Category: Art Activism

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:

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:

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:

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:

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., 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.

– // –

UPDATE: Jan. 2, 2015: On the evening of January 1, 2015, up to 5,000 neo-fascists held a torchlight march in Kiev to honor Stepan Bandera on what would have been his 106th birthday. It must be remembered that on June 30, 1941, Nazi soldiers occupied Ukraine, and Bandera took the occasion to declare an Independent Ukrainian state. In the proclamation of Ukrainian Statehood written by Bandera, it was clearly stated that:

“The newly formed Ukrainian state will work closely with the National-Socialist Greater Germany, under the leadership of its leader Adolf Hitler which is forming a new order in Europe and the world and is helping the Ukrainian People to free itself from Moscovite occupation.”

During the 2015 New Year’s commemoration for Bandera, marchers carried the red and black flag of his Ukrainian Insurgent Army while chanting “Bandera will return and restore order.” Marchers made their way to Kiev’s Independence Square (Maidan) to hear speeches from reactionary Svoboda party and Right Sector militants. You can see the march in videos from Reuters and RT.

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.


"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.


"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.

The New World Border Exhibit

The New World Border traveling exhibit was originally organized in 2011 by three artists from the San Francisco Bay area of Northern California, Francisco Dominquez, Art Hazelwood, and Doug Minkler. The exhibit is comprised of prints created by thirty artists from around the U.S. who are opposed to the construction of a giant “security” wall along the U.S./Mexico border. The collection of linoleum cuts, silk-screens, monoprints, offset and digital prints has so far been exhibited in 9 states across the U.S. in sixteen different venues.

The exhibit premiered at the La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley, California, where it ran from March 3rd to April 30, 2011, and it concluded a run at its sixteenth venue, La Casa del Túnel: Art Center in Tijuana, México, for the month of September, 2013.

"No Border Wall" - Mokhtar Paki. Digital print, 2011.

"No Border Wall" - Mokhtar Paki. Digital print, 2011.

Included in the exhibit is Mokhtar Paki’s digital graphic, No Border Wall, an anthropomorphic depiction of the barrier that scars the boundary between the U.S. and Mexico. The artist portrayed the wall as having been transformed into a goliath police force automaton.

Created from inanimate materials - concrete, barbed wire, and a closed-circuit television spy camera for an eye - the creature has been endowed with life by the national security state in an attempt to keep humanity divided. The concrete slabs that form the monster’s head also allude to the so-called “Security Fence” Israel has constructed around the Palestinian West Bank.

However, since its creation, Paki’s artwork has been given another layer of meaning. President Obama’s NSA surveillance program is currently spying on every American that sends an e-mail, views a webpage, posts a photo to social media, or uses a cell phone.

I am not a fan of “appropriation” in postmodern art. Too often the methodology is employed in such a way that the “repurposing” of another artist’s work not only leads to a facile style that does not require much imagination and even less skill, it also strips history from our collective consciousness. As a rule such works offer little more than cynicism and a supposed “ironic” view of life, concomitantly avoiding any substantive critique of the social order.

An accepted practice with today’s elite art establishment and its stables of revolting art stars, “appropriation art” is a far cry from its origins, the radically subversive “détournement” that members of the late 1950s Situationist International (SI) advanced.  For those revolutionists, it was a method of “turning expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself.”

That being said, Nancy Hom’s digital print, Catalina’s World, is an example of how appropriation works best in visual art. Hom is counting on the viewer being familiar with the famous 1948 painting by Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World, since her print would be meaningless without foreknowledge of Wyeth’s tour de force. Hom re-imagined Wyeth’s realist painting as a hard-edged, silkscreen-like image, and in the process transformed Wyeth’s magnum opus into a depiction of the sad realities now occurring at the U.S., Mexico border.

"Catalina’s World" - Nancy Hom. Digital print, 2011. "As she treads wearily towards the promised land of El Norte, the very earth she crawls upon becomes death itself."

"Catalina’s World" - Nancy Hom. Digital print, 2011. "As she treads wearily towards the promised land of El Norte, the very earth she crawls upon becomes death itself."

Wyeth painted a portrait of his neighbor Christina, a woman incapacitated by polio whose courage and will to live was not at all stricken; as Wyeth put it, she was “limited physically but by no means spiritually.” Somehow the depiction of the woman crawling through a parched field of tall grass towards a hilltop wooden farmhouse conveys a great sense of optimism; Wyeth’s brilliant treatment of sunlight and open space suggests, not a world of pain, but one of boundless freedom. Christina is an enchanted being that makes her way through a dreamlike realm where all things are possible. Wyeth’s celebration of mystery and the indomitable human spirit can easily be categorized as “magical realism,” a genre that today is most often associated with the artists of Latin America; here we begin to slip into Nancy Hom’s vision.

In Hom’s print, Christina has metamorphosized into Catalina, an archetypical Latina. As an “everywoman” figure, Catalina also displays bravery and the will to persevere, but instead of finding herself in a sunny dreamland where hope imbues every blade of grass, she is trapped in the nightmare world of the border region. As she treads wearily towards the promised land of El Norte, the very earth she crawls upon becomes death itself - a morbid reminder of the thousands who have perished from thirst or violence in failed attempts to cross the border over the years.

"Quetzal" - Fernando Marti. linocut, monoprint, and hand painted watercolor. "Complying only with the laws of nature."

"Quetzal" - Fernando Marti. linocut, monoprint, and hand painted watercolor. "Complying only with the laws of nature."

Fernando Marti’s Quetzal is a dazzling poster, for its message as well as its technical virtuosity; the print is a combination of linoleum cut, monoprint, and hand-painted watercolor.

The simple black and white linoleum cut of the border security fence is convincing in its minimalism, as is the rocky barren landscape it divides. Soaring above the scene is a magnificent Quetzal, the bird most closely associated with Central America; sacred to the indigenous people of the region, the bird is a symbol of freedom to many.

The pre-Columbian border design and the “speech glyph” emanating from the bird, allude to the role the Quetzal played in the ancient Maya and Aztec civilizations. The Quetzal flies freely over the fence, complying only with the laws of nature and ignoring the false divides imposed by nation states.

"Ningun ser Humano es Ilegal" (No Human Being is Illegal). Mark Vallen. Offset poster ©. This photo shows the poster carried at the 2010 Chicano Moratorium march in Los Angeles, CA.

"Ningun ser Humano es Ilegal" (No Human Being is Illegal). Mark Vallen. Offset poster ©. This photo shows the poster carried at the 2010 Chicano Moratorium march in Los Angeles, CA.

My own No Human Being is Illegal poster is included in the show. First published as a bilingual street poster in 1988, its title eventually became a catchphrase for today’s defenders of immigrants’ rights. The poster’s axiom is an emphatic affirmation of the inherent rights possessed by humankind. It cautions that when individuals are stripped of humanity and designated as “illegal,” then even worse abuses cannot be far behind. Not so long ago it used to be said that a child born to unmarried parents was “illegitimate.” I am hopeful that in the future, the opinion that some people are “illegal aliens” will also become an archaic expression.

No Human Being is Illegal was original published in conjunction with a 1988 drive conducted by the Los Angeles based Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), to secure the rights of undocumented Central American war refugees in the U.S. During the 1980s Central America was convulsed by revolution and murderous state repression. Seeking to escape the carnage, hundreds of thousands of people furtively entered the U.S., only to find themselves targeted for arrest and deportation back to the killing fields.

Welcome to the Land of Your Dreams by Jos Sances, takes a scatological approach to the issue at hand. Grimly sarcastic, the land of milk and honey resembles nothing so much as an enormous dung-heap, a foul pile made from the detritus of empire. Composed of discarded refrigerators, cars, TVs, disposable consumer products of all kinds… and human bodies, the enormous lopsided rubbish mound is perilously close to falling over from its own weight. The fetid mass is protected by a razor wire topped cyclone fence, the vehicle of an armed security patrol parked at the ready alongside the security fence.

"Welcome to the Land of Your Dreams" - Jos Sances. Digital and Screen-print, 2001.

"Welcome to the Land of Your Dreams" - Jos Sances. Digital and Screen-print, 2001.

At the pinnacle of the mountain of crap sits an amusement park carousel ride, except that the merry-go-round’s painted wooden horses have been replaced with grotesqueries; sitting atop the carnival ride’s rooftop is the logo for the American International Group (AIG). Formerly one of the world’s biggest insurers, AIG collapsed in 2008, was then bailed out by the U.S. government using taxpayer dollars - $182 billion worth - after which AIG used around $1.2 billion of the bailout funds to pay their CEOs lavish bonuses. The dung-heap must be maintained.

Adding a surrealist touch to the miserablist landscape, a gargantuan housefly buzzes over the rotten panorama like a converted crop duster towing an aerial advertising banner; flapping in the wind, the streamer is emblazoned with a mock advertising jingle, which also serves as the title of the print… “Welcome to the Land of Your Dreams.

On the face of it New World Border has a single focus, the border between Mexico and the U.S, but the exhibit provides an opportunity to look closer at a very complex situation; modern Mexico is in a tailspin, and U.S. governmental policy has much to do with it. Mexico is tormented by a vicious “Drug War” that has taken the lives of some 70,000 people, workers in Mexico and the U.S. have suffered immense setbacks under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the Mexico government is run by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), a corrupt political party that has held power almost continuously for 71 years. While not directly addressed in the New World Border, these facts form a backdrop for a deeper understanding of the exhibit.

A quick look at Mexico’s humble corn tortilla reveals much. The domestication of corn began in Mexico some 9,000 years ago, and it became the foundation of the great Olmec, Maya, and Aztec civilizations. Corn went on to become a main food crop and staple in Mexico’s centuries old village-based corn economy, with the corn tortilla still reigning supreme. Then came NAFTA. Signed into law by President Clinton, Canadian Prime Minister Mulroney, and Mexican President Carlos Salinas of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the supposed goal of NAFTA was the abolition of trade barriers between the capitalists of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

One result of NAFTA was that Mexico was flooded with inexpensive U.S. corn imports produced by American corporate agribusiness, so much that Mexico’s farmers had no chance to sell their corn at competitive prices. Hundreds of thousands of Mexican campesinos stopped growing corn, can no longer maintain their farms, and have lost their land and livelihoods. Today Mexico imports more corn from the U.S. than it grows; the corn tortilla in Mexico is more likely made of cheap GMO corn from the U.S. than from a Mexican farmer. To think, the Aztecs used to worship “the Lord of Maize.” As Mexico’s corn economy continues to collapse, the country’s farmers and agricultural laborers migrate to the U.S. in search of work.

Despite promises from President Clinton that “NAFTA means jobs, American jobs, and good-paying jobs,” the results of NAFTA have been the deindustrialization of the U.S. and the exportation of hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs to the Maquiladora “Free Trade Zone” of Mexico. Mexican workers labor in those U.S. owned plants for as little as $50 for a 60-hour work week. Largely composed of women, the work force suffers from severe exploitation, miserable working conditions, a total lack of union representation, grinding poverty, and environmental hazards. U.S. and Mexican elites have made off like bandits, while workers on both sides of the border have suffered nothing but losses.

The “Drug War” fought in Mexico since 2006 has taken the lives of 57,449 Mexicans as reported in late 2012 by the Monterrey de Milenio newspaper. Let us put that statistic in context. U.S. soldiers fought in Vietnam from 1955 to 1975, and during those twenty years 58,209 U.S. soldiers died in combat. In Aug. of 2012, the Mexican non-governmental citizens action group, Movement for Peace With Justice and Dignity, put the drug war death toll at 70,000 - so far. As the Mexican government supposedly combats groups like the Sinaloa and Los Zetas drug cartels, the well armed cartels battle each other for control of turf and profits. The war is exceedingly brutal, as this photo essay in The Atlantic attests. Mass killings, torture, and beheadings committed by cartel gunmen are routine; it is all done to feed the drug habits of North Americans.

Much has been made of arms purchased in U.S. gun stores ending up in the hands of Mexican drug gangs. But the weapons seized by Mexican authorities often include the same type of weapons the Pentagon supplies the Mexican military. The U.S. has provided $2 billion in military aid to Mexico’s police and armed forces since 2009. Leftover rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, and fully automatic AK47 rifles from Central America’s civil wars are also available on the black market. It should be apparent that corrupt members of the Mexican government, military, and police run a pipeline of arms to the cartels.

The Obama administration claims that it tried to smash cartel arms traffickers in 2009 with Operation Fast & Furious. Agents of the ATF allowed criminals working with the cartels to purchase guns in the U.S., then tracked the arms as they were brought into Mexico. It is alleged that the operation was to meant to identify and arrest the drug lords receiving the guns. However, the weapons were never traced to their end users, they disappeared into the cartel underground; no cartel boss was ever arrested as a result of the “sting.” The operation started to unravel when U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was killed in 2010 near the Arizona-Mexico border by gunmen using two AK47 rifles traced to Fast & Furious. Since then hundreds of Mexican civilians have been killed by guns traced to the operation. Of the over 2,000 guns Fast & Furious brought into Mexico, 710 have been found at crime scenes or otherwise “recovered,” the rest remain in the hands of the cartels.

"PRInocho: Peña No Cumple" (Peña Fails) - Opposition poster against President Nieto. "Pinocho" is Spanish for "Pinocchio", so PRInocho is a play on words that equates Nieto with the marionette whose nose grew longer when telling a lie, and identifies Nieto as a string-puppet of the PRI.

"PRInocho: Peña No Cumple" (Peña Fails) - This poster against President Nieto is not part of the New World Border exhibit. "Pinocho" is Spanish for "Pinocchio", so PRInocho is a play on words that equates Nieto with the marionette whose nose grew longer when telling a lie. The poster also identifies Nieto as a string-puppet of the PRI.

Then there is Mexico’s rigged general election of July 1, 2012. The contest was between Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI, and Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the “left” social democratic Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).

Massive vote rigging swept Nieto and the PRI into power; reports of fraud, vote buying and tampering with ballots were rife. The AP reported that the PRI distributed untold thousands of pre-paid “gift cards” in poor neighborhoods in exchange for votes.

The Sydney Morning Herald of Australia quoted Eduardo Huchim of the Civic Alliance, which is funded by the United Nations Development Program; ”It was neither a clean nor fair election, it was perhaps the biggest operation of vote-buying and coercion in the county’s history.”

Latinos Post quoted an electrician and trade unionist, Heliodoro Maciel; “Yes, the PRI has experience. They know how to steal. They know how to make pacts with drug cartels. And they know how to kill.”

President Obama telephoned Enrique Peña Nieto in the aftermath of the sham election to congratulate Nieto for winning a “free, fair, and clear” election. Nieto’s reign will not be any different than that of his crooked PRI predecessors; historically the PRI has been the party of oligarchy, repression, and naked reaction.

In 1938 left-leaning President Lázaro Cárdenas nationalized Mexico’s oil at a time when U.S. and British oil companies completely dominated Mexico’s oilfields, taking the lion’s share of the profits. Cárdenas’ nationalization of the country’s oil has long been a wellspring of national pride for Mexicans. But Nieto wants to privatize sectors of Mexico’s Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), the state-owned oil company. El Presidente wants the nation’s oil resources sold to the highest bidding foreign oil companies - which is the real reason he received a heartfelt “congrats” from Mr. Obama.

On Sept. 8, 2013, over 40,000 people gathered in Mexico’s capital beneath a gigantic banner that read, “No To The Robbery Of All Time,” in opposition to Nieto’s privatizing the oil industry. Just 3 days before Mexico’s Independence Day (celebrated each Sept. 16th), President Nieto ordered 3,000 riot police to forcibly remove tens of thousands of striking Mexican teachers who were protesting in the capital’s central plaza. Prior to seeing Nieto shout “¡Viva México!” from the balcony of the National Palace in the annual commemoration of the revolution against the Spanish Empire, the nation got to witness riot cops tear-gassing, and bludgeoning teachers.

Stories more revealing of Mexico’s excrescent ruling elite could not be told.

The New World Border exhibit has been shown at venues from Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, to exhibit spaces in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Missouri. At the end of 2012 an entire suite of prints from the show was acquired by the U.S. Library of Congress for that body’s impressive permanent collection. In mid-October 2013, a PowerPoint display of New World Border prints was presented at the Borders, Walls and Security international conference held at the University of Quebec at Montreal, Quebec, Canada, bringing the exhibit to three countries.

New World Border is also scheduled to be shown from November 2013 to March 2014 at the main library of City College of San Francisco in San Francisco, California. In addition, a full set of New World Border posters will be donated to the collection of Cal State University at Sacramento, California, were a future exhibition of the prints is currently being scheduled.

Protest at the Detroit Institute of Arts

"Show Me The Monet" -  This photo shows protestors at the Defend the DIA demonstration of Oct. 4, 2013. Photo by Tanya Moutzalias for

"Show Me The Monet" - This photo shows protestors at the Defend the DIA demonstration of Oct. 4, 2013. Photo by Tanya Moutzalias for

History was made on October 4, 2013, when hundreds of people gathered on the steps of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) in Detroit, Michigan for a demonstration against city plans to sell the museum’s world-class art collection. The city has paid Christie’s auction house $200,000 to appraise the DIA’s holdings. The process is now underway to prepare for a massive auctioning off of the museum’s cultural treasures in order to pay down Detroit’s multi-billion dollar debt. The city’s appointed but unelected “Emergency Manager,” Kevin Orr, has repeatedly made clear that the option of selling the DIA’s collection is “on the table.”

A sizeable flying picket line of protestors gathered in front of the museum; they walked behind a large banner that read “Defend The DIA!” and carried homemade signs that read, “Don’t show me the money - Show Me The Monet,” “Gogh Away from the DIA,” and “Preserve the Picasso - Defend the Dali - Maintain the Michelangelo.”

Perhaps the most poignant handmade sign that I spotted was carried by a young woman, it read, “Hearts Starve as well as bodies, We Want Bread and Roses!” The sign was a direct reference to the Great Lawrence Textile Strike of 1912 carried out by mostly female immigrant workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Also known as the “Bread & Roses Strike,” the workers took their slogan from American poet, James Oppenheim, who had written the pro-labor poem Bread and Roses just a year earlier: “Yes, it is bread we fight for - but we fight for roses, too!” Oppenheim’s poem denoted that the fight for pragmatic necessities like jobs and decent housing is crucial, but the quest for beauty and the spiritually sublime is also essential to our wellbeing.

As more than a dozen drummers gathered at curbside and people chanted slogans like “Hey, hey corporate vultures, keep your hands off our culture!”, and “The working class is here to fight, culture is a social right!”, Auguste Rodin’s 1904 bronze sculpture The Thinker seemed to survey the lively scene from its granite base located on the steps of the DIA. Even the words chiseled into the stone facade of the museum contributed to the spirit of the day: “Dedicated by the People of Detroit to the Knowledge and Enjoyment of Art.” Video of the protest anonymously uploaded to Youtube shows the type of glorious activism in defense of art that I have advocated for years. I hope to see much more of this type of joyous but combative creative action in the months and years to come. It is long overdue in the United States.

"The Orator, Madison Square" - Martin Lewis. Etching. 1916. Collection of the DIA.

"The Orator, Madison Square" - Martin Lewis. Etching. 1916. Collection of the DIA.

I first wrote about the crisis at the DIA in a March 2009 post titled, Zombie Banks, Art Museums, & War. That was followed up by a June 2009 post titled, The Death of Motor City. As the economic collapse in Detroit escalated and the city threatened to auction the DIA’s holdings to pay down city debts, I wrote two major articles, Killing the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Defend the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Needless to say, I am heartened that the people of Detroit took to the streets on Oct. 4th to stand up for the DIA; I was there in spirit.

The protest to save the DIA was organized by the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) and its youth wing, the International Youth and Students for Social Equality. Largely coordinated and promoted on the SEP’s World Socialist Web Site, the party has closely followed the crisis at the DIA and has published innumerable insightful and informative articles on the matter; they have certainly dedicated more column inches to the subject than an other publication or organization that I can think of. The SEP has set up a dedicated website, DEFENDTHEDIA, from which they hope to maintain and enlarge their campaign.

As of this writing the protest has only been covered by a few Detroit media outlets: ABC Detroit, The Detroit News, MLive Detroit,, and CBS Detroit. It is telling that the “paper of record,” the New York Times, could not be bothered to report on the demonstration, despite the national and international implications of the story. Likewise, major dailies like the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post have also ignored the protest. Notably but not surprisingly, the so-called art press did just as poorly, due no doubt to its general political apathy and postmodern detachment.

It was the alleged “left” press in the U.S. that possibly made the worst showing of all, which only fuels my general disdain for what now passes as a political left in the United States. During the course of this year self-styled “progressive” websites like The Nation, Mother Jones, Common Dreams, and The Progressive have not written a single solitary word concerning the possible destruction of the DIA and what this will mean for the American cultural landscape! Democracy Now, the vaunted flagship news and views show of the “progressive - liberal” Pacifica Radio network has remained completely silent regarding the Detroit Institute of Arts. Over the years these social democratic types have been droning on about what a threat the U.S. rightwing presents to the arts; it is an accusation that only serves to mask their own philistinism.

 "The Arc Welders at Night" - Martin Lewis. Drypoint etching. 1937. Collection of the DIA.

"The Arc Welders at Night" - Martin Lewis. Drypoint etching. 1937. Collection of the DIA.

The general indifference concerning cultural and artistic matters displayed by the contemporary U.S. “left” make the efforts of the Socialist Equality Party all the more remarkable.

Critics may say the SEP is only attempting to recruit members, but organizing a defense of art and culture is not exactly the way to further an organization’s growth; art is not a “meat and potatoes” issue for most people.

The SEP has gone out on a limb to make the DIA, and broader cultural issues, a focus of their work: if only such a commendable stance was taken up by others - especially, from my perspective, by those professionals working in the arts.

But I am not making an argument meant to promote or otherwise advance the SEP, which is more than capable of doing so on its own. I have never joined nor endorsed any political party; you know, “artistic temperament” and all. I really enjoy being a contrarian and a totally independent artist, but I do admire the SEP for taking up the banner of the DIA and bringing some clarity, passion, and necessary visionary action to the fore.

Mary Harris “Mother” Jones (1837-1930), the American labor agitator and cofounder of the Industrial Workers of the World, once said: “If I can’t sing and dance in your revolution then I want nothing to do with it.” The faux “radicals” and art world hipsters that think the struggle to save the DIA is beneath them and a waste of time, should deeply contemplate the meaning of Jones’ famous quote. As for myself, I will continue to cover events in Detroit and beyond, and I shall carry on the “fight for roses, too.”


"I AM NOT THE ENEMY"- Mark Vallen 2001 © 11" x 17" inch poster.

"I AM NOT THE ENEMY"- Mark Vallen 2001 © 11" x 17" poster.

In the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, I created a street poster widely distributed in Los Angeles titled, I Am Not The Enemy.

The poster was derived from an original pencil drawing of mine created in part as a reaction to the murder of a Sikh American man in Arizona, Balbir Singh Sodhi; the killing would be the first post-9/11 violent attack against an innocent civilian on U.S. soil thought to be “the enemy.”

Mr. Sodhi owned a gas station in Mesa, Arizona, and he was shot while arranging U.S. flags in front of his business. When arrested, his killer yelled, “I am a patriot!” and “I stand for America all the way!”

Mr. Sodhi’s murder was in the context of innocent Muslim Americans being blamed, abused, and assaulted all across the U.S. in revenge for 9/11.

When people are denied the right to worship freely, or are otherwise persecuted because of their faith, democracy is threatened. This principle is enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

Given the recent upsurge of racist attacks in the U.S. aimed at those perceived to be Muslims, I have decided to re-release my poster, making it available for free as a downloadable .PDF file that can be printed on any ink jet printer.

The black & white poster measures 11 x 17 inches, and it should be used in the spirit in which it was created, not for profit, but as a simple expression of human decency and solidarity. Further reasons for offering my poster as a free download are to be found in the remainder of this article.

On September 21, 2013, Dr. Prabhjot Singh, a professor from Columbia University, was strolling in New York’s Harlem district near the corner of 110th and Malcolm X Boulevard. He was confronted by a crowd of some 20 young men on bicycles, who yelled anti-Muslim slurs at him, shouting “Get Osama,” and “Terrorist” before launching a vicious physical attack. The gang pulled Singh’s beard, and repeatedly punched and kicked his head and body. Singh might have been killed had it not been for the three good Samaritans that came to his aid to help fight off the hoodlums. The professor’s jaw was broken, and he suffered an injury to his lip, multiple fractures, the loss of several teeth, and a puncture wound to his elbow.

Mainstream press reports mentioned that Singh is an adherent of the Sikh faith, and that his attackers had “misidentified” or “mistaken” him as a Muslim because of his beard and turban, as if the beating would have been acceptable had Singh actually been a Muslim. The press has variously described Singh’s attackers as “a group of young men,” “a mob,” or simply “assailants.” However, when pressed by a reporter in an interview on the Huffington Post, Singh reluctantly said of his tormentors, “it was dark, but it seemed like it was young African American men.” The Village Voice and also reported that the attackers were African American. On Sept. 24, 2013 the NYPD released security video of the suspects leaving the scene of the crime, and asked for the public’s assistance in identifying those who took part in attacking Dr. Singh.

It is a great tragedy of history that on Malcolm X Boulevard, young blacks would assault a man they thought to be a Muslim; one of the most outspoken opponents of racial oppression in the U.S. during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Malcolm X was a Muslim. In 1964 he embraced Sunni Islam and traveled to Mecca to participate in the Islamic pilgrimage known as the Hajj. That experience led him to take the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. That same year he founded the political group, the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), which organized against the racism, colonialism, and imperialism of a capitalist “international power structure.”

Malcolm’s ideas were perhaps best articulated in his By Any Means Necessary speech given at Detroit’s Ford Auditorium on Feb. 14, 1965. The oratory contained the famous words: “We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence - by any means necessary.” A week later Malcolm was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom north of Harlem in New York on Feb. 21, 1965. Acknowledging his stature in the Black community, Lenox Avenue was renamed Malcolm X Boulevard by New York’s mayor in 1987.

While the involvement of young blacks in the attack against Singh underscores the tragic political and moral disorientation of a certain layer of black youth, the appalling incident points to a much larger problem in American society as a whole. Despite our being awash in information and early 21st century technology, the U.S. is not far removed from xenophobic hysteria and blind racism. These malevolent forces find expression amongst the disempowered and uneducated, which at the moment pretty much describes us all. When the economy is in the tank and the nation is at war - and yes dear shopper, the nation is at war - you can count on the flames of tribalism being fanned.

Those that attacked Dr. Singh did so out of distorted notions of patriotism, but where do these ideas emanate from? Twelve years after the 9/11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center, American society still produces individuals who ignorantly lash out at the innocent for the heinous crimes committed by others. Here, the words of Malcolm X come thundering in: “You’re not supposed to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who says it.”

Dr. Singh, an assistant professor at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and a practicing physician that specializes in community-based health care in East Harlem, told “This is my community, I live in Harlem, I see patients here, It’s not the side of Harlem I’ve come to know and not how I’ve been embraced.” In a press conference held after his release from the hospital, Dr. Singh said: “If I could speak to my attackers, I would ask them if they had any questions, if they knew what they were doing. Maybe invite them to the Gurudwara (Sikh temple) where we worship, get to know who we are, make sure they have an opportunity to move past this as well.”

But Dr. Prabhjot Singh’s ordeal was not an isolated incident. This past January, Mississippi Police accused a Sikh truck driver of being a “terrorist” for not complying with an order to remove his sacred Kirpan talisman; Sikhism requires male devotees to wear a Kirpan and a turban. When appearing in court Jagjeet Singh (all Sikh men carry the last name of Singh, which means Lion) was told by a County Judge that he would have to remove “that rag” from his head or leave the courtroom. Singh eventually pleaded guilty to the charge of “refusing to obey a command” and had to pay a fine. This is not an example of the American “Religious Tolerance” that U.S. citizens take so much pride in, but an instance of xenophobia and ignorance displayed by the state.

Singh and others of his faith have every reason to expect acceptance in the “Land of the Free,” Sikhs first came from India to the U.S. over 130 years ago. Because of the oppressive colonial practices of the British in India, thousands of Sikhs emigrated to the U.S., with most coming to California to labor as agricultural workers. The oldest Sikh temple in the U.S. was built in Stockton, California in 1912; Sikhs have been contributing to the American family ever since.

I have never been a fan of the Miss America contest, since I oppose the sexual objectification of women, but I must bring up the competition in the context of racial bigotry and the attack on Dr. Singh. On Sept. 15, 2013, Nina Davuluri won the Miss America crown at the pageant held in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Born in Syracuse, New York to parents who came from the Republic of India in South Asia, the 24-year-old Davuluri was beset with a torrent of xenophobic comments on social media immediately after her win. Online comments against Ms. Davuluri included the likes of: “Miss Arab wins Miss America,” “9/11 was 4 days ago and she gets Miss America,” “Miss America is a terrorist,” “Congratulations Al-Qaeda, our Miss America is one of you,” and “How the f**k does a foreigner win Miss America?” That Davuluri is an American citizen means nothing to such people.

U.S. history is replete with “nativist” individuals and organizations that favored “true Americans” over immigrants, and sadly, nativism continues to run through the fabric of American society. In the early 1800’s Irish immigrants in the U.S. were considered to be uneducated brutes, lazy, criminally minded, and hopeless alcoholics; the Irish were systematically denied employment and forced to live in slums and were in fact referred to as “white negroes” by those who detested them. Likewise, Italian immigrants in the U.S. also occupied the unenviable position bestowed upon the Irish. The largest mass lynching in U.S. history took place in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1891 when thousands of upright citizens broke into a prison to seize 9 Italian men just found not guilty in the murder of the city’s Police Chief. The Italians were beaten and shot, and dragged into the streets where they were lynched. Two additional Italians imprisoned on unrelated charges were taken from the prison and hanged for good measure.

After Imperial Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japanese Americans suffered through a wave of humiliating and violent racist hysteria that culminated in all people of Japanese ancestry on the West coast of the U.S. being rounded up by presidential order and forcibly shipped to isolated concentration camps. These U.S. citizens were stripped of their possessions, homes, and businesses simply because of their skin color.

On Sept. 9, 2010, the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), the Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress (NCRR), and the Japanese American National Museum of Los Angeles conducted a candlelight vigil against the scapegoating of Muslim Americans. I participated in that vigil of some 200 souls on the steps of the museum, and I was honored that copies of my poster, I Am Not The Enemy, were unreservedly and fervently utilized as statements against racist bigotry, religious intolerance, and national chauvinism. I hope that my current offering will be used in the same manner.

Big Brother Is Watching You

the_stars_and_stripes“I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity.” - Edward Snowden.

As of today, this web log will go on hiatus for an indefinite period as a silent protest against the colossal spying operation the Obama administration has unleashed upon the American people.

On June 9, 2013, Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former CIA employee working for the National Security Agency (NSA), was identified by the Guardian as the whistleblower responsible for exposing the massive police state surveillance now aimed at every American.

PRISM, the surveillance program run by the National Security Agency (NSA) for the Obama White House, collects the phone records of most U.S. citizens on a daily basis; the spy operation also monitors all internet activity conducted by Americans, extracting their photographs, e-mails, audio recordings, videos, documents, chats, instant messaging, and connection logs from nine separate internet companies - AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, PalTalk, Skype, Yahoo, and YouTube. In essence, the intelligence program snoops on the daily routines of hundreds of millions of Americans.

On June 7, President Obama defended his sweeping surveillance program, referring to media reports as “hype”. He depicted the spying as a “modest encroachment” on the rights of U.S. citizens. Just prior to Edward Snowden’s identity being made public, Obama’s Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, said of the whistleblower, “This is someone who for whatever reason has chosen to violate a sacred trust for this country”. I beg your pardon Mr. Clapper, but the only sacred trust that U.S. citizens have is to their Constitution. As an American artist I treasure that document - all of it -  because it not only guarantees my right to free expression, it secures all of my rights as a citizen. The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution reads:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized”.

I have just acquired a copy of David McCullough’s 1776, which recounts the history of the American revolution. McCullough’s fascinating book describes the struggle as seen through the eyes of those American patriots who fought for independence from the British Empire, as well as from the perspective of the King’s men, who saw the “riotous rebels” of America as little more than “rabble in arms”. The hoi polloi of course won the cause of liberty, imperfect as it was, but today our freedoms are in extreme danger.

How ironic that democracy is imperiled by someone who promised “hope”, “change”, and “transparency”, but instead delivered a surveillance state of unprecedented scope and power; it is not quite George Orwell’s 1984 writ large, but it is very close indeed. The U.S. has reached a point of no return, it shall either advance as a democratic society or it shall descend into the abyss of authoritarian rule; it is all up to America’s “riotous rebels”.

This is undeniably a time for active protest against an imperiously intrusive surveillance state, but it is also a period for contemplation and deep reflection. Once I have finished reading McCullough’s 1776, I shall return to writing and posting commentary to this web log.

Meanwhile… in Guatemala

"Meanwhile... in Guatemala" - Mark Vallen. 1988. © Pencil on paper 10" x 14". The U.S.-backed Guatemalan military tortured and murdered tens of thousands of civilians during that Central American nation's 36-year long civil war. When the fighting ended in 1996, over 200,000 civilians - 83% of them Maya Indian farmers - had been slain.

"Meanwhile... in Guatemala" - Mark Vallen. 1988. © Pencil on paper 10" x 14". The U.S.-backed Guatemalan military tortured and murdered tens of thousands of civilians during that Central American nation's 36-year long civil war. When the fighting ended in 1996, over 200,000 civilians - 83% of them Maya Indian farmers - had been slain.

On May 10, 2013, former Guatemalan tyrant Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity by a Guatemalan court. Specifically, he was found guilty of the murder of 1,771 indigenous Maya civilians. The 86-year-old Montt was sentenced to 80 years in prison, 50 years for genocide and 30 years for crimes against humanity. When I received word of Montt’s conviction I cried aloud, “Oh my God!”, hardly believing that justice had at last prevailed… at least, in part.

In the 1980’s I met a number of Guatemalan refugees that had fled the terror in their country for the relative safety of Los Angeles, and I was profoundly disturbed by the harrowing tales they told me of their homeland - stories regarding the torture, mutilation, and murder of friends, family, and associates back home. As a result, I spent a good portion of the 80s creating posters, flyers, and drawings that were opposed to the bloodbath then occurring in Guatemala and the rest of Central America; my artworks were circulated all across L.A. and beyond. The drawing pictured above, “Meanwhile… in Guatemala“, was one such artwork (view a larger version).

"ENOUGH!" - Mark Vallen. 1988. ©

"ENOUGH!" - Mark Vallen. 1988. © Offset flyer. 11"x14" inches. One of many street flyers designed and published by the artist that announced antiwar protests in Los Angeles during the 1980s.

While hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens joined me in protesting the wars in Central America, it was not a popular thing to do. The Cold War hysteria of Ronald Reagan’s America designated such activists “un-American” and “un-patriotic”. In short, making art in solidarity with the Guatemalans was not a path to career success. Now that Ríos Montt has been found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, I feel vindicated and joyful.

Montt was not the first nor last military despot to brutalize the people of Guatemala; he was from a long line of murderous thugs and assassins that throttled civil society and butchered Ixil Maya communities with impunity.

One could say it all began in 1954 when the U.S. government and the C.I.A. engineered a coup d’etat that overthrew Guatemala’s democratically elected government of President Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán (1950-54), but that is another story.

In announcing the Guatemalan court’s decision, Judge Yasmin Barrios stated that “The defendant is responsible for masterminding the crime of genocide”, and that “We are convinced that the acts the Ixil suffered constitute the crime of genocide… Rios Montt knew everything that was going on, and he didn’t stop it, even though he had the power to do so.” Barrios added, “We the judges are totally convinced that the goal was the physical destruction of the Ixil area.”

In March of 1982 Montt staged a coup d’etat that toppled the brutal dictatorship of President Lucas García, and Montt ruled until the next totalitarian goon - General Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores - overthrew him in a 1983 military coup. It was simply a falling out among thieves. Being a faithful servant to Guatemala’s oligarchs and Uncle Sam (he was a graduate of the U.S. Army School of the Americas), Montt came to no harm after being overthrown, in fact he was “elected” to the nation’s congress in 2007.

All the same, Montt’s 14 month military rule became infamous for the most vile abuses, including widespread torture and rape conducted by state forces. Montt launched a scorched earth military campaign meant to destroy the rural support base of the country’s left-wing guerilla movement. Making no distinction between the Maya civilian population and combatants, Montt’s campaign obliterated over 600 Maya villages and took the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent peasant farmers.

Montt’s counter-insurgency policies did have its supporters. On December 4, 1982, President Reagan met with Gen. Montt at San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Reagan gave his assessment of the fascist dictator to the gathered international press:

“I know that President Ríos Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment. His country is confronting a brutal challenge from guerrillas armed and supported by others outside Guatemala. I have assured the President that the United States is committed to support his efforts to restore democracy and to address the root causes of this violent insurgency. I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice. My administration will do all it can to support his progressive efforts.”

Only two days after Reagan made his statement, U.S. armed and trained Guatemalan special forces, the Kaibiles, raided the Mayan hamlet of Dos Esses, where they massacred nearly 300 villagers… mostly women and children. It was not an isolated incident; the slaughter of innocents had become government policy for Guatemala’s generals, and yet the U.S. government continued to pour millions of dollars worth of lethal military aid into their hands.

While the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other corporate newspapers have all mentioned the Ríos Montt conviction, few if any made mention of Montt’s crimes being facilitated by the extensive military, economic, and political backing of the U.S. government. In his 2003 book, Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, William Blum noted that the Reagan administration supplied Montt with “$3.1 million of jeeps and trucks, $4 million of helicopter spare parts, $6.3 million of other military supplies.”

What doubt is there that U.S. military aid was used by Montt and his death squads to slaughter Maya peasants by the tens of thousands? Blum also noted in his book how covert U.S. military aid was provided to the Montt dictatorship; “the United States was using Cuban exiles to train security forces in Guatemala”. In a October 21, 1982 Washington Post article, journalist Jack Anderson reported that “Green Berets had been instructing Guatemalan Army officers for over two years in the finer points of warfare”.

The question remains, if the former Guatemalan tyrant Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt is guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, what can be said of those in Washington D.C. who willfully supplied the dictator with the means to carry out his butchery?


UPDATE: Guatemala’s highest court overturned the guilty conviction against Rios Montt on May 20, 2013, only ten days after the former military dictator was sentenced to 80 years in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity. Guatemala’s “Constitutional Court” cited procedural errors for canceling the verdict. Montt is to be “retried”. It is uncertain when that might occur. Have the good people of Guatemala not suffered enough torment? Where is justice?

The Burning Palm Tree Epiphany

"Burning Palm Tree" - Mark Vallen. Oil on canvas. 30" x 40" inches. 2008 ©.

"Burning Palm Tree" - Mark Vallen. Oil on canvas. 30" x 40" inches. 2008 ©.

Brothers and Sisters… this errant one, whose feet have trod along Hollywood’s golden starred paths of sin, and whose lips have tasted the many bitter fruits of lasciviousness so common to my City of Lust Angeles… this willfully disobedient soul has had an epiphany!

Ah yes! I was walking in the desolate wilderness of the San Fernando Valley, plodding along one of the ugliest streets in all creation, cast down by billboards that assailed me with wicked images of corporate death cheeseburgers and loathsome CGI action movies - all the works of the Devil - when the divine truth was revealed to me.

I was standing on the forsaken neon boulevard with thorn-pierced feet, when a palm tree - thousands of rusty nails and staples fastening cheap advertising flyers to its trunk - suddenly burst into flames before me! A great stillness came upon the land; I could no longer hear the gangsta rap blaring from passing cars; I could no longer see the buses - filled with unhappy people and covered with gigantic advertisements for Desperate Housewives - barreling down the street; there was only the burning palm ablaze with a mighty spiritual fire. The tree spoke, its voice a gentle benediction, like the wind in a vast wild place; the fiery palm whispered…

“The good Rev. Billy & the Triple Goddess Gospel Singers will appear with Sister Exene Cervenka at The Echo in the downtown Echo Park district of Lost Angeles. Go forth in righteousness and spread the blessed truth to the teeming masses. Shun the path of synthetic pop stars and their killer drones; turn away from the creeping virtual meatball’s race towards bigger and better flat-screen televisions. Remember - Rev. Billy, Exene, The Echo, Sunday, 2:00 pm. March 3, 2013. Be there or be an apostate Republocrate.

UPDATE: Review
Rev. Billy & the Triple Goddess Gospel Singers
with Sister Exene Cervenka at The Echo in Los Angeles, March 3, 2013.

"Speaking In Tongues" - Photograph by Mark Vallen 2013 ©. Photo of Rev. Billy at The Echo club in Los Angeles. The good Rev. appeared with Sister Exene Cervenka & the Triple Goddess Gospel Singers on March 3, 2013.

"Speaking In Tongues" - Photograph by Mark Vallen 2013 ©. Photo of Rev. Billy at The Echo club in Los Angeles. The good Rev. appeared with Sister Exene Cervenka & the Triple Goddess Gospel Singers on March 3, 2013.

Cries of “Earthaluya!” shook the rafters when Reverend Billy of The Church of Stop Shopping preached from the stage at The Echo.

A small crowd of sinners had gathered to hear the good Reverend’s sermon, and they yelped in spiritual joy as Rev. Billy spoke in tongues; the messianic leader punched the air with his fists and danced in jubilation as he spoke against the sins of apathy, complacency and mindless consumerism.

Demons of materialism were exorcised from the hearts of those gathered at The Echo revival meeting.

It was a fortuitous and historic occasion, given that just around the corner the Angelus Temple could be found - the very place where evangelical sensation Aimee Semple McPherson (”Sister Aimee”), used to preach to the sinners of Lost Angeles in the 1920s and 1930s! My own mother visited the Angelus Temple as a young girl. Sister Aimee was the first mass media preacher and the first woman to receive a broadcasting license for religious programming on the radio. For all of today’s televangelical “false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are savage wolves” (Matthew 7:15), it is the Reverend Billy that truly stands with the poor and the meek against the greed and violent cruelty of the powerful - and here I do not blaspheme.

"Sister Exene Cervenka" - Photo by Mark Vallen 2013 ©. Exene at The Echo club in Los Angeles.

"Sister Exene Cervenka" - Photo by Mark Vallen 2013 ©. Exene at The Echo club in Los Angeles.

The faith healing event opened with an old spiritual sung by Sister Exene Cervenka and the Triple Goddess Gospel Singers. The members of the group found one other in the Devil’s playground of Lost Angeles, and they only came together as a gospel choir to support Rev. Billy’s visit to the Sodom of the West Coast. The evangelical song sparrows performed a total of three rousing gospel numbers during the revival, two of which I caught on video. My favorite song by the Goddess Gospel Singers was a cover of the late 1950s song, Mean Old World, by Marion Williams & the Stars of Faith.

When not singing with the Triple Goddess Gospel Singers, Sister Exene took to the pulpit to do a bit of evangelizing on her own, proving herself to be a formidable new voice in The Church of Stop Shopping. She sermonized that the faithful should turn their backs on Beyoncé, Lady GaGa, Nicki Minaj and others of the Jezebel spirit for serving power and the Golden Calf; called for people to smash their televisions; and preached that parents should “dress their children in corduroy pants, give them bowl haircuts, and teach them carpentry, soldering, or gardening” instead of allowing them to become consumer society trendoids.

"Exene and The End Of The World" - Photo by Mark Vallen 2013 ©. Exene with Rev. Billy's "The End Of The World" book at The Echo club in Los Angeles.

"Exene and The End Of The World" - Photo by Mark Vallen 2013 ©. Exene with Rev. Billy's "The End Of The World" book at The Echo club in Los Angeles.

Sister Exene took on an apocalyptic tone as she reminded the flock of how the U.S. Constitution has been eroded since 9/11, with government security forces now able to watch Americans via domestic Predator drones, or even by sending hummingbird-shaped and sized surveillance drones through your open front door. Citing Sandy Hook as a pretext, she prophesized that the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens would be limited even further in days to come.

Sister Exene confessed having been seduced by promises of deliverance made by the false prophets of the Democratic Party, but as a born-again acolyte of The Church of Stop Shopping, she has seen the light - Praise Be! - and now warns the faithful against believing the words of Follyticians. It was all fire and brimstone from Sister Exene, but she was just warming up the congregation.

"Preaching" - Photo by Mark Vallen 2013 ©. Rev. Billy at The Echo club in Los Angeles.

"Preaching" - Photo by Mark Vallen 2013 ©. Rev. Billy at The Echo club in Los Angeles.

Reverend Billy took the stage and speechified on how war is crucial to consumerism, while inveighing against those who reap the super profits:

“No wonder they are so powerful! The shopping is evolving us into a single personality! The constant monetizing… we’re suffering from thousands of advertising events every day. Increasingly were getting militarized advertisements. I just refer you to the Super Bowl. When you have that experience, you’re watching the game - the slow motion, the projectiles, the armoring - and then you go to a video game and… it’s the same thing. And then you go to a Be All That You Can Be Army ad, and… it’s the same thing. And then you’re back in the football game and… it’s the same thing.

Militarism and consumerism are utterly enmeshed at this point. That was always the plan. Professors call it a ‘totalizing’ system… they are trying to get into every nook and cranny of our lives. If there is any part of our lives that is still outside of the impact of their commodification, of their making us that one personality - anything dark, anything far-way from that apparatus - they’ll find you there!”

Photo by Mark Vallen 2013 ©. Rev. Billy at The Echo club in Los Angeles.

Photo by Mark Vallen 2013 ©. Rev. Billy at The Echo club in Los Angeles.

The day after Rev. Billy’s fiery sermon, it was reported that President Obama had nominated the head of the Wal-Mart Foundation, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, as the new director for his Office of Management and Budget (OMB); Burwell will assist the president in making budgetary decisions. That Wal-Mart now has a new big box store called the White House will no doubt weigh heavily upon the good Reverend’s mind. At one point during his sermon Rev. Billy intoned; “Is Obama the best we can do? Forget about gun control, we need some Drone control!”

"Earthaluya" - Photo by Mark Vallen 2013 ©. Rev. Billy at The Echo club in Los Angeles.

"Earthaluya" - Photo by Mark Vallen 2013 ©. Rev. Billy at The Echo club in Los Angeles.

Reverend Billy is not just the messianic evangelical leader of The Church of Stop Shopping, in actuality he is a character created and performed by actor Bill Talen. But Talen’s shtick is much more than satiric performance art or quirky activism, he answers an age old calling - that of Holy Fool. Much of this is evident in his just released book, The End of the World, a minuscule paperback filled with big ideas, apocalyptic visions, and achingly beautiful humanistic thought.

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!


I am pleased to announce that a silkscreen poster I created in 1987, To Protect and Serve the Rich - Jail the Homeless, is part of the exhibition, Prison Nation: Posters On The Prison Industrial Complex. The premier of Prison Nation opens on January 19, 2013 at the UC Merced Kolligian Library on the campus of the University of California, Merced. Curated by the Center for the Study of Political Graphics (CSPG) of Los Angeles, California, Prison Nation is a touring exhibit of historic posters that focus on the reality of the prison-industrial-complex as practiced in The Golden State. The show travels to five other venues in California’s San Joaquin Valley and Inland Empire areas over the course of the next two years.

In the words of the exhibit’s organizers, “The United States has the largest prison population in the world - over 2.3 million inmates. California locks up more people than any other state in the U.S. and currently proposes to spend billions more to build more prisons and jails across the state.” Yes, we’re number one, and the tale of California’s prison population growing from 20,000 in 1980 to over 170,000 in 2007, is told in the dozens of posters on display in Prison Nation.

"To Protect and Serve the Rich - Jail the Homeless" - Mark Vallen © Silkscreen. 1987. 19" x 27" inches.

"To Protect and Serve the Rich - Jail the Homeless" - Mark Vallen © Silkscreen. 1987.

My own contribution to the exhibit, To Protect and Serve the Rich - Jail the Homeless, does of course have a unique anecdote behind it, as the print was inspired by real world events (view a larger version of my print). In the year 1987 I lived and worked in a ramshackle artist’s loft located in downtown Los Angeles - twelve years before gentrification sent prices in the decaying and abandoned neighborhood through the rooftop around 1999.

The old industrial area where my studio was found sat at the edge of L.A.’s historic Little Tokyo district, and the pre-earthquake-code red brick building that housed my second-story rented loft was constructed in 1911. The Skid Row area of L.A. was a stones throw from my studio, and the entire disintegrating zone was a magnet for the thousands of homeless people who slept on the street in every available doorway. At the time it was estimated that around 30,000 people were homeless in Los Angeles, and that some 10,000 of them slept on downtown streets.

The area was a distribution point for imported goods that came from the port city of San Pedro, and every day trucks brought millions of crates full of cheap merchandise to the small businesses operating in the Toy Town and Fashion districts. The discarded cardboard boxes became building material for throngs of the homeless, who carried off huge slats of the cast off cartons on their backs. In my neighborhood so many destitute people constructed makeshift huts of cardboard on the sidewalks that small shantytowns were formed, and the shelters in that wretched urban community were called “Cardboard Condos”. How fitting for the Reagan years.

Everyday from my studio window I witnessed a parade of poverty-stricken and disfavored humanity. Some were clearly insane, others alcoholics, but there were also many unemployed workers and war veterans who were reduced to living on the streets. On occasion I would see a pitiable family on a grimy avenue pushing a grocery cart filled with all their worldly possessions. Flop houses were so overcrowded, or filthy and infested with rats and roaches, that poor folks preferred living on the sidewalks. I once talked with a grizzled Vietnam war vet living on the street who told me that as long as he could wrap himself up in enough layers of newspaper at night, he could survive the cold. I suppose that was the proper usage for the city’s bourgeois “newspapers”, but others living on the street were not so resilient. Hypothermia plagued untold numbers of those I have so far described - it continues to do so.

"To Protect and Serve the Rich - Jail the Homeless" - Detail. Mark Vallen © 1987.

"To Protect and Serve the Rich - Jail the Homeless" - Detail. Mark Vallen © 1987.

When I lived in my downtown seventh heaven, Tom Bradley (1917-1998) was the Mayor of Los Angeles and the pugnacious Daryl F. Gates (1926-2010) was the Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). Complaints from downtown business interests convinced Bradley to take action against the homeless; Bradley and Gates agreed to physically remove the down-and-out population from the city center of L.A.

On May 28, 1987, Police Chief Gates announced at a press conference that the “so-called homeless” were being given seven days to break their camps and disperse, those who did not comply would have their properties seized and be subject to arrest. Gates said he instructed his officers to post 50 notices on streets where the homeless gathered, of course, the official broadsides appeared in my scenic neighborhood.

With nowhere else to go, many of the homeless disregarded orders to abandon their rudimentary cardboard lodgings - they vowed to resist. On the morning of June 4, the day of the looming police action, Mayor Bradley belatedly offered the homeless a forlorn empty lot as a short-term “campground”, but the site would not be available until a week after the raid. There were no takers. Finally, as late afternoon came to my beloved City of the Angels, the LAPD rolled into action against the homeless.

"To Protect and Serve the Rich - Jail the Homeless" - Detail. Mark Vallen © 1987.

"To Protect and Serve the Rich - Jail the Homeless" - Detail. Mark Vallen © 1987.

The sky was overcast, heightening the yellow “Police Line Do Not Cross” tape that seemed to be everywhere in the sector; red and blue rooftop lights flashed from dozens of LAPD squad cars cordoning off the streets; groups of uniformed and helmeted officers moved from one cardboard hut to the next, rousting occupants, sending them on their way or arresting them; black and white LAPD buses were filled with detainees; ubiquitous LAPD helicopters swarmed the sullen skies. The police methodically razed hundreds of homeless shelters, confiscating or trashing the meager belongings that were found within.

I am positive director John Carpenter witnessed the June 4th raids on the camps of L.A.’s homeless, since a precise sequence from his subversive 1988 science fiction classic, They Live, mirrored the ‘87 police operations - though in a tremendously exaggerated fashion (you can see this 22:17 minutes into his film). That the scene I refer to in Carpenter’s movie was shot on the streets near my downtown L.A. neighborhood, only buttresses my opinion.

The June 4th raids provided an ominous and unsettling scene, and after snapping a few photographs I began to get the vibe that the boys in blue did not appreciate my playing paparazzi. As there was no one around save for the homeless and the police, this bohemian artist made a beeline to his shoddy yet safe garret. It was then and there that I began creating my silkscreen print, To Protect and Serve the Rich - Jail the Homeless, as an immediate response.

My black and white print depicted a line of faceless LAPD officers, with the work’s title integrated into the stark design; the image was inspired by the lines of police I saw during the raids on the homeless camps. To create the poster I quickly drew my image directly on the stretched silk screen, and from there I printed my edition of posters using oil based paint. The next day I went about disseminating the contentious print in my neighborhood, which included giving away copies to the many stressed-out homeless folks in my area.

Prison Nation runs from January 19 to March 9, 2013. The UC Merced Kolligian Library is located at 5200 N. Lake Rd. Merced, CA 95343 (directions and campus map).