten?

Cartoon - Alex. 2015. "All is Forgotten. I am Mexico. In 2014 Mexico attained sixth place with more journalists assassinated!"

Cartoon - Alex. 2015. "All is Forgotten. I am Mexico. In 2014 Mexico attained sixth place with more journalists assassinated!"

The answer is in the text at the bottom of Alex’s sketch, which translated into English reads, “In 2014 Mexico attained sixth place with more journalists assassinated!”

Contemporary Mexicanos intrinsically understand the mockery, for if there is anything more dangerous to be in Mexico than a student, it is being a journalist.

The artwork Todo está Olvidado is only slightly inaccurate when it comes to Mexico being ranked the sixth most dangerous place for journalists to operate in 2014, otherwise it is based on solid facts.

When eight Mexican journalists were assassinated in Mexico in 2010, and many others were threatened or disappeared, Pen Center USA held an evening of solidarity with Mexican journalists titled, State of Emergency: Censorship by Bullet in Mexico. Things have only gotten much worse since then.

In 2014 the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) located in Brussels, Belgium, released a report that stated 118 journalists and media staff were killed doing their jobs in Pakistan, Syria, Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq, Ukraine, Honduras, and Mexico. Pakistan rated the highest, with 14 journalists killed. Ukraine actually took 6th place for journalists murdered, while Mexico took 8th place… with 5 journalists murdered.

However, Spain’s newspaper of record, El Mundo, reported on July 17, 2014, that since the year 2000, over one hundred journalists and media workers have been assassinated in Mexico… and the list keeps growing. On Jan. 26, 2015, it was reported that the Mayor of Medellin de Bravo, a town in Mexico’s Veracruz state, is under arrest along with several corrupt policemen for the kidnapping, decapitation, and mutilation of journalist José Moisés Sánchez. Since 2010, 11 journalists have been murdered in Veracruz alone.

Mexico Is a Killing Ground for Journalists is a report from VICE News that quotes Jorge Carrasco, a reporter for the Mexican newspaper Proceso. In 2012 Mr. Carrasco received death threats while investigating the assassination of a fellow Proceso journalist. He put it this way: “Mexico is not a democratic country, because journalists wouldn’t be forced to work in conditions like this if Mexico was a democracy.”

The massacre of 12 cartoonists in Paris (there were 6 other victims as well) by reactionary “Islamic” extremists was rightly condemned, not just by the French, but by people around the world. The attack on Charlie Hebdo was seen as an assault on free expression. As an artist whose works are given to social criticism, I have always been a defender of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. On Jan. 11, 2015, more than a million people took to the streets of Paris to hold a “unity march” opposing terrorism. I was moved to see the tools of my profession, the pen and the pencil, held defiantly in raised fists during the protest; suddenly the world was seeing the artist’s pencil as I have always seen and used it… but I am left with some difficult questions, only two of which I will put forward here.

The Paris unity rally was attended by 44 foreign presidents and prime ministers. They linked arms and led the march for the 12 murdered staff members of Charlie Hebdo and the 6 other victims. I cannot help but wonder when these same world leaders will march in Mexico to honor the more than 100 journalists who have been assassinated, and to demand an end to the Narco State masquerading as a government that put them in their graves.

When will the international corporate press popularize the phrase… Je suis Ayotzinapa.