Frida in Dubai-landia

Frida in Dubai-landia. Photo taken by an anonymous diner on the opening night of IZEL.

Frida in Dubai-landia. Photo taken by an anonymous diner on the opening night of IZEL.

A 12 foot by 10 foot painting of Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) currently hangs on the wall of the IZEL “Latin American style” restaurant and nightclub at the luxurious Conrad Hilton in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE). The painting of the celebrated Mexican artist is part of an eight canvas commission given to a contemporary Los Angeles Chicano artist by IZEL. The resulting works are a perfect example of the limitations and failings of contemporary Chicano art, indeed, of any art that is based solely upon identity politics.

Brian Bendix, the founder of IZEL and CEO of Stambac International (a global corporation that specializes in franchising, managing, and consulting high-end restaurants), said that IZEL is “where escapism is not just allowed, but is a prerequisite.” Mr. Bendix went on to say that his “Latin-inspired” nightclub will offer “the absolute best of Latin Artistry across food, cocktails, cigars and entertainment. IZEL’s launch in Dubai will be setting a precedent for the city’s vibrant nightlife scene.” Setting a precedent for nightlife in an oil Sheikh’s dream city says a great deal, especially since the megalopolis is well known for all manner of extremes.

In the words of IZEL’s owners, the nightclub presents “the ultimate, authentic Latin American experience in Dubai!” The Facebook page for the elite restaurant proclaims that “IZEL oozes all the passion, style and charm that Latin America is known for.” I would say that the ostentatious establishment certainly oozes something, but it is most certainly not “the fire of Modern Latin America today” as claimed.

Poor Frida. When she came to the U.S. in 1930 with her husband, the famous revolutionary artist Diego Rivera, she became homesick for Mexico and complained to Diego about the materialism and soullessness of “Gringolandia,” her cutting epithet for El Norte. Now her portrait, adorned with 24 carat gold leaf like a Catholic religious icon, hangs in a restaurant frequented by oligarchs.

Kahlo’s last public act was to protest the 1954 U.S.-orchestrated military coup against the democratically elected government of Guatemala. At her public funeral in 1954 where she lay in state at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, her coffin was draped with the red flag of the Mexican Communist Party. Kahlo would be mortified to know that a ritzy nightclub in a U.S.- backed oil Sheikhdom displays her portrait to provide amusement for an affluent, cigar-smoking, champagne swilling clientele. If alive today, I am sure she would contemptuously refer to the Emirate of Dubai as “Dubai-landia,” or perhaps something worse, and for good reason.

Founded on Dec. 2, 1971, the UAE is a federation of seven oil rich sheikhdoms located on the southeast end of the Arabian Peninsula in the Persian Gulf. Member principalities include Abu Dhabi (the largest), Dubai (the second largest), Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, and Umm al-Quwain. Dynastic “royal” families rule the emirates, where human rights abuses, the restraint of free speech, and repression against those who call for democracy, is commonplace.

Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai (or Sheikh Mo as he is called by supporters and detractors alike), along with the other potentates of the UAE, sit upon 10% of the world’s oil wealth. According to Forbes, Mo possesses personal wealth “in excess of $4 billion,” but he has also transformed Dubai into a major financial center for global capitalism, and a leading destination for world tourism. Mo is the Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE. The ruler of the neighboring emirate of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, is President of the UAE, and according to Forbes is said to have personal wealth of “roughly $15 billion.”

Along with the painting of Kahlo, the other canvases hung in the IZEL nightclub offer sexually objectified visions of Latinas; one is a glamorous depiction of a Soldadera, those armed women who fought in the 1910 Mexican Revolution. The alluring figure in the IZEL painting wears lipstick, a low-cut blouse, gold hoop earrings, a sombrero, and clutches a pair of gold-plated single-action revolvers - just like all impoverished Mexican peasant women did in 1910.

The other paintings at IZEL are clichés of beautiful “hot blooded” and “exotic” Latinas, lips parted, and striking provocative poses… but not too stimulating, as nudity and public affection is banned in Dubai, even a peck on the cheek can land one in prison for violating the Emirate’s severe “decency” laws. But the Sheikhs of Dubai are “open-minded” rulers, and they make allowances for dance-clubs and drinking copious amounts of alcohol, provided it is all done by “Non-Muslims” in a “licensed area” and the authorities get their share of the profits. Since the laws of the UAE forbid blasphemy and nudity in art, one wonders if the artist commissioned to create the paintings for IZEL had to agree not to violate the country’s strict moral guidelines.

What bothers me so much about the paintings at IZEL, is that Chicano art once represented and spoke for the dispossessed and downtrodden. Having grown out of the Mexican American Civil Rights movement, Chicano art held the struggle for justice and human dignity as a main tenet.

During its heyday in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the socially conscious genre defended exploited Mexican, Mexican-American, and Filipino farm workers laboring at backbreaking work in California’s agricultural fields. It railed against imperialism and war, it denounced corrupt politicians and brutal police, it honored the Mexican Revolution and its heroes, and it celebrated the indigenous people that resisted the forces of genocide and colonialism. There are still faint echoes of this ethic in today’s Chicano art, but the legacy is betrayed by the paintings currently hanging in IZEL.

The best review of the IZEL nightclub has so far come from the UAE’s leading English-language newspaper, Gulf News, which is owned by Al Nisr Publishing LLC (itself owned by three Emiratis well connected to the government). The paper’s website reported on IZEL’s opening under the headline…. “Latin American culture on a plate.” Indeed.

Rudi Jagersbarcher, Area President for Hilton Worldwide, said the Conrad Hilton Dubai caters “to the needs of the ever increasing number of global, affluent travelers.” The affluent travelers that Jagersbarcher mentioned are in reality the parasitic vultures, casino capitalists, terrorist-connected money launderers, military contractors, and foreign intelligence agents that have turned the region into a cauldron. To that mix you can add the bimbos, sycophants, and musclemen such people always have in tow, not to mention the international social set of 1 percenters that travel for pleasure. Of course the jet-setting nouveau riche of the UAE are part of the crowd; the Financial Times of London reported that in 2013 there were 54,000 millionaire Emiratis, and by 2017 that number should rise to 69,000.

It is an understatement to say that Dubai is a destination for affluent travelers. The recklessly extravagant place has outstripped Las Vegas by light-years when it comes to conspicuous consumption. Every year from January 2nd to February 2nd, the Emirate holds the Dubai Shopping Festival (DSF), an orgy of consumerism where gold, luxury cars, and diamond rings are given away to happy shoppers as promotion. The theme of this year’s DSF is “Shop At Your Best.” But Dubai also wears the mantle of political reaction reflecting the extreme conservatism of the Western-backed oil Sheikhs of the UAE.

“Shop At Your Best.” Official image promoting the 2014 Dubai Shopping Festival.

“Shop At Your Best.” Official image promoting the 2014 Dubai Shopping Festival.

In 1996 the American writer and social critic, Mike Davis, wrote Fear And Money In Dubai, an essay on the role Dubai and the UAE plays in global politics. Describing the bizarre architecture of Dubai as “Speer meets Disney on the shores of Araby,” Davis goes on to say that the emirates have “achieved what American reactionaries only dream of - an oasis of free enterprise without income taxes, trade unions or opposition parties.” Davis shines a light on Dubai as “the financial hub for Islamic militant groups, especially al-Qaeda and the Taliban,” tersely noting that “Dubai is one of the few cities in the region to have entirely avoided car-bombings and attacks on Western tourists: eloquent testament, one might suppose, to the city-state’s continuing role as a money laundry and upscale hideout (….) Dubai’s burgeoning black economy is its insurance policy against the car-bombers and airplane hijackers.” A real understanding of Dubai begins with a reading of Mike Davis’ article.

Dubai’s Dirty Little Secret was a 20/20 investigative report aired by ABC in the U.S. on Nov. 11, 2006. While the report documented the obscene wealth of Dubai’s ruling class, the “dirty little secret” reported on is Dubai’s treatment of its foreign workers, the overwhelming majority of which come from India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka; though some 40,000 Kenyans now work in Dubai as well.

An impoverished foreign worker sleeps at a construction site in Dubai, UAE. Photo: Reuters/Ahmed Jadallah/File photo from Nov. 13, 2006.

An impoverished foreign worker sleeps at a construction site in Dubai, UAE. Photo: Reuters/Ahmed Jadallah/File photo from Nov. 13, 2006.

According to the 2006 ABC report, immigrant workers build the luxury hotels, shopping malls, tourist attractions, and everything else “for less than a dollar an hour.” The report revealed that more than “500,000 foreign workers live in virtual enslavement” in Dubai (that number has increased, the last official UAE count in 2010 put the number at 3.8 million foreign workers).

ABC reported that the workers are often cheated out of their pay, suffer routine abuse, and labor in dangerous working conditions. The report noted that hundreds of workers fall to their deaths each year while constructing high-rise buildings, and that “under the law in Dubai and the entire United Arab Emirates, there are no unions allowed, strikes are illegal, strikers can be fired and sent home.” I would add that immigrant workers enjoy no political rights whatsoever, and by law they are barred from ever becoming citizens of the UAE.

Dubai’s Dirty Little Secret also showed that foreign workers are made to live in squalid labor camps where they live under appalling conditions outside of the city. The report noted that sometimes up to twelve workers will live in the same room, “rooms smaller than the horse stalls in the Sheikh’s Royal Stables.” While ABC’s report did not go nearly far enough, one cannot watch it without feeling contempt for Dubai’s elites and their oppression of foreign workers.

In April of 2008, after ABC aired Dubai’s Dirty Little Secret, some 800 Afghan, Bengali, Indian, and Pakistani workers went on strike at a high-rise construction site in Sharjah, the third largest emirate in the UAE. The strike took place because workers were being forced to sleep at the construction site as housing promised to them was never made available. The workers blockaded the streets around the site and the police were sent in; a running battle between workers and riot police ensued, with the police arresting 625 workers.

Guest workers from Uttar Pradesh, India, crammed into their sleeping quarters in Dubai, UAE. The photo comes from the January 2014 National Geographic article, "The Lives Of Guest Workers." Photo by Jonas Bendiksen.

Guest workers from Uttar Pradesh, India, crammed into their sleeping quarters in Dubai, UAE. The photo comes from the January 2014 National Geographic article, "The Lives Of Guest Workers." Photo by Jonas Bendiksen.

National Geographic, that bastion of subversive thought, published an article in its January 2014 edition titled, The Lives Of Guest Workers. The article focused on Dubai’s foreign workers, particularly those from the Philippines. As with the ABC report of 2006, the National Geographic story leaves out the facts regarding the complex web of geo-political interests that make the UAE an important ally for Western imperialism, nevertheless, the article paints an abysmal picture of Dubai’s royals and their international oligarchical supporters, as well as the plight of foreign workers in Dubai.

Slaves of Dubai is a short 15 minute documentary on the subject of Dubai’s foreign workers that was created for VICE Media Inc. by journalist and reporter, Ben Anderson. Mr. Anderson, who has worked for a plethora of large media outlets (BBC, the Guardian, The Times of London, the Discovery Channel, New York Times), has filmed multiple documentaries about the war in Afghanistan (Taking on the Taliban, Obama’s War, The Battle for Bomb Alley), so he is familiar with filming challenging stories under exceedingly difficult circumstances. But even Anderson was shocked by the inhuman conditions that workers in Dubai suffer through. Much of his documentary was filmed in secret, and it captured the most appalling and nauseating conditions. Pulling no punches, Anderson said that “it’s not an exaggeration” to refer to the workers as slaves.

slaves_of_dubai

"Slaves of Dubai" - A screen shot from Ben Anderson's documentary film showing Bangladeshi workers held as indentured workers in Dubai.

Mr. Anderson interviewed workers from Bangladesh that labored in Dubai’s construction industry, poor men who went into debt to pay the $2,000 in fees allowing them to work in Dubai. They were told by company recruiters that once they worked off their debts in a year, they could begin sending money home.

Instead they found themselves working for less than what they were promised, some were not paid for up to five months - all went deeper into debt. Their passports were seized, making it impossible for them to leave the country. Even if they had documents, they were too poor to arrange transportation out of the country. Their only option was to live in the squalid worker’s camp and labor at the jobs provided by the unscrupulous and crooked bosses that had hired them. In effect they became modern day indentured servants.

In her 2011 article for the Guardian, Dubai’s skyscrapers, stained by the blood of migrant workers, reporter Nesrine Malik described Dubai as; “a place where the worst of western capitalism and the worst of Gulf Arab racism meet in a horrible vortex. The most pervasive feeling is of a lack of compassion, where the commoditization of everything and the disdain for certain nationalities thickens the skin to the tragic plight of fellow human beings.”

It goes without saying that IZEL was built by the exploited foreign workforce told of by ABC, National Geographic, Ben Anderson, and Nesrine Malik. One must wonder how many foreign construction workers fell, or jumped to their deaths while building the damnable 51-story Conrad Hilton Dubai (annually, hundred of foreign workers in the emirate take their own lives out of desperation). And that is the rub; Chicano artists and their circles have long advocated and upheld the rights of Latino immigrant workers in the United States. Is there is no concern over the plight of the wretched immigrant workers in Dubai?

There is more to Dubai’s politics than the heartless treatment given foreign workers. The UAE and the United States are allies, and as “partners” they have been maneuvering to dominate the region, both for its strategic geo-political importance and its vast oil and natural gas wealth. Detailing how this has been done is beyond the scope of this essay, but a few things are worth mentioning.

The New York Times reported that in 2011 the Obama administration encouraged the UAE and Qatar to ship weapons to the Libyan “rebels,” then fighting the government of Muammar Gaddafi. NATO forces blockading Libya had to be alerted by the U.S. not to interdict shipments. It soon became apparent that the arms shipments were going to extremist Islamic militias, some affiliated with al-Qaeda. When the U.S.-NATO war against Libya began on March 19, the UAE Air Force sent twelve of its jet fighters to participate in military operations. The war resulted in the overthrow and assassination of Gaddafi, and a fractured Libya under the heel of extremist Islamic militias. Not surprisingly, the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the U.S. are now working together to ship arms to the “rebels” in Syria, some of which are affiliated with al-Qaeda.

In 2011 when the people of Bahrain took to the streets during the “Arab Spring,” demanding democracy and an end to the monarchy of the royal al-Khalifa family, the UAE and Saudi Arabia sent 1,500 troops to assist the Bahrain king’s security forces in drowning the uprising in blood. 93 unarmed Bahraini civilians were killed, some 3,000 were wounded, and thousands more were arrested, tortured, and exiled. By authority of Bahrain’s royals, the island Kingdom was, and remains, home to the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and the U.S. Fifth Fleet, whose ships patrol the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, Red Sea, and parts of the Indian Ocean.

Mindful of the democracy movement in Bahrain and how it nearly toppled that country’s monarchy, the UAE expanded its already existing “cybercrime” laws in 2012, outlawing any online criticism of the government as well as outlawing the use of the internet to organize protests for reform. Hundreds have so far been arrested for infractions of the law both real and imagined.

Is it not ironic that club IZEL, “where escapism is a prerequisite,” is promoted by state owned media outlets like The National (ran by Abu Dhabi Media, which is owned by the government of Abu Dhabi), while citizens of UAE that dare use the internet to promote reform and democracy are thrown in jail? Human Rights Watch, the Emirates Centre For Human Rights, and Amnesty International, have all have documented such abuses occurring in Dubai.

Numerous published reports from late 2013 indicate that President Obama will be selling $10.8 billion in sophisticated weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Saudis are the world’s biggest buyer of U.S. arms, with the UAE being the forth largest buyer.

U.S. weapons in the deal include 26 advanced F-16 Fighting Falcon jet fighters, an unspecified number of BellBoeing V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor transport aircraft, an unknown number of AGM-88E Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missiles (AARGM), some 2,173 Standoff Land Attack Extended Range missiles (SLAM-ER), and Joint Standoff Weapons (JSOW) cruise missiles. The sale also includes 6,000 GBU-39B “bunker buster” bombs.

In July 2012 the Swiss government halted all of its arms exports to the UAE after it was discovered that a Swiss-made hand grenade supplied to the UAE in 2003 was shown to be in the arsenal of rebels currently fighting the Syrian government. The Swiss arms shipment had been conducted under agreement that war materials were not to be re-exported. The shipment had included 225,162 grenades. After an investigation into the matter, the UAE admitted sending quantities of the grenades to Jordan to assist the Kingdom in “fighting terrorism.” Once in Jordanian hands the weapons were eventually sent to the Syrian rebels. Upon receiving this explanation from the UAE, the Swiss lifted their temporary arms embargo against the UAE.

Once again, it is hard to imagine Frida Kahlo putting up with any of the above, though there is so much more I could write about.  It should also be apparent how incongruous it is for Kahlo’s portrait to be hanging in club IZEL.

Let me be frank in my appraisal of contemporary Chicano art. It is far from its origins, and that in part is what this article is about. The roots are still viable, though the foliage is looking peculiar and in need of pruning. The greater part of Chicano art is mired in tired clichés, as if portraits of “exotic” Latinas wearing traditional clothes and posing with antique pistolas says anything meaningful about our past, present, or future. The school has largely reduced itself to painting those scenes of lush tropical jungles filled with colorful birds and happy peasants that David Alfaro Siqueiros detested and refused to paint. Something more is required today, and that is also a reason for this article.

Art and identify politics make an ill fit, at least for me. I seek a more universal language. My attraction to Chicano art as a stronghold of realism still holds. However, realism is not just a way of accurately depicting objects, people, and events. It is a deep exploration of the human condition. It gets at what it is to be human. It strives for the truth. The great African-American singer and actor, Paul Robeson, said something pertinent to the issue at hand, “the artist must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery.” That philosophy is central to this essay.

I have been attracted to Chicano art since the late 1960s, not only for its roots in boldly addressing social and political issues, but because the school is one of the few remaining circles in contemporary art where figurative realism continues to carry weight. Historically Chicano art has synthesized community need with political activism, fusing the dreams and aspirations of a people to the transformational power of art. As an artist, it is that vision that I remain unalterably loyal to. The paintings at IZEL represent something that I find grotesque and unacceptable, not just the commodification and “mainstreaming” of Chicano art, but the stripping away of its core values and historic importance while reducing it to the safe and decorative.

“What Lies Behind Us” - 2013

When reflecting upon the year now passing, as well as mulling over what is to come, it is perhaps best to remember the wisdom of the great American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) when he said: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” I regard Emerson’s words, not as an appeal to abandon the world for a personal retreat into the inner-self, but as an invitation to contemplate how we should respond to the world’s big questions. In that spirit, I offer the following twelve essays written in 2013, thoughts concerning world events, artists, and aesthetics.

bernstein4

Leonard Bernstein

Beauty is truth, truth beauty ( Jan. 19 )

“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. (….) 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.”

Merlin's "Black Legion"

Merlin's "Black Legion"

Maurice Merlin & the Black Legion ( Jan. 24 )

This article is a review of the exhibition, Maurice Merlin and the American Scene, 1930–1947, mounted by the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, January 19 to April 15, 2013. “That Merlin’s work remains unknown gives evidence to the ahistorical nature of the contemporary art scene; The Huntington show is the perfect antidote. The exhibit includes some 30 works by the artist covering a wide range of mediums - oils, watercolors, screen prints, drawings, woodcuts, and lithographs.”

Iraq: 10 years ago

Iraq: 10 years later

The Invasion of Iraq - Ten Years Later (March 19)

“March 19, 2013 marks the 10th anniversary of the U.S. war against Iraq.

To commemorate the somber occasion I am presenting fifteen separate articles pertaining to the Iraq war that I wrote for this web log from 2004 to 2009, starting with the earliest post and ending with the most recent. Each piece discusses individual or cooperative artistic responses to the imperial war… all writings express this artist’s disdain for the war and its instigators.”

Maggie Dead

Maggie Dead

Iron Lady: Rust In Peace (April 19)

“Mark Twain once wrote of a memorial service, ‘I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying that I approved of it.’ The following comments regarding Margaret Thatcher having ascended to the choir invisible are written with that same attitude, a spirit no doubt shared by millions in the U.K. and around the world.

When I heard the news on April 8, 2013 that the “Iron Lady” had passed away at the age of 87, it was like receiving word of a long-time nemesis having given up the ghost. Numerous memories of Thatcher came to mind, none of them pleasant, as I waited for the deluge of corporate media sophistry that would conceal the real legacy of Maggie Thatcher.”

Painting by Barthel Gilles

Painting by Barthel Gilles

Echoes of Weimar ( June 8 )

“Barthel Gilles (1891-1977) was one of those artists overlooked by history, he was a fabulously talented painter who lived during the rise and fall of Germany’s Weimar Republic (1919-1933), not to mention the ascendancy and demise of the Nazi regime.(….) Since the Nazis tightly controlled the museum and gallery system as well as all other aspects of cultural production, those who criticized the regime were hounded, banned from making art, imprisoned or worse. How many of us could withstand such persecution? Ultimately it is a question of one’s own humanity, do you keep it by resisting or lose it by consenting to the most despicable outrages. That Gilles collaborated with a genocidal regime to save himself is his shame, that many of us today accept the unacceptable is ours.”

Brave New World

Brave New World

A Postmodern 4th of July (July 2)

“(….) The crisis we face is much more than a ‘political’ question, it is also cultural paralysis and torpor that confronts us. In fact, the two have always been intertwined.

(….) While U.S. society teeters on becoming the surveillance state depicted in George Orwell’s 1984, it has already become the conformist, ahistoric, consumer-oriented and sex-obsessed social order from Huxley’s Brave New World. Perhaps President Obama’s mass surveillance of U.S. citizens is not such a bad thing… providing that everyone looks hot.”

Image by Kimball

Image by Kimball

Ward Kimball - Art Afterpieces (July 7)

“I never forgot Kimball’s Art Afterpieces, though it seems the rest of the world did. Searching online for evidence of the book’s existence turns up almost nothing, scarcely even a mention.

More baffling is Kimball’s persona non grata status in the elite art world, where kitsch aesthetics are all the rage and lowbrow art regularly, if mystifyingly, fetches astronomical prices. Today’s museum curators, gallery directors, arts writers, critics, art historians, and wealthy art collectors pay no attention to Kimball, but I say, give credit where credit is due.”

bad joke

Bad joke

Farewell Mr. Deitch (July 26)

“In 1750 the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, writing in his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, observed that ‘the arts spread flowery garlands over the iron chains of law, inducing consent without obvious coercion.’

Rousseau’s critique seems pertinent here, given that corporate power and men like Mr. Deitch are turning the art world’s remaining shreds of autonomy and integrity into exceedingly bad jokes.”

The way forward

A way forward

Chicano Park & Chile (Sept. 11)

“The young artists that created the murals in the Logan Heights Barrio, painted their spiritual, political, international, and Chicano visions onto the walls for all to see.

Those murals continue to be a great source of community pride, moreover, they stand as examples of an authentic ‘people’s art,’ the very antithesis of today’s detached, elite, postmodern art. Rather than being frozen in the past, the Chicano Park murals embody a way forward for today’s artists.”

The fight back

The fight back

Protest at the Detroit Institute of Arts (Oct 5)

“History was made on October 4, 2013, when hundreds of people gathered on the steps of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) in Detroit, Michigan for a demonstration against city plans to sell the museum’s world-class art collection. The city has paid Christie’s auction house $200,000 to appraise the DIA’s holdings. The process is now underway to prepare for a massive auctioning off of the museum’s cultural treasures in order to pay down Detroit’s multi-billion dollar debt.”

Muse Costume Ball

Muse Costume Ball

LACMA Halloween Nightmare (Oct 25)

“Hallowe’en… what fearfu’ pranks ensue! This October 26, 2013, the trendy vampires and way-out ogres of Los Angeles will shamble and hobble their way to the 10th-annual ‘Muse Costume Ball’ thrown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

(….) LACMA’s monster mash is not for bête noire proletarian miscreants, it is strictly for upper-crust bloodsuckers and villainess socialites. At $100 per general admission ticket, what is a poor working ghoul to do?

Art Is For Everyone! (Oct 18)

“In some quarters art has become a cynical intellectual exercise that is incomprehensible without an art degree and knowledge in dubious and obscurest theories. Things are really much simpler; making and appreciating art is what makes us human. Art is but one facet of an ordered human community, it has always been so. If you want to know what mathematics are all about, you might want to ask a mathematician. If curious about the stars in the heavens, talk to an astronomer. It follows that if you want to know about art, you should ask an artist. Leave the critics to argue amongst themselves.”

Christmas Thoughts: 2013 Edition

 "Feliz Navidad" - Xmas decoration on a vendor's storefront door during the Dec. 24, 2013 Las Posadas celebration on Olvera Street, the oldest street in Los Angeles and the birthplace of the city. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

"Feliz Navidad" - Xmas decoration on a vendor's storefront door during the Dec. 24, 2013 Las Posadas celebration on Olvera Street, the oldest street in Los Angeles and the birthplace of the city. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

“Father Christmas, give us some money
Don’t mess around with those silly toys
We’ll beat you up if you don’t hand it over
We want your bread, so don’t make us annoyed
Give all the toys… to the little rich boys”
Father Christmas.” The Kinks. 1977

While Father Christmas by The Kinks remains one of my all-time favorite Christmas songs (”give my daddy a job cause he needs one, he’s got lots of mouths to feed”), the working-class angst expressed in the song is nearly matched by the superlative Christmas-themed album from Joey Ramone (1951-2001), Christmas Spirit… In My House. Released a year after Joey’s untimely death, four of the rockin Christmassy cuts on the album express romantic troubles and woes, but it is the fifth song, a punk reworking of a song made famous by Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, What A Wonderful World, (1901-1971), that always brings tears to my eyes.

On Donner! On Blitzen! On Djibouti!
Twas the Night before Christmas, the composition in verse by American poet, Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863) told of children snuggled in bed “while visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.” Moore wrote of Santa “with the sleigh full of toys” drawn by his eight reindeer; “On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blixen!” Let us add another reindeer to that list of names… the camo-clad Djibouti. The Night before Christmas 2013, news reports told of U.S. Marines being deployed to Djibouti, Sudan, in preparation for intervention in the civil war between Sudan and oil-rich South Sudan. Never heard of South Sudan before? Don’t worry, another great American writer, Ambrose Bierce (1842-1913), once penned “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.”

President Obama has said the U.S. must intervene in the Sudanese civil war in order to “support the security of U.S. citizens, personnel, and property, including our Embassy, in South Sudan,” but the likelihood of military intervention has more to do with South Sudan’s natural resources like uranium, diamonds, gold, and yes… oil. Prior to the current crisis foreign oil companies in South Sudan were pumping 250,000 barrels of oil a day (source: London Financial Times, Dec. 23, 2013), but the civil war has threatened oil production. U.S. moves can also be seen as an attempt to block Chinese influence in Africa. The second largest supplier of African oil to China is Sudan (source: Council on Foreign Relations), and China has enjoyed a 40 percent stake in Sudan’s oil industry (source: Analysis Intelligence). One has to wonder, where will the next Christmas war take place?

Placards seen carried by those involved with the now non-existent US anti-war movement once read, “Who would Jesus bomb?” Indeed.

Forget Djibouti the Reindeer, give Santa a Fighter Jet Escort!
It has come to this writer’s attention that the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is providing Santa Claus (codename, Big Red 1) with a virtual Fighter Jet escort. And thank goodness, it is a dangerous world out there.

What is it about Christmas, anyway?
December 29, 1890 - the massacre of some 300 Sioux/Lakota women and children by the U.S. Seventh Cavalry at Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation; December 18, 1972 -the “Christmas Bombing” of North Vietnam by the Nixon administration; December 20, 1989 -the “Christmas Invasion” of Panama by the George H.W. Bush administration. Now the “Christmas Sudan Intervention”?

This year President Obama launched a Christmas day drone strike in Pakistan, killing four unidentified people; the attack was the very first Christmas Day drone strike. I suppose one must add the 2013 Christmas Day bombings in Baghdad, where al-Qaida killed at least 37 Christians celebrating the birth of Christ. Yeah, sure glad we “liberated” Iraq from the forces of evil.

It’s A Wonderful Life nothing but commie propaganda.
And think about this the next time you pull out your copy of It’s a Wonderful Life to watch with family and friends on Christmas Eve. Nominated for five Academy Awards and proclaimed by the American Film Institute as one of the greatest American films ever made, the truth about Director Frank Capra’s 1947 It’s A Wonderful Life, has finally been revealed. Starring James Stewart and Donna Reed, the film tells the story of a down-and-out fictional character named James Bailey (played by Stewart), who nearly commits suicide at Christmastime, save for the divine intervention of a guardian angel named Clarence. Recently released files obtained from the Federal Bureau of Investigation show that the FBI believed Capra’s film was a “carrier of political propaganda” that was the result of scriptwriters who “were very close to known Communists.” In the words of the FBI, those writers, Frances Goodrick and Albert Hackett, “practically lived with known Communists.”

Quoting informants in Hollywood, the FBI stated that It’s A Wonderful Life “represented a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ’scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.” Moreover, the film “deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters.”

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Ghosts of Christmas Past:

Green Chri$tma$ (2011)
O Blessed Christmas! (2009)
Christmas in Fallujah (2007)
O Tannenbaum! O Tannenbaum! (2004)

Billy Jack

Movie poster for Tom Laughlin's 1971 film, "Billy Jack." Artist Ermanno created a montage using newspaper photos and stories of the day to form a portrait of the fictional super hero, Billy Jack.

Movie poster for Tom Laughlin's 1971 film, "Billy Jack." Artist Ermanno created a montage using newspaper photos and stories of the day to form a portrait of the fictional super hero, Billy Jack.

I was 18-years-old when the movie Billy Jack was first shown in U.S. theaters in the year 1971. Tom Laughlin, the man that imagined, wrote, starred in, and independently produced the film, died on Dec. 12, 2013 at 82 years of age. This is a short remembrance of Mr. Laughlin, an appreciation for his swimming against the tide and capturing a certain spirit that most today will deny ever existed. I cannot begin to say how influential Billy Jack was to my generation.

As the Vietnam War continued to rage in 1971, U.S. Army Lieutenant William Calley was found guilty of mass murder for his role in the My Lai massacre; the Pentagon Papers were published in the Washington Post and the New York Times; prisoners took over Attica State Prison in Attica, New York and the government responded by launching a military assault that killed 28 inmates and 9 guards. A massive international campaign demanded the release Angela Davis, then in prison on trumped up charges of kidnapping and murder; over 1,000 Vietnam War veterans threw away their combat medals and ribbons on the Capitol steps in a protest against the war, and the Native American occupation of Alcatraz ended when armed agents of the state forcibly removed the indigenous activists from the island. Of course, there were dozens of earthshaking events that took place in 1971, but the aforementioned sets the stage for an understanding of Billy Jack.

None of the corporate press obituaries written for Mr. Laughlin will tell you this, but Billy Jack was one of the cultural expressions of opposition to illegitimate power that became a hallmark of the rebellious late 1960s and early 1970s. Laughlin’s movie embodied the anger, distrust, and open contempt millions of Americans came to feel towards government.

Movie poster for Tom Laughlin's 1967 film, "Born Losers."

Movie poster for Tom Laughlin's 1967 film, "Born Losers."

The character of Jack can be described as a Green Beret Vietnam War veteran of white and Native American heritage that experienced the horror of war and came home to a deeply divided nation.

Confronted with racial and class oppression on all levels, Jack found his spiritual core by becoming a guardian of the people. The character of Billy Jack first appeared in Laughlin’s 1967 Born Losers, where Jack battled a psychopathic motorcycle gang that had been terrorizing a small California beach town.

Nevertheless, Jack as a character cannot in any way be compared to right-wing vigilante characters like those in Death Wish (Charles Bronson), or Dirty Harry (Clint Eastwood). As a Vet, Jack certainly had no relationship to the monosyllabic, muscle-bound, jingoistic Rambo (as played by the monosyllabic, muscle-bound, jingoistic Sylvester Stallone).

The character of Billy Jack really struck a nerve in the 1971 film, where the tale of the battle hardened Vet takes on a decidedly anti-authoritarian direction. In that film Jack rediscovers his Native American roots while living on an Arizona reservation, he takes up the struggle to defend an alternative school and its hippie and indigenous student body from small town bigots, and uses his hapkido martial arts and firearms skills to battle the forces of oppression on his native soil.

The movie more than touched upon pertinent social issues from an egalitarian perspective; racial oppression, corrupt police, the abuse of power, the destruction of the environment, and other pressing concerns, all of which are still very much with us in the present day. The film ends with Jack entering an armed confrontation with law enforcement and their crooked bosses in city government, leading to his arrest and imprisonment. In other words, Billy Jack is not a movie that would be made today.

In the ending scene of the film as Billy Jack is driven off to prison in a column of police cars, while Jack’s young supporters line the road with their clenched fists held high in defiance of authority, the song One Tin Soldier played over the movie’s final moments. The song as recorded by the U.S. rock band Coven put the finishing touches on the movie’s pro-freedom stance and further galvanized the real world antiwar movement; One Tin Soldier hit number 17 on Billboard’s top 100 in 1971.

Laughlin’s 1971 Billy Jack would be followed up in 1974 by The Trial of Billy Jack, and again in 1977 with the last of the series, Billy Jack Goes to Washington. All took the same dissident stance, but I think the 1971 production was by far the most effective and influential. The last film condemned the atomic power industry and its connections to the U.S. government, and Laughlin remained convinced that his film did not receive a general theatrical release because of a government effort to suppress it. But as everyone knows, blacklists were never implemented in Hollywood. Commenting on the film’s portrayal of governmental collusion with corporate powers, Laughlin told Sacramento TV interviewers in 2007, “However corrupt you think Washington and Congress are, you’re not even close.” Nothing has changed since then.

While conservatives may well bemoan Billy Jack as so much whining from Hollywood liberals, Tinsel Town did not exactly roll out the red carpet to Tom Laughlin and his antiwar protagonist. The Billy Jack films were produced independently, and Laughlin used his own money to make them. In the case of the 1971 Billy Jack, its politics caused major studios to reject it, but Warner Bros. finally worked up enough courage to distribute it. However, Warner dragged its feet in promoting the movie and Laughlin had to wage a three year legal battle to regain control of his film. He finally won his lawsuit, and in 1973 rented 1,200 movie theaters across the U.S. for the re-release, a strategy that had never been used previously. While the 1971 Warner distributed release made $6 million, Laughlin’s independent ‘73 re-release eventually made $100 million. Billy Jack remains one of the biggest grossing films in the history of independent filmmaking.

Korean hapkido grandmaster, Bong Soo Han, stands in as Billy Jack. Screen shot from Tom Laughlin's 1971 film, "Billy Jack."

Screen shot from Tom Laughlin's 1971 film, "Billy Jack."

Billy Jack would also be the first film to introduce a mass U.S. audience to martial arts, something that forever changed the American understanding of “action” movies. Billy Jack predated the films of the Chinese American martial artist, Bruce Lee.

Tom Laughlin was a student of the Korean martial art, hapkido, and he trained a great deal for the fight scenes in his film.

While Laughlin did his own stunt work in the movie, he called upon the Korean grandmaster, Bong Soo Han (1933-2007), to stand in as Billy Jack to perform the advanced fighting techniques seen in the most electrifying and memorable fight in the movie.

Despite the popularity of the Billy Jack films, critics generally hated them. For instance, Roger Ebert (1942-2013) reviewed Billy Jack by stating, “I’m also somewhat disturbed by the central theme of the movie. ‘Billy Jack’ seems to be saying the same thing as ‘Born Losers,’ that a gun is better than a constitution in the enforcement of justice.” Other bourgeois film critics have referred to the films as “vigilante-themed” (LA Times 12/15/2013). In its obituary for Mr. Laughlin, USA Today made reference to his “big-screen vigilante Billy Jack.”

The Merriam-Webster definition of the word vigilante is that of “a person who is not a police officer but who tries to catch and punish criminals.” In an opening scene from Billy Jack, Jack discovers the town’s corrupt unelected political boss, Mr. Stuart Posner (played by Bert Freed), trespassing onto the reservation with his thugs to hunt and kill wild horses. Jack confronts the armed goons with his own lever action rifle and the following dialog ensues:

Jack: You’re illegally on Indian land.
Posner: I’m sorry about that. I guess we just got caught up in the chase and crossed over without knowing it.
Jack: You’re a liar.
Posner: We got the law here, Billy Jack.
Jack: When policemen break the law, then there isn’t any law - just a fight for survival.

The exchange between Jack and Posner does suggest vigilantism, but would it not be more accurate to describe Posner as the vigilante? As the unofficial “leader” of the town, he appointed the judges and the police, so when he said “We got the law here,” he literally meant that he was the law.

Another scene from the Billy Jack film shows hooligans associated to Posner, roughing up Native American students at a local eatery. Billy Jack walks into the establishment just as the racist brutes are dumping white flour on the students in a mocking attempt to make them “white.” Tensely, Jack tells the bullies that he has tried to “be passive and nonviolent,” but when he sees the children he loves so abused by “the savagery of this idiotic moment of yours… I go BERSERK!” Jack then trounces the racists with a series of hapkido punches and kicks, utterly vanquishing them before attending to the stricken kids.

To fully understand that scene, one must know that just eight years earlier on May 28, 1963, multi-racial Civil Rights demonstrators had staged a sit-in to desegregate a “Whites Only” lunch-counter at a Woolworth’s Department Store in Jackson Mississippi. The protestors were viciously assaulted by a gang of white racists, while the police stood by and watched. Those conducting the sit-in were punched with brass knuckles and struck with broken sugar containers. They were burned with cigarettes while the mob poured sugar, ketchup, mustard, and drinks on them. A photo of the unpleasant attack made the national news, outraging decent people everywhere. Tom Laughlin was one of those people.

Tom Laughlin as the character, Billy Jack. Screen shot from Laughlin's 1971 movie, "Billy Jack."

Tom Laughlin as the character, Billy Jack. Screen shot from Laughlin's 1971 movie, "Billy Jack."

All this brings up memories of the Deacons for Defense and Justice. The Deacons were founded in Jonesboro, Louisiana in 1964 by African American men wanting to protect their communities from the depredations and terror of the Ku Klux Klan.

A good number of the Deacons were combat veterans of WWII and the Korean War, they armed themselves with legal firearms and patrolled their neighborhoods, guarding against the KKK. The Deacons for Defense and Justice provided security for the non-violent activists of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), who were organizing voter registration drives among disenfranchised blacks. Considering that law enforcement, the courts, and various governmental agencies in Louisiana at the time were largely controlled or sympathetic to the KKK and other white supremacist organizations… can you really call the Deacons “vigilantes”?

I am struck by the vast difference between the tone and temperment of the Billy Jack movies, and contemporary movies like Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, films that not only embrace torture and imperial intervention, but were made with the cooperation of the Pentagon and the CIA. Today’s critics have nothing but praise for such films, and would never express their being “disturbed” that “a gun is better than a constitution” when depicting the invasions of foreign countries or holding “enemy combatants” in torture centers. Even the social democratic windbag Michael Moore praised Zero Dark Thirty as a “fantastically-made movie” that should “make you happy you voted for a man who stopped all that barbarity.” And what barbarities have been halted exactly? Launching war without Congressional approval? Zapping wedding parties with drone missiles?

It should be remembered that in 1968 John Lennon wrote an alternative version of his song Revolution that included the line, “we all want to change the world, but when you talk about destruction, don’t you know you can count me out/in.” Lennon included the word “in” because he was torn over whether violence might actually be used successfully to bring about justice. Tom Laughlin did not share those misgivings, and his anti-hero character of Billy Jack used his open heart, swinging fists, and gun, to fight oppressors and protect the defenseless.

Like many films from the period of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Billy Jack movies are undoubtedly dated. This is due, not only to the technological changes that have taken place in the world of movie making, but because of the changing perceptions and sensibilities of today’s film makers. Yet, an authentic and deeply felt humanism still emanates from Laughlin’s Billy Jack series, no matter how dated they may appear, which is something no one will honestly be able to say about all of Hollywood’s current action films rolled together.

Laughlin’s films could have been improved with substantial edits to focus the stories and shorten running times, though I say that about most films from the period. Just as postmodernism reduced the visual art world to an uncommunicative, detached, and indifferent state, so too has Hollywood largely forgotten how to tell the human story realistically and sympathetically. Laughlin could at least write a screenplay that expressed real compassion, despite the fact that he was not the most sophisticated or accomplished director. In a 2011 video statement titled What makes the Billy Jack films so unique?, Laughlin admonished Hollywood filmmaking by proclaiming:

“Another thing that made the Billy Jack series so unique, and so box office goldmine, is that you had the super action, the morality, the spirituality… come from both a super hero, Billy Jack, and a super heroine, Jean - who does credible, powerful women’s action, not absurd stuff like shooting two guns while riding backwards on a motorcycle, as Cameron Diaz did in the latest Tom Cruise picture… just absurd stuff.”

Whatever the weaknesses of Tom Laughlin as a director, and there were many, I would prefer his vision over most anything Hollywood offers today.

Obama and the Orcs

You may categorize the following as an expanded definition for Totalitarian Postmodern culture. On Dec. 9, 2013, Americans learned more about President Obama’s all encompassing surveillance program that uses the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) in an ongoing espionage operation that sucks up personal information from everyone that uses the internet or any type of electronic communications. It should be remembered that four months earlier, on Aug. 6, 2013, Mr. Obama went on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, of all places, where he stated categorically that the U.S. does not have a “domestic spying program.”

An Orc warrior from the "World of Warcraft" online computer game, or an agent from the U.S. National Security Agency? Image courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment, producer of World of Warcraft.

An Orc warrior from the "World of Warcraft" online computer game, or an agent from the United States National Security Agency? Image courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment, producer of World of Warcraft.

The Guardian, the New York Times, and ProPublica collaborated in publishing reports on Mr. Obama’s spying operation that should give pause to all those who cherish the right to privacy.

The Dec. 9 revelations are based upon documents disclosed by the American whistleblower, Edward Snowden. It has been revealed that since 2008, the NSA has been surveilling the estimated 48 million players of the online computer games, World of Warcraft (WoW), Second Life, and other online role-playing games.

The NSA has not only been monitoring the users of these games. They have been collecting their personal data, their communications with other players, and their online social networks and profile photos. Furthermore, they have infiltrated the online games with agents whose duty it is to actively recruit game players as potential informers for U.S. intelligence agencies.

The number of intelligence agencies that have infiltrated the games under anonymous avatars are so numerous that a special “deconfliction” group had to be set up in order to keep intelligence agents from inadvertently snooping on each other. The Pentagon, C.I.A., F.B.I, and the U.K.’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), all have agents spying on online gamers.

The mass NSA surveillance also included compromising Microsoft’s Xbox Live online mulitplayer gaming and digital media service. It must now be assumed that all virtual environments offered by Xbox Live are monitored by the NSA. Blizzard Entertainment, the company that makes World of Warcraft, made it known that it was “unaware of any surveillance taking place,” adding that if such spying was occurring, it would be done without the company’s “knowledge or permission.” At the time of this writing Microsoft had declined to comment on their Xbox Live platform being used extensively by the NSA in spying operations, likewise the company behind the production of Second Life, Linden Lab, declined comment.

Secret agents for the NSA. Avatars from the 3D virtual world of "Second Life." Image courtesy of Linden Lab.

Secret agents for the NSA. Avatars from the 3D virtual world of "Second Life." Image courtesy of Linden Lab.

And why is there deep intelligence work being carried out by the NSA in the realm of those Orcs, Gnomes, Night Elves, and Humans that virtually populate WoW?

Why are there undercover NSA agents mixed in with the simulated pretty young things that socialize and flirt with each other in Second Life?

Because, the NSA felt it would be a gamble to leave the gaming community “under-monitored.”

In the words of the NSA, gamers represent a “target rich communications network” they dare not leave unobserved, least terrorists gather there cloak-and-dagger style to exchange secret plans for attacking soft targets in the West. By implication, every other “under-monitored” sphere of public life must be surveilled and infiltrated.

In addition, the Washington Post published a report on Dec. 10, 2013 that the NSA is using web browser “cookies” to conduct mass surveillance. Based on another NSA document leaked by Edward Snowden, the article revealed that the government has been using Google “PREF” cookies to gather intelligence on untold numbers of people. Cookies are the bits of personal information that are saved to your computer when you have visited a website, they record the sites you visit and what you view, they also allow Big Brother to track and spy on you.

On Nov. 27, 2013 the press reported that yet another document leaked by Mr. Snowden revealed that the NSA is “gathering records of online sexual activity and evidence of visits to pornographic websites as part of a proposed plan to harm the reputations of those whom the agency believes are radicalizing others through incendiary speeches.” The NSA says it is only interested in compiling profiles on the porn habits of Muslim militants so as to “call into question a radicalizer’s devotion to the jihadist cause.”

Are we so sure that the Obama administration would never apply the term “radicalizer” to members of the Tea Party or to antiwar protestors? And why not, they are already spying on those that play online fantasy games! Malicious government snooping has certainly taken place before; read my article Remembering Jean Seberg before you say that the U.S. government would never use a fabricated sex-scandal to destroy the career and reputation of an American citizen.

The story of Jean Seberg (1938-1979) provides the contextual background for why Mr. Obama’s NSA surveillance is so dangerous a threat, not just to the basic democratic rights of all, but to creative professionals working in the fields of visual art, music, literature, cinema, etc. Art must be produced in environs free of government spying, intimidation, and bullying, or it will become self-censoring, timid, and conformist. In other words… it ceases to be art altogether and instead becomes an accessory to power. Those involved in the arts must come to the fore to denounce the rise of the maximum surveillance state before it is too late.

On December 10, 2013, over 500 international writers signed the statement, A Stand For Democracy In The Digital Age, which was published in 30 papers around the world. The petition by Writers Against Mass Surveillance demands an end to Big Brother-like spying, warning that “A person under surveillance is no longer free; a society under surveillance is no longer a democracy. To maintain any validity, our democratic rights must apply in virtual as in real space.” So far the statement has been signed by authors and writers from 81 different countries, and signatories included five Nobel Prize winners and a great number of celebrated writers.

I would like to take this opportunity to express my full support for the petition campaign created by Writers Against Mass Surveillance, and I encourage those professionals engaged with the written word to sign the statement. I await the organizing of a similar petition initiated by other arts professionals. However, let us have no illusions; those of us who believe in democracy and human rights have our work cut out for us. Mainstream political parties and leaders will not defend our rights… that will be a task for the people to take up.

Exhibit: Indigenous Roots

I will be premiering two new paintings at the exhibit, Indigenous Roots, to be held December 14, 2013 to January 25, 2014, at Avenue 50 Studio in Highland Park, Los Angeles, CA. Curator Raoul de la Sota said of the exhibit: “I have invited 13 artists to discuss and interpret visually in their work the ethnic, cultural and racial history that has influenced their work as artists perhaps living physically distant from their homeland but closely tied by their heartstrings to its past.”

"L.A. Subway" - Mark Vallen, 2013 ©. Oil on masonite.

"L.A. Subway" - Mark Vallen, 2013 ©. Oil on masonite.

One of the oil paintings I will be showing I have titled, L.A. Subway. As with the portrait of this Latina I encountered on a Los Angeles Metro Rail subway train, it is the lot of the 99% to daily trudge to and from work.

Perhaps she is a nurse or care worker, one of millions in a service industry that does not receive the rewards or appreciation they deserve. My father, an immigrant from Mexico, labored in L.A.’s upscale restaurants, mostly working two shifts a day for his entire professional career. While I celebrate my ethnic heritage, being of the working class has also shaped my life and art.

I have two distinct sets of memories from my childhood. One collection of reminiscences has to do with my father making monthly trips from L.A. to San Diego to visit his mother and extended family, most of which were born in Guaymas, Sonora, Mexico.

My strongest recollections are of my father’s mother, who came to San Diego as a young woman and found work at the original Chicken of the Sea canning plant. I remember her as the greatest cook in the world, and as a child I spent hours with her in the kitchen as she cooked tamales, menudo, and the most amazing hand made flour tortillas from scratch.

The other group of memories have to do with my father being a working man. He labored in L.A.’s restaurant industry, working his way up from bus boy to maître d’ in some of the city’s most elite private clubs. He inadvertently taught me about class as I watched him endure exhausting work and long hours while serving wealthy patrons. From my experience, ethnic and cultural identity intertwine with working class sensibility and outlook. These points of view have always informed my art.

The second oil painting I have in the exhibit is titled, Urban Landscape: She disappeared in a cloud of graffiti (seen directly below).

"Urban Landscape: She disappeared in a cloud of graffiti." - Mark Vallen 2013 ©. <br>Oil on canvas. 30" x 50" inches.

"Urban Landscape: She disappeared in a cloud of graffiti." - Mark Vallen 2013 ©. Oil on canvas. 30" x 50" inches. "Struggling to survive in a hostile urban environment."

While Urban Landscape was inspired by observing the streets of Los Angeles, the canvas depicts a reality now present in virtually every large American city; working class youth struggling to survive in a hostile urban environment during very difficult economic times. The subject of my painting is a young Latina, but she could just as easily be of any racial background; she holds a book, perhaps the only weapon that can free her from a life of ignorance, poverty, and want.

 Detail, "Urban Landscape: She disappeared in a cloud of graffiti." - Mark Vallen 2013 ©

Detail, "Urban Landscape: She disappeared in a cloud of graffiti." - Mark Vallen 2013 ©

I am very satisfied with Urban Landscape, and consider it to be my strongest social realist painting to date. The canvas, which took more than a year to complete, represents something of a turning point for me, as I was more interested in achieving paint textures than ever before. The juxtaposition of a painterly “abstract” background, a fair representation of actual city walls these days, with the precision realism of the foreground figure, I found to be a particularly pleasing accomplishment.

Our cities are decaying, basic social services and school budgets are being cut to the bone, unemployment is rampant, and crime is ever present. As a rule the artless scrawls of wannabe or real gangsters that deface city walls denote communities in decline - it has little to do with art and everything to do with collapse. This is something to be opposed, not celebrated and romanticized. Urban Landscape stands as a counterpoint to today’s trendy nonsense concerning graffiti and the attempts by hipster aesthetes to commodify it.

Indigenous Roots opens on December 14, 2013 and runs until January 25, 2014.

An Opening Reception with the artists will be held on Dec. 14th, from 7 to 10 pm.

The group show also includes artists: Armando Baeza, Patricia Boyd, Yrneh Brown, Lawrence Garcia, Raul Herrera, Andres Montoya, Ferril Nawir, Djibril N’Doye, CCH Pounder, Cindy Suriyani, Lamonte Westmoreland, and Katsu Yokoyama.

Avenue 50 Studio is located at 131 North Avenue 50, Highland Park, CA 90042. (Map: www.avenue50studio.org). Gallery Hours: Tue-Thurs, 10am-4pm. Sat-Sun, 10am-4pm.

Detail, "Urban Landscape" - Mark Vallen 2013 ©. Going abstract while playing in the ruins of tomorrow, today.

Detail, "Urban Landscape" - Mark Vallen 2013 ©. Going abstract while playing in the ruins of tomorrow, today.

One last note. In titling my painting I could not help but pay homage to a forgotten, or is that unknown, historical aspect of the megalopolis that is Los Angeles. “She disappeared in a cloud of graffiti” paraphrases Electrify Me, a song by the Chicano punk band The Plugz. Founded in L.A. in 1977, I attended the band’s early riotous concerts; their verse about graffiti stuck with me, as it exemplified the dark and foreboding underbelly of the modern concrete jungle.

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UPDATE 12/31/2013: On Jan. 5, 2014 at 2:00 pm, there will be a panel discussion with the artists from the Indigenous Roots show. Moderated by the exhibit’s curator Raoul De la Sota, the round table dialogue will explore ideas pertaining to art and culture that are at odds with the mainstream art world. Join this painter and fellow artists Ferril Nawir, CCH Pounder, Raul Herrera, Andres Montoya, Yrneh Brown, Lawrence Garcia, Cindy Suriani, Armando Baeza, and Katsu Yokoyama, for the lively conversation.

Remembering Jean Seberg

Publicity still of Jean Seberg. Date and photographer unknown.

Publicity still of Jean Seberg. Date and photographer unknown.

November 13, 2013 marked what would have been the 75th birthday of the American actress, Jean Seberg (1938-1979). Examining Ms. Seberg’s career and how it was throttled is not only instructive, but relevant to our present, especially to creative professionals.

Born in Marshalltown, Iowa, Seberg first gained notoriety as an actor in 1957 when at the age of seventeen she played the historic figure Joan of Arc in Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan.

Critics panned the film, and pilloried the young actress. Some years later Seberg would say of the experience, “I have two memories of Saint Joan. The first was being burned at the stake in the picture. The second was being burned at the stake by the critics.” Little did Seberg know that in the end she would be burned at the stake by the U.S. government.

In 1959 Seberg co-starred with Peter Sellers (1925-1980) in a Cold War comedy from the U.K., The Mouse That Roared. It would be Seberg’s third film. “Mouse” told the story of an imaginary and totally inconsequential European fiefdom, whose government decided that the way to avoid economic collapse was declaring war on the United States, suffer defeat, then accept the conquering nation’s generous foreign aid.

Publicity still of Peter Sellers and Jean Seberg from "The Mouse That Roared." Date and photographer unknown.

Publicity still of Peter Sellers and Jean Seberg from "The Mouse That Roared." Photographer unknown.

Mouse” was a slightly subversive political satire, but ultimately lighthearted, it did however capture the tenor of the times. Wildly popular at the time of its release, it was Sellers’ first starring role in film, and it established him as an international movie star.

I saw this film as a fifteen-year-old and never forgot it. Truth be told, forty-five-years later, I recently watched the film again and it dredged up memories of Ms. Seberg and her sad demise. I felt compelled to write this article.

In 1960 Ms. Seberg would star in Breathless, directed by Jean-Luc Godard, a film that not only secured her climb to stardom, but made her an icon of the French “new wave” cinema.

Seberg would come to spend much of her career in France. The rising political ferment taking place around the world no doubt had an effect on Seberg, and an upcoming starring role would put her in contact with an American director once blacklisted by the U.S. government.

In 1964 Seberg starred with Warren Beatty in director Robert Rossen’s Lilith. Rossen (1908-1966) had been a successful screenwriter, director, and producer, best known for films like All the King’s Men (1949) and The Hustler (1961); but because of his political views Rossen had come under suspicion by an America in the throes of Cold War anti-communist hysteria.

Robert Rossen was first called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1951 because he had been a member of the Communist Party U.S.A. from 1937 to 1949, however, he refused to testify. As with others who declined to answer the committee’s questions, Rossen was placed on an industry blacklist, and he was also unable to renew his passport, making overseas work impossible. When Rossen was called before HUAC for a second time in 1953, the inquisition had succeeded in breaking him. He identified 57 colleagues said to be affiliated with the Communist Party U.S.A., an act that destroyed the careers of those so named. HUAC rewarded Rossen for his co-operation by lifting the blacklist against him.

"Jean Seberg" - Photograph by Bob Willoughby. Seberg was photographed in New York's Central Park, 1956, the day after winning the role of Saint Joan in Otto Preminger's "Saint Joan."

"Jean Seberg" - Photograph by Bob Willoughby. Seberg was photographed in New York's Central Park, 1956, the day after winning the role of Joan of Arc in Otto Preminger's "Saint Joan."

It is not hard to speculate on how Seberg reacted to the story of Rossen’s blacklisting, though she could never have imagined that much worse lay ahead for her.

An oft told story about the young Seberg was of her joining the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1953 at the age of 14… the same year Robert Rossen was broken by HUAC. Seberg’s father counseled his daughter not to join the civil rights group, fearing people would think she was a communist, but she mailed in her membership form nevertheless, telling her father she did not care what people thought. Seberg joined the NAACP two years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama, an act that initiated the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott - a landmark campaign in the African-American Civil Rights Movement.

The kangaroo courts of HUAC are generally remembered for extreme undemocratic methods, but they signified more than just a total abrogation of first and fifth amendment rights, they were an open assault on art and culture. Some of America’s best actors, writers, and film producers were silenced, blacklisted, and sentenced to prison. For at least a decade scores were barred from working, others never regained their footing. Hollywood was thoroughly purged of all those with “left-wing” views, and motion picture and television output generally became conformist, focusing on shallow, inconsequential, and non-controversial material. One could argue that the entertainment industry, even today, has never fully recovered from the repression.

It should be noted that in 1947, a freshman Republican Congressman from California named Richard M. Nixon accepted a seat on the House Un-American Activities Committee. He played an active, if not major role in HUAC, and formed a strong professional relationship with the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI director shared files on American citizens with the Congressman, who became the 37th president of the U.S. in 1968. It would not be long before Nixon and Hoover implemented police state methods to crush dissent in the U.S., with Jean Seberg becoming one of their many victims.

1968 was an explosive year; the Tet offensive in Vietnam began in January as protests against President Johnson escalated in the U.S.; Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4; Senator Robert Kennedy was shot by an assassin at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles and died on June 6. In August the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, meanwhile, Chicago police brutally attacked antiwar demonstrators protesting against the Democratic Party National Convention. In October just prior to the opening of the Olympic Games in Mexico City, government troops and police massacred hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators in Mexico City’s Tlatelolco Square. Along with millions of others, Jean Seberg was no doubt reeling from these events, and she acted upon her outrage.

 Movie poster for Joshua Logan's 1968 musical "Paint Your Wagon," starring Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood, and Jean Seberg.

Movie poster for Joshua Logan's 1969 musical "Paint Your Wagon," starring Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood, and Jean Seberg.

In May 1968 Joshua Logan began filming his big-budget cinematic treatment of the hit Broadway musical, Paint Your Wagon. Starring Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood, and Jean Seberg, the film cost around $20 million to make, which was an extraordinarily large film budget for the time.

Paint Your Wagon was released in 1969, however, the film did not make a return on its investment; much had changed in the world, and the public’s taste for musicals had diminished. The Hollywood production would be one of the era’s final musicals. It was in 1969 that Seberg’s left-wing political leanings came to the attention of the FBI.

In 1968 President Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover gave their attention to quashing America’s new left, unleashing COINTELPRO (the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program) against dissident political groups and individuals. The objective of COINTELPRO was to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” (emphasis mine) opposition political groups. The use of the word “neutralize” is especially chilling here, since it was concurrently used by the CIA’s Phoenix Program in Vietnam (1965-1972). In that operation U.S. special forces “neutralized” suspected Viet Cong civilian sympathizers by way of capture, torture, and assassination; the operation killed some 26,369 alleged communists before the program ended in 1972.

Previously, in 1967 COINTELPRO was let loose upon “Black Nationalist Hate Groups,” targeting groups like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Black Panther Party (BPP). The FBI had conducted surveillance on Martin Luther King Jr. and his non-violent Southern Christian Leadership Conference since 1958, but under COINTELPRO their actions against King were intensified. On March 3, 1968, J. Edgar Hoover sent a directive to FBI field offices calling for operations to “prevent the rise of a messiah who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement.” Hoover’s memo noted that “King could be a very real contender for this position should he abandon his supposed ‘obedience’ to ‘white, liberal doctrines.” One month later King was felled by an assassin’s bullet.

COINTELPRO was much more than a surveillance program, it utilized aggressive intimidation, threats, and criminal violence to accomplish its goals of silencing dissident individuals and organizations. Tactics utilized included: breaking into offices to destroy and or steal equipment; planting lies in the press in order to slander targeted persons or groups, distributing counterfeit publications and flyers in the name of targeted groups but with content guaranteed to outrage and alienate; using threatening letters forged by FBI agents to pit groups against each other; false arrest and wrongful imprisonment. This and much more.

The Black Panther Party advocated armed self-defense against racist attack and organized for socialism in the U.S. They created “Survival Programs” to serve the poverty-stricken black community - “pending revolution.” The Panthers set up “People’s Free Medical Clinics” that provided basic care and medical examinations for the needy. They set up free clinics in the black community to check for sickle cell anemia, the blood disorder that affects 1 out of 500 African-American children (something the U.S. government did not do until after 1972).

The Panthers first implemented their “Free Breakfast for Children” program in Oakland in January, 1969, and it soon spread to Panther chapters across the country; by 1970 the Panthers had set up kitchens that daily fed 10,000 school children nutritional meals before they went to school. Again, the U.S. government had no such program at the time, and it was only in 1975 that a national, federally assisted meal program served the nation’s school children. In May 1969 J. Edgar Hoover sent the following memo to FBI offices across the U.S.

“The Breakfast for Children Program (BCP) has been instituted by the BPP in several cities to provide a stable breakfast for ghetto children. The program has met with some success and has resulted in considerable favorable publicity for the BPP. The resulting publicity tends to portray the BPP in a favorable light and clouds the violent nature of the group and its ultimate aim of insurrection. The BCP promotes at least tacit support for the BPP among naive individuals and, what is more distressing, provides the BPP with a ready audience composed of highly impressionable youths. Consequently, the BCP represents the best and most influential activity going for the BPP and, as such, is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for.”

In 1970 Seberg co-starred with Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, and an all star cast in the film, Airport. A huge critical and financial success, the movie initiated the “disaster film” genre, and ended up being nominated for ten Academy Awards (actress Helen Hayes won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress). Released on March 5, 1970, the melodrama told a tale of unfolding catastrophe involving a commercial passenger jet and a major airport, but for Seberg, a real life tragedy was just around the corner.

Black Panther Party member Charles Bursey serves food to children at the party's "Free Breakfast for Children" program in Oakland, California. Photo by Pirkle Jones © 1969. Courtesy of the Pirkle Jones Foundation - www.pirklejones.com

Black Panther Party member Charles Bursey serves food to children at the party's "Free Breakfast for Children" program in Oakland, California. Photo by Pirkle Jones © 1969. Courtesy of the Pirkle Jones Foundation - www.pirklejones.com

In April of 1970, FBI surveillance revealed that Ms. Seberg had donated $10,500 to the Black Panther Party, with a good portion of the money going to the Panther’s “Free Breakfast for Children” program (adjusted for inflation, Seberg’s donation would be $63,000 today). In April of 1970, Special Agent in Charge of COINTELPRO for the L.A. FBI office, Richard W. Held, wrote to Hoover asking for consent “to publicize the pregnancy of Jean Seberg” as the result of an extramarital affair with a member of the Black Panther Party. The concocted story would then be supplied to “Hollywood ‘Gossip-Columnists’ in the Los Angeles area.” Held proposed that the “publication of Seberg’s plight could cause her embarrassment and serve to cheapen her image with the general public.”

J. Edgar Hoover approved the operation, but with one stipulation, he advised the L.A. FBI office “to wait approximately two additional months until Seberg’s pregnancy would be obvious to everyone.” Hoover closed his memo with the following: “Jean Seberg has been a financial supporter of the BPP and should be neutralized.”

In April of 1970, the Los Angeles office of the FBI sent this request to FBI headquarters; slander Seberg to "cheapen her image with the general public."

In April of 1970, the Los Angeles office of the FBI sent this request to FBI headquarters; slander Seberg to "cheapen her image with the general public."

Agents at the L.A. FBI office wrote their anonymous letter with its fabricated contents, and surreptitiously delivered it to Los Angeles Times gossip columnist, Joyce Haber. The letter falsely claimed that Seberg was having an affair with Ray “Masai” Hewitt, the Minister of Education for the Black Panther Party, and furthermore, Seberg was pregnant with Hewitt’s child. At the time of this FBI orchestrated slander Seberg was seven months pregnant and married to the French novelist and film director Romain Gary, her second husband and the actual father of the soon to be delivered baby.

Haber wrote up a snarky weasel worded story for her column based upon the provided “tip.” The Los Angeles Times published Haber’s article on May 19, 1970. Titled Miss A Rates as Expectant Mother, Haber wrote euphemistically. “Let us call her Miss A, because she’s the current ‘A’ topic of chatter among the ‘ins’ of international show business circles. She is beautiful and blonde.” To make sure readers knew who was being skewered, Haber added that “Miss A” had recently “burst forth as the star of a multimillion dollar musical,” referring to Paint Your Wagon. After reminding readers that the target of her scandalmongering was married to “a handsome European” (Gary), Haber wrote that her quarry “was pursuing a number of free-spirited causes, among them the black revolution,” and that “Miss A is expecting.” The story ended with, “Papa’s said to be a rather prominent Black Panther.”

Photo of Ray "Masai" Hewitt, the Minister of Education for the Black Panther Party. Date and photographer unknown. Image courtesy of the "It's About Time Black Panther Party Legacy & Alumni" website.

Ray "Masai" Hewitt of the Black Panther Party. Circa 1969. Photographer unknown. Image courtesy of the "It's About Time Black Panther Party Legacy & Alumni" website - www.itsabouttimebpp.com

The malicious gossip published by the L.A. Times had predictable and injurious results. The lies printed in Haber’s syndicated column were picked up by Newsweek magazine, but unlike the L.A. Times, Newsweek went further by publishing the names of Seberg and Ray “Masai” Hewitt. The lies spread when 100 papers across the U.S. picked up and amplified the falsehoods published in Newsweek. Seberg was distraught over the defamation campaign carried out against her by the so-called free press.

It is difficult for most people to imagine an onslaught of government backed vilification being aimed against them; who would publish your denials? But it was not just character assassination in the media that dismayed her, Seberg told friends of threatening phone calls, break-ins, and being under constant surveillance. Few believed her.

In a 2009 interview with The Times of London, Diego Gary, the son of Seberg and Romain Gary, said his “mother felt persecuted” by the FBI. Gary went on to say that “there were moments when she was very afraid. She hired two bodyguards to protect her because she had received so many threats.” Gary also called to mind that his mother’s friends thought Seberg was “paranoid” because of her  complaints about being spied upon. Nico (1938-1988), the singer perhaps best known for her work with Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, was a close friend to Seberg, and said the actress always “pointed out the FBI men who were constantly following her around.”

Seberg started to break down under the relentless pressure of the COINTELPRO operations aimed against her by the FBI. It was most likely psychological trauma over the persecution that caused Seberg to prematurely deliver her baby on August 23, 1970. Tragically the infant died four days later. Seberg arranged a public funeral for her deceased baby girl, Nina Hart Gary. The memorial service was held in Seberg’s hometown of Marshalltown, Iowa. In an act of open contempt towards the FBI and the sycophantic press, Seberg had her child laid out in an open casket so that the world could see the allegations made against her were not true.

"Jean Seberg" - Photograph by Carlo Bavagnoli, 1963. Seberg is pictured in an extravagant hat designed by Yves Saint Laurent.

"Jean Seberg" - Photo by Carlo Bavagnoli, 1963. Seberg is pictured in an extravagant hat designed by Yves Saint Laurent.

After the FBI smeared Seberg as a dangerous radical, it appears an unofficial Hollywood blacklist was launched against her. After playing a lead part in Airport, she was not offered any substantial roles in American films; she never again appeared in an American movie.

She resumed her film career in Paris, and in 1974 co-starred with Kirk Douglas in the British made film, Cat and Mouse (alternate title: Mousey). In spite of regular film work in Europe, Seberg never got over the loss of her daughter, persecution by the U.S. government, and defamation in the U.S. mass media.

Suffering from incapacitating depression, she began taking sedatives and drank heavily. Seberg disappeared on August 30, 1979. Ten days later she was found near her Paris apartment, sitting in her car, dead from an apparent overdose of barbiturates at 40-years old. However, the police grew increasingly suspicious that suicide was the cause of death.

Though divorced from Seberg since 1970, Romain Gary held a news conference after the police found her body. He would tell those gathered that his ex-wife went into shock after reading the lies published in the press about her, and that she was so upset she immediately went into labor. Gary blamed the FBI campaign of harassment for Seberg’s death. Just days later, on September 14, 1979, the FBI publicly admitted that it had planted lies about the actress in the U.S. press.

On June 22, 1980, French authorities revealed that there were no alcoholic beverage containers found in or around Seberg’s car, but her blood alcohol level was double the amount needed to make an individual comatose and incapable of moving without assistance. Police hypothesized that a person, or persons, were present at the time of Seberg’s death, and so a French court filed charges against “persons unknown” in connection to the actress’ death. Romain Gary would end up committing suicide in Paris on December 2, 1980.

In the aftermath of illegalities committed during the Watergate scandal of 1972-1974, the U.S. Senate convened the “United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities” in 1975. Named the “Church Committee” after its chairman, U.S. Senator Frank Church (D-ID), the committee denounced COINTELPRO, stating that: “Many of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that, the Bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association.”

In 1980 the Los Angeles Times obtained FBI files on Jean Seberg through the Freedom of Information Act, showing just how extensive FBI operations against Seberg were. Between 1969 and 1972 the FBI monitored Seberg’s bank account, tapped her phone calls, and kept logs on where and when she traveled. They shared intelligence files on Seberg with President Nixon’s domestic affairs chief John D. Ehrlichman as well as Nixon’s attorney general, John J. Mitchell (how the Nixon administration acted on these files is not known). The FBI supplied files on Seberg to U.S. embassies in Paris and Rome, as well as the Central Intelligence Agency (at the time the CIA was running “Operation CHAOS,” a massive, illegal domestic intelligence operation aimed against the antiwar movement and other U.S. dissidents).

The FBI also provided files on Seberg to military intelligence units belonging to the U.S. Secret Service. Reports to the Secret Service included a photo of Seberg and a letter from J. Edgar Hoover describing the actress as “potentially dangerous.” How the Secret Service responded to the information is not known. In 1970 the FBI placed Seberg on a list of individuals targeted for arrest should there be a national security emergency.

COINTELPRO was said to officially end in April of 1971, and the FBI made known its repudiation of the methods employed during the J. Edgar Hoover era.

The findings of the Church Committee in 1975 and the 1980 release of FBI files to the L.A. Times under the Freedom of Information Act, gave ample evidence of criminality on the part of the U.S. government regarding suppression of dissent in America. I would add that Nixon and Hoover acted against their political enemies in cloak-and-dagger style, with complete and utter secrecy. From the Watergate break-in to COINTELPRO, wire tapping, surreptitious mail opening, break-ins, and other police state tactics were used clandestinely. That notwithstanding, the Nixon administration never publicly claimed that it had the legal right to assassinate U.S. citizens on American soil.

Ms. Seberg’s fate is a cautionary tale when one considers the following. President Obama is running a massive surveillance campaign that spies upon every American and citizens of other countries; Obama has publicly justified this program in the name of “national security.” Obama presides over weekly meetings were he decides who will be placed on a “kill list” for overseas drone strike assassination. U.S. citizens have been placed on that list, and in Yemen on Sept. 2011 Anwar Awlaki became the first U.S. citizen to be killed in such a strike. Moreover, Obama’s Attorney General, Eric Holder, has said the president could authorize the killing of a U.S. citizen on American soil if “an extraordinary circumstance” presented itself. All of this is currently being conducted in the open.

My, how different things are today. Thank goodness for “Hope & Change.”

The Third Annual Jean Seberg International Film Festival was held in Seberg’s hometown of Marshalltown, Iowa. Conducted at the Orpheum Theater in Marshalltown from November 15 to the 17th, 2013, the three-day event celebrated the life and work of Ms. Seberg with screenings of eight of her films, including the world premiere of Movie Star: The Secret Lives of Jean Seberg, a new documentary on the private life of the actress. Produced by filmmakers Kelly and Tammy Rundle, along with writer and filmmaker Garry McGee, the movie’s premiere was timed to coincide with what would have been Seberg’s 75th birthday. McGee was also the co-author of the recent book, Neutralized: the FBI vs. Jean Seberg, a detailed and well-documented book that examines the FBI’s program to destroy the actress’ career and reputation.

Two symposiums were also part of the festival, one was conducted by Professor Richard Ness of Western Illinois University and dedicated to Seberg’s film work, the other was led by Professor Horace Porter, Chair of African American Studies at the University of Iowa, on the subject of COINTELPRO and Seberg’s support of the Black Panther Party. Ness and Porter both appeared in interview sequences appearing in Movie Star: The Secret Lives of Jean Seberg.

I was born and raised in the City of Los Angeles, it is the metropolis where I live and work, a place with an identity almost completely entwined with the “entertainment industry.” Over the decades countless escapades of mine have taken place - literally and figuratively - beneath the shadow of the world famous HOLLYWOOD sign. But for all of this burg’s presumed open-mindedness, in the city of Los Angeles the 75th birthday of Jean Seberg went entirely unnoticed. No insightful articles from the Los Angeles Times nor memorials from industry publications like Variety or The Hollywood Reporter. No commemorative film screenings at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences or the city’s art house movie theaters. Not a peep from the city’s vaunted “progressive” community either, only a deafening silence.

Jean Seberg photographed in 1957 at the age of 19. Photographer unknown.

Seberg photographed in 1957 at the age of 19. Photographer unknown.

One could simply chalk up the indifference towards Seberg as nothing more than historic amnesia, but we are allowed or encouraged to forget certain historic events and individuals, while prodded and stirred to remember others. It all depends on the needs of Big Brother.

Yet, despite the hush from certain quarters, there is renewed interest in the life and work of Seberg, and I hope the musings from this web log will help expand that curiosity. Marshalltown’s Orpheum Theater just premiered Movie Star: The Secret Lives of Jean Seberg. It is the same movie house that hosted the 1957 gala premiere of Saint Joan, the actress’ first movie. All together, Seberg appeared in 37 films in the course of her all too short career; one can only imagine what the actress might have been able to contribute to the world of cinematic art had her career not been so cruelly destroyed.

I encourage readers to contribute to The Jean Seberg Endowment, where donations will be used by the Orpheum Theater to maintain their Jean Seberg memorabilia collection, and to expand programs that help to preserve and advance the legacy of this exceptional American.

The Mexican Museum & Diego Rivera

December 8, 2013 marks the 127th birthday of the great social realist painter, Diego Rivera (Dec. 8, 1886 - Nov. 24, 1957).

As a member of the Arts and Letters Council of the Mexican Museum of San Francisco, I am pleased to announce that a free tour of Rivera’s famed Pan American Unity mural located in the Diego Rivera Theater at City College of San Francisco, will be conducted by The Mexican Museum in association with the Smithsonian Institution. The tour will be led by curator and coordinator of The Diego Rivera Mural Project, William Maynez, who will share his expertise with event attendees while regaling them with stories regarding the creation, meaning, and impact of Rivera’s mural.

The mural tour will take place on Saturday, November 23, 2013 at 11 am, in the Diego Rivera Theater on the campus of City College of San Francisco. Please RSVP for the event by sending an e-mail to: info@mexicanmuseum.org - with “Diego Rivera Mural Tour” in the subject head.

If you are anywhere near San Francisco, you will want to take advantage of the opportunity to see Rivera’s mural while listening to Mr. Maynez talk about its finer points. For those unable to attend, I offer the following photographs of the mural, which I took in 2011. Part of an ongoing presentation of my photos of the Pan American Unity mural, the following images are close-up details from the mural’s leftmost portion, a series of five panels Rivera titled, The Creative Genius of the South Growing from Religious Fervor and a Native Talent for Plastic Expression. The photos presented here are actually details from the outermost Panel 1, which presented the indigenous people of Mexico before the Spanish invasion.

Detail of Pan American Unity Mural by Diego Rivera

"A Toltec craftsman using a primitive hand-drill." Detail of the 1940 "Pan American Unity" mural by Diego Rivera. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

Panel 1 of Rivera’s mural shows Olmec, Maya, Toltec, Mixtec, Yaqui, and Aztec people involved in activities throughout the ages that range from religious ritual to holding high council. The emphasis however is upon indigenous artisans and their craft production. In the above close-up detail, Rivera depicted a Toltec craftsman using a primitive hand-drill powered by a bow to cut a stone statue, part of a group of Toltec artisans sculpting stone statuary. Rivera based the features of the man’s portrait upon the stylized way in which the Toltec people portrayed themselves. The Toltec flourished in central Mexico from around 1200 BC to 400 BC. The Aztecs considered the Toltecs to be their forerunners, and regarded them as the very embodiment of a refined culture; in fact in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, Tōltēcah meant “artisan.”

Detail of Pan American Unity Mural by Diego Rivera

"Rivera painted this grouping of Olmec artisans at work" Detail of the 1940 "Pan American Unity" mural by Diego Rivera. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

In Panel 1 Rivera also painted the above grouping of Olmec artisans at work. The woman at top left is fashioning a ceramic vase, at foreground left a man is designing a mosaic of turquoise and shell, at center another is painting a pictographic scroll, while the man at right is creating a statue of a male figure. The Olmec were the first great civilization of Mexico (2000 BC - 400 BC), though less is known about them compared to more recent cultures like the Maya and Toltec. For example, we do not even know how they referred to themselves; the Aztecs called them “Olmecatl,” which in Nahuatl was the equivalent of “rubber people,” since the Olmec were the first to extract latex from rubber trees, using it for practical, religious, and artistic purposes. The Olmec are perhaps best known for having created colossal human heads sculpted from basalt boulders, but overall their sculptures in basalt, jadeite, greenstone, serpentine, granite, and wood are superlative, and provide much of what we do know about the “rubber people.”

In the extreme close-up detail from Panel 1 shown below, Rivera painted a portrait of the Aztec Emperor, Nezahualcoyotl (1402-1472), whose name meant “Hungry Coyote” in the Nahuatl language. While he was the ruler of the mighty Aztec Empire, a realm that encompassed all of central Mexico between the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, Nezahualcoyotl was originally the King of Texcoco. That impressive megalopolis was located on the north shore of Lake Texcoco, and was part of the tri-city-state alliance of Tenochtitlán, Texcoco, and Tlacopan that actually comprised the empire. Ultimately Tenochtitlán became the most powerful city and the nucleus of the empire, but Nezahualcoyotl remained attached to his native Texcoco, which he transformed into a wellspring for Aztec art and culture.

Detail of Pan American Unity Mural by Diego Rivera

"Rivera painted a portrait of the Aztec Emperor, Nezahualcoyotl (1402-1472)." Detail of the 1940 "Pan American Unity" mural by Diego Rivera. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

Known as the “philosopher king,” Nezahualcoyotl was also a celebrated architect, engineer, and city planner. He designed a dike that separated the fresh and brackish waters of Lake Texcoco, a system vital to the floating city of Tenochtitlán, which would come to have a population of some 300,000 inhabitants. He also implemented a massive aqueduct system to bring fresh water into the city-state of Texcoco. Nezahualcoyotl established cultural institutions; an academy of music, a zoological garden and arboretum, a vast library of pictographic books (later destroyed by the invading Spanish conquistadors). He also created a sophisticated code of laws that strictly governed civic and public life. But Hungry Coyote is perhaps best remembered for his poetry, which continued to profoundly move people generations after his death.

Rivera’s portrait of Nezahualcoyotl is pure conjecture, since accurate depictions of the emperor were not made during his reign. He was certainly portrayed by Aztec artists, but only in highly stylized ways. Likewise, he was illustrated in pictographs, but in the blunt, rather non-descript portrait style of Aztec artisans. All the same, Rivera painted the Aztec ruler in Kingly attire, resplendent with a crown of gold, a golden nose-plug and earrings, and a royal cape made of bird feathers and held in place by a golden cloak clasp inset with turquoise and sea shell.

The death of New York City Opera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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