Andy Warhol is Still Dead

stupid_warhol

Tweet from Christie’s, May 9, 2022.

On May 9, 2022, Christie’s auction house in New York sold an Andy Warhol silkscreen print titled Shot Sage Blue Marilyn; it was the highest price ever paid for an American artwork at an auction.

Warhol’s 1964 reproduction of actress Marilyn Monroe has as its basis a publicity photo of Monroe from the 1954 film noir thriller, Niagara; that original still was shot by photographer Gene Korman. It’s funny how Mr. Korman is usually excluded from this history.

Shot Sage Blue Marilyn is part of a series of five Marilyn Monroe silkscreen prints published on canvas; all measuring 40 x 40 inches. Each of the five prints utilize Korman’s photo, and possess a different color scheme. There is a red, orange, turquoise, and light blue version, but the sage blue variant is the one currently getting all the attention because of its enormous price tag.

Alex Rotter, chairman of Christie’s 20th and 21st century art department, stated that Warhol’s Marilyn should be placed with Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon as “categorically one of the greatest paintings of all time.” Aside from the fact that Shot Sage Blue Marilyn is not a painting but a silkscreen print, Warhol’s weak-minded pop bobbles don’t come close to the preeminence of Botticelli or Da Vinci. Even the worst Picasso surpasses the best Warhol. Rotter shouldn’t be a chairman for one of Christie’s departments, but a doorman for one of their auctions.

Gene Korman’s publicity still of Marilyn Monroe from the 1954 film noir thriller, “Niagara.”

Gene Korman’s publicity still of Marilyn Monroe from the 1954 film noir thriller, “Niagara.”

Don’t call me an out-of-touch reactionary for not worshiping Andy Warhol. For years a reproduction of his 1982 screenprint Dollar Sign has been hanging in my studio, and the morbid punk rock side of me is intrigued by his Car Crash silkscreen series. However, I was merely amused by these prints and never attributed weightiness, masterful skill, or staggering importance to them.

Like all of Warhol’s works they were throw away pop culture images.

The sale of Shot Sage Blue Marilyn marks the ongoing commodification of art at the hands of avaricious speculators and investors. The final price of the print was not $195 million but actually $195,040,000. To the average American eaten alive by record high inflation, rising gas prices, and food shortages (thanks Biden), that’s a lot of dough. US inflation hasn’t been this high since 1981, when Ronnie Reagan won the White House from Jimmy Carter.

The Washington Post—you know, where democracy dies in darkness, let the cat out of the bag with this remark: “The record sale was set as investors seek out safe-haven investments, such as art, amid uncertainty in global financial markets fueled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.” Uh-huh, soldiers fall, stocks rise. In other words, for the oligarchs that have a death grip on the art world’s upper strata, the experience of art is no longer one of contemplation and the wonderment of beauty. No, it’s only a “safe-haven” for investments. Money laundering anyone?

Once upon a time in the early 1960’s a taxi cab company owner named Robert Scull thought himself a big wig in the art world. He bought art for peanuts from unknowns like Warhol, who at the time was a nobody with empty pockets. Scull purchased Warhol’s 200 One Dollar Bills print for around $2,500; it was Warhol’s first silkscreen print. In 1986 Scull’s estate sold it for $385,000. In 2009 Sotheby’s of New York held an auction where they sold it to a nameless plutocrat for $43.8 million.

"200 One Dollar Bills." Andy Warhol, 1962. Silkscreen, ink, pencil on canvas. Photo/Sotheby’s. "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it." From: Warhol in his own words – Untitled Statements ( 1963 – 1987).

"200 One Dollar Bills." Andy Warhol, 1962. Silkscreen, ink, pencil on canvas. Photo/Sotheby’s. "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it." From: Warhol in his own words – Untitled Statements ( 1963 – 1987).

There’s not much else to say about Shot Sage Blue Marilyn. The print has no hidden message or particular meaning, it advocates, reveals, and supports nothing—like most of Warhol’s works it is just empty fluff. As the artist once said: “I’m afraid that if you look at a thing long enough, it loses all its meaning.” The only interesting thing about the print is the tale of Dorothy Podber, who discharged a rather explosive critique of the print.

In the ‘50s and early ‘60s Ms. Podber was a kooky bohemian artist who lived in East Village, Manhattan. She told people she was a witch, a few considered her cracked because of her unhinged practical jokes. In the late ‘50s she ran in Beatnik circles that included the likes of Allen Ginsberg and LeRoi Jones, and in the early ‘60s she helped run the Nonagon Art Gallery, where Yoko Ono first unleashed her conceptual art upon New York. In retrospect that might have been one of Podber’s deranged gags.

One autumn day in 1964 Podber and her entourage showed up at Warhol’s Factory studio on East 47th. Podber wore white gloves and was costumed in a black leather motorcycle jacket with matching biker pants. She asked Warhol if she could shoot the new Marilyn Monroe canvases stacked along a wall; thinking she was a photographer he answered yes. Podber took off her white gloves, reached into her purse, pulled out a diminutive semi-auto pistol, and began shooting the Monroe images in the forehead. When finished she placed the gun in her bag, put her gloves back on, gathered her retinue, and calmly left the Factory. A terrified Andy Warhol made sure the women would never again be given access to the premises.

For some reason Warhol didn’t file charges against Podber, but he did change the title for each of the five canvasses by adding the word “shot.” Red Marilyn became Shot Red Marilyn, Orange Marilyn became Shot Orange Marilyn, and so on for the turquoise, light blue, and sage blue versions. The only canvas not damaged by gunfire was the sage blue variant, nevertheless it received the “shot” title. Warhol had the damaged silkscreened canvasses repaired. The fact that the prints had been shot only increased their value. A strange world indeed.

So there you have it, that’s the chronicle of Dorothy Podber. It’s an exquisite tale, better than the story of how Warhol’s Shot Sage Blue Marilyn was produced, but I wouldn’t give you a plugged nickel for either. CNN, always a journalistic farce, naturally reported on the $195 million sale. Their story mentioned the methods Warhol used in making various portraits of Marilyn, stating: “‘Shot Marilyns’ saw the artist shooting portraits of the star through the head with bullets.” They falsely credited Warhol, not Podber, for the vandalism. Why turn to CNN for news?

Andy Warhol’s soullessness and lack of political insight can be found in his late ‘70s work for the dictatorial monarch Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, more well known as the Shah of Iran. In 1953 the CIA staged a coup that overthrew Iran’s elected government for having nationalized Iran’s oil industry. It was the first regime change operation by the CIA. In the coup’s aftermath the Shah of Iran became the country’s iron-fisted pro-West ruler. His support primarily came from Western power brokers and Iran’s small number of Western educated elites.

Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi (Shah of Iran). Andy Warhol. Silkscreen on paper, 1977.

Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi (Shah of Iran). Andy Warhol. Silkscreen on paper, 1977.

However the Shah faced opposition from anti-monarchists, social democrats, leftists, and the working poor. But it was the fundamentalist Shi’a muslim majority that posed his biggest threat.

To maintain control the Shah established a massive secret police force that used kidnappings, imprisonment, beatings, torture, and assassinations to eliminate opponents. That was the situation in Iran when Warhol decided to visit the country in 1976.

The purpose of his sojourn was to take photos of the Shah and his wife, Empress Farah Pahlavi. The two Royals had commissioned Warhol to create their portraits in silkscreen.

Warhol delivered his finished commission to the Shah and the Empress in 1977, and was pictured posing with Empress Farah in front of her portrait in the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. The museum was founded in ‘77 by Farah, who also inaugurated its opening and was responsible for it’s expansion. In the 70’s Farah had purchased classical and contemporary art from a great number of Western artists, amassing the largest collection of Western art outside the US and Europe with an estimated worth is $3 billion. The Shi’a of Iran living under the Shah’s brutality couldn’t have cared less about her museum.

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Empress Farah Pahlavi. Andy Warhol. Silkscreen, 1977.

Many in the West were vexed that Warhol collaborated with the Shah. In 1977 the Village Voice published an article written by Alexander Cockburn, James Ridgeway, and Jan Albert titled Beautiful Butchers: The Shah Serves Up Caviar and Torture.

They mentioned the “fascist chic’s recording angel, Andy Warhol, with his Polaroid and his tape recorder,” as being one of the “beautiful people” who supported “one of the most savage regimes of the 20th century.” A violent revolution overthrew the Shah in 1979, sweeping fundamentalist Islamists into power; they banned modern art and closed the Tehran Museum. The Islamists hid Farah’s entire collection in the museum’s basement for decades.

Ironically the Jihadi militants allowed a small number of works from Farah’s collection to be exhibited in 2021, the show was titled: A Review of Andy Warhol’s Works. It displayed Warhol’s silly soup cans, and his silkscreen portraits of Jacqueline Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, and the founding leader of Communist China, Mao Zedong. The Islamists left hidden in the basement the portraits of the Shah of Iran and Empress Farah Pahlavi… something the poor fools who flocked to the exhibition were never told. I bring up Warhol’s escapades in Iran to drive home a point. He was a liberal, but his political convictions were as shallow as the happy talk pablum one could read in the self-published Interview magazine he founded in 1969. Having been to Iran he knew what the score was, but it didn’t matter to him. He was obsessed with celebrity and money, and the Shah and Empress Farah had plenty of both.

Empress Farah Pahlavi with Andy Warhol at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. Photographer unknown, 1977.

Empress Farah Pahlavi with Andy Warhol at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. Photographer unknown, 1977.

In the mid-70s Warhol was also trying to get a portrait commission out of Imelda Marcos, the clothes-horse wife of Philippine dictator and kleptocrat Ferdinand Marcos.

At the time many people in the Philippines couldn’t afford footwear, but Imelda had a growing collection of over 3,000 expensive shoes—I’m sure that impressed Warhol. Unfortunately for him the commission never came through, as the people of the Philippines drove Ferdinand and Imelda from power in the “People Power Revolution.” Wow, Andy sure could pick ‘em.

Toward the end of his meteoric career, Warhol remained preoccupied with the celebrity elite, but his limitless portraits of them became ever more superficial, monotonous, and geared towards quick market success. He had become the living embodiment of his famed quote “good business is the best art,” only he wasn’t producing his best any longer. As his works slipped into mediocrity, Andy Warhol was transformed into a dead metaphor by the corporate press, which endlessly repeated claims of his being a genius; they continue to make such declarations today.

In his brilliant 2008 documentary The Mona Lisa Curse, Robert Hughes (1938-2012) interviewed billionaire art dealer and collector Alberto Mugrabi, a man who at the time had some 800 Warhol’s in his private collection. Hughes asked Mugrabi “What’s your opinion of Warhol?” The collector answered, “I think he is probably the most visionary artist of our time.” Hughes responded with, “I thought he was one of the stupidest people I ever met in my life…. because he had nothing to say.”

Robert Hughes took a stand against the commodification and denigration of art by monied elites, and because of that stance he was the only art critic to gain my respect. In 2009 he won the International Emmy for Arts Programming for The Mona Lisa Curse, yet his documentary film has been almost entirely scrubbed from the internet. It certainly is never mentioned by the gatekeepers of the art world, whose mega-profits are threatened by the truths Hughes told. For that reason alone you should watch the movie.

After receiving the award, Hughes’ final remarks during the ceremony were these, perhaps the best way to close this report: “Forget about the prices. Forget about what Sotheby’s and Christie’s has been doing about our perception of art. Just remember what the serious art is, and why, if we love it, we do love it.”

Heartfield, Badiucao and the Beijing Olympics

Screen grab from video showing Dutch reporter at Beijing Olympics dragged away by communist security.

Screen grab from video showing Dutch reporter at Beijing Olympics dragged away by communist security.

During the Feb. 4, 2022 opening of the Beijing Olympics, many people did not see footage of the Opening Ceremony. Instead they saw film of a red armband wearing communist security guard dragging away a Dutch reporter covering the event. It was the perfect glimpse of Olympic Games held by a totalitarian regime.

For at least a year Chinese dissidents and human rights activists around the world have called for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics hosted by the dictatorial Chinese Communist Party (CCP), I supported that call and the reasons are obvious. The CCP is the brutal colonial master of Tibet, it strangled democracy in Hong Kong, it carries out genocide against the Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region of China, and it threatens a full scale invasion of democratic Taiwan. The CCP unashamedly denies free speech, a free press, and free elections to the people of China. It persecutes Christians and other faiths with impunity, and relentlessly jails untold thousands of dissidents.

The CCP unleashed Covid-19 upon the world—intentionally or not, by locking down all domestic air traffic internally by the end of Jan. 2020, while keeping air flight travel open to foreign destinations until the end of March, 2020. Thousands of unsuspecting Chinese tourists undoubtably infected with Covid, flew to Western cities; Rome, Madrid, Paris, London, New York, Los Angeles.

And let us not forget that the Chinese Communist Party massacred 1000’s of unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989; since then the CCP has only grown more despotic. The CCP runs the most advanced surveillance system in the world, outdoing anything George Orwell wrote about in his novel, 1984. The CCP uses millions of facial recognition cameras all across China to identify individuals, read their emotions, and monitor their every move. Other high-tech tools intercept smartphones, giving the CCP complete access to everything on a phone. These invasive technologies are now focused on the Olympic athletes from 90 nations who came to Beijing.

As an artist I take special notice of the shameful conditions hoisted upon my fellow artists under CCP rule. Those who criticize communism find themselves in grave danger, Ai Weiwei is a good example. Lauded by the Western art world, China’s controlled media regards Ai Weiwei as little more than a criminal. The regime tenaciously attacked him, threatened his life and wellbeing, bulldozed his studio, arrested and imprisoned him without charges, conjured trumped-up charges of tax evasion against him, and seized his passport—forbidding him overseas travel. When the CCP eventually issued him an international passport he fled his homeland to relocate in Berlin, Germany.

China’s National Stadium, the “Bird Nest Stadium.” Photo: Gilgamesh, Creative Commons.

China’s National Stadium, the “Bird Nest Stadium.” Photo: Gilgamesh, Creative Commons.

Because the persecuted Ai Weiwei has become a non-person in Communist China, it is indeed a great irony that he was the artistic consultant behind the design of Beijing’s National Stadium, the “Bird Nest Stadium,” where the Beijing Olympics are being held. On Feb. 2, 2022, Japan’s Kyodo News conducted an interview with Ai Weiwei, who expressed sorrow that the CCP is using his Bird Nest design for propaganda purposes. Ai noted that Joe Biden’s diplomatic boycott was “meaningless” and “wouldn’t have any effect at all, whether on China or on Western society.”

Joe Biden announced that his administration would conduct a “diplomatic boycott” of the Beijing Olympics, meaning, he will send US athletes to compete in the games, but he will not send an official US delegation. The initial response from the Chinese Communist Party was a belly laugh. Hu Xijin, the chief editor of the CCP mouthpiece Global Times, stated: “Why the fuss? If US officials don’t come, let it be. China didn’t invite them anyway. Only super narcissistic people will regard their absence as a powerful boycott.”

Soon after the CCP issued a more ominous statement through its Foreign Ministry: “Out of ideological bias and based on lies and rumors, the US is trying to disrupt the Beijing Winter Olympics. This will only expose its sinister intention and further erode its moral authority and credibility. The wrong move of the US has undermined the foundation and atmosphere for China-US sports exchanges and Olympic cooperation. It has shot itself in the foot. The US should understand the grave consequences of its move.”

Which brings me back to the subject of the CCP Olympics and my focus on two artists, the German John Heartfield (1891-1968) and the Chinese Badiucao—exiled from China and now living in Australia. Both reacted strongly to the distortion of the Olympics by tyrants, and left us artworks documenting the savagery of the strongmen.

John Heartfield was one of the first to successfully use photomontage as a means of artistic communication. A type of collage made by merging dissimilar photos together to form a narrative, it was a medium Germany’s anti-art Dadaist movement had been toying with. In 1916 Helmut Franz Josef Herzfeld anglicized his name to John Heartfield as a protest against the anti-British sentiment then sweeping Germany. In 1917 Heartfield joined Berlin’s Club Dada, a notorious brood known for inciting provocative aesthetic disruptions. In 1918 Heartfield would join the newly founded Communist Party of Germany.

Heartfield is best remembered for the photomontages he created for Berlin’s Workers Illustrated Newspaper, a hard-left magazine published between 1924 and 1933. By 1930 it became the most widely read socialist pictorial newspaper in the country, with over 350,000 readers. George Grosz, Käthe Kollwitz, and playwrights George Bernard Shaw and Maxim Gorki contributed to the paper. The final issue of Workers Illustrated Newspaper published in Germany came out on March 5, 1933, as Hitler was consolidating his grip on power. The Nazi SS raided Heartfield’s Berlin studio in 1933, he escaped by leaping from his balcony to make his way to Czechoslovakia on foot. The publication also moved to Czechoslovakia where its readership fell to 12,000. When the Nazis invaded and occupied that country in 1939, the publication fled to Paris, France. When the Nazis invaded Paris on June 14, 1940, the paper ceased publication.

"Program of the Berlin Olympics 1936." John Heartfield’s graphic from the Nov. 1935 special Olympic edition of the Workers Illustrated Newspaper (Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung).

"Program of the Berlin Olympics 1936." John Heartfield’s graphic from the Nov. 1935 special Olympic edition of the Workers Illustrated Newspaper (Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung).

In the postwar period Heartfield, still a loyal communist, moved to Stalinist East Berlin where he died on April 26, 1968. Whatever one may think of Heartfield’s communist politics, his stridently anti-Nazi works are historic for documenting and condemning the rise of Hitler and Germany’s slide into barbarism. Regrettably, some of his works remain all too relevant today, like his bitter parody poster Program of the Berlin Olympics 1936, published in the Nov. 1935 issue of Workers Illustrated Newspaper. The newspaper was smuggled into Germany from Czechoslovakia.

Program of the Berlin Olympics 1936 mocked the Nazi Olympiad by illustrating fictional Nazi sporting events to be held in Berlin’s newly constructed Olympic Stadium. It is hard to imagine the type of courage it took to publish, distribute, and possess the satiric graphic. Workers Illustrated Newspaper featured it as a centerfold poster. Under its bold headline the poster featured eight excruciating photomontage images. I will feature two of those graphics in this essay.

“Ax Swinging.” John Heartfield. Photomontage, 1935.

“Ax Swinging.” John Heartfield. Photomontage, 1935.

Ax Swinging depicted black robed judges hurling axes. After Hitler took power in 1933, the nazification of the justice system began. Professionals involved in jurisprudence were required to join the National Socialist League of German Jurists. One of the first antisemitic laws passed by the Nazis banned Jewish lawyers, judges, and other professionals from joining the court system. Those not aliened with the Nazi party were excluded from the League. Dissidents, political opponents, Christians, Jews, ethnic minorities and others faced arbitrary arrest, torture, imprisonment in concentration camps, and extermination at the hands of the Nazi police state, and the courts were part of the death machine.

Given that the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China describes the country as “a socialist state under the people’s democratic dictatorship,” the Chinese Communist Party clearly is in control of jurisprudence. Today it is China’s police state that conducts endless mass surveillance of the people. Dissidents, political opponents, Christians, Muslims and others face arbitrary arrest, torture, and imprisonment in concentration camps run by the CCP.

“Spear Throwing.” John Heartfield. Photomontage, 1935.

“Spear Throwing.” John Heartfield. Photomontage, 1935.

Spear Throwing depicts Hermann Göring chucking a spear at the crucified Christ.  Immediately after seizing power in 1933, Hitler and the Nazis began persecuting Christians and Catholics. At the time two thirds of Germans were Protestant and one third were Catholic. Believing the church was a threat to their absolute control, the Nazis began the Kirchenkampf (church struggle), a campaign to absorb and nazify Christian churches, and suppress churches that resisted.

The Nazis established the German Evangelical Church (Deutsche Evangelische Kirche or Reichskirche), which replaced the Bible with Hitler’s Mein Kampf and substituted the Christian cross with the swastika. By 1936 the Nazis began taking down Christian cross in all churches, Christian prayers were being replaced with Nazi sanctified pagan rituals. Churches, monasteries, convents, and religious schools were closed. Many priests were assassinated by the Nazis. Thousands of Christian and Catholic clergy, nuns, and monks were arrested and sent to concentration camps. By 1940 the Nazis had established a barracks at Dachau concentration camp to hold clergymen, there were 2,720 of them; the overwhelming majority were Roman Catholics.

Xinhua, official news agency of the Chinese Communist Party, reported that President Xi Jinping addressed a National Religious Affairs Meeting on Dec. 4, 2021. He said religious leaders must push “efforts to keep enhancing the recognition of the motherland, the Chinese nation, the Chinese culture, the Chinese Communist Party, and socialism with Chinese characteristics among religious personages and believers.” It was also reported that Xi “demanded efforts to rally vast religious believers around the Communist Party and government,” and that Chinese Christian churches must “cultivate core socialist values.”

The Chinese Communist Party has torn down churches and confiscated Bibles, and it has removed crosses from thousands of church steeples. President Xi has directed the Communist Party to “resolutely guard against overseas infiltrations via religious means.” The faithful are required to attend government registered churches where sermons are edited by the CCP. As a result millions of Christians attend underground unregulated churches—which the authorities consider “illegal.” The communists are waging a war against China’s 100 million Christians. In other words the CCP is waging its own Kirchenkampf, with Chinese characteristics of course.

After creating his Program of the Berlin Olympics 1936, Heartfield created two more photomontage works on the subject of the Nazi Olympics, the 1936 Berlin Summons to the Olympic Games, and Come And See Germany! These were published respectively by Workers Illustrated Newspaper in June and July 1936, just weeks before the August 1, 1936 Opening Ceremony of the Nazi Olympics.

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"Berlin Summons to the Olympic Games." John Heartfield. Photomontage, 1936.

Berlin Summons to the Olympic Games depicted a bone breaking meat cleaver with a small embossed swastika emblazoned on its bloody, scarred blade. The Nazi axe is entwined with the iconic five interlaced rings that are the symbol of the Olympics. At bottom of the poster are the words: “Reply to this summons: the Olympics special issue of AIZ next week (AIZ being short for Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung, the German for the Workers Illustrated Newspaper).

The original Olympic symbol was first presented in 1913, the icon was meant to represent the five continents and the meeting of athletes from throughout the world. With his 1938 graphic Heartfield was desperately saying Hitler had turned the dream of the Olympics into a nightmare, an obfuscation for carnage and holocaust. In retrospect, Heartfield was absolutely correct. With what we now know about the outrageous bloody crimes committed by the Nazi regime, does anyone today think it was a good idea the US participated in Hitler’s charade? Let me reframe the question, who thinks it is a good idea to participate in the Beijing Olympics, hosted by the Chinese Communist Party as it actively engages in committing genocide?

“Olympic Guests - Forward March!” John Heartfield. Photomontage, 1936.

“Olympic Guests - Forward March!” John Heartfield. Photomontage, 1936.

Come And See Germany! was published by Workers Illustrated Newspaper in a special edition assailing Hitler’s 1936 Olympics. The edition featured a two-page map that showed the location of Nazi prisons, torture centers, and concentration camps located throughout Germany. Come And See Germany! was an especially savage attack. It featured Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels leading international athletes with a leash attached to the Olympic rings in their noses. The text was in English and German, with the bottom portion reading: “The point of it all… Olympic Guests — forward march!”

Goebbels was Hitler’s most loyal follower. He joined the Nazi Party in 1924 and soon became leader of its Berlin branch. In 1926 Goebbels called Berlin “the reddest city in Europe besides Moscow” (I covered this period in my essay The Truth About Babylon Berlin). When given control over the Nazi SA (Storm Detachment) and the SS (Protection Squadron), he succeeded in nazifying Berlin by intimidation, riot, and murder. He played a key role in planning the 1936 Olympics, and in 1937 organized the Degenerate Art Exhibit (see my essay Paul Fuhrmann’s “War Profiteer”). But Goebbels was born with a deformed right foot and had to wear a metal brace and a special shoe on his shortened leg in order to walk. Heartfield gleefully depicted the right foot of Goebbels as cloven hoofed, a blunt way of saying Goebbels was Satanic.

Despite Heartfield’s failings, his anti-Nazi photomontage works were a heroic effort to inform the uninformed about the jackbooted thugs who would launch genocide in Germany, but who would also eventually drown the world in blood. Heartfield’s powerful voice was barely heard in the United States; few listened, even fewer acted. However, the American cartoonist Jerry Doyle was one of those who got John Heartfield’s message.

“The Modern Mercury.” Editorial cartoon by Jerry Doyle, Dec. 7, 1935.

“The Modern Mercury.” Editorial cartoon by Jerry Doyle, Dec. 7, 1935.

Jerry Doyle was a leading US political cartoonist whose works appeared in the Philadelphia Record and the Philadelphia Daily News from the 1930s to the early 1980s. Doyle was a working class Irish-Catholic aligned with the Democratic Party. He was an anti-communist classical liberal, the kind not found today. He was one of the very first American cartoonists to attack German fascism and Hitler’s rise. In his cartoon The Modern Mercury, Doyle lambasted the idea of an Olympiad hosted by Hitler and his Nazi regime.

The Modern Mercury cartoon depicts the shadow of Mercury—messenger of the gods, in the background bearing the label: “Olympic ideals of sportsmanship and international good will.” The foreground image depicts Adolph Hitler as a torch bearing athlete carrying a banner reading “Intolerance and discrimination.” His sports jersey reads “1936 Olympics.” Instead of Mercury’s caduceus, Hitler carries a shaft decorated with a swastika upon which a poisonous snake has wrapped itself. Published a year before the German Olympics, the cartoon appeared in The Philadelphia Record, Dec 7, 1935. Imagine such a cartoon rebuking the 2022 Beijing Olympics being published in a liberal newspaper today!

On Feb. 3, 2022, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), testified at the Congressional Executive Commission on China regarding human rights abuses in China. Pelosi told the hearing: “I would say to our athletes, you’re there to compete–do not risk incurring the anger of the Chinese government because they are ruthless. I know there is a temptation on the part of some to speak out while they are there. I respect that, but I also worry about what the Chinese government might do to their reputations, to their families.”

Madame Speaker enunciated the very reason why the US should have boycotted the Beijing Olympics—the ruthlessness of the Chinese Communist Party. Its abhorrence of democratic governance and its merciless oppression of the Chinese people; its pitiless cruelty toward Tibet and Hong Kong. Its truculence regarding Taiwan, its heavy-handed ill will towards Christians, and its barbarous treatment of the Uyghur Muslims.

But Madame Speaker’s advice to US athletes is exactly what the Chinese Communist Party wants to hear—a high ranking US politician saying that we should fear the power of the People’s Republic of China. When have Americans ever been told not to spit in the face of tyrants? To the CCP Pelosi’s words were an expression of weakness and faintheartedness, they were no doubt emboldened by her utterances.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) who leads the Congressional Executive Commission on China, said this about the Beijing Olympics: “If given a choice, I believe no athlete would want to compete in a country committing genocide and crimes against humanity. But that is what they are forced to do because of the feckless IOC and its corporate sponsors.”

Representative McGovern is wrong, US athletes were not forced to participate because of the “feckless IOC and its corporate sponsors.” They participate because President Quid pro Joe simply decided not to boycott the games. We wouldn’t want to incur “the anger of the Chinese government” now would we? If the United States had withdrawn from the Beijing Olympics, it would have set an example for other nations to follow. Instead Biden handed communist China—the biggest violator of human rights in the entire world, an enormous propaganda victory. Is that Build Back Better?

Detail of Badiucao graphic depicting China’s dictator Xi Jinping conjuring up the ghost of Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976), founding member of the Chinese Communist Party.

Detail of Badiucao's graphic depicting China’s dictator Xi Jinping conjuring up the ghost of Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976), founding member of the Chinese Communist Party.

Last but not least is the Chinese artist named Badiucao. He was born in  Shanghai, China in 1986. Pushed into exile by the Chinese Communist Party, he now lives in Australia. He has gone through great personal risk to openly defy the CCP with his art. His graphics, largely created with digital media like photoshop, are clean and crisp with bright bold colors—they are more akin to editorial cartooning and 60‘s style modernist advertisements than fine art. But there is something oddly reminiscent about his graphic approach; it possesses a faint aesthetic link to the work of some German Expressionists from the 1930s and 1940s. It also hints at the propaganda posters of China’s Cultural Revolution, albeit with heaps of sardonic humor.

In 2021 Badiucao received the Václav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent. The award is given to those “who exhibit bravery, creativity, and artistic innovation in standing up against dictatorships.” Havel was the Czech dissident playwright that played a substantial role in bringing down Czechoslovakia’s Soviet satellite regime during the Velvet Revolution of 1989 (you can read about Havel’s involvement in the revolution at the end of my essay, Toppling Rock Icons like Confederate Statues). At the 2021 award ceremony Badiucao delivered a moving public address that everyone should listen to.

“Resistance.” Digital media. Badiucao.

“Resistance.” Digital media. Badiucao.

I discovered Badiucao’s art when closely watching the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong that took place in 2019 and 2020. The artist created wonderfully provocative street art that extolled the demonstrators and lambasted the CCP-aligned police for crushing the Hong Kongers. One of Badiucao’s digital images that caught my eye was titled Resistance. Like many of the artist’s graphics it has a minimalist aesthetic, but also undertones of classical Chinese graphic art.

Resistance depicts a protestor in a yellow raincoat, wearing a construction helmet and gas mask, carrying a yellow umbrella and lobbing back a police tear gas canister; the design is a stunning abstraction. Hong Kong protestors wore raincoats and carried umbrellas to protect themselves from the pepper spray and tear gas of the CCP-aligned police. Umbrellas were also used to prevent being identified by the over 50,000 closed circuit television cameras that surveil Hong Kong. The color scheme of the artwork is yellow to honor of the pro-democracy activist Marco Leung, 35. On June 15, 2019, wearing a yellow raincoat, Leung was hanging an anti-CCP banner on the 4th floor of a building when he fell to his death; yellow became the color of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement.

“Boycott Mulan.” Digital media. Badiucao. 2020.

“Boycott Mulan.” Digital media. Badiucao. 2020.

Another of my favorite Badiucao graphics is Boycott Mulan. He made the digital artwork to support the boycott campaign aimed at Disney’s 2020 live action Mulan—a remake of the studio’s 1998 animated Mulan film. Boycott Mulan was a simple graphic with a complex message. The first thing one thinks of is “Tank Man.”

He was the hero who stopped a column of communist army tanks on their way to Tiananmen Square after the “People’s Liberation Army” (PLA) massacred thousands of pro-democracy activists in the square. But Badiucao gave Tank Man a yellow umbrella, a subtle message that the same brigands who crushed liberty in Tiananmen Square would do the same thing in Hong Kong.

In Badiucao’s Boycott Mulan the tank driver is not a PLA soldier, but the warrior princess from Disney’s 1998 animated Mulan. She waves her sword and scolds the Hong Konger Tank Man. At the height of Hong Kong’s protests when CCP-aligned police were brutally beating demonstrators, Liu Yifei, who played Mulan in the live action film, posted to China’s Weibo social media platform: “I support the Hong Kong police.” People’s Daily—the official mouthpiece of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, republished her remark. Liu Yifei’s co-star Donnie Yen, who played Commander Tung in the live action Mulan, shared tweets calling the Hong Kong protestors “terrorists.” Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement immediately called for a boycott of the live action Mulan, and Badiucao created his graphic in support.

But there is one more twist to Badiucao’s Boycott Mulan. Disney choose to film its live action Mulan in China’s Xinjiang province, the same area where the CCP has interned some one million Uyghur Muslims in concentration camps where they are subjected to torture and forced labor. In the camps Uyghur women are made to endure forced abortion and sterilization by the hundreds of thousands—in other words, cultural genocide. Making matters worse, in the credits of their live action Mulan film, Disney thanked the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda department of Xinjiang province for allowing the studio to film in the region!

Disney Studio is not the only US film company that colludes with the CCP. In 2020 Pen America published an extensive, eye-opening report titled Made in Hollywood, Censored by Beijing. It detailed the CCP’s influence over the US film industry, and how US movie studios submit to communist censors in order to gain assess to China’s huge box office market. Here are two quotes from the report:

“As US film studios compete for the opportunity to access Chinese audiences, many are making difficult and troubling compromises on free expression: changing the content of films intended for international—including American—audiences; engaging in self-censorship; agreeing to provide a censored version of a movie for screening in China; and in some instances directly inviting Chinese government censors onto their film sets to advise them on how to avoid tripping the censors’ wires. These concessions to the power of the Chinese market have happened mostly quietly, with little attention and, often, little debate.”

“Beijing has sent a clear message to the filmmaking world, that filmmakers who criticize China will be punished, but that those who play ball with its censorship strictures will be rewarded. The Chinese Communist Party, in fact, holds major sway over whether a Hollywood movie will be profitable or not—and studio executives know it. The result is a system in which Beijing bureaucrats can demand changes to Hollywood movies—or expect Hollywood insiders to anticipate and make these changes, unprompted—without any significant hue or cry over such censorship.”

It should also be mentioned that US companies Airbnb, Intel, Visa, Procter & Gamble, and Coca-Cola are official sponsors of the 2022 Beijing Olympics; by doing so they became apologists for the human rights abuses committed by the Chinese Communist Party.

Badiucao and I definitely have one thing in common, a deep and abiding respect for the German Expressionist artist Käthe Kollwitz. Both of us were profoundly influenced by the social realism of Kollwitz. I was blessed to visit the Käthe Kollwitz Museum Köln in Germany some years ago, taking in the massive collection was the thrill of a lifetime. While I veer closer to Kollwitz in terms of my commitment to figurative realism in painting, drawing, and prints, Badiucao has absorbed Kollwitz’s artistic philosophy that art should also tell the story of common people. As Badiucao has put it, art can be “a voice for the voiceless.”

And so this article comes full circle with an examination of what I believe is Badiucao’s most important work, a suite of five digital drawings titled Beijing 2022. I consider his suite comparable to John Heartfield’s photomontage works against the 1936 Berlin Olympics hosted by Adolph Hitler and the Nazis. This is certainly true on a historic level. With extremely dark acerbic humor, Heartfield and Badiucao captured consequential events with their images. They exposed the truth behind Olympic games hosted by dictators. Heartfield’s conceptions were foreboding portents of a conflagration that actually came to be. I have the terrible feeling that Badiucao’s Beijing 2022 is a harbinger for the disaster that looms on the horizon. Friends, there is still time… but the hour is getting late.

This article will close with an examination of Badiucao’s five digital drawings from the Beijing 2022 suite; Snowboard, Curling, Hockey, Skating, and Biathlon.

“Snowboard - Beijing Olympics 2022.” Image courtesy of Badiucao.

“Snowboard - Beijing Olympics 2022.” Image courtesy of Badiucao.

Snowboard, like all five drawings in Badiucao’s Beijing 2022 suite, is reminiscent of an old fashion travel poster that attracts tourists to a fun filled destination. At first glance the blue color scheme and swirling snow design promises a winter wonderland, and the energetic stance of the snowboarder hints at exciting winter sports… then you notice the surveillance camera.

More than half of all surveillance cameras in the world are found in China, and the CCP uses biometric surveillance cameras with facial recognition software to identify and track their citizens. The CCP also uses advanced technologies to hijack smartphones, giving them total access to all information on an individual’s cell phone.

Amassing personal information on China’s people enables the CCP to expand its already extensive “social credit system” (SCS), which rank’s an individual’s behavior with points. By examining online activity, corporate records, court documents, shopping habits, surveillance, and cellphone records, the CCP adds or subtracts points from a person’s SCS. Those with high scores are placed first for jobs and university enrollment, receive discounts on air travel and hotels, are given loans with ease, and other perks. Those with low scores are denied employment and entry into universities, are given slow internet speeds and flight bans, and are punished in other ways. Needless to say, dissidents are blacklisted. Welcome to the “People’s Republic.”

The funny thing is, the Beijing Winter Olympics will be using 100% artificial snow produced by 300 snow-cannons and more than 100 snow generating machines. On Feb. 1, 2022 NASA released some revealing images taken from its Landsat 8 satellite. The photos show China’s Winter Olympic zones as dry arid terrain, but Olympic venues are covered in snow. An estimated two million gallons of water—or 800 Olympic size swimming pools, were used to create the fake snow. And why not, everything else about the Genocide Olympics is artificial.

“Curling - Beijing Olympics 2022.” Image courtesy of Badiucao.

“Curling - Beijing Olympics 2022.” Image courtesy of Badiucao.

Curling is an Olympic ice sport where athletes use long handled curling brooms to sweep 44 pound polished granite stones over the ice towards a target known as a house. A curling stone has a handle on top that allows a player to grip and rotate the stone on release, making the stone uniquely turn or “curl.” Historically the game came from Scotland, was played with brooms, and dates back to the 1500’s. One of my favorite Renaissance artists, the Dutch Pieter Bruegel the Elder, created a beautiful oil painting in 1565 he titled Hunters in the snow. In that immense landscape, one can see the detail of three men playing curling on a frozen pond. By 1880 curling was a well established game with rules and it first entered the Olympics in 1924.

In Badiucao’s Curling, the artist has replaced the polished granite stone with the now iconic image of the Covid-19 virus. The CCP athlete has just released the virus, sending it curling over the ice to its target… you.

“Hockey - Beijing Olympics 2022.” Image courtesy of Badiucao. “Ask the Dalai Lama in the hills of Tibet, how many monks did the Chinese get?”

“Hockey - Beijing Olympics 2022.” Image courtesy of Badiucao. “Ask the Dalai Lama in the hills of Tibet, how many monks did the Chinese get?”

Hockey depicts a hockey player assaulting a Tibetan monk, whose blood has splattered across the player’s face shield. It is easy to imagine the player as a stand-in for a communist soldier of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The image is a striking metaphor for China’s oppression of Tibet. The CCP seized control of Tibet in 1950 in what they call “the Peaceful Liberation.” Since then Tibetans have struggled for freedom while Beijing has done everything it can to destroy Tibet’s traditions and culture, with the goal of absorbing the region.

I remember the pro-independence Tibetan uprising of 1987 and 1989—it started off small but quickly grew in size as it spread throughout Tibet. In March 1989 monks, nuns, and laypeople gathered in Tibet’s capital of Lhasa to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1959 uprising.

PLA soldiers fired at them killing 11 and wounding 100. Riots exploded as the CCP called a state of emergency and expelled foreign journalists. The PLA is said to have killed nearly 400 Tibetans. The international Free Tibet movement was born in the aftermath. I recall seeing hundreds of FREE TIBET bumper stickers in Los Angeles during that time, what happened to the concern for Tibet? Where are those bumper stickers today?

And so it goes, Tibetans continue to resist and the CCP continues to repress. In the first week of Feb 2022, Tibetans protested the Genocide Games in Beijing. They marched on the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee in Switzerland and held protests in Los Angeles, California and New Delhi, India. In 1980 the UK punk rock band The Clash performed their song Washington Bullets, it contained the lyrics: “Ask the Dalai Lama in the hills of Tibet, how many monks did the Chinese get?” That question still cannot be answered.

“Skating - Beijing Olympics 2022.” Image courtesy of Badiucao.

“Skating - Beijing Olympics 2022.” Image courtesy of Badiucao.

Skating shows a CCP athlete skating across the symbol that represents the city of Hong Kong—the flower of the Hong Kong Orchid Tree (Bauhinia blakeana). In the graphic the bleeding flower has been sliced to ribbons; the skater has its blood on the blades of his skating boots. Once a colony of the British Empire, the UK returned the city to China in 1997. Hong Kong then developed independently as one of the most prosperous cities on earth, and until recently the CCP cautiously tolerated the autonomy of their “special administrative region.”

After Hong Kongers staged pro-Democracy protests in 2019-20, communist China cracked down and imposed a punishing “National Security Law” that strips Hong Kong of its independence and freedoms. Now, Hong Kongers convicted of wrong think… activists, artists, journalists and many others, are being convicted and extradited to mainland China in numbers not seen before.

The Hong Kong Orchid Tree originated in Hong Kong and can grow up to 40 feet high. With leaves shaped like a butterfly or heart, Hong Kongers think the leaf a symbol of wisdom. The tree’s orchid-like blossoms are purplish red and pink; the flowers are so impressive one appears on the flag of Hong Kong—though depicted in white on a red background. Badiucao’s Skating is a poetic-like image that tells of liberty being crushed in Hong Kong as an indifferent world turns a blind eye.

Biathlon was developed in Scandinavian countries during the 18th century as a military exercise; an exhausting combination of cross-country skiing and marksmanship with heavy caliber bolt-action rifles. It was officially included in the 1960 Winter Olympics held in Squaw Valley, California. In 1978 the rules were standardized to use 8 pound rifles that fired .22 LR cartridges.

Badiucao’s most shocking image from his Beijing 2022 series is Biathlon, a metaphorical depiction of an unfolding genocide. It shows a Chinese communist Biathlete aiming a rifle at a Uyghur Muslim, who is wrapped in the colors of the East Turkestan flag—the banner that has come to represent the Uyghur people.

“Biathlon - Beijing Olympics 2022.” Image courtesy of Badiucao.

“Biathlon - Beijing Olympics 2022.” Image courtesy of Badiucao.

When the communists took control of China in 1949, they folded East Turkestan into their newly founded People’s Republic of China. The CCP refers to this as the “Peaceful Liberation of Xinjiang,” In 1955 they named the area the “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.” The problem is the great majority of people in China are Han Chinese, this is reflected in China both culturally and linguistically; as for religion, the CCP thoroughly discourages it. The Uyghurs however are Turkic culturally, ethnically, and linguistically; they practice Islam. The CCP’s current policies regarding the Uyghur people have became absolutely maniacal. A 2018 report from the US Congress Commission on China put it this way:

“Uyghurs and other primarily Muslim ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region have been subjected to arbitrary detention, torture, egregious restrictions on religious practice and culture, and a digitized surveillance system so pervasive that every aspect of daily life is monitored—through facial recognition cameras, mobile phone scans, DNA collection, and an extensive and intrusive police presence. There are credible reports that as many as a million people are or have been detained in what are being called ‘political reeducation’ centers, the largest mass incarceration of an ethnic minority population in the world today.”

A 2020 report by China expert Adrian Zenz targets “the CCP’s campaign to suppress Uyghur birthrates in Xinjiang” through sterilizations, IUDs, and mandatory birth control. In an interview conducted by NPR and broadcast on July 4, 2020, Zenz noted that “the suppression of birth” is one of the “five criteria set forth by the United Nations Convention for the Punishment and Prevention of the Crime of Genocide.” The full report by Mr. Zenz can be read on the Jamestown Foundation website.

The International Olympic Committee should never have picked China’s totalitarian regime as host for the 2022 Winter Olympics. The US government should have withdrawn from the games over China’s massive violations of human rights and its ongoing genocide of the Uyghur people. The National Broadcasting Company (NBC), has exclusive rights to broadcast the Olympics; they should have refused to air the Beijing games. Instead the network gave the CCP an international propaganda platform. NBC should change their name to the National Beijing Corporation and be done with it. I will not watch NBC’s broadcast of the games. We saw all of this during the Berlin Olympic Games of 1936, you might think we should have learned a lesson from the experience.

In 1980 US President Carter led 65 countries in boycotting the 1980 summer Olympics held in Moscow because the Soviet Union had invaded and occupied Afghanistan starting in Feb. 1979. The Soviets and 14 allied countries boycotted the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, their reason being “anti-Soviet hysteria whipped up in the US” made it dangerous for athletes. The irony is that the US invaded and occupied Afghanistan starting in Oct. 2001. The US/Soviet clash was a breaking point of Cold War hysteria, but the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics presents us with an ongoing genocide. It all comes back to Hitler’s 1936 Olympics; crimes against humanity were taking place in German concentration camps that year. The US should have boycotted the Berlin Olympics.

At any rate, rather than watching the CCP disfigure the Olympic spirit, my time was better spent writing this essay about Badiucao’s truthful Beijing 2022 artworks.

The Tragedy of Vessel, Staircase to Nowhere

Have you heard about Vessel? It’s a giant climbable sculpture at the center of Hudson Yards, the $25 billion real estate development that masquerades as a neighborhood in the far west-side of midtown Manhattan, New York City. The creation and demise of Vessel is a cautionary tale on the foibles of contemporary art, but it’s also a metaphor for the crisis of American urbanism, and how media passes off unworthy works and individuals as impressive and noteworthy. Vessel is the zeitgeist of postmodern art. Allow me to fill in the details.

Artist’s conception of Vessel. Image/Heatherwick Studio.

Artist’s conception of Vessel. Image/Heatherwick Studio.

The Hudson Yards Redevelopment Project is the brainchild of New York real estate firm The Related Companies. Founded by billionaire Stephen M. Ross, the firm became an inexorable force in developing commercial properties. Hudson Yards is a city unto itself, but it should remind readers of the dystopian story The Hunger Games, where a class of frivolous and diversion obsessed elites attempted to rule over a ruined and fragmented society.

The official opening of Hudson Yards and Vessel took place on March 15, 2019. CNN’s pretend journalist Anderson Cooper moderated the affair. Democrat Senator Chuck Schumer gave a frothy speech, and then Big Bird the anthropomorphic muppet joined with Cooper, Stephen M. Ross, Sen. Schumer, and Thomas Heatherwick (designer of the gigantic staircase to nowhere), to launch Vessel in a flurry of confetti. A gospel choir sang out praises, and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre performed. It was all quite the spectacle, and no one had a clue what awaited them.

The 28-acre Hudson Yards complex is a huge gentrification project that hopes to transform an aging neighborhood into an exclusive enclave for the affluent. In part it offers 16 imposing skyscrapers with classy office space for some 55,000 employees, plus posh apartments and condos for 5,000 au courant swells (apartments go for $9,000 a month and condos start at $2 million). There is an arts center named The Shed for swanks like you, innumerable chic boutiques, cafes, bars, restaurants, an exclusive hotel, plus “public space” and gardens for the voguish to stroll through… et cetera, et cetera. But the center of Hudson Yards is its massive “public square” where Vessel dominates.

The Related Companies felt a bona fide tourist attraction was needed to draw happy shoppers into their Hudson Yards consumer paradise and real estate scheme. You know, a special touch to put a human face on the commercial development, investing in the “public space” and all that. It was essential for the attraction to offer, or at least appear to offer, something for the city’s goldbricks, clock-watchers, and proles to unite around. An iconic object to inspire unlimited selfies and generate free advertising to attract customers like moths to a flame. Enter the celebrated English postmodern designer and architect, Thomas Heatherwick.

Vessel, aka “Chalice of the Privileged.” Image © Raphe Evanoff 2019. Via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Vessel, aka “Chalice of the Privileged.” Image © Raphe Evanoff 2019. Via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Heatherwick was commissioned to create the attraction, and he delivered Vessel, an eight level, sixteen-stories high, tangled labyrinth of 154 connected staircases with eighty landings and 2,500 steps that go nowhere.

The 150-foot-tall structure was envisioned as an immersive design experience where people would socialize while getting a bird’s eye view of the megalopolis. The armature of Vessel is concrete covered with copper-colored steel.

But all of Vessel’s 75 enormous pre-fabricated steel pieces were fabricated in Italy because the miracle of globalism has nearly shut down America’s steel industry. Starting at its base Vessel is 50 feet across, and floor by floor it expands in width until it becomes 150 feet wide at its top level.

Vessel became an irresistible backdrop for selfies, but more than a few detractors rechristened it “the pineapple,” “beehive,” “wastepaper basket,” “pinecone,” “rat’s nest,” “Chalice of the Privileged,” “giant shawarma,” and other ill-favored nicknames.

“Paradoxides Heatherwickis.” Giant extinct marine Trilobite found in Hudson Yards, North America.

“Paradoxides Heatherwickis.” Giant extinct marine Trilobite found in Hudson Yards, North America.

Personally I think it looks like the extinct marine arthropod known as the Trilobite. Some pretentious artsy-fartsy types said it looked like one of those impossible staircases by Dutch artist M.C. Escher (1898-1972). I am certain that suggestion would have displeased Escher.

I discovered Escher as a pre-teen and fell in love with his lithographs, woodcuts, and mezzotint prints. I studied them not for their impossible perspectives but for their technique and off-kilter realism. He inflamed my passion for printmaking. Escher considered himself not an artist but a mathematician. It speaks volumes that the art world basically ignored him his entire life; his first retrospective came when he was 70-years old (he would die at age 73). Who will Thomas Heatherwick inspire? Certainly not me.

Heatherwick’s whimsical joke of a building cost $200 million to construct, but no one is laughing. I realize pseudo-intellectuals and the terminally trendy say he is the new Leonardo da Vinci of design, but few noticed Leonardo’s Vessel had, shall we say… design flaws. For instance, those damnable stairs.

“Relativity.” Lithograph. M.C. Escher. 1953.

“Relativity.” Lithograph. M.C. Escher. 1953.

I was privileged to visit Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France before some idiot burned it down. Since medievalist engineers did not equip churches with elevators, I climbed up and down its stone steps to visit the rooftop gargoyles; those 774 steps were a real workout.

I visited the Cologne Cathedral in Germany, it was exhausting to climb up and down its 1,066 rough hewn steps to gain access to the rooftop view of the city. It goes without saying that the history of those two Cathedrals was more than awe inspiring.

Now imagine the Vessel’s labyrinth of 2,500 steps, and the herculean task of climbing all 5,000 to go up and down this “interactive” cardio nightmare of a sculpture. What is the point of all that marching up and down? Heatherwick must surely despise the elderly. Worse, the structure offers not a single bench or place to sit, and its one tiny elevator is exclusively for people with disabilities; nonetheless, the elevator only stops on floors 5, 7, and 8.

Interior view of Vessel. Oops... that’s a still of David Bowie from the 1986 movie titled, “Labyrinth.”

Interior view of Vessel. Oops... that’s a still of David Bowie from the 1986 movie titled, “Labyrinth.”

Climbing Notre Dame Cathedral and Cologne Cathedral were well worth the effort, but the giant shawarma? I have visited authentic tourist attractions around the world, places like the Maya ruins of Chichen Itza in Yucatán, Mexico, the ancient Roman Colosseum in Rome, Italy, and the 17th century home of American patriot Paul Revere in Boston, Massachusetts.

These and other attractions I sojourned to are steeped in history and meaning; they are stirring points of interest. But what profundity does Vessel extend, aside from being a backdrop for smartphone photos?

However, Vessel has a much bigger problem than its steps. It is cursed by its railings. They are only 4-feet-high, even at its 150-foot-high eighth level. They are low enough for your average teen or adult to jump over—and jump they did.

The first suicide took place in Feb. 2020, when a 19-year-old man leapt from the Vessel’s uppermost deck. The second suicide occurred in Dec. 2020 when a 24-year-old woman also hopped over the railings at the eighth-floor to meet her demise. The third suicide happened in Jan. 2021 when a 21-year-old-man on the eighth-floor bounded over the railings to his death.

Interior view of Vessel. Image © Raphe Evanoff 2019. Via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Interior view of Vessel. Image © Raphe Evanoff 2019. Via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

A day after the third suicide Vessel was closed to the public so that “safety measures” could be instituted to prevent further deaths. Suicide prevention signs were mounted on the building and affixed to the railings. More security personnel were hired. Visitors were banned from entering Vessel alone, and though entry was once free visitants now had to pay a $10 entry fee (as if paying admission would prevent suicide). The National Suicide Prevention Hotline number was printed on the admission tickets. Everything was done to insure safety… except for raising the height of the railings, which is something The Related Companies refused to do, despite pleas from suicide prevention specialists. A “safer” Vessel reopened on May 28, 2021.

On July 29, 2021, a 14-year-old boy jumped to his death from the top floor of Vessel. That same day the building was closed, perhaps forevermore.

So there you have it, all that effort come to naught. London’s Royal College of Art (RCA), educated Thomas Heatherwick. That institute also boasts Tracey Emin and Jake and Dinos Chapman as alumni. How can a prestigious institution of art and design like the RCA cultivate, encourage, and champion such charlatans? It’s simple really. Postmodernist dogma with its aesthetics of ugly, superficial, kitsch, reigns supreme in universities and art academies; museums, galleries, and art critics are also spellbound by the doctrine. Critiques of Heatherwick and his postmodern cohorts are negligible because they are favored by the ruling elites. Even though Vessel has proven to be a literal deathtrap, its designer is viewed as blameless. The art world reaps what it sows.

From the top floor, a glance over those 4-feet-high railings... it sure is a long way down. Image © Raphe Evanoff 2019. Via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

From the top floor, a glance over those 4-feet-high railings... it sure is a long way down. Image © Raphe Evanoff 2019. Via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

One of the quagmires facing the contemporary art world—with its steady stream of horrid, silly, incomprehensible, and frightfully expensive thingamajigs, is its having become contemptuous of the public. Witness those workday-world New Yorkers who mocked Vessel as a “wastepaper basket,” “rat’s nest,” and “Chalice of the Privileged.” They were ignored by sophisticates who regarded them as uncultivated and artless. The corps d’elite simply doubled down on their Vessel nonsense. And the big payoff? Four tragic suicides, traumatized families, the $200 million Vessel closed indefinitely, and calls for it to be torn down.

I do not write the following to cast aspersions on the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, but since they promoted Vessel in a video and performed at its official opening they are open to critique. I had the pleasure of seeing them perform in Los Angeles years ago, and it is widely acknowledged the troupe has had an impact on modern dance. Still, I found their Vessel promo film to be regretful.

For the task of glorifying Vessel the dance company abandoned their autonomy and took money from The Related Companies, the multi-billion dollar real estate firm behind Vessel’s creation. The firm hired visual effects studio MILL+ to produce the Alvin Ailey film. The effects studio specializes in producing “immersive experiences” for entertainment franchises and product promotions. I hate to break it to the dance troupe but this is not art, it’s advertising. Related Companies has left its imprimatur on the legacy of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, and that’s a shame.

The MILL+ production with the Alvin Ailey troupe is titled The Film, and it opens with a morning scene in New York City. Troupe members are shown dancing their way through the cosmopolis; they undulate over cobblestone streets, and with fluid free-style steps glide through the subway, leaping up stairs and down avenues on a journey to an unknown destination. Eyes lift from sidewalks to tall buildings to see strange shadows of the climbable sculpture cast upon the edifices. Reaching Hudson Yards the group dances triumphantly; presumably they are dancing at the feet of the gigantic Vessel, even though it is never seen. In the final frames the troupe is observed from above gathered in a loose circle, arms thrust skyward as if in spiritual exaltation. Their bodies cast a growing shadow, the eerie penumbra taking on the shape of the Vessel.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre cast the shadow of Vessel. Screen grab from “The Film” video by MILL+ (Creative Commons).

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre cast the shadow of Vessel. Screen grab from “The Film” video by MILL+ (Creative Commons).

Though not shown in the video, all I could see were ghostlike figures jumping from the top of the shadowy Vessel, they were leaping into suicidal oblivion. That is what the Vessel has become… a grave marker for postmodernism.

None of this comes as a surprise, I have long felt darkness was falling over the art world. I was 19-years-old in 1972 when an unfamiliar character named Christo spent $700,000 hanging orange nylon fabric across Rifle Gap in Colorado. It wasn’t the first time I despaired for art, and it wouldn’t be the last. I felt the gloom when wrecking cranes destroyed the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2020-2021, and when mobs began defacing and pulling down historic classical sculptures in public places during the summer of 2020 and beyond. Graffiti finding a home in art museums didn’t help any. But the implosion of Vessel was the last straw, it was akin to watching the final curtain coming down on the theater of postmodernism—and there was no applause.

It is said “art is a reflection of society,” but who shapes society? The people of NYC didn’t ask for a $200 million “wastepaper basket,” it was imposed upon them by a giant real estate firm and the city’s ruling Democrats. Society, such as it is, had nothing to do with it. But then again… New York City’s newly elected Mayor Eric Adams (D) approved legislation in January 2022 giving nearly a million non-citizens the right to vote in city elections. And the just elected District Attorney for Manhattan, Alvin Bragg (D), has downgraded armed robbery to a misdemeanor, making it a non-jailable offense. And that is why the city is called Gotham.

Perhaps Heatherwick’s $200 million “rat’s nest” really is the appropriate icon for New York City. As the Rolling Stones sang in their 1978 song titled Shattered, “Go ahead, bite the Big Apple, don’t mind the maggots.”

Toppling Rock Icons like Confederate Statues

On Nov. 3, 2021 the New York Times published Can We Separate the Art From the Artist?, an opinion piece by their regular columnist Jennifer Finney Boylan. It compared classic rock performers like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis to the statues of Confederate generals, implying it was time to topple classic rockers for their politically incorrect behavior. Boylan put it this way:

“The past several years have seen a reassessment of our country’s many mythologies—from the legends of the generals of the Confederacy to the historical glossing over of slaveholding founding fathers. But as we take another look at the sins of our historical figures, we’ve also had to take a hard look at our more immediate past and present, including the behavior of the creators of pop culture. That reassessment extends now to the people who wrote some of our best-loved songs.”

Boylan declared yet another front in the ever expanding culture war. Bring out the long knives, were going back to the 50s, 60s, and 70s to find objectionable lyrics and horrid deeds committed by long dead performers so we can expunge them from history.

I do not entirely disagree with Boylan’s opinion piece, just 99.99% of it. The cloaked advocation of censorship intimates that defacing and toppling statues is a very good thing. That alone makes the statement odious to me as an artist and defender of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Artists should be well aware of how detrimental censorship can be, not just to individual artists, but to society as a whole. America is supposed to be the land of liberty, not the land of purges, repression, and censorship.

Free Speech Movement marchers carry “Free Speech” banner on the Berkeley campus, Nov. 20, 1964.

Free Speech Movement marchers carry “Free Speech” banner on the Berkeley campus, Nov. 20, 1964.

I was eleven-years-old in 1964 when the Free Speech Movement began at the University of California, Berkeley. As a kid I admired the bravery and high-mindedness of those students. The movement electrified my generation, and made an everlasting impression on me. I was propelled into a lifetime of advocating and defending human and civil rights.

Back in 1964 leftwing students carried banners emblazoned with the words, “Free Speech.” But today’s leftwing students have burned placards reading “Free Speech.” I have a sneaking suspicion Boylan stands with the latter, but uses less inflammatory language to describe the position.

Free Speech sign burned by anti-Trump protester in Berkeley, March 4, 2017.

Free Speech sign burned by anti-Trump protesters in Berkeley, March 4, 2017.

Boylan asserts we have seen a “reassessment” of “the generals of the Confederacy” and “slaveholding founding fathers.” But what does removing Abraham Lincoln as the name of a public school in San Francisco have to do with this reassessment? How do “activists” defacing the Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial in Boston Commons with anti-police graffiti have anything to do with taking “another look at the sins of our historical figures”?

Black Lives Matter supporters in Wisconsin tore down a bronze statue of Norwegian-American abolitionist Hans Christian Heg, decapitated it, dragged it through the streets, and tossed it into Lake Monona. Heg was an anti-slavery activist who joined the Union Army to free the slaves. As the colonel of the all-Scandinavian 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Regiment of the Union Army, he was killed in 1863 fighting the Confederates at the Battle of Chickamauga. Yeah, dragging the broken memorial statue of Hans Christian Heg through the streets was an essential “reassessment.”

Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial in Boston Commons, defaced by BLM activists June 3, 2020. Graffiti reads: "ACAB" (All Cops Are Bastards), "F**k 12" (a codeword for police is “12”), “RIP George Floyd” & "#BLM."

Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial in Boston Commons, defaced by BLM activists June 3, 2020. Graffiti reads: "ACAB" (All Cops Are Bastards), "F**k 12" (a codeword for police is “12”), “RIP George Floyd” & "#BLM."

Perhaps Boylan and followers think the destruction of the Hans Christian Heg bronze statue was merely “collateral damage.” This so-called “reassessment” has defaced, toppled, and destroyed dozens of historic public sculptures that had nothing to do with Confederates or slave masters. Nevertheless, you can’t build a better world without breaking a few eggs, eh Boylan? Welcome to the struggle for “a more just society.”

When Jennifer Finney Boylan wrote of being appalled by the private lives of Elvis Presley and other “disgraced musicians,” I thought of a 1979 punk rock concert flyer in my collection. The cheap xeroxed leaflet announced a gig at the new Masque punk club that operated in smoggy old Los Angeles at the time. Two of the most notorious punk bands in California played the Masque musicale, the Germs and the Dead Kennedys (referred to by fans and foes as the DKs).

Xerox flyer announcing January 13, 1979 punk concert at the Masque annex, featuring the Germs and the Dead Kennedys.

Xerox flyer announcing January 13, 1979 punk concert at the Masque annex, featuring the Germs and the Dead Kennedys.

The Dead Kennedys had just released their first single, it was titled California Über Alles. It might be said the song was an attack on the type of liberalism represented by Boylan. The ornery song attacking liberals put the DKs on the map, but it might also be the kind of song guaranteed a place on Boylan’s personal list of wrongthink. Apart from the fact the DKs performed a deliriously berserk version of the Elvis song Viva Los Vegas, Presley’s face was featured on the 1979 Masque leaflet in mockery of his “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” status.

First single by The Clash released March 1977.

First single by The Clash released March 1977.

Consider the very first record released by The Clash in March of 1977, it presented two songs; White Riot and 1977. Today’s liberals would condemn White Riot as a “white supremacist” song: “White riot, I wanna riot, white riot, a riot of my own.” 1977 was one of the songs that kicked off the punk rebellion, its refrain was “No Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones in 1977.” Yet the Clash were not calling for censorship of their musical foes, they were saying, get out of the way.

I attended that riotous 1979 Masque shindig, and between the nihilistic caterwauling of the contentious Germs, the frantic histrionics of the DKs, and the ghostly apparition of the pompadoured dead King, those at the Masque were all shook up. If only Jennifer Finney Boylan had been there.

In the heady days of the late 1970s when punk music was brand new and truly provocative, it received almost zero airplay on commercial radio in Los Angeles, and it got even less attention in the press. At one point nearly all venues in LA closed their doors to punk; this was in essence a form of censorship. But let us skip to 1985 for another long forgotten example of censorship.

In Sept 1985 the US Senate held hearings designed to censor pop music. The hearings were under the aegis of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), a group led by liberal Tipper Gore, co-founder of the PMRC and wife of Democrat Sen. Al Gore. The PMRC released a list called the “Filthy Fifteen,” enumerating some of the performers or bands who had released “objectionable” songs. Prince, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, and Twisted Sister were on the list.

Fully backing the censorious PMRC in the august body was liberal Senator Gore, who testified in their favor. Gore badgered heavy metal rocker Dee Snider of Twisted Sister in a Q and A after the rocker’s testimony. Readers should listen to Snider’s spirited defense of the first amendment, along with the eye-opening anti-censorship statements given by folk singer John Denver and composer extraordinaire Frank Zappa. Those three really understood what was at stake, the same cannot be said of Jennifer Finney Boylan.

Boylan’s Can We Separate the Art From the Artist? presents an age old, and frankly tiresome argument. However, the NYT columnist did offer an untried, newfangled twist to the dispute. Instead of targeting offensive lyrics, Boylan went after the personal sins and immoralities of individual performers. Wow, just think of all the musicians that can be purged for having deficient morals! The gossip blogs will be so busy. But wait, this is not being carried out by someone on the fundamentalist religious right, Jennifer Finney Boylan is a liberal Transgender activist.

Jerry Lee Lewis concert poster, 1958.

Jerry Lee Lewis concert poster, 1958.

In the opinion piece Boylan attacked Johnny Cash, Eric Clapton, Gary Glitter, the Rolling Stones, Don McLean, as well as Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.

But why stop there? I am certain at least a hundred names could be added to the registry of the persona non grata. The list of classic rock songs from the 50s, 60s, and 70s construed to be “sexist” or “racist” is too long to cite here.

Figuratively speaking, Boylan fired so many flaming arrows at Don McLean in the opinion piece it almost made me like his American Pie ballad… well, almost.

Boylan recounted the arrest of McLean for suspicion of domestic violence and seemed forlorn the singer was not drawn and quartered in the public square. Let me be clear, I have no sympathy for McLean, that is my 0.1% agreement with Boylan.

Still, the columnist’s telling of McLean’s trouble with the law ends with the snide remark, “His iconic song still plays on the radio,” implying no one should ever hear American Pie again, as if hearing it will cause a male listener to commit sexual violence. Many sophisticated intellectual types—yeah, that automatically excludes me, consider McLean’s American Pie a masterwork.

Album art for “American Pie.” 1971.

Album art for “American Pie.” 1971.

But don’t shoot me, I’m only the piano player. You can take up the wickedness of McLean with the National Endowment for the Arts, which claims American Pie is one of the 20th century’s greatest songs—and the Library of Congress, which chose the song for preservation in the National Recording Registry. So, when will progressives blitz those institutions for not being, well, progressive enough?

And what about today’s dominant rap genre, is there a more misogynist music out there? Snoop Dogg, the heavyweight champ of sexist degrading lyrics once rapped: “Bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks, lick on these nuts and suck the d**k, gets the f**k out after you’re done.”

Snoop now has his own wine label, Snoop Cali Red, made in partnership with Australian vintner 19 Crimes (apt name). The wine can be found in grocery stores serving bourgeois cliental. Even CNN recently raved about original gangster sommelier Snoop Dogg and his stinking inferior plonk. Don’t even ask me about Cardi B and WAP. Where is Boylan’s critique?

The best way to handle music you find abhorrent and loathsome is… do not listen to it, do not purchase it, ignore it. The same goes for visual art, literature, movies, and any other creative endeavor. We still live in a free society—even though it’s looking rather threadbare these days, so behave like you are autonomous and unfettered. A free people produce and consume whatever cultural output they like.

Boylan’s opinion contained this gem: “I want to live in a world where I can be moved by art and music and literature without having to come up with elaborate apologies for that work or for its creators.” Oh for goodness sake Boylan, grow up will you.

Humanity is imperfect and flawed. The history of the world is replete with composers, painters, writers, and many other creative types who struggled with a dark side—some even nurtured it. The Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio was a street brawler who carried a sword and murdered a man in a fight. German composer Richard Wagner was an anti-Semite who changed the face of Western music. America’s virtuoso jazz trumpet player Miles Davis beat his wives. Should we burn all of their works? We will never live in the utopian world Boylan longs for. It would be more profitable for the columnist to begin a new career writing those “elaborate apologies” for the world’s ill-natured artists and their errant works.

The biggest problem confronting Boylan comes in identifying potential wrongdoers. I mean, aside from bad press or arrest, how do you single out a miscreant musician? Remember, lurking behind grandiloquent lyrics one might find an evildoer. Boylan’s opinion piece ended with this meditation on the problem of reprobate musicians: “Maybe reconsidering those songs, and their artists, can inspire us to think about the future and how to bring about a world that is more inclusive and more just.”

“Reconsidering” songs and artists my foot. This ain’t the Age of Aquarius pal. The people of the world are being silenced through censoring, deplatforming, and shadow banning by tech oligarchs who think they are delivering us to a “more inclusive and more just” world, and you are just fine with that. Except, instead of cruising to paradise we are being coughed up to dystopia.

The Soviet Union knew how to help artists create a “more just” world. By 1932 artists were required to join the communist’s Artists Union, that is, if they wanted to work and exhibit. Artists were vetted on whether they possessed the proper loyalty to communism and displayed a zealotry for uprooting old reactionary ideas. If so, they were allowed to join the union, if not they were forbidden to create, display, or sell artworks. Socialist Realism, a genre that extolled workers and communist leadership, was the only allowable art in the one-party state. The communists did not worry about coming up “with elaborate apologies” for trouble making artists who preferred the old ways… they just sent them to the gulag.

This scheme to bring about a “New Socialist Man” by silencing social democrats, conservatives, nationalists, and religious types who opposed communism, was applied to the Eastern Bloc, the Soviet satellite states of Bulgaria, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia. Let me tell you a tale of artistic freedom that took place in Soviet occupied Czechoslovakia.

Original Czech 1968 graphic protesting Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Artist unknown. The poster depicts a Soviet Red Army soldier in 1945 as a liberator, then as an oppressor in 1968.

Czech graphic protesting Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Artist unknown. Image depicts Soviet Red Army soldier in 1945 as a liberator, then as an oppressor in 1968.

On Jan. 5, 1968, Alexander Dubček became the head of the Communist Party in the Soviet satellite state of Czechoslovakia. He initiated the Prague Spring reforms that relaxed the communist stranglehold on art, speech, media, and travel. The Soviets feared the reforms would undermine the Communist Bloc, so on Aug. 21, 1968, the Soviet Red Army and allied Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia with 2,000 tanks and 200,000 soldiers and crushed the Prague Spring.

A few weeks later a scruffy group of Czech hippies started a band in Prague named The Plastic People of the Universe; the moniker came from Plastic People, a song by Frank Zappa. The Plastic People were not activists or politically orientated, they just wanted to play their music.

The Soviet installed regime wanted musicians to dress well, keep their hair short, and sing the praises of socialism; rock was thought to be part of decadent capitalist society. The communists viewed the Plastics as a bad influence on youth and revoked the band’s musicians license in 1970, which denied them the right to perform in public. The Plastics began playing secret gigs at pubs or homes. They released an album in 1974 titled Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned, a reference to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Bondy was a Czech poet banned by the communists, who also wrote lyrics for the Plastics.

The Plastic People of the Universe, circa 1968.

The Plastic People of the Universe, circa 1968.

The album was dark and disconcerting, reflecting life under a humorless totalitarian regime. It mixed Gothic psychedelic rock with freeform jazz, using electric violin and theremin for highlights. In 1976 the regime arrested the Plastics and put them on trial for “organized disturbance of the peace.” Four of the defendants received prison sentences. This heralded, not the demise of The Plastic People of the Universe, but the communist regime. Which brings me to the following point.

The trial and imprisonment of The Plastic People galvanized Czechs against the Stalinist brutes that ruled them. Czech intellectuals viewed the needless repression of the band as a major assault on artistic expression; notable Czechs of different convictions and professions gathered together to write a statement on universal human rights they titled Charter 77. Published on Jan 6, 1977, one of its initial 242 signatories was the avant-garde playwright Václav Havel.

What the communist regime said of Charter 77 might sound familiar to readers. The document was called “anti-state” and “anti-socialist,” and its signatories were slandered as “traitors and renegades.” Those who signed were hounded by secret police, and basically forced into internal exile. Copies of the charter were circulated by way of samizdat, self-published texts written by hand or typewriter—itself a crime against the state.

Finally, on Nov. 17, 1989, the Czech “Velvet Revolution” began; it was a massive non-violent upheaval of all sectors of society. After huge protests for democracy and a national general strike for the same, the leadership of the Communist Party resigned; days later the party was dissolved. A new government was sworn in on Dec. 10, and Václav Havel was elected president on Dec. 29, 1989. The hippie band won the day while the commies bit the dust.

With few caveats, I always held the position that we must separate art from its creator. Often times sublime art springs from debauched or unsavory characters. That is the miracle of art. Over the decades I have treasured paintings, literature, and music created by people I did not like or agree with. On rare occasion, if I was confronted with something I found truly detestable, I did what I previously suggested, I would not purchase it. I would ignore it. I have never advocated censorship, which I consider to be positively un-American.