Category: Museums

Occupy the Art World

Placards at Foley Square, New York City, Nov. 15, 2011. - Anonymous artist. Photo from www.occupywallst.org

Placards at Foley Square, New York City, Nov. 15, 2011. - Anonymous artist. Photo from www.occupywallst.org

The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement describes contemporary U.S. society as being under the domination of the “one percent”, those super-wealthy individuals and corporations that control everything from the media to the halls of Congress.

While the primary focus of OWS has been aimed at the home foreclosures, unemployment, and social inequality fostered by the greed of rapacious banks and corporations, some critical assessment of the impact corporate titans have exercised over culture is also in order.

For those inured to the art world having been commandeered by high finance, now is the time of reckoning. In view of the Occupy movement’s fight against plutocracy, the arts community should scrutinize the role financial institutions have played, and continue to play, in the collapse of the economy. Those same corporations maintain a benevolent public image through funding the arts; I will mention a handful of these oligarchic “arts supporters” in this article.

Mat Gleason, art critic and founder of the Los Angeles arts periodical Coagula Art Journal, wrote an essay for the AOL owned Huffington Post titled, Is Pacific Standard Time Too Big to Fail? While Gleason’s article was certainly a jab at the Getty Foundation’s much heralded Pacific Standard Time extravaganza of some forty exhibits across Southern California, his commentary also raised the issue of corporate sponsorship of the arts. He specifically targeted Bank of America as the financial backer behind Pacific Standard Time. In his article, Gleason wrote:

Bank of America ATM receipt - Original illustration for Mat Gleason's article, "Is Pacific Standard Time Too Big to Fail?"

Bank of America ATM receipt - Original illustration for Mat Gleason's article, "Is Pacific Standard Time Too Big to Fail?"

“A friend sent me her Bank of America ATM receipt with its upbeat encouragement to explore the Pacific Standard Time (PST) website. Could there be a crueler indictment of an art world that is convinced of its moral superiority to mainstream culture than to be subsidized by one of the criminal financial forces that has brought our culture to its very knees?

I was seriously considering a boycott of the entire Pacific Standard Time when I saw an entity sponsoring a cultural event after basically destroying the culture via the economy. For BofA to celebrate the very pulse that it now has contributed to killing is disgusting. But the era of the boycott seems to have vanished - instead of the boycott’s zero attention, the ‘occupy’ era challenges power by giving perpetrators 100 percent attention. While there is a call for people to remove their money from large financial institutions on November 5 and open accounts at a local credit union, how do we as a region remove the art that defines our city and our times from the large art institutions?

I suppose you don’t need an answer to begin your occupation of the art institution of your choice. And if you cannot choose one, don’t forget that the big banks collaborate with art educational institutions to profit mightily off of student loan debt. Curricula in the hallowed halls of these capitalist MFA casinos mimic the self-impressed non-engagement aesthetic as much or more than most PST exhibits. The anxiety is erased into the conceptual ether. Prozac is to art creation what the Getty is to art curation.”

"Make Wall Street Pay" - Anonymous artist. Based on a photo of "For the Love of God", a sculpture by British artist Damien Hirst. The work, a human skull cast in platinum and covered with 8,601 flawless diamonds, is alleged to have sold for £50 million ($79 million). Poster available for download at www.adbusters.org

"Make Wall Street Pay" - Anonymous artist. Based on a photo of "For the Love of God", a sculpture by British artist Damien Hirst. The work, a human skull cast in platinum and covered with 8,601 flawless diamonds, is alleged to have sold for £50 million ($79 million). Poster available for download at www.adbusters.org

While I do not agree with Gleason’s assessment of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time exhibitions, his swipe at Bank of America broaches the wider issue of corporate backing of the arts.

The prickly question is, how do artists circumvent the hegemony of the privileged few to establish and sustain truly autonomous art?

In January 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws banning corporations from using their vast wealth to support or oppose candidates for political office. Millions of Americans were aghast at the decision, which allows corporations to pump unlimited funds into the coffers of political candidates; a distortion of democracy that gives powerful companies the ability to purchase candidates as well as the legislative process. But if it is injurious to the nation to hand over government to monied interests, then is it not also ruinous to give those same monied elites control over the nation’s artistic and cultural life?

The economic meltdown that began in 2008 was in part a result of corrupt dealings by giant banking and loan companies, particularly in the housing market. As that market collapsed, firms like Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase loaded portfolios with “toxic” mortgage investments, then sold them to unsuspecting clients while betting the investments would fall in value. The scamming was a factor in the economic crisis, yet, as journalist Robert Scheer pointed out, not a single banker faces criminal charges “since the Justice Department has refused to act in these cases, and the Security and Exchange Commission is bringing only civil charges, which the banks find quite tolerable.” By contrast, 4,542 activists have been arrested in protests against the financial elite since the Occupy Wall Street movement began on Sept. 17, 2011.

 "Money Talks Too Much, Occupy!" - Josh MacPhee. 2011. JustSeed Artist's Cooperative. Silkscreen print.

"Money Talks Too Much, Occupy!" - Josh MacPhee. 2011. JustSeed Artist's Cooperative. Silkscreen.

Throughout the 2004-2008 housing bubble, the banking practices of Bank of America abetted the ‘08 crash of the global economy.

In the aftermath of the collapse, BofA received $15 billion in taxpayer’s bailout money from the U.S. government’s Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), along with an additional sum of $10 billion so that BofA could purchase the failing bank, Merrill Lynch. In January 2009 BofA received another $20 billion from TARP; unbelievably, 75% of the $20 billion went to pay Merrill Lynch executives massive bonus packages!

Needless to say, the roughly 9 million Americans who lost their jobs as a result of the Wall Street crash have still not received a bailout.

On Sept. 2, 2011, the U.S. Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), announced a lawsuit against more than a dozen major banks, including Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase. The feds charged the banks with having sold some $200 billion in fraudulent mortgage investments to housing giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, leading to huge losses during the financial crisis. On Sept. 13, 2011, CNBC reported that BofA was “ramping up its foreclosure processing, sending out far more notices of default to borrowers in August than in previous months, well over 200 percent more month-to-month.” Around 1.2 million BofA customers in California alone are delinquent in their mortgage payments and could face foreclosure on their homes. When BofA subsidizes a museum or cultural event, one should think of the hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens the bank has made homeless.

"Take The Bull By The Horns" - Jesse Goldstein. 2011. Silkscreen print.

"Take The Bull By The Horns" - Jesse Goldstein. 2011. Silkscreen print.

On Nov. 8, 2011, a class-action suit against Bank of America ended with the company being required to pay a $410 million settlement.

The lawsuit affected some 13 million BofA customers who were wrongly charged overdraft fees on their debit cards, charges that were typically $35 per occurrence.

According to the Associated Press, an attorney involved in the lawsuit, “calculated that the bank actually raked in $4.5 billion through the overdraft fees and was repaying less than 10 percent. He said the average customer in the case had $300 in overdraft fees, making them eligible for a $27 award - less than one overdraft charge - from the lawsuit.” With BofA making off with that kind of plunder, no wonder they can afford to underwrite the arts.

Despite being the largest bank in the U.S., BofA paid no income taxes in fiscal years 2009 and 2010. In fact the bank received a tax “benefit” of nearly $1 billion for 2010. The bank’s new CEO, Brian T. Moynihan, received $10 million in 2010 as compensation for his first year as Chief Executive Officer.

"The Brains" - Thomas Nast. Wood engraving. 1871. Originally published in Harper's Weekly as an attack against the corrupt Democratic Party political machine that ruled New York City in the 19th century. Specifically Nast portrayed oligarchy as "the brains" behind the crooked politician "Boss Tweed", but Nast's acerbic cartoon was also a general condemnation of oligarchy as the corruptor of democracy. In essence Nast's cartoon epitomizes the political philosophy of today's Occupy Movement, i.e., financial oligarchy is strangling democracy and impoverishing the majority.

"The Brains" - Thomas Nast. Wood engraving. 1871. Originally published in Harper's Weekly as an attack against the corrupt Democratic Party political machine that ruled New York City in the 19th century. Specifically Nast portrayed oligarchy as "the brains" behind the crooked politician "Boss Tweed", but Nast's acerbic cartoon was also a general condemnation of oligarchy as the corruptor of democracy. In essence Nast's cartoon epitomizes the political philosophy of today's Occupy Movement, i.e., financial oligarchy is strangling democracy and impoverishing the majority.

With some $2.1 trillion in assets, JPMorgan Chase is the second largest bank after BofA, but it is second to none when it comes to financial crimes - one hardly knows where to begin. As the housing market crashed JPMorgan Chase sold mortgage securities to investors but failed to tell buyers it used a hedge fund to select the assets in the portfolio, and that the hedge fund stood to profit if the investments lost value, which of course they did. More than a dozen investors lost huge sums of money in the crooked deals. JPMorgan Chase paid $153.6 million to settle U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission charges that it had mislead investors.

JPMorgan Chase sponsored The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire, an exhibit that ran from March to July, 2010 at the Getty Villa in Malibu, California. A merger between J.P. Morgan & Co. and Chase Manhattan Bank in 2000 created JPMorgan Chase, but Chase Manhattan Bank has an unsavory history in Latin America. Long associated with the Rockefeller family, Chase was once known for its close ties to Standard Oil (itself founded by John D. Rockefeller), which rapaciously exploited Mexican oil starting in 1910. It is indeed ironic that Chase would be the sponsor of Mexico’s great Aztec art treasures. Chase Manhattan Bank played a key role in the military coup that overthrew Chile’s democratically elected government on September 11, 1973. Christopher Hitchins detailed some of this in his book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger.

The New York Times reported that Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, was paid a total of $20,816,289 in 2010, and for the first quarter of 2010 the bank made $3.3 billion in profits. On Nov. 2, 2011, several hundred protestors from the Occupy Seattle movement protested against Dimon when he appeared at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Seattle, Washington, as a keynote speaker for the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business. Chanting “Banks got bailed out; we got sold out!” the protesters disparaged Dimon for his exorbitant salary, and condemned JPMorgan Chase for getting $25 billion in bailout loans in 2008 while tens of thousands of homeowners lost their homes to foreclosures.

"Shut Down The Wall Street Casino" - G. Brockman. 2011. Poster announcing the first day of action at New York's financial district. Poster available for download at www.adbusters.org

"Shut Down The Wall Street Casino" - G. Brockman. 2011. Poster announcing the first day of action at New York's financial district. Poster available for download at www.adbusters.org

Levi Strauss & Co. (Levi’s®.) and Nike SB (the skateboard division of Nike Inc.) provided financial backing to Art In The Streets, the “blockbuster” exhibit mounted by the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), in Los Angeles. Getting uncommon press attention and running from April to August, 2011, the show was the first U.S. museum exhibit to present the history of graffiti and street art.

The exhibit was promoted and generally received as groundbreaking; but consider the following - Levi’s pays Haitian workers slave wages in the sweatshop manufacturing plants the company’s “contractors” operate in Haiti, and Nike does the same in Taiwan where workers are paid 50 cents per hour.

U.S. State Department diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and published in the Haitian newspaper Haïti Liberté and the monthly Nation magazine, revealed that the Obama White House in 2009 fought to keep the minimum wage in Haiti to just 31 cents an hour so U.S. companies like Levi Strauss could continue to reap vast profits from Haitian workers. The cables reveal that deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, David E. Lindwall, argued that attempts to raise wages “did not take economic reality into account” but were gambits aimed at appealing to “the unemployed and underpaid masses.”

Haiti is the least-developed and poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and while its workers make pennies a day, Levi Strauss & Co. reported its 2010 net revenues at $4.4 billion. According to documents submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission, Levi’s CEO Charles “Chip” V. Bergh received compensation of $9,150,000 for fiscal year 2011.

"OCCUPY" - Matt W. Downloadable street poster. Digital media. 2011. Download this 8 1/2 x 11 graphic at: www.occupytogether.org/posters/Matt-W-bw.pdf

"OCCUPY" - Matt W. Downloadable street poster. Digital media. 2011. Download this 8 1/2 x 11 graphic at: www.occupytogether.org/posters/Matt-W-bw.pdf

On July 13, 2011, the Associated Press published an exposé on the abysmal conditions workers suffer in Nike’s Asian manufacturing plants, where most of the company’s 1,000 “contractor” run factories are located. The AP noted that 10,000 female workers at the Nike plant in Taiwan make roughly 50 cents per hour, and complain of being physically abused by plant supervisors (enduring kicks, scratches, and slaps), or of being fired for registering complaints. Workers in Nike’s Indonesian plants also spoke of verbal and physical abuse, low wages and arbitrary firings.

After the AP released its findings, Nike promised “immediate and decisive action” to end the abuses, but it made the same claims in decades past when caught using child labor in Indonesia and Cambodia (involving girls as young as twelve who worked for 22 cents an hour, seven days a week, for sixteen hours a day). It should be noted that while Nike’s contract workers in Asia today are paid around 50 cents an hour, the company earned $1.91 billion in fiscal year 2010, and its CEO, Mark Parker, received $13.1 million in compensation. If the aforementioned facts about the sponsors of Art In The Streets had been known, visitors to the exhibit might have been offended; but corporate sponsorship of the arts, at least from the perspective of corporations, is an effective way to conjure up a benevolent public image where otherwise one does not exist.

Target subsidizes free admission days at more than 30 U.S. museums and theaters, from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. But the mega-box store is not without its controversies, from telling its pharmacists they can refuse dispensing emergency contraception to customers, to contributing money to anti-gay groups and politicians. Those enjoying their free museum admission days might be surprised to learn that Target was the number one contributor to Republican Congresswoman and Tea Party favorite, Michele Bachmann, donating $19,950 to the candidate’s 2009-2010 campaign.

In fiscal year 2010 Target made over $67 billion and Gregg Steinhafel, Chairman, President and CEO of Target Stores Inc., received compensation of $24 million. Yet, Target’s mostly part-time workers earn “too little to support a family or afford health insurance, forcing some to rely on food stamps and Medicaid for their children”, according to a New York Times report.

Target’s workers are entirely non-unionized. New hires are required to watch an anti-union propaganda video that is positively Orwellian. A campaign to unionize the Valley Stream, New York Target store faced intimidation and harassment.

The union lost the June 2011 election, but the National Labor Relations Board found evidence that Target threatened workers with the store’s closure if they voted union, a violation of labor laws that may lead to nullification of the election results.

I have been writing about the relationship between BP (British Petroleum, one of the world’s biggest polluters), and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) since March of 2007. In fact this web log was the first to offer a critique of LACMA’s association with BP. My archive of articles pertaining to the BP-LACMA arrangement makes for interesting reading, though there is always something new to report, such as the following.

On Nov. 5, 2011, the Guardian reported that court documents revealed BP’s business dealings with the Russian government and oil consortiums caused BP to describe their Russian contacts as “crooks and thugs.” Whether or not the Russians BP deals with are criminal types is beside the point; that BP perceives them to be gangsters and yet continues to partner with them tells everything there is to know about the business ethos of BP. A review of BP’s multi-billion dollar dealings with Libya’s former strongman Muammar Gaddafi only sharpens the point.

Project Censored released a report in 2011 claiming the U.S. Department of Defense is the worst polluter on the planet. Whether or not readers accept those allegations, BP selling huge amounts of aviation fuel and petroleum products to the Pentagon cannot be disputed. The Washington Post reported that BP “was the Pentagon’s largest single supplier of fuel” in 2009, and that “contracts amount to roughly the same percentage” for 2010. Sales continued even as BP’s pipeline gushed tens of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The paper quoted a former EPA lawyer familiar with the contract between BP and the Pentagon: “BP was supplying approximately 80 percent of the fuel being used to move U.S. forces” in the Middle East.

We have entered the age of austerity, and everywhere the 99% are being made to pay for the financial crimes of the 1%. Those who say corporate backing of the arts is necessary, that museums and other cultural venues could not survive without it, especially with austerity budgets and deep cuts in arts funding being enacted by governments, are missing an essential fact. The resources exist, they are simply monopolized by a minority out of greed and self-interest. The Congressional Budget Office reported that from 1979 to 2007 the after-tax income of America’s top 1 percent soared 275 percent. More importantly, Citizens for Tax Justice released a report showing that 280 of the most profitable U.S. corporations have sheltered half their profits from taxes, and thirty U.S. corporations paid no federal income tax whatsoever from 2008 to 2010. In addition, the report found that “the top ten defense contractors saw their combined tax rate decline from 19.3 percent in 2008 to a mere 10.6 percent in 2010″.

Some arts professionals have told me that corporate sponsorship of the arts is no different than the kings of yesteryear lavishing gold upon artists to create grandiose works in praise of nobility and kingly realms; after all, some of the world’s greatest artworks were created due to the largesse of “royal sovereigns”. But we are no longer serfs living in medieval times, or so I like to tell myself. Just because a gaggle of multi-billionaires like to imagine themselves as the Medici’s of the 21st century does not mean we have to entertain their delusions. People today aspire to democratic governance where potentates do not determine the course of society. If democracy is preferable to aristocracy in political affairs, then why should art and cultural policy be determined by a new financial aristocracy?

Peace Press Graphics 1967-1987: Art in the Pursuit of Social Change

I am pleased to announce that a number of my early graphic works have been included in the museum exhibition, Peace Press Graphics 1967-1987: Art in the Pursuit of Social Change, organized by the University Art Museum at California State University Long Beach (CSULB). The exhibit is part of the Getty Foundation’s Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945 - 1980, the largest collaborative art project in Southern California history. I have six artworks in the exhibition, and four additional graphic works in the exhibit catalog, but in this article I am going to highlight a Peace Press published work of mine  not included in the show. In weeks to come I will upload more of my Peace Press images and bring their histories to light in a detailed essay.

Peace Press Graphics is an important showing of over 100 historic posters and flyers published by Peace Press, a now defunct Los Angeles collective that ran a professional print shop serving the local and national needs of radical and progressive political groups and organizations. The published works on display, culled from the archives of Peace Press as well as from the collection of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics (CSPG), address a wide range of topics - civil liberties and human rights, worker’s issues, feminism, environmental concerns, anti-nuclear and anti-war protests, and much more.

A number of posters in the show epitomize the psychedelic aesthetics of the late 1960s, works from the likes of Robert Crumb and Skip Williamson, exemplars of the 60s hippie counter-culture. Other posters embody the political militancy of the day, like Chicano artist Rupert Garcia’s Save Our Sister, a poster commissioned in 1972 by the Los Angeles Committee to Free Angela Davis. Taken as a whole the assortment of works on display form an accurate visual record of dissident cultural and political forces working within the U.S. from 1967 to 1987.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s I created a number of drawings and flyers as a direct result of my involvement in the early punk rock movement of Los Angeles. In true punk spirit my flyers were meant to provoke, and I generally produced and distributed them anonymously. One such example is the flyer I designed for the L.A. chapter of Rock Against Racism (RAR) in 1980, a rare leaflet that was published by Peace Press.

Rock Against Racism. Punk concert flyer designed by Mark Vallen in 1980 for a Los Angeles Rock Against Racism concert featuring punk bands D.O.A., Silencers, and the Gears.

Concert flyer designed by Mark Vallen in 1980 for a Los Angeles Rock Against Racism concert featuring punk bands D.O.A., Silencers, and the Gears.

My Rock Against Racism flyer announced a free concert in L.A.’s MacArthur Park, held October 27, 1980 at the band shell area of the commons. The leaflet touted the appearance of the rough and tumble Canadian punk band, D.O.A., who were quite big at the time and remain one of my favorite punk bands. In the context of the museum exhibit the significance of this particular flyer is twofold. While Peace Press printed a number of posters and flyers for the likes of Jackson Browne, Joan Baez, and others associated with the counter-culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s, my RAR flyer is most likely the only punk graphic ever to be printed by Peace Press; the flyer also gives evidence of the progressive political side to L.A. punk. I invite readers to download and print a free copy of the historic flyer (.pdf format).

My flyer was created before computers were used to generate graphic art. Utilizing the dread inducing “ransom note” visual language, the text, replete with intentional misspellings, was mostly produced by cutting letters out of magazines and newspapers with a razor blade, then gluing them down to a sheet of paper. The rest of the copy was created using the now archaic “transfer type” once so prevalent in the advertising industry of the day. News photographs were interspersed with the irregular lettering to construct an incendiary narrative. The photo at the bottom edge of the flyer shows American Nazis wearing crash helmets, waving a U.S. flag, and carrying a banner that brazenly praises Hitler; the timely photo being ripped from a then current newspaper report on a neo-Nazi rally in a U.S. city. Soaring above the scene, two RAR fighter jets unleash bombs and automatic cannon fire upon the gaggle of jackbooted fascists.

Founded in London, England in 1976, the launching of Rock Against Racism was concurrent to the emergence of punk rock in Britain, a movement that would explode upon the world scene in 1977 with the outrages of the Sex Pistols, the Damned, and the Clash. In the mid to late 70s social conditions deteriorated in the U.K., giving rise to openly fascist political organizations like the National Front; during this period neo-Nazi skinhead gangs unleashed hundreds of violent attacks against South Asian and Black immigrants across England.

As the National Front and neo-Nazi skinheads sowed mayhem throughout England, famed guitarist Eric Clapton added fuel to the fire at a U.K. performance in Birmingham held on Aug. 5, 1976. Clapton launched a harangue from the stage on the dangers of the U.K. becoming a “black colony.” He ranted in part; “This is England, this is a white country, we don’t want any black wogs and coons living here. We need to make clear to them they are not welcome. England is for white people, man. We are a white country. I don’t want f*****g wogs living next to me with their standards (….) Throw the wogs out! Keep Britain white!” Needless to say the celebrated guitarist lost a substantial amount of his fan base over his racist diatribe. A month before Clapton’s concert a Sikh teenager named Gurdip Singh Chaggar had been murdered by a mob of white racists, the chairman of the National Front, John Kingsley Read, responded to the killing during a National Front meeting with the words, “One down, a million to go.”

Immediately after Clapton’s repugnant concert shenanigans, photographer Red Saunders and designer Roger Huddle wrote a seething criticism that was published in the New Musical Express, an article I recall reading when it was first published. The irate Saunders and Huddle berated Clapton, “Half of your music is black. You’re a good musician, but where would you be without the blues and R’n'B?” They went on to proclaim, “We want to organize a rank-and-file movement against the racist poison in music. We urge support for Rock Against Racism.” Soon after the letter’s publication in August 1976, Rock Against Racism (RAR) was founded in the U.K. as an actual political/cultural organization that staged concert events. Tellingly, it was not rock’s superstars and corporate mainstream acts that collaborated with RAR, but rather the rebellious and lesser known ska, reggae, and punk groups that had nothing to lose.

On April 30, 1978, Rock Against Racism staged its Carnival Against The Nazis, a gigantic music festival presented in London’s Victoria Park. The performers included the Clash (click here to see some amazing footage of the band at the RAR concert), X-Ray Spex, the Tom Robinson Band (the world’s first openly Gay rock band), Steel Pulse, and Aswad . The groups played before an enthusiastic multiracial crowd of some 100,000 people. The program for the event proclaimed; “We want rebel music, street music. Music that breaks down people’s fear of one another. Crisis music. Now music. Music that knows who the real enemy is - Rock against racism.” Soon after the Carnival Against The Nazis, RAR chapters began to proliferate.

To my knowledge, the Los Angeles chapter of Rock Against Racism did not operate for very long, but the group’s efforts undoubtedly contributed to the city’s history, as well as to the cultural and political activism carried out in the U.S. during the ultra-conservative Reagan years. I am pleased to take credit for this once anonymous flyer, an artifact from a bygone rebel social movement, and happy to reveal that it was published by Peace Press. With a bit of luck, it will help inspire future troublemaking. One can only hope.

Peace Press Graphics 1967-1987: Art in the Pursuit of Social Change, runs from September 10 to December 11, 2011 at the University Art Museum, California State University Long Beach. Visit the museum website to learn more about the exhibition.

¡ADELANTE! Mexican American Artists: 1960s and Beyond

I will be premiering two new oil paintings at ¡ADELANTE! Mexican American Artists: 1960s and Beyond, the latest museum exhibition to explore the world of Chicano art. Presented by the Forest Lawn Museum in Glendale, California, the exhibit runs from September 9, 2011 through January 1, 2012, and offers the paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, and photographs of some forty artists. Included are artworks from “veteranos” of the 1960s Chicano Arts Movement, as well as from a whole new generation of artists involved in creating Chicanarte (Chicano art).

Those influential artists participating in the exhibit include the likes of Judith F. Baca; David Rivas Botello; Barbara Carrasco; Margaret García; Ignacio Gomez; Wayne Healy; Leo Limón; Frank Romero; Patssi Valdez, and a host of others. A few of the works on view are from the Cheech Marin Collection, one of the most important private collections of Chicano art in the United States. Adelante is Spanish for “advance” or “forward”, making the perfect title for an exhibit that surveys Chicano art as it moves into the second decade of the 21st century.

La Causa (The Cause) Mark Vallen. Oil on canvas. 40" x 36" inches. 2011. On exhibit at the Forest Lawn Museum, Sept. 9, 2011 through Jan. 1, 2012.

"La Causa" (The Cause) Mark Vallen. Oil on canvas. 40" x 36" inches. 2011. On exhibit at the Forest Lawn Museum, Sept. 9, 2011 through Jan. 1, 2012.

When Joan Adan, curator and exhibit designer for the Forest Lawn Museum, requested my participation in the Adelante show, I made a commitment to create a pair of new oil paintings especially for the occasion. I would have barely four months to complete the works. I had been conceptualizing a number of large canvasses based upon observed life in the city of Los Angeles, so when Ms. Adan offered inclusion in Adelante - my ideas became concrete. I was determined to paint narratives that typically get little attention in Chicanarte exhibits. I chose to create paintings inspired by a major event in Mexican-American history, the National Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War, telling the story of how that event continues to resonate in the present.

The Chicano Moratorium march took place in East Los Angeles on August 29, 1970, and was partly organized by the Brown Berets, a militant Chicano group that fought for the civil and human rights of Mexican-Americans. The Brown Berets were originally organized in East L.A. in 1967 as an outgrowth of the burgeoning Chicano civil rights movement. In 1968 the group organized the first student walkouts to protest racism and substandard schools in East L.A., electrifying an entire generation. Soon Brown Beret chapters sprang up throughout California, Arizona, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, and beyond - but it all started in the city of Los Angeles.

Some 30,000 people took part in the 1970 moratorium march, which culminated in a rally at Laguna Park; dozens of Brown Berets acted as marshals, providing security for the protest. The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department attacked the gathering, initiating a riot. Ultimately police killed four citizens that day, Lyn Ward, José Diaz (both Brown Berets), Gustav Montag, and L.A. Times reporter Rubén Salazar. Salazar was slain as he sat in the Silver Dollar Café; a deputy sheriff fired a tear gas projectile into the cafe, striking Salazar in the head and killing him instantly.

To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Chicano Moratorium, on August 27, 2010 I joined 5,000 others in walking the original march route along Whittier Blvd. Instead of the Vietnam War, we protested the current U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A new generation of Brown Berets provided security for the march - as well as inspiration for my painting, La Causa. The Brown Berets disbanded in 1972, but were re-activated in 1993 under the group’s original charter and mission statement; the organization currently seems to be flourishing. As the multitudes passed where the Silver Dollar Café once stood, piles of flowers were placed on the spot where Rubén Salazar was killed. We rallied at Rubén Salazar Park (formerly known as Laguna Park), where forty-years ago the police provoked the riot now recorded by history.

 La Causa (Detail) Mark Vallen. Oil on canvas.

"La Causa" (Detail) Mark Vallen. Oil on canvas.

My oil painting, La Causa (The Cause), is a depiction of two of the female Brown Beret cadre I caught a glimpse of at the 40th anniversary protest march. The title of my canvas is taken from the words that appear on the emblematic patch worn on the berets of the organization’s members, the “cause” being the liberation of the people.

I felt it important to portray these young Chicana activists as a counter-balance to the stereotypical images of Latinas. Despite their legendary public image, at least as it is known in the greater South West of the U.S., I think mine might be the first serious painting of Brown Beret members. My canvas is not a wholesale endorsement of the group’s cultural nationalist political philosophy, but rather an acknowledgement of the role the organization has played in the history and collective consciousness of Mexican-Americans.

It is ironic that while working on my La Causa painting, I received word that the FBI and the SWAT Team of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department raided the home of Carlos Montes on May 17, 2011. Montes, a co-founder of the Brown Berets and a leader of the historic student walkouts in East L.A., had his cell phones, computer, notes, and other personal affects seized by the authorities. Apparently the Obama administration has targeted Montes for his antiwar activities, part of an underreported repressive sweep the Obama Justice Department has initiated against antiwar activists as reported in the Washington Post. As of this writing, the government’s case against Carlos Montes is still pending.

What initially attracted me to the Chicano Arts Movement in the early 1970s was its innovative merging of aesthetics and political concerns; it was a populist, anti-elitist school of art that sprang from a people’s struggle for equality, democratic rights, and self-determination. Chicanarte took inspiration from the Mexican Muralist School of social activist art, but it succeeded in creating its own unique visual language that reflected the distinctive Mexican-American experience. While the elite art world discarded painting altogether in favor of postmodern conceptualism and its rejection of “grand narratives”, Chicanarte never abandoned figurative realism in paintings, drawings, prints, or sculpture; a fact that largely remains so today.

Chicano artists continue to address the dreams, aspirations, history, and lived experience of la gente (the people), which is the genre’s one consistent and unbreakable grand narrative. The Chicano Arts Movement has certainly expanded since the early 1970s, nowadays incorporating performance, installation, abstraction, and other disciplines, but for the most part it still retains the activist spark of its founding years. The state of U.S. society today, with its austerity budgets, numerous wars, economic decay, and xenophobic anti-immigrant stance, gives impetus for the social realist activist component of Chicanarte to once again move front and center.

¡ADELANTE! runs from September 9, 2011 through January 1, 2012. The Forest Lawn Museum is located at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, 1712 South Glendale Avenue, Glendale, California. 91205. The museum is open every day except Monday, from 10 am to 5 pm. Admission and parking is free. Phone: 1-800-204-3131. Website: www.forestlawn.com. A larger reproduction of La Causa can be viewed here.

The Firing of Zahi Hawass

On July 17, 2011, the world’s best known Egyptologist, Zahi Hawass, was fired from his position as Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities. The first news I received of Hawass being discharged came from Max Fisher’s article, Egyptians Celebrate Firing of the ‘Mubarak of Antiquities’, published in the Atlantic on July 18, 2001. Hawass was sacked by the country’s ruling army council, which reshuffled the government cabinet to purge it of Mubarak henchmen, a move widely seen as an attempt to placate the millions of Egyptians involved in the nation’s revolutionary upsurge.

In February of 2011 I wrote The Museum at the Center of Egypt’s Revolution, an article about Mr. Hawass that detailed his record as an ardent supporter of the former dictator Hosni Mubarak (who is scheduled to go on trial Aug. 3 over charges of corruption and having given the orders to murder dozens if not hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators). Since publishing my article I have been waiting for news that Hawass was either resigning or being arrested, so Fisher’s announcement in the Atlantic came as no surprise.

Typical of Western press coverage of Mr. Hawass’ downfall, the New York Times simply mentioned on July 22, that Hawass had drawn criticism from critics “for his ties to the Mubaraks, his role in sending artifacts abroad on traveling exhibitions and his relationship with National Geographic, which paid him up to $200,000 a year as an explorer-in-residence.” There is much more to say about why Hawass has been such a controversial figure for Egyptians.

My abovementioned article not only addressed how Egyptian archaeologists and state museum workers viewed Hawass as running the nation’s archaeology institutions for his own personal profit, it focused on another very disturbing possibility; as Egypt’s chief archaeologist, the Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, and the Minister of Antiquities (a newly created cabinet post given to him by Mubarak just prior to the dictator’s demise), Hawass certainly had to be aware that the Egyptian Museum was being used by Mubarak’s army as a detention center where prisoners were brutally interrogated and tortured.

Zahi Hawass in the Egyptian Museum with army commandos. Pulled from Hawass' official website, this undated photo was most likely taken in late January, 2011, when Mubarak's soldiers were first deployed to occupy the museum for its "protection." Photographer unknown.

Zahi Hawass in the Egyptian Museum with army commandos. Pulled from Hawass' official website, this undated photo was most likely taken in late January, 2011, when Mubarak's soldiers were first deployed to occupy the museum for its "protection." Photographer unknown.

On February 9, 2011 the Guardian published the hair-raising Egypt’s army ‘involved in detentions and torture, a story that brought to light allegations made by Human Rights organizations that Mubarak’s soldiers had “secretly detained hundreds and possibly thousands of suspected government opponents since mass protests against President Hosni Mubarak began, and at least some of these detainees have been tortured.” The article reported that “some of the detainees have been held inside the renowned Museum of Egyptian Antiquities”. While the article published the testimonies of those who claimed to have been mistreated while held inside the museum, the report did not mention Hawass - who nevertheless was in charge of the museum.

Even after the fall and arrest of President Mubarak, reports about the Egyptian Museum being used as a detention center continued to emerge. On March 17, 2011, the Egyptian Al-Masry Al-Youm, published the testimonies of those who had been arrested by Egyptian soldiers during a peaceful sit-in at Tahrir Square on March 9. Dozens of detainees held a press conference where they said that on March 9 they had been “dragged into the Egyptian Museum where they endured six hours of torture and mistreatment.” Egypt’s largest news organization, Al-Ahram, also published these accounts, reporting that “According to eyewitnesses, thousands are still being held in the military camps with detainees packed inside the Egyptian Museum, which has been turned into a torture chamber by the army.”

A mass of welts, cuts, and burns. Screenshot from amateur video showing Ramy Essam's back after being tortured in the Egyptian Museum by the army on March 18, 2011.

A mass of welts, cuts, and burns. Screenshot from amateur video showing Ramy Essam's back after being tortured in the Egyptian Museum by the army on March 9, 2011.

On March 18, 2011, CNN published a detailed account concerning 23-year-old student, Ramy Essam, who had also been arrested at Tahrir Square on March 9. Essam was a singer who put the revolution’s demands to music, and his wildly popular songs were sung by tens of thousands of people at mass rallies against the Mubarak dictatorship.

Soldiers arrested Essam and “hauled him to the nearby Egyptian museum where uniformed soldiers tortured him for four hours and cut off his shoulder-length hair.” Essam insists the authorities tortured him with electric shocks, “They took off my clothes. They used sticks, metal rods, wires, whips.” In this amateur video Essam is interviewed right after his torture, the film showing his slashed, bruised, burned, and scarred back. NPR published an account of his ordeal at the Egyptian Museum, which includes a video of Essam singing before a massive crowd at Tahrir Square before Mubarak was ousted. One has to ask, where was Zahi Hawass when the museum he ultimately had supreme oversight over was transformed into a torture center by Mubarak’s security forces?

On April 9, 2011, well over 100,000 Egyptians gathered at Tahrir Square to demand that the army put former President Hosni Mubarak on trial. The next day hundreds of protestors who had re-occupied Tahrir were attacked by troops of Egypt’s new military council, demonstrators were sent fleeing by soldiers armed with batons, tasers, and firing live ammunition; dozens were arrested. Quoting Al Jazeera’s report on the army attack, “Other central security and army forces had been stationed to the north of Tahrir Square next to the Egyptian Museum, which military police have turned into a makeshift detention centre.”

On April 11, 2011, the New York Times reported that an Egyptian blogger by the name of Maikel Nabil was sentenced to 3 years in prison by the county’s military council. His lawyer referred to him as “the first prisoner of conscience in Egypt after the revolution.” His crime? Mr. Nabil was charged with spreading information previously published by Amnesty International regarding “the torture of those detained inside the Egyptian Museum.”

When Zahi Hawass was unceremoniously dismissed on July 17, archeologists, museum staffers, and others were there to met him with angry chants as he left his office at the Supreme Council of Antiquities and hurriedly got into a cab. Hundreds of protesters surrounded the cab and blocked it from moving as they unleashed a torrent of insults at Hawass. The entire event was captured on an amateur video, which surely documents how Hawass is actually regarded by many Egyptians.

Of course not everyone is a critic of Mr. Hawass. For instance, the organizers of the coveted Freedom to Create Prize picked Hawass to hand out awards at their 2010 Freedom to Create awards ceremony held in Cairo, Egypt. The organization annually presents cash prizes to international artists and arts groups that “promote social justice and inspire the human spirit.” On the Freedom to Create website, the organization wrote:

“Supporting the Freedom to Create Prize, the Secretary General of Supreme Council of Antiquities and renowned Egyptologist, Dr. Zahi Hawass said, ‘Providing the opportunity for creativity can inspire and unite individuals, breaking down social barriers and fostering a greater sense of peace and unity within nations. The 2010 Freedom to Create Prize entrants are a testament to the human spirit and should be an example to us all.’”

Perhaps in 2011 the Freedom to Create organizers will do a better job of vetting their award presenters. That, and giving their top cash prize to tortured Egyptian singer, Ramy Essam, would go a long way towards reversing their error of associating with Hawass. Such a gesture would provide a small modicum of justice to those who were tortured and abused at the Egyptian Museum.

Zahi Hawass recently told the New York Times that “I am retiring to focus on my own work, as a scholar and a writer,” adding that he looks forward to “living quietly as a private person, away from politics.” That is all well and good for Hawass, who one must presume is still being paid $200,000 a year by National Geographic - which lists Hawass as its “Explorer-in-Residence Emeritus“. However, blogger Maikel Nabil is at this moment serving his 3 year sentence for the crime of writing that the army tortured and abused prisoners at the Egyptian Museum. While Mr. Hawass’ speaking engagements bring him $15,000 each, there are dozens of Egyptians who are demanding justice over their being detained and tortured at the Egyptian Museum.