Category: General

Call for Art: Straight & Gay Dialogue

As a heterosexual man who believes in human rights for all, I am pleased to be able to announce a National Call to U.S. Artists for the upcoming juried exhibition: Being Gay: A Visual Dialogue Between Straight and/or LGBTQ Artists. Organized by the 2nd City Council Art Gallery and Performance Space in Long Beach, California, the exhibit is open to all artists living in the United States. The entry deadline is Sunday, January 18, 2009. Having served as juror for the gallery’s 2007 Day of the Dead art exhibit, I can personally attest to the gallery’s professionalism and high standards, and I encourage one and all to submit works to this most crucial exhibition. A complete and detailed prospectus for the show is available here. The Press Release for Being Gay: A Visual Dialogue, reads in part:

“The exhibition explores such topics (but is not limited to) faith and homosexuality, gay history, sense of community, effect on professional life or society, gay neighborhoods, fashion, homophobia, straight people in gay places, ageism in the gay community, gay role models, ordinary lives, coming out, gay icons or heroes, discrimination, homosexuality as an evolutionary puzzle, integrating into society, political issues, is tolerance enough?, marriage, PRIDE, engaging in gay rights issues across cultural and religious borders, feelings associated with being gay, regional differences, gay as a main identifier, gay friends or family members. Jurors: David Burns, Austin Young & Matias Viegener. Exhibition: March 7 to April 1, 2009.”

Aside from the Press Release quote cited in the above, the opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, though I expect anyone submitting work to the exhibit will have already pondered the controversies delineated in the following paragraphs. Being Gay: A Visual Dialogue, could not be a more timely or pertinent exhibit. In the elections of November 4, 2008, anti gay marriage ballot initiatives passed in California, Florida, and Arizona; while Arkansas passed a measure that bans same-sex couples from adopting children. Gay marriage was legal in California - that is, until a group of reactionaries and fundamentalist “Christian” zealots moved to change the state Constitution through the injurious Proposition 8 anti gay marriage ballot initiative. Up until election day 2008 some 18,000 same-sex couples were legally wedded in California. To protest the cruelty of first allowing gays to marry, then abruptly abrogating that right, I proudly marched in several of the massive gay rights protests staged in Los Angeles after the passage of Proposition 8 - I will gladly do so again.

One of the major backers of Proposition 8 was right-wing evangelical pastor, Rick Warren. During the campaign to pass the ballot initiative he told followers; “There are about two percent of Americans who are homosexual, gay, lesbian people. We should not let two percent of the population change a definition of marriage that has been supported by every single culture and every single religion for 5,000 years. This is not even just a Christian issue, it is a humanitarian and human issue, that God created marriage for the purpose of family, love and procreation.” But Warren is far more than just an anti-gay fundamentalist bigot who equates same-sex marriage to pedophilia and bestiality. He compares abortion to the Holocaust, advocates the assassination of foreign leaders, opposes stem-cell research, supports the Iraq war, does not believe in evolution, and awarded George W. Bush an “international medal of peace.”

President-elect Barack Obama has asked Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at Obama’s January 20th inauguration ceremony, and the gay and progressive community is justifiably furious.

Kevin Naff, editor of the gay newspaper Washington Blade, put the Warren pick in context when he wrote; “We have just endured eight years of endless assaults on our dignity and equality from a president beholden to bigoted conservative Christians. The election was supposed to have ended that era. It appears otherwise.” Joe Solomonese, the president of Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay civil rights organization in the US, wrote an open letter to President-elect Obama in which he stated; “we feel a deep level of disrespect when one of the architects and promoters of an anti-gay agenda is given the prominence and the pulpit of your historic nomination.”

I agree with Human Rights Campaign when it respectfully asks Obama to rescind his decision regarding Warren. Obama defended Warren by saying; “part of the magic of this country is that we are diverse and noisy and opinionated”, words that Obama did not use in defense of his own pastor of 20 years, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. If there is another reason for Obama to choose Warren aside from a desire to pander to the religious right - I express regret at not being able to appreciate it. Including the backward-looking pastor in the inauguration ceremony is hardly a positive gesture from someone elected on a platform of “hope” and “change.”

Every U.S. artist willing to participate in Being Gay: A Visual Dialogue - creative individuals seeking to make aesthetic statements that address the political and cultural realities of today’s gay and lesbian citizenry - should do so with deep feelings of human solidarity and without illusions. Now that would be an honest expression of real hope and change.

Making a Killing in Central America

In 1989 I created a pencil drawing titled We’re Making A Killing In Central America. The image depicts two of the many thousands of innocent civilians who were tortured and murdered in Central America during the bloody conflicts of the 1980s. To “make a killing” is an English idiom that means - to do something resulting in substantial financial success - and while hundreds of thousands of Central Americans perished during the counterinsurgency wars of the ’80s, there were those who profited handsomely from the loss of life.

Drawing by Mark Vallen

[ We’re Making a Killing in Central America - Mark Vallen. Pencil on paper. 1989. "To 'make a killing' is an English idiom that means - to do something resulting in substantial financial success". Click here for a large view of the artwork. ]

The Refuge Media Project is an organization of filmmakers, health educators, and human rights activists who have been campaigning against state sponsored torture. Project Director Ben Achtenberg asked that I contribute some of my original artworks to the Refuge Media Project website in order to strengthen “the community of those who are trying to find ways, through their own disparate professions and media, to take a stand against torture”. Finding the organization in perfect accordance with my own views regarding regimes that abuse human and civil rights, I have made available to them some of my works - including We’re Making A Killing In Central America. You can view these and other artworks at the Refuge Media Project’s online Image Gallery.

There was an upsurge of extra-judicial killings in Central America during the late 1970s, when government forces and right-wing death squads in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador began annihilating opposition groups and individuals by way of kidnapping and assassination. Civilians who were abducted became known as desaparecidos, or “disappeared people”, and once someone was seized they were rarely found alive again. To intimidate populations restive for social change, death squads tortured and murdered their victims, then dumped the mutilated bodies in public places. The killers took to leaving their prey in designated areas that widely became known as “body dumps”. If a relative, friend, or associate was missing, people went to search for them in such places. Untold thousands perished in this way, including union organizers, workers, students, teachers, and peasants.

While most of the victims of this slaughter remain nameless to us, there were high profile cases that stunned North Americans. In 1980 the Archbishop of San Salvador, Óscar Arnulfo Romero, was murdered by a right-wing death squad on March 24, 1980, while celebrating Mass at a small chapel. Unbelievably, even Romero’s funeral, attended by some 250,000 mourners, was attacked by right-wing snipers who killed dozens of people. Some eight months later, three American Roman Catholic nuns and a young missionary were kidnapped, rapped, and shot dead at close range by members of the U.S. backed Salvadoran army - their bodies left in shallow graves.

My drawing was indirectly inspired by the November 16, 1989, murder of six Jesuit priests carried out by the Salvadoran army. The priests, which included the rector and vice rector of El Salvador’s esteemed Central American University, were taken from their beds in an early morning army raid on a home in the capital of San Salvador. They were brutally tortured and then shot in the head. The priest’s housekeeper and her 15-year-old daughter were also viciously murdered by the soldiers.

I was so outraged by this bloody crime that I was moved to create my drawing that same year - the work’s title alluding to U.S. government complicity in arming, training, and financing the very soldiers responsible for slaughtering the innocents. But rather than depicting a well known case, I wanted to memorialize the anonymous masses who had fallen victim to the para-military death squads. In ‘89 I self-published my black & white artwork as a flyer which bore the artwork’s title as its headline, and I distributed 5,000 copies of the leaflet across the city of Los Angeles.

Detail of drawing by Mark Vallen

[ We’re Making a Killing in Central America - Detail. Mark Vallen. 1989.]

My drawing portrays a slain man and women laying side by side in a body dump, the grisly evidence of previous assassinations surrounding them. The man still wears the blindfold his tormentors tied over his eyes, his body bares knife wounds, his left hand has been chopped off, as has a finger from his right hand. The barefoot woman has a single bullet wound in her back. Were the two - friends, lovers, relatives? Did they know one another at all? Were they student intellectuals or peasant laborers? Were they among the first to die in the beginnings of the ’70s bloodletting, or were they some of the last to perish in the final convulsive acts of violence that took place in the early ’90s? We may never know the names of all the victims of state sponsored torture and murder in Central America - but we can work to assure that justice will at last find their killers.

Frank Cieciorka: RIP

On November 24, 2008, artist Frank Cieciorka (che-CHOR-ka) died from emphysema at the age of 69. Starting in the 1980s he began to be recognized for his watercolor paintings of northern California landscapes, but it would be one of his early graphic art designs that assured him a place in history.

The iconic clenched fist has long been a symbol of the international left, its usage going back at least until 1917. But the symbol was transformed and revitalized in 1965 by Cieciorka, whose rendition of the pictogram struck a cord with a new generation of activists involved in the civil rights and antiwar struggles.

Photo of Frank Cieciorka

[ Cieciorka as a young Freedom Summer volunteer in Mississippi, 1964. Photo, estate of Frank Cieciorka ©. Source - Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement website. ]

A New Yorker, Cieciorka came to California in 1957 to attend the arts program at San Jose State College. Upon graduation in 1964 he became a volunteer in Freedom Summer, the major civil rights campaign launched in ‘64 to help African Americans register to vote in Mississippi. That same year the Ku Klux Klan kidnapped, tortured, and murdered three Freedom Summer volunteers - James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman. From 1964-65 Cieciorka also served as a field secretary in Mississippi and Arkansas for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC - pronounced “snick”), one of the primary civil rights organizations of the day.

Frank Cieciorka's iconic clenched fist graphic

[ Hand - Frank Cieciorka. Woodcut. 1965. "One of the most striking symbols to have come out of the turbulent 60s".]

Cieciorka returned to the San Francisco Bay area in 1965, and created a woodcut print inspired by his experiences as a civil rights activist in the deep South. His image, simply titled Hand, made its way onto posters and flyers, but according to the artist, “It wasn’t until we made it into a button and tossed thousands of them into crowds at rallies and demonstrations that it really became popular”. I wore one of Cieciorka’s buttons as a sixteen-year-old, and I still regard his woodcut print as one of the most striking symbols to have come out of the turbulent 60s.

For more on the life and times of Frank Cieciorka, visit Lincoln Cushing’s Docs Populi.

The City of Light Despoiled

Years ago I visited the breathtaking city of Venice, Italy, world-famous for its canals, gondolas, and Renaissance architecture. It is truly the most incomparably beautiful city on the face of the earth. During my visit I strolled through the remarkable Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square), taking in the splendors of the Doge’s Palace and the magnificent St Mark’s Basilica.

Inspiring painters from throughout the centuries, the natural light found in Venice is ethereal, unearthly. Bellini, Titian, and Giorgione made the “City of Light” their home. In actuality, oil painting on stretched canvas began in Venice at the start of the sixteenth century, and the city’s Vendecolori, those professionals who sold prepared pigments for oil painting since the 1490’s, attracted artists from all over Italy and beyond. Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Durer, Michelangelo and many other masters came to visit “La Serinissima” - the most serene Republic of Venice.

But this article is not about the grandeur of Venice, it is unhappily about its degradation - and by extension, the decline of us all. Until just recently one could meander through the Piazza San Marco and feel as though you were walking back in time 500 years. Today however, the immediate thing that strikes you is the enormous commercial banner advertisement that hangs over the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana - the National Library of St Mark’s that faces the Doge’s Palace. It is the first time in history that public advertising has been allowed in the city, and there are other colossal advertisements being readied to despoil the beauty of Venice.

Lies on Sale!

[ Colossal ad banner for the Swatch "007 Villain Collection", hung on the National Library of St Mark in the Piazzetta of San Marco, Venice Italy, 2008. Photo - The Art Newspaper. ]

In an article titled Protest over advertising in St Mark’s Square, Venice, The Art Newspaper of London reports that advertising agencies “dealing in mega-advertising locations have realized they can exploit a recent change in the law” to put public space and building facades on sale to commercial advertisers. In other words, world cultural heritage is being sold off to the highest bidder so that banal, mass produced bobbles can be marketed to the masses. As confirmed by The Art Newspaper; “Currently the villain of a 007 movie looms out of a huge Swatch ad on the Piazzetta of San Marco while two Lancia cars drive over the façade of the Doge’s Palace and even the Bridge of Sighs carries a banner.”

The marvelous renaissance buildings of Venice being draped with inane commercial advertisements is an outrage and a cause for real alarm. It represents, not only an unrelenting dumbing-down of culture and an obfuscation of history, but a foretelling of the day when all public and private space everywhere will become nothing more than a platform for advertising. If the architectural wonders of Venice can be swathed in ads, then why not the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids of Giza, or the Taj Mahal? The world’s cultural heritage belongs to all of humankind, and it should be treasured and preserved, not turned over to a cabal of marketers and advertisers who have dollar signs in their eyes. It is time to take down those advertising banners in the Piazza San Marco - in fact, it is time to take them down the world over.

Art Exhibit Censored in Berkeley

In Berkeley, California, the city known as the birthplace of the 1960s Free Speech Movement, an antiwar poster exhibition organized by the Art of Democracy project has been censored by a City of Berkeley-run arts venue.

The Art of Democracy poster exhibit was scheduled to go on display from Oct. 20 through Nov. 29, 2008, at the Addison Street Windows Gallery - a project of the Civic Arts Program and the Civic Arts Commission of the city of Berkeley. However, the show was never mounted because the gallery curator Carol Brighton, and the Civic Arts Coordinator Mary Ann Merker, deemed four of the posters objectionable, citing city guidelines that allegedly proscribe the depiction of guns in works of public art. According to the San Francisco Gate, “The city of Berkeley has no formal policy on what can be shown in its galleries”. The censored posters by Tony Bergquist, Anita Dillman, Doug Minkler, and Jos Sances - utilized depictions of weapons to convey their messages.

Gallery curator Carol Brighton told Art of Democracy organizer Art Hazelwood, that the four supposedly offending posters would have to be removed from the exhibit before the show could be presented to the public. However, the 40 participating artists in the show - rejecting the arbitrary censorship - decided they would only exhibit as a group. Having effectively shut-down the exhibit, Brighton quickly booked a pottery show as a substitute.

Print by Anita Dillman

[ Vote Issues Not Image - Anita Dillman. Lithograph. 2008. For "depicting guns, violence and weaponry", this print was one of four artworks censored by the City of Berkeley-run Addison Street Windows Gallery. Dillman’s non-partisan and rather benign image portrays 2008 presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama, surrounded by depictions of windmills, an atomic power plant, a fuel efficient car, the caduceus - ancient and international symbol of medicine, a destitute mother and child, and an AK 47 automatic rifle. ]

The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), an artist’s rights watchdog group, wrote a letter to Berkeley City Mayor, Tom Bates, voicing disapproval over the censorship of the Art of Democracy exhibit (read the NCAC letter here - pdf format). Copies of the letter were also sent to all members of the Berkeley City Council, as well as to the curator of the Addison Gallery, Carol Brighton, and the Civic Arts Coordinator, Mary Ann Merker. In part the NCAC letter read:

“While we sympathize with the City’s desire for a world without guns or violence, the decision to put a blanket ban on all art including guns is not only unproductive, it threatens to silence important political speech. The recent incident involving the four Art of Democracy posters, which express strong views on US foreign policy, is a clear example of the type of serious political expression that the ban can suppress. To suppress political speech, which enjoys the highest constitutional protection, a government venue has to have significant interest - in security, public safety or the like.

“It is hard to see how the City can demonstrate such an interest given the nationwide presence of guns and weaponry in war memorials, murals, and film posters, just to enumerate what one can see in the street. In fact, one of Berkeley’s iconic murals, the People’s History of Telegraph Avenue, contains guns. In this context there doesn’t seem to be any legitimate justification for banning the representation of guns from a public gallery. Indeed, according to the organizers, no other venue among the fifty to host the Art of Democracy exhibition around the country has censored the show.

We urge the City of Berkeley to review its guidelines and uphold its proud tradition of free speech. We all want to see fewer guns and less violence in the world, but suppressing a discussion of violence just because it graphically refers to violence, would not accomplish that goal.”

In its article on the squelching of the Art of Democracy exhibit, the Berkeley Daily Planet quoted censored artist Jos Sances; “I think the city wants to control what kind of images are up on the window. I think it should reflect the people of the city and honestly, most people in Berkeley would not be offended by these images. The city is afraid of censorship and wants everything to be nice and sweet. Unfortunately art doesn’t work that way. Art is often dirty and tough.” Another of the exhibit’s censored artists, Doug Minkler, has been circulating the following open letter;

“City council, friends and press,

In February of 2008 Melanie Cervantes and I drafted a number of letters alerting the city that there was a serious problem involving arbitrary unnecessary curatorial censorship of the Addison street windows. Since that time I have learned that there have been others who have not been allowed to show their work in the Berkeley’s Addison Street Windows. The curator, Carol Brighton, and the Berkeley Art Commission’s decision to back her ban on military symbols in this public space was an unconstitutional act. To limit debate on this most central issue of our times - war - through an abolition of war objects is not legal.

The embedded journalist/embedded art commissioner model does not reflect the community of Berkeley nor the bay area. Our three months of meetings and letter writing trying to correct this policy accomplished little. No one to whom we wrote or spoke to at the city wanted to take on this censorship issue.

Today the community of Berkeley has again been denied an opportunity to view important work (the Art of Democracy exhibit) due to this absurd ban on artists who show military armaments in their work. This is like telling poets they can’t use the word ‘death’ in their poems because it might be unsettling to the children that read their poems. All poets that use the word ‘death’ are banned from exhibiting in the Addison Street Windows by order of the city of Berkeley. Context is everything.

I support the current attempt being launched by the Art of Democracy artists to have these precious windows freed from the current censorship policy. The 1st Amendment guarantees our free speech, but this guarantee means nothing if we do not enforce it. Please speak up.”

While the Addison Street Windows Gallery censored the Art of Democracy poster show, they did not succeed in stopping the exhibit - an alternative venue was promptly found. Opening Nov. 8, 2008 and running until November 30, 2008, the Pueblo Nuevo Gallery in Berkeley will be showing the vibrant - and completely uncensored - political posters from the Art of Democracy project. For more information on the City of Berkeley’s flirtation with arts censorship, view the Berkeley Has A Censorship Issue! page on the Art of Democracy website, where you can see the four censored posters, see photos from the Pueblo Nuevo opening, and read the original Press Release from the censored show at the Addison Street Windows Gallery.

The Enduring Works of Goya

Los Caprichos, the world-renown etchings by Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), are being displayed at the Cal State Fullerton Art Gallery in Fullerton, California, from November 1, 2008 through December 12, 2008. The exhibit is actually the tenth stop in a traveling national museum tour that began in 2005 and is slated to continue until 2010.

Etching by Goya

[ El Sueño de la Razon Produce Monstrous (The sleep of Reason Produces Monsters) - Francisco Goya. 1799. Etching from the Los Caprichos series created during the 1790s. The artist’s self-portrait in no uncertain terms refers to the political and religious mood of 18th century Spain. ]

Privately published by Goya in 1799, the eighty celebrated prints of Los Caprichos (the Caprices), provide a dark and phantasmagorical depiction of the artist’s homeland during the Spanish Inquisition. Said by Goya to be a criticism of “human errors and vices”, the Los Caprichos etching suite reads like a fevered dream, full as it is with demonic looking creatures, prostitutes, and goblins - in addition to corrupt clergymen and oligarchs. If the foibles Los Caprichos depicted over two centuries ago seem familiar to us today, it is because Goya captured the eternal truth about how social divisions, economic crises, superstitions and erroneous beliefs can lead to mass psychosis - a condition we suffer from acutely in these postmodern times.

In July of this year a university student in England writing a dissertation on Goya, contacted me by e-mail to ask if I would be willing to answer a number of questions regarding the artist, his legacy, and the enduring influence of his works. I responded favorably to the request by writing the following observations, which, since others have similarly made inquiries concerning my thoughts on Goya - I have decided to publish here in part:

Q: In what way has Goya influenced you in your artwork and your views on war?

A: Goya was, and continues to be, an influence in my life and work. I first became aware of him when I was a mere child. Flipping through an art book I discovered Goya’s painting, Saturn Devouring His Son. It was an image that simultaneously horrified and intrigued me. Not being a sophisticated reader at the time, I could only imagine what the painting was supposed to signify.

Painting by Goya

[ Saturno Devorando a su Hijo (Saturn Devouring His Son) - Francisco Goya. Oil mural transferred to canvas. Created between 1819 and 1823. One of the so-called "black" paintings the artist created directly on the walls of his home outside of Madrid. This macabre image was located in Goya’s dining room. Museo del Prado, Madrid.]

Later on I rediscovered Goya, stumbling upon his nightmarish Los Caprichos series of etchings. Of course I became infatuated with him, and by the time I entered my teens I was well aware of the master’s Desastres de la Guerra (Disasters of War) etchings. At fifteen I already knew that I had no choice but to be an artist, and at the same age I also became an activist against the Vietnam war. It was Goya’s remarkable works that helped convinced me to trod the path of social commentary in art - and I haven’t looked back since.

Q: Do you think that the Disasters of War etchings are impartial? Can you ever be impartial when using journalistic techniques to record disturbing images?

A: When it comes to opinions, I do not believe it is possible for anyone to be “impartial”. One must first ask the question, “where do opinions come from?”; and in today’s world of media management and manipulation, it is not difficult to conclude that popular views are manufactured. I do not know that things have ever been different, after all - the word “propaganda” is derived from Sacre Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, the office of the Vatican established in 1622 to advance the faith. We currently live in a corporate media saturated environment where monopolies present “sound bite” news that informs, or rather, misinforms the general public, so I do not see how it is possible to talk about journalism as an objective or impartial force - if indeed it ever was one.

Goya’s Disasters of War series of etchings was most decidedly not “impartial”, but why would anyone think it necessary for it to have been so? In 1808 Napoleon invaded Spain with only one thing in mind - conquest. Before Goya created his etchings, should he have first stopped to consider the humanity of the French imperialists - endeavoring to present both sides of the conflict with his artwork? Perhaps the notion of impartiality or objectivity is overvalued. Would it not be beyond the limits of decency to demand that “both sides of the story” be told when reporting on the Nazi’s persecution of the Jews? One could offer an examination of Nazi atrocities, but anything other than a purely subjective denunciation would be unthinkable.

Painting by Goya

[ El Tres de Mayo de 1808 (The Third of May, 1808) - Francisco Goya. 1814. The artist’s depiction of French occupation soldiers executing Spanish civilians. The English art historian Kenneth Clark referred to this painting as "the first great picture which can be called revolutionary in every sense of the word, in style, in subject, and in intention". Museo del Prado, Madrid. ]

Q: In my opinion, The Third of May works because Goya’s translation of the event supported the Spanish resistance movement against Napoleon’s army. Do you think that The Second of May is an inferior work of art because the civilians are armed?

A: Goya’s painting, The Third of May, is far easier for a contemporary audience to understand than is the companion piece, The Second of May. With the passing of time, only historians can decipher the particulars represented - and both paintings are heavy with historical import. However, The Third of May is an unmistakable depiction of political repression, making it an eternal image that plainly illustrates an atrocity committed by faceless soldiers against unarmed and defenseless prisoners. In that sense it is more accessible to a contemporary audience unfamiliar with the events portrayed.

Painting by Goya

[ El Dos de Mayo de 1808 (The Second of May, 1808) - Francisco Goya. 1814. The invasion of Spain by France in 1808 triggered an anti-colonial uprising amongst the Spanish citizenry. Goya painted the outbreak of the revolt in Madrid when the French army used Mamelukes (Mercenary Arab soldiers), to help repress the Spanish populace. Today the painting hangs alongside its companion piece, The Third of May, 1808, in Spain’s Museo del Prado.]

To a modern viewer ignorant of history, The Second of May appears to be nothing more than a vicious melee. However, in its day it was perhaps the more popular painting, and it certainly was well understood by viewers to be the depiction of Spanish patriots rising up against a cruel foreign invader. That the painting portrays armed Spanish patriots engaged in acts of violence does not make the work less important or effective, but one does need to know some history to fully appreciate the canvas.

Liberty Leading the People, painted by the French artist Eugene Delacroix in 1830, portrays an armed populace in the middle of a violent revolutionary upheaval. They follow Liberty, a bare-breasted women clutching a rifle and the tri-colored banner of the nation. A romantic representation of the French Revolution of 1830, the canvas has also become an iconic portrayal of the radical democratic spirit - and the portrayal of people in arms has not made it less so.

Q: Why do you think that Jake and Dinos Chapman “defaced” a set of the Disasters of War prints? They say that their version of the Disasters highlight the inadequacy of art as a protest against war.

A: The Chapmans modifying prints from the Disasters of War series was not meant to bring about renewed interest in Goya, but to themselves; their prime motivation being to disparage the very idea of art as a moral force capable of challenging unjust wars and those who wage them. A cursory examination of history will underscore the undeniable fact that art has played an enormous role, not only in successfully building consensus for wars, but in maintaining and extolling them. I doubt that even the Chapmans would contest the veracity of this statement. If it is to be admitted that art and culture can help initiate war, then why is it so difficult to realize that art and culture has also effectively hindered it?

What the Chapman’s statement indicates, is not just their inability to grasp history, but also their enormous failure to understand the social forces and institutions that give rise to wars. The Chapmans are incapable of offering perceptive systemic critiques of society, but they are very useful indeed when it comes to dishing out hopelessness, despair, and the usual reactionary tripe about humanism being a blight. But then, perhaps I underestimate the Brothers Chapman. Conceivably they are cut from the same mold as the early Italian Futurists, whose leader, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, proclaimed; “We will glorify war - the world’s only hygiene.” I am certain Marinetti would have loved the Champman Brother’s “enhancement” of Goya’s antiwar etchings.

What I found particularly odious about the Chapman’s reworking of the Disasters of War, was that the gesture came about while the combined armed forces of the United States and the United Kingdom were involved in the unpopular military occupation of Iraq. In essence, the Chapman’s reworked etchings clearly proclaim that all protest is futile, so why bother.

One hundred and eighty years after his death, some have traced the modernist art movement back to the works of Francisco Goya - like art critic Robert Hughes, who called the Spanish master “the first modern artist”. Goya’s portentous works continue to reach out from his epoch to shed light on the horrors and follies of our own time. As a child in late 1950s Los Angeles, exposure to the works of Goya altered the course of my life. I am thrilled by the certainty of some young person walking into the Goya exhibit in Fullerton being similarly transformed.

Goya: Los Caprichos. November 1 - December 12, 2008, at the Cal State Fullerton Art Gallery in Fullerton, California. Opening Reception, Saturday, November 1, 5 to 8 p.m. (Gallery closed for Thanksgiving holiday). Directions to the Cal State Fullerton campus and its Main Art Gallery are available here.

Coca-Cola versus Pepsi-Cola

Photomontage by Josep Renau

[ Coca-Cola versus Pepsi-Cola - Josep Renau. Photomontage. 1949. ]

In 1949, as a statement on the limitations of American style elections, the contentious Spanish artist Josep Renau created the photomontage Coca-Cola versus Pepsi-Cola. In the artwork the Democratic Donkey and the Republican Elephant have mutated into a double-headed behemoth; the only difference between the cojoined grotesque twins being a predilection for one soft drink over another - the very “choice” the monstrous corporate candidate offers the people. Renau depicted his imaginary creature as a servant to militarism and entrenched political power - represented by the Pentagon and the U.S. Capital.

Though widely recognized and hailed in Spain, the works of Josep Renau (1907-1982) are little known outside of his homeland. Before long I will write about Renau on this web log, detailing his life, controversial works, and contributions to art - complete with examples of his controversial graphic inventions.

Art and the Global Economic Meltdown

An unavoidable political topic is on the lips of everyone in the art world these days, I am not speaking of the U.S. presidential election - but of an international economic meltdown the likes of which we have not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. No matter what “new” political circumstances we wake up to in the aftermath of election day, the reality of economic disintegration will still be staring us in the face. That fact will be shaping the world of art from top to bottom for many years to come, raising some important questions that artists will have to meet head-on, not the least of which is, how will artists be able to sell their works - an already difficult process - under the extremely tough conditions imposed by an economic catastrophe?

A number of artists have already begun responding to the crisis of capitalism. Artist Geoffrey Raymond has been painting large “annotated” portraits of the powerful individuals involved in the Wall Street crash, men like Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke and former Lehman Brothers chief Richard Fuld, setting the portraits up on Wall Street and allowing the public to scribble their remarks directly on the paintings. Printmaker and painter Laura Gilbert also brought her art to Wall Street, passing out signed and numbered “Zero Dollar” prints outside of the New York Stock Exchange. The imitation dollar bills display a zero instead of the numeral one. Gilbert said her prints were a comment on “the destructive role of many financial institutions, inflation and the decline of U.S. currency to the point of seeming worthlessness.”

On October 29, 2008, the 79th anniversary of the stock market crash that heralded the Great Depression of 1929, artists Nora Ligorano and Marshall Reese set up a piece of installation art close to the heart of Wall Street. Using the New York Supreme Court building as a back drop, the Ligorano/Reese installation consisted of giant blocks of ice carved into letters that together spelled, ECONOMY. Titled Main Street Meltdown, the 15 foot long, 5 foot high, 1,500 pound ice sculpture was allowed to thaw on the street amongst the bustling crowds of bewildered Wall Streeters. Ligorano/Reese stated on their website; “To see the word ‘economy’ melting down is representational of an extreme time.”

Wall Street installation by Ligorano/Reese

[ ECONOMY - Ice sculpture installation on Wall Street by artists, Ligorano/Reese. The "time-based event" mounted by the duo took place on October 29, 2008, the 79th anniversary of the stock market crash that heralded the crisis in capitalism known as the Great Depression. ]

Ligorano and Reese are certainly correct about our living in a period of severe calamity, and their works, along with those of Geoffrey Raymond and Laura Gilbert, represent a laudable step forward for an art world that for far too long has been mired in frivolity and hampered by an obsession with money and fame. At the same time I maintain that much more needs to be done to extricate art from its current impasse. Artists must become socially engaged and cognizant of world realities if we are to produce profound and lasting works of art for the 21st century.

The quandary faced by contemporary artists coping with economic breakdown also extends to the gallery system and elite art institutions. In her Oct 19, 2008 article for the New York Times, Museums Fear Lean Days Ahead, art critic Carol Vogel wrote that museum directors across the country are;

“…bracing for the effects of an economic crisis that could change everything from the size and kinds of exhibitions a museum presents to the acquisitions it could afford and the merchandise it should offer in its shops. Already the financial-market meltdown has diminished the endowment funds that cover museums’ day-to-day operating expenses. Lehman Brothers, for years a crucial sponsor for museums across the country, is no more. Surviving banking institutions and corporations that also have been the bedrock of exhibition support are likely to give far less or cut off gifts altogether.”

In his Oct 24, 2008 article for New York Magazine, Frieze After the Frieze, art critic Jerry Saltz noted the mood at the recent London Frieze Art Fair - and by extension, the temper of the elite art world in general. Saltz wrote the following:

“As I made my way through the 152 booths, I thought about the moment in Titanic when the designer of the doomed luxury liner warns Kate Winslet to find a lifeboat because ‘all this will be at the bottom of the Atlantic.’ (….) Recessions are hard on people, but they are not hard on art. The forties, seventies, and the nineties, when money was scarce, were great periods, when the art world retracted but it was also reborn. New generations took the stage; new communities spawned energy; things opened up; deadwood washed away. With luck, New Museum curator Laura Hoptman’s wish will come true: ‘Art will flower and triumph not as a hobby, an investment, or a career, but as what it is and was—a life.’”

Saltz’s article touched upon a belief that I have long held - that great art comes from trying and chaotic times. It behooves today’s artists to study the life and works of those painters who lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s, such scrutiny can perhaps serve as a starting point for our own responses to a world beset by economic wrack and ruin. But we cannot hope to simply replicate - both figuratively and literally - the works of those artists who preceded us. We must concoct our own aesthetic responses to meet the challenges of the present.

A Black Panther in England

Black Panther: Emory Douglas and the Art of Revolution, opened at the Urbis exhibition center in Manchester, England, on October 30, 2008, and the exhibit will run until April, 2009. I first met Douglas in 2007 at his landmark retrospective held at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles. I had the pleasure of talking with him again this past September at The African American Museum & Library in Oakland, California where he was exhibiting a work in a group show called, Banned & Recovered: Artists Respond to Censorship. I first learned of his UK show during our conversation in Oakland - a scoop I am pleased to announce on this web log.

Artwork by Emory Douglas

[ Offset color poster by Emory Douglas, former Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party. In this circa 1970 poster, Douglas combined a double portrait of two lumpen proletarians with the lyrics to an old slave song, "Now all of us are soldiers, we have in our hands the freedom plow, and when we get old and can’t fight anymore, we gonna have to get up and fight anyhow." ]

At the time of this writing Douglas is in the UK, where he has received some significant press coverage. The Times published an article about him titled Emory Douglas paints American history black, and The Guardian published a piece under the headline, Fight the power. He was also interviewed by BBC Radio Manchester on October 18, 2008. The station maintains a website where you can listen to the interview (select the sound file titled “The People - For Manchester’s Black community“). The interview with Douglas appears some 17 minutes into the broadcast.