Category: Artists and the Afghan war

M16 Art Project

With its M16 Art Project, the “peace activist” organization Peace One Day asked 14 contemporary artists “to use decommissioned M16 assault rifles to produce artwork, thereby continuing the story of taking objects of war and using them in support of peace.” The M16 Art Project is the companion exhibition to the earlier AKA Peace exhibit mounted by Peace One Day in 2012; both shows were curated by postmodernist Jake Chapman of Chapman Brothers infamy. I wrote an extensive critique of AKA Peace that I titled, AKA Peace: Off Target. That article ended with the following:

AKA Peace was not an antiwar exhibit; it ignored history and kept clear of any critique of ultra-nationalism, militarism, or imperialism. It did not critically assess the economic and political reasons that give rise to war. It had nothing to say about fundamentalist religious extremism, nor did it even present an elemental pacifist stance regarding warfare. The exhibit essentially depoliticized war, the most political of all issues. It was not a loathing of state violence that served as the foundational view of the show so much as it was an irrational and morbid fear of firearms. AKA Peace was one of the most simplistic responses I have seen from artists reacting to real world political issues.”

I will not be writing a review or critique of the M16 Art Project; to do otherwise would be redundant. Everything that might be expressed about Peace One Day, Jake Chapman, and the insipid politics behind the project, has already received more than enough attention in my AKA Peace: Off Target article of 2012. Still, some things just bear repeating. It is stupefying that the transgressive and intentionally hideous works of Chapman, bereft of even a smattering of beauty or humanist compassion, can be showcased by Peace One Day as examples of art created for the uplift and betterment of humanity. But Peace One Day is itself a paradigm of contemporary “progressive” thought and action; it decorates itself with lofty rhetoric but offers no cohesive analysis, theory, or political solution. At best, it proffers charitable deeds, but ignores the necessity of deep structural change. Its platitudes are understood by some to be “antiwar,” but as the rest of this article shall illustrate, the organization’s bromides simply mask its deep hypocrisy.

Not surprisingly, Peace One Day solicits corporate sponsorship, asserting that “Corporations have the power to generate unparalleled levels of awareness all over the world.” Yes… just as they have been doing lo these many years. One corporate sponsor that Peace One Day lists euphemistically on its website as a member of its “corporate coalition” is McKinsey and Co, Inc., a major U.S. consulting firm that advises international governments, businesses, and institutions (UPDATE 7/21/2016: Peace One Day has removed any mention of Mckinsey and Co, Inc. from its website).

So what does Peace One Day have to do with this consigliere for global ruling elites and the Fortune 500 billionaire class? Therein lies the rub.

In 2005 it was revealed by the Guardian that in June of that year the Labour Party Prime Minister Tony Blair hired David Bennett, a former senior partner at McKinsey, to head Blair’s Policy Directorate and Strategy Unit. Bennett also served as Blair’s Chief Policy Advisor. At the time British soldiers had been occupying Iraq since Blair misled the U.K. into war on Iraq in 2003. In Nov. 2005 the London Financial Times revealed that the Blair administration had commissioned a report from McKinsey that paved the way for “a shake-up at the heart of government.” The same article also stated that the U.K. Ministry of Defense handed the “consultancy firm £40m worth of contracts since 2001″ (for Americans, that is over $64 million Yankee dollars).

Large sections of the British public regard Tony Blair with open contempt for closely supporting U.S. President George W. Bush and involving the British armed forces in the invasions of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003). Many even call Blair a war criminal, some Americans, such as yours truly, concur. The question is, why does Peace One Day accept sponsorship from McKinsey and Co, Inc., a global corporation with clear links, not just to Blair, but to the U.K. Ministry of Defense?

Though McKinsey and Co, Inc. does not list their clients, their website makes clear what they do when not sponsoring Peace One Day. In the company’s own statement, “We serve more than 75 percent of the top 25 aerospace and defense companies in the world, and support numerous defense agencies in both mature and emerging markets.” The company also helps “defense organizations realize their strategic visions and meet mission-critical goals.”

What’s more, the McKinsey website offers the company’s Special Issue reports. Its Spring 2010 McKinsey on Defense report (since removed) presented articles with titles like; An expert view on defense procurement, Improving US equipment acquisition, and Stabilizing Iraq (!) In part, the document’s introduction reads: “(….) the world remains a dangerous place. Defense forces must still be capable of deploying and sustaining ‘boots on the ground.’ Weapons must be maintained and upgraded. What, then, is to be done? In this edition of McKinsey on Government, we, along with some eminent military thinkers and practitioners, look at a range of challenges facing militaries that must do more things - some of them relatively new things - with less.”

When the skilled Orwellian writers at McKinsey and Co, Inc., aver that militaries must do “relatively new things - with less,” what exactly are they suggesting? Cyber warfare departments? Armed drone warfare? Since the “peace activists” at Peace One Day have partnered with McKinsey to help bring about a world without war, they might want to ask.

The Spring 2013 McKinsey on Defense report covers the company’s view on government military spending in a time of austerity. Contained in the 2013 report is an article titled, Cut fat not muscle: Preserving combat power when defense budgets are falling. The organizers at Peace One Day might have read it, but are hoping you have not. The report states that McKinsey “presents a potential solution through which governments can increase defense productivity to reduce costs without cutting capability,” One must assume that the preservation of military “capability” includes the acquisition of M16 rifles and other weapons systems large and small.

However, the U.K. intrigues of McKinsey and Co, Inc. did not end with the company’s close relationship with Tony Blair and the U.K. Ministry of Defense. The secretive consulting firm has been working with the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government of Tory Prime Minister David Cameron and Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. In March of 2012, the U.K. Parliament enacted the Health and Social Care Act, which had been written by Andrew Lansley, the Tory Health Secretary at the time. Lansley’s “reforms” opened the way to the ongoing destruction and privatization of England’s National Health Service (NHS). The coalition government demands £20bn ($32 billion U.S.) of enforced cuts to the NHS by 2015.

It has been revealed that McKinsey wrote key sections of the Health and Social Care Act, and that the coalition government has been paying McKinsey £250,000 ($403,600 U.S.) a year to advise on the NHS forced transition to privatization. Moreover, the aforementioned David Bennett (former senior partner at McKinsey and Chief Policy Advisor to Blair), is now the head of Monitor, the regulating agency that is currently overseeing the downsizing of the NHS. As the luminaries and pop celebrities of Peace One Day prance about at their art exhibits and rock concerts for peace, their friends at McKinsey and Co, Inc. are busy digging a grave for the NHS.

Apart from McKinsey’s depredations in the U.K., the firm helps “shape strategy and strengthen operations for players in major industries” all across the globe. The infamous Enron scandal comes to mind. Enron became synonymous with corporate crime in 2001 when the U.S. energy and commodities-trading giant was caught running the largest accounting fraud in history. In a March, 2002 article, the Guardian called McKinsey “The firm that built the house of Enron.” Jeffrey Skilling was a McKinsey consultant that worked for Enron starting in 1987 and by 1990 he became chairman and chief executive officer of Enron. In May, 2006, Enron founder Kenneth Lay along with Jeffery Skilling, were found guilty of fraud and conspiracy; Skilling was sentenced to 24-years in a federal prison for his financial crimes.

McKinsey is a paid consultant for governments from the reactionary kingdoms of the Middle East, to the nations of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. You may be rooting for the “pro-democracy” protestors in Hong Kong, China, but McKinsey and Co, Inc. are placing their bets on Beijing. As an example of their service to humanity and why Peace One Day would value such a partner, let us briefly examine the machinations of McKinsey in India.

In A bright future for India’s defense industry?, an article from the previously mentioned 2013 McKinsey on Defense report, the firm suggested what the Indian government “can do to seize the moment” in expanding “India’s defense sector.” It must be assumed that McKinsey is currently assisting the Indian government in doing just that.

While the McKinsey article was written before the May 2014 election of the right-wing Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi as India’s Prime Minister, it is clear that McKinsey is working with the new regime. In Sept. 2014, Modi appointed former McKinsey India chairman and current senior adviser with McKinsey India, Adil Zainulbhai, as chief of the Quality Council of India (QCI), the “autonomous” agency that in large part promotes Indian business, manufacturing, and products. Given McKinsey’s track record of promoting austerity budgets, downsizing, and privatization, it appears the new McKinsey-linked QCI will further transform India into the world’s sweatshop.

Narendra Modi and his political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are largely held responsible for the 2002 pogrom that saw Hindus attacking the Muslim minority in India’s western state of Gujarat. Most of those killed in the riots were Muslims, and they were murdered in acts of appalling cruelty and brutality; at the time Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat. In 2005 the George W. Bush administration denied Modi entry to the U.S., citing Modi’s “severe violations of religious freedom.” In May of 2014, President Obama congratulated Modi on his electoral victory and invited him to the White House; on Sept. 29, 2014, Obama met Modi in the White House for a private dinner, kicking off a two day visit between the two leaders.

The maneuverings of McKinsey and Co, Inc. are obvious enough, and it is easy to grasp that their partnership with Peace One Day is window dressing meant to present the firm in a benevolent light, but what does Peace One Day get out of the relationship? That question would be based on the naive assumption that the so-called peace activists of the organization were not simply enthusiastic frontmen for McKinsey and Co, Inc., as well as other powerful business and governmental interests.

The M16 Art Project first came to my attention when I read a BBC report that the London home of English actors Samantha “Sam” Taylor-Johnson and Aaron Taylor-Johnson had been raided by up to a dozen armed police. A “concerned passer-by” had spied a “machine gun” through the window of the couple’s home, and dutifully informed the local authorities. Moments later the police entered the residence of Sam (director of Fifty Shades of Grey) and Aaron (co-star in Godzilla 2014) to search for the weapon, possession of which would have violated England’s stringent gun laws.

The couple and their children were not at home during the armed search of their abode. The police found the weapon and confirmed that it was a decommissioned M16 rifle given to the Taylor-Johnsons by Peace Day One, the rifle to be used in the group’s upcoming antigun M16 Art Project. No arrests were made. Such a scenario would make for an interesting narrative in an artwork, or perhaps a lively performance art piece… but that apparently is not what Peace One Day had in mind.

The M16 Art Project will be exhibited at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts from Oct. 13 to Oct. 19, 2014, with an auction of the artworks taking place at Bonham’s on Oct. 17, 2014.

What is Art when we have Perpetual War?

“Who needs Art when we have Perpetual War?” is a question that would be asked by a general who runs a garrison state. “What is Art when we have Perpetual War?” is a question that could only be asked by an artist.

I am an artist who believes that art reflects social realities, whether consciously or unconsciously, and that social conditions not only greatly impact the arts, but also shape how artists and the public envision them. Because of my world view, I want to share a few ideas regarding President Obama’s Sept. 10, 2014 nationally televised speech announcing his war on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Obama delivered his address announcing the expansion of war in Iraq, Syria, and beyond, on the eve of the 13th anniversary of 9/11.

Proclaiming a years long unilateral war against ISIS, the president said “we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are.” It was an announcement of open-ended war with no geographical boundaries, akin to the famous remark made by President Bush in Sept. 2001 when referring to al-Qaeda terrorists - “We’re going to smoke them out.” However, one gets the feeling that today, rather than smoking out our foes, they are drawing us in.

"New Imperialism" - Leon Kuhn (1954-2013). Photoshop montage. Kuhn was a British socialist and political cartoonist. The 2009 montage shown here was widely distributed in the U.K. and I believe it was the first mass distributed graphic work to disparage the new president of the United States. Kuhn said of his montage, "Nothing has fundamentally changed for the U.S. as far as the Middle East is concerned."

"New Imperialism" - Leon Kuhn (1954-2013). Photoshop montage. Kuhn was a British socialist and political cartoonist. The 2009 montage shown here was widely distributed in the U.K., and I believe it was the very first mass distributed graphic work to disparage the new American president. Kuhn said of his montage, "Nothing has fundamentally changed for the U.S. as far as the Middle East is concerned."

In his address Obama said he will “not hesitate to take action” in Syria.

The real objective of Obama’s war is not the defeat of Islamic extremism, it is regime change, the overthrow of Syria’s authoritarian leader, Bashar al-Assad, that and securing U.S. control over Iraqi oil wealth.

It should be remembered that only last year Obama wanted to bomb Syria and destroy the Syrian government, but he could not persuade the U.S. Congress to authorize military action. Polls showed that the majority of Americans opposed a U.S. strike on Syria.

When the British Parliament delivered a stunning defeat to Prime Minister David Cameron by voting down his call for military action against Assad… Obama’s war plans went up in smoke. Today the brutality of ISIS provides Obama with the casus belli for a war that will bring down Assad and strike crippling blows to Russia and Iran, who have historically been close allies of the Syrian regime.

During his speech Obama said that he would “degrade, and ultimately destroy” ISIS. He insisted “we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq,” even as he announced he was sending “an additional 475 service members to Iraq” (which expands the present U.S. military force in Iraq to 1,600 at the time of this writing). For Obama to say that we “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil,” is fallacious on the face of it. During an air campaign, special forces commonly infiltrate enemy territory to gather intelligence and “paint” targets with lasers to facilitate air strikes. There are already reports of U.S. combat troops fighting in Iraq.

The president said that the U.S. will “lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat,” but he gave few details on which nations will actually help fight the war. Remarkably, the White House is still casting about for members to join the coalition, days after Obama’s speech! The White House says it will soon name those allies that will do what Obama has disingenuously  pledged not to do… send ground troops to fight ISIS. What member nation of the “coalition” will send troops to fight, kill, and die when the U.S. refuses to do the same? Why do I have the feeling that “mission creep” will rapidly have the U.S. military deeply involved in this looming disaster of Obama’s?

In his speech Obama pointed to his drone war being “successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” His five-year long drone warfare campaign has so far killed an estimated 2,400 people in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, with at least 273 of the dead being civilians. It goes without saying that drone strikes will be a major component of Obama’s air war in Iraq and Syria, and that innocent civilians do not appreciate having their wedding parties being turned into funerals by U.S. predator drones and their hellfire missiles. But does anyone believe that Obama’s air campaign against ISIS will manage to do what over a hundred thousand U.S. combat troops, massive air strikes, and an eight-year military occupation could not achieve in Iraq?

Obama did not even attempt to seek authorization from the U.S. Congress to wage war against ISIS, claiming in his speech that he already has “the authority to address the threat.” Obama has cited two authorizations passed by Congress in 2001 and 2002 in support of George W. Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as all the authority he needs. The 2001 “Authorization for Use of Military Force” (AUMF) supported Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan, the 2002 AUMF supported the invasion of Iraq. But wait, in a 2013 speech Obama said he wanted to “ultimately repeal” the 2001 authorization because “we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight.” TIME magazine reported that in July of 2013 Obama’s National Security Adviser, Susan Rice, wrote Speaker of the House John Boehner to tell him that the 2002 AUMF was no longer operative. Rice wrote: “With American combat troops having completed their withdrawal from Iraq on December 18, 2011, the Iraq AUMF is no longer used for any U.S. government activities and the Administration fully supports its repeal.”

When Senator Obama was running for president in 2007, he said the following: “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” Now that the U.S. peace movement has completely rolled over and died without a sound, Senator Obama seems the most outspoken critic of President Obama.

With his latest speech, Obama made George W. Bush’s “war on terror” and “pre-emptive war” strategies his own. If you doubt this, consider the following. In a Sept. 2014 interview with BuzzFeed News, former Bush administration lawyer John Yoo said that; “Obama has adopted the same view of war powers as the Bush administration.” In 2001 Yoo wrote the memorandum that became the legal basis for Bush’s pre-emptive war strategy. Almost as if he were goading the so-called left, Yoo told BuzzFeed News: “What is remarkable, is not that Obama eventually had to exercise the powers of his predecessors to protect American national security, but that his party in Congress, and his allies in the media and the universities, have remained so silent about it.”

In the wake of 9/11, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. To date the war in Afghanistan has taken the lives of 2,343 U.S. soldiers and some 21,000 civilians. In Iraq, 4,489 U.S. soldiers have been killed since the war’s start in 2003. Civilian casualties have been estimated to be as high as a half-million. Both wars combined have cost U.S. taxpayers between $4 and $6 trillion. The American Society of Civil Engineers put the price of upgrading America’s aging infrastructure at $2.2 trillion. For half the amount of money already spent in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. could have rebuilt all of its rundown bridges, water pipelines, roads, and railways. Since the focus of this web log is on art, I will suggest that some of that money could have gone to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The current budget of the NEA is $146.2 million; it could be equivalent to that of the National Science Foundation, some $7 billion annually.

Since they began in June of this year, Obama’s military operations against ISIS have cost an average of $7.5 million per day, which means that up until Obama’s Sept. 10th speech, his new war has already cost well over $532 million. As the war against ISIS escalates and expands into Syria, that daily average is going to skyrocket, and guess who is going to pay for it all?

If you want to know what the eventual outcome of Obama’s war in Syria will look like, consider the results of Obama’s 2011 war on Libya, where Washington overthrew secular strongman Muammar Gadhafi by supporting Islamic extremists opposed to the Libyan government.

As with his announced war on ISIS, Obama did not seek nor receive Congressional authorization to attack Libya. He promised that the war in Libya would not involve U.S. “boots on the ground,” and in lieu of sending in combat troops, he trained, armed, and provided essential air support to Islamic militias - some known to have ties with al-Qaeda. After the militias overthrew the government of Gadhafi, they set upon each other for control of the country. The weapons provided to the rebels by Obama during the “revolution,” plus the looted sophisticated arms caches stockpiled by the toppled leader, were exported by Libyan jihadists to al-Qaeda linked fighters in Syria fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad. On Sept. 11, 2012, jihadists attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, murdering U.S. Ambassador John Christopher Stevens and several other American personnel.

When running for re-election in 2012, Obama said of Libya’s then just completed, farcical post-revolution elections: “We will engage as partners as the Libyan people work to build open and transparent institutions, establish security and the rule of law, advance opportunity and promote unity and national reconciliation.” In July of this year, as jihadists fought for control of Libya’s capital city of Tripoli, the U.S. evacuated its embassy there, sending 158 Americans in a heavily armed caravan to neighboring Tunisia. This Sept., what remained of the “elected” Libyan government fell to those Islamist militias that took control of Tripoli. The so-called Libyan parliament now convenes on a rented Greek car ferry that also serves as a floating hotel for the banished legislature. A myriad of extremist Islamic militias now fight for control of Libya. As Obama leads Americans back into the inferno of Iraq and the killing grounds of Syria, hardly anyone is pointing to his Libyan debacle, or to its ongoing “blow-back.”

To stampede Americans into supporting his war plans, Obama cited the viciousness of ISIS in his Sept. 10th speech, saying that “these terrorists are unique in their brutality,” and “in acts of barbarism they took the lives of two American journalists - Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff.” As I write these words there is news that ISIS has beheaded a third victim, a British humanitarian aid worker named David Haines. While ISIS is unquestionably a brutal organization, honest observers of the Middle East will tell you that atrocious acts have been committed by just about everyone in the region, including those so-called “moderate” rebels in Syria that Obama supports. ISIS is far from being “unique in their brutality” and the president knows this.

The New York Times reported that on Aug. 23, 2014, 33-year old Douglas McAuthur McCain became “the first American to die while fighting for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.” McCain and other ISIS fighters attacked a unit of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the “moderates” backed by Obama (the FSA is fighting other factions and extremist Islamic militias for supremacy in the Syrian antigovernment movement). The FSA responded to McCain’s attack by shooting and killing him as well as dozens of other ISIS combatants. And here is the clincher, the NYTimes reported that the FSA “went on to behead six ISIS fighters - but not Mr. McCain - and then posted the photographs on Facebook.” Moreover, according to the NYTimes, “the Obama administration released a statement” confirming the death of McCain.

While the outrageous beheadings of Foley, Sotloff, and Haines by ISIS fanatics have become headline news, the beheadings carried out by the Free Syrian Army - the U.S. backed “rebels” Obama wants to train and arm - have been left out of the White House narrative of terrorists “unique in their brutality.”

On Sept. 8, 2014, a spokesperson for the family of Steven Sotloff told CNN that Steven had been “sold” by “so-called moderate rebels” to the militants of ISIS. The Sotloff family representative said that the Free Syrian Army were responsible for turning the American reporter over to ISIS.

Though Obama does not seek Congressional authorization for his war against ISIS, he does want Congress to approve his plan to spend $500 million - to start - on training and arming “moderate” Syrian rebels. There are some 1,000 separate militias fighting the Assad regime, the largest and most effective of these groups are Islamic extremists like the 7,000 fighters of the al-Nusra Front or the 45,000 combatants of the Islamic Front. The Free Syrian Army is one of the few “moderate” groups anyone can name, even though they are known to have fought alongside al-Qaeda linked jihadists.

President Obama has also struck a deal with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Obama spoke with Saudi King Abdullah, who agreed to permit the construction of U.S. military training camps on Saudi soil. It is at these Saudi based camps that arms and war fighting skills will be provided to the Free Syrian Army and whatever other “moderate” Syrian militia men the U.S. manages to scrape up (never mind that the Saudis have been arming Syria’s Islamic extremists). While Obama attempts to hoodwink the American people with his plan to arm “moderate” rebels, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is reporting that Islamist and “moderate” militias in Damascus, Syria have signed a ceasefire and non-aggression pact with ISIS. Signatories to the pact agree not to fight each other and instead concentrate all their efforts in bringing down the Assad regime.

On Sept. 9, 2014, just one day before Obama’s speech, UN human rights experts condemned Saudi Arabia for its increase of executions and beheadings. The UN Human Rights Office noted that defendants in Saudi Arabia are often denied legal representation and have their confessions extracted by torture. Many of those found “guilty” of drug use or drug-smuggling, witchcraft, adultery, blasphemy, sodomy, and apostasy have been beheaded. UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan Méndez, said that “Beheading as a form of execution is cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and prohibited under international law under all circumstances.” Many state-sanctioned public executions take place in central Riyadh (the Saudi capital) at Deera Square, otherwise known by locals as “Chop Chop Square” according to a May 4, 2004 CBS report.

On Feb. 15, 2003 an estimated 100,000 antiwar protestors marched down Hollywood Blvd. in opposition to the impending U.S. war on Iraq. Photo by AP photographer Mark J. Terrill.

On Feb. 15, 2003 an estimated 100,000 antiwar protestors marched down Hollywood Blvd. in opposition to the impending U.S. war on Iraq. Photo by AP photographer Mark J. Terrill.

With the decisive assistance of Saudi Arabia, which uses public beheadings and crucifixions to implement its hardline version of Sharia law, Mr. Obama will wage war on ISIS, which also uses public beheadings and crucifixions to implement its hardline version of Sharia law. Yeah… that sounds like a recipe for success.

On Oct. 26, 2002, a silver-tongued Democratic Senator named Barack Obama gave a speech at an anti-war rally in Chicago, where he expressed his supposed opposition to President Bush’s impending invasion of Iraq by saying, “What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war.”

How odd it is to read those words now. Having pinned all of their fortunes on Mr. Obama - artists and the ostensible antiwar movement, especially its leaders, have much soul searching to do.

On Feb. 15, 2003 over 30 million people demonstrated in sixty different countries to protest the imminent U.S. war on Iraq.  In my home city of Los Angeles, I joined around 100,000 people in an antiwar march down Hollywood Boulevard - now there is nothing but silence.

AKA Peace: Off Target

The 2012 exhibition AKA Peace was a primary example of the limitations of much of the so-called “political art” in our current period. Curated by U.K. artist Jake Chapman, the show was held at The Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, England, from Sept. 25 to Sept. 30, 2012. The intent of the exhibit was to give decommissioned AK-47 rifles to 23 different artists, who would then transform the rifles into sculptural icons for peace. The melodramatic premise of the show was akin to the antiwar bumper sticker slogan, “War is not the answer”, but what were the questions posed by the exhibition?

An etching from Francisco Goya's famous antiwar print suite, "Disasters of War", mutilated by the Chapman Brothers.

An etching from Francisco Goya's famous antiwar print suite, "Disasters of War", mutilated by the Chapman Brothers.

Curator Jake Chapman works together with his brother Dinos under the moniker of the Chapman Brothers; the duo have become superstars in the postmodern art world through attention grabbing works mostly known for banality and shock value.

As a for instance, in 2003 the brothers purchased a pristine edition of Francisco Goya’s famous antiwar print suite, Disasters of War, and defaced the etchings by drawing clown and puppy heads on Goya’s characters. Renamed Insult to Injury, the Chapmans exhibited the mutilated etchings at the U.K.’s Tate Modern. Evidently, these days trashing a suite of the most famous antiwar prints ever created qualifies one to curate an “antiwar” art exhibition.

In the official video trailer for AKA Peace, the AK-47 was referred to as “the greatest killing machine in the world”. Presumably that suggests the rifle created by Soviet weapons designer Mikhail Kalashnikov in 1947 (the Avtomat Kalashnikova model 1947) is deadlier than today’s modern cluster bomb munitions: the Apache Attack Helicopter, the AC-130 gunship, the B-2 Stealth bomber, and the nuclear powered Nimitz Class Aircraft Carrier - not to mention the numerous atomic bomb arsenals of the world. The histrionic assertion from the organizers of AKA Peace set the stage for an exhibit that was long on sensationalism but lacking any political insight or grasp of history.

AKA Peace was sponsored and partly organized by Phillips de Pury & Company, a multi-million dollar auctioneer and art dealership specializing in postmodern art. In May of 2012 the London-based auction house sold a 1981 painting of a black Christ-like figure by Jean-Michel Basquiat for $16.3 million. On Nov. 10 2012, the auction house teamed up with Russia’s Hermitage Museum for a “gala” auction of works by postmodern art stars Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst; the Honorary Chairman of the gala’s Host Committee was none other than L.A.’s billionaire philanthropist, Eli Broad. Rather than being an exhibit motivated by actual social and political concerns, AKA Peace instead fell into Phillips de Pury’s model of peddling works from “blue chip” artists to oligarchs with little taste in art.

"Yin" - Chapman Brothers. Painted sculpture with decommissioned Kalashnikov rifle. 2012.

"Yin" - Chapman Brothers. Painted sculpture with decommissioned Kalashnikov rifle. 2012.

The two collaborative sculptures the Chapman Brothers included in AKA Peace are titled Yin and Yang. They depict life-sized immature boys, barely pubescent, wearing tennis shoes and oversized t-shirts while clutching AK-47s; each boy has a large erect penis for a nose and an extended anus for a mouth.

To say these three-dimensional eyesores impart a politically confused point of view is an understatement; the vulgar statuettes are not “antiwar” in the least, they represent nothing more than overt misandry, i.e., the hatred of men and boys. Yin and Yang convey the notion that wars occur solely because men and boys are supposedly predisposed to violence.

The sculptures were apparently titled after the ancient Chinese Taoist metaphysical concept relating to the primal duel energies of the universe, the Yin and Yang.

That philosophy denies the existence of absolute good and evil, proffering instead the idea that negative and positive energies are present in all things; light and dark, water and fire, male and female - forces that cannot exist without the other. Assumptions that Yin represents the feminine while Yang denotes the masculine are inaccurate, since each carries within it the essence of the opposite. Quite frankly the Chapman Brother’s sculptures do not fit into the Taoist outlook.

"Yes" - Sarah Lucas. Sculpture with decommissioned Kalashnikov rifle. 2012.

"Yes" - Sarah Lucas. Sculpture with decommissioned Kalashnikov rifle. 2012.

The Chapman’s bungled attempt at describing war as the result of metaphysical forces is a bit of a stretch… even for them. But the work of the Chapman Brothers in AKA Peace was only the starting point of a very muddleheaded exhibit. Equally confused was the work of Sarah Lucas. Her sculpture titled Yes depicts a grotesquery that is faintly and horrifically reminiscent of the human form. Sans arms, and with two apparent breasts bound together with rope serving as a head, the heap sits on a table with its feetless legs spread akimbo… an AK-47 between its legs standing in for the meat lump’s enormous erect penis. Lucas seems to be saying that testosterone is responsible for armed conflict, a theme that runs throughout AKA Peace.

Not to be outdone in the preposterous department is Laila Shawa’s, Where Souls Dwell. In an interview with ITN News in the U.K., Ms. Shawa told a hair-raising yarn regarding the creation of her AK-47 sculpture; she asserted that “while cleaning the gun in order to start working on it, I went into the barrel of the gun and I found congealed blood.”

"Where Souls Dwell" - Laila Shawa. Assemblage on decommissioned Kalashnikov rifle. 2012.

"Where Souls Dwell" - Laila Shawa. Assemblage on decommissioned Kalashnikov rifle. 2012.

To someone unfamiliar with firearms, Shawa’s testimonial is chilling. However, the odds of congealed human blood being found in the barrel of a battle rifle, even one from a combat zone, are astronomical. If you doubt me just ask any Afghan or Iraq War veteran, there should be a number of them in your area.

Ms. Shawa no doubt found gelatinous cosmoline in the barrel of her decommissioned AK-47. Since World War II cosmoline has been used by armies to protect and preserve firearms placed in storage; the brown-colored viscous fluid could easily be mistaken for “congealed blood” to the untrained eye.

It is a certainty the AK-47’s used in the exhibit had at one time been dipped in cosmoline and placed in storage before eventually being acquired by the  organizers of the AKA Peace exhibition.

Spin AK47 for Peace One Day by Damien Hirst is modeled after his series of “spin paintings”, works that are made by pouring paint onto canvas or paper secured to a spinning platform. The process has long been utilized in kindergarten and grade school craft projects to help familiarize children with art and painting, causing art critic Robert Hughes to deplore Hirst’s spin paintings as nothing more than “enlarged versions of the pseudo-art made in funfairs”. Of course what differentiates Hirst’s spin paintings from those made by children at a carnival or kindergarten, is his ability to sell the stupid things for upwards of £1m ($1,603,810).

How a paint-splattered AK-47 conveys meaningful insights into wars and why we fight them escapes me. Hirst is the richest artist in the world with a net worth of well over $450 million, but his Spin AK47 for Peace One Day is only further proof that he produces nothing but empty vacuities.

"Spin AK47 for Peace One Day" - Damien Hirst. Painted decommissioned Kalashnikov rifle. 2012.

"Spin AK47 for Peace One Day" - Damien Hirst. Painted Kalashnikov rifle. 2012.

Bran Symondson’s Commodities comes closest to making a connection between economics and war, but the work is problematic for a number of reasons. A London-based photographer, Symondson served in Afghanistan after joining the British Army.

He returned to Afghanistan to document the war as a photographer. Symondson conceptualized the AKA Peace exhibit after seeing the U.S.-trained and organized Afghan National Police decorating their AK-47 rifles with “colorful stickers, roses, or glitter tape”.

Once back in London he promoted the idea of an exhibit that would transform the AK-47 rifle, “the most devastating weapon in the world”, into a “powerful catalyst for hope and peace”. Symondson pasted U.S. dollar bills all over his AK-47, attaching a flower made from U.S. dollars to the rifle’s bayonet. Commodities seems an obvious statement, but a closer examination only brings perplexity.

Great Britain’s military involvement with Afghanistan did not begin when it joined the United States in invading and occupying the country in 2001. Britain had previously marched into Afghanistan in campaigns to become the dominant power in the region during the so-called “Anglo-Afghan wars” of 1839-1842, 1878-1880, and 1919.

Tens of thousands of Afghans died in those colonial wars of occupation, but ultimately Afghan resistance forced the British Empire to withdraw from the country that became known as the “graveyard of empires“. The AK-47 rifle was not involved in any of these military battles, because the Soviet rifle had not yet been invented.

The influx of Soviet weapons into Afghanistan began in 1978 with the overthrow of the Afghan king and the establishment of the pro-Soviet “Democratic Republic of Afghanistan”. Infighting among government factions led to purges and assassinations, while Islamist groups began an armed uprising against the new regime.

According to Robert Gates, on July 3, 1979 President Jimmy Carter signed a directive giving covert aid to the Islamists fighting the Afghan regime. [1] Ultimately the Soviet Union made the dire mistake of invading the “graveyard of empires” on Dec. 27, 1979, to protect its interests, unleashing an occupation that would last until Feb. 15, 1989. While the Soviets armed and trained their puppets in Kabul, the U.S. and Britain armed and trained the “Afghan Freedom Fighters”, i.e., Islamic extremists, with billions of dollars worth of arms, including thousands of advanced surface-to-air “Stinger” missiles. Of course, none of the artists involved in the AKA Peace exhibit mention any of the above history, they can only wring their hands over those scary looking AK-47s.

"Commodities" - Bran Symondson. Assemblage on decommissioned Kalashnikov rifle. 2012.

"Commodities" - Bran Symondson. Assemblage on decommissioned Kalashnikov rifle. 2012.

And why the focus on the AK-47 rifle to begin with? How can an aversion to a single weapon, the Kalashnikov rifle, be equated to a morally principled stance regarding opposition to war?

Over the decades the AK has been utilized by dictatorial states, as well as those revolutionaries seeking to overthrow them, so the question is not the Kalashnikov, but the use of violence to effect change. It all makes me think of the American Civil War; how would slavery for 3 million people in bondage have ended without the force of arms?

One could say the American Civil War was the first modern war, in that many of the arms used were the result of mass production and technological innovations. For its day, the Springfield Model 1861 could have been called “the most devastating weapon in the world”. Weighing 9 pounds and firing a massive .58 caliber round, it was certainly a devastating rifle. But was the Springfield “evil” by virtue of it being a firearm? Northern soldiers, including former slaves, shouldered the Springfield rifle in the Union Army in order to put an end to the system of slavery, were they wrong to do so?

Though I deeply respect pacifism as a philosophy, I am not committed to it myself, and I do not believe the organizers of AKA Peace truly have faith in it either. In an interview with GQ regarding the exhibit, Bran Symondson disclosed that Sir Winston Churchill is one of his biggest heroes. That is an odd choice of champions for an “antiwar” activist. Churchill once declared: “If you will not fight for right when you can easily win without blood shed; if you will not fight when your victory is sure and not too costly; you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a precarious chance of survival. There may even be a worse case. You may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than to live as slaves.”

Given that AKA Peace was organized by British artists, it might have focused on Britain’s Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS), now deployed by Her Majesty’s Royal Artillery in Afghanistan. The artillery piece fires twelve 200 pound high explosive rockets guided by a global positioning system. I hear the tremendously effective rockets rarely miss their intended targets - collateral damage not withstanding. AKA Peace artists might also have enjoyed decorating a few dozen L118 “Dragon” Light Guns, the 105mm artillery piece Her Majesty’s Royal Artillery uses to pulverize whoever it might be walking around at the limits of the gun’s effective range of 10 miles.

British soldiers in Afghanistan firing a 105mm round at Taliban fighters from their "Dragon" L118 Light Gun. Photo by Sergeant Anthony Bookock for the U.K. Ministry of Defense/© Crown Copyright/MOD 2008.

British soldiers in Afghanistan firing a 105mm round at Taliban fighters from their "Dragon" L118 Light Gun. Photo by Sergeant Anthony Bookock for the U.K. Ministry of Defense/© Crown Copyright/MOD 2008.

I am certain the Taliban would happily trade in thousands of their old battle-worn AK-47 rifles for a few modern British GMLRS and Dragon artillery pieces - so, which is the more “devastating weapon in the world”?

Granted, the Dragon artillery piece does not provide much of a canvas in terms of areas to affix dollar bills, paste jewelry, or splattered paint, but that is the challenge of being an artist. Imagine if the Chapman Brothers could have given a Dragon artillery piece their Yin and Yang treatment. Talk about a phallic symbol!

AKA Peace was not an antiwar exhibit; it ignored history and kept clear of any critique of ultra-nationalism, militarism, or imperialism. It did not critically assess the economic and political reasons that give rise to war. It had nothing to say about fundamentalist religious extremism, nor did it even present an elemental pacifist stance regarding warfare. The exhibit essentially depoliticized war, the most political of all issues. It was not a loathing of state violence that served as the foundational view of the show so much as it was an irrational and morbid fear of firearms. AKA Peace was one of the most simplistic responses I have seen from artists reacting to real world political issues.

It was a huge and unforgivable failing that the artists and organizers of AKA Peace chose to demonize a particular rifle, the AK-47, while evading the policies and geo-political interests that have turned Afghanistan into a killing field.

There are many delicious ironies about our present world situation that AKA Peace managed to miss, and that is no small matter for a crowd of artists beholden to the irony-obsessed school of postmodernism.  If looking for irony, one could toss the entire exhibit in the rubbish bin and focus on the words of Yevgeny Y. Satanovsky, the president of the Institute of the Middle East in Moscow. Quoted in a New York Times article regarding Russian opinion of U.S. policy in the Middle East, in particular their view of the Islamic terror attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya that took place on Sept. 11, 2012, Mr. Satanovsky said:

“You are the Soviet Union now, guys, and you pay the price. You are trying to distribute democracy the way we tried to distribute socialism. You do it the Western way. They hate both. They lynched Qaddafi - do you really think they will be thankful to you? They use stupid white people from a big rich and stupid country which they really hate.”

I invite the group of participating artists in the AKA Peace exhibit to mull over Satanovsky’s words.


UPDATE 12/24/2013: Mikhail Kalashnikov died in Izhevsk, Russia on December 23, 2013 at the age of 94.


[1] “From the Shadows”. Written by Robert M. Gates, former head of the C.I.A. under President George H.W. Bush, and also former Secretary of Defense under President Obama.

Libros No Bombas - Books Not Bombs

Libros No Bombas (Books Not Bombs). Mark Vallen ©. 6" x 11" inch postcard reproduction of an original oil painting.

"Libros No Bombas - Books Not Bombs". Mark Vallen © 6" x 11" inch postcard.

My painting, Libros No Bombas (Books Not Bombs), was one of two canvases I premiered at the exhibition, ¡ADELANTE! Mexican American Artists: 1960s and Beyond, which took place at the Forest Lawn Museum in Glendale, California from September 9, 2011 through January 1, 2012. The painting is now available online as a 6″ x 11″ inch full-color postcard reproduction (pictured above); the same card sold in the museum gift shop throughout the duration of the exhibit.

Printed on heavy card stock, the postcards are blank on the backside and are available directly from Art For A Change in packets of 5 postcards for $6.50, plus $3.50 for shipping in the U.S.

The cards can be purchased here. Teachers, parents, and students are encouraged to buy the packs of cards and share them with friends and associates.

At first glance Libros No Bombas seems only a simple portrait of a teenage girl, but the background story of the artwork and how I invite viewers to consider it, is what gives the painting its socio-political significance. Witnessing thousands of youthful antiwar activists at the 2010 Chicano Moratorium protest in East Los Angeles inspired me to paint this portrait of a young Mexican-American student toting a backpack. I wanted my canvas to give a picture of the idealism of youth striving for decent education in these times of economic collapse, draconian government cutbacks, and endless war.

“Books Not Bombs!” was a slogan written on placards and chanted during L.A.’s 2010 Chicano Moratorium protest, however the catchphrase belongs to people everywhere who work for an end of illiteracy and under-education as suffered in underprivileged working class communities. My artwork reminds viewers that overworked and underpaid teachers, ill-equipped schools, shrinking education resources, and austerity budgets are the social costs of an economic system tied to empire and militarism.

At the time of this posting, a U.S. sailor became the 3,000th U.S.-led “international coalition” soldier to have died in the Afghanistan war since 2001. During that same period the National Priorities Project estimates the U.S. has spent over $532,475,000,000 on the Afghan war. As Detroit city officials literally begin to turn off nearly half of the city’s streetlights for lack of cash, the Obama administration talks of a “partial withdrawal” from Afghanistan by 2014. It is time for the wars to end, the soldiers to come home… and for America to turn the lights back on.

 "Libros No Bombas" (Detail). Mark Vallen ©

"Libros No Bombas - Books Not Bombs" (Detail) Mark Vallen ©

The War Is Finished!

 "The war is finished! Let's go home!" - Poster printed in Russian and distributed in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation.

"The war is finished! Let's go home!" - Poster printed in Russian and distributed in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation.

In 1983 a poster appeared on walls all across Soviet occupied Afghanistan. The print featured a tough Soviet Red Army soldier kneeling in the snow, smashing his Kalashnikov automatic rifle over his knee while roaring - “The war is finished! Let’s go home!”

I thought of that poster when President Obama announced on Dec. 16, 2010 that there was “significant progress” in his war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Mr. Obama was telling the press about his administration’s “review” of Afghan war strategy when he proclaimed, “Thanks to the extraordinary service of our troops and civilians on the ground, we are on track to achieve our goals.”

This month marks the one year anniversary of the president deploying 30,000 extra combat troops to Afghanistan. Of course, the president’s claims of success are contradicted by the grim findings of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) conducted for the president by 16 U.S. intelligence agencies. According to the NIE, as the Los Angeles Times reported, “large swaths of Afghanistan are still at risk of falling to the Taliban.”

Norine MacDonald, president of the policy research group, The International Council on Security and Development, made the following remark about Obama’s Dec. 16 war strategy review, “It… is primarily for U.S. domestic political consumption.” Indeed, does anyone believe Mr. Obama’s assertion that “our goals” in Afghanistan are on the verge of being met, and that U.S. troops will start their withdrawal next year?

In 1983 Vincanzo Sparagna and Savik Shuster published a mock version of the official Red Army newspaper, Red Star, and distributed the broadside in Soviet occupied Afghanistan. The counterfeit paper carried a proclamation that it was published in 1984 and written by “soldiers coming from all the principle garrisons of the Soviet Union.” The bogus paper announced; “The war of invasion is finished! There’s unexpected peace in Afghanistan! Soviet and Mujahideen troops are fraternizing! Comrades, our true enemy finally sleeps! Destroy your weapons and let us return home. The war is finished!” The parody Red Army newspaper featured the bold illustration of the Soviet Red Army soldier destroying his Kalashnikov rifle that is shown above.

Sparagna and Shuster set up their operations in Peshawar, Pakistan, where they contacted and made alliances with Pakistani based Afghan Islamic guerrillas who were crossing into Afghanistan to wage “holy war” on the Soviet occupiers. Sparagna and Shuster supplied the Afghan mujahideen with thousands of copies of their phony Red Star newspaper, and the Islamic guerrillas plastered the posters on walls all over Afghanistan, sometimes right under the noses of the Soviet Red Army. Sparagna and Shuster were two journalists who worked for the monthly Italian magazine, Frigidaire, but the story of their poster collaboration with the mujahideen was covered in magazines in Austria (Wiener), Italy (Current, Frigidare) and Spain (Interviu). The French magazine Actuel, which also ran the story at the time, reported that Soviet and Afghan soldiers actually surrendered or defected to the mujahideen while clutching the “War is Finished!” poster.

Sparagna and Shuster’s poster campaign could have been part of the massive covert undertaking designed to undermine the Soviets in Afghanistan that was carried out by the CIA in the 1980s; the only mystery being whether Sparagna and Shuster were dupes of the Cold War intelligence operation or were instead willing accomplices in the venture. It is amazing to think back to the 1980s when Americans viewed the Islamic guerrillas of Afghanistan in a favorable light. In the archives of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library one can find Reagan’s Proclamation 5034, where in 1983 he proclaimed March 21st to be “Afghanistan Day,” a time for Americans to celebrate - in Reagan’s illustrious words:

“an extraordinary people who, in their determination to preserve the character of their ancient land, have organized an effective and still spreading country-wide resistance. The resistance of the Afghan freedom fighters is an example to all the world of the invincibility of the ideals we in this country hold most dear, the ideals of freedom and independence. (….) It is, therefore, incumbent upon us as Americans to reflect on the events in Afghanistan, to think about the agony which these brave people bear, and to maintain our condemnation of the continuing Soviet occupation.”

The U.S. has entered its 10th year of war and occupation in Afghanistan, the only change in all of those years being that Barack Obama is now the Commander in Chief. When George W. Bush launched Operation Enduring Freedom on October 7, 2001, I remembered the copy of Actuel magazine I purchased back in 1983. The French monthly had published a reproduction of the “War is finished! Let’s go home!” poster as an illustration to its article on Sparagna and Shuster’s poster campaign. As the U.S. bombs rained on Afghanistan, I wrote and posted an essay titled The War Is Finished!, which you can read here; the piece of writing was based on the facts recounted in Actuel regarding Sparagna and Shuster’s notorious print and how it was utilized to help defeat the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

We should all be haunted by the truism that “Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires,” as well as by the thoroughly reactionary politics behind Ronald Reagan’s “Afghanistan Day” proclamation. And speaking of the great communicator, since March 21, 2011, is only two and a half months away I would like to take the opportunity in advance to wish the readers of my web log a glorious “Afghanistan Day.”

A Great Nation Deserves Great Tanks

"Light wages - heavy tanks." Silkscreen street poster produced by an anonymous artist from the Atelier Populaire collective during the Paris student/worker revolt of May 1968.

"Light wages - heavy tanks." Silkscreen street poster produced by an anonymous artist from the Atelier Populaire collective during the Paris student/worker revolt of May 1968.

Few artworks from the 20th century make the connection between war production and the impoverishment of society as clearly as the French poster from May 1968, “Light wages - heavy tanks.”

Created by an anonymous artist from the Atelier Populaire collective that was active in Paris during the student/worker revolt of May ‘68, the poster came to mind when I read the news that the Obama administration was further escalating the war in Afghanistan. On Nov. 19, 2010, U.S. defense officials confirmed that a company of M1A1 Abrams Battle Tanks - 16 in all - are being deployed to Afghanistan; it will be the first time the U.S. has used tanks in the nine-year long Afghan war.

Manufactured by General Dynamics Land Systems (formerly “Chrysler Defense,” a division of the Chrysler Group), each M1A1 Abrams Battle Tank costs $6.21 million. Weighing 68-tons, the M1A1 is equipped with two 7.62 M240 machine guns, a .50 caliber M2 machine gun, and a 120mm cannon that can pinpoint and destroy a building from a mile away. The tank has a crew of 4, carries 40 standard armor piercing or depleted uranium cannon rounds, and is also equipped with a full array of computerized targeting and control systems. The heavily armored tank is the most advanced combat vehicle in existence.

On Nov. 19, 2010, the Pentagon correspondent for CNN, Barbara Starr, reported that the M1A1 Abrams Battle Tank uses “300 gallons of fuel in 8 hours.” In my Dec. 1, 2009 article, “Hey, Hey, LBJ…” President Lyndon Baines Johnson in Poster Art: 1962-1968, I wrote that Pentagon officials “stated that it costs an average of $400 to put a single gallon of fuel into a combat vehicle in Afghanistan.” Surely that price has gone up since I published my article, but when considering Obama’s deployment of M1A1 tanks to Afghanistan, let us examine the cost in dollars.

Based on the Pentagon’s 2009 cost estimate for fuel, that would mean running a single M1A1 tank for 8 hours a day would cost approximately $120,000. Running 16 tanks for 8 hours a day would cost roughly $1,920,000. To run 16 tanks 8 hours a day for 1 month would cost $57,600,000. Running 16 tanks 8 hours a day for a one year period would cost $691,200,000. Fueling those 16 tanks for 4 years of war - the minimal amount of time spent at war that Obama and NATO have agreed will be necessary before the “beginning” of U.S. troop withdrawals - that cost will be $2,764,800,000. Yes, that is correct - the cost would approach 3 billion dollars.

The costs above are for fuel only, and do not include tank maintenance, ammunition, compensating the crews and associated costs, i.e., medical, veterans benefits, etc. The above calculation also does not include inflationary costs, or the likely expansion of the one company tank force of 16 to include dozens more of the heavily armored combat vehicles. In its Nov. 19 report on Obama’s tank deployment, The Washington Post quoted an unnamed U.S. officer saying that “The tanks bring, awe, shock and firepower - it’s pretty significant.” The paper also quoted that same officer as saying the number of tanks deployed could expand “depending on needs.”

Here I must note that President Obama’s budget for fiscal year 2011 includes the meager sum of $161.3 million for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA); an amount that will cover the cultural and artistic needs of the entire U.S. for one year. This of course means that Mr. Obama will be spending more than four times the annual NEA budget in order to fuel 16 battle tanks in Afghanistan for a period of just one year - that is, $691,200,000. There are many vital social services in the U.S. that could use such a cash infusion, but since my web log is devoted to an examination of art and its intersection with politics, I am restricting my commentary to the nation’s arts budget.

The NEA’s slogan is “A great nation deserves great art,” but it seems there are those who believe that it is not great art that we need, but great tanks.

The Madonna of the Napalm

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Stolen Paper Editions, Mill Valley, California. Offset poster. 1967. 57.5 x 31.5 cm. Sharp's poster depicted U.S. President Johnson, the pro-war Australian Prime Minister John Gorton, and the U.S. backed South Vietnamese Prime Minister, Nguyen Cao Kỳ.

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Stolen Paper Editions, Mill Valley, California. Offset poster. 1967. 57.5 x 31.5 cm. Sharp's poster depicted U.S. President Johnson, U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, the pro-war Australian Prime Minister John Gorton, and the U.S. backed South Vietnamese Prime Minister, Nguyen Cao Kỳ.

Back on December 1, 2009 I wrote an illustrated article titled Hey, Hey, LBJ…, an essay concerning U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson as depicted in anti-Vietnam war posters from the 1960s. I self-published my treatise on the occasion of President Obama deploying 30,000 U.S. combat troops to Afghanistan.

While there are obvious differences between the Vietnam and Afghan wars, the parallels are striking. This article revisits the historic posters of the 60s that excoriated President Johnson for escalating the war in Southeast Asia, by examining a specific silkscreen print not included in Hey, Hey, LBJ…, - Martin Sharp’s The Madonna of the Napalm.

Sharp’s poster was created in 1967, and it is a good example of how the alternative culture of the 60s meshed with the antiwar activism of the period, however, an evaluation of the poster brings up unavoidable questions regarding the present day U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan. Sharp’s Madonna of the Napalm is a biting condemnation, not just of military conflict, but of third world dictators, the compromised political leaders of Western democracies, religious piety distorted by fanaticism, and the overall decrepitude of “liberal” society rendered insane by imperialist war. We have not seen the likes of this poster since the late 1960s, but given the painful similarity between Obama’s Afghan catastrophe and Johnson’s Vietnam disaster, we ought to see such posters proliferate in the near future.

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Offset poster. U.S. President Johnson is depicted in this poster detail.

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Offset poster. U.S. President Johnson is depicted in this poster detail.

To start with, Sharp’s poster is a gem when it comes to psychedelia. His acerbic but fanciful caricatures were drawn with detailed though fluid pen lines, and when combined with vibrant fluorescent orange and black ink, an eye-popping visual was achieved. Moreover, Sharp’s semi-Gothic, neo-Art Nouveau style was the very epitome of psychedelic aesthetics.

One can only imagine the excitement his poster generated when viewed under the “black light” displays that were so popular during the sixties. But this was not simply another day-glo poster from the Aquarian Age, it was an angry political diatribe against the centers of power and fully intended to help incapacitate the war machine. Sharp’s Madonna of the Napalm represents a sub-genre rarely mentioned in modern-day coffee-table books dealing with psychedelic prints from the sixties - that of the political protest poster.

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Offset poster. Nguyen Cao Kỳ is depicted in this poster detail. Kỳ served as Prime Minister of South Vietnam from 1965 to 1967, then served as Vice President until 1971.

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Offset poster. Nguyen Cao Kỳ is depicted in this poster detail. Kỳ served as Prime Minister of South Vietnam from 1965 to 1967, then served as Vice President until 1971.

The central character in the poster is a depiction of President Johnson as an ancient Byzantine Madonna figure, but there is nothing sacred about this icon, who wears an imposing radiating nimbus made from rifles.

Floating in the heavens behind this demonic sham Madonna are skull-faced, black-winged angels of death. The unholy mother of war clutches a mortar shell in one claw, and a deformed puppet general in the other.

The general, with a glowing halo made from the U.S. flag, is none other than the U.S. backed Nguyen Cao Kỳ, who served as Prime Minister of South Vietnam from 1965 to 1967, and then served as the Vice President until he retired in 1971. Kỳ originally received military training from the French army, who founded the Vietnamese National Army (VNA) to help assist in their colonial control of “French Indochina.” Kỳ served the French well, but in 1954 when they finally departed Vietnam in military defeat, the VNA was reorganized into the American supplied and controlled “Army of the Republic of Vietnam” (ARVN).

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Offset poster. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, is depicted in this poster detail.

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Offset poster. U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, is depicted in this poster detail.

The background of Sharp’s Madonna of the Napalm presents some interesting character studies. At bottom left one can see Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense for Presidents John F. Kennedy and LBJ, and a primary architect of the U.S. war on Vietnam.

Starting out with the firm belief that the U.S. could win the war militarily, by May 1967 McNamara informed LBJ that the war was “becoming increasingly unpopular as it escalates - causing more American casualties, more fear of its growing into a wider war, more privation of the domestic sector, and more distress at the amount of suffering being visited on the noncombatants in Vietnam, South and North.” Six months later LBJ would remove McNamara from his post.

Contrast McNamara’s remarks to those made in May of 2010 by Obama’s Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who said; “We’re not leaving Afghanistan prematurely, in fact, we’re not ever leaving at all.”

An anthropomorphized kangaroo figure holding a boomerang is depicted in the upper left corner of the poster; the caricature is of John Gorton, the pro-Vietnam war Prime Minister of Australia who governed from January 1968 to March 1971. Under Gorton’s administration around 8,000 Australian soldiers assisted the U.S. by fighting in Vietnam, but Australian public opinion turned against the war - hence the boomerang.

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Offset poster. The pro-war Australian Prime Minister, John Gorton, is depicted in this poster detail.

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Offset poster. The Australian Prime Minister, John Gorton, is depicted in this poster detail.

On May 1, 1970, over 200,000 people gathered in Melbourne, Australia for a mass protest dubbed the “Vietnam War Moratorium March.” Eventually some 50,000 Australian soldiers would be rotated into the war, around 3,000 would be wounded, and nearly 600 were killed. The last Australian soldiers would finally be withdrawn from Vietnam in 1972.

Since I first published Hey, Hey, LBJ…, on December 1, 2009, there have been numerous developments in Mr. Obama’s ever escalating war. In Dec. 2009 U.S. military fatalities in Afghanistan stood at 947, as of this writing 364 U.S. soldiers have been added to that list, for a total of 1,317 killed.

As our Nobel Peace Prize Laureate President intensifies his war, those casualty rates are rising. There are now around 100,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan along with 52,000 allied NATO troops. The Afghan war is the longest in U.S. history, The ninth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan falls on October 7, 2010.

[The Madonna of the Napalm poster image was provided to me by Lincoln Cushing -]

I Am Not The Enemy

Hundreds of people gathered on the grounds of the Japanese American National Museum on Sept. 9, 2010, for a candlelight vigil in support of the constitutional rights of Muslim Americans. The banner reads, "In Remembrance… Embrace Life. Justice Not Revenge - Oppose Hate Crimes." Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Hundreds of people gathered on the grounds of the Japanese American National Museum on Sept. 9, 2010, for a candlelight vigil in support of the constitutional rights of Muslim Americans. The banner reads, "In Remembrance… Embrace Life. Justice Not Revenge - Oppose Hate Crimes." Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

I will never forget waking up on September 11, 2001 to the spectacle of the Twin Towers being hit by missile-like planes. That day I turned on morning television only to see those slow motion videos of doom and destruction; I watched with eyes full of tears and heart full of dread.

Nearly 3,000 people perished in the terror attack, but I felt there was something much worse yet to come.

In the immediate aftermath of the horrendous crimes committed on Sept. 11, thousands of racially motivated attacks took place in the U.S. that targeted anyone who “looked Arab.” Mosques were vandalized and firebombed. Arab-Americans, Muslims, and South Asians were harassed, beaten, and killed. As the attacks intensified, I responded by creating an artwork titled, I Am Not The Enemy, which was nothing more than a plea for sanity and religious tolerance. The political atmosphere at the time reminded me of another era, the days after the Japanese Empire attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in 1941, and “patriotic” Americans unleashed their fury upon innocent Japanese-American citizens. President Roosevelt would issue Executive Order 9066, sending 120,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast to what the president himself called “concentration camps.”

Participants in the vigil at the Japanese American National Museum plaza hold copies of my poster, "I Am Not The Enemy." Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Participants in the vigil at the Japanese American National Museum plaza hold copies of my poster, "I Am Not The Enemy." Photo and artworks by Mark Vallen ©.

Nine years after 9/11, 5,697 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan to this date, and President Obama has escalated the Afghan war. Untold numbers of Iraqi and Afghan civilians have perished, and Islamophobia in the U.S. has increased. A proposed Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan has turned into a frenzied national campaign of hate against all things Islamic - and I fear a terrible violence will follow.

Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Photo and artwork by Mark Vallen ©.

Accordingly, when I was informed that a candlelight vigil against hate crimes would be held at the Japanese American National Museum in downtown Los Angeles, I was eager to attend.

Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress (NCRR) and the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), worked in cooperation with the Japanese American National Museum to organize the silent candlelight vigil; the objective was to express support for Muslim Americans and their constitutional rights, as well as to condemn religious intolerance.

The vigil took place during the evening of September 9, 2010, and nearly 200 people, mostly Japanese Americans, gathered on the plaza in front of the museum. I distributed a few dozen copies of my I Am Not The Enemy poster to those assembled, and the prints were warmly received.

The public relations director of the Japanese American National Museum, Chris Komai, addressed the crowd, which was incredibly significant in and of itself. Most museums are aloof when it comes to real world issues and community affairs, and one does not ordinarily think of museum personnel taking part - officially or otherwise - in political protests of any kind.

Around 200 people filled the Japanese American National Museum plaza for the silent, candlelight vigil. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Around 200 people filled the Japanese American National Museum plaza for the silent, candlelight vigil. Photo and artwork by Mark Vallen ©.

I was unfortunately unable to hear Komai’s oration as I was busy taking the pictures you see in this article, however, I would like to point out that the Japanese American National Museum has the following in their mission statement; “We share the story of Japanese Americans because we honor our nation’s diversity. We believe in the importance of remembering our history to better guard against the prejudice that threatens liberty and equality in a democratic society.” By providing space on their grounds for the vigil, the museum more than lived up to their mission statement, and their example should be followed by other museums and arts institutions.

It was heartening to see that a good portion of the vigil was composed of young people. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

It was heartening to see that a good portion of the vigil was composed of young people. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Also addressing the vigil was the Reverend Mark Nakagawa, who talked about his work with the Nikkei Interfaith Council, a grouping of Christian Churches and Buddhist Temples in the Little Tokyo area. He spoke of how the council was engaged in outreach programs with the Islamic community of Los Angeles in these times of crisis, and urged one and all to defend the democratic rights of Muslim Americans.

Rev. Nakagawa outlined his work with the Christian-Muslim Consultative Group of Southern California, which was founded in 2006 for the express purpose of bringing Christians and Muslims together “to enhance mutual understanding, respect, appreciation, and support of the Sacred in each other.”

The Rev. Nakagawa’s impassioned call for religious freedom was followed by a short address from Noriaki Ito of the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple. An outstanding member of the Japanese American community in Los Angeles, Ito currently sits on the Board of Directors of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, and served as the Past Chair of the Little Tokyo Community Council. He is actively involved in the preservation of L.A.’s Little Tokyo district. Mr. Ito came to the vigil wearing a formal black and white “wagesa” (Buddhist robe), and he spoke with the wisdom of a Buddhist Kyoshi (teaching priest), calling for unity between all people of faith, and the defeat of religious intolerance.

Ms. Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, who was forced into the Manzanar "internment" camp at age 17, addresses the vigillers. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Ms. Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, who was forced into the Manzanar "internment" camp at age 17, addresses the vigillers. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Ms. Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga gave the most powerful of testimonies during the vigil. A California-born U.S. citizen, Aiko and her family were swept up in the relocation of “enemy aliens” after President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 in 1942. As a 17-year-old she and her family were sent to the Manzanar War Relocation Center, a barracks-like camp in California where she gave birth to her daughter under crude living conditions. Aiko and family were transferred to the bleak Jerome internment camp in Arkansas, where they remained imprisoned until 1944.

As Aiko described her life in the Manzanar and Jerome internment camps, from the same spot where thousands of Japanese Americans had been shipped off to those unwelcoming camps all those years ago, tears came to my eyes.

The same demons of racism, ignorance, and fear that sent Aiko to those wretched camps are once again plaguing U.S. society (did they ever go away), only this time they are pursuing Muslim Americans. The 86-year-old Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, speaking passionately and with great authority, exhorted vigillers from a megaphone to defend the civil liberties of Muslim Americans as they would defend their own.

California State Assemblymember Warren Furutani, also addressed the vigil, and in his eloquent way urged people to stand united with their “Muslim brothers and sisters” in opposing all forms of racism, discrimination, and religious intolerance. Mr. Furutani waxed poetic as he railed against certain sectors of U.S. society, “where hate can be purchased wholesale,” an obvious reference to the right-wing “talk” radio hosts who daily spew out vile and unbearable lies about Islam and Muslim Americans.

Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Photo and artworks by Mark Vallen ©.

Jan Tokumaru of Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress, read a statement at the vigil that had been published by the NCRR for the occasion. It read in part;

“Nine years ago - just days after Sept. 11 - Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress (NCRR), along with other organizations including the Japanese American Citizens League, the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, the Japanese American National Museum and the Little Tokyo Service Center, sponsored a candlelight vigil in Little Tokyo to remember the victims of 9/11 and to speak in defense of Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, and South Asians who were being maligned as ‘terrorists,’ physically attacked, and even murdered in places such as Arizona. Since 9/11, attempts to marginalize and target Muslim Americans as a ’suspect’ community sympathetic to terrorist incidents throughout the world continue.

(….) Japanese Americans remember all too well how it feels to be a community singled out with suspicion, marginalized and viciously attacked by the media. Despite many efforts to show their loyalty to this country, Japanese were not trusted as reflected in General DeWitt’s statements: ‘A Jap is a Jap,’ and ‘I have no confidence in their loyalty whatsoever.’ The constant barrage of lies in the media became accepted as truth by the American public.

(….) Although the situation is not as dire for Muslim Americans now as it was for Japanese Americans during World War II, NCRR is concerned that the climate of intolerance and fear being created could, under certain circumstances, lead to the stripping of civil liberties and religious freedom for Muslim Americans. Even worse is the violence resulting from such ignorance, such as the stabbing in New York last month of a 44-year-old taxi driver after his passenger asked if he was a Muslim.

(….) NCRR encourages Japanese Americans and all Americans to speak out against anti-Muslim lies and attacks. At a speech given several years ago, Dr. Maher Hathout, a Muslim American leader, said ‘as long as there is one candle lit, there is no darkness.’ Speaking symbolically, he was referring to the struggle of the Palestinian people against occupation - that as long as there was even one person willing to struggle against injustice, there could not be total darkness or oppression. In a similar spirit, NCRR hopes that many candles can be lit on Sept. 9, to show the American people’s commitment to the truth - not lies and distortions - and for justice, peace, religious freedom, and equality - precious values that we hold dear.”

At the end of the vigil, organizers asked participants to form a giant peace sign by grouping themselves together around an outline drawn on the museum’s plaza. A handful of photographers, myself included, were given access to the museum’s rooftop to take photos of the event. The aim was to present a gift - an image of solidarity and peace - to the beleaguered Muslim citizens of the United States.

As of this writing, save for one solitary article published by the Rafu Shimpo Japanese daily newspaper of Los Angeles, not a single news media source in the U.S. (aside from this web log), has reported on the silent vigil that took place at the Japanese American National Museum.

At the end of the vigil, participants formed a giant peace sign in the museum's plaza. This photograph was taken from the museum's rooftop. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

At the end of the vigil, participants formed a giant peace sign in the museum's plaza. This photograph was taken from the museum's rooftop. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

[A full listing of the speakers at the vigil includes - Reverend Mark Nakagawa of the Centenary Methodist Church; Noriaki Ito, Rinban (head minister) of the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple; Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, a WWII internee; Dana Fujiko Heatherton, 2009 Nisei Week Queen and a J-Town Voice activist concerned with the preservation of L.A.'s Little Tokyo, California State Assemblymember Warren Furutani, Jan Tokumaru of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, Aziza Hasan from the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and Ilham Elkoustaf from the Council on American Islamic Relations.]

Obama Reduces Arts Funding

On February 1, 2010, President Obama released his proposed budget for fiscal year 2011, which includes funding cuts to both the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The funding to each institution will be cut by more than $6 million, dropping their current budgets of $167.5 million to $161.3 million. The President’s proposed budgets for the NEA and the NEH are at the same levels he requested last year, $161.3 million, but far less than the current budgets approved by the U.S. Congress. No matter how one looks at the President’s proposed arts budget – it represents a major reduction in arts funding. The National Gallery of Art also had its budget of $167 million trimmed to $162.8, a reduction of $4.2 million. Here I must reiterate what I wrote back in February of 2009 – that the average budget for a Hollywood blockbuster movie is $200 million.

The National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs (NCACA) program was slammed particularly hard by the Obama administration. NCACA provides grants to non-profit cultural organizations that provide Washington with art exhibitions and performing arts – and more than half of its budget was slashed. The NCACA budget was cut from $9.5 million to $4.5 million. The National Symphony Orchestra is just one of the many past recipients of NCACA grant monies.

President Obama also wants the U.S. Department of Education to fully absorb the federally sponsored Arts in Education (AIE) program, consolidating it within the Department of Education under the obscure category of “Effective Teaching and Learning for Well-Rounded Education.” The AIE program provides support for arts education in public schools, and it partners with arts organizations to help students achieve arts literacy. To “consolidate,” or fold the AIE into the Department of Education is to considerably weaken the arts program. The president of Americans for the Arts, Robert L. Lynch, issued the following statement on the matter:

“This consolidation of the only identified arts-specific education program at the Department of Education seems to be in contradiction to the Administration’s previous strong vocal support of the arts. While the total available AIE grant funds are unknown at this time, it is an unbeneficial move at a time when arts education cuts are happening across the country.”

President Obama is cutting arts funding at a time when the nation’s arts community is suffering from the worst economic slump since the Great Depression. The signs exist in all areas of cultural life in the U.S., from slow or non-existent sales at small art galleries to the strangulation of major symphony orchestras because of plummeting ticket sales and dwindling endowments. The Honolulu Symphony recently declared bankruptcy and closed, and it appears the same fate awaits the Philadelphia Symphony. Museums across the U.S. continue to cut staff and programs, some have closed as the economy remains stagnant and endowments shrink. States across the U.S. are making extreme cuts to arts funding, for instance, the Democratic Governor of New York State, David Paterson, has submitted a 2010-11 budget that will slash $9.6 million from the arts.

Theater companies from coast to coast have been hard hit by the economic downturn, the legendary Pasadena Playhouse being a good example, its final curtain call came on February 7, 2010 with a closing performance of “Camelot.” Founded in 1917, the historic theater company was declared the State Theater of California in 1937, and it gave world premieres to plays by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’ Neill, and other notables. Actors who got their start at the playhouse include Charles Bronson, Raymond Burr, Victor Mature, Sally Struthers, Dustin Hoffman, and dozens of others. With falling ticket sales and endowments in decline, the Playhouse was forced to go out of business – adding 37 more workers to the millions already unemployed.

I could cite other examples of the painful economic realities now confronting the U.S. arts community, but I think the dimensions of the crisis are understood. However, a discussion of government arts funding cannot take place as if it were unrelated to larger issues. It should be emphasized that while President Obama is cutting funding for the arts, he is simultaneously making significant increases in military spending, in fact, the Pentagon’s own statistics show Obama is now spending more on the military than did former President Bush.

President Obama’s budget for fiscal year 2011 includes $548.9 billion for a “baseline” military budget, plus $159.3 billion for “overseas contingency operations” (the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). His “surge” of 30,000 combat troops to Afghanistan will cost an additional $33 billion (Germany’s entire military budget for FY 2010 is $44 billion), bringing the Pentagon budget to $741.2 billion. Unofficially, billions more will go towards funding covert operations and employing over 200,000 military “contractors” (mercenaries) in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Also contained in President Obama’s 2011 budget is an additional $5 billion for modernizing U.S. nuclear weapons stockpiles and facilities. As Vice President Joe Biden put it: “This investment is long overdue. It will strengthen our ability to recruit, train and retain the skilled people we need to maintain our nuclear capabilities.” What if $5 billion had instead been allocated to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Why is it so hard to imagine such a thing?

President Obama’s 2011 budget includes an increase of around 8% for the National Science Foundation (NSF), bringing that key agency’s budget to around $7.8 billion. Obama has stated his intention to double the agency’s budget over a ten-year period. I can think of few things more valuable to the advancement of humanity than scientific research, and I have a high regard for the scientific community, so I think the NSF budget is appropriate. However, civilizations are never judged solely on the amount of scientific knowledge they possess, the arts and sciences are linked, they are the twin guiding lights by which we assess the worth of any society. The United States is an enormously powerful country blessed with incredible resources, surely its primary arts agencies – the NEA and the NEH – both conceived to serve the cultural needs of the entire nation, deserve budgets that are much larger than $161.3 million.

His gargantuan military budget aside, Obama announced in his Jan. 27, 2010 State of the Union address that he would initiate a total three-year freeze on all government spending – exempting the Pentagon and entitlement programs – beginning in 2011. Obama’s exact words:

“Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years. Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will not be affected. But all other discretionary government programs will. Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don’t. And if I have to enforce this discipline by veto, I will. We will continue to go through the budget, line by line, page by page, to eliminate programs that we can’t afford and don’t work.  We’ve already identified $20 billion in savings for next year.”

It should not be forgotten that during the 2008 presidential race, Senator Obama repeatedly disparaged Senator John McCain for proposing a freeze on domestic spending. At the second debate held between the candidates on Oct 7, 2008, Sen. Obama said the following:

“I think it’s important for the president to set a tone that says all of us are going to contribute, all of us are going to make sacrifices, and it means that, yes, we may have to cut some spending, although I disagree with Sen. McCain about an across-the- board freeze. That’s an example of an unfair burden sharing. That’s using a hatchet to cut the federal budget. I want to use a scalpel so that people who need help are getting help and those of us, like myself and Sen. McCain, who don’t need help, aren’t getting it.”

Apparently our Peace Laureate President lost his scalpel, and so he has borrowed Sen. McCain’s hatchet.

Arts professionals in the U.S. thought President Obama would radically expand funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities (some recommending a budget of at least  $319.2 million), and that he would advocate the restoration of direct NEA grants to artists. It was anticipated that Obama would invest significant amounts of money in an arts curriculum for the public school system, and there were those who looked forward to Obama establishing a cabinet-level Secretary for Art and Culture, or at least a senior-level White House arts adviser. None of these expectations have been met, and the President’s three-year freeze on spending also guarantees that much of his highly praised Platform in Support Of The Arts (.pdf format) will never be implemented.

There are few bright spots for the arts in Obama’s 2011 budget. The president is requesting an increase of $38 million for the Smithsonian, a welcome increase that will bring the institution’s budget to $797.6 million. $140.5 million will be allocated to a number of other museums, mostly to repair and revitalize facilities. $20 million will go towards building the National Museum of African American History and Culture (scheduled to open in 2015), but all of those figures combined pale in comparison to what Obama is currently spending on his war in Afghanistan - $3.6 billion each month.

Press responses to President Obama defunding the arts have been notably subdued. Most reports barely mention the economic crisis if at all, none mention the contradictions of simultaneously cutting arts funding while significantly increasing military expenditures. A few press reports actually have an Orwellian flavor to them, as with the coverage from “,” which wrote: “President Obama may be proposing funding cuts for culture in his bleak 2011 budget, but he’s once again signaled an enlightened approach to the arts.”

In fairness Artinfo was referring to Obama appointing painter Chuck Close to sit on the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH). The Committee was created in 1982 by President Ronald Reagan, and it works with the NEA and NEH to support key arts programs; to recognize artistic excellence; and to advance private-public partnerships in the field of the arts and humanities. The Committee also established its own programs, like Save America’s Treasures (SAT), one of the most successful preservation programs engaged in saving America’s irreplaceable cultural heritage. Obama has totally eliminated SAT by terminating its funding in his FY 2011 budget. In describing Obama’s “enlightened approach to the arts,” Artinfo neglected to inform its readers that Close may be sitting on the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, but it is a committee significantly reduced by Obama’s deep cuts.

According to Pat Lally, the congressional affairs director for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, SAT “has helped preserve for future generations: Ellis Island, Mesa Verde National Park, Valley Forge, Thomas Edison’s Invention Factory, and the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’” That Obama would axe a program like SAT should serve as a wake-up call – the U.S. is in deep crisis, and circumstances are not improving.

The administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt faced appalling economic conditions in 1932 when first coming to power. The Great Depression was in full swing, tens of millions were out of work and breadlines appeared across the country. American workers demanded that something be done, and Roosevelt responded, not by freezing government spending, but by creating the biggest public works program in U.S. history. Some eight million Americans were put to work with FDR’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). FDR did not cut federal spending on the arts, instead he created an artist’s division of the WPA known as Federal Project Number One. Federal One programs employed well over 5,000 artists who were put to work creating murals, sculptures, posters, paintings, photographs, literature, and theatrical productions. Their works have become an enduring part of American art history.

April 8, 2010 will mark the 75th anniversary of the Works Progress Administration’s founding by an act of Congress. Commemorative events and exhibitions are planned across the country, including a march in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, April 10, 2010 to demand that President Obama enact a new public works jobs program…. but that is another blog post.