Category: African American

“It feels as if art is failing us”

50 years ago on February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan, New York. This short essay is a reflection on Black History Month and how the explosive social events of the 1960s helped to shape my life and viewpoint as an artist. By extension, it is also a rumination on how artists must react to the issues of race and class facing America today.

"No Justice, No Peace" - Mark Vallen 1992 © Pencil on paper. 11 x 16 inches.

"No Justice, No Peace" - Mark Vallen 1992 © Pencil on paper. 11 x 16 inches.

In the wake of four Los Angeles Police Department officers being acquitted for mercilessly beating, clubbing and kicking Rodney King after a high-speed car chase, I created the drawing No Justice, No Peace in the immediate aftermath of the riots that engulfed Los Angeles on April 29, 1992. One of the three young protesters I depicted in my drawing holds a flyer emblazoned with a photo of Malcolm X. I published my drawing as an edition of 5,000 offset litho flyers that were distributed all across the city; the leaflets bore the stencil letter headline of… No Justice, No Peace. It would not be the first time that I created an artwork that examined race in America; I had been making such images since I was a rebellious high school student in 1968.

I was only six-years old in 1960 when I saw newspaper photos of white racist thugs beating up African-Americans who dared to sit at segregated lunch counters in the South. A year later at seven-years old I saw news photos of racist white mobs beating Freedom Riders and burning their buses in Alabama. As a nine-year old in 1963, I watched television broadcasts of African-Americans marching for their human rights on the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, and was horrified to see them savagely assaulted by policemen, set upon by snarling police dogs, and attacked by cops using high-pressure water hoses for “crowd dispersal.”

There was so much more: the ‘63 dynamite bombing of the African-American 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that took the lives of four little girls; the ‘64 police kidnapping and KKK murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi; the assassination of Malcolm X on Feb. 21, 1965; the Orangeburg massacre of Feb. ‘68, where hundreds of black students protesting racial segregation in Orangeburg, South Carolina were fired upon by police with carbines and shotguns, killing three young men and wounding 28 (predating the 1970 Kent State killings). Then, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. I remember all of those events and so much more, just as if it all happened yesterday.

It is remarkable to think that in the suburban neighborhood in Los Angeles where I grew up as a teenager, I walked every Friday to a local newsstand, a hub in the community, and purchased the weekly edition of The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service, the party’s self-published newspaper. It is also striking to consider that I submitted a political cartoon to the Panther publication, sometime around 1969 or 1970 (the date escapes me). I received a letter from the Panthers that they had published my cartoon! That cartoon would be my very first published artwork; but that is a story for another time.

But concurrent with my political baptism came an aesthetic, cultural awakening. My interest in the Black liberation movement also led me to discover a plethora of African-American artists; giants like Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, John Biggers, Charles White, Betye Saar and many others. I have learned from and been inspired by many art movements: the Mexican Muralists, the German Expressionists, the American Social Realists of the late 1930s, but I would not be the artist I am today had it not been for the Black Arts Movement.

As a teenager in the 1960s, I cut my teeth on the social struggles just described, and with my understanding of art and cultural work as a necessary component to social change, I began to make art that confronted war, racism, imperialism, police brutality - the exact same problems that continue to plague us today. As a young artist in the 60’s, these themes filled my sketchbooks.

"Free Huey" - Mark Vallen 1968 © Color linoleum print. 6 x 8 inches.

"Free Huey" - Mark Vallen 1968 © Color linoleum print. 6 x 8 inches.

As a fourteen-year old in 1968, I created my first clumsy attempt at a linoleum cut.

The print was inspired by the “Free Huey” campaign the Black Panther Party was then waging on behalf of its jailed Minister of Defense, Huey P. Newton. The drive to free the Panther leader became a cause célèbre in the U.S., especially for young Blacks fed up with racial oppression.

I remember making black and white copies of my linoleum print on a Xerox Machine, a new technology at the time, and posting the facsimiles in my neighborhood. It would be my first foray into hit and run public art.

In 1970 I created a small drawing of Angela Davis after she had been arrested on trumped-up charges of murder. While Davis was never a Panther, she was an ardent supporter. It should be remembered that on Dec. 4, 1969, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark of the Black Panther Party chapter in Chicago, Illinois were murdered by the police in a raid on Hampton’s apartment… bringing the number of Panthers killed by the police up to that point to 28.

"Angela Davis" - Mark Vallen 1969 © Pen and ink, watercolor on paper. 5 x 7 inches.  Never before published.

"Angela Davis" - Mark Vallen 1970 © Pen and ink, watercolor on paper. 5 x 7 inches. Created when the artist was 16-years old. Never before published.

There were plenty of other non-Panther African-American activists that fell victim to state repression at the time, so the fear that Davis might join them was a realistic one. While I never published my ink and watercolor portrait of Davis, I was very much involved in the international “Free Angela” movement that demanded her freedom.

I am sharing these memories to make a point, that a humanist art that resists and scorns injustice must come from real world experience. Such art grows out of an understanding of history and a great love for common people; more importantly, it springs from communities of people yearning and struggling for a better life. Because of my deep involvement with the civil and human rights movement of African-Americans, I cannot view art in any other way.

The debate regarding the social role of art in America remains as burning a question as it ever was. The protests and riots in Ferguson, Missouri over the police killing of Michael Brown; the heinous strangulation death of Eric Garner at the hands of the New York Police Department and the crushing pathos of the attendant “I Can’t Breathe!” rallying cry; the mass demonstrations of the Black Lives Matter movement, all give the lie to the nonsense about a “post-racial” society having been ushered in by President Obama.

But where is the art that gives voice to these concerns? Why the full-blown torpor and inattention from the artistic community? It has much to do with the postmodern art quackery that prefers kitsch, detachment, irony, and simulacrum to hard facts and universal truths. Figurative realism and meaningful narrative, let alone heartfelt humanistic concerns, have been considered passé by art world gatekeepers for decades. Combine that toxic mix with art star celebrity worship and the near total commodification of art, and the reasons for art world apathy and unmindfulness becomes crystal clear. It should be recalled that figurative social realism was a vibrant, if not dominant school of art in the U.S. for much of the 20th century, until it was buried by abstract art in the post-WWII period. Still, there are glimmers of hope.

On Nov. 27, 2014, the chief film critic for the New York Times, A.O. Scott, wrote an essay that broached the question, Is Our Art Equal to the Challenges of Our Times? He stated emphatically that “we are in the midst of hard times now, and it feels as if art is failing us.” Scott pointed out that in decades past, “all the news you need about class divisions” could be found in painting, theater, movies, and literature. Here he explicitly wrote that he was “waiting for The Grapes of Wrath. Or maybe A Raisin in the Sun, or Death of a Salesman, a Zola novel or a Woody Guthrie ballad - something that would sum up the injustices and worries of the times.” Mr. Scott will be waiting for a long time… all we get is 50 Shades of Grey, Justin Bieber, and some ludicrous balloon dogs from the vacuous Jeff Koons. While Scott offered no answers to the crisis in art, he did ask some of the right questions. His disquiet regarding how things stand in the arts are a starting point for serious discussions on the future of art.

One thing is certain, now is the time for artists the caliber of Langston Hughes and Elizabeth Catlett to appear on the scene. It is also undeniable that the “culture industry” of 21st century America, so invested in spectacle and distraction, will not present critical artists to the public at large. But what can also be stated with certitude is that such artists will come from the people.

Carry The Names & Reverend Billy

"Carry The Names" - 24 hour vigil at New York's Grand Central Station, Jan. 5- 6, 2015. Photo by anonymous photographer.

"Carry The Names" - 24 hour vigil at New York's Grand Central Station, Jan. 5- 6, 2015. Photo by anonymous photographer.

On Tuesday afternoon, January 6, 2015, while evangelizing at New York’s Grand Central Station, the fire and brimstone preacher known as Reverend Billy was arrested on trumped-up charges of “obstructing governmental administration” and “disorderly conduct.” You might ask “who is that preacher man” and why was he Sermonizing at the nation’s busiest train station? Allow me to explain.

A coalition of activists in New York operating under the title, Carry The Names, decided to hold a peaceful, public vigil at Grand Central Station on January 5th and 6th, 2015. The vigil would be held to commemorate the victims of racist violence in the U.S. and to “bear witness with the names and stories of over 150 people killed or brutalized with impunity.” Most were killed by “legally-sanctioned extrajudicial violence,” that is, by those armed bodies of men employed by the state. It was at the vigil that those same men would put the good Reverend Billy in hand-cuffs.

Carry The Names was mostly promoted by social media. In Twitter and Facebook announcements, organizers of the vigil stated that “we will carry into the New Year the memory of more than 150 people who have been subjected to the tyranny of violence, in a country where racism and police brutality are pervasive. We will hold their names high for the world to see.” Hundreds of New Yorkers of all races and ages turned out for the vigil, where activist/artists from Carry The Names provided them with black and white signs printed with the names of those African Americans and Latinos slain due to racist violence.

 "Carry The Names Vigil" - Photo by Enbion Micah Aan/www.enbionmicahaan.com

"Carry The Names Vigil" - Photo by Enbion Micah Aan - www.enbionmicahaan.com

During the opening hours of the vigil the signs were held aloft as statements were made, songs were sung, poetry recited, and the names of the deceased were read out loud.

Vigillers never blocked travelers at the train station. Eventually the signs were arranged in neat symmetrical rows on the station floor. The roster of victims included Emmett Till, Fred Hampton, Eleanor Bumpurs, Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, Akai Gurley, and Eric Garner. Interspersed with the names were other signs bearing messages of rage and sorrow: Racism Is A Deadly Force, Beware Police Brutality, Not One More, Stop Killing Our Loved Ones, Imagine Freedom, Who Will Be Next, We Will Not Forget, Don’t Shoot, Stop Killing Our Loved Ones, and When Will We Be Free?

Some eighteen hours after the start of the vigil, Reverend Billy arrived. Seized by the Holy Spirit, he began to Sermonize the crowd with a homily aptly titled, Black Lives Matter. Approximately two minutes into his reflection on racial oppression in the U.S., he was arrested, hand-cuffed, and frog-marched off by the New York Police Department to cool his heels in “The Tombs,” the Manhattan Detention Complex in Lower Manhattan. The Carry The Names vigil completed its twenty-four-hour run despite the arrest, disbanding at 5 p.m.

I know Reverend Billy (a.k.a. Bill Talen) as a brilliant performance artist who has dedicated his life and work towards social transformation using the arts. He is wholly committed to the vision and practice of non-violence, both is his street theater interventions, and in his writings. Reverend Billy and his Stop Shopping Choir are radical performance artists that stage mock revival meetings to deride and ridicule the folly of late capitalist “culture” in the 21st century.

The police maintain that the Reverend’s disorderly conduct charge stemmed from his “intentionally causing public inconvenience and annoyance,” and that he had been arrested “for physically trying to block a police officer from doing their lawful duties.” I think not. His arrest was politically motivated, an act of state repression designed to squelch the free speech rights of all Americans.

The Daily News reported the Reverend saying “I was handcuffed while I was speaking in the middle of expressing my beliefs in a public space. This is the most basic form of American freedom.” On Wednesday the police released the Reverend on his own recognizance.

In a message to his supporters posted on his website, the Reverend said that “I shouted ‘Black Lives Matter’ a few times in Grand Central Station and police rushed at me like I was a fiend.” But his note was also conciliatory, he wrote: “The cops can be reached and changed. That must happen. It will come from black lives and white lives being unafraid to talk to them in public space. That was always how it was. We have to bravely go to them and change them - and that is a strange transfer, like wrestling with very old culture.”

I have the highest regard and fondness for Bill Talen and what he does… though I am not in full accord with him. When all is said and done our differences do not matter, for we are kindred spirits. I will say the same for the movement that has sprung up in the U.S. in opposition to police violence against “minorities.” I shrink back from its naiveté and political disorientation, yet at its core there are incontestable truths regarding race and class in America. Ultimately, this post is not about the Reverend Billy at all. Rather it is about all of those individuals, who, despite the odds, work to uproot the poison of racist terror that continues to exist in American society.

In my July 2011 article, An Exorcism at Tate Modern, I detailed a performance the good Reverend had just conducted at the Tate Modern in London to protest the museum taking sponsorship from the oil giant, BP. The article included a short video of the Reverend’s antics at the Tate, which were nothing short of inspirational and illustrative of the powerful performance art Reverend Billy and The Stop Shopping Choir engage in.

In 2013 I had the pleasure of meeting the Reverend when he came to Los Angeles to perform at a local venue with punk icon Exene Cervenka. I covered the event in my article, The Burning Palm Tree Epiphany, which I concluded with the following words: “Talen’s love of humanity, the earth, justice, and beauty, finds expression not in dry political discourse but in artful burlesque; he speaks a language community organizers are by and large unfamiliar with, or willfully disdainful of - the vernacular of art. The conformist machine society is equally non-aesthetic, so, the Reverend Billy Talen provides us with a revelation - art and action leads to salvation!”

“Murder in Mississippi”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elizabeth Catlett: dead at 96

A few words must be said concerning the passing of Elizabeth Catlett, one of the greatest African-American artists and printmakers in the history of the United States. When I received the news that Ms. Catlett died on April 2, 2012, I felt more than a pang of sadness. I discovered her art when I was a teenager embroiled in the civil rights and antiwar movements in the late 1960s. During those years I became familiar with a number of social realist artists of Catlett’s stature, including Charles White, who was briefly married to Catlett in the early 1940s. I have long credited White “as a major influence in my life as an artist“, and it is fitting that I also credit Ms. Catlett as a personal inspiration as well.

In today’s context it is difficult to describe the impact Catlett’s prints had upon many of us in the late 1960s. She had of course been creating her style of social criticism since 1946, when she moved to Mexico City and began producing amazing lithographs, wood and linoleum cut prints with El Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP - The Popular Graphic Arts Workshop). Activists in the 1960s discovered Catlett’s older works, and since her graphic narratives were as relevant to the 60s as they were in the 1940s, they were given life and meaning by a new generation.

However, Elizabeth Catlett was not one to rest on her laurels; she met the challenges of the late 1960s with uncommon artistic ferocity and political clarity, producing images of unparalleled beauty and compassion. I was 16 in 1969 when I first saw Ms. Catlett’s linoleum cut print Malcolm X Speaks for Us; the work was certainly a reflection of the times, but it also was a lightning rod that led many to discover Catlett’s wider body of work. Her focus was on the African-American experience, though Catlett’s voice was universal. She addressed the hopes, dreams, and problems of her adopted country of Mexico with a good deal of empathy, nonetheless, Ms. Catlett’s works exemplify a clear and profound love for all of humanity.

"Harriet" - Elizabeth Catlett, Linoleum cut print, 1975. 12 x 9 3/4 inches

"Harriet" - Elizabeth Catlett, Linoleum cut print, 1975. 12 x 9 3/4 inches

The provocative nature of Catlett’s overtly political works is embodied in her masterful 1975 linoleum cut simply titled Harriet, a tribute to Harriet Tubman, the heroic African-American abolitionist. For eight years Tubman led an “Underground Railroad” network that liberated hundreds of blacks from slavery states in the South, helping them to escape to freedom in the North. The print was a reworking of an earlier linoleum cut by Catlett from 1946 titled, In Harriet Tubman I helped hundreds to freedom, which was part of the artist’s I am the Negro Woman series of prints from that period.

Catlett’s updated 1975 print was aesthetically superior to her original linoleum cut; she applied impressive skills in holding delicate lines in Harriet while giving an elegant appearance of form in Tubman’s dress. Catlett worked amazing textures into the newer print, from coarsely gouged to finer engraved-like lines. But politically, the changes made by Catlett were more important - and volatile - than the artistic ones. She portrayed the leader of the underground railroad as an armed freedom fighter carrying a rifle, a brazen act given the political atmosphere in the early 1970s.

Historic illustrations from the late 1800s usually pictured Harriet Tubman with a rifle, and though it is hard to be certain, that long gun was most likely an 1803 Harpers Ferry rifle chambered in .54 caliber. Tubman is also known to have been armed with a large revolver, in all probability the six-shot .36 caliber 1851 Colt Navy Revolver. When Tubman ran her underground network, Blacks were forbidden by law from owning or carrying firearms, it was even illegal for Whites to furnish guns or knives to Blacks that had been freed from slavery.

Elizabeth Catlett portrayed Harriet Tubman as a great hero and defender of human liberty, an indisputably accurate depiction. Tubman in fact became known as “Moses” to her people for having rescued hundreds of slaves from inhuman bondage. Even so, Tubman’s daring and courageous acts could not have been possible without the use of firearms; with rifle and pistol she defended her people against the unspeakable cruelty of slave masters, bounty hunters, and all others who profited from human bondage. Tubman worked with the Union Army to defeat the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War, and actually became the first woman in U.S. military history to prepare and help command an armed military assault, the Raid at Combahee Ferry in South Carolina; the military operation freed more than 750 slaves.

By emphasizing Tubman carrying a rifle in the cause of freedom, Catlett was directly addressing millions of African-Americans over the question of armed self-defense vs. non-violent action. Of course, most of Catlett’s art was not as confrontational as Harriet, the largest part of her oeuvre was given to tender and compassionate observation of humanity. Catlett’s works spoke of, not just oppression and injustice, but the capacity of people to create a better world. When searching for an artist with a deep-rooted commitment to social justice and equality, one need not look any further than the immortal Elizabeth Catlett.