BP’s Oily 25th Anniversary

During a protest at London's 2014 BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery, an anonymous artist, her face splattered with oil, stands before a portrait of Margaret Thatcher. Photo by Jen Wilton/Art Not Oil.

During a protest at London's 2014 BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery, an anonymous artist, her face splattered with oil, stands before a portrait of Margaret Thatcher. Photo by Jen Wilton/Art Not Oil.

I am one of 205 signatories to a letter published in The Guardian that asks the National Portrait Gallery of London, England to end BP funding of its esteemed annual competition and prize, the so-called BP Portrait Award. Published on June 24, 2014 the letter was timed to coincide with the museum “celebrating” 25 years of BP sponsorship.

The National Portrait Gallery’s BP Portrait Award of 2014 is an international competition. This year’s 2,377 entries came from 71 countries, including the United States. The event is also a major “Greenwashing” public relations campaign by one of the world’s leading polluters. Based upon my relentless criticism of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) for accepting BP funding since 2007, the Art Not Oil coalition of the United Kingdom asked that I sign their protest letter. The letter read in part:

“As arts practitioners and those working in arts institutions, we feel that the time is right for the cultural sector to be discussing alternatives to income gained from oil sponsorship in the same way that discussions about ending tobacco sponsorship took place more than two decades ago. Figures such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu have called for an apartheid-style boycott of fossil fuel companies, explicitly mentioning cultural institutions. Art shouldn’t be used to legitimize the companies that are profiting from the destruction of a safe and habitable climate.”

Also commiserating the 25th anniversary of BP sponsoring the National Portrait Gallery is the U.K. arts activist organization, Platform (a member of the Art Not Oil coalition). Platform released a report titled: Picture This - A Portrait of 25 years of BP Sponsorship. The report details “25 of BP’s major environmental catastrophes,” one for each year that BP sponsored the National Portrait Gallery Portrait Award since 1989.

The Platform report, which can be read online or downloaded as a printable .pdf document, opens with the statement, “How bad does a company have to be before an arts organization refuses to be associated with it or takes its money?” This is a question for Angelenos as much as it is for Londoners. The report also includes Picturing the Future, an article by painter Raoul Martinez, a former participant in the BP Portrait Awards. Martinez makes his case for rejecting oil company sponsorship of the arts, stating that “We can no longer allow the celebration of human creativity to provide cover for environmental destruction.”

Screen shot of an anonymous activist from the Art Not Oil anti-BP performance at the National Portrait Gallery, June 21, 2014. Image courtesy of Clear Blue Films/Art Not Oil.

Screen shot of an anonymous activist from the Art Not Oil anti-BP performance at the National Portrait Gallery, June 21, 2014. Image courtesy of Clear Blue Films/Art Not Oil.

In the run-up to the 25th anniversary of the BP Portrait Award of 2014, dozens of art activists from the Art Not Oil coalition staged a June 21, 2014 silent performance inside the National Portrait Gallery that they called, 25 Portraits In Oil.

Gathering in the gallery and wearing white, 25 performers simultaneously poured what appeared to be oil on their faces. These individuals then scattered throughout the museum, taking up positions to mutely stand before various portrait paintings in the collection. A short video documenting the 25 Portraits In Oil intervention at the National Portrait Gallery can be viewed here.

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"25 Portraits In Oil" - Art Not Oil coalition, 2014

Another good example of arts activism would be the brilliant Reclaim Shakespeare Company, formed in response to BP’s sponsorship of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2012. The “Guerilla Shakespeare” troupe’s website cleverly alters the Bard’s famous Hamlet line into the slogan “BP or not BP.” They perform public art interventions in Shakespearian style at venues and events funded by the oil giant. Most recently they have criticized the BP sponsored exhibit Vikings, life and legend, held at the British Museum. The Reclaim Shakespeare Company not only invaded the museum to hold an anti-BP performance replete with Vikings brandishing BP logo emblazoned shields, they lampooned the official British Museum promotional video for the Vikings exhibit with their own parody video, BP Vikings - Pillaging the planet.

The artists and activists of the U.K. are to be commended for their creative and non-violent opposition to oil-industry sponsorship of the arts. But there is much work to do, especially here in “liberal” L.A., where not a single protest against BP sponsorship of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has occurred since that oleaginous relationship was established in 2007.

In my writings on the subject I have attempted to link BP’s sponsorship of LACMA, not just with environmental destruction, but with the wider topics of military adventures and imperialism (Iraq, Libya, etc); examinations of the debilitating supremacy corporate power exercises over the arts and democratic institutions, and the interlocking systemic nature of the crisis. These are just some of the questions that must be confronted if we are to succeed in righting the art world.

The Reclaim Shakespeare Company, zeroing in on BP as a company that devours the earth and gorges on its resources, reminds us all of the pertinent words of the Fool from Shakespeare’s tragic King Lear - “He’s mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf.

“Murder in Mississippi”

On June 21, 1964, three young civil rights activists, a 21 year-old black man from Meridian, Mississippi named James Chaney, and two white Jewish youth from New York, Andrew Goodman (21), and Michael Schwerner (25), were kidnapped and savagely murdered in Neshoba County in Philadelphia, Mississippi. They had been working in the 1964 Freedom Summer campaign to register African-American voters in Mississippi when they met their end at the hands of racist killers. At the time only 6.7% of black Mississippians were registered to vote.

One can imagine the American social realist Ben Shahn creating prints extolling the memory of the murdered civil rights activists, but it is harder to think of Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) doing the same. I always found his works too saccharine for my taste, though I respected his considerable skill as a painter. However, the postmodern art world long ago turned its collective back on Rockwell, regarding him disdainfully as a hopelessly old-fashioned “illustrator” and purveyor of quaint mythic Americanisms. But Rockwell’s homage to the heroes Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner - a dark and brooding work - revealed a hidden aspect of U.S. society that not even Rockwell could veil. Since its rise to prominence in the 1970s, postmodernism has not produced a single work of art as profound as Rockwell’s Murder in Mississippi.

"Murder in Mississippi" - Norman Rockwell. Oil on canvas. 1964. Intended as the illustration for the Look magazine article titled, "Southern Justice," by Charles Morgan, Jr. The painting remained unpublished © Norman Rockwell Family Agency. All rights reserved. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections.

"Murder in Mississippi" - Norman Rockwell. Oil on canvas. 1964. Intended as the illustration for the Look magazine article titled, "Southern Justice," by Charles Morgan, Jr. Norman Rockwell Family Agency ©. All rights reserved. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections.

Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were arrested by Neshoba County police officer Cecil Price on a trumped up traffic violation. The three were held in the Neshoba County jail for several hours. During their brief imprisonment, officer Price, who was also a member of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, arranged with his fellow Klansmen the evening release and subsequent murder of the young men. Let out of jail at around ten in the evening after paying a fine, the trio attempted to drive out of town. Just as they were about to cross the county line officer Price stopped them once again, this time turning the three over to more than a dozen KKK terrorists. Goodman and Schwerner were each shot once in the heart, Chaney was beaten and shot three times. The men were then secretively buried beneath an earthen dam.

Fellow civil rights activists were naturally alarmed when Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner disappeared, and a manhunt was immediately launched. Hundreds of federal authorities were sent to Mississippi to conduct the search. Racist violence was no stranger to the black community of Mississippi or to Freedom Summer activists, that summer 37 black churches, businesses, and homes were firebombed by white supremacists. When the bodies of the three activists were at last found, the news gripped the nation. It had taken 44 days of searching before the badly decomposed bodies of the young men were located. The tenor of the times was well captured by Nina Simone in her 1964 song, Mississippi Goddam.

In the aftermath of the killings, no one was charged with the murders for four decades. Finally, on Jan. 6, 2005, a grand jury indicted Edgar Ray Killen on three counts of murder, the prosecution describing Killen as the mastermind of the assassinations and the one who assembled the men who would actually kill the three civil rights workers. On June 21, 2005, Killen, then 80-years old, was found guilty and sentenced to sixty-years in prison for manslaughter.

"Southern Justice" - Norman Rockwell. Oil sketch. 1964. Used as the illustration for the Look magazine article titled, "Southern Justice." Norman Rockwell Family Agency ©. All rights reserved. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections.

"Southern Justice" - Norman Rockwell. Oil sketch. 1964. Used as the illustration for the Look magazine article titled, "Southern Justice." Norman Rockwell Family Agency ©. All rights reserved. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections.

Rockwell’s first son Jarvis (one of three), posed in the painting as the central figure of Michael Schwerner. The artist tacked press photos of Schwerner to his easel as reference material during the process of painting.

The canvas was completed after five weeks of intense work, and Rockwell titled it, Murder in Mississippi.

The editors of Look magazine rejected the final painting (shown at top) for publication, arguing instead that Rockwell’s preparatory oil sketch for the canvas (shown at left) made for a more poignant illustration.

The study had taken the artist less than an hour to paint. Rockwell objected, but yielded to the editors on the matter.

The sketch was published in the June 29, 1965 edition of Look, and served as a single-page illustration for Southern Justice, a short article by famed civil-rights lawyer, Charles Morgan Jr. (1930-2009). The oil sketch became known by the title, Southern Justice.

Marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, and Norman Rockwell’s response to the politically motivated killings, the Mississippi Museum of Art presents Rockwell’s tour de force in a special exhibition titled, Norman Rockwell: Murder in Mississippi. Running from June 14 to August 31, 2014, the exhibit displays the original painting, oil sketch, and related ephemera.

Condolezza Rice Portrait Unveiled

An oil painting portrait of Condolezza Rice was sort of unveiled at the U.S. State Department on June 18, 2014. Actually it was rather a non-event for the media. Of the meager handful of news outlets that bothered to report the story, most did not even bother to show the large oil on canvas, let alone trouble themselves by mentioning Steven Polson, the artist who created the painting. But even Polson’s own online portfolio at the time of the unveiling did not have a reproduction of the artist’s rendition - can I use that word? - of the former Secretary of State under George W. Bush.

Politico covered the event, the first line from their report read; “One word - ‘Iraq’ - was never mentioned at the unveiling.” One word was never mentioned in the Politico report - ‘artist.” Nor was the name Steven Polson brought up. The same could be said of the accounts offered by Raw Story, CBS News, The Washington Post, and ABC News. Those stories focused on the remarks of Ms. Rice and the current U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, before a bipartisan crowd.

The U.S. State Department put aside $52,450 in taxpayer dollars for the Rice commission, just before Obama’s fiscal 2014 omnibus spending bill was implemented. That bill forbids, for a one year period, the tradition of spending money on oil portraits of former government officials. A group of U.S. senators are also sponsoring bipartisan legislation that will cap spending on such portraits in the future, limiting the top price tag of a painting to $20,000. Congress has yet to impose caps on skyrocketing CEO compensation, now well over 300 times the pay of the average worker in America. This puts a new spin on “Celebrating the Past, Creating the Future,” the State Department’s description of their illustrious art collection. For 150 years the Department has commissioned or collected an uninterrupted series of oil portraits depicting each Secretary of State, from Thomas Jefferson (the 1st Secretary, 1790-1793) to Colin L. Powell (2001-2005).

According to the Washington Post, the job of painting the Rice portrait was contracted to Portraits, Inc. Claiming to be “the world’s oldest and largest portrait company” with a roster of 150 professional portrait painters, Portraits, Inc. acts as a broker that matches clients with artists. Perhaps because Steven Polson had already created large portraits of former Secretaries Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell (both in the State Department collection), he was given the commission to paint Ms. Rice.

Polson depicted a slightly larger than life-size Rice in a respectable red Republican dress. She gazes directly at the viewer with a genial smile, a single strand of pearls around her neck. It is a flattering but perfunctory portrait, done in a conservative and restrained style.

At the time of the unveiling the Polson website listed the Rice commission as a work in progress, along with upcoming portraits of other luminaries like Michael Hayden (former Director of the CIA under Bush and former head of the National Security Agency under Bush and Obama), and Christopher Cox (former Chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security under Bush). Polson’s long list of finished portraits includes other upright citizens like President Bush’s Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and George Tenet, the Director of Central Intelligence for both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. Combined with Polson’s portraits of bipartisan leading lights from government and the so-called private sector, his portfolio is a veritable “whose who” of today’s U.S. ruling class.

Recall that Condolezza Rice played a major role in building the case for invading and occupying Iraq. In 2002 Rice told CNN that Saddam Hussein was “actively pursuing” nuclear weapons, and that “the problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” On March 19, 2003 George W. Bush launched the war that Rice advocated. No weapons of mass destruction were ever found in Iraq. As of this writing 4,489 U.S. soldiers died in Iraq and 32,021 were wounded. Estimates of Iraqi civilian fatalities range from over a hundred thousand to half a million. The U.S. has spent over $2 trillion on the war in Iraq… so far.

On June 19, 2014 President Obama announced he was prepared to launch “targeted airstrikes” against Sunni militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to stop them from toppling the U.S. backed regime of Shiite president Nouri al-Maliki. The president also announced he was sending 300 military advisers to “retrain Iraqi security forces” in the fight against ISIS. Moreover, he made it known that he would not seek congressional authority for his military invention. In true Orwellian fashion, Mr. Obama said that the U.S. soldiers entering the blood-spattered sectarian battlefield that is Iraq, would “not be returning to combat.”

It is easy to imagine the president’s “targeted and precise military action” spilling over into neighboring Syria, where ISIS terrorists and other Islamic militias are also fighting to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad, an insurgency that Obama supports and arms. But if he wants to stop the insurrection in Iraq, it is going to take more than 300 soldiers and a few airstrikes. When ISIS seized the city of Mosul in northern Iraq, they looted $425 million from Mosul’s central bank and took control of a vast arsenal left behind by the U.S. - Humvees, helicopters, trucks, tanks, artillery pieces, and huge amounts of automatic rifles and ammunition.

The current failing of the imperial project in Iraq comes to mind when thinking of Condolezza Rice, who helped to set off Iraq’s conflagration in 2003. And while Steven Polson’s name is not a household word, he is undeniably doing well for himself, proof positive that talented but uncritical artists are rewarded for their subservience to power. Woe to the obstinate nation; recent Secretaries of State cannot hold a candle to Thomas Jefferson, and our contemporary artists have no discernment when it comes to the powers of reasoning.

New Art at LACMA: BP Drones

I have been writing about the relationship between the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the British-based oil giant BP (British Petroleum) since March 2007. That was when LACMA underwent a complete renovation, and the museum’s director, Michael Govan, accepted $25 million dollars from BP to help in the construction. At the time Govan announced LACMA’s new entry way would be named “The BP Grand Entrance,” and justified taking BP’s money by saying, “What was convincing to me was their commitment to sustainable energy.”

Govan’s statement should not be read as a point of pride, but of shame. Three years later BP’s 2010 Gulf of Mexico disaster occurred, leaking over 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf; it would be the largest environmental catastrophe in U.S. history. On June 9, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court refused BP’s request that its damage compensation payments of some $5.5 billion to businesses ruined by the Gulf disaster be stopped while the oil company appealed the original U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals decision calling for the payments. Trial proceedings slated for Jan. 15, 2015 will determine the fines BP must pay for their role in the Gulf catastrophe, fines that are likely to surpass over $20 billion dollars.

To this day LACMA proudly exalts BP as a major corporate sponsor. It is ironic that BP’s $25 million dollar donation to LACMA in 2007 was the exact amount the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made the oil company pay in civil fines for spilling over five thousand barrels of crude oil in and around Prudhoe Bay on Alaska’s North Slope in 2006. The Prudhoe Bay Oil Field is operated by BP, it is the largest oil field in North America, but Prudhoe also looms large for another reason.

On June 10, 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted BP permission to conduct drone flights over the Prudhoe Bay Oil Fields. It is the very first government sanctioned, large-scale commercial use of unmanned drones in the United States. BP will use small “Puma” drones designed for the U.S. military to conduct surveillance on roads, equipment, and pipelines at Prudhoe Bay. The negative repercussions of increasing commercial drone flights in the U.S. should be obvious, especially in light of President Obama’s mass surveillance and killer drone programs, though it will all be presented in terms of being for “the public good.”

If you remember, the failed Jeff Koons Train “sculpture” for LACMA had a projected cost of $25 million. That boondoggle project entailed hanging a 70-foot steam engine locomotive from a 161-foot crane at LACMA’s BP Grand Entrance; Michael Govan equated the proposed monstrosity to the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Train was only derailed by the U.S. financial crisis of 2008-2012. When LACMA’s endowments and donations plummeted from $129.7 million to $29 million in 2008-2009, the Choo-Choo Train project was pushed back to 2015. Since the U.S. has not yet recovered from the financial crisis, things are looking bleak for Train. However, there does seem to be a splendid, lower cost, alternative installation for LACMA, but I would be remiss not to first mention BP’s role in Iraq.

The financial news and opinion website, 24/7 Wall St., reported that oil production in Iraq “is now second only to Saudi Arabia” with oil production “of around 3.3 million barrels a day.” 24/7 Wall St. also reported that BP “has a 38% working interest in the Rumaila field in southern Iraq,” one of the “five largest oil fields in the world” with proven reserves of “nearly 18 billion barrels.” As of this writing, thousands of militants from the Al Qaeda-offshoot, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), have succeeded in routing the U.S. trained and financed Iraqi armed forces in the north and west of the country. As worn-torn Iraq literally implodes, looking much like Vietnam during the 1975 fall of Saigon, BP is working like the dickens to get every last drop of Iraqi oil before it is too late!

Image: Unidentified artist, I always feel like somebody's watching me (BP Puma Drone), 2014, Puma surveillance drones, wire, and paint, 20 feet x 15 feet, British Petroleum Art Foundation, London; Gift of Bob Dudley (BP CEO, & Carl-Henric Svanberg (BP Chairman. © 2014 BP plc/Artists Have No Rights Society (AHNRS), International. Photo courtesy of Tony "I'd like my life back" Hayward.

Image: Unidentified artist, "I always feel like somebody's watching me (BP Puma Drone)," 2014, Puma surveillance drones, wire, and paint, 20 feet x 15 feet, British Petroleum Art Foundation, London; Gift of Bob Dudley (BP CEO, & Carl-Henric Svanberg (BP Chairman. © 2014 BP /Artists Have No Rights Society (AHNRS), International. Photo courtesy of Tony "I'd like my life back" Hayward.

Perhaps it is no surprise that the spin doctors employed by BP to continually present a forward-looking face for their client, have come up with a new direction for LACMA and BP to show their unity. Anonymous sources have informed me that LACMA is considering purchasing I always feel like somebody’s watching me (BP Puma Drone), a new kinetic sculpture created by an as yet unidentified conceptual artist. Rumored to cost substantially less than the $25 million Koons Train (though the actual purchase price has not yet been verified), I always feel like somebody’s watching me (BP Puma Drone) openly celebrates the sponsorship of BP. Slated to hang at LACMA’s BP Grand Entrance to welcome visitors, the outsized metal mobile is powered, not by wind, but by the electricity generated from the solar panels sitting atop the BP Grand Entrance. Constructed using four actual U.S. military Puma drones with 9-foot wingspans, the mobile’s drones are equipped with surveillance cameras and working propellers!

I always feel like somebody’s watching me (BP Puma Drone) will not only be in perpetual motion, providing a convivial attraction to museum goers, it will also provide unending surveillance of all patrons passing through the BP Grand Entrance. Given that LACMA is always on the cutting edge, arrangements have been made with the artist to assure the drones are outfitted with a newly emerging technology, 3-dimensional face recognition. Museum visitors who are LACMA members will be instantaneously scanned and identified by I always feel like somebody’s watching me (BP Puma Drone), allowing for immediate free access to all museum events! The recipients of the gathered intel cannot be divulged, but privileges do have their costs.

I always feel like somebody’s watching me (BP Puma Drone) will be a rare acquisition for LACMA, as it is a contemporary work of art that presents a clear, unambiguous message with social content. Inspired in part by the works of the American sculptor, Alexander Calder, the installation of I always feel like somebody’s watching me (BP Puma Drone) will coincide with LACMA’s exhibit, Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic.

The Agony of Ukraine

Momentous events in Ukraine from late 2013 to the present provide the backdrop to this article.

The Maidan (Independence Square) in Ukraine’s capital of Kiev was center stage for the “revolution.” Because the protests at the Maidan demanded Ukraine’s integration into the European Union (EU), the revolt became known as the “Euromaidan.” President Yanukovych tried to suppress the movement, but government violence was met with resistance; dissent moved from peaceful protest to violent revolution, the collapse of the Yanukovych regime and the creation of a pro-Western interim government. The Russian-speaking population of south and east Ukraine opposes the new regime; Crimea was annexed into the Russian Federation, and the U.S. and EU slammed Russia with sanctions. At the time of this writing, with a civil war unfolding, a new oligarch was elected by western Ukrainians, but voting in the south and east of the country was disrupted or boycotted. A day after the election, Kiev launched jet attacks against pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, likely killing up to 100. All of this and more is driving the region towards war.

Stepping into the quagmire stoked by super power geo-strategic interests, are a number of artists, arts organizations, and arts publications, some of which I will criticize in this article. Oddly enough, none of the artists or artworks mentioned in this article present a cogent reason for exactly why Ukraine’s integration into the EU would result in a more prosperous and democratic Ukraine. This is especially interesting since millions of people from Spain to Greece have been demonstrating in opposition to the tough austerity measures of the EU.

The influential publication ARTnews, ran a March 2014 article titled Icons on the Barricades: Incredible Ukrainian Protest Art, describing the role artists played in the uprising that overthrew President Yanukovych. Written by Ukrainian arts professionals Konstantin Akinsha (contributing editor for ARTnews), and Alisa Lozhkina (an art historian and curator in Kiev), the two touched upon a number of artistic interventions carried out during the uprising. One was the claim that “anarchist artists” built a makeshift gallery near Kiev’s barricades during the revolt. From there the anarchists “exhibited works in the revolutionary spirit, such as an ironic image of Nestor Makhno, the legendary Ukrainian anarchist leader of the civil war period (1918–1921), along with anarchist slogans - ‘Freedom or Death’ - in combination with expletives. It was a popular spot with both artists and protesters.”

During the Maidan protests, Svoboda organized a Jan. 1, 2014 torchlight march in Kiev to honor Ukraine's WWII era ultranationalist, Stepan Bandera (1909-1959). The procession was held on what would have been Bandera's 105th birthday. 15,000 extremists carried Svoboda banners and the red and black battle flag of Bandera's paramilitary, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. (AP Photo by Efrem Lukatsky).

During the Maidan protests, a Jan. 1, 2014 torchlight march in Kiev was held to honor Ukraine's WWII era ultranationalist, Stepan Bandera (1909-1959). 15,000 extremists carried Svoboda party banners and the red and black battle flag of Bandera's paramilitary, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. (AP Photo by Efrem Lukatsky).

ARTnews might point to a lone painting of the anarchist Nestor Makhno (1919-1921) glimpsed in an improvised street gallery, but the portrait most often seen during the Euromaidan protests was that of WWII-era Ukrainian fascist ideologue Stepan Bandera (1909-1959). It is not likely that the authors of the article were unaware of that fact. Knowing Bandera’s history and legacy is key to understanding Ukraine’s present-day ultranationalists.

In the 1930s Bandera and his followers wanted to create a state based on “pure” Ukrainian ethnicity; the “Banderists” regarded Poles, Jews, and Russians as oppressors to be purged from the motherland.

Bandera and his Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) formed an active alliance with the Third Reich in order to establish an “independent” Ukraine. In Feb. 1941 the Nazis created two military units comprised of Ukrainian volunteers, the Nightingale and Roland Battalions. Armed, trained, and financed by the Nazis, the battalions were under the command of Nazi special forces but operated under the orders of Stepan Bandera. By 1943 Bandera’s UPA soldiers were conducting a vicious pogrom against Jewish, Polish, and Russian minorities in Ukraine, murdering some 90,000 civilians. In 1959 Bandera was assassinated by the Soviet KGB.

A handful of anarchists might have presented artworks on the street during the unrest, but ARTnews failed to report that groups on the left were forcefully disallowed a political role in the uprising by rightist thugs who repeatedly and violently attacked them during the rebellion. That is discussed in a Feb. 2014 interview conducted by photographer Timothy Eastman with members of the anarchist group, AntiFascist Union Ukraine. There were no black anarchist flags flying over Maidan, but there were plenty of banners from rightwing groups, including the red and black pennants of Bandera’s UPA. To Ukrainian ultra-rightists, red and black symbolize the people’s “blood and soil.” That concept might sound familiar to students of history.

ARTnews also wrote that “when the demonstrations began, a statue of Lenin on Shevchenko Boulevard was toppled by protesters,” an act described in the article as overthrowing “the symbol of a vanished ideology.” ARTnews did not report that Lenin’s statue was actually pulled down and destroyed by members of the extreme right Svoboda party, or that the pedestal where the statue once stood was spray painted with the slogan, “Bandera - 105,” a reference to 2014 being the 105th birthday anniversary of Stepan Bandera.

Igor Miroshnichenko of Svoboda told the press that his group was responsible for destroying the Lenin statue. This is the same Miroshnichenko that had himself filmed as he physically assaulted the top executive of a Kiev TV station. Miroshnichenko forced the CEO to sign a resignation letter because Svoboda did not like the station’s reporting. Now a Member of Parliament representing Svoboda, Miroshnichenko sits on the new government’s “committee on freedom of speech.”

Svoboda (”Freedom”) is one of Ukraine’s largest far-right political parties. During the Maidan protests the group’s flag was highly visible; the banner displays the national colors of blue and yellow and is emblazoned with a hand giving a three fingered salute approximating a trident, the national symbol of Ukraine. The organization is currently led by Oleh Tyahnybok. In an article titled, Svoboda: The rise of Ukraine’s ultra-nationalists, the BBC reported that in 2004 Tyahnybok gave a televised speech in which he exhorted Ukrainians to combat the “Muscovite-Jewish mafia that runs Ukraine today.” In 2005 he signed an open letter calling upon the Ukraine government to fight the “criminal activities of organized Jewry.” In 2013 the World Jewish Congress asked European governments to consider banning neo-Nazi parties like Svoboda.

(Left) "Wolfsangel" or "Wolf-hook" heraldic symbol used by the Nazi Waffen-SS during World War II. (Middle) The Nazi inspired logo of the Social-National Party of Ukraine. (Right) In 2004 the Social-National Party of Ukraine changed its name to Svoboda ("Freedom"), and replaced its neo-Nazi flag with a blue and yellow banner.

(Left) "Wolfsangel" or "Wolf-hook" heraldic symbol used by the Nazi Waffen-SS during World War II. (Middle) The Nazi inspired logo of the Social-National Party of Ukraine. (Right) In 2004 the Social-National Party of Ukraine changed its name to Svoboda ("Freedom"), replacing its neo-Nazi flag with a blue and yellow banner.

But Svoboda sprang from an earlier party, the Social-National Party of Ukraine (SNPU). Founded in 1991 by Andriy Parubiy and Oleh Tyahnybok, the SNPU modeled itself after Hitler’s “National Socialist” party, taking the Nazi “Wolfsangel” heraldic symbol as their logo. In 1998 the SNPU formed a paramilitary, the Patriots of Ukraine, led by Parubiy. In 2004 the SNPU reformed its image by phasing out its Nazi inspired logo and changing its name to Svoboda.

 Chopin Performance. 2013. Mariyan Mitsik. As mentioned in the ARTnews article, Icons on the Barricades, Mitsik performed in the streets at a piano painted in the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

Chopin Performance. 2013. Mariyan Mitsik. As mentioned in the ARTnews article "Icons on the Barricades," Mitsik performed in the streets at a piano painted in the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

The ARTnews article went on to mention that “the most popular artworks inspired by Maidan were the performances,” and pointed to musician Mariyan Mitsik as a prime example. Mitsik performed in the streets at a piano he painted in yellow and blue, the colors of the EU and Ukrainian flags.

He performed Chopin, was well as Imagine by John Lennon. According to ARTnews, he performed “in front of the line of police guarding the presidential administration building,” and that his playing Chopin in front of “helmeted policemen in anti-riot gear became an icon of the protests.”

Svoboda Performance. 2013. Not mentioned in ARTnews, a piano solo performed in the streets, filmed and performed by fascist Svoboda militants.

Svoboda Performance. 2013. Not mentioned in ARTnews, a piano solo performed in the streets, filmed and performed by fascist Svoboda militants.

In an interview with the BBC, Mitsik stated that the performance demonstrated “the spirit of the revolution, that it’s actually peaceful, and it’s cultural, we are actually trying to change the situation in a peaceful way.” But there were other painted pianos in the streets for people to play, and a black-clad Svoboda party street fighter wearing a ski-mask and body armor took to entertaining the crowds with his piano virtuosity. One could just as easily say the fascist street fighter’s performances were “an icon of the protests.” As of this writing, there are certainly more videos of the Svoboda pianist on YouTube than there are of Mitsik… and they have more viewers as well. The Svoboda party even filmed their militant pianist performing on the street!

Before the Maidan protests, the European Parliament passed a resolution on Dec. 13, 2012 regarding the situation in Ukraine. In point number 8 of the resolution, it was stated that the European Parliament: “is concerned about the rising nationalistic sentiment in Ukraine, expressed in support for the Svoboda Party, which, as a result, is one of the two new parties to enter the Verkhovna Rada (editor’s note: Ukraine’s legislature); recalls that racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic views go against the EU’s fundamental values and principles and therefore appeals to pro-democratic parties in the Verkhovna Rada not to associate with, endorse or form coalitions with this party.”

By not mentioning the existence of Svoboda and other extreme right groups, ARTnews published a whitewash of events in Ukraine. In their defense, they are not the only ones to do so. However, if ARTnews actually favored democratic governance in Ukraine, they would have exposed and denounced the openly fascist elements that participated in the Maidan protests. On April 27, 2014 hundreds of young Ukrainians that consider Stepan Bandera a hero participated in a march in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. It was a rally that celebrated the 1943 formation of the SS Galician Division (”Galicia” being an old name for the western most part of Ukraine). The division of some 81,000 soldiers was made up of Ukrainian volunteers and organized, armed, and trained by the Nazi Waffen SS. ARTnews did not mention a word of the 2014 march, nor did they point out that thousands of activists who uphold Bandera’s political philosophy made up a significant portion of the Maidan protest.

An enormous sticker simulating broken glass in a shop window in Berlin, Nov. 8, 2013. The stickers were part of a campaign mounted by the German History Museum in Berlin to commemorate "Kristallnacht." Photo/Reuters.

An enormous sticker simulating broken glass in a shop window in Berlin, Nov. 8, 2013. The stickers were part of a campaign mounted by the German History Museum in Berlin to commemorate "Kristallnacht." Photo/Reuters.

During Germany’s November 2013 memorial observation of “Kristallnacht,” 120 retail stores in Berlin placed enormous stickers simulating broken glass in their shop windows; solemn reminders of the violent anti-Jewish pogroms the Nazis unleashed when they destroyed Jewish homes, property, and 267 synagogues throughout Germany on Nov. 9, 1938. The sticker campaign was in conjunction with the exhibition, Diversity Destroyed: Berlin 1933-1938, at the German History Museum in Berlin.  German anti-fascist activists and arts professionals succeeded in mounting a creative and appropriate memorial to the horrors of fascism.  In contrast, by ignoring how some Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazis, and how those collaborators are upheld as heroes by some contemporary Ukraine nationalists now shaping events in the country, ARTnews is in danger of putting itself on the wrong side of history.

 This 2013 digital image depicting former President Yanukovych as a circus clown, was designed by Egor Petrov and circulated on Facebook. The illustration was also printed and used as a street poster. Petrov's design was included in the "I Am a Drop in the Ocean" exhibit.

This 2013 digital image depicting former President Yanukovych as a circus clown, was designed by Egor Petrov and circulated on Facebook. The illustration was printed and used as a street poster, and included in the "I Am a Drop in the Ocean" exhibition.

An exhibit titled I Am A Drop In The Ocean: Art of the Ukrainian Revolution, has also garnered support from the art world and the press. According to the exhibit’s press release, the show presents “original art works, photo and video material and objects used by the protesting Maidan defenders.” Curated by the aforementioned Konstantin Akinsha of ARTnews, the exhibit is on view at the Künstlerhaus cultural center in Vienna, Austria from April to May, 2014.

The exhibit presents documentation of performance works that took place on the streets during the Maidan revolt. That section of the show is titled The Ghost of Guy Debord. The press release for the exhibit states that “this Ukrainian version of Situationism proved to be extremely effective propaganda art, that could gain mass support and provoke mass participation.” But Guy Debord was a French Marxist theorist and a founding member of the anti-capitalist Situationist International (SI), active from 1957 to 1972. The artists and egalitarian-minded socialists of the SI opposed nationalism and authoritarianism, so it is not difficult to imagine what they would say about Ukrainian nationalists and right-wingers fighting to integrate their nation into the capitalist EU. If comparing the Situationists to the Maidan protest artists was not ridiculous enough, the exhibit reached new heights of absurdity with its section titled All Sans-culottes of Ukraine.

The “sans-culottes” were the radical masses of the French Revolution, poor laborers who hated the upper class. The storming of the Bastille prison was carried out by sans-culottes, who differentiated themselves from aristocrats by wearing long trousers instead of the fancy silk knee-breeches (culottes) favored by the rich - hence the name sans-culottes (”without culottes”).

Quoting from the exhibit’s press release; “The revolutionary crowds developed very quickly their own fashion. Plastic helmets - used for construction works or for sporting activities - provided protection against the rubber bullets of the police and became the Phrygian cap of the Ukrainian revolution. Especially helmets with ornamental decorations became the revolutionary chic. When the riots with the police escalated, the street fighters used almost everything to protect themselves, from expensive sport gear to medieval armor.”

Members of the fascist "Patriots of Ukraine" organization gather for battle on the streets of Kiev, 2014. The yellow armbands display the group's symbol, a repurposed Nazi rune known as the "Wolfsangel." Photographer unknown.

Members of the fascist "Patriots of Ukraine" organization gather for battle on the streets of Kiev, 2014. The yellow armbands display the group's symbol, a repurposed Nazi rune known as the "Wolfsangel." Photographer unknown.

Revolutionary chic is not the issue the exhibit should be scrutinizing. The question should be, who were the street fighters and what were they fighting for? Pravy Sektor (”Right Sector”) was the organization that spear-headed the fighting; they served as an umbrella group for a number of like-minded organizations like the Ukrainian National Assembly/Ukrainian National Self Defense, Trident of Stepan Bandera, and the Patriots of Ukraine (who have an interesting recruitment video on YouTube). Trained, well organized, and ready to spark a right-wing “nationalist revolution,” these were the groups that conducted the fighting at Maidan.

Dmitry Yarosh is the leader of Right Sector, and he appears in a chilling video that details what the group fights for. The arts community should be especially interested to know that Right Sector boasts of fighting “Against degeneration and totalitarian liberalism.” On March 12, 2014, Newsweek conducted an interview with Yarosh, where he admitted that Right Sector militants “supported the first Chechen war against the Russian empire. We sent a delegation to Chechnya.”

In this screen-shot from a Right Sector video, militants in the streets of Kiev hold shields decorated with the "Black Sun" symbol. Originally designed for the Nazi SS-leader Heinrich Himmler, the Black Sun emblem was incorporated into the mosaic floor the Wewelsburg Castle in Germany, where Himmler wanted to develop a school for SS leaders. The symbol has since been adopted by the international neo-Nazi movement.

In this screen-shot from a Right Sector video, militants in the streets of Kiev hold shields decorated with the "Black Sun" symbol. Originally designed for the Nazi SS-leader Heinrich Himmler, the Black Sun emblem was incorporated into the mosaic floor the Wewelsburg Castle in Germany, where Himmler wanted to develop a school for SS leaders. The symbol has since been adopted by the international neo-Nazi movement.

The BBC’s flagship Newsnight program produced a short documentary titled, Neo-Nazi threat in the new Ukraine, in which BBC reporter Gabriel Gatehouse interviewed militants from the Right Sector. One young fanatic said the following when asked about the group’s political beliefs:

“I want there to be one nation, one people, one country. A clean nation. Not like under Hitler, but in our own way… a little bit like that.” The BBC film would have made an excellent video installation in the I Am A Drop In The Ocean exhibit, provided that curator Konstantin Akinsha had any honesty.

Helmet. Photo by Tom Jamieson. 2014 ©. Worn by a Maidan street fighter, this army helmet is painted with an image of St. Michael and the trident crest of Ukraine. But it also displays the red and black colors of Stepan Bandera's Nazi backed Ukrainian Insurgent Army. An online portfolio of Jamieson's photos can be seen at: www.tom-jamieson.com/portfolio/projects/weapons-of-maidan

Photo by Tom Jamieson. 2014 ©. Worn by a Maidan street fighter, this army helmet is painted with an image of St. Michael and the trident crest of Ukraine. But it also displays the red and black colors of Stepan Bandera's Nazi backed Ukrainian Insurgent Army. An online portfolio of Jamieson's photos can be seen at: www.tom-jamieson.com/portfolio/projects/weapons-of-maidan

When writing about the “revolutionary crowds,” Akinsha did not mention Right Sector and its radical right allies, but they were the ones to actually rain bricks and Molotov cocktails down upon the police. They fought hand to hand battles with the authorities using primitive weapons, and forcibly seized government buildings. It was not a bunch of social democratic types seeking inclusion into the EU that waged the battles… it was the far right. The co-founder of the neo-Nazi Social-National Party of Ukraine, Andriy Parubiy, was the coordinator for the volunteer self-defense forces at Maidan. At the time of this writing he is now the head of Ukraine’s Defense Ministry, giving him control of the Ukraine Armed Forces.

I Am A Drop In The Ocean was covered by The Art Newspaper, which quoted the exhibit’s curator as saying, “the exhibition will also feature objects from Maidan, including the catapult constructed by protesters to shell police. In a certain sense, we are equating these arms to art, which also became a weapon of the revolution.”

The medieval style siege weapon that the exhibit’s curator compared to a work of art in actuality was a catapult used to hurl heavy stones and Molotov cocktails at police lines. The serious injuries resulting from its use are not hard to visualize; blunt trauma wounds, broken bones, and life threatening third degree burns come to mind. No matter the cause behind the justification for using violence, or how dastardly the targets of that violence might be, celebrating the injury and mutilation of human beings has nothing to do with art, at least not in my book. The Künstlerhaus cultural center in Vienna should be ashamed to display the catapult as an art object.

The Artists Support Ukraine website initiative has garnered the most attention from the press and the arts blogosphere, though I can’t imagine why. International artists are encouraged to post their artworks and statements on the website in support of Ukraine and against “Russia’s aggression on the territory of independent Ukraine.” The project has received considerable attention, from articles in The Art Newspaper and the ostensibly liberal Huffington Post, to innumerable articles on arts oriented web logs.

Untitled - Fred Tomaselli. 2014. Collage using a cover of the New York Times. Tomaselli contributed the use of the collage to the Artists Support Ukraine website.

Untitled - Fred Tomaselli. 2014. Collage using a cover of the New York Times. Tomaselli contributed the use of the collage to the Artists Support Ukraine website.

American artist Fred Tomaselli is amongst those who have lent their names and reputations to the cause championed by the Artists Support Ukraine website. In his collage uploaded to the website, Tomaselli painted Russian President Vladimir Putin and his bodyguards as members of the Russian Pussy Riot protest group. The central figure, Putin was painted as a naked female wearing a red mask. The collage was uploaded with the following artist’s statement:

“The world would be a better place if Putin wasn’t always trying to prove his ‘manliness.’ Of course, the USA had the same problem with Bush and look where that got him and us! I hope Ukraine can eventually achieve the ethical, open and equitable society it deserves. And I hope Putin gets his just desserts.”

While it is popular, and safe, for Americans to criticize Mr. Putin for “trying to prove his ‘manliness’” by way of his Ukraine policy, we should all know by now that wars are not fought to satiate the egos of national figureheads. Wars are fought for geo-political, economic, and strategic reasons, they are waged to secure resources and markets. This is true for Moscow as much as it is for Washington. I wonder what Tomaselli thinks of President Obama’s global mass surveillance and drone war operations? Critical expressions regarding those offenses are not found in Tomaselli’s works. So much for the world being “a better place.”

A great deal of effort has gone into transforming Kiev into the “cultural heart of Ukraine.” It certainly has become a center for postmodern art. A 2012 article in the Financial Times titled State of the Art, reported that the billionaire steel magnate, Victor Pinchuk, opened Kiev’s PinchukArtCenter in 2006, where Ukrainians have been exposed to postmodern “greats” like Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami. Forbes pegged Pinchuk as “Ukraine’s second-richest man, worth an estimated $3.2 billion.” The Financial Times also wrote about “Ukraine’s first biennale of contemporary art,” which was held in 2012 before President Yanukovich was driven from office. FT reported that funding for the biennale, which cost some 4 million euros, came from government as well as the private sector. In addition FT reported that U.S. billionaire George Soros (who according to Forbes is the 27th richest person in the world with assets of $23 billion), funded Kiev’s Center for Contemporary Art (SCCA), which opened in 1993.

This mix of postmodernist artists and oligarchs is not a formula that leads to art and culture worthy of a new democracy. The same old postmodern art establishment, enamored with irony and disdainful of universal truths, sustained by extremely wealthy businessmen, and featuring the usual annoying international art stars, groans on in Kiev. Some of these charlatans now pretend to understand activist art. From Artforum’s account of the most current exhibit at the PinchukArtCenter, it can be deduced that the country did not just undergo a revolution.

Nail studded club. Photo by Tom Jamieson. 2014 ©. Jamieson documented improvised weapons carried by street fighters in Maidan Square, from axes, clubs, and hammers to pikes. An online portfolio of these photos can be seen at: www.tom-jamieson.com/portfolio/projects/weapons-of-maidan

Nail-studded club. Photo by Tom Jamieson. 2014 ©. Jamieson documented improvised weapons carried by street fighters in Maidan Square, from axes, clubs, and hammers to pikes. See his online portfolio at: www.tom-jamieson.com/portfolio/projects/weapons-of-maidan

Attending the opening of the exhibit in question, Fear and Hope, which supposedly “addresses recent political activity in the region,” was Graham Tiley, the Shell Oil Company Ukraine County Chair and General Manager of Shell Ukraine Exploration and Production company. Also present at the opening was Masha Tsukanova, the editor in chief of the newly launched Vogue Ukraine. Perhaps Masha regaled attendees with some authentic sans-culottes revolutionary chic, replete with a Right Sector hardhat and her own nail-studded club. Possibly the only one absent from the gathering was Hunter Biden, the younger son of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. I am sure Hunter’s nonattendance was excused, as he recently joined the board of directors of Burisma, a leading oil and natural gas production company in Ukraine.

The storm over Ukrainian nationalism vs. Russia has risen even higher into the upper echelons of the postmodern art establishment, bringing the hullabaloo to Manifesta, the nomadic European biennial of contemporary art. Funded by the EU, Manifesta changes its host country every two years, and this year Manifesta 10 is slated to be held from June 31 to October 2014, at The State Hermitage Museum in the City of St. Petersburg, Russia. The renowned German curator, Kasper König, was selected as the biennial’s curator. Professor König noted that Manifesta 10 “will complement the Hermitage’s 250th anniversary while celebrating its own 20th anniversary.” The Hermitage is home to one of the greatest art collections in the world, and I would love to see how König mixes its classical collection with contemporary works, but others would rather have Manifesta 10 not happen at all.

Change.org, the “progressive” website that provides a platform for petitions meant to “empower people everywhere,” is hosting a petition written by an unidentified group of artists from Amsterdam and Düsseldorf. The petition, Suspend Manifesta 10 in St. Petersburg until Russian troops are withdrawn from Ukraine, states that “participation in cultural activities with Russia at this time means legitimization and acceptance of Russian aggression towards the democratic nation of Ukraine.” At the time of this article the petition has received 1,900 signatures.

On March 11, 2014, the Manifesta 10 Foundation responded to the calls for a boycott by stating that the foundation “remains committed to continuing with the Biennial in St. Petersburg.” Moreover, the foundation made it clear that “We believe canceling the project plays directly into the current escalation of the ‘cold war’ rhetoric and fails to acknowledge the complexity of these geo-politics.” Soon after Professor König offered the follow remarks:

“In response to the comments I have received regarding the current geopolitical circumstances, I would like to stress that obviously I am very concerned with the escalating crisis, and because of it I do believe it is and should be our goal to continue to make MANIFESTA 10 happen. It is itself a complex entity, to prompt its artists and its viewers to assume their own strong political positions, to pose questions and raise voices. To neglect and quit, would be a sign of escalation.

There is vulnerability of this situation, but also a challenge and we shall have a courage to go on, a decision backed up by many Russian colleagues. It is upon us not to be influenced by prejudices against minorities or nationalist propaganda but to reject it. It is more important than ever to continue our work with courage and conviction for the local and international publics. As someone who has worked in many and various political climates and challenges, the experience tells me to stay calm and continue to work on the complexity and contradiction, that art has to offer and on how it can engage, and oppose the simplifications of our times.”

On the Artists Support Ukraine website, a polemic attack against Professor König was uploaded by the Civic Forum for Contemporary Art (CFFCA) of Warsaw, Poland. The CFFCA condemned König, writing that his remarks were “supportive of the aggressive policies of Vladimir Putin,” and that they resembled “a declaration of loyalty to the Russian President, government, and parliament.” The CFFCA’s diatribe against König did however end with a truism: “Culture cannot let itself be taken hostage by regimes; it needs to retain real freedom.” Perhaps the CFFCA should contemplate the deeper meaning of that statement.

The aforementioned articles and exhibits, the calls to shut down MANIFESTA 10, and the invective launched against its curator, Kasper König, are part and parcel of a new Cold War that has grown out of the Ukraine crisis. Knowingly or unwittingly, some arts professionals are fueling the fires of ultra-nationalism and a new Cold War. I do not often agree with The Nation Magazine, that flagship publication of America’s so-called “progressive left,” but the journal addressed this tension between nations with their May 2014 editorial, Cold War Against Russia - Without Debate, which in part reads:

“Future historians will note that in April 2014, nearly a quarter-century after the end of the Soviet Union, the White House declared a new Cold War on Russia - and that, in a grave failure of representative democracy, there was scarcely a public word of debate, much less opposition, from the American political or media establishment.

(….) No modern precedent exists for the shameful complicity of the American political-media elite at this fateful turning point. Considerable congressional and mainstream media debate, even protest, were voiced, for example, during the run-up to the US wars in Vietnam and Iraq and, more recently, proposed wars against Iran and Syria. This Cold War - its epicenter on Russia’s borders; undertaken amid inflammatory American, Russian and Ukrainian media misinformation; and unfolding without the stabilizing practices that prevented disasters during the preceding Cold War - may be even more perilous. It will almost certainly result in a new nuclear arms race, a prospect made worse by Obama’s provocative public assertion that ‘our conventional forces are significantly superior to the Russians,’ and possibly an actual war with Russia triggered by Ukraine’s looming civil war.”

As I was finishing up writing this article, I read the news that former U.S. Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, was in Kiev with a team of U.S. observers to supervise Ukraine’s May 25 elections. If ever there was to be an indication of a society facing imminent destruction, it would be a visit from Ms. Albright. As President Clinton’s U.S. Ambassador to the UN (1993-1997), Albright defended sanctions against Iraq in a May 12, 1996 interview conducted by Lesley Stahl on the CBS 60 Minutes broadcast. Stahl asked Albright, “We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” Albright answered, “We think the price is worth it.” More to the point, as President Clinton’s Secretary of State (1997-2001), Albright played a significant role in advancing the U.S./NATO bombing of Serbia during the Kosovo war.

Just outside of Kiev, the quaint little home of president elect, Petro Poroshenko.

Just outside of Kiev, the home of president elect, Petro Poroshenko.

During the Maidan uprising, Ukrainians demonstrated against the rule of oligarchs; they demanded democratic governance and an end to corruption. They ended up electing an oligarch as president, with their nation not only divided, but spinning into the orbit of the EU, NATO, and the asset-stripping International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The unlikely new president, Mr. Poroshenko, is the owner of the Ukraine-based Roshen Confectionary Corporation, one of the largest candy makers in the world. Hailed by the press as the “Chocolate King,” Poroshenko is worth around $1.3 billion. Somewhere in this ongoing drama there are millions of decent Ukrainians who want neither a neo-Fascist state, nor a phony liberal one run by oligarchs. The question now, is whether they can make their presence felt.

Who was Tomata du Plenty?

“Do plenty people go for Tomata, yes
But he just goes for that special girl… who says ‘NO!’”

- From Adult Books, by L.A. punk band X

The question of “Who was Tomata du Plenty?” was first broached by the Los Angeles punk band X, in their 1978 song Adult Books. The lyrics remain a mystery, even to veterans of the original Los Angeles punk scene. The lines in the song were an esoteric reference to Tomata, the front man for the techno-terror punk outfit the Screamers, who counted amongst their repertoire angst-ridden songs like, 122 Hours of Fear, Punish or be damned, Magazine Love, and Nervous.

As for the query regarding Tomata’s identity, answers might be found - to some extent - in a surprising exhibition at the Georgia Museum of Art, Boxers and Backbeats: Tomata du Plenty and the West Coast Punk Scene. The show is an examination of Tomata’s naïve paintings in the context of the original 1977 L.A. punk rock milieu, and having been one of the earliest admirers of Tomata and the Screamers, it is a unique honor for me to have some of my drawings included in the exhibit.

Sketch of Tomata du Plenty by Mark Vallen

"Tomata du Plenty" - Mark Vallen ©. Pencil on paper. 1978. A sketch made of the Screamers' front man in performance.

For my own sensibilities, there was no greater punk band in L.A., or anywhere else, and I attended most of the Screamers’ L.A. performances. But in spite of their brilliance the group never recorded or released a record. Many of my punk associates referred disparagingly to the Screamers as an “art band,” an appellation not entirely incorrect. Ironically, filmed performances and bootlegged recordings of the ensemble have been appearing on YouTube, where more people have been exposed to their artistry then ever saw them in live concerts.

On stage with the Screamers, Tomata contorted his face and body as if they were made of rubber, evincing all the bewilderment and anxiety of a media overdosed society. He could pace the stage as though stricken with rigamortis, or run about like a mischievous imp. He often resembled a panic-stricken marionette that had suddenly become self-aware, but nervously sensed some unseen master was pulling his strings.

Tomata was the consummate punk front man, the very picture of alienation that marked punk in the late 1970s. He bore an uncanny resemblance to Egon Schiele, that early 20th century Austrian Expressionist painter who delighted in symbolically poking his fingers in the eyes of the bourgeoisie. On stage Tomata had no inhibitions, his every move was pure madcap theater, but it was the sinister showbiz of some demented North American funfair, and Tomata was the lunatic carny in charge.

Of all my recollections of Tomata and the Screamers, the following are the most vivid. Midway through performances of their song Eva Braun, the band members would walk off the stage. Having eschewed guitars in favor of synthesizers, they let the electrophonic instruments and computerized modules drone on in their absence. As a stark evocation of mindless hero worship the song was chilling enough, but in the context of the song’s lyrics, when the band left the audience to the machines another narrative emerged; either technology is liberatory, or it is an adjunct to tyranny. During their very last performance (Whiskey a Go Go 1981), the band used banks of onstage video monitors to great effect, displaying video taped scenes that startled and mesmerized the audience. Considering that video cameras and VHS cassette players were as yet unknown to most people, or that video rental stores did not yet exist… the Screamers introduced us to the future that evening.

Few in L.A.’s original punk scene were aware that Du Plenty’s adroitness at theater came from an earlier time. At the zenith of San Francisco’s Flower Power movement he visited the Haight-Ashbury district of the city in 1968 as a twenty-year-old and became a member of the psychedelic drag queen troupe, The Cockettes. Founded by the transplanted New Yorker George Harris (1949-1982), the ensemble was extremely influential, helping to usher in not just the modern Gay Liberation movement, but Glam Rock as well. In 1969 Du Plenty moved to Seattle, Washington, where he founded a similar street performance group, Ze Whiz Kidz. A rare film clip from 1971 shows Du Plenty and his ensemble (including Melba Toast, who was to become Tommy Gear in the Screamers), performing at Seattle’s University District Street Fair. This direct connection to the underground countercultural movement of the late 1960s cannot be discounted.

In 1967 George Harris had joined some 70,000 Vietnam war protestors when they marched on the Pentagon to “Confront the War Makers.” Some 2,500 federal troops bearing rifles with fixed bayonets surrounded the Pentagon and blocked demonstrators from entering it. Counterculture activists like the Yippies said they would “Levitate the Pentagon” with chants and exorcism rites, causing the building to rise into the air and vibrate until all of its demon spirits were expelled - thus ending the war. The eighteen-year-old Harris was photographed putting flowers into the rifle barrels of immovable Military Police. Taken by photographer Bernie Boston for the now defunct Washington Evening Star, the photo became emblematic of the ’60s antiwar movement.

After the Pentagon action Harris moved to San Francisco and underwent a metamorphosis. He changed his name to Hibiscus and fell in with a vanguard circle of flamboyant, LSD dropping, hippie drag queens that performed gender-bending free theater on the streets; Hibiscus would eventually organize the entourage into The Cockettes. His ideas concerning street theater as a liberatory vehicle for social change were no doubt inspired by the Diggers, the radically egalitarian and amorphic collection of revolutionaries that were at the core of San Francisco’s ’60s hippie counterculture. It was a co-founder of the Diggers, Peter Berg (1937-2011), that coined the term “guerilla theater” [1] to describe the type of subversive performances that merged art and politics on the streets - turning active and unwilling participants alike into “living actors.”

French filmmakers Céline Deransart and Alice Gaillard made Les Diggers de San Francisco, a documentary on the Diggers that was broadcast on French television in 1998. If you think you know anything about the Haight-Ashbury scene of the mid to late ’60s, the film will quickly disabuse you of that notion. In the Haight, Diggers successfully created free stores, free medical clinics, free food programs, free housing, and free cultural events to show that mutual aid was a viable alternative to capitalism. The Digger creed was to live as though the revolution had already happened. The entire 1 hour and 20 minute film can be viewed on the Digger Archive website. Also found on the website is a clip from the 2001 documentary The Cockettes, produced by filmmakers David Weissman and Bill Weber. It presents statements from associates of Hibiscus, the gay hippies of the Cockette house, and fellow communards of the 300 or so radical communes that sprang up in the San Francisco bay area by the early 1970s.

Tragically, Hibiscus was among the initial casualties of AIDS, which was a mysterious ailment at the time. When he died in 1982 at the age of 33, a New York Times headline referred to the disease that struck him down as a “Homosexual Disorder.” The media generally referred to the malady as GRID, or “gay-related immunodeficiency.” Hibiscus was also one of the very first individuals the media identified by name as having succumbed to the illness.

The now little understood and esoteric histories of San Francisco’s radical alternative culture certainly made a mark on my generation, it seems that was something Tomata du Plenty and I had in common. I passed through Haight Ashbury as a 14-year-old, an experience that validated my own journey as a dissident artist, and years later I found myself entangled with L.A.’s original punk explosion.

But Tomata transmuted his experiences with 60s radicalism into the aural punk assault of the late 70s. After founding the Tupperwares, which essentially was a glam rock spin-off of Ze Whiz Kidz, the band moved to Los Angeles in 1976 and morphed into the Screamers. At the time, if any L.A. punk knew of Du Plenty’s role in the 60s they kept quiet, given that punks went into conniption fits at the very mention of “hippie” (listen to the 1978 single Kill The Hippies by the Deadbeats, one of L.A.’s original punk bands).

In an interview that appeared in the Summer 1978 issue of Slash Magazine, Du Plenty spoke about his role as a performer; “I ask myself, ‘is it possible to be all things to all people?’ Yes. It is my fate to assimilate the inner turmoil of others. I am a human illustration of struggle, anxiety & fear.” In no small way Tomata’s comment was revelatory of the work he did in the counterculture of the late ’60s; the remark certainly encapsulated Tomata’s role as impresario of punk alienation in late ’70s Los Angeles. But it was also a succinct way of describing the work of any artist that is unafraid to delve into difficult social questions.

"Mickey Walker" - Tomata du Plenty. Mixed media on paper, 8 x 9 1/2 inches. 1995. Collection of the Georgia Museum of Art. Walker was a popular U.S. boxer of the 1920s and 1930s. A World Welterweight and Middleweight Champion, he turned to painting after his retirement from the ring in 1935, reinventing himself as renowned naïve painter. He said of his artistic career: "With my wife I saw a movie based on the life of Paul Gauguin and, after maybe three viewings, I said 'I've got to try that' and went to the art supplies store and spent a couple hundred bucks and told the clerk I'd bust him if he told anyone tough Mickey Walker bought sissy stuff."

"Mickey Walker" - Tomata du Plenty. Mixed media on paper, 8 x 9 1/2 inches. 1995. Collection of the Georgia Museum of Art. Walker was a popular U.S. boxer of the 1920s and 1930s. A World Welterweight and Middleweight Champion, he turned to painting after his retirement from the ring in 1935, reinventing himself as naïve painter. He said of his artistic career: "With my wife I saw a movie based on the life of Paul Gauguin and, after maybe three viewings, I said 'I've got to try that' and went to the art supplies store and spent a couple hundred bucks and told the clerk I'd bust him if he told anyone tough Mickey Walker bought sissy stuff."

With the demise of the Screamers in 1981, Du Plenty took up painting as his preferred method of self-expression. Tomata’s canvases are not the equivalent of René Magritte’s “la période vache,” when the Belgian surrealist created intentionally awful paintings in 1948.

Nor are they akin to the ironic “bad” paintings developed by postmoderns starting in the late 1970s and still tormenting us today. Tomata’s dabblings are more in keeping with those created by today’s Stuckists, who seek a new figuration in opposition to conceptual art.

Say what you will about his lack of training in fine art, his enthusiasm for creating naïve “outsider” works more than made up for it.

Tomata may have displayed a quirky and eccentric humanism, but he blazed with humanist philosophy nevertheless. His primitive artworks are sanguine and authentic expressions of how he viewed the world. That is the characteristic spirit that underlined all of his works, from the Cockettes and the Screamers to his canvasses - it is the same ethos that artists should be in pursuit of today.

Boxers and Backbeats: Tomata du Plenty and the West Coast Punk Scene, runs from October 4, 2014, to January 4, 2015 at the Georgia Museum of Art. The museum is located at 90 Carlton St. Athens, Georgia. 30602. Web: www.georgiamuseum.org

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[1] History of the San Francisco Mime Troupe - http://www.sfmt.org/company/history.php

A National Historic Landmark?

Detail from Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" mural at the Detroit Institute of the Arts.

Detail from Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" mural at the Detroit Institute of the Arts.

On April 23, 2014, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, and the Director of the National Park Service (NPS), Jonathan B. Jarvis, announced four new “National Historic Landmarks” for the United States. The Detroit Industry murals painted by Diego Rivera at the Detroit Institute of the Arts (DIA) in Detroit, Michigan were among the new landmarks.

Detroit Industry joins 2,540 sites across the U.S. now recognized by the government as possessing “exceptional value and quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States.”

In part, the dual press release from the U.S. Department of the Interior and the NPS, read: “Considered by many scholars to be Rivera’s greatest extant work in the United States, Detroit Industry is an exemplary representation of the introduction and emergence of mural art in the United States between the Depression and World War II.”

Killing the Detroit Institute of the Arts was an article I wrote in May of 2013. It detailed a bit of Detroit’s history, its economic crisis during the Great Depression when Rivera painted his Detroit Industry mural, the city’s current bankruptcy crisis, and attempts by creditors and government forces to seize and sell-off the world class art collection of the DIA in order to pay down Detroit’s $18 billion debt.

My article also celebrated the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Park Service declaring the 1930s mural, The Epic of American Civilization, as a National Historic Landmark. Painted by José Clemente Orozco at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, the mural was so recognized in March of 2013. I questioned why Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals could not also be recognized as a National Historic Landmark.

Has Obama been reading this web log?  For the first time in my life, the US government has actually done something I wanted them to do…. but I am still not satisfied.

No doubt the DIA must be pleased by the federal designation. Arts professionals and art lovers around the globe, myself included, have a small victory of sorts to take delight in. But let us be clear, it is only a symbolic triumph. The announcement that the government recognizes the Detroit Industry murals as a National Historic Landmark has absolutely no bearing on the powerful creditors that are still pressing to vandalize and auction off the DIA’s art treasures - Rivera’s murals included. The historic landmark designation does not provide a site with protection or guarantee of legal rights.

The National Park Service website says as much in their National Register of Historic Places Program document under “Listing and Ownership.” The NPS explicitly states that: “National Register listing places no obligations on private property owners. There are no restrictions on the use, treatment, transfer, or disposition of private property.” What that means is, since the City of Detroit claims to “own” the collection of the DIA, the historic landmark designation does nothing to shield the “private property” from being auctioned off by the city.

The Wall Street Journal wrote that there are “more than 100,000 creditors considering a debt-cutting plan” for Detroit, a plan that will impose drastic cuts in the health benefits, pensions, and jobs of city workers, who have been sold down the river by obsequious and corrupt unions. There are enormously powerful financial interests that are baying for the seizure of DIA artworks, banks and insurers like the U.S. Bank National Association (the fifth largest bank in the U.S. with assets around $364 billion), and MBIA Insurance (the largest bond insurer with assets of some $32 billion.

On April 9, 2014, the Detroit Free Press reported that insurance giant Financial Guaranty Insurance Co. (FGIC), announced it had a coalition of big investors ready to bid over $2 billion dollars for the DIA’s entire collection. The vultures include the allied Catalyst Acquisitions and Bell Capital Partners, who have offered $1.75 billion for all of the DIA’s property. Beijing Poly International Auction Co., Ltd are willing to bid up to $1 billion for the DIA’s collection of Chinese art. Though unnamed in the article, Ambac Assurance, Hypothekenbank Frankfurt AG, and the Wilmington Trust Company are also in on the potential looting. So to is the huge bond insurer, Syncora, described in a different report from the Detroit Free Press as “among the most strident creditors seeking the sale of DIA assets to reduce losses to the city’s creditors.”

The Detroit Free Press also noted that plans to sell the DIA collection have the full support of at least one union, the American Federation of State, City and Municipal Employees Council 25 (AFSCME). The union has joined the FGIC coalition in mounting a legal action to compel the city to sell the DIA’s collection. The union’s website says nothing about their role in forcing the DIA to sell its collection, but the AFSCME local joined in filing a motion to do just that. The “progressive” Obama-supporting leadership of the union apparently thinks that art and culture has nothing to do with bettering the lives of workers!  The life and work of Diego Rivera was entirely dedicated to making art accessible, understandable, and inspirational to every individual who views it  - wherever in his homeland of Mexico, or the murals he created north of the border.  It is with tragic short-sightedness, that any worker’s union would choose to sell out that legacy, and potentially lose the national treasure that they are lucky enough to have in their midst.

Police State

As a nineteen-year-old in 1973, I was captivated by the Austrian painter, Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980). At the time I was enthralled by the German Expressionist artists who opposed the rot of the German ruling class in the post World War I period. I saw parallels between the life and times of those artists and my own chaotic age. When I read that Kokoschka became known as a young art student in Vienna for his disquieting paintings, earning the name of Oberwildling (meaning “top savage” or “maniac”), I felt a certain kinship with him.

vallen_police_state_1973

"Police State" - Mark Vallen. Pen & ink on paper. 8 x 10 inches. 1973.

In 1973 I created a drawing in my student sketchbook that was meant purely as an exercise; I never intended to show the sketch to anyone. Considering our tenuous collective future, I think it is important to show, and explain the artwork. I made the freehand drawing with a “rapidograph” technical pen, a tool I used often in those days. Symbolic of mute terror, the angst ridden face in the ink drawing was left without a mouth. A wordless homage to the Viennese savage, the face was loosely based on a photo of Kokoschka by Danish photographer Erling Mandelmann. But Kokoschka and his fellow Expressionists were not the only thing on my mind during those days.

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"Police State" - Mark Vallen. Detail. The sketch is made of hand-drawn crosshatched lines.

The Cold War was at its height and Richard M. Nixon was serving his first term as president. He had expanded the unpopular war in Vietnam with the massive aerial bombing of neighboring Laos and Cambodia (1969-1973). That campaign, kept secret from the U.S. Congress and the American people, dropped more bombs on Laos than the U.S. managed to drop on Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan during WWII. The 1970 U.S. invasion of Cambodia unleashed a nation-wide antiwar student strike in the U.S. that culminated with National Guard troops killing four students and wounding 9 others at Kent State University on May 4, 1970.

A feeling of doom was descending upon my generation, the war appeared to be endless and a police state seemed to loom large in our future.

Then came the May 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Washington, DC Watergate hotel. The burglary was conducted by operatives of the Nixon administration’s Committee to Re-elect the President. Their mission was to bug the office and steal documents, using the intelligence to help defeat the Democrats in the 1972 election. It was all part of Nixon’s despotic toolbox, like his COINTELPRO program of repression aimed at political opponents in the U.S.

In November of 1972 I was traveling in Italy when the news was announced that Nixon had been re-elected by a “landslide.” I contemplated the implications of the report while standing inside the ancient Colosseum in Rome. Surveying the arena where gladiatorial combat and the burning of Christians once pleased the citizens of ancient Roman, the idea that little had changed since the days of Caligula swept over me. 1973 brought no relief, and events led me to make the pen and ink drawing shown in this post.

Since Nixon was forced out of office in 1974 to avoid impeachment, a number of U.S. leaders have come and gone, but I was wrong about one thing, there really could be worse leaders than Richard Milhous Nixon.

"Police State" - Mark Vallen. Pen & ink on paper. 8 x 10 inches. 1973.

"Police State" - Mark Vallen. Detail.

Our current Caligula signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which allows for the “indefinite detention of American citizens without due process at the discretion of the President.”

In other words, goodbye habeas corpus.

It has been revealed that Caligula personally draws up “kill lists” with his Praetorian Guard during “Terror Tuesday” meetings. Those placed on the list then become targets for the Hellfire missiles fired by Caesar’s predator drones.

It is a shame more innocent bystanders are killed in those attacks than are barbarians, but that is the cost of imperium. The Most Noble Caesar also has the entire population of the empire under intense surveillance, because of course, he loves us so.

As for me, I am still drawing pictures in my private sketchbooks that rail against Caesar, his police state legions, and his imperial wars. Perhaps in 40 years those drawings will be shared with the public - provided that democratic governance exists.

TRAC 2014: Part II

“You keep all your smart modern painters
I’ll take Rembrandt, Titian, Da Vinci and Gainsborough.”
20th Century Man - The Kinks

TRAC 2014 offered a dizzying array of panels, presentations, and demonstrations, some of which I found to be much more agreeable than the keynote address of Roger Scruton, which I wrote of in Part I of my observations on the “The Representational Art Conference.” In Part II of my assessment of the event, I will cover a lecture from the conference that I found worthwhile and insightful; Michael Zakian’s The Problem of Content in Contemporary Realism; the views of TRAC 2014 as given by art professor and journalist, John Seed, and remarks regarding one of the conference’s sponsors, the Art Renewal Center (ARC).

An Adjunct Professor of Art History at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California and also the director of that institution’s Frederick R. Weisman’s Museum of Art, Michael Zakian was an engaging speaker with an obvious passion for art. However, unlike some attendees of TRAC 2014, Mr. Zakian’s appreciation of art does not stop with the academic style of the 19th century, though he began his lecture by saying that he likes the paintings of William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905). But he also counts Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Willem de Kooning among his favorites, so Zakian’s ideas run counter to those many aficionados of Academic art that attended the conference.

Mr. Zakian seemed aware that he was somewhat the odd man out at TRAC 2014. When he launched into an explication of his lecture’s title, The Problem of Content in Contemporary Realism, he warned the audience packed into the room to hear his address that he was likely going to upset them with his opinions. According to Zakian, the dilemma of today’s classical realist art is that it almost entirely overlooks content, and though much of the art displays high technical proficiency… it fails in having any meaningful to say. He made his point by comparing projected slides of two paintings, the 2012 Studio in Sharon, by the U.S. academic realist Jacob Collins, and the 1629 Artist in His Studio by Rembrandt van Rijn.

After first extolling the impressive talent of Mr. Collins, Zakian put in plain words his reasons for disliking Studio in Sharon; the artist’s painting captured reality with technical virtuosity, but what was the painter telling us? Zakian asked what meaning was added to the depiction of an empty studio room? Collins’ canvas had the surface details correct, but there was little beneath the polished exterior. Zakian noted that many of today’s classical academic artists paint in the same manner, they depict reality without capturing its essence.

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"The Artist in his Studio" - Rembrandt van Rijn. Oil on panel. 1629. Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Mr. Zakian then switched to the slide of Rembrandt’s Artist in His Studio. In the canvas the young Rembrandt placed himself in the background studying his work from a distance, the easel looming large in the foreground. It is hard to read what the artist is thinking while contemplating his painting, is he confident or troubled about how to proceed? One could even say that Rembrandt seems a Don Quixote-like figure preparing to go into battle against a windmill. The point is the painting not only tells a story, it invites the viewer’s thoughtfulness. Zakian believes that narrative quality and scratching at the essence of things is needed in today’s classical realism. In that I fully concur, but I would say that type of inquisitive and expository spirit should be a part of all art disciplines. Postmodernists have largely done away with narrative altogether, and Zakian warned that in their repudiation of postmodernism, academic artists are doing the same.

Zakian told his audience that today’s academic and classical realists “must go beyond skill” to “wed their skills with story telling.” Fair enough, but what type of story telling? We live in a tangle of media distraction where one is no longer allowed a private cathartic moment before being inundated by a flood of advertising images. Perhaps that is one story to be told. Zakian noted the difficulty of this when he told his audience that “to make an impact on society, we have to compete with YouTube cat videos.” He offered another story to be conveyed when he projected a slide of The Cycle of Terror And Tragedy. Sept 11, 2007, a massive oil on canvas work by academic artist Graydon Parrish.

The painting was an attempt by Parrish to address the horror of the 9-11 terror attacks by means of allegorical symbolism. To me, addressing 21st century terror with the visual language of 19th century Victorian painters is a bit incongruous. Parrish wanted to produce a canvas imbued with the principles and sensibilities of academic art, but he unconsciously fashioned a postmodern work. At the center of the composition are two mirror image screaming men, blindfolded and near naked; the look-alikes symbolize the Twin Towers. When I gaze upon those figures I expect them to flicker and fluctuate like a badly transmitted video. The staccato, attention deficit disorder inducing, video editing style of today bled into the academic painting; Alma-Tadema meets the never blinking electronic eye.

To be fair to Mr. Parrish, the events of 9-11 were so catastrophic that it is tough to depict such a thing on canvas, though Pablo Picasso did just that when he painted his 1937 Guernica, which depicted the obliteration of the Basque village in Spain by Nazi warplanes during the Spanish Civil War. Despite the fact that most people attending TRAC 2014 belittle Picasso as a charlatan, his monumental antiwar canvas is an eternal work of art. Why we do not have such art today is a complicated question. In large part it has to do with artists having been disoriented by postmodernism, their withdrawing from political affairs, and their possessing little grasp of history. It is not enough for artists to simply “tell stories,” we must plumb the depths of what it is to be human, as well as examine the societies that mold us.

Mr. Zakian also noted that “no one talks about the Old Masters anymore,” and advised that artists begin studying those painters of skill that worked before the 1800s, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and the like. Once again, I agreed with Zakian. His advice seemed a slap in the face to those who worship Bouguereau as much as it was an admonishment to those that have abandoned classical realism.

I rarely talk or write about my love of Old Masters like Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and oh so many others. Perhaps I should, I studied them all in my youth and they continue to be a guidepost. But if artists should “wed their skills with story telling,” as Zakian proposes, then we should also study the school of social realism that existed from the early 1900s until after WWII. That encompasses a large field, including artists from across the U.S. and throughout Europe and the Americas in the first half of the 20th century. Seeing as how most of the organizers and attendees of TRAC apparently believe that “real art” stopped being made with the advent of modernism, and that they fervently seek to resuscitate academic art and its atelier based art curriculum, it is hard to take them seriously.

While the greater part of those involved in TRAC seem a traditional bunch, not all conservatives agree with their views regarding art. James Panero, the Executive Editor of the conservative journal The New Criterion, is a good example. In his article Graydon Parrish’s ‘Cycle of Terror, Panero disassembled the painting as “a machine for illustrating technical skill,” and lambasted the advocates of academic realism for turning the genre into “a value system” that “borders on an evangelical faith. A sort of beaux-arts radicalism, it can be reactionary and thuggish: a sociological phenomenon; a form of ‘identity aesthetics.’” Panero’s words might be more compelling (or perturbing) to traditionalists since it was a conservative that wrote them.

While TRAC 2014 was a lightning rod for individuals ready to fulminate against modernism as the unlovely offspring of those unfit parents liberalism and Marxism, not all conservatives seem willing to accept academic art as the aesthetic deliverance for a world gone haywire. That Mr. Zakian advised realist painters at TRAC 2014 to use their skills to say something profound about life is sound and encouraging, and one hopes such counsel does not fall on deaf ears.

John Seed is a painter, professor of art history at Mt. San Jacinto College in Southern California, and a journalist that writes about art for various publications. Seed gave an unlikely talk to those gathered at TRAC 2014, the subject of The Bay Area Figurative School and its Legacy. Unfortunately I was not able to attend Seed’s March 4th presentation, but it must have been a hoot, given the overall conservative atmosphere of TRAC 2014.

Mr. Seed talked about that small circle of painters in the Bay Area of San Francisco who, starting in the 1940s, rejected the reigning style of abstract art and began painting quasi-expressionist works that incorporated the human figure. Rejecting abstraction and making their way back to figuration, these painters were regarded as heretics by the official art world, which had almost unanimously embraced abstraction as the one true religion. Eventually the apostates became known as the Bay Area Figurative School, and therein lies the lesson; determined artists can unseat the status quo. Nevertheless, I imagine Seed had a hard time persuading the traditionalists at TRAC 2014 that they shared a kinship with painters David Park and Elmer Bischoff.

One might want to read When Art Worlds Don’t Collide: TRAC 2014 and the Whitney Biennial, John Seed’s sympathetic coverage of the TRAC event, which he juxtaposed to his critique of the simultaneously held 2014 Whitney Biennial. I could not agree less with Seed’s summary of TRAC 2014, nor could I agree more with his rundown of the Whitney Biennial - though I might have been a tad more raucous in denouncing it.

Seed writes for the ostensibly “liberal” Huffington Post, but when mentioning Roger Scruton at TRAC 2014, refers to him only as “a British philosopher, and the host of the BBC documentary Why Beauty Matters.” Seed says nothing of Scruton being a leading right-wing figure in British society. With obvious approval Seed averred that Scruton “gave the conference its philosophical and moral center”; in my review of TRAC 2014 I wrote that the organizers of the event “set the tone for the entire conference by inviting Mr. Scruton to speak,” but my observation was not meant as approving.

In his review of TRAC 2014 Seed noted that the event was not “without its awkward” moments, then stated that “although TRAC has made every effort to be progressive and open towards its membership there was only one African-American artist at the event.” Perhaps Seed defines “progressive” differently than I do. He made no effort to analyze why Blacks were not in attendance, or why Latinos, who currently comprise some 39 percent of California’s population, were virtually nonexistent at TRAC 2014.

In his review of the conference, Seed asserted that “Classically and Academically oriented artists dominated the event but there was plenty of room for ‘moderates’ - I’m one of them - who acknowledge and find inspiration in the tradition of representational art with modernist roots.” There is a big difference between having “plenty of room” for someone and actually joining forces to work in partnership. I agree with Seed that classical academic art held sway at TRAC, but in the vernacular of most traditionalists, “modernism” is a pejorative.

Historically speaking, modernism generated aesthetic and intellectual responses from U.S. blacks that developed into the Harlem Renaissance (1918-37). During that period the black experience was given voice in literature, music, dance, and the visual arts by extraordinary figures like Zora Neale Hurston, Duke Ellington, Josephine Baker, and Aaron Douglas; there were hundreds more and their remarkable contributions continue to reverberate in the present. But it was modernism that served as the impetus behind this black creative dynamism, not academicism.

To be honest, academicism seems to have had little to no impact on the African-American community; outside of a handful of brilliant 19th century painters like Henry Ossawa Tanner and Grafton Tyler Brown, I am hard-pressed to name a single African American painter in the 20th century that was of the classical Academic School. Is it really such a surprise that TRAC 2014, an event steeped in the traditions of European academic and classical art would fail to attract African-Americans?

Among the listed sponsors and partners of TRAC, one finds the Carnegie Art Museum of Oxnard, California, the Museum of Ventura County, and the Pepperdine University Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art. The Art Renewal Center (ARC), was also a sponsor of the conference.

Many featured artists associated with TRAC 2014 are also connected to the Art Renewal Center. For instance, the event’s 2nd Keynote speaker, Juliette Aristides, has been awarded a place on the ARC’s list of Approved Artists ™ & Living Masters ™. Studio demonstrations were conducted at the event by Jeremy Lipking and Virgil Elliott, who are also living masters according to the ARC. Featured speakers Kara Lysandra Ross is a staff writer for the ARC website and the Director of Operations for the group, while Julio Reyes is another of the ARC’s living masters. The aforementioned Graydon Parrish worked as a researcher on the William Bouguereau Catalog Raisonne co-published by the Art Renewal Center. There were certainly many ARC supporters and devotees in attendance.

Many artists and art loving individuals, alienated by the current state of art, have been attracted to the Art Renewal Center and its aim of fostering an appreciation of traditional art and technique. Not finding it in college and university level art classes, students seeking instruction in realist drawing and painting have turned to the ARC for its list of privately run “approved ateliers,” where one can enroll in atelier based art classes. In principle I think this all well and good, but there is something off about the ARC.

On the “Frequently Asked Questions” page of the ARC website, one can find the following, “While modernism has indeed had some significance in the history of art for a time, that in no way implies that what modernists have been up to was actually good or artistically important.” The ARC proclaims Bouguereau as the exemplar of French Academic art and so a quintessential leader for today’s painters. The director of the ARC, Fred Ross, wrote Abstract Art Is Not Abstract & Definitely Not Art, apparently unaware that abstraction lost its dominance to Pop art in the mid-1950s; never mind the shibboleth of 21st century postmodernism! But possibly the most damning contorted logic and grammar found on the ARC web site comes from this quote on its FAQ page:

Q: Aren’t you just advocating Nazism? After all, Hitler loved realist art.

No. Obviously. Hitler wore pants. Does that make anyone who wears pants is a Nazi too?

What Hitler knew (and Stalin too!) was that good art has the power to communicate with people in important ways and that what he called “degenerate art” didn’t. In that he was right about that even though he was horribly wrong about a host of other things. Hitler also used good artistic expression as a powerful tool to promote his Nazi viewpoint but it is the message, not the medium that was flawed.

Aside from thinking that people who mouth such nonsense are an embarrassment, it is hard to know what so say. In very specific language, the ARC FAQ states the Nazis were correct in their assessment of “degenerate art,” and that Hitler “used good artistic expression as a powerful tool.” The Nazis did not employ “good artistic expression” to convey their poisonous ideas, they strangled the very possibility of art before they even seized power (think of the Nazi Poet Laureate, Hanns Johst, who wrote the following words in his 1933 play Schlageter, “Whenever I hear of culture, I release the safety catch of my Browning!”) As professor James E. Young pointed out in his article, The Terrible Beauty of Nazi Aesthetics, “Art, beauty and aesthetics were not benign byproducts of the Nazi Reich, but part and parcel of its malevolent logic.”

Almost nine years ago I took a swipe at the ARC for posting correspondence on their website that praised the Nazi painter Ivo Salinger; it appears the group’s stance remains unreformed. As the conservative James Panero of The New Criterion wrote, the zeal of some supporters of academic realism “borders on an evangelical faith,” a fundamentalism that can be “reactionary and thuggish.” I am not accusing the ARC of being fascists, but I am saying that they have a very weak understanding of history, and such people are ill-equipped to change the world.

It might be said that the ARC has done more to weaken and incapacitate 21st century realism in art than the combined efforts of Eli Broad and Jeff Koons. Clear thinking individuals that love representational art should distance themselves from the Art Renewal Center - starting with the organizers of TRAC 2015.