Category: Art of War

COIN: Pentagon Postmodern

The History of the World - Jeremy Deller. 2004. Pencil and paint on wall. Installation dimensions variable. Turner Prize winner Deller standing in front of his wall chart, The History of the World, at the Turner Gallery. Photo by Associated Press.

"The History of the World" - Jeremy Deller. 2004. Pencil and paint on wall. Installation dimensions variable. Turner Prize winner Deller standing in front of his wall chart at the Turner Gallery. Photo by Associated Press.

In 2004 Jeremy Deller won Britain’s most prestigious art award - The Turner Prize - for his short video, Memory Bucket.

Documenting Deller’s travels through the State of Texas, the film impressed the judges at the Tate Modern in London sufficiently enough for them to honor Deller with their highest award, plus a check for $48,000. That Deller admitted he cannot paint, draw, or sculpt to save his life was no impediment to his being proclaimed numero uno in the world of postmodern art; at least for a brief moment in time.

The History of the World - Jeremy Deller (Detail).

"The History of the World" - Jeremy Deller (Detail).

Deller had actually submitted a number of installations to the Tate’s annual art competition, Memory Bucket being just one of them. In the room at the Tate that displayed all of Deller’s works, one could find his wall chart, The History of the World. Supposedly an exploration of the connections between working class brass bands and the 1980s acid house scene, the chart is a jumble of hand scrawled lines and arrows, along with the names of important bands, events, places, and concepts in music.

Deller’s chart is all but incomprehensible - even to music lovers and historians. But then, striving to create works that are easy to comprehend has never been a strong point for postmodern conceptual artists. Nonetheless, Deller’s The History of the World has been an obvious inspiration to a rather unlikely group of artists, the U.S. military’s Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - who are also reported to possess a total lack of skill when it comes to painting, drawing, or sculpting.

Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics - Security. Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 2009. Unclassified document digitally printed on non-archival paper with foam core backing and laminated surface. Installation dimensions variable.

"Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics - Security." Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 2009. Unclassified document digitally printed on non-archival paper with foam core backing and laminated surface. Installation dimensions variable.

Trying their hands at conceptual art, the Joint Chiefs have created a wall chart installation titled Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics - Security, a brash reference to the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy, “COIN” for short, which the Obama administration is currently applying in the Afghan war.

While their work has a strong political dimension, the Joint Chiefs have to their credit avoided the tedious moralizing so common with much of today’s political art. By dispensing with outdated notions of craft, skill, and narrative (at least one that makes any sense), the Chiefs have given us a hardheaded no-nonsense look at what really lies behind America’s “necessary war” - confusion, bewilderment, and stupefaction.

The eddy of lines and arrows swirling across the face of Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics – Security, pulls the viewer into the work’s dense subtext having to do with counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan, and the impenetrable text that floats on the surface of the piece like an opaque cloud of obscurantist chatter (”Western Affiliation Backlash-Acceptance of Afghan Methods-Overall Government Capacity”) only points to the futility of attempting to make sense of the world. To fully appreciate this ephemeral work, one must put aside logic, as well as any attempt to understand history - just as the Joint Chiefs have clearly done.

Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics - Security (Detail). Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 2009.

"Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics - Security" (Detail). Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 2009.

If Jeremy Deller gave us a fractious view of the world with his unsteady scribbles and nervous squiggles, the Joint Chiefs have delivered order and tranquility with their clean lines and methodically arranged catchphrases. They have created an installation to rival the Turner Prize winning wall chart produced by Mr. Deller; in fact Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics - Security is a postmodern masterwork that will long be remembered after the last body bags are flown out of Kabul.

Every good postmodernist knows that an artwork’s true value is determined solely by its price tag and not some foolishness like “intrinsic spirituality”, or gads - “beauty.” It was wonderful when Jeremy Deller was given $48,000 along with his Tate prize, and it was even more fantastic when Damien Hirst sold his diamond encrusted platinum skull sculpture, For the Love of God, for $100 million. But with the creation of the Joint Chief’s Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics - Security piece, one need ask - what is being born, exactly? It might be the art of the 21st century! Surely by its price tag alone that is so; it took the Joint Chiefs’ $636 billion to produce Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics - Security, making it the most expensive piece of art ever produced. Time will tell whether or not there will be a buyer.

MSNBC wrote an extensive review of the Joint Chief’s Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics - Security installation piece that should be read by all. Click here for a large version of the artwork. Now that the war is finally escalating in Afghanistan and spilling over into Pakistan, one can only imagine what the next conceptual work from the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will be like - and what it will cost.

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.)