Police State

As a nineteen-year-old in 1973, I was captivated by the Austrian painter, Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980). At the time I was enthralled by the German Expressionist artists who opposed the rot of the German ruling class in the post World War I period. I saw parallels between the life and times of those artists and my own chaotic age. When I read that Kokoschka became known as a young art student in Vienna for his disquieting paintings, earning the name of Oberwildling (meaning “top savage” or “maniac”), I felt a certain kinship with him.

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"Police State" - Mark Vallen. Pen & ink on paper. 8 x 10 inches. 1973.

In 1973 I created a drawing in my student sketchbook that was meant purely as an exercise; I never intended to show the sketch to anyone. Considering our tenuous collective future, I think it is important to show, and explain the artwork. I made the freehand drawing with a “rapidograph” technical pen, a tool I used often in those days. Symbolic of mute terror, the angst ridden face in the ink drawing was left without a mouth. A wordless homage to the Viennese savage, the face was loosely based on a photo of Kokoschka by Danish photographer Erling Mandelmann. But Kokoschka and his fellow Expressionists were not the only thing on my mind during those days.

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"Police State" - Mark Vallen. Detail. The sketch is made of hand-drawn crosshatched lines.

The Cold War was at its height and Richard M. Nixon was serving his first term as president. He had expanded the unpopular war in Vietnam with the massive aerial bombing of neighboring Laos and Cambodia (1969-1973). That campaign, kept secret from the U.S. Congress and the American people, dropped more bombs on Laos than the U.S. managed to drop on Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan during WWII. The 1970 U.S. invasion of Cambodia unleashed a nation-wide antiwar student strike in the U.S. that culminated with National Guard troops killing four students and wounding 9 others at Kent State University on May 4, 1970.

A feeling of doom was descending upon my generation, the war appeared to be endless and a police state seemed to loom large in our future.

Then came the May 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Washington, DC Watergate hotel. The burglary was conducted by operatives of the Nixon administration’s Committee to Re-elect the President. Their mission was to bug the office and steal documents, using the intelligence to help defeat the Democrats in the 1972 election. It was all part of Nixon’s despotic toolbox, like his COINTELPRO program of repression aimed at political opponents in the U.S.

In November of 1972 I was traveling in Italy when the news was announced that Nixon had been re-elected by a “landslide.” I contemplated the implications of the report while standing inside the ancient Colosseum in Rome. Surveying the arena where gladiatorial combat and the burning of Christians once pleased the citizens of ancient Roman, the idea that little had changed since the days of Caligula swept over me. 1973 brought no relief, and events led me to make the pen and ink drawing shown in this post.

Since Nixon was forced out of office in 1974 to avoid impeachment, a number of U.S. leaders have come and gone, but I was wrong about one thing, there really could be worse leaders than Richard Milhous Nixon.

"Police State" - Mark Vallen. Pen & ink on paper. 8 x 10 inches. 1973.

"Police State" - Mark Vallen. Detail.

Our current Caligula signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which allows for the “indefinite detention of American citizens without due process at the discretion of the President.”

In other words, goodbye habeas corpus.

It has been revealed that Caligula personally draws up “kill lists” with his Praetorian Guard during “Terror Tuesday” meetings. Those placed on the list then become targets for the Hellfire missiles fired by Caesar’s predator drones.

It is a shame more innocent bystanders are killed in those attacks than are barbarians, but that is the cost of imperium. The Most Noble Caesar also has the entire population of the empire under intense surveillance, because of course, he loves us so.

As for me, I am still drawing pictures in my private sketchbooks that rail against Caesar, his police state legions, and his imperial wars. Perhaps in 40 years those drawings will be shared with the public - provided that democratic governance exists.

TRAC 2014: Part II

“You keep all your smart modern painters
I’ll take Rembrandt, Titian, Da Vinci and Gainsborough.”
20th Century Man - The Kinks

TRAC 2014 offered a dizzying array of panels, presentations, and demonstrations, some of which I found to be much more agreeable than the keynote address of Roger Scruton, which I wrote of in Part I of my observations on the “The Representational Art Conference.” In Part II of my assessment of the event, I will cover a lecture from the conference that I found worthwhile and insightful; Michael Zakian’s The Problem of Content in Contemporary Realism; the views of TRAC 2014 as given by art professor and journalist, John Seed, and remarks regarding one of the conference’s sponsors, the Art Renewal Center (ARC).

An Adjunct Professor of Art History at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California and also the director of that institution’s Frederick R. Weisman’s Museum of Art, Michael Zakian was an engaging speaker with an obvious passion for art. However, unlike some attendees of TRAC 2014, Mr. Zakian’s appreciation of art does not stop with the academic style of the 19th century, though he began his lecture by saying that he likes the paintings of William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905). But he also counts Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Willem de Kooning among his favorites, so Zakian’s ideas run counter to those many aficionados of Academic art that attended the conference.

Mr. Zakian seemed aware that he was somewhat the odd man out at TRAC 2014. When he launched into an explication of his lecture’s title, The Problem of Content in Contemporary Realism, he warned the audience packed into the room to hear his address that he was likely going to upset them with his opinions. According to Zakian, the dilemma of today’s classical realist art is that it almost entirely overlooks content, and though much of the art displays high technical proficiency… it fails in having any meaningful to say. He made his point by comparing projected slides of two paintings, the 2012 Studio in Sharon, by the U.S. academic realist Jacob Collins, and the 1629 Artist in His Studio by Rembrandt van Rijn.

After first extolling the impressive talent of Mr. Collins, Zakian put in plain words his reasons for disliking Studio in Sharon; the artist’s painting captured reality with technical virtuosity, but what was the painter telling us? Zakian asked what meaning was added to the depiction of an empty studio room? Collins’ canvas had the surface details correct, but there was little beneath the polished exterior. Zakian noted that many of today’s classical academic artists paint in the same manner, they depict reality without capturing its essence.

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"The Artist in his Studio" - Rembrandt van Rijn. Oil on panel. 1629. Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Mr. Zakian then switched to the slide of Rembrandt’s Artist in His Studio. In the canvas the young Rembrandt placed himself in the background studying his work from a distance, the easel looming large in the foreground. It is hard to read what the artist is thinking while contemplating his painting, is he confident or troubled about how to proceed? One could even say that Rembrandt seems a Don Quixote-like figure preparing to go into battle against a windmill. The point is the painting not only tells a story, it invites the viewer’s thoughtfulness. Zakian believes that narrative quality and scratching at the essence of things is needed in today’s classical realism. In that I fully concur, but I would say that type of inquisitive and expository spirit should be a part of all art disciplines. Postmodernists have largely done away with narrative altogether, and Zakian warned that in their repudiation of postmodernism, academic artists are doing the same.

Zakian told his audience that today’s academic and classical realists “must go beyond skill” to “wed their skills with story telling.” Fair enough, but what type of story telling? We live in a tangle of media distraction where one is no longer allowed a private cathartic moment before being inundated by a flood of advertising images. Perhaps that is one story to be told. Zakian noted the difficulty of this when he told his audience that “to make an impact on society, we have to compete with YouTube cat videos.” He offered another story to be conveyed when he projected a slide of The Cycle of Terror And Tragedy. Sept 11, 2007, a massive oil on canvas work by academic artist Graydon Parrish.

The painting was an attempt by Parrish to address the horror of the 9-11 terror attacks by means of allegorical symbolism. To me, addressing 21st century terror with the visual language of 19th century Victorian painters is a bit incongruous. Parrish wanted to produce a canvas imbued with the principles and sensibilities of academic art, but he unconsciously fashioned a postmodern work. At the center of the composition are two mirror image screaming men, blindfolded and near naked; the look-alikes symbolize the Twin Towers. When I gaze upon those figures I expect them to flicker and fluctuate like a badly transmitted video. The staccato, attention deficit disorder inducing, video editing style of today bled into the academic painting; Alma-Tadema meets the never blinking electronic eye.

To be fair to Mr. Parrish, the events of 9-11 were so catastrophic that it is tough to depict such a thing on canvas, though Pablo Picasso did just that when he painted his 1937 Guernica, which depicted the obliteration of the Basque village in Spain by Nazi warplanes during the Spanish Civil War. Despite the fact that most people attending TRAC 2014 belittle Picasso as a charlatan, his monumental antiwar canvas is an eternal work of art. Why we do not have such art today is a complicated question. In large part it has to do with artists having been disoriented by postmodernism, their withdrawing from political affairs, and their possessing little grasp of history. It is not enough for artists to simply “tell stories,” we must plumb the depths of what it is to be human, as well as examine the societies that mold us.

Mr. Zakian also noted that “no one talks about the Old Masters anymore,” and advised that artists begin studying those painters of skill that worked before the 1800s, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and the like. Once again, I agreed with Zakian. His advice seemed a slap in the face to those who worship Bouguereau as much as it was an admonishment to those that have abandoned classical realism.

I rarely talk or write about my love of Old Masters like Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and oh so many others. Perhaps I should, I studied them all in my youth and they continue to be a guidepost. But if artists should “wed their skills with story telling,” as Zakian proposes, then we should also study the school of social realism that existed from the early 1900s until after WWII. That encompasses a large field, including artists from across the U.S. and throughout Europe and the Americas in the first half of the 20th century. Seeing as how most of the organizers and attendees of TRAC apparently believe that “real art” stopped being made with the advent of modernism, and that they fervently seek to resuscitate academic art and its atelier based art curriculum, it is hard to take them seriously.

While the greater part of those involved in TRAC seem a traditional bunch, not all conservatives agree with their views regarding art. James Panero, the Executive Editor of the conservative journal The New Criterion, is a good example. In his article Graydon Parrish’s ‘Cycle of Terror, Panero disassembled the painting as “a machine for illustrating technical skill,” and lambasted the advocates of academic realism for turning the genre into “a value system” that “borders on an evangelical faith. A sort of beaux-arts radicalism, it can be reactionary and thuggish: a sociological phenomenon; a form of ‘identity aesthetics.’” Panero’s words might be more compelling (or perturbing) to traditionalists since it was a conservative that wrote them.

While TRAC 2014 was a lightning rod for individuals ready to fulminate against modernism as the unlovely offspring of those unfit parents liberalism and Marxism, not all conservatives seem willing to accept academic art as the aesthetic deliverance for a world gone haywire. That Mr. Zakian advised realist painters at TRAC 2014 to use their skills to say something profound about life is sound and encouraging, and one hopes such counsel does not fall on deaf ears.

John Seed is a painter, professor of art history at Mt. San Jacinto College in Southern California, and a journalist that writes about art for various publications. Seed gave an unlikely talk to those gathered at TRAC 2014, the subject of The Bay Area Figurative School and its Legacy. Unfortunately I was not able to attend Seed’s March 4th presentation, but it must have been a hoot, given the overall conservative atmosphere of TRAC 2014.

Mr. Seed talked about that small circle of painters in the Bay Area of San Francisco who, starting in the 1940s, rejected the reigning style of abstract art and began painting quasi-expressionist works that incorporated the human figure. Rejecting abstraction and making their way back to figuration, these painters were regarded as heretics by the official art world, which had almost unanimously embraced abstraction as the one true religion. Eventually the apostates became known as the Bay Area Figurative School, and therein lies the lesson; determined artists can unseat the status quo. Nevertheless, I imagine Seed had a hard time persuading the traditionalists at TRAC 2014 that they shared a kinship with painters David Park and Elmer Bischoff.

One might want to read When Art Worlds Don’t Collide: TRAC 2014 and the Whitney Biennial, John Seed’s sympathetic coverage of the TRAC event, which he juxtaposed to his critique of the simultaneously held 2014 Whitney Biennial. I could not agree less with Seed’s summary of TRAC 2014, nor could I agree more with his rundown of the Whitney Biennial - though I might have been a tad more raucous in denouncing it.

Seed writes for the ostensibly “liberal” Huffington Post, but when mentioning Roger Scruton at TRAC 2014, refers to him only as “a British philosopher, and the host of the BBC documentary Why Beauty Matters.” Seed says nothing of Scruton being a leading right-wing figure in British society. With obvious approval Seed averred that Scruton “gave the conference its philosophical and moral center”; in my review of TRAC 2014 I wrote that the organizers of the event “set the tone for the entire conference by inviting Mr. Scruton to speak,” but my observation was not meant as approving.

In his review of TRAC 2014 Seed noted that the event was not “without its awkward” moments, then stated that “although TRAC has made every effort to be progressive and open towards its membership there was only one African-American artist at the event.” Perhaps Seed defines “progressive” differently than I do. He made no effort to analyze why Blacks were not in attendance, or why Latinos, who currently comprise some 39 percent of California’s population, were virtually nonexistent at TRAC 2014.

In his review of the conference, Seed asserted that “Classically and Academically oriented artists dominated the event but there was plenty of room for ‘moderates’ - I’m one of them - who acknowledge and find inspiration in the tradition of representational art with modernist roots.” There is a big difference between having “plenty of room” for someone and actually joining forces to work in partnership. I agree with Seed that classical academic art held sway at TRAC, but in the vernacular of most traditionalists, “modernism” is a pejorative.

Historically speaking, modernism generated aesthetic and intellectual responses from U.S. blacks that developed into the Harlem Renaissance (1918-37). During that period the black experience was given voice in literature, music, dance, and the visual arts by extraordinary figures like Zora Neale Hurston, Duke Ellington, Josephine Baker, and Aaron Douglas; there were hundreds more and their remarkable contributions continue to reverberate in the present. But it was modernism that served as the impetus behind this black creative dynamism, not academicism.

To be honest, academicism seems to have had little to no impact on the African-American community; outside of a handful of brilliant 19th century painters like Henry Ossawa Tanner and Grafton Tyler Brown, I am hard-pressed to name a single African American painter in the 20th century that was of the classical Academic School. Is it really such a surprise that TRAC 2014, an event steeped in the traditions of European academic and classical art would fail to attract African-Americans?

Among the listed sponsors and partners of TRAC, one finds the Carnegie Art Museum of Oxnard, California, the Museum of Ventura County, and the Pepperdine University Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art. The Art Renewal Center (ARC), was also a sponsor of the conference.

Many featured artists associated with TRAC 2014 are also connected to the Art Renewal Center. For instance, the event’s 2nd Keynote speaker, Juliette Aristides, has been awarded a place on the ARC’s list of Approved Artists ™ & Living Masters ™. Studio demonstrations were conducted at the event by Jeremy Lipking and Virgil Elliott, who are also living masters according to the ARC. Featured speakers Kara Lysandra Ross is a staff writer for the ARC website and the Director of Operations for the group, while Julio Reyes is another of the ARC’s living masters. The aforementioned Graydon Parrish worked as a researcher on the William Bouguereau Catalog Raisonne co-published by the Art Renewal Center. There were certainly many ARC supporters and devotees in attendance.

Many artists and art loving individuals, alienated by the current state of art, have been attracted to the Art Renewal Center and its aim of fostering an appreciation of traditional art and technique. Not finding it in college and university level art classes, students seeking instruction in realist drawing and painting have turned to the ARC for its list of privately run “approved ateliers,” where one can enroll in atelier based art classes. In principle I think this all well and good, but there is something off about the ARC.

On the “Frequently Asked Questions” page of the ARC website, one can find the following, “While modernism has indeed had some significance in the history of art for a time, that in no way implies that what modernists have been up to was actually good or artistically important.” The ARC proclaims Bouguereau as the exemplar of French Academic art and so a quintessential leader for today’s painters. The director of the ARC, Fred Ross, wrote Abstract Art Is Not Abstract & Definitely Not Art, apparently unaware that abstraction lost its dominance to Pop art in the mid-1950s; never mind the shibboleth of 21st century postmodernism! But possibly the most damning contorted logic and grammar found on the ARC web site comes from this quote on its FAQ page:

Q: Aren’t you just advocating Nazism? After all, Hitler loved realist art.

No. Obviously. Hitler wore pants. Does that make anyone who wears pants is a Nazi too?

What Hitler knew (and Stalin too!) was that good art has the power to communicate with people in important ways and that what he called “degenerate art” didn’t. In that he was right about that even though he was horribly wrong about a host of other things. Hitler also used good artistic expression as a powerful tool to promote his Nazi viewpoint but it is the message, not the medium that was flawed.

Aside from thinking that people who mouth such nonsense are an embarrassment, it is hard to know what so say. In very specific language, the ARC FAQ states the Nazis were correct in their assessment of “degenerate art,” and that Hitler “used good artistic expression as a powerful tool.” The Nazis did not employ “good artistic expression” to convey their poisonous ideas, they strangled the very possibility of art before they even seized power (think of the Nazi Poet Laureate, Hanns Johst, who wrote the following words in his 1933 play Schlageter, “Whenever I hear of culture, I release the safety catch of my Browning!”) As professor James E. Young pointed out in his article, The Terrible Beauty of Nazi Aesthetics, “Art, beauty and aesthetics were not benign byproducts of the Nazi Reich, but part and parcel of its malevolent logic.”

Almost nine years ago I took a swipe at the ARC for posting correspondence on their website that praised the Nazi painter Ivo Salinger; it appears the group’s stance remains unreformed. As the conservative James Panero of The New Criterion wrote, the zeal of some supporters of academic realism “borders on an evangelical faith,” a fundamentalism that can be “reactionary and thuggish.” I am not accusing the ARC of being fascists, but I am saying that they have a very weak understanding of history, and such people are ill-equipped to change the world.

It might be said that the ARC has done more to weaken and incapacitate 21st century realism in art than the combined efforts of Eli Broad and Jeff Koons. Clear thinking individuals that love representational art should distance themselves from the Art Renewal Center - starting with the organizers of TRAC 2015.

The Decline of Western Civilization

The Decline of Western Civilization Is Coming - Mark Vallen. Offset lithograph poster. 11x17. 1980. Commissioned by Penelope Spheeris to announce her documentary film.

"The Decline of Western Civilization Is Coming" - Mark Vallen. Offset lithograph poster. 11x17. 1980. Commissioned by Penelope Spheeris to announce her documentary film.

The Decline of Western Civilization came and went and hardly anyone noticed.

I do not mean the slow-motion apocalypse we have all been sleepwalking through for the last couple of decades, I am speaking of the documentary film director Penelope Spheeris unleashed upon an unsuspecting world in 1981.

Never released on DVD, her film about the late 1970s Los Angeles punk movement nevertheless achieved cult status. Having played a small role in the film’s production continues to bring me satisfaction.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is holding a special screening of Spheeris’ documentary on Friday, April 18, 2014.

Spheeris and her crew filmed live performances of the Alice Bag Band, Black Flag, Catholic Discipline, Circle Jerks, Fear, Germs, and X from 1979 to 1980. The filming took place in venues in and around Hollywood. Punk had literally been banned by most L.A. clubs and music venues for its excesses. L.A. punk was only two years old when Spheeris began filming, but in that time it had become the bête noire of U.S. culture.

I had become an active participant in the original L.A. punk rock movement from its beginning in 1977, attending just about every punk concert held in the city. During that time my sketchbooks were filled with pen and pencil drawings of punk band members, venues, and fans. Portraits of Darby Crash and Lorna Doom of the Germs, Chris D. of the Flesh Eaters, Tomata du Plenty of The Screamers and many others became my subjects.

From 1979 to 1980 I ended up working at Slash magazine as a designer and paste-up artist. I created two cover drawings for the punk tabloid that have since become iconic. It was during this period that I met Penelope Spheeris, since she was working closely with Slash regarding her upcoming film, The Decline of Western Civilization. I wanted to work on the film because I saw it as a way of promulgating and enlarging the punk movement.  I attended some of the riotous concerts she filmed (Catholic Discipline, Fear, Germs, X), and based on my artistic skills and  deep enthusiasm for punk, she hired me to assist in some of the film’s post production tasks.

Screen shot from the closing credits of The Decline of Western Civilization. The final scene offered concert footage of the band Fear, with front man Lee Ving singing, "Let's Have a War."

Screen shot from the closing credits of The Decline of Western Civilization. The final scene offered concert footage of the band Fear, with front man Lee Ving singing, "Let's Have a War."

One such undertaking was creating the subtitles and credits used in the film. Spheeris was concerned that audiences would not be able to make sense of the subversive song lyrics that were shouted and screamed by various performers, so she wanted the song lyrics subtitled during select music performances.

Given that Spheeris was working on a shoestring budget, and there was next to no digital technology being employed in print, filmmaking, and the arts at the time, Letraset press type was used to create the subtitles and closing credits. It was a grueling process, each individual letter seen onscreen was aligned and rubbed down by hand onto paper by yours truly. That text was then filmed by another assistant and ultimately matched to the negative of the concert footage.

"The Decline of Western Civilization Is Coming" - Full color offset lithograph movie poster. 27x39.5 inches. Working under the direction of Spheeris, I did the paste-up and layout for the full-color movie poster to her specifications.

"The Decline of Western Civilization Is Coming" - Full color offset lithograph movie poster. 27x39.5 inches. Working under the direction of Spheeris, I did the paste-up for the full-color movie poster to her specifications.

I also created graphics used to promote The Decline of Western Civilization. Working under the direction of Spheeris, I did the paste-up for the full-color movie poster to her specifications.

Stills of singers and punks that appeared in the film surrounded a large still of Darby Crash, taken from the movie’s unsettling sequence with the Germs (see frame 10:02).

When it came time to premiere the film, I worked with Spheeris on producing a number of street flyers and posters announcing the event - here I had relative free reign as a designer, provided I used stills from the movie. One such effort was the 11×17 enigmatic placard, The Decline of Western Civilization Is Coming, a teaser for the movie that graced telephone poles and walls all across Los Angeles.  The power of these graphics is elevated because Crash committed suicide before the film was released.

The film had its debut in 1980 at a midnight showing at a Hollywood Boulevard theater. Hundreds of leather clad, Mohawk wearing punks turned out, enough to terrify local businesses and put the L.A.P.D. on high alert; it seemed that hundreds of riot control police were on the scene. As I stood across the street from the movie house, some punks began to randomly throw bottles, one crashed against a wall a few inches from my head. As I barreled into the street yelling expletives and seeking a settling of scores, the police moved in with their clubs swinging - yeah, opening night was a real riot. In the aftermath, Police Chief Daryl Gates (1926-2010) sent Spheeris a letter “requesting” that she never show the film again in Los Angeles.

Now the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is screening The Decline of Western Civilization, and that ain’t no April Fools joke.

Ramos Martínez & The Flower Vendors


The "Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez Symposium" held in the Humanities Auditorium of Scripps College, March 23, 2014. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

"Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez" symposium held in the Humanities Auditorium of Scripps College, March 23, 2014. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

On March 23, 2014, I attended the symposium at Scripps College in Claremont, California titled Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez.

Held to deepen public knowledge about the Mexican artist, the event was held in conjunction with the not to be missed exhibit at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez in California.

The symposium offered three separate talks by experts in their fields, all pertaining to the art of Martínez. After their presentations the three lecturers reconvened as panelists for an informative panel discussion moderated by arts writer, Suzanne Muchnic. A lively question and answer period followed, after which the symposium concluded and attendees walked a short distance to view The Flower Vendors, the fresco murals Martínez painted in the college’s Margaret Fowler Garden.

A view of Martínez' unfinished fresco mural, "The Flower Vendors." The mural is over 100 feet long and consists of several panels. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

1) A view of Martínez' unfinished fresco mural, "The Flower Vendors." The mural is over 100 feet long and consists of several panels. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

In 1946 Scripps College commissioned Martínez to paint The Flower Vendors mural. It is a tragedy that in the middle of working on the project, Martínez died on November 8, 1946 at the age of 73. His wonderful mural was left unfinished, but it continues to resonate in the present. I photographed The Flower Vendors while attending the symposium, and in this article offer my photos along with my impressions of the symposium.

Amy Galpin, the curator at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum of Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, presented her talk Making Religion Modern: Alfredo Ramos Martínez and his Contemporaries. A devout Catholic, Martínez created a number of works that were of a religious nature; Galpin focused on those works.

Martínez returned to Christian themes in his paintings and drawings again and again, but the topic was usually bound to the artist’s ideas concerning social justice for the poor and downtrodden. This point was driven home when Galpin projected a slide of Martínez’ 1939 tempera and ink drawing, The Bondage of War.

In this panel one can clearly see the rough "arriccio" layer of plaster, the "sinopia" sketch, as well as incomplete patches of fine plaster - the "intonaco," where Martínez had painted in some limited tempera washes. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

2) In this panel one can clearly see the rough "arriccio" layer of plaster, the "sinopia" sketch, as well as incomplete patches of fine plaster - the "intonaco," where Martínez had painted in some limited tempera washes. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

The Bondage of War depicts a Mexican Indian man tied-up with heavy ropes that hold him immobile, a length of rope tightly twisting around his neck slowly strangles him. The tormented campesino stands in for humanity as a whole; it is 1939 and the winds of war have reached cyclone proportions. Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan have already formed an alliance. In 1939 the Nazis seize Czechoslovakia, Spain falls to the fascist army of General Franco, and the Nazis invade Poland. Martínez made his antiwar drawing on a copy of the Los Angeles Times, the banal printed columns and ads from the paper bleeding through the drawing of the campesino. To this work Ms. Galpin juxtaposed a slide projection of an artwork Martínez created depicting the suffering Christ bound in ropes - the similarity between the two artworks was striking. Both were closely cropped minimalist portraits done in limited color schemes, but more importantly, both artworks spoke powerfully about agony and redemption.

One of the most completed panels in "The Flower Vendors" mural. Note how the artist employed trompe l'oeil to make the figure on the viewer's right appear to be stepping out of the picture plane. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

3) One of the most completed panels in "The Flower Vendors" mural. Note how the artist employed trompe l'oeil to make the figure on the viewer's right appear to be stepping out of the picture plane. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Ms. Galpin placed Martínez and his religious works in the broader context of modernist art. She projected slides of artworks made by other modernists who had created religious art in the Christian tradition; Jean Charlot (whose works appear in the PMCA Martínez exhibit), Edith Catlin Phelps (Wayside Madonna), Ivan Albright (his hallucinogenic The Temptation of St. Anthony), and Charles White (Spiritual). There are many other example of course that Galpin did not mention, the woodcuts of the German Expressionist Karl Schmidt Rottluff come to mind (Head of Christ 1918). It was a refreshing take on modernism; three weeks prior to attending the Martínez symposium I had attended TRAC 2014, where conservative keynote speaker Roger Scruton scorned modernism for destroying the sacred in art and replacing it with the profane.

Ms. Galpin concluded her remarks by saying that the more political artists like Rivera, Siqueiros, Orozco, etc., ultimately saw Martínez as one of their own because of the deep humanism and love of the common people that he expressed in his paintings and drawings.

Detail of rightward most figure from the nearly completed panel. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

4) Detail of rightward most figure shown in illustration number 3. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

In her presentation, Conserving Alfredo Ramos Martínez’ The Flower Vendors, art conservator Aneta Zebala talked about the meticulous process of restoring and conserving The Flower Vendors mural located in the Margaret Fowler Garden on the Scripps College campus. Trained in the restoration of wall and easel paintings at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, Poland, Ms. Zebala was also part of a collaborative team that worked with the Getty Conservation Institute in preserving the Siqueiros América Tropical mural located on L.A.’s Olvera Street.

5) Detail of leftward most figure shown in illustration number 3. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

5) Detail of leftward most figure shown in illustration number 3. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

In 1994 Zebala and her associates found The Flower Vendors in poor shape. The mural was suffering from water damage, which not only caused the paint to bleach out in certain areas of the painting, but gave rise to the build-up of salt deposits that further eroded paint pigments; paint was flaking off throughout the mural. Incredibly, ivy from the garden had crept over the mural’s surface, and the plants sank thousands of tiny roots into the outdoor mural. Zebala recounted how difficult it was to remove the roots and restore the damage they caused. Vandals had also painted graffiti on a certain area of the mural, increasing the headaches of restoration and preservation that Ms. Zebala and her team faced.

 7) Detail of rightward most figures from a nearly completed panel. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

6) Detail of panel showing flower vendors with baskets full of flowers. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Zebala revealed some important facts about how The Flower Vendors mural was produced. The painting was created using the traditional Italian fresco method.

On the wall to be painted, skilled plasterers first applied a rough layer of lime plaster mixed with large granules of sand. Called the “arriccio,” this layer was allowed to dry.

Next, the artist drew a very rough sketch or guide on the arriccio called the “sinopia,” named after the dark red earth pigment used to paint it. The sinopia helped in guiding the layering on of the last coat of fine plaster, the “intonaco.” The intonaco was laid on in small patches, just the amount that an artist could finish painting on in one work session. The artist would paint onto the wet intonaco layer with water-based pigment, remembering the outlines of the sinopia hidden beneath the fresh intonaco. When the plaster and pigment set and dried, the painting became permanent.

Over the years fresco painting developed a slightly more sophisticated technique that abandoned the sinopia as a guide for the artist. In this method, once the fine intonaco layer was layered over the rough arriccio, a life-sized drawing on paper - the “cartoon” - that had its outlines perforated with a needle, was placed over the wet intonaco and pounced with a small sack filled with charcoal dust. When the cartoon was removed, the outlines of the drawing were left on the wet plaster and the artist could begin painting. This method allowed for complex drawings to be transferred to the wet plaster; the artist no longer had to memorize what was beneath the intonaco in order to proceed, instead the cartoon tracing left a completely worked out line drawing to be painted over and refined.

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7) Detail of flower vendors from illustration number 6. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

What Aneta Zebala revealed was that Alfredo Ramos Martínez used the earlier method of fresco painting, that is, he used a sinopia as his rough guide in painting his mural. Once the last layer of fine plaster was placed over the sinopia, the artist had to remember what the drawing looked like; he was in essence flying blind. In all of her restoration and preservation work on the mural, Ms. Zebala found no evidence that a pounced cartoon was used to provide Martínez with a guide. He simply painted freehand onto the wet plaster. Since Martínez’ mural was left unfinished, one can see the rough layers of arriccio and sinopia sketches in one section of the mural, while in other sections it is easy to see the intonaco with semi or near finished paintings. It is sad that The Flower Vendors mural was unfinished, but it has left us with an amazing example of how a traditional fresco mural is painted.

The high-quality restoration and preservation work carried out on The Flower Vendors brought the mural to life. When contemplating the fresco, one tends to forget that it is unfinished.

9) One of the central panels of the mural was left incomplete after the hand drawn "sinopia" sketch was made on the rough "arriccio" layer of plaster. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

8) One of the central panels of the mural was left incomplete after the hand drawn "sinopia" sketch was made on the rough "arriccio" layer of plaster. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Mary Goodwin, an Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, gave a talk titled, Printmaking in Los Angeles and the Role of Maria Sodi de Ramos Martínez. Ms. Goodwin revealed some hitherto unknown historical facts, even to those stalwart veterans of the Los Angeles arts community.

It all began with a Martínez “painting” that hung in the Goodwin household when Mary was a young girl. She became perplexed when she saw the exact same work in the home of relatives. She eventually discovered that the work was not a painting at all, but a serigraph - a silkscreen print; still, it was assumed that the print had been created by Alfredo Ramos Martínez. Fast forward to Ms. Goodwin as an adult with a B.A. in aesthetic studies from UC Santa Cruz and an M.A. and Ph.D. in art history from Boston University. In her research she made some startling discoveries regarding the Martínez silkscreen.

A group of five women prepare to sell succulent agave cactus and corn, in this nearly complete mural panel. The central area of the composition had received the most washes of color before the artist stopped working. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

9) A group of five women prepare to sell succulent agave cactus and corn, in this nearly complete mural panel. The central area of the composition had received the most washes of color before the artist stopped working. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

It is well known, at least to those who have studied the works of Alfredo Ramos Martínez, that his wife, Maria Sodi de Ramos Martínez, was a fierce champion of her husband’s works. After Alfredo died in 1946, Maria continued to organize exhibits of his works. To help continue and expand the legacy of Alfredo, Maria printed 7 separate silkscreen print editions that were reproductions of selected works by her husband. Printed by Maria in the garage of her Los Angeles home between the years 1947 and 1951, the most complex prints utilized 62 different colors - meaning 62 different screen stencils had to be hand-painted. Maria signed the works with her own name; some of the prints had a price as low as $35.00.

Detail of woman from illustration number 9. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

10) Detail of woman from illustration number 9. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

But the story did not end there. Maria learned how to produce silkscreen prints from the artist credited with originating silkscreen as a fine art medium, Guy Maccoy (1904-1981). In 1933 while working in New York with the Work Progress Administration (WPA), Maccoy began developing the screen printing process, earning him the moniker “Father of the Serigraph.” In 1938 Maccoy had the nation’s first one-person show of silkscreen prints. In 1945 Maccoy moved to Los Angeles, California. He taught Maria Martínez his technique of painting directly upon a stretched screen with lithographers tusche and water based glue in order to create a stencil.

Years later Maria Martínez would teach Corita Kent, a Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, how to produce serigraphs. Running the art department at L.A.’s Immaculate Heart College until 1968, Corita became a dynamic force in the activist arts, and her anti-Vietnam war and social justice posters became ubiquitous in the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. In turn, Corita taught her student Sister Karen Boccalero the skills taught to her by Maria Martínez. In 1970, Boccalero became a co-founder of L.A.’s Self Help Graphics, which continues to be a cornerstone institution for the national Chicano art movement.

12) In this detail of an incomplete panel, one can plainly see the various steps taken to create the mural. The bottom half shows the rough "arriccio" layer of plaster, with a sketchy "sinopia" painted in dark earth red as a guide. Just below the shoulders of the two women, one can see the break between the arriccio layer and the finer "intonaco" layer, upon which the artist painted the women's faces, flowers, and background. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

11) In this detail of an incomplete panel, one can plainly see the various steps taken to create the mural. The bottom half shows the rough "arriccio" layer of plaster, with a sketchy "sinopia" painted in dark earth red as a guide. Just below the shoulders of the two women, one can see the break between the arriccio layer and the finer "intonaco" layer, upon which the artist painted the women's faces, flowers, and background. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Mary Goodwin closed her talk by commenting on how we need to continue “teasing out” these multifaceted stories in order to build a complete understanding of history. The synchronicity  between Guy Maccoy, Maria Martínez, Corita Kent, and Karen Boccalero was based on a common vision of art being made accessible to large numbers of working people. Muralism has always been a vital component to that aspiration, with The Flower Vendors by Alfredo Ramos Martínez remaining a superlative model of the art.

As a long time follower of Chicano art history, especially in my hometown city of Los Angeles, it was absolutely revelatory to find a direct link between Ramos Martínez, and the Chicano art movement, through the serigraphy of his wife Maria Martínez. Furthermore, it makes it even more historically important, that the PMCA’s current exhibit of Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez in California is in conjunction with the exhibit Serigrafía, an overview of Chicano/Latino silkscreen art from the 1970s to the present.  A more fitting combination could not be had, as we now have learned from Ms. Goodwin’s research.

The two exhibits run until April 20, 2014. Museum admission is $7, free for PMCA members. The museum is located at: 490 East Union Street, Pasadena, CA 91101. Web: pmcaonline.org

Alfredo Ramos Martínez: Picturing Mexico

I have long admired the works of the Mexican artist Alfredo Ramos Martínez (1871-1946), and over the decades I was fortunate to see a handful of original works by him. I was always puzzled that so few in the U.S. remembered him, especially those of us living in Southern California where Martínez came to live and exercise considerable influence. Once a renowned and much sought after artist, the sands of time have buried Martínez, but an amazing exhibit of his works at the Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA), Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez in California, should stimulate a new appreciation for his art.

Historians and artists alike have often referred to Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco, three eminent 20th century artists of Mexico, as Los Tres Grandes (the big three). It is of course a reductionist view of history, as there were many great Mexican artists from the period, and Alfredo Ramos Martínez was certainly one of them. Those familiar with his life and works have variously described him as the “Father of Modern Mexican Art,” or the “Father of Mexican Modernism,” titles that are not exaggerations.

Some have said the paintings of Martínez “do not sustain the interpretation” of his being a revolutionary artist, an opinion that ignores the historic role Martínez played in transforming Mexican art and literally founding a national aesthetic for his country. He was not a “rabble-rouser” like his contemporaries Rivera and Siqueiros, they placed their art at the service of revolution, but the oeuvre of Martínez plainly shows that he painted the indigenous poor and working class of his native land. From our perspective that may not seem like much, but one must consider Mexico as it was in the early 20th century; an underdeveloped and impoverished country whose major resources were owned by North Americans and where the dark-skinned majority was ruled over by a light-skinned minority of corrupt oligarchs -  and that ruling class preferred classical European art to anything produced in Mexico.

It is a mistake to say the art of Martínez was not political in nature; his paintings were generally not militant or confrontational like those of his colleagues, as if only paintings and prints of insurrectionary Mexican peasants armed with rifles and machetes constitutes “political art.”

Mural from the Chapel of the Santa Barbara Cemetery (detail). Alfredo Ramos Martínez. 1934. "Over the portico of the chapel Martínez painted the resurrected Christ surrounded by angels bearing lilies." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Mural from the Chapel of the Santa Barbara Cemetery (detail). Alfredo Ramos Martínez. 1934. "Over the portico of the chapel Martínez painted the resurrected Christ surrounded by angels bearing lilies." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

The 57-year old Martínez left Mexico in October 1929 to settle in Los Angeles, a city tottering on the brink of the Great Depression. He was embraced by those captivated with Mexican aesthetics, and quickly gained a following. In 1930 José Clemente Orozco painted the very first modern fresco in the U.S., his Prometheus mural at Pomona College. In 1931 Diego Rivera painted four murals in the San Francisco Bay Area, and during his 1932 political exile in Los Angeles, Siqueiros painted three murals, the best known being his América Tropical mural on Olvera Street. In 1934 Martínez painted murals for the chapel of the Santa Barbara Cemetery in Santa Barbara, California. My photographs presenting details of Martínez’ mural illustrate this article.

Detail of the mural from the Chapel of the Santa Barbara Cemetery. Alfredo Ramos Martínez. 1934. One of four Angels painted in the dome above the chapel's Altar. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Detail of the mural from the Chapel of the Santa Barbara Cemetery. Alfredo Ramos Martínez. 1934. One of four Angels painted in the dome above the chapel's Altar. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

The chapel of the Santa Barbara Cemetery was designed by the American architect and painter, George Washington Smith, who led the Spanish Colonial Revival style of architecture in the U.S. during the early 20th century.

The chapel was completed and dedicated in 1926, and Martínez received a commission to paint the murals in 1934; his murals were controversial for not including the traditional religious iconography that was popular at the time.

In his history of the Santa Barbara Cemetery, The Best Last Place, author David Petry wrote that the cemetery’s manager and board member, William Bryant Jr., complained that the murals “impaired his ability to sell niches in the chapel, or to sell the use of the chapel for services.”

Over the portico of the chapel Martínez painted the resurrected Christ surrounded by angels bearing lilies, the Christian symbol of purity. The walls above the aisles were painted with scenes of the clergy, laity, and angels in a devout procession towards the Messiah.

Angel painting in close-up detail. Alfredo Ramos Martínez. 1934. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Angel painting in close-up detail. Alfredo Ramos Martínez. 1934. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Head of a Nun, the tempera on newsprint drawing by Martínez exhibited by the PMCA in Picturing Mexico, is a study for one of the figures in this section of the chapel mural.

The mural’s aesthetics are informed by an austere and rough modernism, the composition dictated by the artist’s attention to architectural details, and the figures having an almost geometric quality to them.

With the exception of a group of Mexican Indian women penitents, all of the figures in this portion of the painting are blonde Caucasians.

However, Martínez painted an extraordinary scene in the dome above the chapel’s Altar. From the Nave of the chapel one can see the monumental representation of the Lord God, his hands raised to bless humanity.

Again, the figure is painted in severe Modernist style, but it is the Mexican Modernism that found inspiration in the “primitive” style of the ancient Maya and Aztecs. Painted on the dome directly across the representation of God, but hidden from view from those in the chapel Nave, is a group portrait of Mexican Indian mourners.

Detail of the mural from the Chapel of the Santa Barbara Cemetery. Alfredo Ramos Martínez. 1934. "From the Nave of the chapel one can see the monumental representation of the Lord God." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Detail of the mural from the Chapel of the Santa Barbara Cemetery. Alfredo Ramos Martínez. 1934. "From the Nave of the chapel one can see the monumental representation of the Lord God." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

They are the dark-skinned wretched of the earth, the invisible ones that silently suffer the indignities heaped upon them by a cruel and indifferent world. They cover their eyes with trembling hands, and huddle together in their misery. But by placing them opposite his portrait of the Lord, Martínez was saying that it is the poor and vulnerable who are closest to God.

Religious themes were always a current in the works of the artist, who was obviously a pious man.

Millard Sheets, a leading member of the Southern California arts community, befriended Martínez and promoted his works.

As the chair of the new art department at Scripps College in Claremont, California, Sheets organized a 1937 on-campus exhibit of Martínez’ art, and in 1945, under the sponsorship of Sheets, Scripps commissioned Martínez to create a 100-foot long mural for its Margaret Fowler Memorial Garden. It was to be his last work. The artist began the mural but did not complete it due to his death in 1946 at the age of 73. Today the unfinished mural titled The Flower Vendors remains a popular destination on the Scripps campus.

Detail of the mural from the Chapel of the Santa Barbara Cemetery. Alfredo Ramos Martínez. 1934. "The invisible ones that silently suffer the indignities heaped upon them by a cruel and indifferent world." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Mural detail from the Chapel of the Santa Barbara Cemetery. Alfredo Ramos Martínez. 1934. "The invisible ones that silently suffer the indignities heaped upon them by a cruel and indifferent world." Photo by Vallen ©.

Here it is necessary to examine the role Martínez played in Mexican society prior to coming to the United States. After the Mexican Revolution began in 1910, art students at the San Carlos School of the National Academy of Fine Arts called for a strike against the conservative institution.

The strike began in 1911, and took aim at the school’s academic training methods, which disallowed students to draw from live models.

The outlook of the students was shaped by the country’s ongoing revolution, and they expanded their demands to include, not just an end to the hegemony of Academic art, but the establishment of a Free Academy where meals, rooms, and art supplies would be free.

Concurrently, the radical democrat Francisco Madero and the peasant armies of fellow revolutionaries like Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa successfully drove the longtime dictator Porfirio Díaz from power, and Madero became president in 1911.

In the continuing strike art students demanded the nationalization of the country’s railroads in solidarity with the revolution. José Clemente Orozco was a leader of the Student Strike Committee, and Siqueiros participated in the strike as a young student. Eventually the strike was won, the academic art curriculum was dropped, students were allowed live models, and by 1913 Alfredo Ramos Martínez became the Director of the National Academy. Martínez broke from the Greco-Roman traditions of European academic art, instead insisting that Mexico’s land, history, and indigenous people were the only subject matter needed for the creation of great art. He opened the first Open Air School of painting in Mexico, which emphasized direct observation in the creation of landscapes and depictions of peasant life; Siqueiros was one of his students. Martínez not only revolutionized the Academy, he helped to change the face of Mexican art.

But in 1913 Mexico, more than just the directorship of the Academy would change hands. The revolution was betrayed when General Victoriano Huerta entered into a conspiracy with the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Henry Lane Wilson. The two plotted to carry out a coup d’etat against the reformist Madero, and on Feb. 18, 1913, Huerta seized power militarily and arrested Madero. Days later Huerta had President Madero and Vice-President José María Pino Suárez assassinated by a military firing squad. One could say that after the treacherous murder of the popular Madero by right-wing forces, the Mexican revolution intensified and deepened - but that is another story.

Walking through the Martínez exhibit at the Pasadena Museum of California Art is akin to walking through the pages of a gorgeously illustrated history book that tells the intertwined tales of Mexico and the United States. Few artists have made that tangled relationship as clear as Alfredo Ramos Martínez. The works on exhibit were all created during the artist’s stay in the U.S., and include landscapes and portraits, as well as political and religious statements. The overwhelming number of works in the show express the artist’s love of Mexico and its people, and he no doubt appreciated their many historic links to California and its population.

Some of the most startling pieces in the exhibition are the graphic works Martínez created on printed newspaper pages. He drew and painted directly on actual U.S. newspaper pages he mounted on canvas or board; the artworks are intensely political if only for their extreme juxtaposition of cultures. One such work is El Defensor (The Protector), a drawing in tempera and conte-crayon drawn on a June 5, 1932 edition of the Los Angeles Times. The drawing is a portrait of a furious young compesino, his hand clenched into a fist as if ready to deliver a blow. Text from the paper’s mundane classified ads bleed through the drawing.

The irony Martínez presented to us in El Defensor reaches across time, as he knew it would. When he made the drawing the U.S. government was involved in a massive forced “repatriation” campaign of Mexican workers in the U.S., up to two million were arrested, placed on trains, and deported. In the xenophobic frenzy, an estimated 60 percent of those deported were U.S. citizens of Mexican heritage that were born in the United States. California alone rounded-up and deported over 400,000 U.S. citizens; the City of Los Angeles was also involved in deporting tens of thousands. The policy of deporting “foreigners” was approved of by the Los Angeles Times.

I refuse to believe that Alfredo Ramos Martínez was unaware of these facts when he created El Defensor, one of the strongest artistic statements made in California during that period.

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Addendum:

On Sunday March 23, 2014, Scripps College will hold a symposium titled, Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez. A number of interesting panel discussions are scheduled, culminating in the viewing of the artist’s celebrated fresco mural, The Flower Vendors.

The PMCA is also presenting Serigrafía, an exhibit of thirty silkscreen prints created by Chicano/Latino artists from the 1970s to the present; I am pleased to have one of my prints in the exhibit. A correlation between the prints and the works by Martínez can be seen, especially by those who are aware of the march of history.

Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez in California will travel to the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, Nevada, where it will run from May 10, 2014 to Aug. 17, 2014.

Roger Scruton at TRAC 2014

Hundreds pack the Crowne Plaza's Ballroom to hear the keynote speaker for TRAC 2014, Roger Scruton. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Hundreds pack the Crowne Plaza's Ballroom to hear the keynote speaker for TRAC 2014, Roger Scruton. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

When hundreds of arts professionals from all over the country, indeed from all across the globe, come together at a four day symposium to enthusiastically discuss the future of realism in painting… it could be said that something might be afoot in the art world. TRAC 2014, or The Representational Art Conference, took place from March 2 through March 5, 2014 at the beachfront Crowne Plaza hotel in sunny Ventura, California. I attended a few of the programs offered on Monday, March 3rd, and offer my observations of the conference with this article. I do so as a figurative realist artist, and a proponent of social realism.

On the day I was present there were around 500 or so artists, academics, curators, critics, and students gathered for the event. I am certain that overall attendance for the entire conference was much higher. TRAC 2014 was the second international conference on representational art to be presented by the California Lutheran University (CLU) of Thousand Oaks, California, the first having been held in 2012. TRAC was organized by Michael Pearce, associate professor of Art and curator of The Kwan Fong Gallery at California Lutheran University, where he also teaches figurative painting. Co-founder Michael Lynn Adams is also a realist painter and a visiting lecturer of drawing and painting in the CLU art department.

The official catalog of TRAC 2014 affirmed that the event’s organizers “believe that there has been a neglect of critical appreciation of representational art well out of proportion to its quality and significance; it is that neglect that The Representational Art Conferences seek to address.” It was further stated that the purpose of the event was “not to establish a single monolithic aesthetic for representational art, but to identify commonalities, understand the unique possibilities of representational art, and perhaps provide some illumination about future directions.” Lofty and praiseworthy ideals. I certainly concur that representational art has been overlooked if not ignored… but did TRAC 2014 deliver on its mission?

Roger Scruton making his opening remarks at TRAC 2014. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Roger Scruton making his opening remarks at TRAC 2014. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

My day at TRAC 2014 began with the keynote address delivered by British conservative philosopher, activist, and author Roger Scruton. Well-known in Britain, Scruton remains an obscure figure for most Americans, apart from those conservatives that take pleasure in reading weighty cultural/political criticism.

He is perhaps best known, at least in artistic circles, for his 2009 BBC documentary, Why Beauty Matters, which hauled postmodern art over the coals while praising the virtues of traditional representational art.

His documentary certainly won Scruton the admiration of embattled traditionalists in the arts, and his condemnation of postmodernism undoubtedly led the organizers of TRAC 2014 to request that he appear as keynote speaker. But Scruton’s view of the arts has its detractors, and I count myself amongst them.

Four years ago I wrote about Scruton on this very web log, criticizing his BBC documentary in an article also titled Why Beauty Matters, so I was interested in hearing his public address.

Hundreds packed the “Top of the Harbor” Ballroom at the Crowne Plaza to hear Scruton deliver a stimulating address, and they were not disappointed. With dry wit and calm demeanor, the soft-spoken thinker disassembled postmodern art and philosophy, bedazzling his audience for nearly an hour. In describing the impact of postmodernism on the arts, he paused occasionally to verbally flay this or that celebrity art star.

Starting with the progenitor of conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp, Scruton called that artist’s 1917 porcelain urinal: “a joke against art that has been elevated to art.” Moving on to the 1960s when postmodernism began its ascendancy, Scruton said: “I know it is heresy to say so, but Warhol’s Brillo boxes are not original, nor are they works of art.” Then Scruton arrived at the present, where his flaming arrows met multiple targets. He ridiculed the bisected animals displayed in tanks of formaldehyde by Damien Hirst, declaring that Hirst was abetted by sycophants and his success was due only to “a ballet of complicit deception.” The unmade bed and personal detritus of Tracey Emin was assessed as so much rubbish by the sharply critical philosopher, who then disparaged the “particularly loathsome Chapman Brothers” for producing art that “is not new but simply transgressive.” As for Jeff Koons and his insufferable Balloon Dog sculptures - they “deserve only to be punctured.”

All of the above was music to the ears of those gathered. Scruton could hardly have found a more receptive and appreciative audience. I admit to chuckling at some of his jibes made at the expense of today’s postmodern art stars, and it was definitely refreshing to hear someone rhetorically stick a knife into the elite art world. Scruton spoke in broad generalities when passing judgment on postmodernism, he struck at easy targets, but hurling insults at those he is disapproving of did not add up to much of a critique. I had the impression that most in the audience knew nothing of Scruton’s politics, and simply accepted him as a fierce critic of an art world obsessed with celebrity and very expensive though meaningless bobbles.

Roger Scruton. "It's very hard to change a whole culture. All one can do is start something and see what happens." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Roger Scruton. "It's very hard to change a whole culture. All one can do is start something and see what happens." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

When it came to the hows and whys of the current dilemma we face in art, and more importantly, how we are to escape it, Scruton said little. That is not the case with his written works, which straightforwardly blame liberalism and socialism (one and the same in Scruton’s view) for the fall of Western civilization. In his address he did say that “if you make the mistake of going to a university to study philosophy,” you will be indoctrinated with the ideas of Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault - postmodern theorists supposedly admired by the left. Apparently it does not matter that a leading left-wing figure like Noam Chomsky, Professor Emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, believed Lacan was an “amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan,” that Derrida’s scholarship was “appalling” and “failed to come close to the kinds of standards I’ve been familiar with since virtually childhood,” or that he said of Foucault: “I’d never met anyone who was so totally amoral.”

Scruton recommended that in order to fully understand the intellectual bankruptcy of postmodernism, the audience should read the book, Fashionable Nonsense (published in the U.K. as Intellectual Impostures). I would also suggest the book for its take down of postmodern theory. But does Scruton know that there are socialists who also highly recommended the book? Or that it was written by Alan Sokal, who once said: “I confess that I’m an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class. And I’m a stodgy old scientist who believes, naively, that there exists an external world, that there exist objective truths about that world, and that my job is to discover some of them.”

Implying that postmodernism is the result of Marxist philosophy, as Scruton does, is nothing short of preposterous. Scruton upbraided postmoderns Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, but Hirst is the darling of oligarch collectors and through their largess has become the richest artist in the world, now worth $1 billion. Emin voted Tory, admires the conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, and created an original work of art for him that hangs at 10 Downing Street. The ridiculous Gilbert and George conceptual art team also votes Tory, and once said, “We admire Margaret Thatcher greatly. She did a lot for art. Socialism wants everyone to be equal. We want to be different.” As for the large and divergent postmodern art circles that exist in Los Angeles, I have met many a confused individual, but few with even the remotest interest in political matters.

Scruton’s defense of traditional art is part and parcel of his overall campaign against liberalism. In 1982 he became the chief editor of The Salisbury Review, a position he held until the year 2000; he continues today as a consulting editor for the publication. The Review promotes itself as a journal of “reactionary thought, undiluted by liberal cant.” During Scruton’s tenure as chief editor, the high-Tory reactionaries of the Salisbury Review poured scorn upon the peace movement, unions, multiculturalism, immigrants, feminism, and yes… non-traditional art. The Review’s editorial policy remains the same today.

If you read The Meaning of Margaret Thatcher, Scruton’s obituary for the divisive Iron Lady published by The Times of London, you will have a better understanding of the man’s politics. He said that Thatcher appeared on the U.K. political scene “as though by a miracle,” implying that she was a “savior” who broke “the power of the unions,” fought the “socialist apparatchiks” of the country’s educational system, and restored national pride with “the Falklands war.” He could have mentioned that Thatcher instituted draconian budget cuts to government arts funding, but he choose to overlook that particular miracle.

Throughout the TRAC address, Scruton peppered the talk with selected projected images or text. When he stated that “the disease of Kitsch effects more than art,” he brought up a photo of commercially available, mass produced gaudy statuettes of the baby Jesus and Mother Mary, all wrapped in cellophane and bedecked with price stickers. Here he spoke of postmodernism having stripped the sacred from our lives with its moral relativism, loss of belief, and repudiation of truth and beauty; and though people still have an intrinsic sense of the sacred - love of family, nature’s beauty, our feelings regarding birth and death - we are still swept along by the daily sacrileges of the postmodern spectacle. With some resignation Scruton remarked: “Maybe we are asking too much of people” when trusting they will abandon kitsch. The contradiction that seems to elude Scruton and his acolytes, is that the cellophane swathed baby Jesus was not maliciously created by godless commies, but produced by free market capitalists intent on making gobs of money.

At the beginning of his talk Scruton said that “we think reality can be captured in better terms,” than has so far been offered by the postmodern school. After sketching the outlines of art’s current predicament, he averred, “Don’t we have anything to contrast with this? That is what all of you people in this room are doing.”

During a lively question and answer period after Mr. Scruton's opening remarks, a member of the audience poses a query to Scruton. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

During a lively question and answer period after Mr. Scruton's opening remarks, a member of the audience poses a query to Scruton. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

At the end of his address, for which he received a standing ovation, there was a vibrant question and answer session.

A young man asked a simple and naive question, “How do we change this situation?” To which Scruton responded with the unflappably British, “Right.” He elaborated that “it’s very hard to change a whole culture… all one can do is start something and see what happens.” But he hedged his bets by quoting from the 1845 Theses on Feuerbach by Karl Marx, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways: the point, however, is to change it,” to which Scruton added… “and look at how that turned out.” I am unsure if that was more of Scruton’s vociferous anti-communism, a warning, or just a self-deprecating remark.

One last question was put to Scruton from the audience concerning the role of money in the art world. The new reality of the price tag being more important than the art is somewhat difficult to overlook these days, and with multi-billionaire oligarchs shaping the art world through their relentless acquisitions, Scruton’s sense of art being sacred is violated by this economic relationship, and rightly so. He acknowledged that money has been a corrosive force in art, but seemed at a loss to say anything else. I would have liked to hear more.

I wonder what Scruton says about Charles Saatchi, the King Maker of the postmodern art world. In the 1970s Charles and his brother Maurice started the advertising agency, Saatchi & Saatchi. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher hired the ad agency to create an advertising campaign for the Conservative Party’s 1979 election effort against the center left Labour Party. The agency’s Labour Isn’t Working series of posters, flyers, and billboards are credited with helping to sweep Thatcher into power. In 1985 Saatchi founded London’s Saatchi Gallery, launching the career of many a postmodern artist, and changing the face of British art. And to think… it was all accomplished without the connivance and intrigue of liberals and Marxists.

Organizers of TRAC 2014 set the tone for the entire conference by inviting Mr. Scruton to speak at the event. If they were sincere in their goal of not wanting to “establish a single monolithic aesthetic for representational art,” then Scruton was certainly an odd pick for a keynote speaker. I am not implying that the organizers were “politically incorrect” for turning to Scruton, but that organizers offered no counterbalance to his views.

In September 2012, the British debate forum Intelligence Squared, hosted an amazing discussion between Roger Scruton and Terry Eagleton titled The Culture Wars (watch the video of the encounter here). A Professor of Cultural Theory at the National University of Ireland, the author of some forty books, and a left-wing socialist, Eagleton debated Scruton on the subject of art and culture; What is it and why is it important? How does it impact us? What role does tradition play in art? What is the future of art in a globalized world? In the debate Eagleton chided Scruton for bemoaning postmodern art while at the same time supporting the very economic mechanisms that lead to arts debasement and decay.

Those who could not attend TRAC 2014 will want to watch the The Culture Wars video, not just to see Mr. Scruton engaged in a “smack down” with an intellectual adversary from the left, but to also get a glimpse of how TRAC 2014 could have broadened our understanding of art and the crisis it faces. Many figurative realist artists do not identify with political or cultural conservatism, and if the organizers of TRAC truly want to change the face of the art world, they are not going to pull it off by sealing themselves inside a right-wing echo-chamber.

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“Part II” of my assessment of TRAC 2014, will be posted in the weeks to come.

Newseum: Super-Sized R-Rated Version

On Nov. 14, 2013, the Newseum in Washington, D.C. opened what it hoped would be a “blockbuster” show, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy - The Exhibit. If there was ever a more blatant abuse of a museum’s mission, I cannot think of what it might be. Slated to run until Aug. 31, 2014, the exhibit was created in partnership with Paramount Studios to promote its latest movie, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, written and directed by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. Ferrell stars in the film as a 1970s anchorman at a fictional television news station.

A fictitious burgundy suit belonging to a fictitious newsman, who recited fictitious news, man, all displayed at a fictitious museum back by a fictitious movie studio. Photo courtesy of a fictitious photographer.

A fictitious burgundy suit belonging to a fictitious newsman, who recited fictitious news, man - all displayed at a fictitious museum backed by a fictitious movie studio. Photo courtesy of a fictitious photographer.

Presenting some 60 costumes and props from Ferrell’s 2004 movie, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, the Newseum exhibit was timed to coincide with the formal opening of Anchorman 2 on December 18, 2013.

The “personal effects” (read: movie props), belonging to the fictitious  anchorman - a burgundy suit, mustache brush, and jazz flute, are displayed in the Newseum as if they were the property of an actual historic journalistic figure like Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Bob Woodward, or Carl Bernstein. Another prop from the Paramount film - the news desk of the imaginary Ron Burgundy - will also be on display, along with various costumes worn by Ferrell and co-star Christina Applegate.

Developments at the Newseum give added weight and validity to The Newspeak Newseum, an article I wrote after the opening of the Newseum in Washington, D.C. on April 11, 2008. Quoting that critique:

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

Bloomberg Businessweek reported that the Chrysler Group contracted Ferrell to appear in character as Ron Burgundy in a series of “70 different commercials of varying length and format” for the 2014 Dodge Durango SUV. With help from one of the largest ad agencies in the world, Wieden+Kennedy (known for its work with sweatshop giant Nike), the ads have proliferated on television and across the web, from YouTube to Ferrill’s sophomoric funnyordie.com. But that is not the end of it. Ferrill’s flood of publicity stunts, television and radio appearances, not to mention branded products promoting the Anchorman franchise, led the director of Anchorman 2, Adam McKay, to declare it has all amounted to “at least 20 million in free publicity.” The Newseum is just another component to that mass marketing campaign.

As of this writing, Anchorman 2 has made more than $125 million in the U.S. since it opened in Dec. of 2013. But for Hollyweird enough is never enough. On Feb. 28 the movie will be re-released in around 1,000 theaters. Advertised as a “Super-Sized R-Rated Version,” it runs 20 extra minutes and contains “763 new jokes.” The late 2013 release of Anchorman 2 had 95% of its jokes stripped-out through digital editing, replacing them with filthier jokes for the re-release. And to what effect? Co-director McKay is quoted as having said, that in talks with Ferrell, the two realized they could “replace every single joke in the movie with another joke.” McKay went on to say that “there were a couple of jokes left for continuity.”

The museum’s curatorial philosophy seems akin to McKay’s vision of film-making. The Newseum can replace every single legitimate exhibit giving insight and focus to history, with faux exhibits that are nothing more than advertising campaigns for mega-corporations. For continuity’s sake, a few examples of how a museum should archive actual historic materials will be kept in place. Behold the future of U.S. museums.

Prometheus: José Clemente Orozco

José Clemente Orozco's Prometheus in Frary Hall at Pomona College. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

José Clemente Orozco's Prometheus in Frary Hall at Pomona College. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

The first modern fresco mural to be painted in the U.S. by a Mexican artist was titled Prometheus, and it was painted in 1930 at Pomona College in Claremont, California by José Clemente Orozco.

I photographed the mural in late January 2014, and those photos are the focus of this web post: close-up details that show the artist’s hand and the technical bravura of Orozco’s fresco painting.

The College commissioned Orozco to create a mural for its newly constructed Frary Hall dining room, and the institution’s enthusiastic students helped to raise the necessary funds for the mural’s creation. The mural would occupy a twenty by twenty-eight foot wall behind a low stage located at the head of the hall, an architectural space encompassed by a ceiling high white plaster arch.

Orozco choose Prometheus as the subject of his fresco mural. One of the immortal Titans from the ancient Greek pantheon of gods and goddesses, Prometheus was said to have created man from clay, and then enraged the gods by giving mortals the gift of fire, enabling enlightenment, and progress. The Greeks of old considered Prometheus, not just a God of fire, but the bringer of the arts, sciences, and civilization. There is little wonder why Orozco the angry visionary decided to paint a mural of the Greek deity in an American liberal arts college. Cloaked in mythology, the work metaphorically addressed the state of the world, a subject never far from the artist’s mind.

The colossal figure of Prometheus (seen directly below) completely dominates the mural. As the Titan steals fire from heaven, earthly mortals surround him, jostling and writhing in various states of upheaval, bewilderment, and confrontation. From a distance one cannot see what Prometheus is reaching for because the arch obscures the ceiling and side panels of the mural. Stepping up to the lip of the stage it becomes apparent that the Titan is pulling fire down from the sky, the artist depicts this ingeniously.

Detail of Orozco's Prometheus. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

Detail of Orozco's Prometheus. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

The giant’s hands meld with flames in cubist abstraction, and the glow from the blaze illuminates the gargantuan form of the deity. Directly above this scene - though not shown in my photo - the ceiling is painted as the cobalt blue dome of heaven; a geometric abstraction painted in red hues represents God as a great mystery.

The illustration below shows a set of figures located to the lower right of the central figure of Prometheus. The cluster of men is part of a greater tableau that depicts masses of people in great anguish and turmoil.

Detail of Orozco's Prometheus. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

Detail of Orozco's Prometheus. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

The man with his arm raised seems to be reeling backwards, the man above him lurching forward belligerently; both are fine examples of how Orozco handled the human form. The figures are painted in near expressionist frenzy, a jumble of impasto brush strokes, watercolor-like washes, and incised lines scoured directly into the fresco’s wet lime plaster. There are an abundance of heavy black lines, but they do not delineate the figures, rather, they are heavily over-painted in a palette of volcanic earth tones - ochre, burnt sienna and umber, cadmium red. The colors, not line, define form.

Directly below is a set of figures located to the lower left of Prometheus. The faces belong to rough and primitive men. One of them lifts his eyes to gaze upon the mighty Titan, but the trio remains uncomprehending.

Detail of Orozco's Prometheus. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

Detail of Orozco's Prometheus. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

Orozco’s technique in the above is pure expressionism; the coarse faces are bluntly composed of forceful brushstrokes in black, along with smeared tones and thin washes of grey.

The grouping of women’s faces shown directly below are found in a crowd scene located at lower right of Prometheus. Entirely composed from thin washes of burnt sienna, the women could have been drawn by the great French political and social satirist, Honoré Daumier (1808-1879).

Detail of Orozco's Prometheus. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

Detail of Orozco's Prometheus. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

In the above, Orozco captured a range of emotions, from resigned indifference to hysteria. Unlike the fresco paintings of Diego Rivera, where the original outlines of a drawing can be detected beneath the washes of water-based paint, there is little evidence of Orozco using a detailed “cartoon” or drawing in charcoal to guide his application of pigments. Though he did use preparatory sketches in the production of his Prometheus mural, it largely has a free-hand, spontaneous quality to it. He painted broadly with washes, then adeptly used pointed brushes to add final linear details.

Detail of Orozco's Prometheus. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

Detail of Orozco's Prometheus. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

The trio of women shown above are found to the left of Prometheus. Beautifully painted in thin washes of red and black, they are the only mortals in the mural to appear benevolent and capable of lofty thoughts. Their hands clasped as if in prayer, they look skyward, ready for the fire that will grace humans with enlightenment. Again, the artist eschewed line in favor of using color to define form; the three women were painted quickly and seemingly without effort.

In the lower left of the mural, the figures shown below embrace. Surrounded by upheaval they await their fate in an uncertain world. Painted in a limited palette of earth tones, Orozco created the muscular back with broad brushstrokes, allowing color to modulate form. The light on the shoulder and arm was created by letting the white plaster ground show through the thinnest of washes.

Detail of Orozco's Prometheus. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

Detail of Orozco's Prometheus. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

Below is a stunning group of men’s faces that are located to the right of the central figure of Prometheus. They are part of a fraternity, and they march for some unknown cause. But the men are exhausted, and with their eyes closed their expressions suggest a certain fatalism, an acceptance of an unpleasant inevitability.

Detail of Orozco's Prometheus. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

Detail of Orozco's Prometheus. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

The above portraits bear a remarkable similarity - both compositionally and politically - to an earlier work by the magnificent German artist, Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945). To protest the horror of imperialist war, Kollwitz created the 1921 woodcut, Die Freiwilligen (The Volunteers). She portrayed young German men volunteering to fight for the German Empire, being led to the battlefield by Death - who plays a military marching drum. In 1930 Orozco watched in dismay as young working class men once again readied themselves for sacrifice on the fields of war, devoting themselves to oligarchs, militarists, and political wolves. As fascism was rising across Europe, Orozco’s mural was not simply the recounting of an ancient mythology, it was an expression of hope that the fire of Prometheus would bring enlightenment to us mortals before it was too late.

The detail of Orozco’s mural show below contains the same group of men written about in the above. It is however worth displaying a wider view of the scene for the brilliant compositional device the artist used showing the horizon line where fire from the sky met the earth. Note the downtrodden masses, ashen grey and heads bowed, who march with what appear to be black banners of political protest and struggle.

Detail of Orozco's Prometheus. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

Detail of Orozco's Prometheus. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

Orozco was certainly sympathetic to revolution, but in my opinion he also cautioned against revolutionary zeal going astray; the warning being that the oppressed could become the new oppressors. Orozco tempered the perception of insurrection with a visual trick; the banners held aloft in the above, are not political standards at all, but scorching fiery rays striking the earth as Prometheus steals fire from the heavens.

A tighter view of the same scene is found below; the detail of the downtrodden masses reveals a turncoat in their midst. The backstabber not shown in the photo, has extended his arm and is about to strike at the nearest blameless person with the dagger he wields. Orozco used this metaphorical device to rebuke the confusion and lack of unity found among the subjugated and exploited.

Detail of Orozco's Prometheus. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

Detail of Orozco's Prometheus. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

There is of course much more to the Prometheus mural, but to show it all in detail on this web log would be too difficult. Instead, I invite everyone who finds themselves near Southern California to pay a visit to Pomona College to see the work up close in all of its grandeur. During the academic year Frary Hall is open everyday of the week, but only at certain times. Be sure to check their hours of operation if you plan a visit. I will add that at the time of this writing, the Pomona College Museum of Art is also hosting an exhibit of works by the aforementioned Käthe Kollwitz. Running until April 13, 2014, Witness: Käthe Kollwitz features etchings, woodblock prints, and lithographs by the celebrated artist.

A Champion For The Arts?

“A lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career, but I promise you… folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree. Now, there’s nothing wrong with an art history degree; I love art history, so I don’t want to get a bunch of e-mails from everybody.”

President Obama made the above remark during a January 30, 2014 visit to a General Electric gas engine facility in Wisconsin; his dismissive words were captured on video. The president’s visit to the G.E. plant, and the public remarks he made there, were meant to highlight his alleged interest in “reforming” federal job training programs. Instead, the president seems only to have dismayed holders of art-history degrees in particular, and shocked arts professionals in general.

Obama’s despicable remarks so disconcerted Americans for the Arts, the nation’s largest non-profit arts advocacy organization, that the group immediately started an online petition campaign to criticize the president for his rebuke.

The Americans for the Arts petition applauds Obama for being “the first president in history to begin issuing official White House proclamations observing the month of October as National Arts & Humanities Month.” But proclamations are a far cry from the type of assistance and support the arts community is in dire need of, witness the entirely preventable closure last year of the 70-year-old New York City Opera.

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What has President Obama done for the arts? In 1935 President Franklin Roosevelt launched the depression era Federal Art Project (FAP), which put over 5,000 unemployed artists to work. FAP artists produced 4,500 public murals, 19,000 sculptures, 450,000 easel paintings, and some 35,000 posters and prints in the eight years of its existence. The poster shown above was designed and produced by anonymous artists working for the Iowa Art Program sponsored by FAP, circa 1936. The poster announced "National Art Week," a nationwide series of government organized exhibits where FAP artworks were offered for sale at affordable prices to the public during the Christmas shopping season. The mission of the Federal Art Project was to enhance the cultural experience of all Americans, and it worked to bring the arts into American life on a mass level. Image: Library of Congress Work Projects Administration Poster Collection.

Americans for the Arts could not congratulate Obama for other accomplishments in concretely supporting the arts because the president has no such achievements to his credit. Yes, the president started the “In Performance at the White House” series, where musicians, movie stars, writers, and other creative types gather at the White House to entertain the President and First Lady, but this is hardly direct assistance to the nation’s artists and cultural institutions, both of which are starved for support in this anemic economy. The Americans for the Arts petition closed with the following appeal, “We urge you to meet with arts policy experts to incorporate the arts and culture into your economic strategies and policies to move America forward.”

As a working artist, and one not involved in single issue politics, all I can say is that I am not the least bit interested in President Obama incorporating arts and culture into his economic strategies. Listening to him talk about skilled manufacturing jobs as a “viable career” for American workers is laughable, considering that he reneged on his 2008 campaign pledge to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In January of 2014, Public Citizen, the consumer rights advocacy group founded by Ralph Nader in 1971, released a report titled NAFTA at 20. Marking the twentieth anniversary of the trade pact, the report concluded that as a result of NAFTA, one million U.S. jobs have been exported, wages for workers in the U.S. have declined, and income inequality in the U.S. has reached “new extremes.”

But Obama is also currently pushing the so-called “Trans-Pacific Partnership” trade deal with eleven nations in Latin America and Asia, a pact that workers and trade experts both here and abroad have described as “NAFTA on Steroids.” The Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP, will siphon away even more jobs from the U.S. while further enriching corporations and impoverishing foreign workers. The TPP would even ban “Buy American” preferences when dealing with nations that are signatories to the pact. In the face of all this, Mr. Obama telling Americans about their future in “skilled manufacturing or the trades” is simply contemptible. And the president managed to insult the intelligence of U.S. workers while simultaneously maligning those who hold art history degrees!

I would like to remind those who have been shocked by President Obama’s philistine remarks regarding a career in art history, that in 2008 many in the U.S. arts community voted for him based upon how he promoted himself as a “Champion for arts and culture.” Obama’s broadly celebrated nine-point Platform In Support Of The Arts was widely hailed as unprecedented. Reading that document now, especially in light of Obama’s dreadful statement, it is but another catalog of broken promises.

Though the U.S. arts community is aghast over President Obama’s comment, there was more to his statement. Immediately after pronouncing that he did not wish to receive e-mails about his remark, he said: “I’m just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four year college education, as long as you get the skills and the training that you need.” This single sentence reveals much about the current direction of U.S. society. During his Jan 27, 1998 State of the Union Address, President Clinton said the following:

“I have something to say to every family listening to us tonight: Your children can go on to college. If you know a child from a poor family, tell her not to give up. She can go on to college. If you know a young couple struggling with bills, worried they won’t be able to send their children to college, tell them not to give up. Their children can go on to college. If you know somebody who’s caught in a dead-end job and afraid he can’t afford the classes necessary to get better jobs for the rest of his life, tell him not to give up. He can go on to college.”

In just 16 years Americans have gone from being told by one Democratic president “not to give up,” that everyone “can go on to college,” to being told by another Democratic president that they do not need “a four year college education,” and that job training programs are enough to enjoy “a really good living.” The contradiction of course is that, as the proles go to trade school to learn some pragmatic work-a-day-world skill… the president quietly exports U.S. jobs to other countries.

In a February 2, 2014 televised interview conducted by Fox News Channel pundit Bill O’Reilly, President Obama said the following: “In a lot of ways, Richard Nixon was more liberal than I was.” That is one comment from the president that I will accept as the truth.

In 1974, the last year of Nixon’s presidency before he resigned to avoid impeachment over the Watergate debacle, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) budget was $64,025,000. Adjusted for inflation, the buying power of that figure today would be approximately $302,537,000. President Obama’s 2013 budget for the NEA was $138,383,218.

One might refer to President Obama as a champion of predator drones and the NSA’s massive surveillance programs… but a champion of the arts? Never!

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For more information on the FAP, see the Library of Congress Federal Art Project collection.