Category: Artists and the Iraq 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.

Chris Bartlett: Iraqi Detainees

2014 marks the 10-year anniversary of the release of the infamous Abu Ghraib prison photographs, an event remembered by Iraqi Detainees, an unusual exhibition in Brooklyn, New York. The exhibit of photos by Chris Bartlett is evidence enough that the wounds from the U.S. war against Iraq that began on March 19, 2003 have not yet healed. But as I write this article on Sept. 23, 2014, President Obama’s order to conduct airstrikes against the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” in Syria is being carried out to deadly effect. On the first day of the new war, the U.S. launched some 47 cruise missiles from Navy warships and used drones, B-1 bombers, F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, as well as F-22 Raptor jet fighters to strike at ISIS extremists in northern Syria.

Obama the “Constitutional scholar” ordered the airstrikes despite not having Congressional authorization to back-up his actions, nor did the Nobel Peace Laureate seek a UN Security Council resolution to justify the new war. In touting the participation of the utterly corrupt Arab potentates of Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Qatar in supporting his bombing raids, Obama sought to give the appearance of a broad and “historic coalition.” In spite of this, U.S. military officials have stated that the U.S. has launched the vast majority of airstrikes. The president has placed the U.S. in the middle of a war that will only grow larger.

This 2003 photo taken by a U.S. military guard at Abu Ghraib prison, shows the torture of an Iraqi prisoner.

This 2003 photo taken by a U.S. military guard at Abu Ghraib prison, shows the torture of an Iraqi prisoner.

Now dragged into the Syrian quagmire, which will unquestionably be inherited by Obama’s successor, Americans should reflect on what was initially referred to as, “Operation Iraqi Liberation” (OIL), the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the eight-year long occupation that followed. One of that war’s many scandals was centered around how the U.S. Army and the CIA committed human rights abuses against the prisoners held at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison.

From 2003 to 2004, Iraqis were sexually abused and raped, tortured, beaten, humiliated, and killed in the Abu Ghraib prison by their American guards, some of whom documented their abuses with hand-held cameras. When a number of those photos became public in 2004, the notion of the U.S. being the international defender of human rights went up in smoke; the photograph of a hooded prisoner standing on a narrow box, his arms outstretched and connected to electric wires, can still be considered the iconic photo from that phase of the Iraq war.

The international arts community responded to the barbarous acts committed by Americans at Abu Ghraib prison, from the 2004-2005 paintings by famed Columbian artist Fernando Botero, to the 2004 Stop Bush artwork by the American minimalist sculptor Richard Serra. There were of course legions of artists that created works in opposition to the madness that was the Iraq war, but one has to ask the arts community, “now that the madness continues with Obama… what happened to all of your fury and indignation?”

Chris Bartlett’s Iraqi Detainees project is a reconsideration of those horrific Abu Ghraib prisoner photos. In 2006 Bartlett accompanied attorney Susan Burke on trips to Amman, Jordan and Istanbul, Turkey, to interview former Iraqi detainees held at Abu Ghraib. The interviews were conducted in preparing a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Defense regarding the detention and torture of prisoners. During that process Bartlett asked former prisoners, men and women, for their consent to be photographed; those photos served as the foundation for the Iraqi Detainees project.

Ali Shalal Qaissi - 2006 portrait photo by Chris Bartlett ©. Detained in Abu Ghraib prison from Oct. 3, 2003 to Oct. 13, 2004, Mr. Qaissi was beaten, hooded and electrocuted by his U.S. guards. Photo published with the kind permission of Mr. Bartlett.

Ali Shalal Qaissi - 2006 portrait photo by Chris Bartlett ©. Detained in Abu Ghraib prison from Oct. 3, 2003 to Oct. 13, 2004, Mr. Qaissi was beaten, hooded and electrocuted by his U.S. guards. Photo published with the kind permission of Mr. Bartlett.

Bartlett prefers to use natural lighting to capture his subjects, and this is the method he used in photographing the former Iraqi prisoners. Each individual was photographed against a black background, isolating extraneous details and compelling the viewer to face the subject head-on.

While Bartlett’s compassionate photos restore “humanity through beautiful portraiture,” they also make a much larger point about professional photography in general - how it is used to advance either the noble or the intolerable.

Bartlett told the BBC that in the case of the American guards at Abu Ghraib, “The camera was an instrument of abuse. The soldiers, the perpetrators of abuse, took the camera and used it to humiliate their subjects (….) I was using one of the instruments of their torture to bring some of their humanity back to them.”

The contrast noted by Bartlett, that one can use a camera to degrade or elevate, was partly seen in the microcosm of a torture chamber. However, stepping back from the dungeon to view the role of photography in the wider society, the same dynamic is found. A photographer can work to distract and obfuscate, uplift and enlighten, to cognize the complexities of life or to bury wisdom in the junk pile of commercialism. The same of course applies to artists in the fine art world. With Iraqi Detainees, Bartlett took a giant step outside the milieu of commercial product and fashion photography to produce some deeply affecting and humanistic photographs.

In an interview with The Intercept, Bartlett said that after having been robbed of their rights and dignity in the confines of the notorious prison, he “wanted to put these people back in front of the camera and use photography as a humanizing force.” All of the individuals photographed by Bartlett were detained by the U.S. military at Abu Ghraib, and though none were ever charged with any crime, each suffered horrible abuse and torture before being released.

Consider Bartlett’s portrait photograph of Ali Shalal Qaissi, which illustrates this article. It is difficult to imagine a man of such demeanor - beaten, hooded and electrocuted by his U.S. guards. According to Bartlett, Qaissi was “forced to lie on the ground, loudspeakers blasting music into his ears.” His guards “beat him regularly, and, on three occasions, subjected him to electric shock.” Mind you, Mr. Qaissi was never charged with committing any crime, he was simply picked off the street on Oct. 3, 2003, detained at Abu Ghraib, tortured, and finally released on Oct. 13, 2004. After his release, Qaissi founded the Association of Victims of American Occupation Prisons in Baghdad.

It should be remembered that in May of 2009, Obama blocked the court-ordered release of around 2,000 damning pictures taken by U.S. guards at Abu Ghraib, despite Obama’s earlier “promise” to have them released. The photos showed what the president himself described as “torture, abuse, rape and every indecency.” No commanding officer, Defense Department official, or high ranking figure in the Bush administration was ever charged, let alone faced trial, for what happened at Abu Ghraib. It should also be noted that during Obama’s 2008 run for president, he promised to review evidence of the abuse that occurred at Abu Ghraib and at a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan, because, as Senator Obama put it, “Nobody is above the law.” After winning the election, President Obama blocked investigations into the torture and murder of Afghan and Iraqi prisoners in U.S. custody, saying in April 2009 that “this is a time for reflection, not retribution.”

Iraqi Detainees opened on Sept. 9, 2014 at Photoville in the Brooklyn Bridge Park of Brooklyn, New York. Fittingly, Photoville exhibits a wide range of photography in an outdoor modular venue ingeniously constructed from giant metal shipping containers. It is the greatest of ironies that the same type of containers played a very different role during the early days of the 2003 war in Iraq. It is difficult not to think of the following when looking at the exhibit of Bartlett’s photos: interrogations of Iraqi prisoners conducted by U.S. military-intelligence soldiers and civilian contractors at Abu Ghraib were held in metal shipping containers.

In 2001, during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, thousands of Taliban prisoners were locked into metal shipping containers by Afghan warlords allied to the United States. Given no food or water, the prisoners suffocated to death in the extreme heat, or died when their captors riddled the containers with bullets. A declassified U.S. State Department intelligence report estimated that around 1,500 Taliban prisoners of war were killed in this manner.

Iraqi Detainees will run at Photoville until Sept. 28, 2014. Photoville is located in Brooklyn Bridge Park - click here for directions. For more information on the detainee photos, visit: For more on the work of Mr. Bartlett, visit

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.

The Invasion of Iraq - Ten Years Later

March 19, 2013 marks the 10th anniversary of the U.S. war against Iraq. To commemorate the somber occasion I am presenting fifteen separate articles pertaining to the Iraq war that I wrote for this web log from 2004 to 2009, starting with the earliest post and ending with the most recent. Each piece discusses individual or cooperative artistic responses to the imperial war… all writings express this artist’s disdain for the war and its instigators.

"War Child" - Mark Vallen 2006 ©. Oil on masonite. 8 x 10 inches. Painted to commemorate the children who have died during the recent conflicts throughout the Middle East.

"War Child" - Mark Vallen 2006 ©. Oil on masonite. 8 x 10 inches. Painted to commemorate the children who have died during the recent conflicts in the Middle East.

On March 19, 2003 the U.S. government, without a declaration of war, launched an unprovoked war and invasion against Iraq under the pretense that Iraq possessed “weapons of mass destruction”.

The battle started under the name of “Operation Iraqi Liberation” (OIL), until the campaign’s instructive name became an embarrassment and was quickly changed to “Operation Iraqi Freedom”. International opposition to the war was overwhelming from the start.

Just prior to the then-looming war, upwards of thirty million people in sixty different countries staged massive coordinated demonstrations on February 15, 2003. Anti-war rallies took place in at least 225 U.S. cities and towns. In my own city of Los Angeles, some 100,000 people marched down Hollywood Boulevard in protest of the imminent war.

And what was the price paid for this imperial hubris? Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians were killed or wounded, and various reports say the dead could number as low as 150,000 or as high as million. Certainly the nation of Iraq has been completely devastated and its people remain overwhelmed by daily bombings, assassinations, repression, sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing. As of this writing over 32,000 U.S. soldiers have been wounded in the war, and almost 5,000 have been killed. A study released on March 14, 2013 by the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, placed the financial cost of the war at $2.2 trillion. The human and monetary costs of the Iraq war are incalculable, and they will no doubt haunt U.S. society for decades to come.

Where Have All The Flowers Gone? - November 27, 2004
“The TV news shows the grieving family of the fallen hero at graveside, beside themselves with sorrow. The mother is screaming and wailing in Spanish. Later the brothers and sister of the deceased soldier are shown sitting on the couch in their tiny living room… silent and brokenhearted.”

Apolitical Artists: “War? What War?” - January 4, 2005
“In Artnet Magazine’s year end report, The 2004 Revue, editor Walter Robinson unconsciously laid bare everything that’s wrong with the art world.”

Mesopotamia Endangered - February 4, 2005
“When the US Army captured Iraq’s capital of Baghdad in April of 2003, people around the world were shocked by the whirlwind of looting that followed in the wake of ‘liberation.’ Quick to seize and guard Iraq’s Oil Ministry, US forces left other government buildings unprotected and open to pillage by throngs of impoverished Iraqis. The country’s art and history museums were ransacked by looters, who stripped the institutions of their treasures and destroyed what could not be carried off.”

Fernando Botero Paints Abu Ghraib -  April 13, 2005
“(….) a suite of 50 large oil paintings depicting the horrors perpetrated by Americans at Iraq’s infamous Abu Ghraib prison.”

A Nightmare Hall of Mirrors - June 14, 2005
“The artwork asked a question that no one could answer - ‘for how long does the war grind on and how many will be sacrificed?’”

An Abstract Expression of Horror - February 16, 2006
“No doubt Pollock would be appalled by the new school of ‘Action Painting’ founded at Abu Ghraib prison, and while Pollock had to suffer being called ‘Jack the Dripper’ by a hostile press - that was the only torment he was subjected to. Today’s anonymous American ‘Dripper’ working at the infamous Iraqi prison, left us a magnum opus installation piece composed of found objects, human body fluids and blood - materials not unfamiliar to some postmodern conceptual artists.”

An Iraqi artist paints Donald Rumsfeld - June 8, 2006
“The Iraqi surrealist painter, Muayad Muhsin, has painted a rather unflattering portrait of U.S. Defense Secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld. Muhsin’s surrealism is not informed by dreams and the unconsciousness mind, but by the horrors and barbarity of war.”

The General’s war a work of art - November 4, 2006
“Major General William Caldwell, a senior commander of U.S. forces in occupied Iraq, compared the war in that country to a work of art in progress. At a weekly briefing in Baghdad, Caldwell addressed the violence now spiraling out of control, which includes the rising U.S. casualties (2,828 dead at the time of this writing), by saying, ‘Every great work of art goes through messy phases while it is in transition. A lump of clay can become a sculpture, blobs of paint become paintings which inspire.’”

SHAMS: Rock the Casbah - February 7, 2007
“Shams (Arabic for Sun’) is a popular female Kuwaiti singer who has just released a controversial song titled, Ahlan Ezayak (or ‘Hi! How are you!’) Accompanied by a slick MTV-like video that lambastes George W. Bush and his occupation of Iraq, the song has become all the rage in the Middle East.”

Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful - February 14, 2007
“Who is the enemy? Who is innocent? Who shall be absolved of guilt and responsibility in times of war?”

LA vs. War - April 6, 2008
“In the words of the organizers, the show will be ‘an unprecedented gathering of artists united to deliver a message of peace, and offering resistance and opposition to war and violence.’”

Modern Painters: Art & War - April 22, 2008
(….) devoted to ‘the politically driven art made in response to war and its critical reception.’”

War & Empire Opening in San Francisco - September 13, 2008
“A group exhibition that has as its theme the state of democracy in the U.S. - as well as the continuing military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.”

More Art Less War! - February 19, 2009
Ah yes, the Noble Peace Prize winning antiwar president.

LACMA & BP’s Iraqi Oil Fields - July 2, 2009
“With BP now in charge of exploiting Iraq’s largest oil field, LACMA’s rationalizing taking money from a company committed ‘to sustainable energy’ is as threadbare as the reasons behind the continuing U.S. military occupation of Iraq.”

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.]

LACMA & BP’s Iraqi Oil Fields

BP - Beyond Petroleum?On July 1, 2009, the U.S. backed Iraqi government announced that BP (British Petroleum) and China National Petroleum Corp., had been awarded contracts to exploit Iraq’s al-Rumeila oil field – one of the largest oil fields in the world. In the past BP has attempted to rebrand itself as a “clean energy” company, going so far as to promote itself under the alternative name - Beyond Petroleum. CNN reports:

“Iraq did not say how much the BP-CNPC bid was worth. It runs for 20 years. (….) Iraq has some of the largest oil reserves in the world, with an estimated 115 billion barrels - tying Iran for second place, behind Saudi Arabia’s 264 billion barrels, according to estimates from the Energy Information Administration in the United States.”

Here it must be noted that in March of 2007, BP revealed it had donated $25 million to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) to help pay for the museum’s expansion and renovation. This was followed by LACMA Director Michael Govan publicizing plans to erect a massive entry gate to the museum that will display the name - BP Grand Entrance. It was highly touted that giant solar panels will top the gate, providing the museum with some of its energy needs. Explaining why he decided to pursue British Petroleum as a major corporate backer of LACMA, Govan stated in a 2007 interview with the Los Angeles Times: “What was convincing to me was their commitment to sustainable energy.”

With BP now in charge of exploiting Iraq’s largest oil field, LACMA’s rationalizing taking money from a company committed “to sustainable energy” is as threadbare as the reasons behind the continuing U.S. military occupation of Iraq.

Zombie Banks, Art Museums, & War

The equation is a simple one, in good economic times people feel they can afford to support the arts, in bad economic times - much less so. I do not mean to frame the question of art purely in financial terms, since some of the greatest art we know of has been created in the most impoverished settings and some of the best artists were, and are… paupers. Moreover, no matter how dire things are, art always has the capacity to bring relief and inspiration to those in low spirits. What I mean to express is simply that artists need to pay their rent like every other worker, and at present some one million American workers are losing their jobs each month.

Yesterday Wall Street stocks tumbled to new record lows as financial leviathans demanded billions more in bailout funds. A new term is making the rounds, “Zombie Banks”, an expression that describes insolvent banks kept operating through infusions of government bailout money. An older expression is also making the rounds - Depression.

Americans for the Arts (AFTA) has estimated that this year national arts organizations will layoff some 10% of their work force, or roughly 260,000 people. AFTA has also voiced the expectation that of the nation’s 100,000 arts organizations - some 10% will permanently close down. Clearly, the arts are being deeply affected by the economic collapse and the situation will undoubtedly get worse. The following list of U.S. museums that are closing or enacting deep cutbacks is but a partial account from just this past February. It illustrates the absurdity of thinking President Obama’s inclusion of $50 million for national arts funding in his stimulus package will have any substantial impact upon America’s deteriorating cultural landscape.

The High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, will cut salaries and eliminate 7 percent of its workforce. Director Michael Shapiro said, “As with many non-profit institutions both in Atlanta and across the country, the High Museum of Art has been affected by the economic downturn, experiencing shortfalls in income we receive through donations and membership as well as losses to our endowment.” Shapiro will take a 7 percent cut in pay and other director-level employees will receive a 6 percent cut. All other workers at the museum will receive a 5 percent cut in pay.

The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, has laid-off seven of its 150 employees, imposed a salary and hiring freeze, and cancelled a major exhibition of works by French painter Jean-Leon Gerome - an exhibit that would have been a collaborative project with the Musee d’Orsay in Paris and the Getty in Los Angeles. The museum’s budget has been reduced from $14.5 million to $12.5 million. The Walters also faces a 36 percent reduction in state funding, which means a loss of $420,000 for the museum next year.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is also facing state funding cuts, which could mean a loss of some $700,000 for the beleaguered orchestra. The Baltimore Opera Company is now seeking bankruptcy protection and the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra has suspended performances for the rest of the season, with the Baltimore Theatre Project announcing it may have to do the same. The Maryland Historical Society, suffering a 31 percent reduction of endowments and a drop in state funding, has laid-off six staff members.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has laid-off 16 members of its staff. The museum is not only reducing staff, it is postponing exhibits, decreasing programs, and cutting salaries. Senior staff are receiving salary cuts from between five and 10 percent. The museum has suffered a loss of $90 million in endowments, and the donations continue to shrink. Museum chair H.F. Lenfest bluntly stated, “If endowment keeps being reduced in value there are going to be further steps taken. We would anticipate further reductions in personnel and operating.” The museum is also being hit hard by reductions in state funding, which this year dropped from $3 million to $2.4 million - with further cuts expected for next year. The museum wants to increase admission fees, an act that must first be approved by the city.

The Detroit Institute of the Arts will be laying off 63 of its 301 employees, a 20 % reduction in staff, as it attempts to cut its budget by $6 million. The museum is reducing its number of exhibits in a further attempt to save money, and it has already cancelled three exhibitions this year for lack of funds - an exhibit on Baroque art, a showing of works by Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Jim Dine, and an exhibit of prints and drawings related to books. The museum also faces a total elimination of state funding, as Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s proposed budget for the state of Michigan puts an end to state arts funding, which would mean a devastating loss of $950,000 for the hard pressed DIA.

The Las Vegas Art Museum closed its doors on February 28, 2009. It shall retain its name in the hopes of re-opening if and when the economy improves. The museum faced a budget crisis that threatened to lay off workers and reduce salaries. Museum director Libby Lumpkin resigned over the announced cuts, and soon after the museum closed its doors.

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has announced a hiring freeze and is restricting staff travel, as well as the use of temporary employees. In addition the museum will close 15 of its gift stores across the nation. The Met’s endowment has suffered a 30% reduction and museum attendance and membership has fallen due to declining tourism. The Met is considering other ways to reduce its budget, with museum president Emily Rafferty saying that “we cannot eliminate the possibility of a head-count reduction.”

The Indianapolis Museum of Art will cut its staff by 10%, eliminating 15 full-time positions and 6 part-time positions. Ten senior staff members will receive salary cuts in a plan that takes 3 percent of their wages as “donations” to the institution. Endowments have fallen $101 million since this fall. The museum receives less than 1 % of its budget from government funding.

The following should put everything in context. The Associated Press reported on February 26, 2009, that President Obama has proposed war spending that nears “$11 billion a month for the next year and a half despite the planned drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq.” The AP went on to report that Obama plans on spending around $75 billion in emergency war funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through next fall, on top of which his new budget asks for $130 billion to carry out the wars for fiscal year 2010. The same AP story reports that these costs are just “part of the nearly $534 billion Obama wants for regular Pentagon operations next year. Altogether, Obama is asking for $739 billion for the military through the fall of 2010.”

New York Times Proclaims End to Wars

Well… not really. Unidentified merry pranksters have published and distributed a fake “special edition” of The New York Times with a banner headline that proclaims; “IRAQ WAR ENDS: Troops to Return Immediately”. The first sentence of an accompanying article reads: “Thousands take to the streets to celebrate the announced end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan”. On Wednesday morning, Nov. 12, 2008, over one million copies of the forged edition were circulated for free by volunteers working with the anonymous publishers.

We Can Dream Can't We?

[ Front page of the fake "special edition" of The New York Times, Nov. 12, 2008. ]

The counterfeit edition also features full articles with titles like; “Nation Sets Its Sights on Building Sane Economy”, “Maximum Wage Law Succeeds”, “USA Patriot Act Repealed”, “Nationalized Oil To Fund Climate Change Efforts”, “Gitmo, Other Centers Closed”, “Health Insurance Act Clears House”, and “Bush to Face Charges”.

It will certainly be argued that the intricate prank qualifies more as activism than art - but the hoax displays a good deal more inspiration and relevancy than the greater part of today’s conceptual or performance art practices. The press release for the sophisticated hoax reads as follows:

“November 12, 2008 - Early this morning, commuters nationwide were delighted to find out that while they were sleeping, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had come to an end. If, that is, they happened to read a ’special edition’ of today’s New York Times. In an elaborate operation six months in the planning, 1.2 million papers were printed at six different presses and driven to prearranged pickup locations, where thousands of volunteers stood ready to pass them out on the street.

Articles in the paper announce dozens of new initiatives including the establishment of national health care, the abolition of corporate lobbying, a maximum wage for C.E.O.s, and, of course, the end of the war.

The paper, an exact replica of The New York Times, includes International, National, New York, and Business sections, as well as editorials, corrections, and a number of advertisements, including a recall notice for all cars that run on gasoline. There is also a timeline describing the gains brought about by eight months of progressive support and pressure, culminating in President Obama’s ‘Yes we REALLY can’ speech. (The paper is post-dated July 4, 2009.)

‘It’s all about how at this point, we need to push harder than ever,’ said Bertha Suttner, one of the newspaper’s writers. ‘We’ve got to make sure Obama and all the other Democrats do what we elected them to do. After eight, or maybe twenty-eight years of hell, we need to start imagining heaven.’ Not all readers reacted favorably. ‘The thing I disagree with is how they did it,’ said Stuart Carlyle, who received a paper in Grand Central Station while commuting to his Wall Street brokerage. ‘I’m all for freedom of speech, but they should have started their own paper.’”

The pranksters have also published a phony New York Times website that mirrors the content of the faux paper. I have had trouble reaching the website - no doubt due to heavy traffic, and it remains to be seen how long it will manage to stay online before the real New York Times succeeds in shutting it down. The website includes clever additions unavailable in the paper - like videos and animated advertisements.

What If?

[ Still from video showing the distribution of the fake New York Times. ]

One video documents the distribution of the fake NYT on the streets of New York City - and the responses from the citizenry are remarkable. A fictitious ad for American Apparel apologizes for the company being “naughty”, while pledging, “…but now we are unionizing our employees”. The Fine Print, the editorial statement published on the sham website, fully explains the intent behind the guerilla art/activist project:

“This special edition of The New York Times comes from a future in which we are accomplishing what we know today to be possible. The dozens of volunteer citizens who produced this paper spent the last eight years dreaming of a better world for themselves, their friends, and any descendants they might end up having. Today, that better world, though still very far away, is finally possible - but only if millions of us demand it, and finally force our government to do its job.

It certainly won’t be easy. Even now, corporate representatives are swarming over Washington to get their agendas passed. The energy giants are demanding ‘clean coal,’ nuclear power and offshore drilling. Military contractors are pushing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. H.M.O.s and insurance companies are promoting bogus ‘reforms’ so they can forestall universal health care. And they’re not about to take no for an answer.

But things are different this time. This time, we can hold accountable the politicians we put into office. And because everyone can now see that the ‘free market’ has nothing to do with freedom, there is a huge opening to pass policies that can benefit all Americans, and that can make us truly free - free to pursue an education without debt, go on vacation every once in a while, keep healthy, and live without the crushing guilt of knowing what our tax dollars are doing abroad.”

The NYT special edition guerilla art project not only encourages people to imagine a better world, it urges them to struggle for it. This is nowhere more clearly illustrated than in an ad featured in both the paper and online editions. The ad features a smiling Barack Obama, along with the words: “Epoch-making, Pivotal, Squandered. The more we look at the world the more we understand that some things really matter. Not only our choice of President, but how we make sure that he, like all of our elected officials, does what we elected him to do - its not over yet.”

[ UPDATE: Late Wed. afternoon - 11/12/08, I received a Press Release from the organizers of the spoof, who are claiming that: "Hundreds of independent writers, artists, and activists" are responsible for the action. Quoting from the communiqué: "The people behind the project are involved in a diverse range of groups, including The Yes Men, the Anti-Advertising Agency, CODEPINK, United for Peace and Justice, Not An Alternative, May First/People Link, Improv Everywhere, Evil Twin, and Cultures of Resistance".

Steve Lambert, one of the project's organizers and an editor of the paper, said; "We wanted to experience what it would look like, and feel like, to read headlines we really want to read. It's about what's possible, if we think big and act collectively." One of the project's organizers, Beka Economopoulos, stated that; "This election was a massive referendum on change. There's a lot of hope in the air, but there's a lot of uncertainty too. It's up to all of us now to make these headlines come true." Andy Bichlbaum, another project organizer and editor of the paper, stated; "It doesn't stop here. We gave Obama a mandate, but he'll need mandate after mandate after mandate to do what we elected him to do. He'll need a lot of support, and yes - a lot of pressure." ]

War & Empire: Video & Review

THE VIDEO: The War & Empire Video Documentary is now available for free on Google Video. Combining engaging visual imagery with commentary and interviews, this revealing 15 minute long video presents an overview of War & Empire, the groundbreaking 2008 exhibition at San Francisco’s Meridian Gallery. As a participating artist in the show, I guide the viewer through the powerful exhibit - where art and social reality converge. On view in the War & Empire video are artworks from some 40 artists, including Fernando Botero, Sandow Birk, Bella Feldman, Guy Colwell, Eric Drooker, William T. Wiley, Mary Hull Webster, Phyllis Plattner - and yours truly, Mark Vallen.

The video includes brief interviews with exhibit curators Anne Brodzky, DeWitt Cheng, and Art Hazelwood, as well as interviews with participating artists. Commentary on socially engaged art is provided by Jack Rasmussen - the Director and Curator of the American University Museum in Washington, D.C., and Peter Selz - Professor Emeritus of Art History at UC Berkeley and a former curator of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

THE REVIEW: I wrote a review of the War & Empire exhibit for Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF). Titled The Art of Democracy, the illustrated article includes insightful interviews with fellow artists participating in the show - Guy Colwell, Juan Fuentes, and Art Hazelwood. Here is an except from the featured report:

“As an artist long active in creating works with a critical vision, and as one who strives to inject social concerns into contemporary art, I view the ‘War & Empire’ show as a turning point. In 2003, when I created the drawing that hangs in the exhibit, ‘Not Our Children, Not Their Children,‘ few artists and even fewer art institutions could be bothered with art that displayed political themes. Now, with the Wall Street meltdown and the continuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the possibilities for a new, socially conscious American art movement seem wide open.”