Category: Art Activism

PRISON NATION

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).

“…. A Purely Artistic Government”.

When I was a 10-year-old in 1963, the very first record I purchased on my own was a recording of the Peer Gynt Suite by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907). It may come as a surprise to some but these days, more often than not, I listen to classical music while I work at my easel. Being a longtime devotee of the genre, I would like to share the following historical detail with readers. French composers Georges Bizet (1838-1875) and Ernest Guiraud (1837-1892) worked together on Bizet’s operatic masterpiece, Carmen, a favorite of mine. In an 1875 letter addressed to Guiraud, Bizet wrote about one of his emotive dreams:

“I dreamed last night that we were all at Naples, installed in a charming villa; we were living under a purely artistic government. The senate consisted of Beethoven, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Giorgione - e tutti quanti (”all of those”). The National Guard was no more. In place of it there was a huge orchestra of which Litolff (Henry Charles Litolff, a piano virtuoso, composer, and music publisher) was the conductor. All suffrage was denied to idiots, humbugs, schemers, and ignoramuses - that is to say, suffrage was cut down to the smallest proportions imaginable. Geneviève (Geneviève Halévy, Bizet’s wife) was a little too amiable for Goethe (Germany’s great literary figure), but despite this trifling circumstance the awakening was terribly bitter.”

Yes, waking reality is rarely superior to our dream world, especially in these unsettling times. In part Bizet’s dream of “a purely artistic government” is shared by this author, and it is that vision that continues to enthuse and inspire this web log.

DNC: Empty Chairs at Empty Tables

"Chair" - Vincent van Gogh. Oil on canvas. 1888.

"Chair" - Vincent van Gogh. Oil on canvas. 1888.

“Here they talked of revolution
Here it was they lit the flame
Here they sang about tomorrow
And tomorrow never came.”

Empty Chairs At Empty Tables - from Alain Boublil’s libretto
for the musical, Les Misérables.

Tate Modern Rejects “The Gift”

There are those who credit the Tate Modern in London for being in the vanguard of promoting and collecting “cutting edge” postmodern art. A 2010 installation at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is often mentioned in that context. Working with the Tate, Ai had assistants cover the entire Turbine Hall floor with over 100 million handmade porcelain sunflower “seeds”. What it all meant was open to interpretation, but for the next 48 hours the public was invited to frolic through the thick carpet of seeds, until the museum roped off the area because of hazardous ceramic dust.

In 2012 the Tate purchased ten tons of Ai Weiwei’s porcelain sunflower seeds, around 8 million individual seeds, for the museum’s permanent collection. The acquisition represented less than a tenth of the seeds used in the original installation. The Tate would not divulge the purchase price of their acquisition, but at a 2011 auction at Sotheby’s the white ceramic seeds were sold for £3.50 each (around $5.00).

"The Gift" - Liberate Tate. Installation/Performance. Tate Modern Turbine Hall. July 7, 2012. Photo by Immo Klink.

"The Gift" - Liberate Tate. Installation/Performance. Tate Modern Turbine Hall. July 7, 2012. Photo by Immo Klink.

In the latest, albeit unauthorized, installation at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, the artists and activists of the Liberate Tate art collective delivered an artwork titled The Gift to the Tate Modern on July 7, 2012; the gift being an enormous 54 foot, one and a half ton wind turbine blade. Over 100 Liberate Tate group members carried the leviathan blade, disassembled into three huge parts, to the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall.

Getting the blade past the panicked Tate security guards was difficult enough, but once inside the hall the group reassembled the blade under the watchful eye of museum guards and police officers.

Think of Liberate Tate’s wind turbine blade as a gigantic Duchampian style readymade, but one with a clear and timely message. The windmill blade, icon of renewable energy, is placed inside the Tate, recipient of major funding from the international oil company, BP. Conceptual art with an actual concept! There is no small irony in this, since the Tate has in its collection a replica of Fountain, the porcelain urinal Marcel Duchamp submitted to an exhibit organized by the Society of Independent Artists in 1917.

The Tate website describes Fountain with the following: “Fountain is an example of what Duchamp called a ‘readymade’, an ordinary manufactured object designated by the artist as a work of art. It epitomizes the assault on convention and good taste for which he and the Dada movement are best known.” The Tate understands “readymade” and “assault on convention” in a purely academic way, but fails to comprehend any contemporary real world application. Can anyone really explain why a urinal is a “work of art” but a windmill blade is not?

Liberate Tate art collective installation and performance. Tate Modern Turbine Hall. July 7, 2012 Photo by Ian Buswell.

Liberate Tate art collective installation and performance. Tate Modern Turbine Hall. July 7, 2012. Photo by Ian Buswell.

The Liberate Tate art collective put forward their wind turbine blade as a “gift to the nation” under the provisions of the UK government’s Museums and Galleries Act of 1992. This requires the Tate to officially consider accepting the work as part of its permanent collection. Liberate Tate formally submitted their artwork as a gift to the nation in an official letter to Sir Nicholas Serota, the Director of the Tate. The letter in part read: “We gift this artwork with the intention of increasing the public’s understanding and enjoyment of contemporary art.” Liberate Tate spokesperson Sharon Palmer told the press:

“For more than 20 years Tate has been used by BP to present an image of corporate benevolence while the oil company has been involved in environmental and human rights controversies the world over.

We’re approaching an irrevocable turning point in our ability to address the climate crisis, so now is the time for Tate to look to the future and remove itself from the destructive heart of the fossil fuel economy. Liberate Tate has created this artwork using an icon of renewable energy with an express wish that Tate will have the courage to take leadership in addressing the threat of catastrophic climate change and end its relationship with BP.”

In a separate public statement, Communiqué #3 The Gift, Liberate Tate offered a rather poetic explanation of The Gift, and what motivated them to bequeath their giant wind turbine blade to the nation. An excerpt from the message reads as follows:

“Despite recent reports that our biosphere is approaching a ‘tipping point’ where ecosystems are close to a sudden and irreversible change that could extinguish human life; despite years of creative protest and thousands of signatories petitioning Tate to clean up its image and let go of its relationship with a company that is fuelling catastrophe; despite all these things, Tate continues to promote the burning of fossil fuels by taking the poisoned ‘gift’ of funding from BP. This is why today we have given you something you could not refuse.

The law of this island requires that all ‘gifts to the nation’, donations of art from the people, be considered as works for public museums. Consider this one judiciously. We think that it is a work that will fit elegantly in the Tate collection, a work that celebrates a future that gives rather than takes away, a gentle whispering solution, a monument to a world in transition.

Resting on the floor of your museum, it might resemble the bones of a leviathan monster washed up from the salty depths, a suitable metaphor for the deep arctic drilling that BP is profiting from now that the ice is melting. But it is not animal, nor is it dead, it is a living relic from a future that is aching to become the present. It is part of a magic machine, a tool of transformation, a grateful giant.”

Not surprisingly, just hours after the public and Liberate Tate’s members were cleared from the Turbine Hall by museum security, the Tate removed the 54 foot wind turbine blade from the hall to an undisclosed location. One can surmise that it was not even considered by the Tate Board of Directors for acceptance into the museum’s permanent collection.

Liberate Tate’s performance and installation was captured on film and posted on the VICE News website. Felix Goncalez and Stephanie Thieullent of You And I Films also documented the event in a short video they call The Gift.

Faraway, So Close: ’80s L.A. Photos

"May Day in Los Angeles, 1980" - Mark Vallen. 1980 ©. Print from 35mm Diapositive. 6.5 x 9.75 inches. This photograph was taken in L.A.'s MacArthur Park just moments before the Los Angeles Police Department attacked a large crowd celebrating International Workers Day. The rally had been the first significant May Day demonstration to take place in L.A. since the 1960s.

"May Day in Los Angeles, 1980" - Mark Vallen. 1980 ©. Print from 35mm Diapositive. 6.5 x 9.75 inches. This photograph was taken in L.A.'s MacArthur Park just moments before the Los Angeles Police Department attacked a large crowd celebrating International Workers Day. The rally had been the first significant May Day demonstration to take place in L.A. since the 1960s. On view at the Morono Kiang Gallery's "Faraway, So Close" exhibit.

I will be exhibiting six never before shown photos at Faraway, So Close, a group exhibition of photographs on the theme of Los Angeles as it existed between the years 1980 and 1989. Running from February 4, 2012, to March 31, 2012 at the Morono Kiang Gallery in downtown Los Angeles, the exhibit also features works by Sara Jane Boyers, Edward Colver, Willie Middlebrook, Ann Summa, May Sun, and Richard Wyatt.

Some participants in the exhibit are celebrated photographers known for capturing the visage of L.A. with their gifted camerawork. Others - this would include me - are more interested in painting the city’s diversity on canvas, using photography only as an optional extra tool in the artistic process. What unifies these two schools in Faraway, So Close, is an intention to catch something of the truth about life in Los Angeles.

I have always been interested in the connection that exists between drawing, painting, and photography, ever since I discovered as a pre-teen that the 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer quite possibly used a camera obscura as a tool in creating his fabulous oil paintings.

As a teenager I was enthralled, not by the world of art photographers, but by the efforts of documentarians like Dorothea Lange, Robert Capa, and Walker Evans. Their photos from the 1930’s depicting real world events and individuals clearly indicated to me that art was about more than just aesthetics, it had a social purpose as well. When I discovered the paintings of Ben Shahn, one of America’s premiere social realist painters from the 1930s, I learned he was also a photographer that used a 35mm Leica to capture the realities of New York’s working poor. That he based his artworks upon his photographs was an inspiration to me, a fact that helped guide me to the camera as an essential tool in my work as a visual artist. As I conducted further research into the relationship between painting and photography, I was impressed by the views of the Mexican Muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, who wrote the following in the late 1930’s:

“I consider that, in their escape from reality, the modern painters of the Paris school committed the greatest blunder in the history of art, especially when a mechanical apparatus had just made it possible to capture reality. The photographic camera helped objective art to break out of the dead end in which it found itself; it made possible the advance of realism. The camera is the indispensable tool of a new realism, and without it one cannot even begin to think about the solution of such a problem. The camera established the knowledge of astronomy and of astrophysics. With the help of X-rays, photography gave medicine empirical knowledge of man’s insides. It captures pictures; how then can we, the creators of pictures, ignore or despise it?”

Just as Shahn and Siqueiros used their snapshots as starting points for more complex works, I too have used my photos as source material for drawings and paintings. While I have never regarded myself as a photographer, there is a correlation between my art and the photo. As a figurative realist artist the camera has always provided me with the ability to capture fleeting realities to be studied, interpreted, and built upon in the studio. For me the camera serves as a sketchbook of sorts, it is the means to an end, i.e., extrapolating on the information it gathers in order to create drawings, paintings, and prints that comment on the human condition.

"Bandera Roja/Red Banner" - Mark Vallen. 1985 ©. Print from 35mm Diapositive. 6.5 x 9.75 inches. An activist helps carry a banner emblazoned with revolutionary slogans during a downtown L.A. march that took place on April 20, 1985 - a national day of protest against the policies of the Reagan administration.

"Bandera Roja/Red Banner" - Mark Vallen. 1985 ©. Print from 35mm Diapositive. 6.5 x 9.75 inches. An activist helps carry a banner emblazoned with slogans during a downtown L.A. march that took place on April 20, 1985 - a national day of protest against the policies of the Reagan administration. On view at the Morono Kiang Gallery's "Faraway, So Close" exhibit.

Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s I carried a 35mm camera, using it as a “sketchpad” to keep a record of the ever changing social landscape that is Los Angeles. During that period I took informal photos of everything from L.A.’s explosive punk rock scene (which I was actively engaged in), to the mass protests organized by the peace and anti-Apartheid movements (where I was also involved as an activist). My selected photographs in Faraway, So Close show my participation in, and documentation of, the Central American solidarity network that was such a large part of L.A.’s political landscape in the 1980s.

The Opening Reception for Faraway, So Close takes place on Saturday, February 4, 2012, from 6 to 9 p.m. The Morono Kiang Gallery is located in downtown Los Angeles on the ground floor of the historic Bradbury Building; 218 West 3rd Street, Bradbury Building. Los Angeles, CA 90013 (directions and map). Regular gallery hours are 12 to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. The exhibit runs until March 31, 2012.

UPDATE/Read the Los Angeles Times review of the Morono Kiang exhibit, Photo File: ‘Faraway So Close’ documents turbulent ’80s in L.A.

Panel Discussion with the artists at the Morono Kiang Gallery
Saturday, March 31, 2012. 3:00 – 5:00 pm

morono_kiang_artistsThe Morono Kiang Gallery will host a panel discussion with the artists of Faraway, So Close on Saturday March 31, 2012 from 3:00-5:00 pm. Please join us as artists (shown above) Sara Jane Boyers, Richard Wyatt, Edward Colver, Willie Middlebrook, May Sun, Ann Summa, Mark Vallen, and Shervin Shahbazi (not pictured), recount life in 1980s Los Angeles, talk about their experiences in a changing cultural landscape, and answer questions about their work.

The artists in the exhibit were asked to present a personal take on what they were looking at during this particular place and time. As a result, the works presented in the exhibit fulfill the artists’ professional and/or personal objectives. These photographs, taken by artists charged with the task of documenting the cultural life happening around them, provide a glimpse into the city’s recent past from multiple vantage points. Each photograph featured in this show embodies layers of Los Angeles stories about people and places, events and activities. Decades later, these images have become important documents of the era that marked the beginning of the cultural and political changes that would follow. Admission to this event is free. RSVP: info@moronokiang.com

We ART the 99%

During the Nov. 30, 2011 raid on the Occupy L.A. camp, an LAPD officer inspects the inside of a tent with a "less than lethal" 12 gauge shotgun. Identified by its bright green stock and fore-grips, the weapon fires "bean bag" munitions, oblong cloth bags filled with up to 56 grams of lead pellets. The incapacitating impact of these rounds produces intense pain. Photo AP/Mark Boster/Pool

During the Nov. 30, 2011 raid on the Occupy L.A. camp, an LAPD officer inspects the inside of a tent with a "less than lethal" 12 gauge shotgun. Identified by its bright green stock and fore-grips, the weapon fires "bean bag" munitions, oblong cloth bags filled with up to 56 grams of lead pellets. The incapacitating impact of these rounds produces intense pain. Photo AP/Mark Boster/Pool

On November 27, 2011, Bloomberg Magazine published an explosive report that revealed the U.S. Federal Reserve had secretly loaned trillions of dollars to ailing banks without informing Congress or the American people.

According to the exposé the Fed “had committed $7.77 trillion as of March 2009 to rescuing the financial system, more than half the value of everything produced in the U.S. that year.” Moreover, the Fed offered the loans to big banks at below-market rates, which allowed the banks to reap some $13 billion in profits at the taxpayers expense.

The trillions distributed by the Fed were separate from the massive $700 billion bailout the Bush and Obama administrations furnished to Wall Street under the Troubled Asset Relief Program. It is precisely this type of collusion between oligarchs and bureaucrats that has caused the dramatic ascendancy of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

During the Nov. 30, 2011 raid on Occupy L.A., an LAPD officer aims a "less than lethal" 12 gauge shotgun at protesters sitting in a tree at the L.A. City Hall Occupy camp. "Less than lethal" projectiles can be deadly if an individual is struck with them in the head or upper torso. In the worst violence of the raid, the LAPD fired several "bean bag" rounds to dislodge protesters who had taken to the trees. Photo AP/Lucy Nicholson/Pool

During the Nov. 30, 2011 raid on Occupy L.A., an LAPD officer aims a "less than lethal" 12 gauge shotgun at protesters sitting in a tree at the L.A. City Hall Occupy camp. "Less than lethal" projectiles can be deadly if an individual is struck with them in the head or upper torso. In the worst violence of the raid, the LAPD fired several "bean bag" rounds to dislodge protesters who had taken to the trees. Photo AP/Lucy Nicholson/Pool

In the early morning hours of Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2011, more than 1,400 riot-clad officers from the Los Angeles Police Department swarmed over the Occupy L.A. encampment at City Hall. As police in riot gear drove activists from the area, other officers in biohazard suits made arrests and systematically destroyed the tent city. Until its obliteration, the L.A. camp had been the largest in the U.S. after the original N.Y. Wall Street encampment - which was similarly demolished.

From their massive staging area at nearby Dodger Stadium, the LAPD were transported to L.A. City Hall by thirty Metro buses driven by Metro bus operators. Carried out with military precision, the raid was the largest police deployment in L.A. since the city’s Democratic National Convention in 2000. While occupy activists adhered to their pledges of non-violent resistance, the generally restrained LAPD nevertheless came prepared for major violence.

We ART the 99%  - Exhibit flyer circulated by L.A.'s Latino Museum of History, Art & Culture

"We ART the 99%" - Exhibit flyer circulated by L.A.'s Latino Museum of History, Art & Culture

The LAPD’s Air Support Division used helicopters equipped with thermal imaging scanners to detect the heat signatures of people underneath the canopy of trees surrounding City Hall. The LAPD’s bomb-squad used a gigantic remote-control vehicle called a Batcat to remove activists from trees. The operation resulted in the arrest of 292 occupy activists. That same evening a police raid destroyed the Occupy Philadelphia camp, where authorities arrested 50 activists.

Coming on the heels of this latest concentrated onslaught against the Occupy Wall Street movement, L.A.’s Latino Museum of History, Art & Culture is presenting an art exhibition titled, We ART the 99%. Mounted in cooperation with Occupy Los Angeles Community Artivists, the exhibit promises insight into the philosophy behind the movement, as well as providing an environment where people may contemplate its meaning and impact. Occupy activists are far from feeling defeated, and We ART the 99% might just point to what lies ahead.

The exhibit opens with an Artists Reception on Thursday, December 8, 2011, starting at 6 p.m. and running until 9 p.m. The Latino Museum of History, Art & Culture is located in downtown L.A. just five blocks south of City Hall at 514 S. Spring St (map). Admission is free.

Occupy the Art World

Placards at Foley Square, New York City, Nov. 15, 2011. - Anonymous artist. Photo from www.occupywallst.org

Placards at Foley Square, New York City, Nov. 15, 2011. - Anonymous artist. Photo from www.occupywallst.org

The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement describes contemporary U.S. society as being under the domination of the “one percent”, those super-wealthy individuals and corporations that control everything from the media to the halls of Congress.

While the primary focus of OWS has been aimed at the home foreclosures, unemployment, and social inequality fostered by the greed of rapacious banks and corporations, some critical assessment of the impact corporate titans have exercised over culture is also in order.

For those inured to the art world having been commandeered by high finance, now is the time of reckoning. In view of the Occupy movement’s fight against plutocracy, the arts community should scrutinize the role financial institutions have played, and continue to play, in the collapse of the economy. Those same corporations maintain a benevolent public image through funding the arts; I will mention a handful of these oligarchic “arts supporters” in this article.

Mat Gleason, art critic and founder of the Los Angeles arts periodical Coagula Art Journal, wrote an essay for the AOL owned Huffington Post titled, Is Pacific Standard Time Too Big to Fail? While Gleason’s article was certainly a jab at the Getty Foundation’s much heralded Pacific Standard Time extravaganza of some forty exhibits across Southern California, his commentary also raised the issue of corporate sponsorship of the arts. He specifically targeted Bank of America as the financial backer behind Pacific Standard Time. In his article, Gleason wrote:

Bank of America ATM receipt - Original illustration for Mat Gleason's article, "Is Pacific Standard Time Too Big to Fail?"

Bank of America ATM receipt - Original illustration for Mat Gleason's article, "Is Pacific Standard Time Too Big to Fail?"

“A friend sent me her Bank of America ATM receipt with its upbeat encouragement to explore the Pacific Standard Time (PST) website. Could there be a crueler indictment of an art world that is convinced of its moral superiority to mainstream culture than to be subsidized by one of the criminal financial forces that has brought our culture to its very knees?

I was seriously considering a boycott of the entire Pacific Standard Time when I saw an entity sponsoring a cultural event after basically destroying the culture via the economy. For BofA to celebrate the very pulse that it now has contributed to killing is disgusting. But the era of the boycott seems to have vanished - instead of the boycott’s zero attention, the ‘occupy’ era challenges power by giving perpetrators 100 percent attention. While there is a call for people to remove their money from large financial institutions on November 5 and open accounts at a local credit union, how do we as a region remove the art that defines our city and our times from the large art institutions?

I suppose you don’t need an answer to begin your occupation of the art institution of your choice. And if you cannot choose one, don’t forget that the big banks collaborate with art educational institutions to profit mightily off of student loan debt. Curricula in the hallowed halls of these capitalist MFA casinos mimic the self-impressed non-engagement aesthetic as much or more than most PST exhibits. The anxiety is erased into the conceptual ether. Prozac is to art creation what the Getty is to art curation.”

"Make Wall Street Pay" - Anonymous artist. Based on a photo of "For the Love of God", a sculpture by British artist Damien Hirst. The work, a human skull cast in platinum and covered with 8,601 flawless diamonds, is alleged to have sold for £50 million ($79 million). Poster available for download at www.adbusters.org

"Make Wall Street Pay" - Anonymous artist. Based on a photo of "For the Love of God", a sculpture by British artist Damien Hirst. The work, a human skull cast in platinum and covered with 8,601 flawless diamonds, is alleged to have sold for £50 million ($79 million). Poster available for download at www.adbusters.org

While I do not agree with Gleason’s assessment of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time exhibitions, his swipe at Bank of America broaches the wider issue of corporate backing of the arts.

The prickly question is, how do artists circumvent the hegemony of the privileged few to establish and sustain truly autonomous art?

In January 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws banning corporations from using their vast wealth to support or oppose candidates for political office. Millions of Americans were aghast at the decision, which allows corporations to pump unlimited funds into the coffers of political candidates; a distortion of democracy that gives powerful companies the ability to purchase candidates as well as the legislative process. But if it is injurious to the nation to hand over government to monied interests, then is it not also ruinous to give those same monied elites control over the nation’s artistic and cultural life?

The economic meltdown that began in 2008 was in part a result of corrupt dealings by giant banking and loan companies, particularly in the housing market. As that market collapsed, firms like Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase loaded portfolios with “toxic” mortgage investments, then sold them to unsuspecting clients while betting the investments would fall in value. The scamming was a factor in the economic crisis, yet, as journalist Robert Scheer pointed out, not a single banker faces criminal charges “since the Justice Department has refused to act in these cases, and the Security and Exchange Commission is bringing only civil charges, which the banks find quite tolerable.” By contrast, 4,542 activists have been arrested in protests against the financial elite since the Occupy Wall Street movement began on Sept. 17, 2011.

 "Money Talks Too Much, Occupy!" - Josh MacPhee. 2011. JustSeed Artist's Cooperative. Silkscreen print.

"Money Talks Too Much, Occupy!" - Josh MacPhee. 2011. JustSeed Artist's Cooperative. Silkscreen.

Throughout the 2004-2008 housing bubble, the banking practices of Bank of America abetted the ‘08 crash of the global economy.

In the aftermath of the collapse, BofA received $15 billion in taxpayer’s bailout money from the U.S. government’s Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), along with an additional sum of $10 billion so that BofA could purchase the failing bank, Merrill Lynch. In January 2009 BofA received another $20 billion from TARP; unbelievably, 75% of the $20 billion went to pay Merrill Lynch executives massive bonus packages!

Needless to say, the roughly 9 million Americans who lost their jobs as a result of the Wall Street crash have still not received a bailout.

On Sept. 2, 2011, the U.S. Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), announced a lawsuit against more than a dozen major banks, including Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase. The feds charged the banks with having sold some $200 billion in fraudulent mortgage investments to housing giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, leading to huge losses during the financial crisis. On Sept. 13, 2011, CNBC reported that BofA was “ramping up its foreclosure processing, sending out far more notices of default to borrowers in August than in previous months, well over 200 percent more month-to-month.” Around 1.2 million BofA customers in California alone are delinquent in their mortgage payments and could face foreclosure on their homes. When BofA subsidizes a museum or cultural event, one should think of the hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens the bank has made homeless.

"Take The Bull By The Horns" - Jesse Goldstein. 2011. Silkscreen print.

"Take The Bull By The Horns" - Jesse Goldstein. 2011. Silkscreen print.

On Nov. 8, 2011, a class-action suit against Bank of America ended with the company being required to pay a $410 million settlement.

The lawsuit affected some 13 million BofA customers who were wrongly charged overdraft fees on their debit cards, charges that were typically $35 per occurrence.

According to the Associated Press, an attorney involved in the lawsuit, “calculated that the bank actually raked in $4.5 billion through the overdraft fees and was repaying less than 10 percent. He said the average customer in the case had $300 in overdraft fees, making them eligible for a $27 award - less than one overdraft charge - from the lawsuit.” With BofA making off with that kind of plunder, no wonder they can afford to underwrite the arts.

Despite being the largest bank in the U.S., BofA paid no income taxes in fiscal years 2009 and 2010. In fact the bank received a tax “benefit” of nearly $1 billion for 2010. The bank’s new CEO, Brian T. Moynihan, received $10 million in 2010 as compensation for his first year as Chief Executive Officer.

"The Brains" - Thomas Nast. Wood engraving. 1871. Originally published in Harper's Weekly as an attack against the corrupt Democratic Party political machine that ruled New York City in the 19th century. Specifically Nast portrayed oligarchy as "the brains" behind the crooked politician "Boss Tweed", but Nast's acerbic cartoon was also a general condemnation of oligarchy as the corruptor of democracy. In essence Nast's cartoon epitomizes the political philosophy of today's Occupy Movement, i.e., financial oligarchy is strangling democracy and impoverishing the majority.

"The Brains" - Thomas Nast. Wood engraving. 1871. Originally published in Harper's Weekly as an attack against the corrupt Democratic Party political machine that ruled New York City in the 19th century. Specifically Nast portrayed oligarchy as "the brains" behind the crooked politician "Boss Tweed", but Nast's acerbic cartoon was also a general condemnation of oligarchy as the corruptor of democracy. In essence Nast's cartoon epitomizes the political philosophy of today's Occupy Movement, i.e., financial oligarchy is strangling democracy and impoverishing the majority.

With some $2.1 trillion in assets, JPMorgan Chase is the second largest bank after BofA, but it is second to none when it comes to financial crimes - one hardly knows where to begin. As the housing market crashed JPMorgan Chase sold mortgage securities to investors but failed to tell buyers it used a hedge fund to select the assets in the portfolio, and that the hedge fund stood to profit if the investments lost value, which of course they did. More than a dozen investors lost huge sums of money in the crooked deals. JPMorgan Chase paid $153.6 million to settle U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission charges that it had mislead investors.

JPMorgan Chase sponsored The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire, an exhibit that ran from March to July, 2010 at the Getty Villa in Malibu, California. A merger between J.P. Morgan & Co. and Chase Manhattan Bank in 2000 created JPMorgan Chase, but Chase Manhattan Bank has an unsavory history in Latin America. Long associated with the Rockefeller family, Chase was once known for its close ties to Standard Oil (itself founded by John D. Rockefeller), which rapaciously exploited Mexican oil starting in 1910. It is indeed ironic that Chase would be the sponsor of Mexico’s great Aztec art treasures. Chase Manhattan Bank played a key role in the military coup that overthrew Chile’s democratically elected government on September 11, 1973. Christopher Hitchins detailed some of this in his book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger.

The New York Times reported that Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, was paid a total of $20,816,289 in 2010, and for the first quarter of 2010 the bank made $3.3 billion in profits. On Nov. 2, 2011, several hundred protestors from the Occupy Seattle movement protested against Dimon when he appeared at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Seattle, Washington, as a keynote speaker for the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business. Chanting “Banks got bailed out; we got sold out!” the protesters disparaged Dimon for his exorbitant salary, and condemned JPMorgan Chase for getting $25 billion in bailout loans in 2008 while tens of thousands of homeowners lost their homes to foreclosures.

"Shut Down The Wall Street Casino" - G. Brockman. 2011. Poster announcing the first day of action at New York's financial district. Poster available for download at www.adbusters.org

"Shut Down The Wall Street Casino" - G. Brockman. 2011. Poster announcing the first day of action at New York's financial district. Poster available for download at www.adbusters.org

Levi Strauss & Co. (Levi’s®.) and Nike SB (the skateboard division of Nike Inc.) provided financial backing to Art In The Streets, the “blockbuster” exhibit mounted by the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), in Los Angeles. Getting uncommon press attention and running from April to August, 2011, the show was the first U.S. museum exhibit to present the history of graffiti and street art.

The exhibit was promoted and generally received as groundbreaking; but consider the following - Levi’s pays Haitian workers slave wages in the sweatshop manufacturing plants the company’s “contractors” operate in Haiti, and Nike does the same in Taiwan where workers are paid 50 cents per hour.

U.S. State Department diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and published in the Haitian newspaper Haïti Liberté and the monthly Nation magazine, revealed that the Obama White House in 2009 fought to keep the minimum wage in Haiti to just 31 cents an hour so U.S. companies like Levi Strauss could continue to reap vast profits from Haitian workers. The cables reveal that deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, David E. Lindwall, argued that attempts to raise wages “did not take economic reality into account” but were gambits aimed at appealing to “the unemployed and underpaid masses.”

Haiti is the least-developed and poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and while its workers make pennies a day, Levi Strauss & Co. reported its 2010 net revenues at $4.4 billion. According to documents submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission, Levi’s CEO Charles “Chip” V. Bergh received compensation of $9,150,000 for fiscal year 2011.

"OCCUPY" - Matt W. Downloadable street poster. Digital media. 2011. Download this 8 1/2 x 11 graphic at: www.occupytogether.org/posters/Matt-W-bw.pdf

"OCCUPY" - Matt W. Downloadable street poster. Digital media. 2011. Download this 8 1/2 x 11 graphic at: www.occupytogether.org/posters/Matt-W-bw.pdf

On July 13, 2011, the Associated Press published an exposé on the abysmal conditions workers suffer in Nike’s Asian manufacturing plants, where most of the company’s 1,000 “contractor” run factories are located. The AP noted that 10,000 female workers at the Nike plant in Taiwan make roughly 50 cents per hour, and complain of being physically abused by plant supervisors (enduring kicks, scratches, and slaps), or of being fired for registering complaints. Workers in Nike’s Indonesian plants also spoke of verbal and physical abuse, low wages and arbitrary firings.

After the AP released its findings, Nike promised “immediate and decisive action” to end the abuses, but it made the same claims in decades past when caught using child labor in Indonesia and Cambodia (involving girls as young as twelve who worked for 22 cents an hour, seven days a week, for sixteen hours a day). It should be noted that while Nike’s contract workers in Asia today are paid around 50 cents an hour, the company earned $1.91 billion in fiscal year 2010, and its CEO, Mark Parker, received $13.1 million in compensation. If the aforementioned facts about the sponsors of Art In The Streets had been known, visitors to the exhibit might have been offended; but corporate sponsorship of the arts, at least from the perspective of corporations, is an effective way to conjure up a benevolent public image where otherwise one does not exist.

Target subsidizes free admission days at more than 30 U.S. museums and theaters, from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. But the mega-box store is not without its controversies, from telling its pharmacists they can refuse dispensing emergency contraception to customers, to contributing money to anti-gay groups and politicians. Those enjoying their free museum admission days might be surprised to learn that Target was the number one contributor to Republican Congresswoman and Tea Party favorite, Michele Bachmann, donating $19,950 to the candidate’s 2009-2010 campaign.

In fiscal year 2010 Target made over $67 billion and Gregg Steinhafel, Chairman, President and CEO of Target Stores Inc., received compensation of $24 million. Yet, Target’s mostly part-time workers earn “too little to support a family or afford health insurance, forcing some to rely on food stamps and Medicaid for their children”, according to a New York Times report.

Target’s workers are entirely non-unionized. New hires are required to watch an anti-union propaganda video that is positively Orwellian. A campaign to unionize the Valley Stream, New York Target store faced intimidation and harassment.

The union lost the June 2011 election, but the National Labor Relations Board found evidence that Target threatened workers with the store’s closure if they voted union, a violation of labor laws that may lead to nullification of the election results.

I have been writing about the relationship between BP (British Petroleum, one of the world’s biggest polluters), and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) since March of 2007. In fact this web log was the first to offer a critique of LACMA’s association with BP. My archive of articles pertaining to the BP-LACMA arrangement makes for interesting reading, though there is always something new to report, such as the following.

On Nov. 5, 2011, the Guardian reported that court documents revealed BP’s business dealings with the Russian government and oil consortiums caused BP to describe their Russian contacts as “crooks and thugs.” Whether or not the Russians BP deals with are criminal types is beside the point; that BP perceives them to be gangsters and yet continues to partner with them tells everything there is to know about the business ethos of BP. A review of BP’s multi-billion dollar dealings with Libya’s former strongman Muammar Gaddafi only sharpens the point.

Project Censored released a report in 2011 claiming the U.S. Department of Defense is the worst polluter on the planet. Whether or not readers accept those allegations, BP selling huge amounts of aviation fuel and petroleum products to the Pentagon cannot be disputed. The Washington Post reported that BP “was the Pentagon’s largest single supplier of fuel” in 2009, and that “contracts amount to roughly the same percentage” for 2010. Sales continued even as BP’s pipeline gushed tens of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The paper quoted a former EPA lawyer familiar with the contract between BP and the Pentagon: “BP was supplying approximately 80 percent of the fuel being used to move U.S. forces” in the Middle East.

We have entered the age of austerity, and everywhere the 99% are being made to pay for the financial crimes of the 1%. Those who say corporate backing of the arts is necessary, that museums and other cultural venues could not survive without it, especially with austerity budgets and deep cuts in arts funding being enacted by governments, are missing an essential fact. The resources exist, they are simply monopolized by a minority out of greed and self-interest. The Congressional Budget Office reported that from 1979 to 2007 the after-tax income of America’s top 1 percent soared 275 percent. More importantly, Citizens for Tax Justice released a report showing that 280 of the most profitable U.S. corporations have sheltered half their profits from taxes, and thirty U.S. corporations paid no federal income tax whatsoever from 2008 to 2010. In addition, the report found that “the top ten defense contractors saw their combined tax rate decline from 19.3 percent in 2008 to a mere 10.6 percent in 2010″.

Some arts professionals have told me that corporate sponsorship of the arts is no different than the kings of yesteryear lavishing gold upon artists to create grandiose works in praise of nobility and kingly realms; after all, some of the world’s greatest artworks were created due to the largesse of “royal sovereigns”. But we are no longer serfs living in medieval times, or so I like to tell myself. Just because a gaggle of multi-billionaires like to imagine themselves as the Medici’s of the 21st century does not mean we have to entertain their delusions. People today aspire to democratic governance where potentates do not determine the course of society. If democracy is preferable to aristocracy in political affairs, then why should art and cultural policy be determined by a new financial aristocracy?

OCCUPY SOTHEBY’S

Occupy Wall Street protesters held a boisterous demonstration in front of Sotheby’s New York headquarters on the evening of Nov. 9, 2011 as the auction house conducted its biggest sale of contemporary art in three years. More than 100 protesters chanting “Art for the masses, not the ruling classes!” and “They say cut back, we say fight back”, confronted well-to-do art collectors as they disembarked from their limousines. Escorted into the auction house by New York City policemen and Sotheby’s security staff, the wealthy clients participated in frenzied bidding that fetched the auction house $315.8 million.

In its coverage of the demonstration Businessweek quoted Richard Feigen, a New York art dealer who attended the Sotheby’s auction, “It demonstrates the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. You see people demonstrating out there, people are out of jobs and their houses. And people in here are dumping millions into art.”

The protest was organized by Occupy Wall Street activists and forty three union art handlers employed by Sotheby’s but locked out by the auction house since July 29, 2011 over a labor contract dispute. Sotheby’s is demanding the replacement of several of its skilled full-time handlers with temporary non-union workers who will work shortened 36-hour work weeks without benefits. The company also insists that worker’s give up their 401k plan. When contract negotiations stalled, Sotheby’s locked its art handlers out. While Sotheby’s refuses to pay its art handlers a decent wage, The Art Newspaper reported on May 2011 that Sotheby’s CEO, William Ruprecht, was awarded $6 million in compensation for fiscal year 2010 (up from $2.4 million in 2009). All told, executive pay increases for Sotheby’s top five CEOs came to $15.3 million, a 125% increase from 2009. Sotheby’s profits for fiscal year 2010 were over $680 million.

As the affluent were ushered into Sotheby’s auction by the police, locked out art handlers carried aloft a huge inflatable rat and an inflatable “fat cat” strangling a worker. While Occupy Wall Street protesters chanted “Shame!”, a brass band blared in the streets as demonstrators blocked the entrance to Sotheby’s with a sit-in action; several activists chained themselves together. Police swooped in and dragged the protesters from the entrance, making 8 arrests. One of those being arrested said, “I am here because Sotheby’s is the 1%, their CEO makes sixty thousand dollars a day, but apparently they can’t keep their union workers employed.”

At the auction a quartet of abstract paintings by the now deceased American painter, Clyfford Still (1933-1980), went for $114 million, twice their asking price. One of Still’s abstract canvases, 1949-A-No. 1, sold for $61.6 million. In the mid-1930s Still painted figurative realist works influenced by the American Scene school, but by the late 1940s he turned to abstract expressionism. Describing his having embraced abstraction, he once said; “Our age, it is of science, of mechanism, of power and death. I see no virtue in adding to its mammoth arrogance the compliment of graphic homage.” By the 1950s Still was disillusioned with the art world, severing ties with galleries and even turning down an invitation to exhibit works at the 1957 Venice Biennale. He continued to make art until his death, but sold little and exhibited even less.

One can only imagine what Still would say about his paintings selling for tens of millions at Sotheby’s during the most severe economic crisis in the U.S. since the Great Depression.

The Alternates Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street is a song composed and performed by Spencer Livingston, lead singer and guitarist for The Alternates, a Los Angeles rock band I happen to be a fan of. The compelling video for the song was created by Jake Craven, the piano, organ, and trombone player for the band. In order to support the growing national and international Occupy movement, The Alternates have decided to offer free downloads of their Occupy Wall Street song; you can download your copy at - www.thealternatesband.com

Trends in the Distribution of Household Income, a report released on October 25, 2011 by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found that the average after-tax income of the nation’s top 1 percent swelled by 275 percent between 1979 and 2007. In the same time frame the income of the country’s poorest 20 percent grew by a mere 18 percent. According the CBO’s research, conducted for senior Republican and Democratic members on the Senator Finance Committee, “The share of income going to higher-income households rose, while the share going to lower-income households fell. The top fifth of the population saw a 10-percentage-point increase in their share of after-tax income; most of that growth went to the top 1 percent of the population; all other groups saw their shares decline by 2 to 3 percentage points.” It should be remembered that on Dec. 17, 2010, President Obama signed an $858 billion tax cut bill that extended the Bush-era tax cuts for the nation’s top income bracket.

On Oct. 26, 2011, the Democratic mayor of Oakland, Jean Quan, gave orders to the Oakland Police Department and 15 other law enforcement agencies to clear the Occupy Oakland protest at the Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland. Interestingly enough, it is the U.K. Guardian that has provided the most extensive coverage of the crackdown against the Oakland protesters. Over 500 riot police used truncheons, rubber bullets, tear gas canisters, and bean bag rounds fired from shot guns to clear and hold the plaza. In the melee police shot a Marine Corps veteran of the Iraq war in the head with a projectile, knocking him unconscious, then tossed a flash bang grenade into the crowd of protesters who attempted to help the critically injured man. Scott Olsen, who had twice been deployed to Iraq and had joined Occupy Oakland as a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, was eventually rescued by protesters and rushed to a Hospital, where doctors treated him for skull fracture and swelling of the brain.

“Occupy Wall Street, we are fighting for our lives.
Occupy this country, let’s make it right.” - The Alternates