Category: Postmodernism-Remodernism

“Please Do Not Enter”

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”

Photo of Leonard Bernstein courtesy of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc. ©

Photo of Leonard Bernstein courtesy of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc. ©

Given the abysmal level of cultural literacy in the U.S. at present, it is utterly astonishing that some 50 years ago a nationally televised popular show like Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concert” series even existed on mainstream TV. By comparison, today’s television broadcasting only provides further evidence that we have slipped into the New Dark Ages.

On January 18, 1958, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) gave his very first televised Young People’s Concert at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic orchestra, of which he was the conductor. The What Does Music Mean lecture and concert was broadcast countrywide on CBS television, and the station judged the classical music concerts of such consequence that they were given the station’s prime time slot for three consecutive years. Imagine that happening on today’s commercial television networks.

During the 1958 concert Bernstein explained classical music as a creative force to a packed hall of youngsters not much older than I was at the time, and he conducted the orchestra in renditions of Rossini’s William Tell Overture and Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. I faithfully watched the Young People’s Concert series as a child and the instructive presentations fired my imagination (between 1958 and 1972, their were 53 such concerts). Bernstein addressed youngsters without talking down to them, but the thing was, his delivery was so sophisticated that even adults unfamiliar with classical music were held mesmerized by the conductor’s lectures.

Since it is rarely mentioned, it might come as a surprise to aficionados of classical music that Bernstein was a political activist that held socialist ideas, and because of this the FBI put him under surveillance beginning in the early 1940s. In his book, Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician, author Barry Seldes noted that the director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, “listed Bernstein for incarceration in a detention camp in the event of a national emergency”.

You owe it to yourself to watch that very first 1958 Carnegie Hall broadcast (A YouTube video of the original telecast can be found here; parts I, II, III, and IV). In the presentation Bernstein acknowledges a correlation between classical music and visual art;

“Now one of the best pieces that paint pictures is by a Russian Composer called Mussorgsky and he wrote a piece called ‘Pictures at an Exhibition.’ What Mussorgsky did was to take a lot of pictures hanging on the wall in a museum and write music that he thought could describe them - in other words, to try and do with notes what a painter does with paint. But of course notes can’t do what paint can do; you can’t draw your nose with F sharps, you can’t draw a building or paint a sunset with notes. But you can sort of try to do it.”

It amuses me that Bernstein wished he could “sort of try to do” what an artist does with paint, but the Maestro would undoubtedly have found my clumsy attempts at musicality to be just as entertaining. My passion for classical music has always been based on an appreciation of it being the highest achievement in the musical arts. Not only do I listen to it everyday, but I give it my attention when working at the easel. It is a grievous mistake to think of the genre as an exclusive area of interest for snobs and the well-to-do, it belongs to one and all. The high arts, which include classical music, prepare one for lofty thoughts, ideals and dreams, and without these we cannot hope to create a better world.

In his 1973 Harvard lecture series, The Unanswered Question, Leonard Bernstein addressed the question of aesthetics, and in doing so lobbed a grenade into the postmodern present. One can almost hear the gate keepers of the official art establishment diving for cover:

“(….) But these days, the search for meaning through beauty and vice versa becomes even more important as each day mediocrity and art-mongering increasingly uglify our lives; and the day when this search for John Keats’ truth-beauty ideal becomes irrelevant, then we can all shut up and go back to our caves.”

Bernstein was making reference to the 1819 poem Ode on a Grecian Urn by English Romantic poet John Keats, specifically the final two lines of the poem. Bernstein imagined Keats’ words as a philosophical guideline for civilization, and I concur. “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ - that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’”

When getting shot is not art

Update 5/11/2015: Chris Burden died at his Topanga Canyon, California home on May 10, 2015. He died of malignant melanoma.

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Shooting someone outdoors for reasons having nothing to do with aesthetics is most definitely not a work of art. However, shooting someone in a gallery, if properly motivated by contemporary art theory, does comprise a profound work of art. Just ask any au courant hipster.

On May 15, 2012 in the rural town of Stockholm, New York, Shawn Mossow shot his friend in the right leg with a .22 caliber rifle because his pal had continually pestered him to do so; the young man simply wanted to know what it would feel like to be shot, so Mossow obliged his buddy’s request. After Mossow and his chum acted out their irresponsible experiment, the 25-year-old shooter was arrested by the police of St. Lawrence County and charged with reckless endangerment and held on $10,000 bail.

Mossow’s 24-year-old friend (the police have not released his name) was taken to a hospital and is expected to make a full recovery from the gunshot wound; he corroborated Mossow’s explanation that the shooting was consensual. While the act involved mutual consent, that hardly seems an excuse; what if Mossow’s friend had been permanently disabled or killed?

Although the .22 rimfire cartridge is generally regarded as an “underpowered” bullet used primarily for target shooting and hunting small animals (squirrels, rabbits, etc.), a well placed shot can nevertheless be fatal to a human being. For instance, if Mossow had managed to shoot his friend in the femoral artery of the thigh, the man could have rapidly bleed to death and Mossow would now be facing a murder indictment instead of reckless endangerment charges. The upcoming trial of Mossow and friend should be an interesting one, though not likely to be covered by the art press.

It really is a shame that the two lowbrow goons in the small town of Stockholm, New York were unfamiliar with contemporary art theory, otherwise they might have transformed their act of tomfoolery into a highly acclaimed performance art piece; a conceptual work that could have brought fame and fortune instead of public censure, crushing legal problems, and possible jail sentences. This is what happens when you do not read publications like Art In America.

On November 19th, 1971, a 25-year-old conceptual artist named Chris Burden had an associate shoot him in the arm with a .22 caliber rifle during a “performance” piece titled Shoot. The event took place at the F Space gallery in Santa Ana; Burden stood against a wall in the empty white gallery as an assistant fired a single shot into the artist’s exposed upper left arm - the event was filmed for future generations. That Burden’s assistant could have hit the major blood vessel of the upper arm, the brachial artery, causing the artist to bleed to death; that the .22 caliber round might have ricocheted off the gallery wall and into a bystander’s head, was certainly no cause for alarm. The act was after all a deeply philosophical work of art; Burden and his assistant never faced charges of reckless endangerment.

No doubt most people are troubled by the legal and moral ramifications involved in what Mossow and friend did, and so the harebrained duo are justifiably rebuked and now find themselves facing court proceedings. On the other hand, Burden, having escaped the fate of pushing up conceptual daisies, has gone on to become a much celebrated art star.

Vallen: Under the Big Black Sun

My 1980 silkscreen print, Whatever Happened To The Future!, is included in Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981, at the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles. My print was created at the height of the Cold War when nuclear war with the Soviet Union seemed a distinct possibility. Originally conceived as a street poster, I fly-posted my print on L.A. avenues in 1980 and gave it away at antiwar protests in the city. Eventually the print was reproduced as a cover for the L.A. Weekly newspaper in the year of the poster’s creation, extending the distribution of the image across the nation.

1980 Silkscreen poster by Mark Vallen

1980 silkscreen poster by Mark Vallen at MOCA's Under The Big Black Sun

Signed copies of Whatever Happened To The Future! can be directly purchased here. In addition my print appears in the illustrated exhibition catalogue for Under the Big Black Sun, which also features essays by art critics and historians, Francis Colpitt, Thomas Crow, Charles Desmarais, Peter Frank, and MOCA’s chief curator Paul Schimmel.

Mr. Schimmel wrote that the exhibit; “addresses the dynamic period in American art when modernism, characterized by a master narrative of progress and succession, reached a dead end, and a multiplicity of movements, forms, and genres began to take shape simultaneously.” The exhibit’s name might sound familiar to fans of early 80’s L.A. punk rock. Schimmel, explains why; “The exhibition borrows its title from an album by the Los Angeles–based punk band X to suggest that, during this post-Watergate, post-Vietnam era, disillusionment had eclipsed ‘California Dreamin’ and hippie optimism. The title also alludes to the plethora of individual art practices, both studio and poststudio, that flourished within this dystopian atmosphere, creating an artistic milieu in which ‘everything under the sun’ was permitted and produced.”

When I produced the Whatever Happened To The Future! print I was deeply involved in the late 1970s punk movement, an experience that had enormous impact on my political and aesthetic views. In fact, I was in the midst of creating a number of paintings and drawings on the theme of L.A. punk when I briefly shifted gears to design Whatever Happened. In essence I am a social realist painter and draftsman, and on a personal level the most fulfilling work I do is in that sphere, so in retrospect I feel somewhat ambivalent about the Whatever Happened print. It was unquestionably imbued with punk aesthetics, but it was also influenced by the philosophy of the Situationists (more on that later).

The impetus to create Whatever Happened To The Future! came from a long train of events. As a child in the 1950s the arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was in full swing; I literally grew up with the atomic bomb as it had become emblematic of American power. As a teenager in the late 1960s I became a peace activist opposed to atomic weaponry, but by the late 1970s the arms race had relentlessly escalated to the point where it seemed only a matter of time before either the U.S. or the Soviets would launch atomic Armageddon. Here I might add that in 1978 one of my favorite L.A. punk bands, The Weirdos, released an incendiary single titled We’ve Got The Neutron Bomb, a searing indictment of U.S. militarism; two years later I would create my silkscreen print.

As previously mentioned, in the late 1970s I began reading the theoretical tracts of the Situationist International, a small group of disaffected artists and left intellectuals active in Europe (mostly France) from the late 1950s to the early 1960s. The Situationists influenced a number of the more politically minded punks and artists of the late 1970s, and while I never fully subscribed to their beliefs, I found some of their ideas intriguing. Their stance that “art must not only be critical in its content, it must also be self-critical in its form”, had great appeal to me at the time; it meshed perfectly with punk aesthetics. The Situationists advocated “détournement”, i.e., “the reuse of preexisting artistic elements in a new ensemble” for the purpose of “turning expressions of the capitalist system against itself.” A Situationist analysis of culture, combined with the apocalyptic vision of punk, led to my creating Whatever Happened To The Future!

There is little doubt in my mind that Situationist philosophy influenced performance and conceptual art, but today’s postmodern artists use the Situationist method of détournement uncoupled from its guiding political principle of subversive quotation. Postmodernists generally avail themselves of the Situationist détournement roadmap but have discarded the compass (Richard Prince comes to mind), so the road they travel endlessly loops back to art that exists solely as an adjunct to power, privilege, and profit, the triumvirate Situationists sought to end.


One of the exhibit's large-screen slideshows.

A sprawling multi-faceted exhibition, Under the Big Black Sun gives some insight into the period it covers, and I found the exhibit more engaging and insightful than expected.

There is a gloomy undercurrent to many of the installations, photographs, videos, and conceptual pieces that dominate the show; MOCA providing context for the art by projecting large-screen slideshows throughout the exhibit space that display bleak images from the era; carnage in Vietnam; the assassination of Harvey Milk; the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, etc. Painting receives short shrift in this exhibit, reflecting the postmodern clarion call that “painting is dead.”

Assembled works in the exhibit address a multitude of concerns - from consumerism, urban life, American history and militarism, to issues of racial, gender, and cultural identity. A number of works in the exhibit are well thought out and skillfully executed, while others are intentionally artless, exasperatingly incomprehensible, and narcissistically inward looking. Taken as a whole the exhibit leaves one with the impression that the late 1970s and early 1980s were a time of dissolution and entropy, which was certainly true, but the weakness of the show is that it provides no real understanding of the socio-economic factors behind such a radical shift in aesthetics. To be fair, mounting such a vast exhibit is a considerable undertaking, and Mr. Schimmel has barely scratched the surface of a historic period just beginning to be understood.

In the MOCA screening room with the Cramps

In the screening room with Target Video (pictured, the Cramps).

As a nexus for artists of various backgrounds to experiment with subversive aesthetics, California’s early punk rock milieu offered unique terrain.

Under the Big Black Sun presents a barebones look at the phenomenon, starting with punk’s confrontational graphic design, represented in the exhibit through flyers, posters, and extant copies of punk magazines like Slash, Search & Destroy, and Flipside. I worked at Slash for a time, creating drawings that appeared as cover art for two separate editions (works not included in the MOCA exhibit).

The San Francisco-based Target Video project of Joe Rees and Jill Hoffman documented some of the first West coast punk bands, and a small screening room in the MOCA exhibit projects live performances captured by Target of the Screamers, Weirdos, Dils, Avengers, X, Mutants, and others. The Los Angeles punk scene was also a testing ground for performance art, and the MOCA show presents a short video of The Kipper Kids (Martin von Haselberg and Brian Routh), who were closely associated with the early L.A. punk explosion. Mark Pauline was well known in early punk circles for his bizarre robot machines, the first of which MOCA has on display.


Viewing the "agitprop" posters at MOCA's Under The Big Black Sun.

My Whatever Happened To The Future! print is appropriately situated amongst the posters and drawings MOCA defined as “engaging in social dissent and political protest”.

Vibrantly colorful, unabashedly activist in orientation, and sometimes confrontational, these works condemn war, racism, and state violence, rally the public to collective action against injustice, and encourage viewers to become part of a people’s movement to expand and deepen democracy. Displayed are posters from collectives like La Raza Silkscreen Center and Fireworks Graphics, as well as prints by artists Malaquías Montoya, Carlos Almaraz, Rachael Romero, and Rupert García (García will appear at MOCA on Thursday, Dec 8, at 6:30 pm, to discuss his work - the event is free with museum admission).

The overtly political prints and drawings mentioned above are incongruously out of sync with Paul Schimmel’s supposition that “(….) modernism, characterized by a master narrative of progress and succession, reached a dead end.” As the fly in the postmodern ointment, I must point out that the artworks in question reveal neither a shortage of optimism, nor lack of certitude that a united citizenry armed with the truth can create a better world; which is antithetical to the postmodernist view of there being no objective truths or linear historical development.

Paul Schimmel makes his case that “what cohered as postmodernism during the 1980s in New York effectively codified ideas and concepts evolving from art made in California between 1974 and 1981″. Nevertheless, one might also make the argument - as does cultural critic Fredric Jameson - that postmodernism, as “the cultural dominant of the logic of late capitalism”, marks the alleged triumph of “commodification over all spheres of life”. It is typified by depthlessness and affectlessness, a loss of historicity, a fascination with the “‘degraded landscape of schlock and kitsch”, and as a product of the spectacle society of multinational capitalism, it is “catastrophe and progress all together.”

As if to make my point, that “master narrative of progress and succession”, otherwise known as the material force of history, is in effect knocking at MOCA’s front door. Tens of millions of Americans are without work, have no health insurance, or have lost their homes to bank foreclosures as social conditions in the U.S. worsen. While Under The Big Black Sun opened to the public, the Occupy Wall Street protest movement was just beginning in New York’s financial district. As I write this, the anti-plutocracy demonstrations have now spread to over 100 U.S. cities, with a major encampment ensconced on the grounds of Los Angeles City Hall, just a few blocks from MOCA. How artists in part responded to the social crisis of late 1970s America can to a certain extent be viewed at Under the Big Black Sun. The question for today is, in what manner will American artists respond to the biggest economic collapse since the 1930s?

Whatever Happened To The Future? It remains to be created by all of us.

Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981 runs at the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) from October 1, 2011 through February 13, 2012. The Geffen is located at 152 N. Central, Los Angeles, CA 90012. Phone: 213-626-6222.