Chris Bartlett: Iraqi Detainees

2014 marks the 10-year anniversary of the release of the infamous Abu Ghraib prison photographs, an event remembered by Iraqi Detainees, an unusual exhibition in Brooklyn, New York. The exhibit of photos by Chris Bartlett is evidence enough that the wounds from the U.S. war against Iraq that began on March 19, 2003 have not yet healed. But as I write this article on Sept. 23, 2014, President Obama’s order to conduct airstrikes against the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” in Syria is being carried out to deadly effect. On the first day of the new war, the U.S. launched some 47 cruise missiles from Navy warships and used drones, B-1 bombers, F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, as well as F-22 Raptor jet fighters to strike at ISIS extremists in northern Syria.

Obama the “Constitutional scholar” ordered the airstrikes despite not having Congressional authorization to back-up his actions, nor did the Nobel Peace Laureate seek a UN Security Council resolution to justify the new war. In touting the participation of the utterly corrupt Arab potentates of Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Qatar in supporting his bombing raids, Obama sought to give the appearance of a broad and “historic coalition.” In spite of this, U.S. military officials have stated that the U.S. has launched the vast majority of airstrikes. The president has placed the U.S. in the middle of a war that will only grow larger.

This 2003 photo taken by a U.S. military guard at Abu Ghraib prison, shows the torture of an Iraqi prisoner.

This 2003 photo taken by a U.S. military guard at Abu Ghraib prison, shows the torture of an Iraqi prisoner.

Now dragged into the Syrian quagmire, which will unquestionably be inherited by Obama’s successor, Americans should reflect on what was initially referred to as, “Operation Iraqi Liberation” (OIL), the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the eight-year long occupation that followed. One of that war’s many scandals was centered around how the U.S. Army and the CIA committed human rights abuses against the prisoners held at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison.

From 2003 to 2004, Iraqis were sexually abused and raped, tortured, beaten, humiliated, and killed in the Abu Ghraib prison by their American guards, some of whom documented their abuses with hand-held cameras. When a number of those photos became public in 2004, the notion of the U.S. being the international defender of human rights went up in smoke; the photograph of a hooded prisoner standing on a narrow box, his arms outstretched and connected to electric wires, can still be considered the iconic photo from that phase of the Iraq war.

The international arts community responded to the barbarous acts committed by Americans at Abu Ghraib prison, from the 2004-2005 paintings by famed Columbian artist Fernando Botero, to the 2004 Stop Bush artwork by the American minimalist sculptor Richard Serra. There were of course legions of artists that created works in opposition to the madness that was the Iraq war, but one has to ask the arts community, “now that the madness continues with Obama… what happened to all of your fury and indignation?”

Chris Bartlett’s Iraqi Detainees project is a reconsideration of those horrific Abu Ghraib prisoner photos. In 2006 Bartlett accompanied attorney Susan Burke on trips to Amman, Jordan and Istanbul, Turkey, to interview former Iraqi detainees held at Abu Ghraib. The interviews were conducted in preparing a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Defense regarding the detention and torture of prisoners. During that process Bartlett asked former prisoners, men and women, for their consent to be photographed; those photos served as the foundation for the Iraqi Detainees project.

Ali Shalal Qaissi - 2006 portrait photo by Chris Bartlett ©. Detained in Abu Ghraib prison from Oct. 3, 2003 to Oct. 13, 2004, Mr. Qaissi was beaten, hooded and electrocuted by his U.S. guards. Photo published with the kind permission of Mr. Bartlett.

Ali Shalal Qaissi - 2006 portrait photo by Chris Bartlett ©. Detained in Abu Ghraib prison from Oct. 3, 2003 to Oct. 13, 2004, Mr. Qaissi was beaten, hooded and electrocuted by his U.S. guards. Photo published with the kind permission of Mr. Bartlett.

Bartlett prefers to use natural lighting to capture his subjects, and this is the method he used in photographing the former Iraqi prisoners. Each individual was photographed against a black background, isolating extraneous details and compelling the viewer to face the subject head-on.

While Bartlett’s compassionate photos restore “humanity through beautiful portraiture,” they also make a much larger point about professional photography in general - how it is used to advance either the noble or the intolerable.

Bartlett told the BBC that in the case of the American guards at Abu Ghraib, “The camera was an instrument of abuse. The soldiers, the perpetrators of abuse, took the camera and used it to humiliate their subjects (….) I was using one of the instruments of their torture to bring some of their humanity back to them.”

The contrast noted by Bartlett, that one can use a camera to degrade or elevate, was partly seen in the microcosm of a torture chamber. However, stepping back from the dungeon to view the role of photography in the wider society, the same dynamic is found. A photographer can work to distract and obfuscate, uplift and enlighten, to cognize the complexities of life or to bury wisdom in the junk pile of commercialism. The same of course applies to artists in the fine art world. With Iraqi Detainees, Bartlett took a giant step outside the milieu of commercial product and fashion photography to produce some deeply affecting and humanistic photographs.

In an interview with The Intercept, Bartlett said that after having been robbed of their rights and dignity in the confines of the notorious prison, he “wanted to put these people back in front of the camera and use photography as a humanizing force.” All of the individuals photographed by Bartlett were detained by the U.S. military at Abu Ghraib, and though none were ever charged with any crime, each suffered horrible abuse and torture before being released.

Consider Bartlett’s portrait photograph of Ali Shalal Qaissi, which illustrates this article. It is difficult to imagine a man of such demeanor - beaten, hooded and electrocuted by his U.S. guards. According to Bartlett, Qaissi was “forced to lie on the ground, loudspeakers blasting music into his ears.” His guards “beat him regularly, and, on three occasions, subjected him to electric shock.” Mind you, Mr. Qaissi was never charged with committing any crime, he was simply picked off the street on Oct. 3, 2003, detained at Abu Ghraib, tortured, and finally released on Oct. 13, 2004. After his release, Qaissi founded the Association of Victims of American Occupation Prisons in Baghdad.

It should be remembered that in May of 2009, Obama blocked the court-ordered release of around 2,000 damning pictures taken by U.S. guards at Abu Ghraib, despite Obama’s earlier “promise” to have them released. The photos showed what the president himself described as “torture, abuse, rape and every indecency.” No commanding officer, Defense Department official, or high ranking figure in the Bush administration was ever charged, let alone faced trial, for what happened at Abu Ghraib. It should also be noted that during Obama’s 2008 run for president, he promised to review evidence of the abuse that occurred at Abu Ghraib and at a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan, because, as Senator Obama put it, “Nobody is above the law.” After winning the election, President Obama blocked investigations into the torture and murder of Afghan and Iraqi prisoners in U.S. custody, saying in April 2009 that “this is a time for reflection, not retribution.”

Iraqi Detainees opened on Sept. 9, 2014 at Photoville in the Brooklyn Bridge Park of Brooklyn, New York. Fittingly, Photoville exhibits a wide range of photography in an outdoor modular venue ingeniously constructed from giant metal shipping containers. It is the greatest of ironies that the same type of containers played a very different role during the early days of the 2003 war in Iraq. It is difficult not to think of the following when looking at the exhibit of Bartlett’s photos: interrogations of Iraqi prisoners conducted by U.S. military-intelligence soldiers and civilian contractors at Abu Ghraib were held in metal shipping containers.

In 2001, during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, thousands of Taliban prisoners were locked into metal shipping containers by Afghan warlords allied to the United States. Given no food or water, the prisoners suffocated to death in the extreme heat, or died when their captors riddled the containers with bullets. A declassified U.S. State Department intelligence report estimated that around 1,500 Taliban prisoners of war were killed in this manner.

Iraqi Detainees will run at Photoville until Sept. 28, 2014. Photoville is located in Brooklyn Bridge Park - click here for directions. For more information on the detainee photos, visit: www.detaineeproject.org. For more on the work of Mr. Bartlett, visit www.chrisbartlettstudio.com.

LACMA & BP: Grossly Negligent

Dead fish floating in oil during the BP Gulf of Mexico oil disaster of 2010. Photo by Charlie Riedel for the AP.

Dead fish floating in oil during the BP Gulf of Mexico oil disaster of 2010. Photo by Charlie Riedel for the AP.

A monumentally important federal court ruling was quietly made on Sept. 4, 2014; it was a decision barely reported on by the national media.

On that date a federal judge in Louisiana found BP responsible for the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster of 2010, the worst oil spill in the history of the U.S.

The court also found the oil giant guilty of being “grossly negligent” in failing to conduct proper safety tests in the run-up to conducting deep sea oil drilling from its Deepwater Horizon oil platform in the Gulf, negligence that lead to the platform blowing up and killing 11 workers. The explosion resulted in some 4.9 million barrels of crude oil being dumped into the Gulf.

The ruling in the high-stakes trial presided over by Judge Barbier now opens the likelihood that BP will be forced to pay some $18 billion in fines for its violation of the Clean Water Act, enacted in 1972 as the principal federal law in the U.S. when it comes to water pollution. BP was quick to condemn the ruling, and announced plans to appeal the decision.

A sea turtle covered with oil during the BP Gulf of Mexico catastrophe of 2010. Photo courtesy of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

A sea turtle covered with oil during the BP Gulf of Mexico catastrophe of 2010. Photo courtesy of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

BP might want to refer to Michael Govan, the Director and CEO of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as a character witness.

Mr. Govan of course accepted $25 million from the oil giant in 2007, telling the L.A. Times at the time that he took funding from BP because: “What was convincing to me was their commitment to sustainable energy.” In its May 1, 2013 newsletter, LACMA informed the public that it was “pleased to announce” the renewal of BP’s corporate sponsorship. LACMA continues to tout BP as a corporate sponsor.

I first wrote about the relationship between LACMA and BP on March 14, 2007, and since then the oh-so-liberal L.A. arts community has remained stone silent when it comes to the issue of the world’s largest polluter funding the city’s leading art museum. Not so surprisingly, Michael Govan has refrained from issuing a single word of disapproval towards the oil-soaked, criminal benefactor of the museum he directs. Everything I have written on the subject of LACMA and its monstrous sponsor has been vindicated by the ruling of Judge Barbier, and I will not cease writing such articles until the relationship between LACMA and BP is finally terminated.

What is Art when we have Perpetual War?

“Who needs Art when we have Perpetual War?” is a question that would be asked by a general who runs a garrison state. “What is Art when we have Perpetual War?” is a question that could only be asked by an artist.

I am an artist who believes that art reflects social realities, whether consciously or unconsciously, and that social conditions not only greatly impact the arts, but also shape how artists and the public envision them. Because of my world view, I want to share a few ideas regarding President Obama’s Sept. 10, 2014 nationally televised speech announcing his war on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Obama delivered his address announcing the expansion of war in Iraq, Syria, and beyond, on the eve of the 13th anniversary of 9/11.

Proclaiming a years long unilateral war against ISIS, the president said “we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are.” It was an announcement of open-ended war with no geographical boundaries, akin to the famous remark made by President Bush in Sept. 2001 when referring to al-Qaeda terrorists - “We’re going to smoke them out.” However, one gets the feeling that today, rather than smoking out our foes, they are drawing us in.

"New Imperialism" - Leon Kuhn (1954-2013). Photoshop montage. Kuhn was a British socialist and political cartoonist. The 2009 montage shown here was widely distributed in the U.K. and I believe it was the first mass distributed graphic work to disparage the new president of the United States. Kuhn said of his montage, "Nothing has fundamentally changed for the U.S. as far as the Middle East is concerned."

"New Imperialism" - Leon Kuhn (1954-2013). Photoshop montage. Kuhn was a British socialist and political cartoonist. The 2009 montage shown here was widely distributed in the U.K., and I believe it was the very first mass distributed graphic work to disparage the new American president. Kuhn said of his montage, "Nothing has fundamentally changed for the U.S. as far as the Middle East is concerned."

In his address Obama said he will “not hesitate to take action” in Syria.

The real objective of Obama’s war is not the defeat of Islamic extremism, it is regime change, the overthrow of Syria’s authoritarian leader, Bashar al-Assad, that and securing U.S. control over Iraqi oil wealth.

It should be remembered that only last year Obama wanted to bomb Syria and destroy the Syrian government, but he could not persuade the U.S. Congress to authorize military action. Polls showed that the majority of Americans opposed a U.S. strike on Syria.

When the British Parliament delivered a stunning defeat to Prime Minister David Cameron by voting down his call for military action against Assad… Obama’s war plans went up in smoke. Today the brutality of ISIS provides Obama with the casus belli for a war that will bring down Assad and strike crippling blows to Russia and Iran, who have historically been close allies of the Syrian regime.

During his speech Obama said that he would “degrade, and ultimately destroy” ISIS. He insisted “we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq,” even as he announced he was sending “an additional 475 service members to Iraq” (which expands the present U.S. military force in Iraq to 1,600 at the time of this writing). For Obama to say that we “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil,” is fallacious on the face of it. During an air campaign, special forces commonly infiltrate enemy territory to gather intelligence and “paint” targets with lasers to facilitate air strikes. There are already reports of U.S. combat troops fighting in Iraq.

The president said that the U.S. will “lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat,” but he gave few details on which nations will actually help fight the war. Remarkably, the White House is still casting about for members to join the coalition, days after Obama’s speech! The White House says it will soon name those allies that will do what Obama has disingenuously  pledged not to do… send ground troops to fight ISIS. What member nation of the “coalition” will send troops to fight, kill, and die when the U.S. refuses to do the same? Why do I have the feeling that “mission creep” will rapidly have the U.S. military deeply involved in this looming disaster of Obama’s?

In his speech Obama pointed to his drone war being “successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” His five-year long drone warfare campaign has so far killed an estimated 2,400 people in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, with at least 273 of the dead being civilians. It goes without saying that drone strikes will be a major component of Obama’s air war in Iraq and Syria, and that innocent civilians do not appreciate having their wedding parties being turned into funerals by U.S. predator drones and their hellfire missiles. But does anyone believe that Obama’s air campaign against ISIS will manage to do what over a hundred thousand U.S. combat troops, massive air strikes, and an eight-year military occupation could not achieve in Iraq?

Obama did not even attempt to seek authorization from the U.S. Congress to wage war against ISIS, claiming in his speech that he already has “the authority to address the threat.” Obama has cited two authorizations passed by Congress in 2001 and 2002 in support of George W. Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as all the authority he needs. The 2001 “Authorization for Use of Military Force” (AUMF) supported Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan, the 2002 AUMF supported the invasion of Iraq. But wait, in a 2013 speech Obama said he wanted to “ultimately repeal” the 2001 authorization because “we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight.” TIME magazine reported that in July of 2013 Obama’s National Security Adviser, Susan Rice, wrote Speaker of the House John Boehner to tell him that the 2002 AUMF was no longer operative. Rice wrote: “With American combat troops having completed their withdrawal from Iraq on December 18, 2011, the Iraq AUMF is no longer used for any U.S. government activities and the Administration fully supports its repeal.”

When Senator Obama was running for president in 2007, he said the following: “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” Now that the U.S. peace movement has completely rolled over and died without a sound, Senator Obama seems the most outspoken critic of President Obama.

With his latest speech, Obama made George W. Bush’s “war on terror” and “pre-emptive war” strategies his own. If you doubt this, consider the following. In a Sept. 2014 interview with BuzzFeed News, former Bush administration lawyer John Yoo said that; “Obama has adopted the same view of war powers as the Bush administration.” In 2001 Yoo wrote the memorandum that became the legal basis for Bush’s pre-emptive war strategy. Almost as if he were goading the so-called left, Yoo told BuzzFeed News: “What is remarkable, is not that Obama eventually had to exercise the powers of his predecessors to protect American national security, but that his party in Congress, and his allies in the media and the universities, have remained so silent about it.”

In the wake of 9/11, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. To date the war in Afghanistan has taken the lives of 2,343 U.S. soldiers and some 21,000 civilians. In Iraq, 4,489 U.S. soldiers have been killed since the war’s start in 2003. Civilian casualties have been estimated to be as high as a half-million. Both wars combined have cost U.S. taxpayers between $4 and $6 trillion. The American Society of Civil Engineers put the price of upgrading America’s aging infrastructure at $2.2 trillion. For half the amount of money already spent in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. could have rebuilt all of its rundown bridges, water pipelines, roads, and railways. Since the focus of this web log is on art, I will suggest that some of that money could have gone to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The current budget of the NEA is $146.2 million; it could be equivalent to that of the National Science Foundation, some $7 billion annually.

Since they began in June of this year, Obama’s military operations against ISIS have cost an average of $7.5 million per day, which means that up until Obama’s Sept. 10th speech, his new war has already cost well over $532 million. As the war against ISIS escalates and expands into Syria, that daily average is going to skyrocket, and guess who is going to pay for it all?

If you want to know what the eventual outcome of Obama’s war in Syria will look like, consider the results of Obama’s 2011 war on Libya, where Washington overthrew secular strongman Muammar Gadhafi by supporting Islamic extremists opposed to the Libyan government.

As with his announced war on ISIS, Obama did not seek nor receive Congressional authorization to attack Libya. He promised that the war in Libya would not involve U.S. “boots on the ground,” and in lieu of sending in combat troops, he trained, armed, and provided essential air support to Islamic militias - some known to have ties with al-Qaeda. After the militias overthrew the government of Gadhafi, they set upon each other for control of the country. The weapons provided to the rebels by Obama during the “revolution,” plus the looted sophisticated arms caches stockpiled by the toppled leader, were exported by Libyan jihadists to al-Qaeda linked fighters in Syria fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad. On Sept. 11, 2012, jihadists attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, murdering U.S. Ambassador John Christopher Stevens and several other American personnel.

When running for re-election in 2012, Obama said of Libya’s then just completed, farcical post-revolution elections: “We will engage as partners as the Libyan people work to build open and transparent institutions, establish security and the rule of law, advance opportunity and promote unity and national reconciliation.” In July of this year, as jihadists fought for control of Libya’s capital city of Tripoli, the U.S. evacuated its embassy there, sending 158 Americans in a heavily armed caravan to neighboring Tunisia. This Sept., what remained of the “elected” Libyan government fell to those Islamist militias that took control of Tripoli. The so-called Libyan parliament now convenes on a rented Greek car ferry that also serves as a floating hotel for the banished legislature. A myriad of extremist Islamic militias now fight for control of Libya. As Obama leads Americans back into the inferno of Iraq and the killing grounds of Syria, hardly anyone is pointing to his Libyan debacle, or to its ongoing “blow-back.”

To stampede Americans into supporting his war plans, Obama cited the viciousness of ISIS in his Sept. 10th speech, saying that “these terrorists are unique in their brutality,” and “in acts of barbarism they took the lives of two American journalists - Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff.” As I write these words there is news that ISIS has beheaded a third victim, a British humanitarian aid worker named David Haines. While ISIS is unquestionably a brutal organization, honest observers of the Middle East will tell you that atrocious acts have been committed by just about everyone in the region, including those so-called “moderate” rebels in Syria that Obama supports. ISIS is far from being “unique in their brutality” and the president knows this.

The New York Times reported that on Aug. 23, 2014, 33-year old Douglas McAuthur McCain became “the first American to die while fighting for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.” McCain and other ISIS fighters attacked a unit of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the “moderates” backed by Obama (the FSA is fighting other factions and extremist Islamic militias for supremacy in the Syrian antigovernment movement). The FSA responded to McCain’s attack by shooting and killing him as well as dozens of other ISIS combatants. And here is the clincher, the NYTimes reported that the FSA “went on to behead six ISIS fighters - but not Mr. McCain - and then posted the photographs on Facebook.” Moreover, according to the NYTimes, “the Obama administration released a statement” confirming the death of McCain.

While the outrageous beheadings of Foley, Sotloff, and Haines by ISIS fanatics have become headline news, the beheadings carried out by the Free Syrian Army - the U.S. backed “rebels” Obama wants to train and arm - have been left out of the White House narrative of terrorists “unique in their brutality.”

On Sept. 8, 2014, a spokesperson for the family of Steven Sotloff told CNN that Steven had been “sold” by “so-called moderate rebels” to the militants of ISIS. The Sotloff family representative said that the Free Syrian Army were responsible for turning the American reporter over to ISIS.

Though Obama does not seek Congressional authorization for his war against ISIS, he does want Congress to approve his plan to spend $500 million - to start - on training and arming “moderate” Syrian rebels. There are some 1,000 separate militias fighting the Assad regime, the largest and most effective of these groups are Islamic extremists like the 7,000 fighters of the al-Nusra Front or the 45,000 combatants of the Islamic Front. The Free Syrian Army is one of the few “moderate” groups anyone can name, even though they are known to have fought alongside al-Qaeda linked jihadists.

President Obama has also struck a deal with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Obama spoke with Saudi King Abdullah, who agreed to permit the construction of U.S. military training camps on Saudi soil. It is at these Saudi based camps that arms and war fighting skills will be provided to the Free Syrian Army and whatever other “moderate” Syrian militia men the U.S. manages to scrape up (never mind that the Saudis have been arming Syria’s Islamic extremists). While Obama attempts to hoodwink the American people with his plan to arm “moderate” rebels, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is reporting that Islamist and “moderate” militias in Damascus, Syria have signed a ceasefire and non-aggression pact with ISIS. Signatories to the pact agree not to fight each other and instead concentrate all their efforts in bringing down the Assad regime.

On Sept. 9, 2014, just one day before Obama’s speech, UN human rights experts condemned Saudi Arabia for its increase of executions and beheadings. The UN Human Rights Office noted that defendants in Saudi Arabia are often denied legal representation and have their confessions extracted by torture. Many of those found “guilty” of drug use or drug-smuggling, witchcraft, adultery, blasphemy, sodomy, and apostasy have been beheaded. UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan Méndez, said that “Beheading as a form of execution is cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and prohibited under international law under all circumstances.” Many state-sanctioned public executions take place in central Riyadh (the Saudi capital) at Deera Square, otherwise known by locals as “Chop Chop Square” according to a May 4, 2004 CBS report.

On Feb. 15, 2003 an estimated 100,000 antiwar protestors marched down Hollywood Blvd. in opposition to the impending U.S. war on Iraq. Photo by AP photographer Mark J. Terrill.

On Feb. 15, 2003 an estimated 100,000 antiwar protestors marched down Hollywood Blvd. in opposition to the impending U.S. war on Iraq. Photo by AP photographer Mark J. Terrill.

With the decisive assistance of Saudi Arabia, which uses public beheadings and crucifixions to implement its hardline version of Sharia law, Mr. Obama will wage war on ISIS, which also uses public beheadings and crucifixions to implement its hardline version of Sharia law. Yeah… that sounds like a recipe for success.

On Oct. 26, 2002, a silver-tongued Democratic Senator named Barack Obama gave a speech at an anti-war rally in Chicago, where he expressed his supposed opposition to President Bush’s impending invasion of Iraq by saying, “What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war.”

How odd it is to read those words now. Having pinned all of their fortunes on Mr. Obama - artists and the ostensible antiwar movement, especially its leaders, have much soul searching to do.

On Feb. 15, 2003 over 30 million people demonstrated in sixty different countries to protest the imminent U.S. war on Iraq.  In my home city of Los Angeles, I joined around 100,000 people in an antiwar march down Hollywood Boulevard - now there is nothing but silence.

Obama: “Part of this job is also the theater of it.”

"No Human Being Is Illegal" - Mark Vallen © Offset Poster. 19.5" x 22" inches.

"No Human Being Is Illegal" - Mark Vallen © Offset Poster. Carried in innumerable demonstrations since 1988.

After months of promising supporters that he would take executive action on “immigration reform,” President Obama announced on September 6, 2014 that he would delay any action on immigration until after the November 2014 midterm elections.

This latest debacle from the White House does not fill me with anguish over being deceived, it is just another broken promise from a long list of shattered and unfulfilled pledges.

I was not disillusioned when President Obama, giving a January 2014 speech on job creation, told a working class audience that they “can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”

I was not disenchanted when then-Senator Obama campaigned in 2008 to “support increased funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA),” but as president repeatedly cut and slashed the NEA budget.

I feel no disappointment that Obama has not lived up to a single promise he made in his vaunted 2008 Platform In Support Of The Arts.

I was not crestfallen when Obama went back on his promise to close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center, nor was I let down by him when his Attorney General said in 2013 that Obama has the authority to kill U.S. citizens on American soil with unmanned drone strikes - all without oversight from the judiciary or Congress.

I was not disheartened with Obama when he signed the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which allows the president to detain U.S. citizens indefinitely without charges or trial. I was not disenthralled with Obama when it was discovered that he was running a massive police state surveillance program that had the National Security Agency spying on ordinary Americans.

I was not dispirited by President Obama when he sent 30,000 combat soldiers to Afghanistan in December of 2009, or when he launched an illegal war against Libya without Congressional consent. I suffered no discouragement in Obama’s leadership when he worked to arm the Syrian Islamic fanatics that are fighting to bring down the dictatorship of President Bashar al-Assad. I was not disconsolate with Obama for redeploying U.S. troops to Iraq in 2014 to fight the extremists of ISIS, even though these are practically the same medievalists that have been beheading Syrians for years.

There have been many other actions taken by Obama that have not given me a sense of disquietude regarding his presidency - too many to list here; reneging on his disarmament pledges by investing billions to upgrade the U.S. nuclear bomb arsenal; his backing of the military coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Honduras; creating his deceitfully named “Affordable Health Care Act” as an appendage of the gargantuan Pharmaceutical and Insurance industries, and his militarization of Africa with the expansion of the Europe-based U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM).

I was not even phased by Obama’s hapless decision to cheerfully play golf after delivering a speech regarding the monstrous ISIS beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley. In a rare moment of honesty, Obama told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that it was a mistake for him to have played golf after his Foley speech, saying that “I should’ve anticipated the optics.” (!) In that same NBC interview Obama made the most revealing comment to date regarding his statecraft, he said that “part of this job is also the theater of it.” Indeed.

It is impossible for me to feel “betrayed” or “disillusioned” by President Obama because I never had any illusions about his presidency to begin with. Obama has acted exactly as I expected he would, as a loyal, chief representative of the U.S. ruling class - or what I referred to as “the creeping meatball” as a teenager in the 1960s.

I was never one of those starry-eyed “progressive” artists who produced hero-worshiping posters of Mr. Hope and Change. Such artists have much to own up to, but they have been awfully silent of late. Remarkably, a few of these types still insist upon inflicting their political naiveté upon the rest of society, passing off their social-democratic, neo-liberal tripe as “activist art”. Regrettably they have not yet been wholly rebuffed as discredited opportunists.

My poster Ningun Ser Humano Es Ilegal/No Human Being is Illegal was originally published and freely distributed in 1988 during the Reagan years. It was a protest against the U.S. government’s inhuman immigration policies that blocked entry to Central Americans desperately seeking refuge in the U.S. from the death squads, wars, and genocidal dictatorships that plagued the region during that period. The poster’s title eventually became a popular slogan for today’s contemporary immigrant rights movement. As such, my poster, in no small part due to Obama, is probably more relevant now than ever before.

In full panic over their possible loss of the Senate to Republicans in the upcoming 2014 elections, Democrats fear that if immigration legislation passes, their defeat will be guaranteed. In other words, Obama and the Democrats have thrown overboard some of their most loyal supporters, the Latino population of the U.S. Where is the morality in that? Excuse the pop culture reference, but that type of political expediency is akin to what viewers saw in Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards series. Latinos know Obama as the “Deporter in Chief” for having deported more immigrants than any other president in U.S. history.

But this is not the first instance of the president turning his back on Latinos. It should be remembered that Obama previously dropped plans for immigration reform during the 2010 Congressional elections, fearing the issue would lose votes for the Democrats. Writing for the Associated Press at the time, reporter Suzanne Gamboa noted “the president calculated that an immigration bill would not prove as costly to his party two years from now, when he seeks re-election.” Low and behold, come the 2012 re-election campaign, Obama once again put immigration reform on the “backburner” as he focused on winning his second term in office. Does anyone remember the baseball phrase, “Three strikes and you’re out”? But what is “out,” the policies of the Deporter in Chief or the people’s capacity to struggle for their rights?

The response from Latinos to Obama’s most recent delay on immigration reform has been critical, but not harsh enough. The president of the United Farm Workers, Arturo Rodriguez, said this about Obama: “Justice delayed is justice denied. He broke his promise to the millions of immigrants and Latinos who are looking for him to lead on this issue.” Cristina Jimenez, the managing director for United We Dream, said that Latinos “will not soon forget the President and Democrats’ latest failure and their attempts to fool the Latino community.” Eddie Carmona of the PICO National Network, one of the largest faith-based activist organizations in the U.S., said “The odds of us being let down by President Obama were high. The president and the Senate Democrats have made it very clear that undocumented immigrants and Latinos are simply viewed as political pawns.”

There are many political pawns in the American political landscape, and it is time they disabuse themselves of the notion that Obama, the Democrats, or the Republicans for that matter, have their best interests at heart. To put it simply, there is only the 1% and the 99%. As for the “Dreamers” out there who are still waiting for Obama to keep his promises, an old truism comes to mind… “A dream is something you wake up from.”

The Cold War and the Americas

The just published book, La Guerra Fría y las Américas (The Cold War and the Americas), is an anthology of original essays written as critiques of U.S. Cold War policy in Latin America. My 1988 pencil drawing, Meanwhile… in Guatemala, appears as the cover art for the book.

Published by Mexico’s University of Colima and the University of Michoacán San Nicolas de Hidalgo, and edited by Dr. Avital Bloch of the University of Colima and Dr. María del Rosario Rodríguez of the Michoacan University, the book’s essays focus on how U.S. Cold War era policies shaped the people and nations of Latin America. The twenty-six essays in the Spanish-language book were written by academics from Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and Bolivia, as well as writers from France, Spain, Canada, Israel, the Czech Republic and the United States.

The essays in the book cover everything from the role of art and culture in the Cold War, to the realpolitik of the national security state. In Gonzalo Romero Sommer’s essay, McCarthyism in Peru: the anticommunist policy of Manuel Odría, 1948-1956, the author focuses on the largely forgotten U.S. backed government of Peruvian President Odría, who seized power in a right-wing military coup. Lori Clune wrote Something died with Ethel and Julius Rosenberg: uneasiness in Latin America during the 1950s. That essay brings to light how the U.S. government meting out the death sentence to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage was adamantly opposed by Pope Pius XII, setting off huge protests against the execution by Catholics all across Latin America.

With the United States now rapidly sliding into a new Cold War with Russia, students of history will benefit from reading La Guerra Fría y las Américas, especially young Americans that did not live through that panic-stricken period of unrestrained militarism and paranoia. I highly recommend this book to teachers. Unfortunately La Guerra Fría y las Américas is not available in an English-language version, nor in U.S. bookstores (or what remains of them). However, you can e-mail Professor Avital Bloch and order the book directly. The cost and shipping for each book is $40.00.

Barefoot Gen & the Shadow Project

August 6, 2014 marks the 69th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On Aug. 6, 1945 the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, killing an estimated 140,000 people in the blink of an eye. Three days later, Aug. 9, 1945, the U.S. obliterated the Japanese port city of Nagasaki with another atomic bomb, killing an estimated 70,000.

Flyer for the U.S. premiere of the animated film "Hadashi no Gen." Anonymous artist. 1985. Collection of Mark Vallen.

Flyer for the U.S. premiere of the animated film "Hadashi no Gen." Anonymous artist. 1985. Collection of Mark Vallen.

In 1985 I marked the 40th anniversary of the atomic bombings by attending an extraordinary August 4th event at the Buddhist Higashi Hongwanji Temple in the historic Little Tokyo district of Los Angeles. Asian Americans for Nuclear Disarmament, East Wind magazine, and the Los Angeles Buddhist Church Federation had organized the U.S. premiere screening of the 1983 animated film Hadashi no Gen (Barefoot Gen). Based on the biographical manga by artist Keiji Nakazawa, the animated film tells the story of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima as seen through the eyes of a six-year old boy named Gen. A multicultural crowd of over 100 people gathered at the L.A. Buddhist Temple to view the English subtitled film. You can view a clip of Hadashi no Gen here.

International Shadow Project 1985 - Stencil silhouette on the streets of Edmonton, Canada, August 6, 1985. Photographer unknown. Over 500 outlines of nuclear holocaust victims were painted on the sidewalks of Edmonton.

International Shadow Project - Stencil silhouette on the streets of Edmonton, Canada, August 6, 1985. Photographer unknown. Over 500 outlines of nuclear holocaust victims were painted on the sidewalks of Edmonton.

On the actual 40th anniversary date of August 6, 1985, Americans from coast to coast woke up to find that the streets and sidewalks of their cities had been painted with the eerie ash-white silhouettes of men, women, and children. The political street art had been organized by a mostly anonymous coalition of artists calling themselves the “International Shadow Project 1985.” The outlines symbolized those vaporized Japanese whose shadows were burned into stone by the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Shadow Project organizers called on dissident artists to only use water-soluble paint when creating the outlines. With buckets of whitewash and stencils cut into life-sized human shapes, some 100 artists and activists in Los Angeles worked before sunrise to furtively paint more than 1,200 silhouettes all across L.A., it was especially poignant to see the shadows painted on the sidewalks of the city’s Little Tokyo district. From New York to Oregon, thousands of artists painted the silhouettes on sidewalks; nationally, 104 people were arrested for painting the ghostly outlines in public places. Shadow Project actions took place in 250 communities worldwide.

Ugly tensions are mounting as the 69th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombings are observed. From Ukraine to Gaza the smells of explosives and burned flesh are in the air as the entire world lurches towards war. According to the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, by 2018 President Obama will have spent $179 billion on maintaining the U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons - and the costs are likely to grow. In the present day it is difficult to find any evidence that the International Shadow Project ever existed. Today’s artists are overwhelmingly quiescent, and the only “shadows” to speak of belong to the rapidly disappearing “peace movement.”

– // –

Sources used in this article:

United Press International - Aug. 7, 1985 “Shadows drawn on Bay Area streets.
L.A. Times. Aug. 7, 1985 “3,000 in L.A. Protest Threat of Nuclear War.
Edmonton Journal. Aug. 6, 1985 “Streets bear grim plea for peace.

Lost Horizons: Edward Biberman

Running until August 29, 2014, Lost Horizons: Mural Dreams of Edward Biberman is a small but important exhibit at the Social And Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), located in Venice, California. Biberman (1904-1986) was an American realist painter that carved out a place for himself in mid-20th century Los Angeles, despite the ascendancy and domination of abstract expressionism. His figurative paintings examined social inequality, racial oppression, and the plight of workers, placing him in the school of Social Realism. But his paintings focusing on the architecture of Los Angeles and the new - at the time - freeways of L.A., exposed his modernist side.

I encourage one and all to read my February 2009 article, Edward Biberman Revisited, an appraisal of a retrospective exhibit of the artist’s works that was shown at the L.A. Municipal Art Gallery at Barnsdall Park. My review included biographical details about Biberman, as well as providing a social context to his works by taking into account the times and events he lived through. In May of 2012 I followed up with a second article titled Biberman Redux, which focused on the artist’s illustrated biographical book, Time and Circumstances: Forty Years of Painting.

In this evaluation of SPARC’s Lost Horizon show, I will offer a few observations about some of the works on exhibit, but mostly I will allow Biberman to speak for himself by inserting those quotes by the artist that SPARC used as plaques in the exhibit.

Lost Horizon takes as its theme the studies for “unrealized” murals that Biberman planned for L.A., but for one reason or another never got the chance to create. The show presents more than a dozen vibrant preliminary sketches and small oils related to proposed murals, as well as a few large paintings that were completed as stand alone easel paintings, such as a stunning oil portrait of the African-American artist and activist, Paul Robeson.

It should be noted that Biberman leaned to the left. In the late 1930s he attended meetings of the L.A. based Hollywood Anti-Nazi League (HANL), which sought to educate the public regarding the rising threat of fascism in Europe. Biberman’s association with the HANL brought him to the attention of McCarthyite witch hunters, who identified the HANL as a “communist front organization.” In 1947 the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) convened in Los Angeles and began investigating “communist subversion” in the motion picture industry. In October 1947 Edward’s brother, screenwriter and director Herbert Biberman, was called before HUAC. When he refused to cooperate with the committee, he was found guilty of “contempt of Congress,” fined $1,000, and sentenced to six months in a federal prison. Herbert was later blacklisted by the Hollywood studios and banned from Hollywood until 1965. The brothers Biberman never fully recovered from McCarthyite attacks on their careers.

 "Chains" - Edward Biberman. Mixed media. 1940. Study for a mural never created. On view at the Social And Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), located in Venice, California.

"Chains" - Edward Biberman. Mixed media. 1940. On view at the Social And Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), located in Venice, California.

On display at Lost Horizon is a work charged with historic meaning, Biberman’s 1940 mixed media drawing titled Chains. An unusual depiction of racial harmony for its time, the art depicts blacks and whites standing shoulder to shoulder in solidarity, defiantly holding hands as if determined not to let someone pass through their lines. Technically, the drawing was produced on a board painted with white gesso. Once that ground was completely dry, Biberman blocked in fields of color, then completed the work with a drawing in black chalk. Throughout the artwork the brushstrokes set in the gesso add amazing textures to the paint washes and chalk drawing.

One must understand how completely segregated U.S. society was when Biberman created Chains. A year after he made the artwork, mass rallies by blacks protesting racial discrimination in the defense industry resulted in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issuing Executive Order 8802, which desegregated war production factories and banned discrimination in defense plants. In 1948 the U.S. armed forces would be fully desegregated by Executive Order 9981 made by President Harry Truman - eight years after the creation of Chains.

The crucial beginnings of the mass Civil Rights Movement were still a decade away, making Biberman’s artwork look prescient. Chains was an appeal to blacks and whites for unity in the face of virulent racism; given the state of race relations in the U.S. at the time, the artwork was explosively controversial.

"The Civil War and the Role of the Black Soldier: Full Scale Battle" (Detail) - Edward Biberman. Pastel and oil paint on paper. Preparatory study for a mural never created. Circa 1938.

"The Civil War and the Role of the Black Soldier: Full Scale Battle" (Detail) - Edward Biberman. Pastel and oil paint on paper. Preparatory study for a mural never created. Circa 1938.

Biberman’s sketch, The Civil War and the Role of the Black Soldier: Full Scale Battle, was one of several preparatory studies for murals that the artist never actually painted. On the whole, the dynamically composed drawings depicted circumstances through the eyes of African-Americans. Here I present a mere detail of Full Scale Battle, just to show the technical virtuosity of Biberman. The sketch was first laid out using a pencil to establish a line drawing, broad areas of color were then defined with pastel chalk, and final touches indicating highlights were then daubed in oil paint. A chaotic battlefield comes to life in Biberman’s study; one can almost hear the shrieks of wounded men and the thunder of rifles and cannonade. But the visuals of armed blacks fighting for their liberation was no doubt unsettling for mainstream America in the late 1930s, and Biberman’s vision was never realized as a public mural. Lost Horizons is worth attending if only to view these particular mural studies.

Oil study for "History of Writing" - Edward Biberman. Oil on canvas. 1938. This oil sketch was part of a larger composition intended as a mural for the San Pedro Post Office; the mural was never created.

Oil study for "History of Writing" - Edward Biberman. Oil on canvas. 1938. This oil sketch was part of a larger composition intended as a mural for the San Pedro Post Office; the mural was never created.

The last series of studies shown at SPARC that I will mention here are from Biberman’s proposed 1938 mural, History of Writing. He planned to install the mural at the San Pedro Post Office located in San Pedro, California, a major international seaport and city with a rich history of radical labor organizing. The mural was beautifully composed and meant to hang on an interior wall of the post office between the lobby and the main workroom. As the title implied, the mural presented important moments in the development of written language.

Rather than have his mural start with the cuneiform of ancient Mesopotamia, Biberman boldly focused on the “talking knots” or “Quipus” of the ancient Inca. “Quipus” were knotted cords that recorded data using binary code similar to modern computer language. Anthropologists have concluded that the Inca used the talking knots to record numerical information regarding time, taxes, census records, and the like, but only recently have anthropologists started to consider the talking knots as an actual writing system.

Detail of oil study for "History of Writing" - Edward Biberman. Oil on canvas. 1938.

Detail of oil study for "History of Writing" - Edward Biberman. Oil on canvas. 1938.

On the left side of his composition study for History of Writing (the original full study for the mural is on display at SPARC), Biberman depicted a number of Inca elites grouped together. The artist created small oil on canvas portrait studies for each figure, two of which appear here as illustrations. I believe that in part, it was his exposure to the Mexican Muralist school that led Biberman to feature the Inca in his History of Writing mural; he had already met Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco while living in New York.

In 1934 Diego Rivera’s Man at the Crossroads fresco mural in New York’s Rockefeller Center was ordered destroyed by Nelson Rockefeller. Why? - because Rivera had refused to remove from his composition a portrait of the Russian communist revolutionary, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. That same year, American artists inspired by Rivera painted murals in San Francisco’s Coit Tower; reactionaries objected to the pro-worker murals and demanded their destruction. Public support prevented the obliteration of the artworks, but the city Park Commission did censor one of the mural panels by artist Clifford Wight, who had included the hammer and sickle symbol of communism in his composition - the symbol was painted out by the authorities.

Oil study for "History of Writing" - Edward Biberman. Oil on canvas. 1938.

Oil study for "History of Writing" - Edward Biberman. Oil on canvas. 1938.

I cannot help but think that Biberman was thinking of all this when he created preliminary sketches and paintings for his 1938 History of Writing mural. In his oil painting study of an Inca chieftain , he portrayed the leader wearing heavy gemstone earplugs and a cap decorated with a red star - the cap bore more than a little resemblance to the early Soviet Red Army “Budenovka” cap. While visiting Los Angeles in 1932, Siqueiros painted the mural, Retrato del Mexico de hoy (”Portrait of Mexico Today”). The mural included a Soviet Red Army soldier wearing the Budenovka cap.

I am closing this article with some statements made by Edward Biberman, quotes that appear as wall plaques in the Lost Horizon exhibit. The source of the quotations were a series of interviews conducted in 1975 under the auspices of the Oral History Program of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Biberman’s ideas about art are every bit as relevant to our present circumstances as they were in decades past, and contemporary artists have much to learn from him.

Here is what Biberman said about Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco…

“I had enormous admiration, particularly in this period, for the motivation that drove these artists (Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros) to do the work they did. And although I had no sense of how this might happen in our own country - because this was prior to the whole New Deal art period - I had a feeling that something had to give, that the premise upon which we had all been operating in the past was no longer valid.

Well, the business of being an easel painter and producing what the economists call a ‘commodity’ in the hope that somewhere, sometime, someone would buy it, this is what I mean by the premise. The premise of public art is totally different. You don’t paint an enormous wall in the hope that someday, someone will build a building for it. In public art, you have a building, you have a premise, you have an opportunity, and the opportunity and the audience are both public. Therefore, it seemed to me at the time, and I still feel it is true, that given a different premise, one arrives at a different conclusion in art, as well as logic.”

Biberman said the following about the Great Depression and social realist art…

“But this became a time of deep personal tragedy. This was the bottom of the depression years, and the entire country seemed mired in despair. In the early summer of 1933, my father, despondent over financial worries and seeing no light ahead, took his own life.

The tragic act brought into sharp focus a state of unease, which has been growing in me for several years. Though I had been very fortunate, as a young painter, in getting my work seen, I was sorely troubled by such acts of desperation as that which had now struck our family, and I saw this as but a part of the larger travail of a nation with seventeen million unemployed. I questioned the relevance of my own work, and that of my colleagues, in times such as this. By contrast I had met Diego Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros at various times in New York in these years, and I could not but feel that what they were painting, and the uses to which their work was being put, had a pertinence which I deeply envied.”

On abstract art…

“I always find it not without a kind of coincidental interest that the height of the abstract expressionist movement was also the height of the McCarthy period. This may be, again, speculative, but I have always found the point of view of nonobjective art to be a very limited one. Action painting, abstract expressionism, and the avoidance of associate values in painting have, for me, not been constructive, despite the fact that historically this has been considered to be the emancipation of American art. Most people who write about the art of the middle of the twentieth century speak about the fact that the center of art and the center of the experimental movement moved from Europe to the United States, and that the so-called New York School (which means the abstract expressionist and the action school), signaled the emancipation of American art, and that for the first time American art moved to the center of the world scene.

From my point of view, if this is the center of the world scene of art, it’s not a very good center. I don’t enjoy it, I don’t feel comfortable with it, and I don’t feel it’s a very contributive point of view. My speculation as to why this particular point of view, which avoids subject matter, coincided almost exactly with the Cold War is something which one cannot prove. The painters of the abstract expressionist and action schools did not have to wrestle directly with contemporary social issues. A great many artists and critics maintain that this is a very positive outgoing manifestation of the individualist, a democratic, forward-looking point of view in art. I do not subscribe to this thesis.”

Biberman’s suspicions as to why abstract art became dominant during the Cold War were borne out in research done by British journalist and historian Frances Stonor Saunders and published in her 1999 book, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters. Using declassified U.S. government records, Saunders documented how the CIA - from the late 1940s until the late 1960s - ran secret operations that promoted American Abstract Expressionism and modern art as a weapon in the Cold War. From covertly funding museums and galleries that showed abstract art, planting positive stories about abstract artists in newspapers and magazines, and secretly organizing traveling national and international exhibitions of abstract art, the CIA helped to shape abstract art and its successes.

One can only imagine how Biberman would have reacted to Saunders’ findings. While Biberman could only speculate on the existence of a secret U.S. government program that exerted control over the arts, Saunders has provided clear and verifiable evidence of the extensive covert operation, vindicating Biberman’s suspicions. It is instructive that today’s art critics and art press have not yet initiated a discussion regarding the facts brought to light by Saunders.

Lost Horizons: Mural Dreams of Edward Biberman runs until August 29, 2014. SPARC is located at 685 N. Venice Blvd. Venice, CA 90291. Gallery hours: Tues - Sat, 11am - 5 pm.

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.

Xxxxx xxxx

"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.