A Few Thoughts on Juneteenth

Now that Juneteenth has become the 12th legal public holiday in the United States, I have a few words regarding the jubilee commemorating the end of slavery in the U.S., that began when Republican President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862. I will start this short essay with a comment on the Juneteenth Commemorative Flag, which undoubtably you will see a lot of in the years to come.

Juneteenth flag designed in 1997 by Ben Haith

Juneteenth flag designed in 1997 by Ben Haith.

The Juneteenth flag was designed in 1997 by Ben Haith, founder of the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation. Collaborators Verlene Hines, Azim, and Eliot Design, contributed to Mr. Haith’s vision of the flag, and the design was “fine tuned” by illustrator/artist Lisa Jeanne Graf.

Since Juneteenth began in Texas, the flag is evocative of the Lone Star State’s banner. According to Haith, the white star in the Juneteenth flag stands for Texas, but also for the freedom of blacks in all 50 states. The bursting outline around the star symbolizes a “nova,” or newly visible star—representing a new beginning for African-Americans in Galveston and across the US. The convergence of the flag’s blue and red fields into an arc indicates a new horizon of promise and opportunities for blacks. Haith says the colors of red, white, and blue represent the American flag, reminding everyone that the slaves and their descendants, were and are Americans, and that we must continue to live up to the American ideals of liberty and justice for all.

Some will think the Juneteenth flag a necessary symbol for an exceedingly important event in the nation’s life; I can appreciate that opinion while thinking the American flag already encapsulates those ideals. Others have rejected both flags, favoring instead the red, black, and green Pan-African flag of Jamaican-born black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey. Called “Black Moses” by followers, Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1914, and envisioned Africa as a unified, black-separatist, one-party state to be governed by none-other than Garvey himself. I would look foolish waving the red, black, and green flag of Garveyism, so if you do not mind I will keep my American flag, and perhaps will acquire a Juneteenth Commemorative Flag as well.

As for Juneteenth’s origins, it all started with President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1862. The US Civil War began in April of 1861 and would not end until May 1865. On Sept. 17, 1862, the Union Army won a strategic victory over the Confederate Army at the Battle of Antietam in Maryland; five days later Lincoln issued the proclamation. While it officially outlawed slavery in the Confederacy—those states that seceded from the United States, it left slavery untouched in states loyal to the Union. However, the proclamation shifted the reason for the Civil War from a battle to preserve the Union, to one aimed at abolishing slavery.

Union Army Major-General Gordon Granger. Photo by one of the earliest photographers in US history, Mathew Brady. Photo taken during the Civil War, date unknown.

Union Army Major-General Gordon Granger. Photograph by one of the earliest photographers in US history, Mathew Brady. Photo taken during the Civil War, date unknown.

On June 19, 1865, Union Army Major-General Gordon Granger, accompanied by 2,000 Union soldiers, rode into Galveston, Texas.

They had orders to enforce the freeing of all slaves, nullify laws imposed by Confederate lawmakers, and see to a peaceful transition of power. Slaveholders in remote Texas had defied Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, keeping 250,000 slaves in bondage.

Granger had the duty of reading General Order No. 3 throughout Galveston; it announced the Emancipation Proclamation and stated categorically that “all slaves are free” and as for masters and slaves, “the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.” Union soldiers backed-up General Order No. 3 with bayoneted rifles.

For African-American slaves in Galveston on June 19, 1865, Juneteenth was Emancipation Day. Singing and shouts of Hallelujah! came from former slaves on the streets of the city that day.

The next day General Order No. 3 was published in the Galveston Tri-Weekly News. It was also reported on and reproduced by the New York Times on July 7, 1865. Recently the NYT published an archived copy of that report; everyone should read the order in its entirety. A year later mass organized celebrations began in Galveston and other cities in Texas. Over the years it became a grass roots celebration in black communities, particularly in southern states.

It is a sad state of affairs that many Americans have no idea what Juneteenth represents, or that its importance will be explained to them by corrupt corporate news media and demagogic politicians. It has been said that Juneteenth is the “longest-running African-American holiday.” I would correct that only by saying it is one of America’s longstanding celebrations, for what real American would not applaud the expansion of liberty? I view Juneteenth as a people’s holiday, hard won by the sacrifice of millions who struggled for liberty.

It must be stated that prior to the Republican government liberating the slaves in Texas on June 19, 1865, the U.S. Congress passed the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution abolishing slavery on January 31, 1865. The vote was 68% for the amendment, and 32% opposed. Every Republican voted to pass the 13th Amendment. As for the Democrats, 50 voted nay, 14 yea, and 8 abstained. This fact should never be forgotten.

In celebrating Juneteenth as a national federal holiday, we should lionize those who made it possible. Abolitionists like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Wendell Phillips. Black and white, these heroes embraced the liberatory struggle against human bondage, and their fearlessness helped to shape America.

“Come and Join Us Brothers.” January 1, 1865. Artist unknown. In Philadelphia the Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments issued this recruitment poster. Black recruits would be assigned to the Union army’s “United States Colored Troops” (USCT) regiments, which had the motto Sic Semper Tyrannis (Thus always to tyrants).

“Come and Join Us Brothers.” January 1, 1865. Artist unknown. In Philadelphia the Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments issued this recruitment poster. Black recruits would be assigned to the Union army’s “United States Colored Troops” (USCT) regiments, which had the motto Sic Semper Tyrannis (Thus always to tyrants).

Never forget the gallantry of the Union soldiers, black and white, that forever changed the course of our nation. I place great emphasis on the black soldiers who joined the Union army to give their all in the fight against slavery. I have to mention Corporal John Payne of the 55th Massachusetts Colored Infantry. Payne wrote in 1862: “I am not willing to fight for this Government for money alone. Give me my rights, the rights that this Government owes me, the same rights that the white man has. I would be willing to fight three years for this Government without one cent of the mighty dollar. Then I would have something to fight for. Liberty is what I am struggling for; and what pulse does not beat high at the very mention of the name?” I praise the memory of Corp. John Payne, and hope to meet such men in our present.

Andrew Jackson Smith of the 55th Massachusetts Colored Infantry. Smith was promoted to Color Sergeant before his discharge in 1865. He is shown here in his Union army uniform with Sergeant stripes. Source: Shiloh National Military Park.

Andrew Jackson Smith of the 55th Massachusetts Colored Infantry. Smith was promoted to Color Sergeant before his discharge in 1865. He is shown here in his Union army uniform with Sergeant stripes. Source: Shiloh National Military Park.

As for heroics, Andrew Jackson Smith certainly qualifies. At nineteen-years-old he escaped slavery in Kentucky and eventually fell in with the Union’s 41st Illinois Infantry as a laborer.

Smith became the servant of Major John Warner; they agreed that in the event the Major was killed in battle, Smith would deliver his belongings to the Major’s family. Major Warner and the 41st took part in the April 5, 1862 Battle of Shiloh, and Smith found himself in the thick of the bloodiest battle yet fought in the war.

Confederates twice shot the Major’s mount from under him, and each time Smith provided the Major with another horse. Smith was slammed in the temple by a fragment of a “minnie ball” fired from a black powder rifle-musket. The fragment travelled just under his skin and stopped in the middle of Smith’s forehead.

Smith survived Shiloh, but when he heard that President Lincoln called on black troops to fight for their freedom, he joined the 55th Massachusetts Colored Infantry and became part of the color-bearer unit carrying the US flag and regiment insignia into battle. He fought the Confederates in multiple raids along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts.

Corporal Smith fought the Confederates at the Nov. 30, 1864 Battle of Honey Hill in South Carolina, where he showed great bravery. It was the third battle of Major General William T. Sherman’s “March to the Sea,” though Brig. Gen. John P. Hatch commanded the 54th Massachusetts and 55th Massachusetts black regiments in this particular battle.

During the fight the 55th’s Color Sergeant was obliterated by an artillery shell. Smith saved the Regimental Colors and continued the bloody attack, even as heavy grape shot and canister shells rained down on the Union soldiers from Confederate artillery. Half of the 55th’s officers and a third of the enlisted men were killed or wounded, but Smith continued to expose himself to enemy fire, never losing the colors to the enemy.

Corporal Andrew Jackson Smith lived to see the Confederate States of America vanquished and slavery abolished. After the war he lived in peace in Kentucky, where he died March 4, 1932 at the age of 88. The Medal of Honor was awarded Corporal Smith posthumously in 2001 for distinguished action and bravery at Honey Hill. It is appropriate for Smith to be remembered on Juneteenth.

A band celebrates Juneteenth Emancipation Day, June 19, 1900,Texas, USA. Source: Houston Public Library Digital Archives.

A band celebrates Juneteenth Emancipation Day, June 19, 1900, Houston, Texas. Source: Houston Public Library Digital Archives.

Then there are the everyday black people, who over many decades observed Juneteenth with songs, prayers, food, and readings of the Emancipation Proclamation. They did so to keep the spirit alive, to remember those who sacrificed so much for freedom. They didn’t do it because Nike, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Disney, and a bunch of opportunist politicians told them it was the correct thing to do. They did it for all the right reasons. Malcolm X once said, “History is a people’s memory, and without memory, man is demoted to the lower animals.” What he said conforms with the truth. Juneteenth is a people’s memory. Let us keep it that way.

I will close this essay with a tribute to those “everyday people” who kept Juneteenth alive. A few photographs from the Juneteenth Emancipation Day celebrations held in Houston, Texas in the early 1900s. It’s been a long time coming, but I know a change is going to come.

Juneteenth float decorated with white ribbons and flowers. Fixed to the float is a sign reading, “The Spirit of Charity Art Club.” 1906. Prominent families, organizations, and institutions would decorate buggies and wagons to parade them in the community before gathering in Emancipation Park for a celebration. Source: Houston Public Library.

1906 Juneteenth float decorated with white ribbons and flowers. Fixed to the float is a sign reading, “The Spirit of Charity Art Club.” Prominent families, organizations, and institutions would decorate buggies and wagons to parade them in the community before gathering in Emancipation Park for a celebration. Source: Houston Public Library.

Two women sitting in a buggy decorated with flowers at the annual Juneteenth Emancipation Day celebration in Houston, Texas, 1906. Left to right: Martha Yates Jones and Pinkie Yates. Source: Houston Public Library Digital Archives.

Two women sitting in a buggy decorated with flowers at the annual Juneteenth Emancipation Day celebration in Houston, Texas, 1906. Left to right: Martha Yates Jones and Pinkie Yates. Source: Houston Public Library Digital Archives.

That’s The Way The Kamala Cookie Crumbles

This blog is dedicated to my views on art and culture, but on this rare occasion I must include the culinary arts. On her June 6, 2021 night flight to Guatemala on Air Force Two, Vice President Kamala Harris wanted to give a sweet treat to members of the truehearted media onboard, you know, for their loyal service to “the big guy.” An unnamed pâtissier provided the perfect baked goodie—the pastry chef conjured up a gourmet cookie bearing the likeness of the Veep herself. Of course, it is based upon the official Vice Presidential portrait photo.

“Kamala Cookie.” Photo of cellophane wrapped cookie passed out by VP Harris on AF2. The image is evocative of René Magritte's “vache” paintings. Don’t ask me, look it up on DuckDuckGo. Photo credit: @cmsub

“Kamala Cookie.” Photo of cellophane wrapped cookie passed out by VP Harris on AF2. The image is evocative of René Magritte's “vache” paintings. Don’t ask me, look it up on DuckDuckGo. Photo credit: @cmsub

This was not your typical small, flat, round, factory-made, lowly cookie you buy in a proletarian convenience store. This cookie was regal, a patrician cookie, a culinary masterwork to haunt politicos for eternity; though it may crumble under the slightest pressure. The cookie’s icing undoubtably contains synthetic food dyes Blue 1, Red 3, and BS 2020, which may negatively impact behavior in children, so I do hope none of the journalists give their cookies to their kids. The journos however are safe, as they have grown tolerant of BS 2020.

The oversweet Kamala confection—I am speaking of the cookie, is shaped like an emblem. While no one knows what it is emblematic of, the multitudes who love sugarcoated things will appreciate this badge-like cookie. In fact, it might be the only sacchariferous badge they will not defund. An average “foodie” may think the sugary glaze distracts from the visage of a faceless VP, however any connoisseur of oligarchical collectivism understands that sometimes “facelessness is usefulness” when it comes to the oblivion of politics—no matter how saccharine the taste.

Reports say a disgruntled member of the AF2 wicked kitchen staff smuggled a Kamala cookie off the plane. It was disguised as a double decker cheeseburger. Since the Veep embraces the Green New Deal objective of reducing meat consumption, it was easy to offload the “burger” and secret the camouflaged cookie to the last independent journalist in America, who by the way has been deplatformed. Fellow gourmets, do not worry, it will all be soon forgotten. Bon appétit!

Free… well at least in your mind.

I was asked to contribute a cover drawing for the Spring 2021 issue of the Santa Monica Review, and decided on a simple, black and white portrait drawing of a present-day young black woman. I named the likeness “Free.”

"Free." Mark Vallen 2020 © Pencil on paper.

"Free." Mark Vallen 2020 © Pencil on paper. 17" x 21" inches.

The title is a declaration—that only when we break the chains in our minds do we step towards freedom. The oracle of Funk, Sly Stone, put it best in 1969: “Don’t you know that you are free, well at least in your mind if you want to be.”

If you take the portrait as nothing more than a straightforward, realistic drawing, I would be satisfied. One of my objectives as an artist is to return figurative realism to its rightful place in contemporary art, but my artworks have always had a social dimension focusing on the human condition. So why would I deliver my philosophical musings on liberty by placing the portrait of a youthful black woman on the cover of a nationally distributed literary arts journal? The better question is, why wouldn’t I?

My drawing is an expression of gratitude, an acknowledgement by an American artist that he wouldn’t be the man he is without the influences of an infinite number of black artists, writers, musicians, and thinkers. And while I’m handing out thank you notes, allow me to toss the rest of humanity into the mix.

The Rise and Fall of LACMA

"Ahmanson Annulled." What was left of the top floor of the four-story Ahmanson Gallery at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) once the wrecking crane was finished on May 13, 2020. Photo Mark Vallen ©.

"Ahmanson Annulled." What was left of the top floor of the four-story Ahmanson Gallery at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) when the wrecking crane was finished on May 13, 2020. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

As a Los Angeles born artist, the tale of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is a personal story for me; I’m actually older than the museum. My anecdotes will offer a glimpse of its glory days, and my photo essay will depict its inevitable physical destruction under its Director and Chief Executive Officer, Michael Govan. Mr. Govan decided to demolish the old LACMA, and so commissioned Swiss architect Peter Zumthor to design a new LACMA. The price of this unnecessary project? A purported $750 million dollars.

Over the decades I attended countless exhibits at LACMA, and spent innumerable hours wandering though the museum’s halls, sketching, studying, drinking it all in. The following are but a few of the exhibits that not only inspired me, but impacted the wider community of Los Angeles and beyond.

"Headed for Oblivion." The Art of the Americas building faced Wilshire Blvd and housed American, Latin American, and pre-Columbian art. Photo Mark Vallen ©. May 9 2020.

"Headed for Oblivion." The Art of the Americas building faced Wilshire Blvd and housed American, Latin American, and pre-Columbian art. Photo Mark Vallen ©. May 9 2020.

In April 1965 I was a budding 12-year-old artist dabbling in oil painting when my working class parents took me to Wilshire Boulevard for the grand opening of LACMA. It was an event never to be forgotten. Designed by William Pereira, the museum complex was surrounded by a man-made shimmering lagoon. The campus was evocative of Italy’s city of Venice, or the ancient Mexican Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan—itself a metropolis built on a lake and crisscrossed with canals, bridges, and waterways. Fireworks were set off over LACMA at the end of the festivities, and I marveled at the display mirrored in the museum’s reflecting pool.

Of course LACMA is built on land where crude oil, methane gas, and tar have bubbled up from beneath the ground for thousands of years, creating giant pools of oil and tar that are still active; an outstanding locale for an art museum. The land is also home to the landmark La Brea Tar Pits. By 1966 the tar and oil oozed into LACMA’s once sparkling lagoon, despoiling the ersatz Venice and eventually necessitating the draining and removal of the body of water. This unfortunate event can be seen as a metaphor for LACMA’s destiny.

"The Amazing Shrinking LACMA." View of the museum from Wilshire Blvd. on April 10, 2020. The Bing Theater had met its demise and in the background the Hammer Building, which displayed special exhibits, was being destroyed. The Art of the Americas building at left would soon be razed. Photo Mark Vallen ©.

"The Amazing Shrinking LACMA." View of museum from Wilshire Blvd., April 10, 2020. The Bing Theater had met its demise and in the background the Hammer Building, which displayed special exhibits, was being destroyed. The Art of the Americas building at left would soon be razed. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

In 1966 my mother took me to see the Edward Kienholz exhibit at LACMA, his “Back Seat Dodge” assemblage was sending polite society into a tizzy—the LA Board of Supervisors called it “blasphemous” and many wanted the offensive Dodge coupe removed. As a 13-year-old I was surprisingly well versed in DaDaism and Surrealism, but Kienholz drove home to me how art could inflame and provoke… well beyond my then adolescent dreams.

I was 23 when the United States celebrated its 1776-1976 Bicentennial. As part of that observance LACMA presented Two Centuries of Black American Art—the first survey of art by Black Americans held in the U.S. While it featured the work of 63 artists, it was the art of Charles White that truly captured my imagination. Because of his humanistic and poignant figurative realism, in particular his sensitive black and white drawings and lithographs, I always considered him to be a mentor; the LACMA exhibit poster for the show featuring a drawing by White remains in my collection.

"Bing Theater Crater." Facing the Wilshire Blvd side of the LACMA campus, the Bing Theater was the museum’s main venue for symposiums, performances, meetings, art classes, and cinema. It was demolished and most of its rubble bulldozed away by April 10 2020. Photo Mark Vallen ©.

"Bing Theater Crater." Facing the Wilshire Blvd side of the LACMA campus, the Bing Theater was the museum’s main venue for symposiums, performances, meetings, art classes, and cinema. It was demolished and most of its rubble bulldozed away by April 10 2020. Photo Mark Vallen ©.

I was 25 when I stood in line for hours to see Treasures of Tutankhamun (Feb. 15-June 15, 1978), the most well attended exhibit in LACMA’s entire history. 53 stunning artifacts from the tomb of the young Egyptian Pharaoh were on display, including his hauntingly beautiful burial mask. Some 1.2 million Angelenos viewed the show during its four month run.

At 33 years of age I attended the groundbreaking exhibit Impressionist to Early Modern Paintings From the U.S.S.R. (June 26-Aug. 12, 1986). I rejoiced in seeing works from the Hermitage and Pushkin museums; Cezanne, Monet, Renoir, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, and many others. I still have hanging in my home LACMA’s exhibit poster for the show that features Guaguin’s Aha Oe Feii (Are You Jealous?).

The exhibit was presented during the Cold War, when the U.S. and Soviets were slugging it out in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and beyond. Of the 40 paintings exhibited, 33 had never been seen in the United States. Given the political environment, it was a miracle the show happened at all. The Republican business magnate Armand Hammer (1898-1990), a trustee of LACMA with close ties to Soviet leaders, made possible the cultural exchange.

"More Art." Like so many other lies from the year 2020, the new LACMA will actually have 80% less gallery space, and no room for the exhibit of Permanent Collections, which will be stored offsite. In other words LACMA will offer "Less Art." Photo Mark Vallen ©. May 14 2020.

"More Art." Like so many other lies from the year 2020, the new LACMA will actually have 80% less gallery space, and no room for the exhibit of Permanent Collections, which will be stored offsite. In other words LACMA will offer "Less Art." Photo Mark Vallen ©. May 14 2020.

I was 38 when I viewed Degenerate art: the fate of the avant-garde in Nazi Germany, LACMA’s most scholarly—and dangerous exhibit (Feb. 17-May 12, 1991). It was a chilling recreation of the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) show mounted by the Nazis in 1937 Munich.

That year the Nazis banned and seized art they viewed as Jewish, communist or “anti-German”; the art was confiscated from museums, galleries, and private collections and derided as the product of insanity. It was then displayed in the Entartete Kunst exhibit. Art was purposely hung lopsided, lit poorly, and placed next to slogans painted on the walls reading “Nature as seen by sick minds,” “Madness becomes method,” and the like. When the exhibit run concluded the Nazis auctioned off what art they could, and destroyed the rest by fire.

All of this was recreated by LACMA. Remarkably, 175 surviving works from the original Nazi show were displayed. What’s more, they were shown with the same cockeyed hanging, pitiable lighting, and mocking wall slogans! The exhibit was a blistering curatorial denunciation of Nazi horror, but also a warning against totalitarian systems of culture and thought. Since then LACMA has never mounted such a formidable exhibit, and in these overly sensitive politically correct times, it likely won’t do so again.

"Door to Nowhere." A taped-off door at LACMA’s gutted Art of the Americas building, served as a forlorn message concerning the ill-fated museum. Photo Mark Vallen ©. April 10 2020.

"Door to Nowhere." A taped-off door at LACMA’s gutted Art of the Americas building, served as a forlorn message concerning the ill-fated museum. Photo Mark Vallen ©. April 10 2020.

I attended many other world-class exhibits at LACMA before the tenure of Michael Govan. The museum continued to be an invaluable cultural institution, until Mr. Govan took over as director in February of 2006. I always said he would destroy LACMA, but I had no idea that my dire premonitions would end up being an actual physical reality.

Govan became the perfect postmodern museum director, a promoter of kitsch, installation art, and conceptual art; someone at home in the circus world of vapid art stars and tasteless collectors. But instead of advocating the museum as an institution that acquires, conserves, and displays works of historic import and technical skill, he became a purveyor of the museum as citadel of entertainment and spectacle. And so Govan arranged the exhibitions Stanley Kubrick (Nov 1, 2012–Jun 30, 2013) and Tim Burton (May 29–Oct 31, 2011).

Ironically, Michael Govan’s ultimate contribution to LACMA might be his having molded the museum—according to a 2016 fluff piece by CNN, into the “World’s most Instagrammed museum.” Though even there it was put in 4th place.

"Gutted." The Art of the Americas building on the LACMA campus, facing Wilshire Blvd.—its interior metal parts gutted and bulldozed into a gigantic heap. Photo Mark Vallen ©. April 26 2020.

"Gutted." The Art of the Americas building on the LACMA campus, facing Wilshire Blvd.—its interior metal parts gutted and bulldozed into a gigantic heap. Photo Mark Vallen ©. April 26 2020.

I first felt something was awry when I discovered in 2007 that Michael Govan’s annual salary as Director of LACMA was $915,000—twice the amount of a sitting U.S. President ($400,000). Investigating further I found his actual compensation, after perks, was $1,029,921 per year. LACMA provided Govan with a free $5.6 million house in Hancock Park worth $155,000 a year, according to tax fillings. Clearly, the U.S. presidency with its formidable world-shaking powers, is insignificant when compared to the directorship of LACMA.

In 2007 Michael Govan and Jeff Koons, the “King of Kitsch,” announced their plans to erect a monumental public art “sculpture” by Koons in front of LACMA. Titled Train, it would be an actual 70-foot-long steam locomotive hung from a massive 161-foot heavy construction crane; three times a day the Choo Choo Train would blow its steam whistle and spin its wheels. Of course this would give the museum the look of an entertainment theme park, but Govan compared Train to the Eiffel Tower, saying he hoped it would become “a landmark for Los Angeles.”

The Koons Train project was estimated to cost $25 million, incredibly LACMA was awarded $1 million from the Annenberg Foundation to conduct a “feasibility study” on constructing the curio. Due to the collapsing economy of the Obama years, LACMA was unable—thankfully—to raise enough money to build the banal edifice. Heaven knows where the feasibility study money actually went.

"Dragon Lair." Like a dragon coming out of its lair, a bulldozer pops out of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to dump the guts of the museum in a pit of rubble. But in this tale there’s no Saint George to slay the beast. Photo Mark Vallen ©. May 14 2020.

"Dragon Lair." Like a dragon coming out of its lair, a bulldozer pops out of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to dump the guts of the museum in a pit of rubble. But in this tale there’s no Saint George to slay the beast. Photo Mark Vallen ©. May 14 2020.

Also in 2007 Govan commissioned conceptual artist John Baldessari to design the gallery space for LACMA’s exhibit Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images (Nov 19-Mar 4, 2007). I always favored the Belgian Surrealist René Magritte, both for his technical skills as a realist painter and his playful wit. However, Baldessari’s scenography garnered more attention than Magritte’s sixty-eight paintings and drawings. And it didn’t help that Magritte’s beautiful oil paintings were surrounded by twaddle from collagist Barbara Kruger, plagiarist Richard Prince, and “works” from other postmodern whiz kids.

Next came a 2008 commission for a large-scale public artwork from performance and installation aesthete Chris Burden (1946-2015). He was best known for his 1971 Shoot performance piece, which involved an assistant shooting Burden in the arm at 15 feet with a .22 rifle. Naturally this hokum made Burden famous, the performance was celebrated as a reaction to nightly news reports on U.S. television regarding the Vietnam war. If so then Burden should have had himself shot with an M16 rifle with its more powerful 5.56mm round, that’s what U.S. troops used in Vietnam… but then, I’m an artistic purist.

"The Ruins." It was the most artful thing I'd seen at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in some time; made me think of that old Situationist slogan, "Playing in the ruins of tomorrow, today." Photo Mark Vallen ©. Sept 13 2020.

"The Ruins." It was the most artful thing I'd seen at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in some time; made me think of that old Situationist slogan, "Playing in the ruins of tomorrow, today." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©. Sept 13 2020.

Chris Burden’s commissioned piece turned out to be Urban Light, a grid of 202 antique metal street lights that once illuminated the avenues of Los Angeles in the 1920s and ’30s. A contractor sanded the columns, painted them grey, capped them with period glass globes, wired them, then raised the street lights—as per master Burden’s instructions, in front of LACMA. There they remain, a backdrop for tourists, fashionistas and their endless selfies.

Here’s the truly grotesque thing about Urban Light. As I photographed the demolition of LACMA starting in April 2020—over the months, despite the racket of jackhammers and bulldozers, the clouds of pulverized concrete, the heaps of crumpled metal, wire, and broken cement, and the sight of LACMA’s walls crashing to the ground; people continued to obliviously flock to Urban Light for selfies. If the new LACMA is never completed they will still gather around those damnable street lights like moths to a flame.

"Selfies." In the background you can see wrecking cranes and tractors pulverizing LACMA into dust, as people take selfies at the Urban Light "sculpture." Photo Mark Vallen ©. May 13, 2020

"Selfies." In the background you can see wrecking cranes and tractors pulverizing LACMA into dust, as people take selfies at the Urban Light "sculpture." Photo Mark Vallen ©. May 13, 2020

In 2012 Govan acquired and installed Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass for an estimated $10 million. Considered a “great sculpture” by the postmodern crowd, Levitated Mass is simply an enormous un-carved 340-ton granite boulder that straddles a deep concrete trench and path that allows people to walk beneath it. If archaeologists from the distant future ever dig through the colossal mountains of commercial detritus formally known as Los Angeles—smashed titanium bicycles, shattered liquid crystal displays, crushed cars made from carbon-reinforced plastic, mashed kevlar bulletproof vests… what on earth will they think of the 340-ton boulder?

"Skeletonized." As good as any abstract painting formerly displayed at the museum, is my demolition photo of the nearly demolished Wilshire Entrance of LACMA, taken April 25 2020. Photo Mark Vallen ©.

"Skeletonized." As good as any abstract painting formerly displayed at the museum, is my demolition photo of the nearly demolished Wilshire Entrance of LACMA, taken April 25 2020. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

For me the coup de grâce was the Ahmanson Foundation refusing to gift LACMA with European Old Master paintings and sculptures. The decision came in Feb., 2020 after a 60 year relationship that saw the Ahmanson donate more than $130 million in art treasures to LACMA. The Ahmanson Foundation had provided the core of the museum’s European art collection, and its founder, banker Howard Ahmanson, played a pivotal role in the creation of LACMA.

The Ahmanson ended its relationship with LACMA because Govan’s new museum will not provide dedicated exhibition space for the display of permanent exhibits, which the Ahmanson acquisitions were meant for. Instead, the art will end up in offsite storage; some of it will see the light of day at the new LACMA only if selected for rotating exhibits. That means paintings by Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Titian, and many others will languish in storage. This is not how a prestigious art museum serves a community—but it is a prime example of Michael Govan’s total lack of leadership. The entire postmodern putsch is a war against art.

"Going, Going, Gone." Emblazoned on the wrecking crane slamming the facade of LACMA’s Ahmanson Building is the slogan of GGG Demolition Inc., the company that conducted the destruction of the museum. Aptly enough, the three Gs stand for "Going, Going, Gone." Photo Mark Vallen ©. Sept 13 2020.

"Going, Going, Gone." Emblazoned on the wrecking crane slamming the facade of LACMA’s Ahmanson Building is the slogan of GGG Demolition Inc., the company that carried out the destruction. Aptly enough, the three Gs stand for "Going, Going, Gone." Photo Mark Vallen ©. Sept 13 2020.

"Reflections." Across the street from LACMA is the 5900 Wilshire skyscraper; my photo captures the museum reflected in the skyscraper’s windows. Marking the 1989 demolition of the Berlin Wall, 10 original segments of the Wall were installed at the 5900 in 2009. Ironic that LACMA and the Berlin Wall are both gone. Photo Mark Vallen ©. Sept 13 2020.

"Reflections." Across the street from LACMA is the 5900 Wilshire skyscraper; my photo captures the museum reflected in the skyscraper’s windows. Marking the 1989 demolition of the Berlin Wall, 10 original segments of the Wall were installed at the 5900 in 2009. It's ironic that LACMA and the Berlin Wall are now both gone. Photo Mark Vallen ©. Sept 13 2020.

And speaking of war. As a result of his 2003 invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush built a sprawling U.S. Embassy in that war-torn country that cost $750 million dollars—people bitterly complained that it was a complete waste of money, I know because I was one of them.

What else can $750 million purchase? In August 2020, the Trump administration signed a $750 million deal with Abbott Laboratories to buy 150 million rapid-result Covid 19 testing kits. That seemed a necessary thing in a time of pandemic, but does tearing down a first-class art museum and constructing a new one in its place for over $750 million appear to be a crucial imperative in pestilential times?

Michael Govan’s LACMA boondoggle, with its declared $750 million price tag, will likely cost more than $1 billion. Nevertheless, aside from the bold and fearless minority of art advocates who fulminate against the demolition of LACMA… who’s complaining?

"Everything’s Fine." A couple leisurely strolls by the massive piles of rubble that were once the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo Mark Vallen ©. Sept 13 2020.

"Everything’s Fine." A couple leisurely strolls by the massive piles of rubble that were once the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo Mark Vallen ©. Sept 13 2020.

“Playing in the ruins of tomorrow, today” is an old Situationist aphorism that very much describes the postmodern state of Los Angeles. In characterizing my home city to visitors I have always remarked that it reinvents itself every twenty years, tearing down the “old” for the “new.” How apropos that LA’s once celebrated art museum now lies in utter ruin. It’s an open wound on the metropolis, one that I fear will never heal.

"The Scar." LACMA’s director Michael Govan created this scar on the landscape of Los Angeles—may he always be remembered for it. Photo Mark Vallen ©. Sept 14, 2020.

"The Scar." LACMA’s director Michael Govan created this scar on the landscape of Los Angeles—may he always be remembered for it. Photo Mark Vallen ©. Sept 14, 2020.

"Razed in L.A." Here today, gone tomorrow. The LACMA campus obliterated. This is the end, beautiful friend, this is the end. Photo Mark Vallen ©. Feb 14, 2021.

"Razed in L.A." Here today, gone tomorrow. The LACMA campus obliterated. This is the end, beautiful friend, this is the end. Photo Mark Vallen ©. Feb 14, 2021.

"LACMA Idyll." A formidable grey security wall some 15 ft tall, encircles what is left of museum grounds. The barrier completely forbids the public a view of ongoing construction. An incongruous "welcome" sign cloaks a drab tableau of destruction. Photo Mark Vallen ©. Feb 14 2021.

"LACMA Idyll." A formidable grey security wall some 15 ft tall, encircles what is left of museum grounds. The barrier completely forbids the public a view of ongoing construction. An incongruous "welcome" sign cloaks a drab tableau of destruction. Photo Mark Vallen ©. Feb 14 2021.