Poem for Culiacán

I wrote the following poem on October 19, 2019. Photo/Mark Vallen

I wrote "Poem for Culiacán" on October 19, 2019. Photo/Mark Vallen

Set afire & ravaged by drug lords
Culiacán, the eden with three rivers
burns through the night
the Guadalupe watches from
La Lomita, her sanctuary church
it has the best view of the dying city

The same giant white SUVs
blue skies, cactus, palm trees
the same brown-skinned people
sinners, saints, criminals, victims
Los Angeles or Culiacán
what’s the difference?

The rivers Humaya, Tamazula & Culiacán
hear the screams & gunfire, their bridges
are choked with burning cars & trucks
they smell smokeless powder & fear
their waters reflect armed assassins

Cartel hitmen butcher & dismember
their way through the crimson graveyard
known as Mexico, where El Presidente
cowers & mewls—”we do not want war”

And in the United States
where some wail over
the unguarded border of Syria
the red-hot conflagration of Mexico ablaze
fails to scorch American hearts & minds.

This is not art. This is art. Not Sure.

Sam Gilliam's 1980 abstract crayon drawing, "Coffee Thyme," a study for a print series Mr. Gilliam had in mind. The question was simple, "Is this image art?"

Sam Gilliam's 1980 abstract crayon drawing, "Coffee Thyme," a study for a print series Mr. Gilliam had in mind. It was a simple question, "Is this image art?"

Give me a canvas covered in used bubblegum…
…I’ll give you $500,000 for it.

I was exasperated by a recent “poll” that maligns realism in art. If you have any doubts that every single facet of American life is today being weaponized for political purposes—even the enjoyment of art, then the following should open your eyes. The alternative title for this essay could have been, Data For Entropy.

In September of 2019, pollsters conducted a survey of 1,100 individuals who were asked if they thought a particular image was a legitimate work of art. The details of the scribble were not revealed to those being polled, but the picture bore a striking resemblance to a child’s crayon drawing. The question was simple, “Is this image art?” Respondents were given the option of checking one of the following boxes: “This is not art” “This is art” or “Not sure.” Of those polled, 46 percent said it was art, 38 percent said it was not art, 12 percent were unsure.

The cagey pollsters had intentionally used a crayon drawing titled “Coffee Thyme” created by the celebrated abstract artist Sam Gilliam in 1980. I believe the pollsters were confident that liberals would call the scribble “art,” while conservatives would not—that was the whole point of the “poll.” But the survey not only revealed the pollsters bias towards non-objective abstract art, it revealed an ideological bias as well.

Wouldn’t you know it, from the survey results the pollsters made some wild extrapolations. They concluded that those who saw the doodle as a legitimate artwork disapproved of President Trump, while those who said the scrawl was not a genuine work of art were supporters of President Trump. In other words the pollsters were saying, if you appreciate abstract art you are enlightened, if not, then you are an ignorant deplorable.

The poll was a collaborative project conducted by the groups Data For Progress and YouGov Blue; but what are these organizations all about and what exactly do they espouse? The poll results were immediately, but not surprisingly, published by the art publications Artnet News, and Hyperallergic, as well as the “progressive” website Vox.

The Data For Progress website states that its goal “is to show how a progressive agenda can win nationwide.” It goes on to say that “a new generation of progressives is rising. A generation not afraid to fight for what we believe in—Medicare for all, a Green Job Guarantee, Abolishing ICE.” The website also presents position papers from Democratic Party Presidential hopefuls Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and other democrats like California State Senator Kevin de León and “Squad” member Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts. However, not a single position paper has anything to do with the subject of art or aesthetics. Moreover, there is no mention of cultural matters on the entire Data For Progress website.

Data For Progress does mention that it distributes “our research over the internet because data can only help interpret the world. The point is to change it.” An interesting plagiarism—considering the original phrase was written in 1845 by a young Karl Marx, who wrote: “Philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways, the point however is to change it.”

YouGov Blue is a division of YouGov, which, according to their website, is “exclusively serving progressive and Democratic clients.” The current director of YouGov Blue is Alissa Stollwerk, who possesses “over a decade of experience in Democratic politics” and worked with the Hillary for America campaign.

You may be asking, “what does any of this have to do with art?” Well dear reader, it has nothing at all to do with art… but it has everything to do with deep manipulation and propaganda.

Because of the crooked Data For Progress/YouGov Blue poll, “left” intellectuals have coined the phrase “Coffee Thyme Gap” to describe the alleged philistinism of Trump supporters when it comes to art; comparing it to the supposed “College Degree Gap” of Trump supporters. The Coffee Thyme Gap was concocted for effete art snobs, nonetheless, the College Degree Gap idea peddled by liberals is an especially reactionary anti-working class sentiment. It implies that people who do not attend universities cannot possibly understand the intricacies of politics or art, let alone make significant cultural or political contributions to society. It is a profoundly elitist and undemocratic viewpoint.

"Untitled." Dan Colen. Chewing gum on canvas. 2010.

"Untitled." Dan Colen. Chewing gum on canvas. 2010.

It is laughable that Artnet News and Hyperallergic uncritically published the skewed poll alleging liberals appreciate contemporary art while conservatives do not.

Why, it was just a few years ago, 2017 to be exact, that both art publications were attacking First Daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner for collecting $25 million in contemporary art. The couple have been acquiring the chic baubles the postmodern crowd endlessly gush over in their cliquish art magazines and contemporary art biennales!

When writing about Ivanka Trump’s Instagram account, where she has pictured artworks in her collection, Hyperallergic put it this way: “It seems likely that little to no part of those millions of dollars arrive from figurative paintings: Ivanka’s feed exemplifies her and Kushner’s affinity for the abstract, the minimal, and the blue chip.”

Ivanka Trump's Instagram Feed with comments by plagiarist Richard Prince. Why was the question "Is this image art?" not asked about this Instagram?

Ivanka Trump's Instagram Feed with comments by plagiarist Richard Prince. Why was the question "Is this image art?" not asked about this Instagram?

Ivanka Trump’s contemporary art collection could fill a small museum. Her collection includes a “Relax/Outline” painting by David Ostrowski, stencil text by Christopher Wool, a “bullet hole” silkscreen print by Nate Lowman, and an Ivanka Trump Instagram selfie sold to Ivanka by artist Richard Prince for $36,000.

Prince is largely reviled for his plagiarism, yet he remains a wildly popular art star with postmoderns—and he’s filthy rich to boot. One of his scams was stealing the photographs from celebrity Instagram accounts (like Ivanka Trump’s), adding his own comments and signature, printing the images on large canvases, and selling the prints for exorbitant amounts of money. I am also amused that Ivanka Trump purchased a Dan Colen painting made of chewing gum—Colen’s cockamamy gum canvases have sold for over $500,000.

Speaking truthfully I think Ivanka has abysmal taste in art, she listens too much to wealthy art dealers and art investment brokers. I realize that these days it is heresy to say so, but, as I see it, a canvas covered with used bubble gum is not a painting. Apparently the “Make America Great Again” philosophy does not apply to art. Which brings me to the core issue of my essay—best explained by a debate that occurred at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA ) seventy years ago.

The debate took place at Art Education 1949: Focus for World Unity, a symposium organized by MoMA—the debate specifically occurring during The Artist’s Point of View lecture. Having ended in 1945, World War II was fresh in everyone’s mind; abstract art was gaining acceptance in established art circles, and artists and the art loving public were speculating whether abstraction or realism represented the future of art. At the symposium abstract artist Robert Motherwell and realist painter Ben Shahn made their case.

"The Wedding." Robert Motherwell. Oil on canvas. 1958.

"The Wedding." Robert Motherwell. Oil on canvas. 1958.

Motherwell argued that by avoiding politics and the depiction of reality, and instead focusing on brushstrokes, shapes, and colors, abstract art offered the virtues of spirituality and purity to viewers; he disparaged Shahn’s politically charged realist paintings and prints as propaganda. Ben Shahn countered in part with the following words: “Trying to get away from content seems to me a little wistful—somewhat like Icarus trying to shed the earth. And at our particular point in history, it’s more than wistful; it appears almost to consort with those forces which would repudiate man and his culture as ultimate values.”

"Peter and the Wolf." Ben Shahn. Egg tempera. 1943.

"Peter and the Wolf." Ben Shahn. Egg tempera. 1943.

From our point in history we know who won the debate—a tectonic shift took place in the art world; abstract art came to totally dominate the American and international art scene. From the 1940s to the late 1950s—abstract art almost completely buried realist painting. Artists who practiced realism were considered old-fashioned, and galleries and museums largely shunned them for the avant-garde abstractionists. But how did abstract art come to monopolize the art world and eclipse figurative realism?

Interestingly enough, during the Cold War the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency secretively promoted abstract art as a weapon against the Soviet Union. Muralist Eva Cockcroft (1937-1999), who painted social themes on the walls of Los Angeles, was also an art historian and writer. In 1974 she wrote Abstract Expressionism, Weapon of the Cold War, an important essay published in ArtForum magazine that same year. Cockcroft wrote: “Links between cultural cold war politics and the sources of Abstract Expressionism are by no means coincidental, or unnoticeable. They were consciously forged at the time by some of the most influential figures controlling museum policies and advocating enlightened cold war tactics designed to woo European intellectuals.”

Starting in 1995 British journalist and historian Frances Stonor Saunders wrote about the subject, first in a ‘95 essay titled Modern art was a CIA weapon, and later in her highly recommended 2001 book: The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters.

In the book Saunders detailed how the CIA planted positive articles about abstract art in magazines and newspapers; clandestinely organized exhibits of abstract art for national and international audiences, and surreptitiously funded abstract artists—along with the museums and galleries that featured them. The spy agency utilized New York’s Museum of Modern Art as a platform for abstract art; its director, Nelson Rockefeller, was a main proponent of abstraction—he called it “free enterprise painting.”

Enter “color field” painter Sam Gilliam. The end of the ’50s witnessed abstract painting being challenged by color field painting—it was the next big advancement in art, or so we were told by art world gatekeepers. Art critic Clement Greenberg praised it as “post-painterly abstraction,” as in, who needs painting? Color field entirely did away with the “gesturalism” of abstract art and instead filled canvases with fields of pure, solid color and nothing more. It’s the “tension” between the colors that excites the aficionados of color field, who say it is more “cerebral” than mere abstract painting.

Of course, abstraction and color field were superseded by pop, minimalism, conceptualism, appropriation, street art, and the rest of the postmodernist alphabet soup (just look at Ivanka Trump’s art collection). Figurative realism collapsed, and today’s art snobs have relegated it to the “unfashionable” world of Thomas Kinkade (no, I am not a fan). Figuration struggles to reclaim its former stature in the art world, but it mostly strives as an underground movement.

I am not arguing that the CIA single-handedly, and intentionally, blotted out the school of figurative realism; however, the agency did play an undeniable role in its demise. The main target of the CIA was the so-called “Socialist Realism” of the Stalinist Soviet Union, but it was America’s tradition of figurative social realism that became collateral damage. It was not by chance that abstract art developed alongside the political machinations of Joe McCarthy.

The American realist painter Edward Biberman (1904-1986), put it this way: “My speculation as to why this particular point of view, which avoids subject matter, coincided almost exactly with the Cold War is something which one cannot prove. The painters of the abstract expressionist and action schools did not have to wrestle directly with contemporary social issues.” Mind you, Biberman had no idea the CIA was pushing abstract art—the writings of Eva Cockcroft and Frances Stonor Saunders came years after Biberman’s suspicions.

There is a new McCarthyism afoot, twisted and distorted, it is now a child of the left; witness the successful attempt of progressives in censoring the mural The Life of George Washington, painted by communist artist Victor Arnautoff in 1936. The Data For Progress/YouGov Blue research is simply McCarthyism turned on its head.

Art world gatekeepers say we are living with a new plurality in art, where all styles form a rich aesthetic environment for the public to enjoy; but in my view serious figurative realism is still excluded. The art world is conflicted, moving away from its former preference for non-political art, to embracing art that promotes “social justice.” The conundrum is that the dominant school of postmodern art—which includes performance, conceptualism, etc., does not speak with a clear, concise, voice to the public at large. In essence, it has no effective language to communicate with the broader society. It is impossible to convey messages of social import with varnished clumps of elephant dung or animals pickled in vats of formaldehyde… at least in my book.

"No 61." Mark Rothko. Oil on canvas, 1953. Collection of MoCA, Los Angeles.

"No 61." Mark Rothko. Oil on canvas, 1953. Collection of MoCA, Los Angeles.

Robert Hughes, one of the very few art critics I ever paid any attention to, wrote about the abstract painter Mark Rothko in his book, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America. He lauded the paintings of Rothko for their emotive power, but chastised Rothko because his “work could not, in the end, support the weight of meaning he wanted it to have.”

In my not so humble opinion, that is the stumbling block for all non-objective art.

As an artist deeply involved in figurative realist art I have studied the achievements of realist painters throughout the ages, and I have traveled the world to see those treasures. With realistic drawings, prints, and paintings I endeavor to present the human condition. For me, realism is the incomparable technique when it comes to telling stories, which is the type of art I practice.

Like the ancient Ouroboros symbol of a serpent eating itself tail first, the liberal art press swallows whole and disseminates this new-sprung McCarthyite poison: “Abstract art is enlightenment, realist art is for ignorant deplorables.”

CRIME: San Francisco’s doomed—just like L.A.

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CRIME, San Francisco's first punk rock band. Left to right: Frankie Fix, Hank Rank, Ron "The Ripper" Greco, and Johnny Strike. Photo/James Stark.

It was 1976 when they took the stage costumed as policemen in black uniforms. The sound of pre-recorded police sirens wailed as they began their aural assault, a clamorous, frenzied skirmish of jangly guitars, rumbling bass, and bone crunching drums. Half-snarling, the lead singer howled: “Baby you’re so repulsive, honey you’re so sick.” Welcome to the world of CRIME, the original punk rock band of San Francisco.

In September of 2018 CRIME’s guitarist Johnny Strike succumbed to cancer, dying at the age of 70. Numerous movers and shakers from the original California punk scene have given up the ghost, so in part this article is a tribute of sorts. It was Strike’s passing that prompted me to write this essay; in the year between his death and this essay’s publication, other punk notables shuffled off this mortal coil. But this is not an obituary for an individual, or more tragically, a eulogy for a group of souls linked by their creativity.

This artist and native born Californian salutes the outsiders that spawned punk rock in my state—it was the last gasp of rock in the late 20th century, and the end of the cultural dissent I was part of.

Frankie Fix (left) and Johnny Strike. Photographer unknown.

Frankie Fix (left) and Johnny Strike. Circa late 1970s. Photographer unknown.

CRIME was co-founded in 1976 by Johnny Strike (guitars, vocals) and Frankie Fix (guitars, vocals). By mid-1976 CRIME released two songs on their self-published 45 single, Hot Wire My Heart and Baby You’re So Repulsive. It was the first American, West Coast punk-rock release. When I heard Repulsive in 76, I knew their baleful guitar noise was for me. The original line-up included Strike and Fix, Ron “the Ripper” (bass), and Ricky Tractor (drums); in 1977 Tractor would be replaced by Brittley Black, then by Hank Rank. Tractor, Fix, and Black all met the choir invisible prior to Strike’s passing.

That CRIME is not hailed like other notorious big-name punk bands of yesteryear is lamentable but unsurprising. Late ’70s Punk was, if nothing else, known for its disobedient and nihilistic attitude, and CRIME wielded that posture with far too much authenticity to guarantee commercial success. In other words, they were a band after my own black heart.

Frankie Fix of CRIME at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco, 1976. Photo/Bruce Conner (1933–2008). Conner contributed photos to the San Francisco punk magazine Search & Destroy in the late '70s. In 2017 he was given a retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. © Conner Family Trust.

Frankie Fix of CRIME at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco, 1976. Photo/Bruce Conner (1933–2008). Conner contributed photos to the San Francisco punk magazine Search & Destroy in the late '70s. In 2017 he was given a retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. © Conner Family Trust.

CRIME became infamous for dressing in police uniforms and the film noir attire of hardboiled detectives—costumes that buttressed their nom de guerre.

I recall the San Francisco Hall of Justice formally requesting of the group that they abstain from wearing police uniforms; it was too close to impersonating police officers. I don’t know what actually became of that request… most likely it was simply ignored.

In 1976 CRIME, along with The Nuns, laid the groundwork for San Francisco’s punk scene. Singer and keyboardist Jennifer Miro co-founded The Nuns with Alejandro Escovedo and Jeff Olener. Along with CRIME, The Nuns became regulars at the Mabuhay Gardens, a Filipino restaurant that hosted punk concerts.

In 1978 The Nuns opened the show for the last Sex Pistols concert, held at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. After breaking-up in ‘79 The Nuns released a self-titled album in 1980 on Posh Boy records, it remains a testament to a once brilliant scene. Miro died in 2012 from cancer—she was 54.

In June 1977, SLASH, the first punk magazine on the U.S. West coast, introduced Southern California to CRIME. Editor of the zine, Claude Bessy, aka Kickboy Face, reviewed CRIME’s first single: “Where do they come from anyway? Where have they been hiding? They look like neo-Nazi perverts, and they sound like your average terminal speed-freak nightmare. Truly dangerous anti-music. This must be the trend that is scaring everyone right now.” Then Kickboy administered the coup de grâce: “If these creatures keep it up they gonna start banning rock music all over again, which means they must be doing something right. Not too sure what it is yet (it can only be taken in very small doses, you know!) but it could be the next big menace to civilization.” [1]

Poster announcing March 16, 1977 CRIME concert at Mabuhay Gardens, with the Nuns. Artist/James Stark. Photo collage and drawing.

Poster announcing March 16, 1977 CRIME concert at Mabuhay Gardens, with the Nuns. Artist/James Stark.

In his review of CRIME’s single, Bessy gave a proper definition of punk rock; alarmingly shocking, dangersome, and somewhat incomprehensible—a far cry from today’s non-threatening groups that are marketed as “punk.”

I first saw CRIME in Nov. 1977 at the world famous Whisky a Go Go on the Sunset Strip, a club that had fallen on hard times and was booking punk bands (for a brief time) to keep its doors open. Less than fifty scruffy punks showed up to hear CRIME and the Dils.

In its August 1977 edition SLASH had asked the band why they called themselves the “Dils,” guitarist Chip Kinman replied: “Because it does not mean anything, it’s really nothing. That’s why it’s perfect.”

Founded in ‘77 by brothers Tony and Chip Kinman, the Dils were a controversial trio even in the disputatious punk scene; they were one of the first punk bands to emerge in California.

Hailing from Carlsbad, San Diego County, California, the band was to have enormous presence and influence in both San Francisco and Los Angeles. Overtly leftwing, they wrote songs like Class War, Mr. BigI Hate the Rich… real top 40 stuff. All the same, I viewed the band and their music as pure Americana, and years later my opinion would be vindicated.

Handbill announcing the Clash, Bo Diddley, and the Dils at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, Feb. 9, 1978.

Handbill announcing the Clash, Bo Diddley, and the Dils at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, Feb. 9, 1978.

I attended the first Clash concert in L.A. on Feb. 9, 1979. They played the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium with the legendary Bo Diddley, and the Dils, who opened the show. In their heraldic battle-cry of a song, 1977, the Clash sang “No Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones in 1977,” and punks readily sang along, convinced they would outrun, overtake, and overthrow all of the dinosaur rock oligarchs. I’m still waiting. The Clash were well on their way to becoming rock gods themselves, as they had signed with Columbia, a major commercial record label—but I digress. Though they performed with as much fury as the Clash, the Dils disbanded in 1980.

In 1981 the Kinman brothers took another path altogether by forming the “cowpunk” band Rank and File. After that band’s demise they formed Cowboy Nation in 1996. Their mission? Keep cowboy music alive, pardner. Listen to their version of Shenandoah and tell me this all-American band fell short of their goal. Sadly, the baritone voice of guitar hero Tony Kinman fell silent when he lost his battle with cancer on May 4, 2018; he was 63-years-old. Joe Strummer, co-founder of the Clash (which crashed and burned in 1983), died of a heart attack on Dec. 22, 2002, he was 50-years-old.

Poster announcing Dec., 1977 concert with CRIME, Dils, and UXA at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco. Artist/James Stark.

Poster announcing Dec., 1977 concert with CRIME, Dils, and UXA at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco. Artist/James Stark.

While punk music was always intended as a discordant affront to polite society, the visual language of punk was no less transgressive. The foreboding graphic flyers of CRIME certainly got my attention. The band formed a relationship with photographer James Stark, who had already made his mark in the 1960s with photos of New York street life. Stark designed promotional flyers for CRIME; those leaflets fortified the punk aesthetic as well—some illustrate this article.

As an artist I began collecting California punk flyers in 1977, and over the years I built quite a collection; I also generated a few anonymous flyers myself. The graphic style of xeroxed punk leaflets exuded anger, humorous absurdity, and biting social commentary, plus, they set the standard for bad taste.

Flyers from CRIME fit right into this genre. Their leaflets thematically focused on the lawless as well as those who enforced the law. They could feature a Roy Lichtenstein-like image of someone thrusting a revolver in your face, or just as easily show cops beating a lawbreaker into submission.

Poster for Aug 1977 CRIME concert at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco, with Novak, and the Avengers. James Stark created this photo collage using a still of James Cagney from the 1935 film "G-Men."

Poster for Aug 1977 CRIME concert at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco, with Novak, and the Avengers. James Stark created this photo collage using a still of James Cagney from the 1935 film "G-Men."

One CRIME poster made use of a movie still showing American actor James Cagney sitting in the back of a car cradling a .45 caliber Thompson submachine gun. That photo came from the 1935 Warner Bros. film “G-Men,” where Cagney played a heroic FBI agent battling criminal underworld mobsters.

One of my best-loved songs from CRIME’s roughneck repertoire is the 1978 San Francisco’s Doomed. In retrospect it’s an extraordinarily prescient anthem:

San Francisco’s doomed, just like L.A. San Francisco’s doomed, all the kids say. San Francisco’s doomed, it’s all in the air. San Francisco’s doomed, and we don’t care.

Today’s San Francisco is awash in used hypodermic needles, human feces, urine, and garbage. In fact, the amount of human excrement on the streets led the city’s Public Works department to create a “Poop Patrol” to clean-up the boulevards.

The open use of heroin is now so pervasive that narcotized junkies are commonly seen passed-out on the pavement. In May 2018 videos uploaded on YouTube showed dozens of junkies shooting-up in the Bay Area Rapid Transit station—many were unconscious. The staggering amount of used drug needles and human waste found on the city’s fetid avenues has only increased. Ah… and to think, previous generations used to sing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

However, the lyrics to San Francisco’s Doomed also included the words… “just like L.A.” In November 2018, downtown Los Angeles became a “Typhus Zone” when armies of rats feasting on mountains of uncollected garbage become bearers of typhus carrying fleas. The rodents and their fleas came in contact with the legions of homeless people sleeping on downtown L.A. streets, and presto… the city developed a typhus outbreak.

Around nine people contracted typhus in downtown Los Angeles from July through Sept., 2018. One deputy city attorney contracted the disease while working at the rat infested L.A. City Hall. Rodents took up residence at the L.A. Police Department’s downtown Central Division headquarters, and two officers were diagnosed with suspected typhus. The Democrat politicians that run the city promised to clean-up the garbage that attracts vermin (why is that so hard?), but Los Angeles—at the time of this article’s publication, still has no rat abatement program. The rat empire thrives and spreads across the sunny megalopolis of Los Angeles. Some experts even fear an outbreak of bubonic plague is close at hand.

Yeah… “doomed, just like L.A.”

CRIME played San Quentin California State Prison in Sept., 1978. Left to right: Ron 'the Ripper' Greco, Frankie Fix, Hank Rank, Johnny Strike. Photo/James Stark/Solar Lodge Records.

CRIME played San Quentin California State Prison in Sept., 1978. Left to right: Ron 'the Ripper' Greco, Frankie Fix, Hank Rank, Johnny Strike. Photo/James Stark/Solar Lodge Records.

One of the most deliciously ironic episodes in all of punk history was the Labor Day concert CRIME played at San Quentin California State Prison in 1978. The band performed in police uniforms on the prison exercise yard before some 500 inmates, as armed corrections officers watched from their guard towers and walkways. Drummer Hank Rank told the press: “We knew we’d be playing for a crowd that was really into crime.” Rank also said “the window of the cell where Sirhan Sirhan was in solitary was directly opposite where we played, and I’d like to think that our show was the worst punishment of his life.”

The Stardust Ballroom in Hollywood, California, circa late 70s. Photographer unknown.

The Stardust Ballroom in Hollywood, California, circa late 70s. Photographer unknown.

CRIME played at the Stardust Ballroom in Hollywood on July 3, 1978, as the supporting act for two of my favorite Los Angeles bands, the Screamers and the Weirdos.

The Screamers were an “art punk” band sans guitars that relied on synthesizers and the powerful theatrics of frontman Tomata du Plenty to paint a dystopian vision—impressions that in time, became our present. Tomata died of cancer in 2000 at the age of 52. As for the Weirdos, well… they were a deranged DaDa painting that some mistook for a wall of noise.

The Stardust had a storied history, and it began with Orrin Tucker, an American big band leader and singer who found fame in swing music during the 1930s and ’40s.

Tucker and his orchestra recorded over 70 popular records and continued performing into the ’90s. In 1975 Tucker leased an old roller skating rink on Sunset Blvd. near Western, transforming it into the fabulous Stardust Ballroom, a venue for big band music where Orrin Tucker and his orchestra were top billing.

Alas, big band music was no longer popular, and Tucker began renting out his musical palace to others; as disco seized the spotlight, the likes of a newly-minted Disco Diva named Cher played the venue. Then came the recession; millions in America lost their jobs, the Arab nations of OPEC halted oil exports to the U.S., gas rationing and long lines at gas stations became common… suddenly Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees—”I’m going nowhere, somebody help me”—sounded more like a death knell than a disco hit. That’s when punk moved in for the coup de grâce.

Poster announcing July, 1978 concert with CRIME, Weirdos, and the Screamers at the Stardust Ballroom in Hollywood. Design/Paul Lesperance.

Poster announcing July, 1978 concert with CRIME, Weirdos, and the Screamers at the Stardust Ballroom in Hollywood. Design/Paul Lesperance.

I attended the Stardust concert where CRIME, Screamers, and the Weirdos played; it was certainly evidence that Orrin Tucker’s world had long ago disappeared. I saw packs of fellow harum-scarum spiky headed punks bopping across the cracked concrete flooring of the dilapidated ballroom—bruised, sweaty, clothes torn; stark stage lighting provided the only illumination in the dark hall. It looked and sounded like the end of the world. It was a miracle someone actually filmed the CRIME scene, most likely using one those newfangled personal video cameras just introduced in the late ’70s. Viewing that film is like peering into an opaque, foggy, incomprehensible past.

The Stardust Ballroom closed its doors forever in 1982 when Orrin Tucker made his escape from L.A. and fled to Palm Springs. The once proud venue continued its decline, until finally, ignominiously, it was torn down and replaced with a Home Depot store. Such is Los Angeles, where history is disregarded and buried again and again. Orrin Tucker died on April 9, 2011 at the age of 100.

On March 23, 1978 CRIME played the Mabuhay Gardens with a band named Levi and the Rockats, who were part of the rockabilly revival movement. A few L.A. punks fancied the rough and tumble rockabilly of the 1950s, the chief attraction being a desire to return rock to its roots. I saw the Rockats perform at the new Masque in Los Angeles, Feb. 3, 1979. Oddly enough Levi and the Rockats appeared on The Merv Griffin Show in April 1979, which at the time was produced and filmed at the TAV Celebrity Theater in Hollywood, California.

 Poster announcing Aug. 31st and Sept. 1st solo CRIME concerts in 1978 at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco. Artist/James Stark.

Poster announcing Aug. 31st and Sept. 1st solo CRIME concerts in 1978 at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco. Artist/James Stark.

While the Rockats tore up the new Masque, they were far from being hair-raising or dangerous—nor were they particularly original. Punks like myself were seeking more sinister sounds, like the demented “psycho-billy” of The Cramps, who I also saw at the new Masque.

Cramps frontman Lux Interior died in 2009 from heart trouble, he was 62. Nick Knox, the bands original drummer, died in 2018 at the age of 60.

The new Masque was located in an old brick and stucco building near the intersection of Vine Street and Santa Monica Blvd. At the time, the ungentrified district built in the 1920s and ’30s was crumbling, it was a ghost of its former self—even the palm trees were wizened by L.A.’s smog.

At the intersection stood the California Surplus Mart (still standing today), where punks bought some mighty strange clothing. The only other thing of note in the area was a shabby gas station. The new Masque served as a punk venue from 1979 to 1980, I practically lived there; it had no bar, running water, toilet facilities, and no mirrored Disco ball. It was simply an empty space with a concrete floor. Today, the former punk dive is a refurbished retail space that sells house paint.

The Germs opening for the Cramps at the new Masque in Los Angeles, Feb. 24, 1979. Pictured: frontman Darby Crash and bass player Lorna Doom. Photo/Ladd McPartland.

The Germs opening for the Cramps at the new Masque in Los Angeles, Feb. 24, 1979. Pictured: frontman Darby Crash and bass player Lorna Doom. Photo/Ladd McPartland.

Funny how you memorize a place or event. The aforementioned concert by The Cramps happened at the new Masque on a Saturday evening, Feb. 24, 1979; it included the Germs, Dead Boys, and Wall of Voodoo as support acts, but it wasn’t the cacophonous music I would remember. During the evening gig I needed a breather, and so I stepped out of the club and into the dead of night. Raucous Germs music at my back, I crossed the street to the neon glow of the gas station where three long-haired station attendants were glaring at the nightclub; it surely must have been quaking and shaking like a jackhammer.

The service station men eyed me suspiciously and raised their eyebrows at my severe short hair, black leather motorcycle boots splattered with Day-Glo green paint, and my black boiler suit coveralls stenciled with large white letters reading “Satisfied Die.” Nodding towards the club, one squinty-eyed attendant asked me, “What’s going on over there?” With the caterwauling of the Germs hanging in the air, I answered “It’s a concert.” The three scowled at me incredulously and with a raspy voice one growled: “That doesn’t sound like any concert I’ve ever heard.” That cinematic moment described the atmosphere around the new Masque, as well as the public view of the punk bizarros walking amongst them.

Poster announcing Feb. 16, 1978 concert with CRIME, Novak, and Tuxedo Moon at The Keystone in Berkeley, California. Artist unknown.

Poster announcing Feb. 16, 1978 concert with CRIME, Novak, and Tuxedo Moon at The Keystone in Berkeley, California. Artist unknown.

In March of 1979 CRIME embarked on their “Fun Bus Tour.” Once again they would bring their music to the polluted megalopolis of Los Angeles. On the eve of the bus trip, someone filmed the bon voyage party that took place somewhere in the Bay area. The shindig was a typical affair, with besotted punk youth waiting for the end of the world—the latest album by synth-noise terror band Chrome, Half Machine Lip Moves, was blaring away in the background.

Those attending the soirée included Margot Olavarria, original bassist of the Go-Go’s when they were still a punk band, and Terry Graham, drummer for the Bags. After the party almost everyone piled onto a bus to invade Southern California, where CRIME would play three clubs, the Troubadour, Squeeze’s Place, Madame Wong’s (just before CRIME arrived, that venue banned them), and a final gig at the Vanguard Gallery.

In late ’70s Lost Angeles, terrified music venues had largely closed their doors to punk bands, I never figured out why. With our black leather jackets, razor blade earrings, weird haircuts colored red, blue, or green, chain belts, bondage gear, combat boots, spiky bracelets, and bad attitudes, we were such an adorable coterie. Sure, on occasion we would riot inside a venue, letting loose a barrage of beer bottles, even hurl fireworks, patrons and furniture out of broken windows—but on the whole we were quite civil and genteel. Reacting to venues closing their doors to us, L.A.’s punk partisans went deeper underground, renting abandoned spaces and other hole in the wall dives for fly-by-night concerts.

Poster announcing May 12, 1979 concert with CRIME and The Mutants at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco. Artist/James Stark.

Poster announcing May 12, 1979 concert with CRIME and The Mutants at Mabuhay Gardens. Artist/James Stark.

At some point during the LA Fun Bus Tour, CRIME was interviewed by the so-called “Mayor of the Sunset Strip,” Rodney Bingenheimer, whose “Rodney on the ROQ” show was broadcast on Pasadena’s then fledgling rock station, KROQ.

To be blunt, I never cared much for Rodney. Foppish and obsessed with celebrities, he was also painfully timid—making him almost childlike. That aside, I credit him for almost single-handedly putting punk before a national radio audience in the U.S. During the late ’70s not a single radio station in the country would broadcast the punk rock Bingenheimer regularly beamed over the airwaves. Listeners to his show would hear the likes of local L.A. bands like the Flesh Eaters, DeadBeats, Alley Cats, Eyes, X, and many others. In that context Bingenheimer awkwardly interviewed CRIME.

As I recall, the most featherbrained comment from Bingenheimer in the interview was his saying punks “had a lot in common” with law enforcement officers—because, he averred—punks and cops both liked violence and they wore black leather jackets.

He also made jest that CRIME dressed like cops, whereas “new-wave” darlings The Police did not. Years later, after Bingenheimer helped turn KROQ into a radio leviathan, the big-wigs at the station unceremoniously fired him in 2017. He almost immediately joined Little Steven’s SiriusXM’s Underground Garage show, hosting a weekly broadcast I have yet to hear.

Poster announcing CRIME concert at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco, June 24, 1978. Artist/James Stark.

Poster announcing CRIME concert at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco, June 24, 1978. Artist/James Stark.

One last note regarding the Fun Bus Tour party. Darby Crash of the Germs dropped in with a dead ringer for Lorna Doom, bass player of the Germs. Both sported black leather jackets and black armbands emblazoned with the band’s blue circle logo (armbands were a punk anti-fashion thing at the time). An ardent Germs fan, I attended their last concert at the Starwood nightclub in West Hollywood on Dec. 3, 1980. Four days later Crash committed suicide at the age of 22, intentionally overdosing on heroin and effectively ending the Germs. Lorna Doom would die of cancer on Jan. 16, 2019, she was 61.

There are those who say Crash was a “genius.” Though he displayed flashes of brilliance, anyone who uses heroin is far from being an Einstein. Crash’s suicide was a tragically stupid act. And speaking of tragedies, in 2006 the bandmates of Crash made the grotesque error of reactivating the Germs, replacing their deceased boy wonder frontman with an actor named Shane West, perhaps best known for playing a doctor on the medical TV show, ER. The faux Germs willingly transformed what was once the most authentically fierce and nihilistic punk band, into a postmodern simulacrum of rebellion—starring a TV actor.

The imitation Germs followed in the footsteps of those who defiled the legacy of the renowned 60s band, the Doors; Jim Morrison, legendary lead singer and songwriter of that band died in 1971. In 2002, former members of the Doors Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger, reformed the group as “The Doors of the 21st Century.” They replaced Morrison with Ian Robert Astbury, singer for the post-punk band, The Cult. Yeah, that worked as well as the ersatz Germs. In 2005 the surviving Doors drummer John Densmore, along with the Morrison estate, won a permanent court injunction preventing anyone from using “The Doors” as a band name. “The Doors of the 21st Century” changed their name to “Manzarek-Krieger”—that band ceased to exist when Manzarek died of cancer on May 20, 2013 at the age of 74.

Poster announcing "Punks Against Black Lung: A Benefit Concert for Striking Coal Workers," held at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco. March 1978.

Poster announcing "Punks Against Black Lung: A Benefit Concert for Striking Coal Workers," held at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco. March 1978.

If a new wave soothsayer had warned CRIME to “Beware the Ides of March,” they probably wouldn’t have listened. I don’t remember who organized the March 1978 “Punks Against Black Lung: A Benefit Concert for Striking Coal Workers,” but it was a huge event at the Mabuhay Gardens that garnered national attention—at least in punk circles. Someone had the bright idea of raising funds for the miners, convincing a number of bands to play a two evening gig at the Mabuhay.

The circumstances that inspired the benefit revolved around the 1977-1978 national coal strike in the United States. The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) negotiated a contract with the coal companies; a good portion of mine workers rejected the contract, and so militant workers conducted a work stoppage without union authorization—a “wildcat strike.” After 110-days, the bitter labor action ended on March 19, 1978… the eve of the Mabuhay benefit concert.

CRIME was asked to play, but they refused. The press quoted the band as having said, “Mine workers are just assholes who drive around in Cadillacs.” The band claimed they were misquoted, but months later guitarist Frankie Fix told the Berkeley Barb newspaper the miners “would never go dig for an extra week so we could get out our new record.” [2] When it came to his assessment that coal miners didn’t give a fig about punk rock, Fix was absolutely correct; but then, no one cared about punk rock except the punks.

Somehow the miners benefit show went on without CRIME—fourteen punk bands like Negative Trend, the Nuns, and Tuxedo Moon ended up playing the two evening concert that took place on March 20-21, the door price per night? $4.50 (wow, the good ‘ol days). Search & Destroy Magazine filmed the benefit, and captured the beautiful noise and artlessness of UXA, Dils, Avengers, Sleepers, and the Mutants on film.

Handbill for the Sept. 11, 1978 "Nix on 6—Save the Homos Benefit" concert at the Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco.

Handbill for the Sept. 11, 1978 "Nix on 6—Save the Homos Benefit" concert at the Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco.

Before you start bellyaching about CRIME being politically incorrect creeps, consider this. Six months after refusing to play the miners gig, CRIME headlined a Sept. 11, 1978 benefit concert at Mabuhay Gardens in opposition to the Briggs Initiative. Officially known as California Proposition 6, the initiative sought to ban gays and lesbians from working in the state’s public schools.

CRIME’s drummer Hank Rank told the press the following about Prop. 6. “This Briggs issue hits closer to home than the miners’ benefit. People have always suppressed us as individuals and as a band. We’re against suppression of any kind, and we think Briggs and his supporters are ghouls for bringing this dead issue to life. Who cares about sexual preference any more, anyway?” Frankie Fix told the press; “It’s 1978, I can’t believe we’re even talking about being gay. It’s like how black people used to be talked about and discriminated against. People are real slow. We’re all sexual beings and that’s all there is to it.” [2]

CRIME had an unlikely ally in their opposition to the Briggs Initiative. Former state Governor and soon to be US President, Ronald Reagan, also opposed the measure. The Briggs Initiative was defeated by voters in Nov. 1978.

Poster announcing Feb. 2, 1977 CRIME concert at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco. with VKTMS and Situations. Photo/James Stark.

Poster announcing Feb. 2, 1977 CRIME concert at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco. with VKTMS and Situations. Photo/James Stark.

I could go on telling true CRIME stories, but I’d have to write a book instead of an essay. CRIME and the other uncontaminated bands of punk’s initial detonation were like proverbial canaries in a coal mine, but few heard the caged birds singing. Listening to the strains of today’s “alternative sounds”—pop, hip hop, rap, I know those canaries kicked the bucket a long time ago. Bernie Sanders producing a campaign video with the moronic Cardi B only proves my point. Today’s commercial music is entirely disposable. A cursory glance at the Billboard Hot 100 makes you wish the music industry really was dead, but it’s a reanimated corpse that just keeps shambling along.

The left leaning news magazine The Week, published an article on Aug. 31, 2019 titled “The coming death of just about every rock legend.” Detailing the moribund state of rock, the piece opened with the following words, “Rock music isn’t dead, but it’s barely hanging on.” That was the exact message punks delivered to the world over 40-years-ago, albeit with slightly more force, along the lines of: “We’ve come to bury rock, not to praise it.” Glad to see everyone’s caught up.

Do you think a genre of music like rock can’t fade away and take flight from public memory? Tell me, where is American Big band music today? Born in the early 1910s from the world of jazz, it completely dominated popular music in the 20s, 30s, and 40s (it’s zenith), and remained influential in the 50s and 60s. Then suddenly, full stop—it became passé. What does your average millennial know about Big band music? Do they prize Orrin Tucker and his orchestra?

Do you think I exaggerate about the demise of rock ‘n roll? Mike Kaplan, program director for ALT 92.3 (WNYL-FM), the ONLY “contemporary rock station” in New York City said the following: “We don’t even say the word ‘rock’ on the radio station—we’re New York’s new alternative.” He went on to blather, ”I don’t think there’s a big win in using the word ‘rock’ today. The raw, guitar-rock sound is really… I don’t want to say it’s done, but…” This station is in New York City of all places. CBGB? Fuhgeddaboudit. And those phenomenal New York rock bands like the Ramones, Richard Hell & The Voidoids, Television, the Dictators, the Misfits, and the Patti Smith Group? Just odds and ends to be swept away. In Kaplan’s words; “If there’s anything polarizing that I see in music, it’s a no-go.” So, that’s the future of rock, eh?

Poster announcing Halloween, 1978 CRIME concert at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco with Pearl Harbor & the Explosions, and Dead Kennedys. Design/James Stark.

Poster announcing 1978 Halloween CRIME concert at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco, with Pearl Harbor & the Explosions, Dead Kennedys, and the Next. Design/James Stark.

Speaking personally—and I know this will upset my contemporaries who still flail and wail about in their punk uniforms like it’s the 1977 Summer of Hate, but I view punk as a moment frozen in time. It was an anomaly from the late 1970s and early ’80s that grew from a particular set of circumstances; it eventually entered the annals of history. You can make history, but you can’t relive or alter it, and you assuredly cannot superimpose it over other conditions as a solution.

In ‘77 punk was a jagged stone violently thrown into a placid body of water; we’ve been watching the ripples slowly dissipating on the pond’s surface ever since.

Examining the lyrics of CRIME and other punk bands from the period, one quickly realizes the millennial “woke” crowd of today would decry the words as politically incorrect—triggering anxiety about sexism, racism and ’sensory overload.’

The noose on free expression draws ever tighter.

As a point of personal privilege—I can’t imagine people at a FEAR concert reacting with “jazz hands.”

If you were caught on the streets of Los Angeles in 1977 with blue hair, you would likely have been pummeled by an angry crowd of normals. In present-day Los Angeles… the normals have blue hair.

It has been said that “the moving finger writes; and, having writ, moves on.” I have no more interest in dressing up in ’80s punk gear than I do in wearing a black turtleneck sweater, donning a beret, and carrying bongos in the hope people will think I’m a ’50s beatnik. Back in my late ’70s punk heyday, I didn’t envision a future of endlessly replayed songs by domesticated house pets like Green Day and Billy Idol—but that’s where we’re at presently. Long ago punk became just another set of ossified rules; one might as well go to a Grateful Dead revival concert.

CRIME and many of their compatriots are dead, literally, and so with them punk itself. Yet the spirit of punk, ephemeral and wraith-like, lingers—waiting to infect. All the motives we had for throwing ourselves into punk, a rejection of conformity and a thirst for creativity and radical inventiveness—still exist. All that’s needed is a new skin and the necessary accoutrements. Punk was much more than a black leather jacket, a beat-up electric guitar, and a weird haircut; it demanded untamed freedom and creativity, a philosophy to be applied to all human endeavor.

I just hope the virus finds those who have not been inoculated.

———————————– # ———————————–

Ibid.
[1]  SLASH Magazine. Vol. 1 #2 June 1977
[2] Berkeley Barb. Sept. 8-14, 1978.

The Ice Cream Follies: PECAN RESIST!

Screen shot from Ben & Jerry's "Pecan Resist" video advertisement, featuring package design by Favianna Rodriquez.

Screen shot from Ben & Jerry's "Pecan Resist" video advertisement, featuring package design by Favianna Rodriquez.

Yes, this is a turning point. President Trump is finished. The walls are closing in. Impeachment is just around the corner. No, I’m not ranting about the results of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russian collusion investigation, I’m talking about Ben & Jerry’s new ice cream flavor… Pecan Resist. No, I’m not kidding.

Believe it or not, Ben & Jerry’s launched Pecan Resist on October 30, 2018, in the First Amendment Room of the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. That apparently is what the National Press Club thinks the First Amendment is for—marketing and product placement. That’s the first lesson of the ice cream follies.

The second lesson is that everything in the Trump era has become politicized, even a frozen dessert. At the National Press Club, Ben & Jerry’s let all consumers know that their Pecan Resist flavor will help “lick injustice and champion those fighting to create a more just and equitable nation for us all.” Good grief, this essentially means that “Pecan Resist” equals “We Can Resist.”

Just in case you missed the point, Ben & Jerry’s clarified their marketing campaign: “The company cannot be silent in the face of President Trump’s policies that attack and attempt to roll back decades of progress on racial and gender equity, climate change, LGBTQ rights and refugee and immigrant rights – all issues that have been at the core of the company’s social mission for 40 years.” So buy our ice cream, it’s for the revolution, don’t cha know.

Oct. 30, 2018 Twitter post announcing Ben & Jerry's launch of "Pecan Resist."

Oct. 30, 2018 Twitter post announcing Ben & Jerry's launch of "Pecan Resist."

But why am I writing about ice cream, and what does any of this have to do with art? Because, as the Press Release from Ben & Jerry’s notes; “The Pecan Resist campaign graphics and pint design were developed by Bay Area artist and activist Favianna Rodriguez.” In the Press Release for Pecan Resist, Rodriguez made the following statement:

“As an artist, I know well the power of culture and I recognize when a business is using its platform to push for love, justice and a green planet. Let’s declare our resistance, march in the streets, and elect a new generation of change makers.”

Hmm, I remember a time when the left would NEVER have collaborated with a multinational corporation, let alone take its money. That would have made one complicit with monopoly capitalism. But now that the left has changed its rulebook by throwing the white working class under the bus, they might as well violate their rules against teaming up with huge and powerful corporations.

Here’s a surprise for Ms. Rodriguez, there is no Ben & Jerry’s. It’s a fully owned subsidiary of the British-Dutch transnational corporation, Unilever. The largest consumer goods company in the world, it owns over 400 brands and has assets that totaled $70.278 billion in 2017. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield founded their ice cream company in 1978, but their business became just another corporate acquisition for Unilever, which purchased the company in 2000.

The products still say “Ben & Jerry’s,” but Cohen and Greenfield do not hold board or management positions in the Unilever Ben & Jerry’s. In a 2017 interview, Greenfield described their current role in Ben & Jerry’s: “We have no responsibility, no authority, and very little influence.” The New York Times in 2000 reported that Unilever acquired Ben & Jerry’s for around $326 million in cash.

On October 23, 2018, Reuters reported that the Unilever Ben & Jerry’s spent lots of money buying ads on Facebook ahead of the Nov. 6, 2018 midterm elections in the U.S.  According to Reuters, the company “spent more than $401,000 since May on various ads, including one supporting a Florida ballot measure that would let felons vote” (incidentally, that ballot measure won). Wow… that could inspire a brand new Ben & Jerry’s flavor. Two scoops of “Felons Truffle Kerfuffle” anyone? Or maybe “Faux Russian Collusion Cookie Core” would be more fitting?

Book-cover for April 1, 2007 edition of "Yo! Whatever Happened To Peace?" The cover also served as a stencil.

April 1, 2007 edition of "Yo! Whatever Happened To Peace?" The book-cover also served as a stencil.

It seems like a million years ago, but on Saturday, July 28th, 2007, I spoke at an artist’s forum with Favianna Rodriguez that celebrated the official Los Angeles debut of the newly published art book, Yo! What Happened to Peace? The book was a collection of hand-made prints created by over 120 artists in opposition to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq—it included works by Rodriguez and yours truly. The forum, held at the Continental Gallery in downtown Los Angeles, was a lively evening of art, music and dialogue well attended by over 500 people.

Since then Ms. Rodriguez has made quite a name for herself in the Oakland Bay Area and beyond. Her colorful graphic print works offer a decidedly left-wing feminist view on the issues of immigration, gender, economic inequality, LGBTQ rights, and climate change—all with a laser focus on women of color. Ms. Rodriguez, to put it mildly, has ardently embraced identity politics. Thus, her works have brought her acclaim and celebrity from like-minded people. Obviously her works were favored by Unilever.

Altogether now, let’s recite the following in our best Borg Collective drone voice, “You will be assimilated—resistance is futile.”

"I'm a Slut. I Vote." Favianna Rodriquez. Digital Print 2012. Offered by Rodriguez as a free download.

"I'm a Slut. I Vote." Favianna Rodriquez. Digital Print 2012. Offered by Rodriguez as a free download.

‘Scuse me while this cisgendered lug does some art-splaining. I began to question the political approach of Rodriguez when she printed a series of militant silkscreen prints promoting women’s rights. On June 8, 2012 Ms. Rodriguez announced that these posters would be available as free downloads so that they could be “shared far and wide.” She called her suite of prints, the “pussy-power, poontang-celebrating, patriarchy-defeating, slut-positive posters.”

Mind you, having created a fair amount of provocative art myself, I appreciate the role of angry aesthetics, and I’m most certainly in favor of advancing women’s rights. However, these particular posters by Rodriguez utterly fail as visual arguments in favor of a noble cause. They will undoubtably appeal to small circles of seasoned radical feminists, but their surly, confrontational nature will send everyone else running. It should be obvious to most people that the great majority of American women will not appreciate being called a slut.

"Yo Pussy Power." Favianna Rodriguez. Digital Print 2012. Offered by Rodriguez as a free download.

"Yo Pussy Power." Favianna Rodriguez. Digital Print 2012. Offered by Rodriguez as a free download.

Furthermore, rather than offering a rational, persuasive argument to men, the artist resorts to abuse and invective. Calling men “Misogynist, Crusty, F**k Heads” will not garner their support—but it will most definitely turn them away. In other words, these posters comprise a monumental propaganda disaster. Conservatives will point at the “slut” themed posters and rightly say “that’s today’s left,” and they won’t even have to bother parodying the posters.

The same can also be said for the Pecan Resist package design. Normal people associate ice cream with fun, parties, festive occasions, and the like. But these days it seems “no fun” has become the mantra of a stern, stridently politically correct, and very humorless left.

With Pecan Resist you are transported to a street protest where three angry looking women are scowling, most likely because you’re not carrying a “F**k Trump” placard. The outraged “sisters” are presumably shouting “Hey Hey, Ho Ho, (insert grievance here), Has Got To Go!” Unilever even created an animated ad using the Pecan Resist art (yes, there’s a YouTube campaign), presenting one of the cartoon women breathing fire—along with stock footage of marching irate protestors. Ah, such joy, it just makes you want to eat ice cream, doesn’t it?

But “inclusivity” only goes so far—sorry vegans, there isn’t a non-dairy Pecan Resist.  And as for “intersectionality” being the tool that guides the pseudo-politics of a faddish left, ponder the following. What can be said about the brilliant minds behind the Pecan Resist marketing campaign who are totally ignorant of the fact that up to 75% of African Americans and Native Americans, and 90% of Asian Americans, are lactose intolerant? And these geniuses want to combat racism.

Not surprisingly, the Pecan Resist video isn’t doing so well. On the day of its Oct. 30, 2018 launch, it received hundreds of negative comments, so many in fact that Unilever was forced to disable comments altogether in order to avoid embarrassment. I did manage to jot down a few barbs before they disappeared; “You couldn’t resist the urge to lose business, could you” and “Politics in ice cream? Get woke, go broke” pretty much summed up the feedback.

There were 14 up-votes and a whopping 952 down-votes registered when the company disabled comments. But wait, it gets even better. On the official Ben & Jerry’s website product page for Pecan Resist, the “Ratings & Reviews” section has been removed. That section exists for every other flavor at the bottom of each page, and it’s where customers leave extensive comments and rate their favorite flavor. Oh well, “This Is What Democracy Looks Like!”

Another new Ben & Jerry’s flavor could very well be, “Culture Wars Cheesecake Cataclysm.”

Ms. Rodriguez’ twitter announcement about her art gracing Ben & Jerry’s latest product didn’t fare any better; many of the comments were pretty icy: “it’s only 1/1024th cocoa but identifies as chocolate” and “Ah yes, using the political climate to promote your personal capitalism. Amazingly capitalist regime of you” were typical retorts. But then there were the truly injurious snubs, like “You went to the Jim Carey (sic) school of art I see.”

In its Press Release for the launch of Pecan Resist, the Unilever Ben & Jerry’s announced that it was donating $25,000 each to four groups “focused on freedom, belonging, community, and justice.” One of those groups is the Women’s March, described as having a commitment to “harnessing the political power of diverse women.” In fact the Press Release features a group photo that includes artist Favianna Rodriquez standing next to the co-chair of the Women’s March, the Palestinian-American-Muslim Linda Sarsour.

To say that Linda Sarsour is a lightning rod of controversy would be an understatement. In 2011 she tweeted that “sharia law is reasonable and once u (sic) read into the details it makes a lot of sense.” That may be so for the patriarchal Islamic extremists who use sharia to oppress women, but this is coming from an activist who supposedly defends women’s rights.

The political and economic support given to the Women’s March by Ben & Jerry’s has raised the hackles of many. Even the rabidly anti-Trump New York Post ran an article titled; “Don’t join this year’s Women’s March unless you’re good with anti-Semitism.

The progressive Huffington Post is also known as a Trump hating platform, but HuffPo published a 2016 article titled “As Long As There Is Sharia Law, Women Will Not Have Human Rights.” Written by Indian-American Muslim Deeba Abedi, the essay should make any decent minded person squirm over the atrocities committed by sharia against the basic human rights of women.

Linda Sarsour and fellow Women’s March leaders Tamika Mallory and Carmen Perez, have ties to Louis Farrakhan, the head of the Nation of Islam (NOI). Mr. Farrakhan needs no introduction, he’s a hardened anti-Semite with a very long history of preaching hate against Jews, Whites, and Gays. But then comes his most recent perfidious exploit.

The Mehr News Agency, one of the official news agencies of Iran, reported that Louis Farrakhan visited the country on Nov. 4, 2018 as the Islamic Republic celebrated the 39th anniversary of the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. That’s when, for 444 days, radical Islamists held 50 U.S. diplomates and embassy staff hostage. Farrakhan’s solidarity visit was also timed to protest President Trump’s Nov. 5th renewal of sanctions against the Islamic regime. Farrakhan led an auditorium of law students gathered at the University of Tehran in chants of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” in Farsi.

In 2015 Mr. Farrakhan invited Sarsour, Mallory, and Perez to participate in the Nation of Islam organized “Justice Or Else” rally in Washington, D.C. Sarsour was a keynote speaker at the gathering. If any of you progressives out there doubt the reactionary nature of Farrakhan, then watch and listen to this video of his speech to a Nation of Islam gathering in 1993. He boasted that the Nation of Islam murdered Malcolm X, saying “we dealt with him the way a nation deals with a traitor.” Since Ms. Rodriguez issued a silkscreen poster of Malcolm X in 2010, perhaps she would considered reissuing the print using the Farrakhan quote?

In September 2018, Linda Sarsour addressed the Islamic Society of North America conference where she lectured Muslim Americans for being “complicit” in the murder of Palestinians. She told her audience they must never “humanize the oppressor,” meaning of course, all Israeli Jews. We know what happens when a people are dehumanized—every crime against them can be justified.

Which brings me to another Women’s March leader, the 69-year-old Palestinian Rasmea Yousef Odeh. She helped organize the Women’s March in the U.S. capital that took place on March 8, 2016 after Trump’s inauguration. Odeh co-wrote “Women of America: we’re going on strike. Join us so Trump will see our power,” an open letter published by The Guardian announcing the protest.

In 1969 Odeh belonged to the Marxist oriented “Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine” (PFLP). She planted a powerful bomb in an Israeli supermarket that killed two young men shopping for groceries—Leon Kanner, 21, and Eddie Joffe, 22. Nine other people were wounded. Odeh was sentenced to life in prison, but served 10 years before being released in a prisoner exchange. In 1995 she entered the U.S. but failed to tell U.S. authorities she had served a prison sentence for murder and terrorism; she eventually received American citizenship.

When U.S. immigration authorities discovered Odeh’s deliberate deception, she was charged with immigration fraud for lying on her visa and citizenship forms. In March of 2017, she accepted a plea bargain that stripped her of U.S. citizenship. In a final act of “resistance” on U.S. soil, in April of 2017 Odeh was the keynote speaker at the “Jewish Voice for Peace” summit in Chicago. Linda Sarsour shared the stage with Odeh, and said she was “honored and privileged to be here in this space, and honored to be on this stage with Rasmea.” In Sept., 2017, Rasmea Yousef Odeh was deported to Jordan.

Ben & Jerry’s Israel branch announced it has no intention of carrying or selling Pecan Resist. Israelis are incensed over Linda Sarsour’s support for Rasmea Yousef Odeh, and for her and other Women’s March leaders backing Louis Farrakhan. But then, Sarsour said we should never “humanize the oppressor.” For Sarsour and those who think like her, the thoughts of Israeli Jews are entirely irrelevant and never to be considered.

For those in the U.S. who insist that opposition to the Women’s March is driven by conservatives, think again. A major socialist institution in Germany, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, withdrew their Nov. 12, 2018 presentation of its Human Rights Award to the Women’s March, citing the antisemitism of the women’s organization as the reason. The Friedrich Ebert Foundation (Friedrich Ebert Stiftung or FES), is a German political foundation with ties to the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Founded in 1863, the SPD is one of Germany’s two major political parties; it was one of the first mass organizations in the world to be influenced by Marxism. Founded in 1925 the FES promotes the peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism by electoral means. It has projects in over 100 countries and maintains fraternal ties with the Workers Party of Brazil.

Scholars and alumni of FES wrote an open letter denouncing the Women’s March, with a special focus on Linda Sarsour. You can read the entire document here. The statement in part reads: “We believe that the Women’s March USA does not meet the criteria of this award, as its organizers have repeatedly attracted attention through antisemitic statements, the trivialization of antisemitism and the exclusion of Zionists and Jews since Women’s March USA’s establishment in 2017. Women’s March USA does not constitute an inclusive alliance.” As a result the Friedrich Ebert Foundation suspended the award ceremony to “to allow an independent body to investigate the matter.”

Favianna Rodriguez, her benefactors at Unilever Ben & Jerry’s, and all those who think buying Pecan Resist actually constitutes a step towards a better society, should read the declaration composed by the left intellectuals of FES.

I can’t imagine why Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield would donate $25,000 to the Women’s March, not with Linda Sarsour at the helm. And I also can’t imagine why Favianna Rodriguez would stand with Sarsour. However, what I CAN imagine is Sarsour, her cohorts in the Islamic Society of North America, and the Palestinian people, responding with open disgust if they were ever to see Rodriguez’ “pussy power, poontang” graphics.

I’ve always maintained that artists should avoid endorsing political parties, candidates, and celebrity figures. Not because I’m a contrarian, but for the reason that I believe art and artists are better off as autonomous observers and critics. For the majority of my career I have strived for artistic and political independence, and I am entirely unencumbered because of that stance.

Conversely, with very few exceptions, when artists lambast individual political figures, they simply provide a distraction from systemic problems; which is to say, artists should battle ideas, not people.

Becoming entangled in political activism also has its pitfalls; nothing kills the spirit of art quicker than blind allegiance to political ideology. But another conundrum faces the political artist; what happens when the political ideal, alliance, or figure you promoted with your art proves to be corrupted? That’s what I think when pondering the fate of Favianna Rodriguez, she now has a millstone around her neck that is engraved with the name, Linda Sarsour.

In the 1960s postmodern thought achieved major inroads into the art world. In no small way Andy Warhol helped engineer the concept-model that contemporary artists follow today, that of business as the one true art. Warhol called it “Business Art,” where the artist is willingly transformed into a commodity to be marketed and sold. According to this purview it was not Warhol’s prints, paintings, and films that had value—they were secondary. It was his carefully constructed and marketed persona that held value. This notion has become one of the highest expressions of capitalist thought in today’s cultural milieu.

It goes without saying that Warhol’s “Business Art” is not the only model an artist can—or should—pursue. Chicano art icon Gilbert “Magú” Luján (1940-2011) knew of a different path. Toward the end of his life he told me that in the past McDonald’s wanted to use his art in advertising campaigns targeting the “Hispanic” community, and that the multinational was willing to pay him a substantial sum for the partnering. Magú firmly turned down the offer, he did not want his name associated with junk food flooding the Latino community. Millennials need to seek out and embrace those who possess this type of integrity… especially those involved in the arts.

What we see in the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream follies is a perfect example of “Business Art,” which bears similarities to “Free Enterprise Painting,” the moniker given to Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s by Nelson Rockefeller. These appellations define art that is dressed in the accouterment of rebellion, but nevertheless serves the interests of powerful elites; in essence I’m talking about the aesthetics and politics of co-optation. “Hope” and “Change” anyone?

Postmodernism conjures up, then appropriates “Resist,” giving us the “equitable tomorrow” of “Pecan Resist,” and all for only $7 a pint. The spectacle commodity society is in full bloom, and comrades, it’s eating you alive. But the last laugh is on those who are assimilated into the system they once struggled against.

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UPDATE: 9/19/2019

On Sept. 16, 2019, the Women’s March announced it was cutting ties with board members Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, and Bob Bland—members accused of anti-Semitism. Sarsour and Mallory had refused to condemn Louis Farrakhan, the anti-Semitic leader of the Nation of Islam. On Sept. 18, 2019, the Women’s March also fired a new board member, Zahra Billoo, just two days after her appointment. Billoo, a Palestinian Muslim, had tweeted the FBI were recruiting “mentally ill young people” as “recruits to join ISIS.” She also said Israeli soldiers were “no better than ISIS.”

UPDATE: 11/27/2018

On November 19, 2018 Teresa Shook, the founder of Women’s March, denounced Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, and Carmen Perez. She accused them of allowing “anti-Semitism, anti- LBGTQIA sentiment and hateful, racist rhetoric to become a part of the platform by their refusal to separate themselves from groups that espouse these racist, hateful beliefs.” Shook asked Sarsour and company to “step down.” Read Shook’s full statement here.