Category: Museums

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

Free Admission to American Museums!

I am sure many will favorably view French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent announcement that all museums in France will soon be free for school teachers and for visitors under 25 - but careful scrutiny of the plan should be made before praising it. This story is especially relevant to the American arts community, which fully expects a sweeping new national arts policy from the incoming Obama White House.

On January 13, 2009, President Sarkozy announced his arts plan in an address made before members of France’s cultural sector. The plan, starting April 4, 2009, not only gives teachers and the young free entry to all museums, it pledges an annual 100 million euros ($161 million) for the operation and maintenance of national museums and heritage sites, and the formation of a new advisory group dedicated to promoting artistic creation. Also included in Sarkozy’s plan is the building of a new national museum - the Museum of French History.

To the casual observer the Sarkozy plan seems enlightened, but the French President may have an ulterior political motive for making his announcement at this particular time. That it took two years into his presidency before he came up with a serious national plan for the arts speaks volumes. On the one hand I see the project as insufficient - why not free admission to French museums for all the French people and not just a select demographic? The entire plan strikes me as a strategy designed to turn around plummeting approval ratings, particularly amongst the young. On the other hand, I wish that American governmental arts policy could be so advanced!

President Sarkozy’s national arts plan is the type of announcement that will no doubt make the arts community in the U.S. speculate as to why such a program could not be enacted under the new administration of Barack Obama. Why not indeed. America’s museums are not just repositories of the nation’s cultural heritage; their holdings give evidence to the greatness of a people, and as such, the people should have complete access to the nation’s treasures - free of charge.

On May 10, 1939, a crowd of 6,000 gathered at New York’s Museum of Modern Art to celebrate the museum’s tenth anniversary and reopening at its new facilities. Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the multitudes by radio broadcast - saying in part the following:

“Art in America has always belonged to the people and has never been the property of an academy or a class. The great Treasury projects, through which our public buildings are being decorated, are an excellent example of the continuity of this tradition. The Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration is a practical relief project which also emphasizes the best tradition of the democratic spirit. The W.P.A. artist, in rendering his own impression of things, speaks also for the spirit of his fellow countrymen everywhere. I think the W.P.A. artist exemplifies with great force the essential place which the arts have in a democratic society such as ours.”

And what would FDR think of MoMA charging $20 for a general admission ticket during today’s hard economic times? What would he say about America’s students, the elderly, and those living on fixed incomes, the underemployed, the unemployed - the employed for goodness sakes! - being unable to visit their local museums because of high ticket prices? Perhaps he would have to rethink his position about American art not being “the property of an academy or a class.” I realize that most U.S. museums now offer free admission at least one day each month, usually underwritten by this or that major corporate sponsor, but that clearly is not enough - especially when compared to developments in France.

As exemplified by reports from The New York Times and ARTINFO, most press accounts of Sarkozy’s announced arts plan have been perfunctory, completely without background information, context, comment or analysis. They read like republished press releases from President Sarkozy’s office. Sarkozy’s announcement is not entirely a surprise to me. In January, 2005, I twice reported on the activities of Louvre Pour Tous (Louvre For All), a grassroots movement in France that seeks the “cultural democratization” of French cultural institutions and has as its major demand, the abolishment of all admission prices to the Louvre.

On Jan. 14, 2009, Louvre Pour Tous posted an article on its website that stated part of Sarkozy’s current plan had in reality already been “decided and made public one year ago”, contending that at a 2008 meeting of France’s Council of Ministers, Sarkozy’s Culture Minister Christine Albanel had announced teachers would be exempt from paying museum entry fees. As a matter of fact, the Reuters news agency reported a year ago that starting Jan. ‘08, “French national museums including the Louvre in Paris will let in many visitors free in the coming months”, and that “some national museums will offer completely free admission to their permanent collections, while others will offer it to those under 26, one evening a week.” Granted this experiment in free admission to France’s museums only lasted for a six-month period, but why did the Sarkozy government halt the program in June ‘08, only to propose a more robust scheme to start this coming April 2009? What assurances exist that Sarkozy will not also terminate this latest program? Only the demands of a mobilized citizenry!

Sarkozy’s proposed advisory group on the arts ostensibly has as its mission the creation of incentives and a supportive social environment for artistic production, interestingly enough, Sarkozy will head the new council himself, along with Culture Minister Christine Albanel and film producer Marin Karmintz. Rather than simply a body set up to help implement government arts policy, the new council has the appearance of being a personal tool of Monsieur Sarkozy. Likewise, his projected Museum of French History appears to be nothing more than a vanity project meant to stamp his legacy on the vistas of Paris. As the French historian Alain Decaux so eloquently put it: “I don’t see the use, quite simply, because Paris is one immense museum of the history of France.”

Presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, meet at a joint press conference in Paris, July 25, 2008. Obama commented “I can’t imagine somebody who better captures the enthusiasm and energy of France than Sarkozy.” Obama went on to say that Sarkozy was the reason Americans decided to call “French fries ‘French fries’ again,” a remark that referred to the decision of the U.S. Congress to rename “French Fries” on the Congressional cafeteria menu to “Freedom Fries”, as an expression of anger over former French President Jacques Chirac’s opposition to the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Sarkozy backed the Bush invasion of Iraq.

The political relationship between Sarkozy and Obama is worth examining in light of Sarkozy’s arts proposal and the high expectations the American arts community has for an Obama arts plan. What seems obvious to me is that Sarkozy’s project is a response, both to public pressure and perceptions, as well as to shifting political/economic realities, i.e., the collapsing market. Obama’s arts plan will likewise be similarly shaped - which is something the American arts community needs to understand if it is to have any influence whatsoever upon the incoming Obama administration’s arts policy.

Sarkozy’s right-wing centrism dovetails with President-elect Obama’s centrism. Despite the shrill and preposterous accusations from the American right-wing that Obama is a wild-eyed socialist, the President-elect is not going to govern from the left. He is a so-called “pragmatist” who will maneuver the ship of state in a direction that is neither liberal nor conservative, but a course nevertheless designed to guard the interests of the capitalist system, in other words, Obama will now be CEO of America, Inc. All good things are not simply going to flow from the White House - they must be demanded, insisted upon - just as workers pressure management for better working conditions when they go out on strike.

If American artists want a WPA-style federal arts program for the 21st century that will provide employment for thousands of cultural workers, if they want the nation’s museums to be free of all admission charges, if they want the government to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into expanding arts and culture programs instead of pouring the nation’s wealth into the rat hole of endless war - then American artists are going to have to challenge the CEO of America, Inc. to deliver the goods.

L.A.’s MOCA in Meltdown

Los Angeles’ flagship museum dedicated to modern art of the last fifty years may cease to exist. The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), has been incapacitated by a crushing financial crisis of its own making. On November 19, 2008, the Los Angeles Times reported that “The museum has burned through $20 million in unrestricted funds and borrowed $7.5 million from other accounts. Cash from donors is being sought. A merger has not been ruled out.”

It appears that MOCA Director Jeremy Strick and the museum trustees are guilty of a total failure of leadership - not to mention the gross mismanagement of the world famous museum. As a nonprofit institution, MOCA collects little government funding and instead relies on donors for some 80% of its expenses. By checking the GuideStar website, which keeps track of nonprofits and their donors, it has come to light that Strick has a salary of $500,000. Readers should be reminded that the annual compensation of the president of the United States is $400,000. Strick also pays at least five higher-ranking MOCA employees six figure salaries. Furthermore, the Board of MOCA loaned Strick over $500,000 for the purchase of a house - all at a time when the museum is tottering on total financial collapse.

In his Open letter to MOCA’s board of trustees, L.A. Times art critic Christopher Knight puts the blame for MOCA’s crisis squarely upon Director Jeremy Strick as well as the museum’s trustees; “As trustees your first responsibility is fiduciary, and in that you have been a flop”. Knight went on to disparage the supposed “rescue plans” being considered to save the museum as “shameful”. The irate art critic made the following comments about the proposed rescue strategies:

“One would rent your incomparable painting and sculpture collection to a local foundation - controlled by one of your own trustees! - in exchange for some sort of multimillion-dollar annuity. The other would be a flat-out sale of it to another museum, so that you might shift the fundraising burden elsewhere, take the revenue and continue as an exhibition-only venue.

Yes, we live in a market economy, where art is bought and sold; but one of the glories of an art museum is that it provides refuge from the crude commercial world. When art enters a museum’s permanent collection, it leaves the marketplace behind. That your first instinct is apparently scheming to monetize your extraordinary collection shows that you are not trustees, you are art dealers in disguise.

The third plan I’ve been told about is even worse - total Armageddon. A merger with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in which the collection and selected staff would move to the Mid-Wilshire campus and the downtown facilities would close, would mean MOCA would cease to exist. You seem to be willing to allow your own institution, one whose remarkable program and astounding collection are the envy of cities around the world, to simply disappear. Dumbfounding.”

Apparently the Armageddon option has been selected. On the Los Angeles Times arts blog, Knight stated; “(….) here is what I’m told the board is now prepared to do: formally approach the Los Angeles County Museum of Art about a merger, which will effectively mean a transfer of MOCA’s extraordinary collection to the Mid-Wilshire complex.”

To be honest, I have never been enamored of MOCA. True enough, it houses notable works from the likes of Arshile Gorky, Robert Rauscheberg, Jackson Pollock, and others; and in 2003 it did present a wonderful retrospective of paintings by Lucian Freud. But as of late MOCA has advanced pointless and vacuous works that tell us nothing about the human condition, witness the loathsome Takashi Murakami. To survive as a viable institution, which seems doubtful at this point, MOCA’s continued existence depends on more than just massive infusions of capital - it requires a new vision. That being said, I take no particular delight in seeing one of the major art museums of my city going to ruin.

MOCA’s dilemma is indicative of the crisis now rippling through the world of elite art institutions, a disaster that will only intensify as late capitalism careens into worldwide depression. But the problem is much more than just financial, it is one of art and culture having reached an aesthetic and political impasse. Breaking through that dead-end to reach the transformative and liberating will be necessary if the crisis in contemporary art is to be resolved.

Dec. 23, 2008. In its article, MOCA accepts Broad’s lifeline, the Los Angeles Times reports that MOCA has voted to accept a $30-million bailout offered by billionaire Eli Broad (whose name rhymes with “load”). Additionally, MOCA’s director Jeremy Strick has resigned and the ailing museum has appointed UCLA Chancellor Emeritus Charles E. Young as its CEO. Acceptance of the Broad offer ends speculation that MOCA might merge with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. reports that in a Dec. 23 joint statement made by MOCA and the Broad foundation, Mr. Broad said; “It is in the best interest of the city for MOCA to remain independent.” There is more irony to be found in that remark than in all of the postmodern art found in MOCA’s collection. In 2007 Broad was ranked by FORBES as number 42 on its list of 400 richest Americans - with an estimated net worth of over $5.8 billion. He is also the founding chairman of MOCA, and his bailout of the institution should be seen in that context. Broad is also chair of the Los Angeles Grand Avenue Authority, which plans a $1.8 billion “improvement” of the downtown area where MOCA is located.

Nov. 21, 2008. A spokeswoman for MOCA released the following statement: “MOCA has received a letter from the California attorney general’s office. The California attorney general has broad jurisdiction and oversight over California nonprofits, including MOCA. The letter requested information and documents related to the museum’s finances. MOCA is fully cooperating with the attorney general.” So far the office of the attorney general has not commented on its investigation of the museum.

The Newspeak Newseum

On April 11, 2008, the inelegantly named Newseum opened in Washington, DC., to great fanfare. Ostensibly created to celebrate journalism in America and beyond, the seven-story museum is the newest and most expensive museum in the United States. Founded by the Freedom Forum and costing $450 million, the latest cultural institution to be added to the nation’s capital is so far receiving rave reviews from the press, but things are never quite what they seem - especially in a city like Washington, DC.

Being the “fly in the ointment” that I am, I’d like to make a few observations about the Newseum that you’ll most likely not be reading elsewhere. I don’t mean to be dismissive of the museum’s noteworthy attributes - there are plenty of writers who will be focusing on those positive elements - but in the case of a museum dedicated entirely to news and how it’s gathered and disseminated, I feel some muckraking on my part is in order.

Let’s start with the name, “Newseum”, which sounds remarkably like a word from “Newspeak”, the fictional language from 1984, George Orwell’s novel about a totalitarian society. The function of Newspeak was to significantly decrease the number of words in the English language, thereby purging meaning and ideas dangerous to totalitarian rule. For example, in Orwell’s novel the Ministry of Truth (”Minitru” in Newspeak), was the government agency in charge of manufacturing news, entertainment, art, and educational materials. Its primary functions entailed the falsification of history and the concoction of the “truth”. We’re hearing a lot of Newspeak-like words these days, and “Newseum” is one of them - it’s an unseemly name for an important museum.

One can learn more about the state of journalism in America today by examining the complicated financial ties, holdings, mergers, and acquisitions of corporate media than by strolling through the Newseum. The Newseum’s roster of “partners” is a veritable list of the cartels that dominate America’s media, and the museum’s founding organization, Freedom Forum, itself has ties to Gannett Co., Inc., which owns USA Today - the largest selling newspaper in the U.S., as well as 84 other newspapers, 1,000 non-daily publications, 23 television stations, and 130 web sites. The Newseum insists their partners have no control over the museum’s content or direction, but each has contributed anywhere from $5 million to $15 million to the museum, and with wings like the “Time Warner World News Gallery” and the “ABC News Changing Exhibits Gallery” - it’s difficult not to see the Newseum as one big advertisement for corporate media giants.

The concentrated power of the companies backing the Newseum can be illustrated by glancing at the portfolios of just two of the museum’s financial backers. News Corporation owns the Fox Broadcasting Company, Fox News Channel, 20th Century Fox Film, and 176 newspapers. Time Warner is the largest media conglomerate in the world, and its holdings include CNN, HBO, Cinemax, Cartoon Network, TNT, America Online, Mapquest, Netscape, Warner Bros. Pictures, and over 150 magazines including Time and People. The operative word at the Newseum seems to be - monopoly.

The Newseum promotes itself as “the most interactive museum in the world”, but it appears this interactivity could be more about shaping public opinion than it is in providing museum goers with an outstanding educational experience regarding journalism. A case in point; ABC’s flagship public affairs show, This Week with George Stephanopoulos, will begin broadcasting from one of the museum’s multi-media studios on April 20, 2008. This raises some interesting questions, especially since ABC is one of the Newseum’s major financial partners. On April 10, 2008, U.S. Commander in Iraq General David Petraeus, along with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, held a news conference at the Newseum where they defended U.S. military efforts in Iraq. It’s difficult to imagine the Newseum opening its multi-media studios to war opponents, who are also worthy news makers.

In his article on the opening of the Newseum, Howard Kurtz, staff writer for The Washington Post, flatly stated that the museum seemed to be “an overpriced monument to journalistic self-glorification”, one “at odds with the growing public distrust of the news business and the huge journalistic blunders that have pockmarked its reputation.” Kurtz is no doubt referring to the role corporate media played in selling the idea of war with Iraq to the American people, which the Newseum makes but one casual reference to. In a small exhibit case at the museum, there is a single diminutive plaque that mentions the false news reports filed by New York Times reporter Judith Miller. Her stories concerning alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction would build a national consensus for war with Iraq - reports that would later prove to be utterly false.

The role of the corporate press in beating the drums of war for the Bush administration was the subject of Buying the War, a devastating documentary by Bill Moyers and Kathleen Hughes (watch the entire film on the Bill Moyers Journal website). Mr. Kurtz appeared in Moyers film, where he stated: “From August 2002 until the war was launched in March of 2003 there were about 140 front page pieces in The Washington Post making the administration’s case for war, but there was only a handful of stories that ran on the front page that made the opposite case. Or, if not making the opposite case, raised questions.” Washington Post staff writer Tom Shales reviewed the 90-minute Moyers report, saying that it convincingly told the story of how “the media abandoned their role as watchdog and became lapdog instead.” At the Newseum, the same media conglomerates that disseminated the deceptions that led America to war, now promote themselves as the guardians of a free press and the very pinnacle of professional journalism.

The Newseum was founded by the Freedom Forum, which touts itself as a “nonpartisan foundation dedicated to free press, free speech and free spirit for all people.” Formerly vice president of news and communications at Gannett Co., Inc., Charles L. Overby was the chairman and chief executive officer of the Freedom Foundation, as well as CEO of the Newseum, until he was replaced by Jan Neuharth in Dec. 2001 (Ms. Neuharth is the eldest daughter of Al Neuharth, the founder of the Freedom Foundation).

Overby also holds a commanding position in another organization that seems a far cry from the world of journalism and press freedom - a powerful position that was not listed on his bio at the Newseum website. Overby sits on the Board of Directors for the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest privately-run, for profit prison system in the United States. According to the CCA website, it is also one of the “largest prison operators” in America, running “63 facilities, including 38 company-owned facilities, with a total design capacity of approximately 67,000 beds in 19 states and the District of Columbia.” CCA also runs the T. Don Hutto family detention center in Taylor, Texas, for the Department of Homeland Security - the first detention camp in America specifically designed to hold immigrant men, women, and children who have not been charged with any crimes.

As the former CEO of the Newseum, Mr. Overby understood that in order for the museum to be profitable, it had to offer quality rotating exhibitions that would draw crowds willing to pay the asked for $20 admission price - just as Overby understands that the privatized prisons of the Corrections Corporation of America must also be kept full if they are to turn a profit. It is a sure bet the Newseum will never mention the link between the Freedom Foundation and the Corrections Corporation of America as personified by Charles L. Overby, but it unquestionably would make for an entertaining and informative interactive museum presentation.

Journalist Russ Baker’s 2002 article, Cracks in a Foundation: The Freedom Forum Narrows its Vision, reveals how the Freedom Forum made severe cuts to its well regarded journalism grants and programs, allowing it “to concentrate on its jewel, the Newseum.” The eliminated grants, Baker wrote, had lent “succor to foreign journalists struggling in some of the world’s toughest arenas. The overseas operation - with offices in Johannesburg, London, Hong Kong, and Buenos Aires - would be shut down in its entirety.” Baker’s article quoted the former director of the Freedom Forum’s European Center in London, John Owen: “The people who run the Freedom Forum, I am ashamed to say, betrayed the commitments they made all over the world to support the cause of free and independent journalism. The irony is that in order to construct a new, expensive, state-of-the-art facility in Washington, we have shut down other buildings and evicted the very people that someday this Newseum will be honoring for their journalism.”

On public display at the Newseum are a number of historic artifacts pertaining to the history of journalism and press freedom - some of which make for thoughtful, interesting, and sometimes profound selections. However, the collection is as significant for what it includes as for what it excludes. To my knowledge, the Newseum makes no mention of the U.S. bombing of Radio Television Serbia (RTS) during the Kosovo war of 1999, when President Clinton and his NATO allies launched an air war against Serbia in order to force Serbian troops out of Kosovo. Whatever one may think of that war and the role America played in it, it seems a travesty that the Newseum would ignore the deliberate aerial bombing of a modern television station and the deaths of the civilian staff who occupied it.

we interrupt this program to bring you a message from our sponsor…

[ The smoldering ruins of the Radio Television Serbia building in downtown Belgrade after it was destroyed by an American Cruise missile on April 23, 1999. 16 civilian TV technicians were killed in the attack.]

On April 23, 1999, an American cruise missile slammed into the RTS building in downtown Belgrade at 2 a.m., killing 16 civilian TV technicians working at the station - including a 27-year-old make-up woman. The U.S. and NATO argued that the station was a legitimate military target because it broadcast propaganda, but according to journalist Robert Fisk of the Independent who was at the scene of the bombing as the bodies were being pulled from the smoldering rubble, “Once you kill people because you don’t like what they say, you change the rules of war.” Amnesty International issued a scorching condemnation of the attack on RTS, stating that: “NATO deliberately attacked a civilian object, killing 16 civilians, for the purpose of disrupting Serb television broadcasts in the middle of the night for approximately three hours. It is hard to see how this can be consistent with the rule of proportionality.”

While the Newseum includes examples of media blunders, gaffes, and outright lies hoisted upon an unsuspecting public, they apparently could not find exhibit space for an alarming news story from the year 2000, when officers from the U.S. Army 4th Psychological Operations Group (PSYOPS) were invited to work in the news divisions of CNN and National Public Radio during the waning days of the Kosovo War. The story first surfaced in the Netherlands where the Amsterdam daily newspaper Trouw published the report. The article was translated into English but was picked up only by a handful of publications. One such periodical was the British daily, The Guardian, which wrote on April 12, 2000;

“For its part, the army said the program was only intended to give young army media specialists some experience of how the news industry functioned. The interns were restricted to mainly menial tasks such as answering phones, but the fact that military propaganda experts were even present in newsrooms as reports from the Kosovo conflict were being broadcast has triggered a storm of criticism and raised questions about the independence of these networks.”

Both CNN and NPR admitted they allowed PSYOPS personnel to work in their news department headquarters, but insisted the officers were only interns who had no influence over news production. The American media watchdog group, Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), wrote; “Even if the PSYOPS officers working in the newsroom did not influence news reporting, did the network allow the military to conduct an intelligence-gathering mission against CNN itself? (….) FAIR commends CNN for acknowledging that the presence of PSYOPS personnel in the newsroom was, in its words, ‘inappropriate.’ It is unfortunate that the network came to that conclusion only after the program’s existence was revealed in February by the Dutch newspaper Trout.”

The traditional concept of a museum as an elite institution dedicated to research and the acquisition, conservation, and safeguarding of humanity’s collective heritage - seems to be giving way to a profit driven, entertainment oriented, glitzy pop culture approach to museum management. As corporate monopolies move ever closer to controlling the cultural life of the nation, the Newseum provides the clearest look yet of a cultural institution in the service of big business.

How do you know you’re not a Fascist?

The shipyard with its giant construction cranes and warehouses, still waters and slate gray skies, makes for quite a beautiful oil painting. The artist applied a heavy impasto of vibrant colors using large bristle brushes, and also used a palette knife to trowel on the hot and cool hues of gray that make up the leaden clouds. But aside from the technical prowess of the artist, what does the painting say to us? One could bring up the mood cast by the canvas, or perhaps comment on the emotional responses to such a scene, but we shouldn’t overlook the artist’s intent - which was to comment on the labor of ship building in the year 1944.

Now let’s consider the next canvas by the same artist, another understated examination of labor - but one created as a landscape painting in 1940. The artist has depicted a rough landscape of rocky crags whose crests are topped by verdant green meadows and trees. A second glance reveals a rock quarry, where workers toil at extracting blocks of stone from the mountainside. Like the first painting, a palette knife has created startling realistic effects, the living rock of the quarry made all the more believable by the artist’s experienced hand. But again - what does this painting say to us?

Apart from their shared realism, the paintings have other commonalities. Both focus on the intensity of the natural world, with the presence of the workers a mere sidebar - in fact, there are no workers to be seen in the shipyard painting at all. The two paintings also deal with the idea of monumentality, giant mechanized cranes looming over a harbor, and enormous slabs of stone hewn from a colossal ridge. The artworks minimize the role of human hands in labor, and instead offer panoramas that might have been fashioned by supernatural forces.

Artworks are never simply artworks. There are always implications and meanings attached to them, whether artists admit to this or not - and there are most certainly ramifications associated with better known works. The paintings I’m discussing here make for an excellent example. Both were created by German artist, Erich Mercker, and both were commissioned by Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party in order to celebrate the building of infrastructure in fascist Germany. The tranquil looking shipyard is a depiction of the harbor where the Nazi U-Boat fleet was built, the same wartime armada of deadly submarines that menaced Atlantic shipping and blockaded Britain. The painting of the quarry shows workers cutting stone to be used in the construction of the Nazi seat of power in Berlin. Moreover, since Germany’s able-bodied men were at the time in uniform and occupying eight European countries from Austria to France, and the Nazi war machine was preparing its 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union - the workers in the painting are more than likely slave laborers conscripted from concentration camps.

While my assessment of Mercker’s paintings can serve as a lesson in peeling back the hidden layers of meaning in an artwork, that is by no means the point of my article. Nor do I mean to scrutinize the role and responsibilities that I believe an artist has - which is always a topic of discussion on this web log. However, I do wish to point out that Mercker’s paintings - and works of art by other German artists commissioned by the Nazis, are now on view at an American museum that has failed to identify the paintings as Nazi propaganda.

I’m not at all offended that the Man at Work museum at the Milwaukee School of Engineering in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, would decide to show such works, as I’m of the opinion that displays of artworks created by artists of the Third Reich are allowable provided extraordinary care is taken to identify the works for what they are. However, the Man at Work museum has taken no such precautions. On the contrary, the labels, supporting text and other documents pertaining to the exhibited Nazi commissioned artworks make no mention of their origins. For instance, the Man at Work museum website merely identifies Erich Mercker as a painter who created “colorful images of steel mills and foundries, bridge and ship-building, quarries and interior views of factories.” No reference is made to what those industrial sites and quarries were manufacturing, and no mention is made of who paid Mercker and where his works were exhibited.

It is repulsive that the Man at Work museum has chosen not to clearly identify some of the artworks in its holdings as Nazi propaganda. The museum has 81 Erich Mercker paintings in its possession, canvases that were not only directly commissioned by the Nazi regime, but glorify that government’s construction projects. For instance, the museum displays Mercker’s painting, Congress Hall in Nuremberg Under Construction, without mentioning or explaining that the building depicted is none other than the main Congress hall for the Nazi party, and that it marked the entrance to the Nazi party rally grounds were the infamous Nuremberg Rallies were held annually.

Painting by Erich Mercker

[ Congress Hall in Nuremberg Under Construction - Erich Mercker. Oil painting. Date unknown. Commissioned by Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party. The artist’s painting is of the Nazi Party main Congress hall, where the infamous Nuremberg Rallies took place. ]

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran an excellent article on Oct. 27, 2007, titled: Art with Nazi links raises questions for new museum. The article noted that museum director John Kopmeier opposed providing proper labeling and historical context for the Nazi commissioned artworks, saying: “I could argue against this… it is of no interest to us.” This hardly seems a reasonable - let alone a professional stance - for the director of a museum; but then, as noted in the Sentinel’s article, Kopmeier has no “professional expertise in art or art history,” and “there is no professional curator on the museum’s staff.”

The Man at Work museum was supposedly intended to celebrate labor through the ages, but the most political of all human endeavors - work - is presented by the museum in the most apolitical manner, or so it seems at first glance. Industrialist Eckhart G. Grohmann donated his extensive art collection to the Milwaukee School of Engineering, who have housed the collection in their newly dedicated museum. Grohmann’s collection is focused on the theme of labor and is principally composed of German and Northern European artists. For the most part the artists in the collection are little known, but in the case of Erich Mercker, Ferdinand Staeger, and Ria Picco-Ruckert - history obliterated their names due to their collaboration with Hitler’s regime.

SS Guards - Painting by Ferdinand Staeger

[ SS-Wache (SS Guards) - Ferdinand Staeger. Oil painting. Year unknown. Staeger’s paintings on the topic of labor are on view at the Man at Work museum. While this particular painting by Staeger depicting "heroic" Nazi SS soldiers is not in the museum’s collection - it is indicative of the artist’s political views. In displaying Staeger’s paintings about labor, the museum fails to mention the artist’s Nazi connections.]

While Erich Mercker was not a member of the Nazi party, he was highly favored by the Nazi hierarchy and his paintings were collected by party members. Mercker also exhibited at the Grosse deutsche Kunstausstellung (Great German Art Exhibition), the inaugural exhibit of the Nazi “House of German Art” where the Third Reich displayed what they considered to be the finest artworks created by the “master race.” Ferdinand Staeger also exhibited at Nazi authorized venues, including the Great German Art Exhibition, and Hitler himself was an enthusiastic collector of Staeger’s works. Ria Picco-Ruckert lionized fascist ideals regarding work and collective struggle, and her painting at the Man at Work museum portrays German workers involved in war production at a steel factory. Picco-Ruckert also exhibited her work at the notorious Nazi Party Congress held in Nuremberg.

It can be argued that some German artists joined the Nazi party or took commissions from them, especially in the early years of the regime, “just to get a job.” Many people were swept up in the ultra-nationalism and conservatism that brought the fascists to power, without fully comprehending how their participation would ultimately lead their country, and the world, to such incomprehensible ruin. But after a certain point it became impossible not to know what was occurring. It was well understood that those “degenerate” artists who strayed from Nazi aesthetics would face severe punishment. Many were dismissed from teaching positions, banned from exhibiting, selling or even creating art. Countless others simply disappeared into concentration camps.

There’s no doubt Erich Mercker, Ferdinand Staeger, and Ria Picco-Ruckert were fully cognizant of what was taking place in their country, and the Man at Work museum is obligated to acknowledge this by properly labeling, with explanatory text - the ghastly history behind some of the paintings in its collection.

Leave Some Room for us Troublemakers!

Leaving Room for the Troublemakers, is an outstanding essay written by art critic Holland Cotter for the New York Times. Cotter wrote about those forces, aesthetic, financial and political - who are consolidating their hegemony over the nation’s art institutions to the detriment of us all. As an artist increasingly concerned with the ever-shrinking space available to those who break the rules and buck the system, Cotter’s article struck a nerve with me. Here he writes about art world elites, flush with cash and determined to put their stamp on things:

“Any existing museum anywhere needs to be expanded expensively. Thanks to all this stretching, art and its institutions have, we are told, grown increasingly democratic, more accessible to all. In fact, the more successful a museum grows, the more elitist it tends to become. Social distinctions based on money and patronage can assume the intricate gradings of court protocol. At street level, admission prices climb, reinforcing existing socioeconomic barriers. Programming grows more cautious. If you’re laying out $20, you want to see ‘the best’ art, which often means art that adheres to conventional versions of beauty, authority, ‘genius’ (white and male) set in a reassuringly familiar context.”

Cotter accurately depicted the process occurring all across America, and his analysis certainly applies to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, currently undergoing its own expensive renovation costing hundreds of millions of dollars. In his article Cotter described two dissimilar paths for today’s art museums; the first leading to an unadventurous mainstream conformity where the bottom line is all that really matters, the second to “an ethically charged experience, a psychologically fraught encounter, a stage for disruptive, possibly dangerous, ideas.” It’s not hard to appreciate the fact that most of America’s art institutions these days are navigating along that first, orthodox path.

Holland Cotter opened his NYT essay by mentioning curator Chris Gilbert resigning his position at the Berkeley Art Museum in California over that museum’s attempt to alter one of Gilbert’s projects - an incident that Cotter believes embodies his case of there being two directions for today’s museums. Chris Gilbert had organized an exhibition for the Berkeley Art Museum titled, Now-Time Venezuela: Media Along the Path of the Bolivarian Process. In the exhibit, Gilbert mounted a wall label that pronounced the show to be in “solidarity” with the struggle in Venezuela - the museum recoiled from the use of that word, insisting on a more dispassionate, middle-of-the-road expression. Gilbert refused to make the change and instead resigned his curatorial position at the museum.

It’s interesting to note that at the time of Gilbert’s April 28th, 2006, resignation, the NYT and most other newspapers, not to mention the art world press, paid not the slightest bit of attention to the story. I’m pleased to say that I not only wrote about Gilbert’s resignation on this web log when it happened - I also published his full, un-edited resignation statement. Cotter went on to describe the troubling and corrupting influence of money upon American museums, turning them into timid institutions that pander to conventional tastes, the art market and those who manipulate it:

“(….) money is again in truly fathomless supply. People think about it constantly, about how much there is of it, spilling out of pockets, oozing from hedge-fund accounts. Curators find themselves enlisted as personal shoppers to the collectors who swarm through the art fairs. Museums hope these guided purchases will end up on their walls; collectors hope they will serve as tickets to higher ground on the art-world social terrain. When the painter Brice Marden was interviewed in The New York Times before his recent MoMA retrospective, he talked primarily about real estate, about how many houses and how much land he had bought, or was buying thanks to his phenomenal sales. ‘What else am I going to do with all this money?’ he asked.”

What else to do indeed. I could propose numerous pragmatic ways for Marden to spend his riches, schemes that would benefit both the arts community and the wider society, but there lies the catch - and it’s what Cotter was driving at in his essay. Will artists and art museums promote a social vision, or will their only outlook be a financial one? The lines have been drawn and they couldn’t be clearer. There are those who act as if art was nothing more than commerce, and for those artists like Marden and the institutions that lionize him, the art world is certainly one of privilege. How can that realm be altered to allow for art that is truly unconventional and challenging? I have my own ideas on that subject, but in part I concur with some minimal steps proposed by Holland Cotter.

“One thing it can do - that museums can do - is clear an alternative space in that culture, a zone of moral inquiry, intellectual contrariness, crazy beauty. In this space, artists can simultaneously hold a magnifying glass up to something called ‘America’ and also train a telescope on it: probe its innards and view it from afar, see it as others see it. From these perspectives, they might come up with models of a cosmopolitan, leveled-out society for a country in solidarity with the world, in contrast to the provincial, hierarchical, self-isolating one that exists today. The common wisdom of the moment, however, tells us that carving out such a zone is no longer possible. The market, that state of manipulated consensus called freedom of choice, is so omniscient, so all consuming, so universal that there is no alternative left, no margin; no outside, only inside. Well, yes and no.”

LA Museums: Free For All!

On Sunday, October 1st, 2006, twenty museums across Los Angeles will participate in the second annual Museums Free-For-All, by opening their doors to the public absolutely free of charge. The Free-For-All concept is a refreshing change from the worrying drift towards rising admission prices for national art museums, and while the day provides relief - it is clearly not enough. Since the inception of this web log, I’ve been writing about museum ticket prices and their impact upon America’s cultural life. In November of 2004, I wrote the following - pouring scorn on New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) for setting an unwelcome wallet-lightening standard:

“MoMA’s steep admission price marks an ominous trend - that of transforming art museums into privatized establishments where only the wealthy can afford entry. While a $20 dollar ticket will not prevent most people from visiting once a year, only rich persons can afford to be regular guests. All of society will suffer as a consequence. Gone are the days when art students and other aspiring artists could pore over a museum’s collection at little or no cost. High entry fees constitute an irreparable loss for low income people seeking inspiration and stimulation from art. The terrible irony is that, as in the past, up and coming artists can’t afford steep admission prices to view great works of art. MoMA has effectively abandoned its most celebrated purpose - that of being an institution that inspires artists.”

Unfortunately, things have changed little since I wrote those words, and MoMA is no longer alone when it comes to being the country’s most expensive art museum. In July of this year, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art also raised its door price to $20, which will surely be followed by admission increases for other museums. All the more reason to revel in LA’s Free-For-All, an event that should not only be celebrated, but expanded to include every museum in the country.


UPDATE 2011: New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) both raised their admission fees in 2011.

MoMA will begin charging $25 for entry starting September 1, 2011. A museum spokesperson attributed the admission price increase to “escalating costs in virtually all aspects of operating the museum.” Here it should be noted that museum director Glenn Lowry was paid $1.6 million in 2009. As reported by Bloomberg news agency, MoMA’s 2009-2010 tax returns show Lowry received a salary and bonus of $830,000, free housing in MoMA’s luxury condominium valued at $318,000, as well as $403,635 in retirement compensation. It must be assumed Mr. Lowry continues to receive that same compensation - even as MoMA raises entry fees for the public.

In July of 2011, the Metropolitan Museum of Art also raised its $20 admission price to $25. The Met’s director, Thomas Campbell, was paid $929,735 in fiscal year 2009.

“Rocky” Road for Philadelphia Art

Who could have imagined that a Hollywood movie prop would find a permanent home in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one of America’s finest art museums? The theatrical property in question is an 8-foot tall bronze statue - arms raised in victory - depicting Rocky Balboa, the fictional boxer played by Sylvester Stallone.

On September 7th, 2006, to their great discredit, the Philadelphia Art Commission buckled, voting 6-2 to place the statue of Rocky on the ground level of the museum steps. Commission member Moe Brooker voted against the decision, and flatly stated: “It’s not a work of art and it doesn’t belong there.” Miguel Angel Corzo, University of the Arts president and the other commission member to vote against the plan, said the decision went against the commission’s purpose of raising “the standards of the city.” Naturally I stand with these dissenters, and I condemn the notion that the Rocky statue can in any way be compared to the holdings of the Philadelphia Museum of Art - which has in its collection sculptures by Honoré Daumier, Georges Braque, Amedeo Modigliani, and Auguste Rodin.

On September 8th, 2006, three thousand screaming Rocky fans gathered at the steps of the museum to watch Sylvester Stallone unveil the bronze at its new permanent home, a museum that will henceforth be known, not for its world class collection of paintings by Thomas Eakins or sculptures by Rodin - but for its statue of a macho Hollywood movie character. The press has in the main been filled with glowing accolades regarding the Rocky statue, and some of Philadelphia’s local press has voiced outright contempt and hostility towards the arts community for viewing the statue as nothing more than a movie prop. One AM talk radio broadcaster referred to arts professionals as those “hoity-toity, artsy-fartsy, holier-than-thou, Barnes-move-backing, quiche-eating, latte-loving, al Qaeda-inspired, vegan, no-nuke, save-the-whales, Green Party, white-Christmas-light-hanging, Birkenstock-wearing, Swiss-cheesesteak-eating dilettantes.” Right-wing populists have politicized an argument over aesthetics, turning it into one of identity by proclaiming the Rocky statue a patriotic monument to the American spirit.

Interestingly enough, the great majority of press accounts don’t even mention the name of the artist who created the statue - providing evidence that the story has more to do with a people’s desperate need to believe in a myth than anything to do with art. The director of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park Art Association, which commissions and preserves public art in the City of Brotherly Love, said, “It’s not an artistic high point of sculptural practice, it’s a movie prop. That’s what it was made for, it’s not an insult and it’s not an opinion - it’s a fact.”

Sylvester Stallone’s first Rocky film was made in 1976, and the 72 step-entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art was used as the setting for a melodramatic scene where the Rocky character triumphantly runs up the stairs, punching the air while completing a training regime in preparation for a heavyweight match. Since that time, legions of hormonal male fans have run up the museum steps, mimicking the histrionic scene in a ritual that continues to this day. When Stallone returned to Philadelphia in 1982 to film Rocky III, he commissioned artist A. Thomas Schomberg to create the 2000 pound bronze statue, and it stood atop the museum staircase until filming was completed.

Stallone left the statue in place as a gift to the museum - but the arts community was appalled, and lodged complaints with the city Art Commission and the press to have the prop moved to a more appropriate location. Eventually the commission relented, and the statue was relocated to the Spectrum sports arena. In 2005 the sports arena was demolished and the statue was put in storage. The 60 year-old Stallone returned to Philadelphia in 2006 to film Rocky Balboa, and the statue makes an appearance in the film, which gave supporters of the bronze further opportunity to arm twist officials into permanently installing it in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. There is an especially large collection of Rodin’s sculptures at the museum, among which can be found The Thinker, the French artist’s world famous masterpiece. It is a travesty that a sculpture of a monosyllabic Hollywood action film star will now find a home in the same collection as Rodin’s Thinker - it’s an even bigger tragedy that people can’t tell the difference between great art and the garish junk generated to promote the latest blockbuster from tinsel town.

There’s no doubt Sylvester Stallone has teeming numbers of fans who adore the statue of him as fictional boxer, Rocky Balboa, but is that a valid reason to force an art museum to display such a statue? Perhaps now that the precedent has been set, we can look forward to a statue of Stallone as Rambo being erected in front of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. There is no shortage of popular Hollywood stars and starlets who could commission sculptures and portraits of themselves to grace our nation’s museums. Perhaps the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York would like to advance the race to the bottom by purchasing and displaying the latest sculpture by artist, Daniel Edwards, who recently cast in bronze the “first poop” of Suri Cruise, the baby of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. Who needs great art when you can have celebrity worship?

Controversy at the Berkeley Art Museum

[ A storm regarding art and its relation to political activism has erupted at the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA), resulting in the May 19th resignation of curator Chris Gilbert, who ran the museum’s Matrix film program for less than a year. Before taking the position at BAM/PFA, Gilbert was curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where he organized a series of experimental contemporary art exhibits that posed questions regarding the possibilities of a critical art practice for today. His writings have appeared in Art Journal, Bomb, and the Oxford Art Journal, with further materials to be published in Collectivism after Modernism - edited by Gregory Sholette and Blake Stimson, University of Minnesota Press.

Gilbert had a long running dispute with BAM/PFA over his development of Now - Time: Media Along the Path of the Bolivarian Process. Defined as a multi-part presentation on the far-reaching transformations taking place in Venezuela under the leadership of president Hugo Chávez, Gilbert saw his overall project as being "in solidarity with this revolutionary process." BAM/PFA apparently felt that art should not play an active role in the subject it explores, insisting instead on a "neutral" examination of events. Gregory Sholette sent a copy of Chris Gilbert’s resignation statement to me. Knowing that mainstream art journals and blogs will completely ignore the story, I’ve decided to publish Gilbert’s statement in the interests of open debate. As to what he might be doing next, reported that Gilbert said he might "leave the country or stop working, because I don’t want to pay taxes to kill people in Iraq." ]

>> Chris Gilbert. Statement on resigning 5/21/06

I made the decision to resign as Matrix Curator on April 28, but my struggles with the BAM/PFA over the content and approach of the projects in the exhibition cycle Now-Time Venezuela: Media Along the Path of the Bolivarian Process go back quite a few months. In particular the museum administrators — meaning the deputy directors and senior curator collaborating, of course, with the public relations and audience development staff — have for some time been insisting that I take the idea of solidarity, revolutionary solidarity, out of the cycle. For some months, they have said they wanted “neutrality” and “balance” whereas I have always said that instead my approach is about commitment, support, and alignment — in brief, taking sides with and promoting revolution.

I have always successfully resisted the museum’s attempts to interfere with the projects (and you will see that the ideas of alignment, support, and revolutionary solidarity are written all over the Now-Time projects part 1 & part 2 — they are present in all the texts I have generated and as a consequence in almost all of the reviews). In the museum’s most recent attempt to alter things, the one that precipitated my resignation, they proposed to remove the offending concept from the Now-Time Part 2 introductory text panel (a panel which had already gone to the printer). Their plan was to replace the phrase “in solidarity” with revolutionary Venezuela with a phrase like “concerning” revolutionary Venezuela — or another phrase describing a relation that would not be explicitly one of solidarity.

I threatened to resign and terminate the exhibition, since, first of all, revolutionary solidarity is what I believe in — the essential concept in the Now-Time project cycle — but secondly it is obviously unfair to invite participants such as Dario Azzellini and Oliver Ressler or groups such as Catia TVe to a project that has one character (revolutionary solidarity) and then change the rules of the game on them a few weeks before the show opens (so that they become mere objects of examination or investigation). At first, my threat to resign and terminate the show availed nothing. Then on April 28, I wrote a letter stating that I was in fact resigning and my last day of work would be two weeks from that day, which was May 12, two days before the Now-Time Part 2: Revolutionary Television in Catia opening. I assured them that the show could not go forward without me. In response to this decisive action — and surely out of fear that the show which had already been published in the members magazine would not happen — the institution restored my text panel to the way I had written it. Having won that battle, though at the price of losing my position, I decided to go forward with the show, my last one.

One thing that should make evident how extreme and erratic the museum’s actions were is that the very same sentence that was found offensive (”a project in solidarity with the revolutionary process in contemporary Venezuela”) is the exact sentence that is used for the first Now-Time Venezuela exhibition text panel that still hangs in the Matrix gallery upstairs. That show is on view for one more week as I write.

The details of all this are important though, of course, its general outlines, which play out the familiar patterns of class struggle, are of greater interest. The class interests represented by the museum, which are above all the interests of the bourgeoisie that funds it, have two (related) things to fear from a project like mine: (1) of course, revolutionary Venezuela is a symbolic threat to the US government and the capitalist class that benefits from that government’s policies, just as Cuba is a symbolic threat, just as Nicaragua was, and just as is any country that tries to set its house in order in a way that is different from the ideas of Washington and London — which is primarily to say Washington and London’s insistence that there is no alternative to capitalism.

I must emphasize that the threat is only symbolic; in the eyes of the US government and the US bourgeoisie, it sets a “bad” and dangerous example of disobedience for other countries to follow, but of course the idea that such examples represent a military threat to the US (would that it were the case) is simply laughable; (2) the second threat, which is probably the more operational one in the museum context, is that much of the community is in favor of the Now-Time projects — the response to the first exhibition is enormous and the interest in the second is also very high. That response and interest exposes the fact that the museum, the bourgeois values it promotes via the institution of contemporary art (contemporary art of the past 30 years is really in most respects simply the cultural arm of upper-class power) are not really those of any class but its own. Importantly the museum and the bourgeoisie will always deny the role of class interests in this: they will always maintain that the kinds of cultural production they promote are more difficult, smarter, more sophisticated — hence the lack of response to most contemporary art is, according to them, about differences in education and sophistication rather than class interest. That this kind of claim is obscurantist and absurd is something the present exhibitions make very clear: the work of Catia TVe, which is created by people in the popular (working-class) neighborhoods of Caracas, is far more sophisticated than what comes out of the contemporary art of the Global North. The same could be said for the ideas discussed by the Venezuelan factory workers in the Ressler and Azzellini film that is shown Now-Time Part 1. (Of course, it is not because these works and the thoughts in them are more sophisticated that we should attend to them; what I am saying is simply that it is clearly an evasion and false to dismiss anti-bourgeois cultural production — work that aligns with the interests of working class people — on grounds of its being unsophisticated.)

To return to the museum: I believe that the enormous response to the Now-Time cycle — there were 180 visitors to the March 26 panel discussion that opened Now-Time part 1 and if you google “Now-Time Venezuela” you get over 700 hits — put the class interests that stand by and promote contemporary art in danger, exposed them a bit. I suppose some concern about this may have given a special edge to the museum’s failed efforts to alter my projects.

I think it is important to be clear about the facts that precipitated my resignation: that is, the struggle over the wording of the text panel, which fit into months of struggle over the question of solidarity and alignment with a revolutionary political agenda. That issue is discussed above. However, it is also important to understand the context. Again, it is too weak to say that museums, like universities, are deeply corrupt. They are. (And in my view the key points to discuss regarding this corruption are (1) the museum’s claim to represent the public’s interests when in fact serving upper-class interests and parading a carefully constructed surrogate image of the public; (2) the presence of intra-institutional press and marketing departments that really operate to hold a political line through various control techniques, only one of which is censorship; finally (3) the presence of development departments that, in mostly hidden ways, favor and flatter rich funders, giving the lie to even the sham notion of public responsibility that the museum parades). However, to describe museums and other cultural institutions as simply if deeply corrupt is, as I said, too weak in that it both holds out the promise of their reform and it ignores the larger imperialist structures that make their corruption an inevitable upshot and reflection of the exploitive political and social system of which they form a part. Such institutions will go on reflecting imperialist capitalist values, will celebrate private property and deny social solidarity, and will maintain a strict silence about the control of populations at home and the destruction of populations abroad in the name of profit, until that imperialist system is dismantled. Importantly, it will not be dismantled by cultural efforts alone: a successful reform of a cultural institution here or there would at best result in “islands” of sanity that would most likely operate in a negative way — as imaginary and misleading “proof” that conditions are not as bad as they are.

In fact, with conditions as they are, a different strategy is required: there should be disobedience at all levels; disruptions and explosions of the kind that I, together with a small group of allies inside the museum, have created are also useful on a symbolic level. However, the primary struggle and the only struggle that will result in a significant change would be one that works directly to transform the economic and political base. This would be a struggle aiming to bring down the US government and its imperialist system through highly organized efforts.

We live in the midst of a fascist imperialism — there is no other way to describe the system that the US has created and that exercises such control through terror over populations both inside and outside. History has shown that to make “deals” or “compromises” with fascism avails nothing. Instead a radical and daily intransigence is required. Fascism operates to destroy life. It installs and operates on the logic of the camp on all levels, including culture. In the face of that logic, which holds life as nothing, compromises and deals at best buy time for the aggressor and symbolic capital for the aggressor. One should have no illusions: until capitalism and imperialism are brought down, cultural institutions will go on being, in their primary role, lapdogs of a system that spreads misery and death to people everywhere on the planet. The fight to abolish that system completely and build one based on socialism must remain our exclusive and constant focus.

Chris Gilbert <<