Category: Art Activism

The So-Called Torture Report

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“We don’t torture, we’re a civilized nation

We’re avoiding any confrontation

We don’t torture, we don’t torture.”

Ten Year Anniversary of AFC Blog

Artist Mark Vallen at an undisclosed secret locale somewhere in greater Los Angeles, 2014. Photo by Jeannine Thorpe.

Artist Mark Vallen at an undisclosed secret locale somewhere in greater Los Angeles, 2014. Photo by Jeannine Thorpe.

¡Ay, Caramba! Today marks the 10th anniversary of my founding the Art For A Change web log.

This labor of love was brought into existence on November 27, 2004. In prior years, I wrote articles that appeared on my website and e-newsletter, but in 2004 I made the change to the blogging platform due to its immediacy.

As a lifelong realist painter, printmaker, and draftsman, I felt compelled to write about the visual arts, not just for other artists, but for those with little engagement in art. Being an artist was not enough, it was also necessary to be an advocate for art.

But what kind of art? As the name of this site suggests, one of my concerns is that we remember how to summon art as a means of authentic progress, community, human solidarity, and social transformation. Once integral facets of art, those ideals have been severely weakened as the art world continues its fall into commodification and hyper-commercialism. So it was also necessary for this web log to take an activist stance.

There is another meaning to the title, Art For A Change. After surveying the paucity, artlessness, and detachment of today’s official art world, the name proclaims that art will have to be found elsewhere. It will rise from the ground up, outside of officialdom - it lives here.

The first post I made to this web log was a quote from the American photojournalist Dorothea Lange. Celebrated for documenting life in the U.S. during the Great Depression, Lange said:

“Everything is propaganda for what you believe in actually. I don’t see that it could be otherwise. The harder and the more deeply you believe in anything, the more in a sense you’re a propagandist. Conviction, propaganda, faith, I don’t know, I have never been able to come to the conclusion that that’s a bad word.”

While this web log focuses on the visual arts, over the years I have made mention of dramatists, photographers, writers, and others who share my philosophy regarding art. Though I have not mentioned her before in my writings, one such person is the American author Ursula Le Guin. In a speech given by Ms. Le Guin at the National Book Awards as she received the 2014 Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, the 85-year old author described the world of publishing in much the same way as I describe the art world;

“I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries, the realists of a larger reality.

Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.

Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art - the art of words.”

The Art For A Change web log shall continue to be a voice for those artists “who can remember freedom,” and a wellspring where “resistance and change” begins in art. In the future, you can expect from this blog a number of exciting projects designed to undermine the divine right of kings, both in the art world and otherwise.

Barefoot Gen & the Shadow Project

August 6, 2014 marks the 69th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On Aug. 6, 1945 the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, killing an estimated 140,000 people in the blink of an eye. Three days later, Aug. 9, 1945, the U.S. obliterated the Japanese port city of Nagasaki with another atomic bomb, killing an estimated 70,000.

Flyer for the U.S. premiere of the animated film "Hadashi no Gen." Anonymous artist. 1985. Collection of Mark Vallen.

Flyer for the U.S. premiere of the animated film "Hadashi no Gen." Anonymous artist. 1985. Collection of Mark Vallen.

In 1985 I marked the 40th anniversary of the atomic bombings by attending an extraordinary August 4th event at the Buddhist Higashi Hongwanji Temple in the historic Little Tokyo district of Los Angeles. Asian Americans for Nuclear Disarmament, East Wind magazine, and the Los Angeles Buddhist Church Federation had organized the U.S. premiere screening of the 1983 animated film Hadashi no Gen (Barefoot Gen). Based on the biographical manga by artist Keiji Nakazawa, the animated film tells the story of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima as seen through the eyes of a six-year old boy named Gen. A multicultural crowd of over 100 people gathered at the L.A. Buddhist Temple to view the English subtitled film. You can view a clip of Hadashi no Gen here.

International Shadow Project 1985 - Stencil silhouette on the streets of Edmonton, Canada, August 6, 1985. Photographer unknown. Over 500 outlines of nuclear holocaust victims were painted on the sidewalks of Edmonton.

International Shadow Project - Stencil silhouette on the streets of Edmonton, Canada, August 6, 1985. Photographer unknown. Over 500 outlines of nuclear holocaust victims were painted on the sidewalks of Edmonton.

On the actual 40th anniversary date of August 6, 1985, Americans from coast to coast woke up to find that the streets and sidewalks of their cities had been painted with the eerie ash-white silhouettes of men, women, and children. The political street art had been organized by a mostly anonymous coalition of artists calling themselves the “International Shadow Project 1985.” The outlines symbolized those vaporized Japanese whose shadows were burned into stone by the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Shadow Project organizers called on dissident artists to only use water-soluble paint when creating the outlines. With buckets of whitewash and stencils cut into life-sized human shapes, some 100 artists and activists in Los Angeles worked before sunrise to furtively paint more than 1,200 silhouettes all across L.A., it was especially poignant to see the shadows painted on the sidewalks of the city’s Little Tokyo district. From New York to Oregon, thousands of artists painted the silhouettes on sidewalks; nationally, 104 people were arrested for painting the ghostly outlines in public places. Shadow Project actions took place in 250 communities worldwide.

Ugly tensions are mounting as the 69th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombings are observed. From Ukraine to Gaza the smells of explosives and burned flesh are in the air as the entire world lurches towards war. According to the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, by 2018 President Obama will have spent $179 billion on maintaining the U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons - and the costs are likely to grow. In the present day it is difficult to find any evidence that the International Shadow Project ever existed. Today’s artists are overwhelmingly quiescent, and the only “shadows” to speak of belong to the rapidly disappearing “peace movement.”

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Sources used in this article:

United Press International - Aug. 7, 1985 “Shadows drawn on Bay Area streets.
L.A. Times. Aug. 7, 1985 “3,000 in L.A. Protest Threat of Nuclear War.
Edmonton Journal. Aug. 6, 1985 “Streets bear grim plea for peace.

BP’s Oily 25th Anniversary

During a protest at London's 2014 BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery, an anonymous artist, her face splattered with oil, stands before a portrait of Margaret Thatcher. Photo by Jen Wilton/Art Not Oil.

During a protest at London's 2014 BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery, an anonymous artist, her face splattered with oil, stands before a portrait of Margaret Thatcher. Photo by Jen Wilton/Art Not Oil.

I am one of 205 signatories to a letter published in The Guardian that asks the National Portrait Gallery of London, England to end BP funding of its esteemed annual competition and prize, the so-called BP Portrait Award. Published on June 24, 2014 the letter was timed to coincide with the museum “celebrating” 25 years of BP sponsorship.

The National Portrait Gallery’s BP Portrait Award of 2014 is an international competition. This year’s 2,377 entries came from 71 countries, including the United States. The event is also a major “Greenwashing” public relations campaign by one of the world’s leading polluters. Based upon my relentless criticism of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) for accepting BP funding since 2007, the Art Not Oil coalition of the United Kingdom asked that I sign their protest letter. The letter read in part:

“As arts practitioners and those working in arts institutions, we feel that the time is right for the cultural sector to be discussing alternatives to income gained from oil sponsorship in the same way that discussions about ending tobacco sponsorship took place more than two decades ago. Figures such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu have called for an apartheid-style boycott of fossil fuel companies, explicitly mentioning cultural institutions. Art shouldn’t be used to legitimize the companies that are profiting from the destruction of a safe and habitable climate.”

Also commiserating the 25th anniversary of BP sponsoring the National Portrait Gallery is the U.K. arts activist organization, Platform (a member of the Art Not Oil coalition). Platform released a report titled: Picture This - A Portrait of 25 years of BP Sponsorship. The report details “25 of BP’s major environmental catastrophes,” one for each year that BP sponsored the National Portrait Gallery Portrait Award since 1989.

The Platform report, which can be read online or downloaded as a printable .pdf document, opens with the statement, “How bad does a company have to be before an arts organization refuses to be associated with it or takes its money?” This is a question for Angelenos as much as it is for Londoners. The report also includes Picturing the Future, an article by painter Raoul Martinez, a former participant in the BP Portrait Awards. Martinez makes his case for rejecting oil company sponsorship of the arts, stating that “We can no longer allow the celebration of human creativity to provide cover for environmental destruction.”

Screen shot of an anonymous activist from the Art Not Oil anti-BP performance at the National Portrait Gallery, June 21, 2014. Image courtesy of Clear Blue Films/Art Not Oil.

Screen shot of an anonymous activist from the Art Not Oil anti-BP performance at the National Portrait Gallery, June 21, 2014. Image courtesy of Clear Blue Films/Art Not Oil.

In the run-up to the 25th anniversary of the BP Portrait Award of 2014, dozens of art activists from the Art Not Oil coalition staged a June 21, 2014 silent performance inside the National Portrait Gallery that they called, 25 Portraits In Oil.

Gathering in the gallery and wearing white, 25 performers simultaneously poured what appeared to be oil on their faces. These individuals then scattered throughout the museum, taking up positions to mutely stand before various portrait paintings in the collection. A short video documenting the 25 Portraits In Oil intervention at the National Portrait Gallery can be viewed here.

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"25 Portraits In Oil" - Art Not Oil coalition, 2014

Another good example of arts activism would be the brilliant Reclaim Shakespeare Company, formed in response to BP’s sponsorship of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2012. The “Guerilla Shakespeare” troupe’s website cleverly alters the Bard’s famous Hamlet line into the slogan “BP or not BP.” They perform public art interventions in Shakespearian style at venues and events funded by the oil giant. Most recently they have criticized the BP sponsored exhibit Vikings, life and legend, held at the British Museum. The Reclaim Shakespeare Company not only invaded the museum to hold an anti-BP performance replete with Vikings brandishing BP logo emblazoned shields, they lampooned the official British Museum promotional video for the Vikings exhibit with their own parody video, BP Vikings - Pillaging the planet.

The artists and activists of the U.K. are to be commended for their creative and non-violent opposition to oil-industry sponsorship of the arts. But there is much work to do, especially here in “liberal” L.A., where not a single protest against BP sponsorship of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has occurred since that oleaginous relationship was established in 2007.

In my writings on the subject I have attempted to link BP’s sponsorship of LACMA, not just with environmental destruction, but with the wider topics of military adventures and imperialism (Iraq, Libya, etc); examinations of the debilitating supremacy corporate power exercises over the arts and democratic institutions, and the interlocking systemic nature of the crisis. These are just some of the questions that must be confronted if we are to succeed in righting the art world.

The Reclaim Shakespeare Company, zeroing in on BP as a company that devours the earth and gorges on its resources, reminds us all of the pertinent words of the Fool from Shakespeare’s tragic King Lear - “He’s mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf.