The Agony of Ukraine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who was Tomata du Plenty?

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

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

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

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

Sketch of Tomata du Plenty by Mark Vallen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A National Historic Landmark?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Police State

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

vallen_police_state_1973

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Police State" - Mark Vallen. Detail.

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

In other words, goodbye habeas corpus.

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

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

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

TRAC 2014: Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Decline of Western Civilization

The Decline of Western Civilization Is Coming - Mark Vallen. Offset lithograph poster. 11x17. 1980. Commissioned by Penelope Spheeris to announce her documentary film.

"The Decline of Western Civilization Is Coming" - Mark Vallen. Offset lithograph poster. 11x17. 1980. Commissioned by Penelope Spheeris to announce her documentary film.

The Decline of Western Civilization came and went and hardly anyone noticed.

I do not mean the slow-motion apocalypse we have all been sleepwalking through for the last couple of decades, I am speaking of the documentary film director Penelope Spheeris unleashed upon an unsuspecting world in 1981.

Never released on DVD, her film about the late 1970s Los Angeles punk movement nevertheless achieved cult status. Having played a small role in the film’s production continues to bring me satisfaction.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is holding a special screening of Spheeris’ documentary on Friday, April 18, 2014.

Spheeris and her crew filmed live performances of the Alice Bag Band, Black Flag, Catholic Discipline, Circle Jerks, Fear, Germs, and X from 1979 to 1980. The filming took place in venues in and around Hollywood. Punk had literally been banned by most L.A. clubs and music venues for its excesses. L.A. punk was only two years old when Spheeris began filming, but in that time it had become the bête noire of U.S. culture.

I had become an active participant in the original L.A. punk rock movement from its beginning in 1977, attending just about every punk concert held in the city. During that time my sketchbooks were filled with pen and pencil drawings of punk band members, venues, and fans. Portraits of Darby Crash and Lorna Doom of the Germs, Chris D. of the Flesh Eaters, Tomata du Plenty of The Screamers and many others became my subjects.

From 1979 to 1980 I ended up working at Slash magazine as a designer and paste-up artist. I created two cover drawings for the punk tabloid that have since become iconic. It was during this period that I met Penelope Spheeris, since she was working closely with Slash regarding her upcoming film, The Decline of Western Civilization. I wanted to work on the film because I saw it as a way of promulgating and enlarging the punk movement.  I attended some of the riotous concerts she filmed (Catholic Discipline, Fear, Germs, X), and based on my artistic skills and  deep enthusiasm for punk, she hired me to assist in some of the film’s post production tasks.

Screen shot from the closing credits of The Decline of Western Civilization. The final scene offered concert footage of the band Fear, with front man Lee Ving singing, "Let's Have a War."

Screen shot from the closing credits of The Decline of Western Civilization. The final scene offered concert footage of the band Fear, with front man Lee Ving singing, "Let's Have a War."

One such undertaking was creating the subtitles and credits used in the film. Spheeris was concerned that audiences would not be able to make sense of the subversive song lyrics that were shouted and screamed by various performers, so she wanted the song lyrics subtitled during select music performances.

Given that Spheeris was working on a shoestring budget, and there was next to no digital technology being employed in print, filmmaking, and the arts at the time, Letraset press type was used to create the subtitles and closing credits. It was a grueling process, each individual letter seen onscreen was aligned and rubbed down by hand onto paper by yours truly. That text was then filmed by another assistant and ultimately matched to the negative of the concert footage.

"The Decline of Western Civilization Is Coming" - Full color offset lithograph movie poster. 27x39.5 inches. Working under the direction of Spheeris, I did the paste-up and layout for the full-color movie poster to her specifications.

"The Decline of Western Civilization Is Coming" - Full color offset lithograph movie poster. 27x39.5 inches. Working under the direction of Spheeris, I did the paste-up for the full-color movie poster to her specifications.

I also created graphics used to promote The Decline of Western Civilization. Working under the direction of Spheeris, I did the paste-up for the full-color movie poster to her specifications.

Stills of singers and punks that appeared in the film surrounded a large still of Darby Crash, taken from the movie’s unsettling sequence with the Germs (see frame 10:02).

When it came time to premiere the film, I worked with Spheeris on producing a number of street flyers and posters announcing the event - here I had relative free reign as a designer, provided I used stills from the movie. One such effort was the 11×17 enigmatic placard, The Decline of Western Civilization Is Coming, a teaser for the movie that graced telephone poles and walls all across Los Angeles.  The power of these graphics is elevated because Crash committed suicide before the film was released.

The film had its debut in 1980 at a midnight showing at a Hollywood Boulevard theater. Hundreds of leather clad, Mohawk wearing punks turned out, enough to terrify local businesses and put the L.A.P.D. on high alert; it seemed that hundreds of riot control police were on the scene. As I stood across the street from the movie house, some punks began to randomly throw bottles, one crashed against a wall a few inches from my head. As I barreled into the street yelling expletives and seeking a settling of scores, the police moved in with their clubs swinging - yeah, opening night was a real riot. In the aftermath, Police Chief Daryl Gates (1926-2010) sent Spheeris a letter “requesting” that she never show the film again in Los Angeles.

Now the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is screening The Decline of Western Civilization, and that ain’t no April Fools joke.

Ramos Martínez & The Flower Vendors


The "Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez Symposium" held in the Humanities Auditorium of Scripps College, March 23, 2014. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

"Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez" symposium held in the Humanities Auditorium of Scripps College, March 23, 2014. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

On March 23, 2014, I attended the symposium at Scripps College in Claremont, California titled Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez.

Held to deepen public knowledge about the Mexican artist, the event was held in conjunction with the not to be missed exhibit at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez in California.

The symposium offered three separate talks by experts in their fields, all pertaining to the art of Martínez. After their presentations the three lecturers reconvened as panelists for an informative panel discussion moderated by arts writer, Suzanne Muchnic. A lively question and answer period followed, after which the symposium concluded and attendees walked a short distance to view The Flower Vendors, the fresco murals Martínez painted in the college’s Margaret Fowler Garden.

A view of Martínez' unfinished fresco mural, "The Flower Vendors." The mural is over 100 feet long and consists of several panels. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

1) A view of Martínez' unfinished fresco mural, "The Flower Vendors." The mural is over 100 feet long and consists of several panels. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

In 1946 Scripps College commissioned Martínez to paint The Flower Vendors mural. It is a tragedy that in the middle of working on the project, Martínez died on November 8, 1946 at the age of 73. His wonderful mural was left unfinished, but it continues to resonate in the present. I photographed The Flower Vendors while attending the symposium, and in this article offer my photos along with my impressions of the symposium.

Amy Galpin, the curator at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum of Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, presented her talk Making Religion Modern: Alfredo Ramos Martínez and his Contemporaries. A devout Catholic, Martínez created a number of works that were of a religious nature; Galpin focused on those works.

Martínez returned to Christian themes in his paintings and drawings again and again, but the topic was usually bound to the artist’s ideas concerning social justice for the poor and downtrodden. This point was driven home when Galpin projected a slide of Martínez’ 1939 tempera and ink drawing, The Bondage of War.

In this panel one can clearly see the rough "arriccio" layer of plaster, the "sinopia" sketch, as well as incomplete patches of fine plaster - the "intonaco," where Martínez had painted in some limited tempera washes. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

2) In this panel one can clearly see the rough "arriccio" layer of plaster, the "sinopia" sketch, as well as incomplete patches of fine plaster - the "intonaco," where Martínez had painted in some limited tempera washes. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

The Bondage of War depicts a Mexican Indian man tied-up with heavy ropes that hold him immobile, a length of rope tightly twisting around his neck slowly strangles him. The tormented campesino stands in for humanity as a whole; it is 1939 and the winds of war have reached cyclone proportions. Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan have already formed an alliance. In 1939 the Nazis seize Czechoslovakia, Spain falls to the fascist army of General Franco, and the Nazis invade Poland. Martínez made his antiwar drawing on a copy of the Los Angeles Times, the banal printed columns and ads from the paper bleeding through the drawing of the campesino. To this work Ms. Galpin juxtaposed a slide projection of an artwork Martínez created depicting the suffering Christ bound in ropes - the similarity between the two artworks was striking. Both were closely cropped minimalist portraits done in limited color schemes, but more importantly, both artworks spoke powerfully about agony and redemption.

One of the most completed panels in "The Flower Vendors" mural. Note how the artist employed trompe l'oeil to make the figure on the viewer's right appear to be stepping out of the picture plane. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

3) One of the most completed panels in "The Flower Vendors" mural. Note how the artist employed trompe l'oeil to make the figure on the viewer's right appear to be stepping out of the picture plane. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Ms. Galpin placed Martínez and his religious works in the broader context of modernist art. She projected slides of artworks made by other modernists who had created religious art in the Christian tradition; Jean Charlot (whose works appear in the PMCA Martínez exhibit), Edith Catlin Phelps (Wayside Madonna), Ivan Albright (his hallucinogenic The Temptation of St. Anthony), and Charles White (Spiritual). There are many other example of course that Galpin did not mention, the woodcuts of the German Expressionist Karl Schmidt Rottluff come to mind (Head of Christ 1918). It was a refreshing take on modernism; three weeks prior to attending the Martínez symposium I had attended TRAC 2014, where conservative keynote speaker Roger Scruton scorned modernism for destroying the sacred in art and replacing it with the profane.

Ms. Galpin concluded her remarks by saying that the more political artists like Rivera, Siqueiros, Orozco, etc., ultimately saw Martínez as one of their own because of the deep humanism and love of the common people that he expressed in his paintings and drawings.

Detail of rightward most figure from the nearly completed panel. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

4) Detail of rightward most figure shown in illustration number 3. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

In her presentation, Conserving Alfredo Ramos Martínez’ The Flower Vendors, art conservator Aneta Zebala talked about the meticulous process of restoring and conserving The Flower Vendors mural located in the Margaret Fowler Garden on the Scripps College campus. Trained in the restoration of wall and easel paintings at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, Poland, Ms. Zebala was also part of a collaborative team that worked with the Getty Conservation Institute in preserving the Siqueiros América Tropical mural located on L.A.’s Olvera Street.

5) Detail of leftward most figure shown in illustration number 3. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

5) Detail of leftward most figure shown in illustration number 3. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

In 1994 Zebala and her associates found The Flower Vendors in poor shape. The mural was suffering from water damage, which not only caused the paint to bleach out in certain areas of the painting, but gave rise to the build-up of salt deposits that further eroded paint pigments; paint was flaking off throughout the mural. Incredibly, ivy from the garden had crept over the mural’s surface, and the plants sank thousands of tiny roots into the outdoor mural. Zebala recounted how difficult it was to remove the roots and restore the damage they caused. Vandals had also painted graffiti on a certain area of the mural, increasing the headaches of restoration and preservation that Ms. Zebala and her team faced.

 7) Detail of rightward most figures from a nearly completed panel. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

6) Detail of panel showing flower vendors with baskets full of flowers. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Zebala revealed some important facts about how The Flower Vendors mural was produced. The painting was created using the traditional Italian fresco method.

On the wall to be painted, skilled plasterers first applied a rough layer of lime plaster mixed with large granules of sand. Called the “arriccio,” this layer was allowed to dry.

Next, the artist drew a very rough sketch or guide on the arriccio called the “sinopia,” named after the dark red earth pigment used to paint it. The sinopia helped in guiding the layering on of the last coat of fine plaster, the “intonaco.” The intonaco was laid on in small patches, just the amount that an artist could finish painting on in one work session. The artist would paint onto the wet intonaco layer with water-based pigment, remembering the outlines of the sinopia hidden beneath the fresh intonaco. When the plaster and pigment set and dried, the painting became permanent.

Over the years fresco painting developed a slightly more sophisticated technique that abandoned the sinopia as a guide for the artist. In this method, once the fine intonaco layer was layered over the rough arriccio, a life-sized drawing on paper - the “cartoon” - that had its outlines perforated with a needle, was placed over the wet intonaco and pounced with a small sack filled with charcoal dust. When the cartoon was removed, the outlines of the drawing were left on the wet plaster and the artist could begin painting. This method allowed for complex drawings to be transferred to the wet plaster; the artist no longer had to memorize what was beneath the intonaco in order to proceed, instead the cartoon tracing left a completely worked out line drawing to be painted over and refined.

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7) Detail of flower vendors from illustration number 6. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

What Aneta Zebala revealed was that Alfredo Ramos Martínez used the earlier method of fresco painting, that is, he used a sinopia as his rough guide in painting his mural. Once the last layer of fine plaster was placed over the sinopia, the artist had to remember what the drawing looked like; he was in essence flying blind. In all of her restoration and preservation work on the mural, Ms. Zebala found no evidence that a pounced cartoon was used to provide Martínez with a guide. He simply painted freehand onto the wet plaster. Since Martínez’ mural was left unfinished, one can see the rough layers of arriccio and sinopia sketches in one section of the mural, while in other sections it is easy to see the intonaco with semi or near finished paintings. It is sad that The Flower Vendors mural was unfinished, but it has left us with an amazing example of how a traditional fresco mural is painted.

The high-quality restoration and preservation work carried out on The Flower Vendors brought the mural to life. When contemplating the fresco, one tends to forget that it is unfinished.

9) One of the central panels of the mural was left incomplete after the hand drawn "sinopia" sketch was made on the rough "arriccio" layer of plaster. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

8) One of the central panels of the mural was left incomplete after the hand drawn "sinopia" sketch was made on the rough "arriccio" layer of plaster. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Mary Goodwin, an Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, gave a talk titled, Printmaking in Los Angeles and the Role of Maria Sodi de Ramos Martínez. Ms. Goodwin revealed some hitherto unknown historical facts, even to those stalwart veterans of the Los Angeles arts community.

It all began with a Martínez “painting” that hung in the Goodwin household when Mary was a young girl. She became perplexed when she saw the exact same work in the home of relatives. She eventually discovered that the work was not a painting at all, but a serigraph - a silkscreen print; still, it was assumed that the print had been created by Alfredo Ramos Martínez. Fast forward to Ms. Goodwin as an adult with a B.A. in aesthetic studies from UC Santa Cruz and an M.A. and Ph.D. in art history from Boston University. In her research she made some startling discoveries regarding the Martínez silkscreen.

A group of five women prepare to sell succulent agave cactus and corn, in this nearly complete mural panel. The central area of the composition had received the most washes of color before the artist stopped working. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

9) A group of five women prepare to sell succulent agave cactus and corn, in this nearly complete mural panel. The central area of the composition had received the most washes of color before the artist stopped working. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

It is well known, at least to those who have studied the works of Alfredo Ramos Martínez, that his wife, Maria Sodi de Ramos Martínez, was a fierce champion of her husband’s works. After Alfredo died in 1946, Maria continued to organize exhibits of his works. To help continue and expand the legacy of Alfredo, Maria printed 7 separate silkscreen print editions that were reproductions of selected works by her husband. Printed by Maria in the garage of her Los Angeles home between the years 1947 and 1951, the most complex prints utilized 62 different colors - meaning 62 different screen stencils had to be hand-painted. Maria signed the works with her own name; some of the prints had a price as low as $35.00.

Detail of woman from illustration number 9. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

10) Detail of woman from illustration number 9. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

But the story did not end there. Maria learned how to produce silkscreen prints from the artist credited with originating silkscreen as a fine art medium, Guy Maccoy (1904-1981). In 1933 while working in New York with the Work Progress Administration (WPA), Maccoy began developing the screen printing process, earning him the moniker “Father of the Serigraph.” In 1938 Maccoy had the nation’s first one-person show of silkscreen prints. In 1945 Maccoy moved to Los Angeles, California. He taught Maria Martínez his technique of painting directly upon a stretched screen with lithographers tusche and water based glue in order to create a stencil.

Years later Maria Martínez would teach Corita Kent, a Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, how to produce serigraphs. Running the art department at L.A.’s Immaculate Heart College until 1968, Corita became a dynamic force in the activist arts, and her anti-Vietnam war and social justice posters became ubiquitous in the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. In turn, Corita taught her student Sister Karen Boccalero the skills taught to her by Maria Martínez. In 1970, Boccalero became a co-founder of L.A.’s Self Help Graphics, which continues to be a cornerstone institution for the national Chicano art movement.

12) In this detail of an incomplete panel, one can plainly see the various steps taken to create the mural. The bottom half shows the rough "arriccio" layer of plaster, with a sketchy "sinopia" painted in dark earth red as a guide. Just below the shoulders of the two women, one can see the break between the arriccio layer and the finer "intonaco" layer, upon which the artist painted the women's faces, flowers, and background. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

11) In this detail of an incomplete panel, one can plainly see the various steps taken to create the mural. The bottom half shows the rough "arriccio" layer of plaster, with a sketchy "sinopia" painted in dark earth red as a guide. Just below the shoulders of the two women, one can see the break between the arriccio layer and the finer "intonaco" layer, upon which the artist painted the women's faces, flowers, and background. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Mary Goodwin closed her talk by commenting on how we need to continue “teasing out” these multifaceted stories in order to build a complete understanding of history. The synchronicity  between Guy Maccoy, Maria Martínez, Corita Kent, and Karen Boccalero was based on a common vision of art being made accessible to large numbers of working people. Muralism has always been a vital component to that aspiration, with The Flower Vendors by Alfredo Ramos Martínez remaining a superlative model of the art.

As a long time follower of Chicano art history, especially in my hometown city of Los Angeles, it was absolutely revelatory to find a direct link between Ramos Martínez, and the Chicano art movement, through the serigraphy of his wife Maria Martínez. Furthermore, it makes it even more historically important, that the PMCA’s current exhibit of Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez in California is in conjunction with the exhibit Serigrafía, an overview of Chicano/Latino silkscreen art from the 1970s to the present.  A more fitting combination could not be had, as we now have learned from Ms. Goodwin’s research.

The two exhibits run until April 20, 2014. Museum admission is $7, free for PMCA members. The museum is located at: 490 East Union Street, Pasadena, CA 91101. Web: pmcaonline.org

Alfredo Ramos Martínez: Picturing Mexico

I have long admired the works of the Mexican artist Alfredo Ramos Martínez (1871-1946), and over the decades I was fortunate to see a handful of original works by him. I was always puzzled that so few in the U.S. remembered him, especially those of us living in Southern California where Martínez came to live and exercise considerable influence. Once a renowned and much sought after artist, the sands of time have buried Martínez, but an amazing exhibit of his works at the Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA), Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez in California, should stimulate a new appreciation for his art.

Historians and artists alike have often referred to Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco, three eminent 20th century artists of Mexico, as Los Tres Grandes (the big three). It is of course a reductionist view of history, as there were many great Mexican artists from the period, and Alfredo Ramos Martínez was certainly one of them. Those familiar with his life and works have variously described him as the “Father of Modern Mexican Art,” or the “Father of Mexican Modernism,” titles that are not exaggerations.

Some have said the paintings of Martínez “do not sustain the interpretation” of his being a revolutionary artist, an opinion that ignores the historic role Martínez played in transforming Mexican art and literally founding a national aesthetic for his country. He was not a “rabble-rouser” like his contemporaries Rivera and Siqueiros, they placed their art at the service of revolution, but the oeuvre of Martínez plainly shows that he painted the indigenous poor and working class of his native land. From our perspective that may not seem like much, but one must consider Mexico as it was in the early 20th century; an underdeveloped and impoverished country whose major resources were owned by North Americans and where the dark-skinned majority was ruled over by a light-skinned minority of corrupt oligarchs -  and that ruling class preferred classical European art to anything produced in Mexico.

It is a mistake to say the art of Martínez was not political in nature; his paintings were generally not militant or confrontational like those of his colleagues, as if only paintings and prints of insurrectionary Mexican peasants armed with rifles and machetes constitutes “political art.”

Mural from the Chapel of the Santa Barbara Cemetery (detail). Alfredo Ramos Martínez. 1934. "Over the portico of the chapel Martínez painted the resurrected Christ surrounded by angels bearing lilies." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Mural from the Chapel of the Santa Barbara Cemetery (detail). Alfredo Ramos Martínez. 1934. "Over the portico of the chapel Martínez painted the resurrected Christ surrounded by angels bearing lilies." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

The 57-year old Martínez left Mexico in October 1929 to settle in Los Angeles, a city tottering on the brink of the Great Depression. He was embraced by those captivated with Mexican aesthetics, and quickly gained a following. In 1930 José Clemente Orozco painted the very first modern fresco in the U.S., his Prometheus mural at Pomona College. In 1931 Diego Rivera painted four murals in the San Francisco Bay Area, and during his 1932 political exile in Los Angeles, Siqueiros painted three murals, the best known being his América Tropical mural on Olvera Street. In 1934 Martínez painted murals for the chapel of the Santa Barbara Cemetery in Santa Barbara, California. My photographs presenting details of Martínez’ mural illustrate this article.

Detail of the mural from the Chapel of the Santa Barbara Cemetery. Alfredo Ramos Martínez. 1934. One of four Angels painted in the dome above the chapel's Altar. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Detail of the mural from the Chapel of the Santa Barbara Cemetery. Alfredo Ramos Martínez. 1934. One of four Angels painted in the dome above the chapel's Altar. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

The chapel of the Santa Barbara Cemetery was designed by the American architect and painter, George Washington Smith, who led the Spanish Colonial Revival style of architecture in the U.S. during the early 20th century.

The chapel was completed and dedicated in 1926, and Martínez received a commission to paint the murals in 1934; his murals were controversial for not including the traditional religious iconography that was popular at the time.

In his history of the Santa Barbara Cemetery, The Best Last Place, author David Petry wrote that the cemetery’s manager and board member, William Bryant Jr., complained that the murals “impaired his ability to sell niches in the chapel, or to sell the use of the chapel for services.”

Over the portico of the chapel Martínez painted the resurrected Christ surrounded by angels bearing lilies, the Christian symbol of purity. The walls above the aisles were painted with scenes of the clergy, laity, and angels in a devout procession towards the Messiah.

Angel painting in close-up detail. Alfredo Ramos Martínez. 1934. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Angel painting in close-up detail. Alfredo Ramos Martínez. 1934. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Head of a Nun, the tempera on newsprint drawing by Martínez exhibited by the PMCA in Picturing Mexico, is a study for one of the figures in this section of the chapel mural.

The mural’s aesthetics are informed by an austere and rough modernism, the composition dictated by the artist’s attention to architectural details, and the figures having an almost geometric quality to them.

With the exception of a group of Mexican Indian women penitents, all of the figures in this portion of the painting are blonde Caucasians.

However, Martínez painted an extraordinary scene in the dome above the chapel’s Altar. From the Nave of the chapel one can see the monumental representation of the Lord God, his hands raised to bless humanity.

Again, the figure is painted in severe Modernist style, but it is the Mexican Modernism that found inspiration in the “primitive” style of the ancient Maya and Aztecs. Painted on the dome directly across the representation of God, but hidden from view from those in the chapel Nave, is a group portrait of Mexican Indian mourners.

Detail of the mural from the Chapel of the Santa Barbara Cemetery. Alfredo Ramos Martínez. 1934. "From the Nave of the chapel one can see the monumental representation of the Lord God." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Detail of the mural from the Chapel of the Santa Barbara Cemetery. Alfredo Ramos Martínez. 1934. "From the Nave of the chapel one can see the monumental representation of the Lord God." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

They are the dark-skinned wretched of the earth, the invisible ones that silently suffer the indignities heaped upon them by a cruel and indifferent world. They cover their eyes with trembling hands, and huddle together in their misery. But by placing them opposite his portrait of the Lord, Martínez was saying that it is the poor and vulnerable who are closest to God.

Religious themes were always a current in the works of the artist, who was obviously a pious man.

Millard Sheets, a leading member of the Southern California arts community, befriended Martínez and promoted his works.

As the chair of the new art department at Scripps College in Claremont, California, Sheets organized a 1937 on-campus exhibit of Martínez’ art, and in 1945, under the sponsorship of Sheets, Scripps commissioned Martínez to create a 100-foot long mural for its Margaret Fowler Memorial Garden. It was to be his last work. The artist began the mural but did not complete it due to his death in 1946 at the age of 73. Today the unfinished mural titled The Flower Vendors remains a popular destination on the Scripps campus.

Detail of the mural from the Chapel of the Santa Barbara Cemetery. Alfredo Ramos Martínez. 1934. "The invisible ones that silently suffer the indignities heaped upon them by a cruel and indifferent world." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Mural detail from the Chapel of the Santa Barbara Cemetery. Alfredo Ramos Martínez. 1934. "The invisible ones that silently suffer the indignities heaped upon them by a cruel and indifferent world." Photo by Vallen ©.

Here it is necessary to examine the role Martínez played in Mexican society prior to coming to the United States. After the Mexican Revolution began in 1910, art students at the San Carlos School of the National Academy of Fine Arts called for a strike against the conservative institution.

The strike began in 1911, and took aim at the school’s academic training methods, which disallowed students to draw from live models.

The outlook of the students was shaped by the country’s ongoing revolution, and they expanded their demands to include, not just an end to the hegemony of Academic art, but the establishment of a Free Academy where meals, rooms, and art supplies would be free.

Concurrently, the radical democrat Francisco Madero and the peasant armies of fellow revolutionaries like Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa successfully drove the longtime dictator Porfirio Díaz from power, and Madero became president in 1911.

In the continuing strike art students demanded the nationalization of the country’s railroads in solidarity with the revolution. José Clemente Orozco was a leader of the Student Strike Committee, and Siqueiros participated in the strike as a young student. Eventually the strike was won, the academic art curriculum was dropped, students were allowed live models, and by 1913 Alfredo Ramos Martínez became the Director of the National Academy. Martínez broke from the Greco-Roman traditions of European academic art, instead insisting that Mexico’s land, history, and indigenous people were the only subject matter needed for the creation of great art. He opened the first Open Air School of painting in Mexico, which emphasized direct observation in the creation of landscapes and depictions of peasant life; Siqueiros was one of his students. Martínez not only revolutionized the Academy, he helped to change the face of Mexican art.

But in 1913 Mexico, more than just the directorship of the Academy would change hands. The revolution was betrayed when General Victoriano Huerta entered into a conspiracy with the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Henry Lane Wilson. The two plotted to carry out a coup d’etat against the reformist Madero, and on Feb. 18, 1913, Huerta seized power militarily and arrested Madero. Days later Huerta had President Madero and Vice-President José María Pino Suárez assassinated by a military firing squad. One could say that after the treacherous murder of the popular Madero by right-wing forces, the Mexican revolution intensified and deepened - but that is another story.

Walking through the Martínez exhibit at the Pasadena Museum of California Art is akin to walking through the pages of a gorgeously illustrated history book that tells the intertwined tales of Mexico and the United States. Few artists have made that tangled relationship as clear as Alfredo Ramos Martínez. The works on exhibit were all created during the artist’s stay in the U.S., and include landscapes and portraits, as well as political and religious statements. The overwhelming number of works in the show express the artist’s love of Mexico and its people, and he no doubt appreciated their many historic links to California and its population.

Some of the most startling pieces in the exhibition are the graphic works Martínez created on printed newspaper pages. He drew and painted directly on actual U.S. newspaper pages he mounted on canvas or board; the artworks are intensely political if only for their extreme juxtaposition of cultures. One such work is El Defensor (The Protector), a drawing in tempera and conte-crayon drawn on a June 5, 1932 edition of the Los Angeles Times. The drawing is a portrait of a furious young compesino, his hand clenched into a fist as if ready to deliver a blow. Text from the paper’s mundane classified ads bleed through the drawing.

The irony Martínez presented to us in El Defensor reaches across time, as he knew it would. When he made the drawing the U.S. government was involved in a massive forced “repatriation” campaign of Mexican workers in the U.S., up to two million were arrested, placed on trains, and deported. In the xenophobic frenzy, an estimated 60 percent of those deported were U.S. citizens of Mexican heritage that were born in the United States. California alone rounded-up and deported over 400,000 U.S. citizens; the City of Los Angeles was also involved in deporting tens of thousands. The policy of deporting “foreigners” was approved of by the Los Angeles Times.

I refuse to believe that Alfredo Ramos Martínez was unaware of these facts when he created El Defensor, one of the strongest artistic statements made in California during that period.

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Addendum:

On Sunday March 23, 2014, Scripps College will hold a symposium titled, Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez. A number of interesting panel discussions are scheduled, culminating in the viewing of the artist’s celebrated fresco mural, The Flower Vendors.

The PMCA is also presenting Serigrafía, an exhibit of thirty silkscreen prints created by Chicano/Latino artists from the 1970s to the present; I am pleased to have one of my prints in the exhibit. A correlation between the prints and the works by Martínez can be seen, especially by those who are aware of the march of history.

Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez in California will travel to the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, Nevada, where it will run from May 10, 2014 to Aug. 17, 2014.

Roger Scruton at TRAC 2014

Hundreds pack the Crowne Plaza's Ballroom to hear the keynote speaker for TRAC 2014, Roger Scruton. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Hundreds pack the Crowne Plaza's Ballroom to hear the keynote speaker for TRAC 2014, Roger Scruton. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

When hundreds of arts professionals from all over the country, indeed from all across the globe, come together at a four day symposium to enthusiastically discuss the future of realism in painting… it could be said that something might be afoot in the art world. TRAC 2014, or The Representational Art Conference, took place from March 2 through March 5, 2014 at the beachfront Crowne Plaza hotel in sunny Ventura, California. I attended a few of the programs offered on Monday, March 3rd, and offer my observations of the conference with this article. I do so as a figurative realist artist, and a proponent of social realism.

On the day I was present there were around 500 or so artists, academics, curators, critics, and students gathered for the event. I am certain that overall attendance for the entire conference was much higher. TRAC 2014 was the second international conference on representational art to be presented by the California Lutheran University (CLU) of Thousand Oaks, California, the first having been held in 2012. TRAC was organized by Michael Pearce, associate professor of Art and curator of The Kwan Fong Gallery at California Lutheran University, where he also teaches figurative painting. Co-founder Michael Lynn Adams is also a realist painter and a visiting lecturer of drawing and painting in the CLU art department.

The official catalog of TRAC 2014 affirmed that the event’s organizers “believe that there has been a neglect of critical appreciation of representational art well out of proportion to its quality and significance; it is that neglect that The Representational Art Conferences seek to address.” It was further stated that the purpose of the event was “not to establish a single monolithic aesthetic for representational art, but to identify commonalities, understand the unique possibilities of representational art, and perhaps provide some illumination about future directions.” Lofty and praiseworthy ideals. I certainly concur that representational art has been overlooked if not ignored… but did TRAC 2014 deliver on its mission?

Roger Scruton making his opening remarks at TRAC 2014. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Roger Scruton making his opening remarks at TRAC 2014. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

My day at TRAC 2014 began with the keynote address delivered by British conservative philosopher, activist, and author Roger Scruton. Well-known in Britain, Scruton remains an obscure figure for most Americans, apart from those conservatives that take pleasure in reading weighty cultural/political criticism.

He is perhaps best known, at least in artistic circles, for his 2009 BBC documentary, Why Beauty Matters, which hauled postmodern art over the coals while praising the virtues of traditional representational art.

His documentary certainly won Scruton the admiration of embattled traditionalists in the arts, and his condemnation of postmodernism undoubtedly led the organizers of TRAC 2014 to request that he appear as keynote speaker. But Scruton’s view of the arts has its detractors, and I count myself amongst them.

Four years ago I wrote about Scruton on this very web log, criticizing his BBC documentary in an article also titled Why Beauty Matters, so I was interested in hearing his public address.

Hundreds packed the “Top of the Harbor” Ballroom at the Crowne Plaza to hear Scruton deliver a stimulating address, and they were not disappointed. With dry wit and calm demeanor, the soft-spoken thinker disassembled postmodern art and philosophy, bedazzling his audience for nearly an hour. In describing the impact of postmodernism on the arts, he paused occasionally to verbally flay this or that celebrity art star.

Starting with the progenitor of conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp, Scruton called that artist’s 1917 porcelain urinal: “a joke against art that has been elevated to art.” Moving on to the 1960s when postmodernism began its ascendancy, Scruton said: “I know it is heresy to say so, but Warhol’s Brillo boxes are not original, nor are they works of art.” Then Scruton arrived at the present, where his flaming arrows met multiple targets. He ridiculed the bisected animals displayed in tanks of formaldehyde by Damien Hirst, declaring that Hirst was abetted by sycophants and his success was due only to “a ballet of complicit deception.” The unmade bed and personal detritus of Tracey Emin was assessed as so much rubbish by the sharply critical philosopher, who then disparaged the “particularly loathsome Chapman Brothers” for producing art that “is not new but simply transgressive.” As for Jeff Koons and his insufferable Balloon Dog sculptures - they “deserve only to be punctured.”

All of the above was music to the ears of those gathered. Scruton could hardly have found a more receptive and appreciative audience. I admit to chuckling at some of his jibes made at the expense of today’s postmodern art stars, and it was definitely refreshing to hear someone rhetorically stick a knife into the elite art world. Scruton spoke in broad generalities when passing judgment on postmodernism, he struck at easy targets, but hurling insults at those he is disapproving of did not add up to much of a critique. I had the impression that most in the audience knew nothing of Scruton’s politics, and simply accepted him as a fierce critic of an art world obsessed with celebrity and very expensive though meaningless bobbles.

Roger Scruton. "It's very hard to change a whole culture. All one can do is start something and see what happens." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Roger Scruton. "It's very hard to change a whole culture. All one can do is start something and see what happens." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

When it came to the hows and whys of the current dilemma we face in art, and more importantly, how we are to escape it, Scruton said little. That is not the case with his written works, which straightforwardly blame liberalism and socialism (one and the same in Scruton’s view) for the fall of Western civilization. In his address he did say that “if you make the mistake of going to a university to study philosophy,” you will be indoctrinated with the ideas of Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault - postmodern theorists supposedly admired by the left. Apparently it does not matter that a leading left-wing figure like Noam Chomsky, Professor Emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, believed Lacan was an “amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan,” that Derrida’s scholarship was “appalling” and “failed to come close to the kinds of standards I’ve been familiar with since virtually childhood,” or that he said of Foucault: “I’d never met anyone who was so totally amoral.”

Scruton recommended that in order to fully understand the intellectual bankruptcy of postmodernism, the audience should read the book, Fashionable Nonsense (published in the U.K. as Intellectual Impostures). I would also suggest the book for its take down of postmodern theory. But does Scruton know that there are socialists who also highly recommended the book? Or that it was written by Alan Sokal, who once said: “I confess that I’m an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class. And I’m a stodgy old scientist who believes, naively, that there exists an external world, that there exist objective truths about that world, and that my job is to discover some of them.”

Implying that postmodernism is the result of Marxist philosophy, as Scruton does, is nothing short of preposterous. Scruton upbraided postmoderns Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, but Hirst is the darling of oligarch collectors and through their largess has become the richest artist in the world, now worth $1 billion. Emin voted Tory, admires the conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, and created an original work of art for him that hangs at 10 Downing Street. The ridiculous Gilbert and George conceptual art team also votes Tory, and once said, “We admire Margaret Thatcher greatly. She did a lot for art. Socialism wants everyone to be equal. We want to be different.” As for the large and divergent postmodern art circles that exist in Los Angeles, I have met many a confused individual, but few with even the remotest interest in political matters.

Scruton’s defense of traditional art is part and parcel of his overall campaign against liberalism. In 1982 he became the chief editor of The Salisbury Review, a position he held until the year 2000; he continues today as a consulting editor for the publication. The Review promotes itself as a journal of “reactionary thought, undiluted by liberal cant.” During Scruton’s tenure as chief editor, the high-Tory reactionaries of the Salisbury Review poured scorn upon the peace movement, unions, multiculturalism, immigrants, feminism, and yes… non-traditional art. The Review’s editorial policy remains the same today.

If you read The Meaning of Margaret Thatcher, Scruton’s obituary for the divisive Iron Lady published by The Times of London, you will have a better understanding of the man’s politics. He said that Thatcher appeared on the U.K. political scene “as though by a miracle,” implying that she was a “savior” who broke “the power of the unions,” fought the “socialist apparatchiks” of the country’s educational system, and restored national pride with “the Falklands war.” He could have mentioned that Thatcher instituted draconian budget cuts to government arts funding, but he choose to overlook that particular miracle.

Throughout the TRAC address, Scruton peppered the talk with selected projected images or text. When he stated that “the disease of Kitsch effects more than art,” he brought up a photo of commercially available, mass produced gaudy statuettes of the baby Jesus and Mother Mary, all wrapped in cellophane and bedecked with price stickers. Here he spoke of postmodernism having stripped the sacred from our lives with its moral relativism, loss of belief, and repudiation of truth and beauty; and though people still have an intrinsic sense of the sacred - love of family, nature’s beauty, our feelings regarding birth and death - we are still swept along by the daily sacrileges of the postmodern spectacle. With some resignation Scruton remarked: “Maybe we are asking too much of people” when trusting they will abandon kitsch. The contradiction that seems to elude Scruton and his acolytes, is that the cellophane swathed baby Jesus was not maliciously created by godless commies, but produced by free market capitalists intent on making gobs of money.

At the beginning of his talk Scruton said that “we think reality can be captured in better terms,” than has so far been offered by the postmodern school. After sketching the outlines of art’s current predicament, he averred, “Don’t we have anything to contrast with this? That is what all of you people in this room are doing.”

During a lively question and answer period after Mr. Scruton's opening remarks, a member of the audience poses a query to Scruton. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

During a lively question and answer period after Mr. Scruton's opening remarks, a member of the audience poses a query to Scruton. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

At the end of his address, for which he received a standing ovation, there was a vibrant question and answer session.

A young man asked a simple and naive question, “How do we change this situation?” To which Scruton responded with the unflappably British, “Right.” He elaborated that “it’s very hard to change a whole culture… all one can do is start something and see what happens.” But he hedged his bets by quoting from the 1845 Theses on Feuerbach by Karl Marx, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways: the point, however, is to change it,” to which Scruton added… “and look at how that turned out.” I am unsure if that was more of Scruton’s vociferous anti-communism, a warning, or just a self-deprecating remark.

One last question was put to Scruton from the audience concerning the role of money in the art world. The new reality of the price tag being more important than the art is somewhat difficult to overlook these days, and with multi-billionaire oligarchs shaping the art world through their relentless acquisitions, Scruton’s sense of art being sacred is violated by this economic relationship, and rightly so. He acknowledged that money has been a corrosive force in art, but seemed at a loss to say anything else. I would have liked to hear more.

I wonder what Scruton says about Charles Saatchi, the King Maker of the postmodern art world. In the 1970s Charles and his brother Maurice started the advertising agency, Saatchi & Saatchi. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher hired the ad agency to create an advertising campaign for the Conservative Party’s 1979 election effort against the center left Labour Party. The agency’s Labour Isn’t Working series of posters, flyers, and billboards are credited with helping to sweep Thatcher into power. In 1985 Saatchi founded London’s Saatchi Gallery, launching the career of many a postmodern artist, and changing the face of British art. And to think… it was all accomplished without the connivance and intrigue of liberals and Marxists.

Organizers of TRAC 2014 set the tone for the entire conference by inviting Mr. Scruton to speak at the event. If they were sincere in their goal of not wanting to “establish a single monolithic aesthetic for representational art,” then Scruton was certainly an odd pick for a keynote speaker. I am not implying that the organizers were “politically incorrect” for turning to Scruton, but that organizers offered no counterbalance to his views.

In September 2012, the British debate forum Intelligence Squared, hosted an amazing discussion between Roger Scruton and Terry Eagleton titled The Culture Wars (watch the video of the encounter here). A Professor of Cultural Theory at the National University of Ireland, the author of some forty books, and a left-wing socialist, Eagleton debated Scruton on the subject of art and culture; What is it and why is it important? How does it impact us? What role does tradition play in art? What is the future of art in a globalized world? In the debate Eagleton chided Scruton for bemoaning postmodern art while at the same time supporting the very economic mechanisms that lead to arts debasement and decay.

Those who could not attend TRAC 2014 will want to watch the The Culture Wars video, not just to see Mr. Scruton engaged in a “smack down” with an intellectual adversary from the left, but to also get a glimpse of how TRAC 2014 could have broadened our understanding of art and the crisis it faces. Many figurative realist artists do not identify with political or cultural conservatism, and if the organizers of TRAC truly want to change the face of the art world, they are not going to pull it off by sealing themselves inside a right-wing echo-chamber.

– // –

“Part II” of my assessment of TRAC 2014, will be posted in the weeks to come.