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 ©