Category: General

Happy holidays and…

Ferguson photo by Associated Press ©

The death of New York City Opera

 "The Turn Of The Screw" - Poster for the recent NYCO production of Benjamin Britten's 1954 opera. Poster designed by New York illustrator, Daniel Forkin.

"The Turn Of The Screw" - Poster for the NYCO production of Benjamin Britten's 1954 opera. Poster designed by Daniel Forkin.

On October 1, 2013, the 70-year-old New York City Opera (NYCO) canceled its 2013-2014 season and announced its disbandment. Faced with crushing financial problems, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, citing its inability to raise sufficient funds to continue operating. The NYCO’s endowment shriveled from $48 million in 2008 to $5.07 million by the end of 2012. In a desperate attempt to cut costs in 2011, the company had reduced its performance schedule, moved out of its Lincoln Center home to become an itinerant troupe, and reduced its administrative staff of fifty by half.

In 2012 the company auctioned off 90% of its costumes, props, and sets, and the union for the NYCO’s orchestra and chorus members agreed to pay cuts of more than 80%! Still, the company faced a deficit of some $5 million. The NYCO initiated an eleventh-hour fundraising attempt in Sept. 2013, hoping to raise $7 million needed to keep operations running, the opera company even started a “crowdfunding” campaign on Kickstarter Inc. in order to help raise the funds; they succeeded in raising only $100,000.

Here is where the “supply and demand” argument made by free market advocates breaks down. You may think art is just another commodity given the money mad attitude of today’s gallery owners, museum CEOs, and auctioneers, not to mention publicity seeking “artists” and the bevy of pop star entertainers continually shoved in our faces. But art is not inspired nor entirely governed by the marketplace, it is ephemeral and as free as a wild creature, confine it in a cage of gold and it will die. Likewise, bend it to your political will and it will also perish. This is not to say that some type of state intervention is not necessary to nurture the arts. Before some of you howl, “Socialism!,” first read Jordan Bloom’s essay, The Trouble With Separating Art and State.

Jordan Bloom is  the associate editor for The American Conservative, that bulwark of the paleoconservative voice, where the essay was originally published on May 2, 2012. I mention Mr. Bloom’s article, not because it links to a 2010 web log post of mine detailing President Obama’s reducing arts funding in the U.S., but because of the following salient point made by Bloom:

“(….) many of our most cherished art forms have never existed in the absence of a patronage system yet there are fewer patrons than there used to be (though the fine art world seems to be doing fairly well in the economic malaise, thanks mostly to rising income inequality). And Uncle Sam, one of the biggest patrons, is broke. Still, I think it’s spiteful and too easy to go after NEA funding rather than a bloated defense budget, as the President has done. Governments have invested in the arts in some form since the dawn of civilization.”

New York’s former mayor Michael Bloomberg refused to intervene on behalf of the NYCO, saying only that the company’s “business model doesn’t seem to be working.” It is interesting that Bloomberg donated $350,000 of his own money to defeat the recall of pro-gun control Democratic Senators in Colorado, but he did not have a penny for the New York City Opera. The Independence USA PAC, Bloomberg’s personal political action committee, spent $2 million in Virginia to assure the Democratic Party candidate for Governor, Terry McAuliffe (former chairman of the Democratic National Committee), would win the election. Again, not a cent for the NYCO, but millions of dollars for a Democratic Party apparatchik. Forbes has pegged the “liberal” Bloomberg as the seventh-richest man in the U.S., putting his net worth at $31 billion. Too bad Mr. Scrooge did not have a dime for the NYCO.

The New York City Opera ran a free educational program for children that reached over 3,000 kids in more than 20 schools across New York; the program was no doubt the first exposure to opera enjoyed by many inner-city children of elementary, middle, and high-school age. Part of the program entailed taking students to live performances of the New York City Opera. It breaks the heart to know that the company took opera directly to the classroom and the school campus to an enthusiastic young audience, but now it is all over.

I understand the value of the NYCO’s now defunct school program. When I was in elementary school my entire class was taken by bus to the Shrine auditorium in downtown Los Angeles to see a performance of The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It was a transformative moment for me, and most likely for other classmates of mine, but it is difficult to imagine such a thing happening in today’s Los Angeles, or in any American city for that matter.

During the past five years arts education has been slashed 76% by the Los Angeles Unified School District in response to the economic downturn, reducing the arts budget for school children from $78.6 million to $18.6 million (the LAUSD serves some 694,288 students). This is reflective of a national trend, as art budgets in schools have been drastically cut because of draconian funding cuts by state and federal government.

Costume design for the NYCO production of Gaetano Donizetti's "Maria Stuarda." Created by costume designer Jose Varona, Beverly Sills wore this dress in her starring role as Stuarda.

Costume design for the NYCO production of Gaetano Donizetti's "Maria Stuarda." Created by designer Jose Varona, Beverly Sills wore this dress in her starring role as Stuarda.

During its long history, the New York City Opera helped launch the careers of singers like José Carreras, Placido Domingo, and Beverly Sills (1929-2007). Ms. Sills first performed at the NYCO in 1955 as a twenty-eight-year old, and she became America’s operatic superstar between that time and the 1970s.

A glimpse of Sills at the New York City Opera company is found in this excerpt of a live performance in 1972 of Gaetano Donizetti’s, Maria Stuarda. A better appreciation of Sills and the New York City Opera can be found in this full-length live recording of Sills performing in Vincenzo Bellini’s, I Puritani (The Puritans).  Upon her retirement Sills became the general manager of the NYCO from 1979 to 1989.

A national treasure like the New York City Opera is reduced to begging for donations on Kickstarter Inc., but still goes under, while wealthy “art stars” and entertainment celebrities are daily paraded before us as the only people worth paying attention to. Why is this so? It is certainly no aberration, the market keeps the run-of-the-mill on center stage as a profitable business enterprise. When selling widgets one must appeal to the lowest common denominator, and the super profits are found in pop, not opera.

So why is this aging punk rocker lamenting the closure of the New York City Opera? Because the sweet strains of opera have always been part of my household, even in childhood, and I come from a working class family. Over the years “radical” friends have told me that opera is bourgeois, and that it belongs to elites, but this indeed describes the greater part of Western art. Are we to throw it all away, or perhaps just dispense with the things that do not fit the political agenda of the day? This appears to be the direction we are willy-nilly stumbling towards.

All bourgeois achievements in art, music, theater, architecture, and yes, in science and politics as well, are part of our inheritance. We should learn from these things, they should be foundational to our own efforts. The problem with those involved in contemporary art, culture, and yes, political activism, is an almost total lack of awareness when it comes to past struggles and accomplishments; postmodern society has become totally ahistorical, and it is no mistake. If we are to create a suitable art for the 21st century, it will happen only after we fully understand and absorb old forms. As the expression goes, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”

The New York City Opera’s once large and hardworking staff has been reduced to only two individuals, the company’s general manager, and the troupe’s managing director. Their jobs are now to simply wind down the NYCO’s operations. There are rumors that the company may reconstruct itself, and that it might find a place to rehearse and perform at New York’s Purchase College, but without the type of government investment that Jordan Bloom wrote in favor of in The American Conservative, the New York City Opera is no more.

"Lucia di Lammermoor" - Poster by Polish illustrator, Rafał Olbiński‎, for the NYCO production of Donizetti's tragic opera.

"Lucia di Lammermoor" - Poster by Rafał Olbiński‎ for the NYCO production of Donizetti's tragic opera.

The U.S. government currently spends approximately $716 billion on “defense,” and has appropriated a budget of a little over $138 million for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

For fiscal year 2013, the Obama administration requested $7.4 billion for the National Science Foundation (NSF), an increase of $340 million from FY 2012. The House and Senate Appropriations Committees approved $7.3 billion for the NSF in 2013.

What if the enlightened “representatives of the people” from both sides of the aisle had appropriated more than $1 billion to the National Endowment for the Arts? What if the government had bailed out the New York City Opera? What if the NYCO had received the type of government funding that would have allowed its educational programs to reach, not 3,000 children, but 3 million kids? Civilizations are judged by their arts and sciences, are they not?

On March 4, 2007, I attended the L.A. Opera production of the Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny at the Los Angeles Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Naturally, I purchased a ticket for the inexpensive “nosebleed” section, where retirees, students, and shabbily dressed artists with threadbare pockets found seating.

Amongst the hoi polloi in those last rows the enthusiasm for opera was palpable. I sat next to an elderly woman that had scrimped and saved in order to get her ticket, and she was elated to be there that evening. Yes, opera is for the people, and it is a blot on the nation that a way could not be found to keep the New York City Opera open and well funded.

A Studio is Born

Admirers and detractors of this blog may of late be wondering about the dearth of newly posted visuals and essays from me. Fear not intrepid readers, I suffer no lack of enthusiasm for writing about the political follies and foibles of the art world. So why the lack of posts? Has the muse left Vallen? Is he stuck in the creative doldrums, or perhaps in a temporal time distortion?

xxxxxxx

“(….) the sunlit, airy room that shall be converted into an art studio.” Photo/Vallen ©

In actuality I have been in the process of moving, that is, relocating my studio from an ill-managed, silverfish-infested, dilapidated hole in the wall that was abandoned to animals and lorded over by a troll-like slumlord - to a more accommodating shack in a pleasant working class district. To me, the best thing about the new address is the sunlit, airy room that shall be converted into an art studio.

Presently my wife and I have our entire lives stored in stacks of packing crates and boxes strewn throughout the abode. However, we’ll soon dig ourselves out, organize our new home, and get back to “normal”, which for me entails losing myself in the joys of art making, that, and vexing the miserablists that rule our world.

Xmas: No Mas Guerra

"Dove" - Mark Vallen. Pencil on paper. 4 x 6.5 inches. 2006.

"Dove" - Mark Vallen. Pencil on paper. 4 x 6.5 inches. 2006.

Art For A Change Relaunches In Wordpress

Longtime readers of my Art For A Change web log will notice a dynamic new look and feel to this site. Having published AFC since 2004, I felt the need for a more sophisticated platform that would give me complete control over content management as well as the opportunity for creative expansion. Therefore, I have migrated AFC from the Blogger platform to that of Wordpress. The relocation and reconfiguration of this site would not have been possible without the professional assistance of Mr. Gordon Lake - Wordpress master and video producer extraordinaire. I encourage those in need of qualified service regarding the construction of Wordpress sites to contact Lake. There are still modifications forthcoming on this site, and as I obtain a better understanding of Wordpress you will no doubt see even more sweeping transformations. For now, my long hiatus from writing ceases – expect a flurry of articles.

Exhibition: Man’s Inhumanity to Man

Drawing by Mark Vallen

[ Meanwhile... in Guatemala - Mark Vallen. 1988. Pencil on paper 10" x 14". Exhibited at Man's Inhumanity to Man. Military death squads were responsible for torturing and murdering tens of thousands of civilians during Guatemala’s 36-year long civil war. By the time the conflict ended in 1996, some 200,000 civilians had been killed. In 1999 the U.N. backed Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification found Guatemala’s army responsible for 93% of the atrocities and killings committed during the war, with 83% of the victims being Mayan Indians. ]

I exhibited a suite of four black and white drawings at Man’s Inhumanity to Man: Journey out of Darkness, an exhibition that took place at the Brand Library Art Gallery & Art Center in Glendale, California, from April to May, 2009. Forty four artists participated in the group show, which examined human rights violations that have occurred around the globe - the 1915 Armenian genocide, the Jewish Holocaust, repression in Central America, current atrocities in Darfur, and more.

Azalea Iñiguez of Telemundo T52 - the Los Angeles affiliate of the second largest Spanish-language TV network in the U.S., interviewed me on her show - Cambiando el Mundo (Changing the World) for a segment about my works at the Brand exhibit. Originally broadcast on May 6, 2009, you can now watch a streaming video of the interview at the Telemundo website.

Drawing by Mark Vallen

[ We are afraid - Mark Vallen. 1987. Pencil on paper 11 1/2" x 12". Exhibited at Man's Inhumanity to Man. During the wars of the 1980s, children in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua were being killed by the tens of thousands. Infant mortality skyrocketed due to aerial bomb attack, mortar rounds, mines, and general gunfire. The children suffered the most, and it is to them that I dedicated this drawing. ]

During the 1980s I created a number of artworks that depicted civilians caught up in the wars that swept the Central American nations of Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Hundreds of thousands of people were tortured, maimed or killed during that bloody decade, and many more escaped the carnage for safety and asylum in the United States. The very face of Los Angeles was changed by the enormous influx of war refugees. The four drawings I presented at the Brand Library Gallery represent just a small portion of my body of work from that period.

Drawing by Mark Vallen

[ Enough! - Mark Vallen. 1988. Pencil on paper 15" x 16". Exhibited at Man's Inhumanity to Man. Outraged over the slaughter of civilians by Central America’s brutal military regimes in the 1980s, I was motivated to create this universal condemnation of war. ]

As is often the case with history, momentous events reverberate through time. Echoes of Central America’s recent past continue to have resonance today. In the aftermath of the region’s wars a number of important disclosures have come to light. For instance, in March of this year The National Security Archives located at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., published newly declassified documents from the U.S. State Department. The Associated Press reported that the documents confirmed “The U.S. government knew that top Guatemalan officials it supported with arms and cash were behind the disappearance of thousands of people during a 36-year civil war.”

Also in March, Reuters reported that “Guatemala’s biggest mass grave may give up its secrets this year when bodies from a massacre during the 1960-1996 civil war are exhumed after decades of mystery. Around 1,000 bodies in a mass grave at the La Verbena cemetery are thought to be the victims of extra judicial killings by the army and police during some of the most violent years of the conflict.”

Sometimes facts can be hidden or obscured for many decades, if they come to light at all. But no matter the circumstances, certain artists will always document situations ignored and left unseen by mainstream society - that in part is the power of art.

I spoke at the Brand Gallery on Saturday, April 18, as part of an artist’s public forum, the roundtable including artists Poli Marichal, Arpine Shakhbandaryan, Sophia Gasparian, Lark, and Hessam Abrishami. Man’s Inhumanity to Man ran at the Brand Library Gallery, from April 4, 2009, to May 8, 2009. The gallery is located at 1601 West Mountain Street, Glendale, California 91201-1200. (Click here for a map) Hours: Tue/Thu 12 - 8 p.m.; Wed 12 - 6 p.m.; Fri/Sat 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.

View a large image of the artwork - Meanwhile in Guatemala
View a large image of the artwork - We Are Afraid
View a large image of the artwork - Enough
Related artwork - We’re Making a Killing in Central America

My Take on Things

[ I was recently interviewed by Ms. Emily Wilcox, an art student at Western Kentucky University, as part of her undergraduate thesis research project conducted on the subject of "Art as Activism." The results of our dialogue are a reasonable glimpse into my take on things, so I am publishing the interview here with the kind permission of Ms. Wilcox. ]

Q: How do you gauge whether an artwork is successful, in terms of social impact?

A: Making such an assessment is easier said than done. Like science, art is concerned with the truths of our existence, but it strives at discovering and making known these facts in a wholly different manner than that of scientific research and analysis. It is easy to quantify the successes and social impact of outstanding scientific work, but the achievements of art are much more difficult to evaluate. I would say that at the very least, a successful artwork reveals something profound about human experience. Determining an artwork’s social impact is altogether another matter. Art slowly performs its work upon individuals, subtlety boring its way into the psyche, quietly touching the human heart and stirring the intellect. It lays open what can’t be measured or held and makes visible the invisible. The broad social influences of an artwork are usually not immediate, but are felt over time.

If on the other hand we are discussing advertising or propaganda, which are actually quite similar to one another, then calculating the effectiveness of a winning campaign is really quite a simple thing. Did the message reach the chosen demographic and did the target audience respond by behaving in the desired manner? But as I have stated - that is not how the higher arts function.

Q: What, in your view, is the strength of figurative realism when it comes to making a social statement?

A: Figurative realism conveys intent or feeling in an immediate, straightforward manner, communicating directly with the viewer, which is always of paramount importance to artists interested in conveying meaning to a mass audience. However, figurative art does not necessarily go hand in hand with meaningful content; undemanding figuration is not enough. “Realism”, as I understand the word, is not just a specific aesthetic, but a way of examining, analyzing, and making comment upon certain objective conditions found in our world. For that reason, a non-figurative artwork can in actual fact successfully express profound social ideas - if created by an extremely thoughtful and skilled artist.

That aside, I would argue that artists have always been involved, consciously or not, in the making of social statements, simply because art throughout the ages has been on the whole a social expression.

The earliest surviving panel paintings from ancient Greece, the Pitsa panels, were created around 540 BC by an anonymous artist who painted realistic figures in mineral pigments on stucco covered wood tablets. The paintings depicted the religious rituals that were widely practiced throughout Greece at the time. Because the artist painted a vision of a social construct, a representation of society as it was believed it should have been - it is impossible to see these paintings as anything less than social statement. Similarly, the Egyptians were creating incredibly realistic portrait paintings starting in the 1st century BC. The paintings were funerary death masks that were affixed to the mummies of those belonging to the upper class. Therefore, it is hard not to view the paintings as declarations pertaining to the legitimacy and supremacy of the Egyptian ruling class, i.e., art as social statement.

Q: Has anyone ever accused your work of being propaganda? If so, what is/was your response?

A: The English writer George Orwell once said that “All art is propaganda”, but he also clarified his statement by adding “on the other hand, not all propaganda is art.”

The accusation of being a propagandist has not been leveled at me personally, though the dominant view both inside and outside of the elite art world is that artists who deal with social topics are “political” artists, whereas artists who ignore social realities are deemed to have somehow risen above politics. That type of thinking is fallacious. I believe the term “political art” to be a pejorative, not unlike the label “propaganda.” The art of David Hockney or Damien Hirst is every bit as political as my own, but since their works essentially represent the status quo, they are thought of as apolitical artists.

An artwork commissioned by Lorenzo de’ Medici of Renaissance Florence demonstrated and enhanced his power and authority, making the art part of a political process. The same type of political undertaking is engaged in when the modern day equivalent to a Medici purchases a multi-million dollar artwork or finances a new wing at a museum. When I maintain that all art is political, I am not referring to the content of the art as much as I am the social relationships it is a party to. There are innumerable examples of how art is politicized by social construct, and it is essential to understand this.

Q: Your blog “Art for a Change” is unique because of its focus on socially conscious and transformative art, something that’s often not explicitly covered in news media or academia. What motivated you to start blogging about that topic?

A: I started my web log because I wanted people to think about art and politics in new ways. The catch-phrase “Art for a Change” was a response to an art world scandalously self-absorbed and detached from reality, a rejoinder that declared, “let’s have some art, for a change!” But the name also had an overt political meaning that was compatible with a web log given to examining the intersection between art and politics.

Q: You say that art “points the way to a world at last inhabitable.” At the same time, so much of politically or socially charged art – both your own work and the work of others currently and historically – involves depicting the despairs and tragedies of injustice. How can artists strike a balance between spotlighting the problems and creating a vision of the future?

A: To say that art points the way to a world at last inhabitable, is not to refer to this or that type of art, nor is it sanctioning one set of aesthetics over another. What it means is that the very act of making art, of being an artist, of participating in and appreciating art - can open the door to a very different kind of society. Plainly that is not enough, as history gives ample evidence of art being used to either liberate or dull the mind, so I am obviously referring to art that is unfettered by market demands and unleashed from the dictates of the politically powerful.

Art is intellectual work of the highest order, but it also has much to do with comprehending and moving the human soul, of plumbing those depths and finding what is real and valuable. Art can not only connect us with history, community, the world, ourselves, it gives us the power to dream and to imagine the impossible. In that sense it represents something that cannot have a price tag put upon it - that is the true subversive nature of art.

Concerning an artist’s use of “despairing” imagery in order to make a point about the state of society or of some injustice in the world. Visual representations of the horrific outrages humans have perpetrated against each other have always been part of art’s vocabulary, and I think it is a perfectly acceptable way of trying to appeal to a viewer’s better nature. When art brings attention to something intolerable about society, it could be said that people first react by recognizing their part in that society, then feel shame for their direct or indirect responsibility in the grievance, and finally - are spurred to seek a corrective to the wrongdoing. That is certainly one way of looking at the matter.

However, late capitalism in the 21st century has given rise to art where humanity is relentlessly portrayed as base, venal, empty, and ugly in every respect - an aesthetic that is very much in vogue at present. But when such art goes untempered by images that speak of the decency, kindness, and solidarity the human race is capable of; an entirely false picture is painted of humanity - one that actually mirrors the system itself.

Q: Is there any advice you’d like to give to artists who want to make socially relevant and transformative work?

A: If artists want to make socially relevant work, then they need to be socially relevant. It is necessary to forsake the studio in favor of the streets. Parenthetically, I do not mean trying to become the next graffiti or street art star. I am referring to becoming immersed in one’s own community and learning about the lives of real people - as well as the commotion and turbulence of the world at large. Profound social engagement in art is not something to be conjured up on a whim by those privileged with an art school degree, it comes as a result of life experience and a serious understanding of the social forces that make up and drive society.

Waltz with Bashir

It took Israeli director Ari Folman four years to create Waltz with Bashir, an unusual autobiographical animated film now in limited engagement across the U.S. that warns of the nightmares that follow in the wake of war. The movie opens with an unsettling vision, a pack of rabid dogs - twenty six to be exact, racing along wet streets under yellowy skies, frothing at the mouth and evidently looking for something to kill. Lushly animated in clashing hues of cobalt and ochre, the apparition is a dream suffered by Boaz Rein Buskila, an Israeli army veteran of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Still from Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir

[ Cry havoc and unleash the dogs of war - the opening sequence of Ari Folman’s, Waltz with Bashir. ]

In the follow-up scene Boaz tells his close friend Ari Folman about the ominous dream and its meaning, it was actually a memory of sorts. During the war on Lebanon, as part of an Israeli infantry unit sent under cover of darkness into Palestinian villages to snatch suspects, Boaz was required to shoot the village dogs with a silenced sniper rifle to prevent their barking and waking the town’s occupants. He remembered each dog - all twenty six of them, their size and shape, how they whimpered when shot, how they died. Now the slaughtered dogs were back, and they were pursuing Boaz in his sleep. He asked his friend Ari if he also had nightmares about his service in Lebanon, but Folman could not remember anything at all about the war, he had no dreams or recollections - he was absolutely blank. Folman’s quest for his lost memories began at that moment, and the rest of the film recounts his struggle to dredge up that life history.

Based on Folman’s real life experiences as a soldier in the Israeli army when it invaded Lebanon in June ‘82, Waltz with Bashir is only the second animated feature film to be produced in Israeli cinematic history - the first was made in 1961. Folman did not use rotoscope techniques in producing his film, rather the animation, directed by Yoni Goodman, was achieved through a combination of Flash and 3-D software with classic hand drawn animation. The feature had a budget of $1.7 million and its entire animation crew was composed of ten individuals.

By contrast, Pixar’s Finding Nemo had a budget of $150 million and a technical crew of over forty animators. Most people have good reason to regard animation as nothing more than kid stuff, but Folman has given us a profoundly serious and complicated film for thinking adults. Waltz with Bashir is not lacking in any respect, in fact it is a devastatingly effective look at the folly and hubris of war. Watching the movie’s online trailer gives evidence of just how powerful Folman’s animated feature is. At a press conference that took place at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival where the film premiered, Folman said;

“The basic statement of the film and the understanding of the film is prosaic: wars are useless, completely useless, any war. There are a lot of anti-war movies, but in the eyes of a teenager, the anti-war films miss their goal completely, sometimes you just don’t get it right. Because it is animated, I hope that a sixteen year old boy watching ‘Waltz With Bashir‘ in Israel will say, ‘I don’t want to take any part in this war again.’”

A strangely beautiful sequence from the film gave the movie its name; an Israeli soldier is shown “waltzing” with his machine gun while under fire on a bomb blasted Beirut boulevard - that is to say, he was wildly firing at everything in sight. The scene takes place against a backdrop of street posters extolling Bashir Gemayel - the leader of the Lebanese right-wing Christian Phalangist party. But the film’s title is more than just a metaphor for the insanity and brutality of war. Gemayel was politically aligned with Israel and fanatical about expelling the Palestinians from Lebanon. When Gemayel was assassinated by unknown assailants, Phalangist militia men attacked the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, slaughtering thousands of innocent civilians while the Israeli army looked on. As a 19-year-old soldier, Folman was stationed on the outskirts of Sabra, firing flairs to illuminate the camp at night. He became so racked with guilt over his actions that he blocked his entire wartime experience from memory.

Still from Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir

[ Israeli soldier "waltzing" his machine gun in Beirut, Lebanon during the 1982 Israeli invasion of that country. ]

In the finale of Waltz With Bashir, all of Folman’s wartime memories come flooding back to him, as the animation dissolves into truly shocking live-action archival footage showing the aftermath of the killing spree at Sabra and Shatila. The ending is a hammer blow of pure journalistic force. Reuters quoted the director at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, commenting on the final scene;

“I didn’t want you as the audience to go out of the theater after watching ‘Waltz With Bashir‘ and think, yes, this is a cool animation film’. These things happened … thousands of people were killed, kids were killed, women were killed, old people were killed. In order to put the whole film into proportion, those 50 seconds were essential to me.”

Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, dubbed “Operation Peace for the Galilee”, was launched by Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin. Ostensibly meant to destroy the PLO, the operation killed untold thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians, took the lives of hundreds of Israeli soldiers, and left Lebanon in ruins. Ultimately the war culminated in the unspeakable massacre of thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The war’s initial onslaught was followed by an 18-year-long military occupation, but Israel’s military superiority brought it no closer to peace and security; as evidenced by the current fighting in the Gaza strip - the most densely populated area on earth and arguably the largest prison camp in the world.

Still from Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir

[ A slain Israeli soldier being transported home from the Lebanese warfront. ]

Waltz with Bashir is filled with disturbing imagery that is both surrealistic and hallucinogenic. One of my favorite moments in the film is of Folman remembering being on leave from the Lebanese front. That particular scene involves the young soldier back home in Israel, feeling displaced and uncomfortable that everyone was “living normally”, as if a war was not being fought. Folman listlessly shuffles on a bustling street as crowds blur by him, he becomes immobilized in front of a shop window displaying television sets - all of which are showing a speech by prime minister Begin. The channel is abruptly switched and the TV sets are suddenly broadcasting a performance by John Lydon’s post-Sex Pistols band, Public Image Ltd (Pil) - the grating din being the group’s anti-melody, This Is Not A Love Song.

The unexpected appearance of Pil on that bank of televisions rang true for me (even though the Pil song was released a year after the ‘82 war), and that scene set off an avalanche of personal memories. Widely interpreted as scathing mockery aimed against the music industry’s endless production of saccharine romance tunes, This Is Not A Love Song took on a whole new meaning in Waltz with Bashir. The composition became a poison letter delivered to our modern consumer society - especially as the piece of music worked its way through the war addled mind of a young soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

In November of 1982 Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin was invited to speak at the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, and in response the “Committee to Oppose the Begin Visit” called for a peaceful demonstration to protest the invasion of Lebanon. At the time a handful of friends and I were active participants in L.A.’s punk rock movement, and we decided to attend the rally to express our outrage over the mass murder at Sabra and Shatila. Thousands showed up at the demonstration, and somehow two of my punk friends and I sailed through the lines of the LAPD riot squad and cordons of Secret Service agents to actually enter the Bonaventure - which was no small feat considering we were the ugliest gang of social deviants you could ever imagine.

Sporting spiky colored hair, ripped and torn bondage clothes covered with hand painted slogans, combat boots, leather jackets, peace buttons, and Arab kaffiya scarves; we miraculously made our way to the top floor of the hotel totally unimpeded by security and stood outside of the main ballroom for a few moments to greet delegates with sneers and generally rude buffoonery. I recall delegates reacting to us as if we were lepers. We soon tired of our antics and left the premises to rejoin the antiwar rabble in the streets, astonished that we had not been arrested. Hundreds of high-powered supporters of Israel were in that ballroom, including the Governor of the State of California, Jerry Brown, and L.A.’s Mayor, Tom Bradley. As fate would have it Begin’s scheduled speech was cancelled due to the death of his wife, but Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Moshe Arens, filled in for the grieving prime minister.

The bloodbath at Sabra and Shatila shocked the international community, and my response to the cataclysm was to create a silkscreen print in 1983 that memorialized the massacres. Based upon a pencil drawing I made in the weeks immediately following the atrocities, my artwork paid homage to the innocents who lost their lives in those wretched camps. I have long felt that my artistic gesture was misconstrued by some, but after viewing Ari Folman’s astonishing film, I feel vindicated and in good company.

In the end an Israeli government commission found the Israeli Defense Forces “indirectly responsible” for the mass executions. Israel’s Defense Minister, Ariel Sharon, was found to bear “personal responsibility” for “not taking appropriate measures to prevent bloodshed.” Sharon resigned his Defense Minister position but later became the Prime Minister of Israel in 2001.

Still from Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir

[ The fly encrusted eye of a dead horse reflects the silhouette of an Israeli soldier in occupied Beirut. ]

A human tragedy of momentous proportions is again unfolding, this time in the Israel-blockaded Gaza strip. It is a catastrophe that may develop into a wider war if not a regional conflagration. At the time of this writing at least 435 Palestinians have been killed and an estimated 2,000 injured in the massive Israeli bombings of Gaza. Three Israeli civilians and one soldier have been killed by rockets launched into Israel by Hamas militants. The Israeli army launched a ground invasion into Gaza late January 3, using tanks and infantry, a move that will undoubtedly cause civilian casualties to skyrocket.

Without a doubt, George W. Bush has given the Israelis a green light for military action, but supporters of President Barack Obama still expect him, as the candidate of “Hope and Change”, to break his silence and make a statement against the Israeli mauling of the Palestinians. Despite his vociferous rhetoric about “winning in Afghanistan” and enthusiastically lobbying for a $700 billion bailout for Wall Street, Mr. Obama claims there “can only be one president at a time” as a justification for his remaining mute. As we enter the second week of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, Obama remains silent on the matter - evidently he has decided to Waltz with Bashir.

[ As a side note: On Saturday, Jan. 10, 2009, at 1:00 pm, the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood will present a free public discussion with Ari Folman as well as the directors of the four other foreign language films nominated for this year’s Golden Globes. Running up to this, from January 7-10, the films up for nomination will screen at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. Waltz With Bashir is also currently screening at L.A.’s Laemmle Theatres. ]

The Official Portrait of President George W. Bush

Portrait of George W. Bush by Robert Anderson.

On Dec 19, 2008, the official portraits of U.S. President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush were unveiled at a ceremony that took place at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., where the paintings become part of the museum’s permanent collection. Artist Robert Anderson had the dubious honor of creating the likeness of the president, and artist Aleksander Titovets the task of painting the first lady. No shoes were thrown during the ceremony before some 500 people, but Mr. Bush did attempt a joke; “I suspect there would be a good sized crowd once the word got out about my hanging.” Indeed. The paintings go on public view beginning Dec 20, 2008, and I present Mr. Bush’s portrait here in my preferred manner of hanging.

I am proud to say that in the past excruciatingly long eight years I never yielded to the temptation of creating an artwork lambasting President Bush. Why? Because I am more interested in offering a systemic critique rather than one focused on individuals. Conversely, I do not believe in the cult of the personality, and I will not join those artists who opportunistically create flattering portraits of soon-to-be president, Barack Obama. It is my belief that art must never be the handmaiden to centers of power, it must always remain free and autonomous - that spirit permeates my work and drives this web log.