Category: Art of War

LBJ, Obama & Afghanistan

On December 1, 2009, in an address to the nation delivered from the United States Military Academy at West Point, President Obama announced the sending of an additional 30,000 U.S. combat troops to Afghanistan in order to wage what he calls a “war of necessity.”

 Vietnam: An Eastern Theatre Production. – David Nordahl. 1968. Offset poster. 28 ½ x 22 5/8. Poster image supplied by the Center for the Study of Political Graphics (CSPG).

"Vietnam: An Eastern Theatre Production" – David Nordahl. 1968. Offset poster. One of fifteen posters included in the "Hey, Hey, LBJ..." essay. Poster supplied by the Center for the Study of Political Graphics (CSPG).

To mark the occasion I have written, “Hey, Hey, LBJ…”, an illustrated essay on the subject of U.S. protest posters from the 1960s that lambasted that other liberal Democratic President who supposedly possessed a progressive domestic social agenda - Lyndon Baines Johnson, or L.B.J. (1963-1969).

L.B.J.’s assumed intentions of wanting to implement wide-ranging social reforms in the U.S. were thwarted by his ever increasing military escalation of an unpopular war in Vietnam. President Obama has similarly opened a Pandora’s box with his sharp military escalation in Afghanistan; and while the “Hey, Hey, LBJ…” presentation examines 15 historic posters from our collective past, it also offers the reader glimpses of what the future could possibly hold for us all.

The 15 posters I have written about in my essay disparaged L.B.J.’s foreign and domestic policies with wry humor, sardonic wit, and pointed outrage. What’s more, the prints were exceptional from a design standpoint, and they continue to stand as important political and cultural documents in American history. Despite their historic value and obvious political and aesthetic significance, few of the posters I present in my essay are to be found in online collections, even though they were widely distributed and known in the 1960s. Most of the posters featured in my essay have not been seen since they were first published.

With his December 1 troop deployment announcement, President Obama has fully completed his metamorphosis into L.B.J. Less than one year after his inauguration, Mr. Obama’s promises of delivering “Hope” and “Change” have ended up being battlefield fatalities on the arid plains of Afghanistan. Rather than delivering his diktat of escalating war from the Oval Office of the White House, Mr. Obama revealed his war plans at the same service academy used in 2002 by George W. Bush when the former president explained his Orwellian “Preventative War” doctrine. West Point afforded Mr. Obama the opportunity of presenting his military strategy for Afghanistan against a backdrop of soldiers and Academy cadets – a setting conveying resolute leadership from the nation’s Commander in Chief. How ironic that Obama will next travel to Oslo, Norway to accept the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10.

Obama administration officials have calculated that the Afghan war will cost $1 trillion over the next 10 years – a figure most likely underestimated. The Pentagon says that annually it spends $1 billion for every 1,000 soldiers in Afghanistan; and that by the time it delivers a single gallon of fuel to the landlocked country for use by U.S. soldiers, the cost has skyrocketed to $400 per gallon. As the U.S. economy teeters, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the unemployment rate reached 10.2 percent in November ‘09 – that’s 15.7 million Americans without work; the New York Times noted, “If the unemployed lived in one state, it would be the country’s fifth largest.” Just prior to his West Point troop deployment announcement, President Obama boasted that he would “finish the job” in Afghanistan; if the “job” in question is to drive the U.S. further into economic collapse, then Mr. Obama may well achieve his goal.

To help finance the unpopular war in Vietnam, L.B.J. imposed a 10-percent surtax on the American people. Not to be outdone, a number of powerful Congressional Democrats are today hoping to pass the “Share the Sacrifice Act”, a surtax to be forced upon all U.S. citizens in order to help pay for Obama’s war in Afghanistan. The bill would place a 1-percent surtax on all those who earn less than $150,000, with up to 5-percent imposed on those with higher incomes.

The particulars of Obama’s odious decisions should not hinder our optimism and authentic struggle for the democratization and transformation of society. Such a project should never be reliant upon a single politician or individual – the people in motion are the true engine of history.  The publication of “Hey, Hey, LBJ…” is but a small contribution towards wiping away debilitating historical amnesia and political illusions, allowing us to thoughtfully plot a course of action for building a society where words like “Hope” and “Change” are not slogans from some clever marketing and branding campaign – but expressions of a mass democratic impulse fully implemented by a free people.

The complete “Hey, Hey, LBJ…” illustrated essay can be viewed at:

[ The Docs Populi archive and the Center for the Study of Political Graphics (CSPG) were kind enough to give me access to their archives, allowing me to select original posters from their incomparable collections as illustrations for my essay. The opinions expressed in the essay are my own and should not be attributed to either Docs Populi or CSPG. ]

Obama: 365 & Counting

I will be exhibiting at 365 & Counting, a group exhibit that examines the 1st year of the Obama Administration. Avenue 50 Studio in the Highland Park district of Los Angeles asked 15 artists to create artworks that provide insight into the president’s first year, and issues of race, class, war, health care, the environment and the economy, plus other global challenges - are explored in the timely exhibition.

Bagram Prison, Afghanistan - Mark Vallen. 2009. Oil on linen.  On display at Ave. 50 Studio from Nov. 14 - Dec. 6, 2009.

"Bagram Prison, Afghanistan" - Mark Vallen. 2009. Oil on linen. On display at Ave. 50 Studio from Nov. 14 - Dec. 6, 2009.

Given the escalating war in Afghanistan, I painted a glimpse of the notorious military prison located in the U.S. Airbase at Bagram, Afghanistan.

The prison currently holds more than 600 detainees designated as “unlawful enemy combatants”; individuals that in some cases have been tortured and held for years without charge, legal representation, or due-process rights.

In February of 2009, the Obama administration began a $60 million expansion of the Bagram prison so that it could potentially hold as many as 1,100 suspects. As the Associated Press reported on November 1, 2009, as President Obama escalates the war in Afghanistan the U.S. Airbase at Bagram is being expanded even though it presently occupies over 5,000 acres and from a distance looks “more like a medium-size city than a military facility in a war zone.”

The 365 & Counting exhibition will be on view from November 14 to December 6, 2009. The exhibit also includes artists Alex Alferov, Yrneh Brown, Nancy Buchanan, Chukes, Carol Colin, Kathi Flood, Graham Goddard, Miguel Angel Murillo, CCH Pounder, Suzanne Siegel, Joseph Sims, Charles Swenson, Richard Turner, and Ted Waltz.

The Artist’s Reception for 365 & Counting takes place on Saturday, November 14, 2009, from 7 to 10 p.m. Avenue 50 Studio is located at; 131 N. Avenue 50, Highland Park, California, 90042 (map & directions). Phone: 323: 258-1435.

Tom Lea & the Art of War

While on a visit to my local library as a nine-year-old in 1962, I randomly pulled a dog-eared picture book about the Second World War from a shelf, retreating to an isolated table to thumb through the digest in solitude. Flipping through the book’s tattered pages I received an unexpected surprise I would never forget. I had come to a full-page color reproduction of a painting portraying a horrifically wounded U.S. Marine, and I literally froze in disbelief, staring incredulously at the appalling image. The artwork depicted a gravely wounded soldier, still standing, but with half of his face blown away and his entire left arm reduced to a bloody pulp. All of my juvenile notions regarding war evaporated while gazing at that single image. I left the library shaken to my core.

It is difficult to describe how that painting unsettled me. The assassination of John F. Kennedy was still a year away and the horror of Vietnam had yet to creep into the American psyche. I had seen the shocking imagery of Francisco de Goya’s Disasters of War series, as my parents had a well stocked home library of art books, but Goya’s images were from a distant and shadowy past that I could not fathom. My experience in the library was something else altogether, the dreadful image of that bloody soldier was rendered in full color and it depicted fairly recent history. Despite the passage of time my memory of that painting never faded, though the work became lost to me in another way. As an adolescent it never dawned on me to write down the name of the artist and the painting, or the title of the book I had found the image in, so decades later those facts remained a mystery to me, that is - until just recently.

Last June I visited the Brand Library in Glendale, California, which has an enormous collection of books exclusively dedicated to the subjects of art and music. Meandering through the aisles my eyes suddenly caught the title of a large format book, The Art of War. I plucked it from its shelf and took it to a quite table where I could examine its contents at my leisure. I randomly opened the book towards its middle section and was astonished to see the very painting I had discovered forty-seven years ago as a boy; I had found it in a recently published book, but it was the same painting.

"The Price" - Tom Lea. Oil on canvas. 1944.

"The Price" - Tom Lea. Oil on canvas. 1944.

The artwork in question was painted by Tom Lea and titled, The Price. The artist created it while employed by LIFE magazine as a war artist in the Pacific Theater of war. Lea was attached to a Marine unit that assaulted the Japanese held island of Peleliu, and he was trained and equipped like every other Marine, except that he went into battle armed with a sketch pad and pens as his primary weapons. Lea had actually witnessed the soldier’s death during the bloody landing, and he sketched the soldier’s agony as it occurred. Back in the studio Lea transformed his black and white pen sketch into an unforgettable oil painting, which is now a permanent part of the U.S. Army Art Collection. In the battle for Peleiu, the U.S. Marines suffered 1,121 killed in action, with over 6,000 casualties. All 10,000 Japanese soldiers holding the island were killed. Reporting for LIFE magazine on the story of the invasion, Lea would write of the brutal landing:

“I fell flat on my face just as I heard the whishhh of a mortar I knew was too close. A red flash stabbed at my eyeballs. About fifteen yards away, on the upper edge of the beach, it smashed down four men from our boat. One figure seemed to fly to pieces. With terrible clarity I saw the head and one leg sail into the air.

I got up… ran a few steps, and fell into a small hole as another mortar burst threw dirt on me. Lying there in terror looking longingly up the slope for better cover, I saw a wounded man near me, staggering in the direction of the LVTs (Landing Vehicle - Tracked). His face was half bloody pulp and the mangled shreds of what was left of an arm hung down like a stick, as he bent over in his stumbling, shock-crazy walk. The half of his face that was still human had the most terrifying look of abject patience I have ever seen. He fell behind me, in a red puddle on the white sand.

It was established later that the invasion of Peleliu as a stepping stone to the invasion of the Philippines had not been necessary - Gen. MacArthur had already bypassed the Palaus and landed at Leyte in the Philippines.”

In retrospect I have come to understand how Lea’s painting of that mortally wounded soldier influenced my own work as an artist. Lea’s painting was a successful attempt at encapsulating the unvarnished truth. Obviously The Price was not a pretty picture, but its journalistic approach effectively captured an unpleasant reality that was necessary for people to confront. That same journalistic methodology became integral to my aesthetic viewpoint.

Lea’s painting could be interpreted as war propaganda, but it is an odd style of state propaganda that depicts the terror, futility, and brutality of war. Lea was not alone in painting or sketching images that were bone-chillingly frank and uncompromising in the portrayal of war. The U.S. military employed over 100 soldier and civilian artists to record the events of World War II, and much of their output was extraordinary.

Field sketch for the painting for Tom Lea's painting.

Field sketch for Tom Lea's painting.

They Drew Fire, the PBS gallery of artworks created by combat artists of World War II, gives ample evidence of this blunt forthrightness. It is instructive to review the entire portfolio. Tom Craig’s Bone Pile at Cassino, George Biddle’s Dead Civilians, Howard Brodie’s Execution, Richard Gibney’s The Last Full Measure, and Kerr Eby’s Helping Wounded Man, are just some of the artworks created by U.S. military artists that revealed the true face of war. That this type of imagery was at the time published in LIFE Magazine and other publications with official sanction begs the question – why do we not see equivalent artworks from today’s wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq?

The U.S. Armed Forces still employ soldier-artists, and today a number of them have been assigned the task of interpreting war experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. Army Center of Military History maintains a website titled, Army Artists Look At The War On Terrorism, and the dissimilarity between the art produced by soldier-artists of the 1940’s and those now deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan could hardly be more pronounced. The first apparent difference is artistic quality. The soldier-artists from the 40s were distinctive draftsmen well versed in composition, color theory, perspective, and the like; present day combat artists suffer from a lack of such proficiency while displaying a slavish over-reliance upon photography.

More importantly, today’s soldier-artists seem unable or unwilling to create works filled with the pathos, tragedy, and simple candor routinely delivered by their compatriots in the 40s. Artists working for the U.S. Armed Forces during the Second World War depicted civilians and soldiers suffering from wounds, madness, and death, as well as portraying shattered cities and devastated landscapes. While there were also a great number of images showing glory and heroism, these were generally accomplished with no small degree of honesty.

“War is Hell,” so it is said, and no one knows this better than a soldier. But in Army Artists Look At The War On Terrorism, there are no paintings of horrifically wounded U.S. soldiers nor are there bloody field hospitals, there are no watercolors of U.S. troops with that shell-shocked look about them, no drawings of dead civilians or towns reduced to rubble – no suicide truck bombers, improvised explosive devices (IED), or U.S. drone missile attacks. The “big picture” has been reduced to a narrow peep hole, where only gallant and brave U.S. soldiers can be viewed.

At present some 10,000 U.S. Marines are fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan’s Helmand province in an operation dubbed “Strike of the Sword.” At the time of this writing, 26 U.S. soldiers have died in the campaign – so far. British soldiers are also fighting in Helmand, with 15 of them having been killed since the beginning of this month, eight in one day of fighting last Friday. It is not known just how many Afghanis have been killed but casualties are likely to be in the hundreds. Suffice it to say, President Obama’s Afghan war, or “Overseas Contingency Operation” as he puts it, will not likely employ an artist like Tom Lea to create anything approaching the profundity of The Price.

– // –

For more works by Mr. Lea, visit the Tom Lea Institute website

Incidentally, the book in which I recently rediscovered Tom Lea’s The Price, is titled Art of War: Eyewitness U.S. Combat Art from the Revolution through the Twentieth Century, by Col. H. Avery Chenoweth, USMCR (Ret.)

Archaeology Awareness Playing Cards

During the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Pentagon released to American troops a wanted list of Iraqi leaders that came in the form of a deck of cards. The playing cards featured photos and information about various government henchmen, and were designed to help U.S. troops identify and capture members of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Now, four years after the war began, the Pentagon has finally published a new set of cards - the Archaeology Awareness deck of playing cards. When the war began and American G.I.’s were hunting down members of the hated Baathist regime, the media made a great deal over the “Most Wanted” cards, but it’s not likely they’ll report much about the latest playing cards, for two important reasons; the Archaeology Awareness cards are about art, and it doesn’t exactly sound very gallant or heroic to have to council troops not to go about destroying a nation’s archaeological treasures.

Pentagon Archaeology Awareness playing card

[ "The DoD needs your help in protecting cultural heritage resources." - Archaeology Awareness playing card. U.S. Department of Defense. 2007. ]

Back in February of 2005, I wrote an article titled Mesopotamia Endangered, detailing a damning report made by the British Museum of London regarding the widespread destruction of Iraq’s archeological sites by U.S. troops - so I have to say, at first I thought the Pentagon’s Archaeology Awareness cards seemed a classic case of “too little, too late” - especially when surveying the enormous war damage already done to Iraq’s historic sites. But then I read a news story about the new deck of cards in The Telegraph, and realized that the Archaeology Awareness campaign represents a long term operation. The Telegraph reported: “Archaeologists working at Ford Drum, New York, where troops are trained for deployment in Iraq, hope soldiers will know what to avoid when it comes to bivouacking or setting up gun installations.”

Yes, the Pentagon is now employing archaeologists to instruct troops on their way to Iraq on how to avoid damaging that country’s precious archaeological sites. The new deck of cards are part of that training, with each playing card depicting a different archaeological site or antiquity, along with tips on how to preserve them. The seven of clubs card pictures the Ctesiphon Arch in Iraq with the caption, “This site has survived 17 centuries. Will it and others survive you?” The two of clubs card pictures the Nabi Yunis Mosque in Mosul, along with the caption, “Ancient Iraqi heritage is part of your heritage. Old stories say that Jonah of the bible was buried in this hill.”

Pentagon Archaeology Awareness playing card

[ "Respect ruins whenever possible. They protect you and your cultural history. (Ancient minaret at Samarra, Iraq.)" - Archaeology Awareness playing card. U.S. Department of Defense. 2007. ]

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when thinking of young American soldiers learning about Iraq’s cultural treasures by way of a deck of playing cards. I suppose in the long run it’s a good policy, but maybe that’s what bothers me most, that it represents something unending - and there are many signals the U.S. intends to be in Iraq for a long time to come.

Of course, Iraq possesses the third largest oil fields in the world and the Bush administration is pushing for an Iraqi oil revenue-sharing law giving U.S. companies the lion’s share of profits. Major players in the Bush administration have been referring to a Korea model for Iraq’s future, alluding to the tens of thousands of U.S troops still stationed in South Korea 54 years after the end of the Korean war. In remarks made on June 18th, 2007, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General Petraeus, said it may take “at least ten years” to defeat Iraqi guerrillas. And then there’s that new Vatican sized U.S. Embassy being constructed in Baghdad at a cost of $592 million, a gigantic sprawl covering the equivalent of 80 football fields. If I were a gambling man, I would bet that the dealer in the White House and his high stakes game in Iraq will all go bust - and I won’t need a new deck of cards to win that wager.

Jasper Johns: Target with Body Parts

I find an odd prescience in the “Target” paintings of Jasper Johns. While some gush madly over his works and others are simply indifferent - there is another story to relate, an untold chronicle that details the corporatization of American culture and the dumping of recent history “down the memory hole.”

 "Target with Four Faces" - Jasper Johns 1955. Encaustic on newspaper over canvas. Surmounted by four plaster faces in a wooden box. From out of the mists of pure abstraction, Johns presented this image to the world.

"Target with Four Faces" - Jasper Johns 1955. Encaustic on newspaper over canvas. Surmounted by four plaster faces in a wooden box.

Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting, 1955-1965, is a retrospective of Johns’s artworks running at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. from January 28 to April 29, 2007.

The exhibit displays approximately 80 artworks, including paintings, drawings and prints. While Johns’s works facilitated the rise of pop, minimalism, conceptualism, and other genres found in postmodernism, that’s not what I want to address in this article.

Fifteen of Johns’s Target paintings are on view at the National Gallery, and arts writer for the New York Times, Holland Cotter, says they look “every bit as radical and mysterious as they surely did in New York in the 1950s, when, simply by existing, they closed the door on one kind of art, Abstract Expressionism, and opened a door on many, many others.”

Eerily titled Bull’s-Eyes and Body Parts, Cotter’s review touches upon more than a few sensitive issues:

“Art and crass are all but inseparable. So it’s no surprise to find an exhibition that brings together a record number of Jasper Johns’s famous target paintings being bankrolled by Target. You pass the corporate bull’s-eye logo, small but vivid, on a wall on your way into ‘Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting, 1955-1965‘ here at the National Gallery of Art. Mr. Johns’s targets, endlessly reproduced in the half century since he painted the earliest of them, have themselves become a form of advertising, a logo for American postwar art. Through sheer omnipresence they’ve become nearly invisible. What could change that now?”

It’s not a happy accident that the first image seen at the Jasper Johns show is a corporate logo that echoes the artist’s most celebrated series of paintings - blurring the distinction between advertising and fine art. No doubt the Target corporation is taking advantage of, and contributing to, the commercialization of culture. It should be remembered that the business practices of the Target corporation have attracted criticism, including its providing poor working conditions for American workers and using suppliers with links to foreign sweatshops. The company does not pay a living wage and of the over 1,400 Target stores in the U.S., not a single one has a union.

"Target" - Anonymous Xerox flyer 1999. Distributed internationally at "Stop the Bombing of Yugoslavia" peace demonstrations. The image was initially created by Serbian art students, who distributed the symbol world-wide by way of the internet.

"Target" - Anonymous Xerox flyer 1999. Distributed internationally at "Stop the Bombing of Yugoslavia" peace demonstrations. The image was initially created by Serbian art students, who distributed the symbol world-wide by way of the internet.

Target is not only the official sponsor behind the Johns exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, it also sponsors the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, New York, underwriting MoMA’s “Target Free Friday Nights” - which provides free admission to the museum on Fridays after 4 p.m. Target also backs a similar program at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art called “Free after Five,” providing free admission to the museum throughout the week.

But it’s not my opposition to encroaching corporate control over the arts that drove me to write this article, it was the title of Holland Cotter’s review, Bull’s-Eyes and Body Parts, that triggered my response.

Whatever meaning that tiptoed behind Johns’s evocative targets in the past has since been superceded by unhappy real world events in the present - dealings that have much to do with actual targets and body parts.

For me, Johns’s paintings have become the phantom face of modern warfare - a wraithlike stand-in for a reality too horrific to cast one’s gaze upon. I had this epiphany regarding the works of Johns during the 1999 Kosovo/Serbia war - but it’s a certainty Cotter wasn’t thinking about that or any other war when he came up with his art review’s clever title.

My story brings to light a brilliant graphic symbol created and used in opposition to war, but it’s also a cautionary anecdote - as our collective amnesia has all but erased the compelling and historic symbol from memory. Voluminous studies exist that analyze the 1999 Kosovo war and attempt to sort out the politics behind it, but presenting such investigation here is beyond the purpose of this web log, suffice it to say - I was against the war. Nevertheless, I’m astonished and dismayed that a recent conflict of such magnitude could be so easily forgotten, which is what motivated me to write this dispatch.

First - just a fragment of background for context. The U.S. says it led the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in order to force the late leader Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw Serbian troops from the province of Kosovo, where thousands had been killed in a counter-insurgency war with separatist Albanian guerillas. Starting on March 24th 1999, NATO attacked Yugoslavia, carrying out 38,000 air strikes on the Balkan nation - roughly 700 sorties a day for 78 days.

The U.S. was the dominant force in the NATO coalition, and it carried out most of the attacks. Around 20,000 so-called “smart bombs” were used - including dozens of cruise missiles and thousands of cluster bombs, which resulted in some 2,000 civilian casualties.

"Target?" - From an exhibit of 1999 Serbia/Kosovo war photos taken by German photographers Anneliese Fikent and Andreas Neumann. Thousands of defiant Belgrade citizens wore the antiwar target symbol as they gathered on Serbia’s historic bridges spanning the Danube River - all in an effort to save the structures from NATO bombardment. Fifty-five bridges were destroyed by NATO missiles and bombs.

"Target?" - From an exhibit of 1999 Serbia/Kosovo war photos taken by German photographers Anneliese Fikent and Andreas Neumann. Thousands of defiant Belgrade citizens wore the antiwar target symbol as they gathered on Serbia’s historic bridges spanning the Danube River - all in an effort to save the structures from NATO bombardment. Fifty-five bridges were destroyed by NATO missiles and bombs.

Even as the bombs and missiles rained upon Yugoslavia, President Clinton responded to the April 22, 1999 murders of 13 students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, by saying “We must do more to reach out to our children and teach them to express their anger and resolve their conflicts with words, not weapons.”

The very next day American cruise missiles slammed into the headquarters of RTS (Serbian state television and radio) in Belgrade (Beograd), the capital of Serbia - killing 16 journalists and technicians and maiming 16 others. Days later the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade would be hit by American cruise missiles, killing three embassy staff and injuring 20.

The Kosovo conflict became the first web war, with all sides disseminating information and propaganda through e-mails and web sites. Serbian artists created and “digitally smuggled” antiwar artworks out of Yugoslavia - one such design being the target graphic.

I remember that it was a group of Serbian art students who were responsible for designing the antiwar symbol, but I haven’t the faintest recollection of whether they were living in the U.S. or in Belgrade at the time. For now I’ll just say that an anonymous Serbian artist created the icon, uploaded it to the internet, and then untold thousands of people downloaded the image to print it out on home computers.

Just before the start of the NATO bombings, the civilian population of Belgrade, outraged and terrified that their historic city was about to be bombed - took to wearing xerox copies of the target symbol pinned to their clothing. My understanding is that the original black and white graphic consisted of a simple bold Bull’s-Eye, under which was printed the word, “Target.” In next to no time variants of the design appeared, one version read “NATO Target,” another carried no words, but the center of the Bull’s-Eye featured a question mark. Printed in English, the target flyers were a clear attempt to reach a non-Serbian audience, and the news media inadvertently popularized the image while covering events in Belgrade. Before long, the target symbol appeared at peace demonstrations around the globe, from Berlin and Paris to Los Angeles and Athens. Antiwar campaign buttons and bumper stickers bearing the graphic turned up everywhere.

"Targets" - Anonymous Xerox flyer 1999. Utilizing the target symbol, Serbian graphic artists came up with these whimsical but deadly serious illustrations. The images were distributed via the internet, printed and circulated internationally as flyers. I collected this flyer on the streets of Los Angeles.

"Targets" - Anonymous Xerox flyer 1999. Utilizing the target symbol, Serbian graphic artists came up with these whimsical but deadly serious illustrations. The images were distributed via the internet, I collected this flyer on the streets of Los Angeles.

The image was quickly replicated by those without computers or printers, and the icon was hand-painted and scrawled on tee-shirts, banners and placards. Soon thousands of civilians wearing or carrying target symbols gathered on the ancient bridges spanning the Danube River in a defiant effort to save the structures from NATO bombs. International television crews filmed those vigils and beamed the footage worldwide.

Once the aerial bombardment began on March 24th 1999, the crowds dispersed out of fear of being killed or injured - and fifty-five of Yugoslavia’s bridges would ultimately be destroyed by NATO bombs.

Eight years later the world has all but forgotten the brutal war over Kosovo, but every time I see one of Jasper Johns’s Target paintings, memories of that war’s savagery come rushing back - as well as anxiety over present-day belligerencies. Now that the West is embroiled in the even costlier bloodshed in Iraq, and with war on Iran looming over the horizon - it might be time to revive the antiwar target symbol.

Fatalities: Art & The Endless War

In February of 2005, I wrote about artist Donald Shambroom and his Fatalities window installation assemblage in Boston’s Watertown area. Shambroom’s statement on the human cost of war seems more pressing today than when it was first conceptualized.

On November 19th, 2005, U.S. Marines went on a revenge killing spree in the western Iraqi city of Haditha after one of their own was killed by a guerrilla roadside bomb. In retaliation, Marines burst into civilian homes in the area of the bombing, killing up to 24 unarmed civilians in what will surely become known as Iraq’s My Lai massacre. One of those shot at close range was a 76-year old amputee in a wheelchair, other victims included little girls and boys ages 14, 10, 5, 4, 3, and 1. Time magazine obtained a video tape that was filmed immediately after the killings, a video that verified eyewitness accounts of the bloody slayings. A young Marine, sent in as part of a “clean up crew” in the aftermath of the shootings, took photographs of the victims and helped to carry their bodies out of bullet pock-marked homes. Those photos helped military investigators conclude that Marines had indeed killed women, children and elderly men. Last week the Pentagon announced that some members of the Marine unit may be charged with murder, and so the story of the massacre has finally reached the mainstream news.

On May 31st, 2006, two Iraqi women were shot and killed in their car after failing to stop at an American military check point. The U.S. military said in a statement that “repeated visual and auditory warnings” were made before shots were fired at the vehicle. After the shooting stopped, it was found that the two women were driving to a maternity hospital - one of them was pregnant and about to give birth. With mounting opposition to the war as a backdrop, Mr. Bush in his divine wisdom (God does talk to him you know), quietly gave the order for the deployment of more U.S. troops to Iraq. Some 3,500 soldiers from the 1st Armored Division stationed in Kuwait are now on their way to the killing fields of Iraq’s Anbar province.

Meanwhile Donald Shambroom has launched a new website where you can see his latest antiwar sculptures, works that continue to address the effects of America’s largest national enterprise - war. Hopefully, as the dreadful occupation of Iraq goes from bad to worse, Shambroom’s example will inspire other artists to create works of art in opposition to the folly of imperial wars and overseas colonial adventures.

On the Supremacy of Faux Censorship

The censorship of two recent art exhibits in the United States points not only to widening threats against free speech, but also to a deep crisis and malaise within the art world.

As reported on Pacifica Radio’s “Democracy Now” on May 3, 2006, Brandeis University in Massachusetts closed an exhibit of Palestinian art:

“In Boston, a free speech controversy has erupted at Brandeis University over the removal of an exhibition featuring the paintings of Palestinian youths. The exhibit’s 17 paintings depicted the young artists’ perspectives on life under Israeli military occupation. But just four days into a two-week run, the exhibit was removed by Brandeis officials after several complaints from students. A university spokesperson said the school would consider re-mounting the paintings if they were to appear alongside paintings showing an Israeli perspective. The exhibition was curated by an Israeli Jewish student who said she wanted to showcase a Palestinian perspective on campus.”

Lior Halperin is a 27-year old veteran of the Israeli Defense Force, and her censored Voices from Palestine exhibit was a final project for a class called, “The Arts of Building Peace.” The works in the show were created by Palestinian youths, and those paintings depicted the painful realities of life under military occupation. The most controversial artworks on display depicted a boy with an amputated leg, a dove perched on barbed wire, and a bulldozer threatening a girl lying in a pool of blood. On May 4th, some 100 people, many of them students at Brandeis, staged a protest against the closing of the exhibit - despite this, the censorship at Brandeis has received little attention from the art world blogoshere.

Contrast this lack of interest to the explosion of outrage over the censorship of an exhibition mounted by Brooklyn College art students.

The Brooklyn Parks Commission closed an exhibit in a city-owned building after complaints from the public regarding the show’s content. Several blogs have taken up the censorship of the graduate students at Brooklyn College as a cause celeb, the New York Times wrote a major article on the suppression of the exhibit, and the students themselves have set up a web log to present their case to the world.

Some of the works on display at the War Memorial Building contained sexually explicit images, like the minimalist but confrontational watercolors of Carl Ferrero depicting graphic gay sexuality, and the sculptures of penises by Augusto Marin. Performance artist Marni Kotak recreated an elementary school classroom - replete with a live rat in a glass enclosure. According to the New York Times, the show also “included a video with sexual overtones in which women are dressed as nuns.” The War Memorial Building comes under the jurisdiction of the Brooklyn Parks Commission, which ordered the closing of the show because it was in violation of an agreement the parks commission has with the college that “all exhibits remain family friendly.”

Obviously, artists have the perfect right to create and exhibit whatever they please, but examine Carl Ferrero’s watercolors and then tell me they should be openly displayed in a public place where children can see them. The college issued a statement that it supports the student’s artistic freedoms and that the show would be moved to a campus location.

The controversy at Brooklyn Art College would really be nothing more than a tempest in a teapot if it were not for the fact that it represents what is being taught in art schools today. As one protesting student quoted by the New York Times put it, “There’s no better way to bequeath street cred to a bunch of people who are about to enter the art world than to deem their work officially avant-garde by saying it’s too risqué for the public.” I’d like to add stupid, pointless and ugly to that list of qualifications.

I’m no stranger to controversy, and I enthusiastically back artists who defy the status quo, but there IS a difference between those proclaimed to be “officially avant-garde” and an authentic avant-garde. The entire raison d’etre of an avant-garde is to attack and overthrow the establishment - but nowadays the “shock jocks” of the art world who have abandoned formal drawing and painting in favor of the conceptual ARE the establishment.

When the pattern set by elite institutions offers nothing but a race to the bottom of mediocrity, what then is the future of art? In today’s art schools you can earn a degree by pursuing the latest controversial gimmick, guaranteeing entry into the art world - and that’s a system I’m dedicated to toppling.

Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio

Article updated 5/4/2015 - As I type this my heart still aches for every soul killed or wounded, not just at the Kent State massacre, but in that great monstrosity we call the Vietnam War. Now, 45 years later on this May 5, 2015 anniversary of the Kent State killings, the U.S. is embroiled in multiple wars and racial tension is at a breaking point. Nevertheless, my desire to build a just and peaceful society remains steadfast. My original post, written in 2006, follows:

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I’ll never forget hearing the news that National Guardsmen shot 13 students at Kent State University, killing four - Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, Bill Schroeder, and Sandy Scheuer. I was only 17 on that fateful day thirty-six years ago, but I had gone out on strike with fellow high school students over President Nixon’s illegal invasion of Cambodia, an incursion that set off huge demonstrations all across the United States and indeed the world. On May 4th, 1970, I was sitting at home listening to Pacifica Radio’s coverage of the national student protests when the news broke - Guardsmen had fired live ammunition into a crowd of antiwar protesters at Kent State University. I was blinded by tears of rage and sorrow listening to that broadcast, the war had indeed “come home” for U.S. citizens - only now the blood of peace activists and students flowed in the streets.

vallen_kentstate“America is Dead” - Mark Vallen. Pen & ink, May 1970 ©. I made the drawing in my high school sketchbook at the age of 17.

Though I was far away from the mayhem and bloodshed at Kent, those shootings affected me deeply, and that week I created a number of pen and ink drawings in the sketchbook I always carried with me. My fury over the war poured out onto those pages - and I guess I have never stopped drawing my outrage and opposition to war. On this thirty-sixth anniversary of the murders at Kent State, I present two youthful drawings taken from my high school sketchbook. The first drawing depicts the shock and horror that was Kent State, with the sketch inspired by newspaper photographs. The second, a dark portrayal of a U.S. soldier who met his end in the jungles of Vietnam, was based upon an illustration by underground cartoonist Ron Cobb.

"Vietnam" - Mark Vallen, pen & ink, 1970. After Ron Cobb

"Vietnam" - Mark Vallen, pen & ink, 1970. After Ron Cobb

I can’t help but experience an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu when viewing the political landscape today. Once again America is being lead by an unpopular president who has the nation embroiled in a costly, unpopular, and ever widening war.

Again, Americans find themselves spied upon and wiretapped, with dissent all but criminalized. I pray that the outcome to this horrendous mess turns out better than did the nightmare of Vietnam, but it’s hard to be optimistic at this late date.

Still, there are glimmers of hope. As in the 1960s, artists, musicians and writers have been among the first to voice dissent. Immediately after the killings at Kent State, Neil Young wrote Ohio, one of the most chilling protest songs ever written. This past April, Young released a new album that is destined to be an antiwar masterwork, Living with War (listen to it here.) One can only hope that Young’s latest example will inspire legions of contemporary artists and musicians to take a stand, and that his song, Let’s Impeach the President, will soon become a reality.

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Further reading: Kent State 1970: We Need a Serious Look at What Happened and Why. May 4, 2015.

Sophie Scholl & The White Rose

“Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be governed without opposition by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct.” So wrote the White Rose, a group of ardent young activists who opposed the reign of fascism in 1940s Germany. I first discovered the writings of The White Rose (Die Weisse Rose) in the early 1980’s, and have since read and re-read their stirring proclamations - which the group clandestinely distributed in public places right under the noses of the Nazis. Eventually the young heroes were caught, and key members of the pacifist group were executed by guillotine after a Nazi court found them guilty of “treason.” Sophie Scholl, one of the group’s leaders, directed her last words at her Nazi executioners, “… your heads will fall as well.”

Director Marc Rothemund tells the gripping story of the last six days of Scholl’s life, in Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. The film opened in New York on February 17th and opens in Los Angeles on February 24th, 2006, with a nationwide release to follow. Not just another period piece on Germany’s disturbing past, this film should have deep resonance for today’s movie fans who are concerned about civil and human rights. Stephen Holden, in a review of the film he wrote for the New York Times, said: “In a climate of national debate in the United States about the overriding of certain civil liberties to fight terrorism, the movie looks back on a worst possible scenario in which such liberties were taken away. It raises an unspoken question: could it happen here?”

For those in Los Angeles, Director Marc Rothemund will conduct a Q&A after the 5:30 pm & 8:15 pm screenings at Laemmle’s MUSIC HALL 3 on Friday Feb. 24th and Saturday‚ Feb. 25th, and also after the 4 pm show & 7 pm show Sunday the 26th at the Laemmle’s TOWN CENTER 5 in Encino (click here for more info on these theaters.)