Philip Stein at L.A.’s Gallery 1927

Philip Stein with David Alfaro Siqueiros in San Miguel, Mexico, 1948. That year Siqueiros started a mural workshop with assistants that included Stein, they painted an experimental mural at the Escuela de Bellas Artes located within the San Miguel de Allende convent. The mural remained unfinished due to lack of funds and the school's closure. Photographer unknown.

Philip Stein with David Alfaro Siqueiros in San Miguel, Mexico, 1948. That year Siqueiros started a mural workshop with assistants that included Stein, they painted an experimental mural at the Escuela de Bellas Artes located within the San Miguel de Allende convent. The mural remained unfinished due to lack of funds and the school's closure. Photographer unknown.

Blind Justice is a retrospective exhibit presenting the works of Estaño (a.k.a. Philip Stein, 1919-2009).

A figure in the American social realism school of the 1940s, Stein was also an assistant to the Mexican muralist painter, David Alfaro Siqueiros. In point of fact, Stein helped Siqueiros paint eleven of his most famous murals in Mexico City from 1948 to 1958.

When the two artists first met and collaborated in Mexico, Siqueiros had trouble pronouncing Stein’s name, and so gave him the nickname of Estaño (”Tin”).

I was fortunate to have befriended Philip Stein in 2003, and a year later I found myself building a website with him that served as an online portfolio of his works and accomplishments. Also in ‘04, I conducted an interview with Stein where he told me, “When an artist is having a problem in seriously seeking a meaningful basis for their artistic endeavors, they could consider it a stroke of good luck if they should stumble on to the Mexican Mural Movement.”

Philip Stein's watercolor portrait of two indigenous men from Chiapas, Mexico, circa 1948.

Philip Stein's watercolor portrait of two indigenous men from Chiapas, Mexico, circa 1948.

I continue to believe that Stein’s perceptive words regarding the Mexican Mural Movement are correct, not because I think the movement can, or should be, mechanically superimposed over our own time, but for the reason that the movement’s spirit is applicable to current conditions.

The 1930s-1940s school of Mexican social realism stood firm on the principles that art is not removed or separate from social reality, that art must confront the pressing issues of the day, and that art is not the plaything of the money bags, but the birthright and heritage of all.

The strong interest in the October 9, 2012 unveiling of América Tropical, the Olvera Street mural painted by Siqueiros on Los Angeles’ historic Olvera Street, should have also brought renewed attention to the works of Stein.

Regrettably that has not been the case, even in death recognition seems to evade him, but why? There are serious conclusions to be drawn. Aside from the political apathy and unabating anti-communism found in the U.S., those who have paid any attention to Siqueiros and the Mexican school, have done so only through the prism of identity politics… they cannot see this art outside of the “Mexicanidad” or Chicano art context. Hence, Stein, a White American born in Newark, New Jersey, simply does not fit the narrative.

"Apocalypse." - Philip Stein. Acrylic on masonite. circa 1950s. An excerpt of a much larger painting, Stein's work captured the white hot fire of an atomic explosion. The artist was no doubt reacting to the development by the U.S. of the hydrogen bomb, or "H-bomb," in 1952.

"Apocalypse." - Philip Stein. Acrylic on masonite. circa 1950s. An excerpt of a larger painting, Stein's work captured the white hot fire of an atomic explosion. The artist was no doubt reacting to the development by the U.S. of the hydrogen bomb, or "H-bomb," in 1952.

The 1930s Mexican school of social realism was no different than the German or American schools of social realism that existed at the time. Though rooted in distinct cultural and national experiences, all of the artists associated with social realism possessed an egalitarian vision and internationalist spirit. Despite the fact that Stein was American, he played a notable role in Mexican Muralism, he certainly gave his all to it.

To put what I am saying in context, it was the French artist Jean Charlot that painted The Massacre in the Main Temple, the very first wall painting of the Mexican Mural Movement. Charlot’s mural, painted in Mexico City’s Escuela Preparatoria (now the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso) was completed in 1923.

The mural depicted Spanish Conquistadors slaughtering hundreds of Aztecs who had gathered in their capital of Tenochtitlán (now modern Mexico City) for a religious ritual in 1520.

Charlot’s team of assistants taught Diego Rivera’s assistants how to plaster a wall in preparation for Rivera creating his first mural, also at the Escuela Preparatoria. Charlot of course went on to play a large role in the development of Mexican art, but my point is that history has noted his contributions, it is time that Philip Stein be similarly acknowledged.

"Moloch" - Philip Stein. Acrylic on masonite. 1993. Stein painted workers prostrating themselves before the insatiable God, Moloch, who in this case is depicted as a modern Sport Utility Vehicle. The ancient Canaanites sacrificed their children to Moloch in order to atone for their sins.

"Moloch" - Philip Stein. Acrylic on masonite. 1993. Stein painted workers prostrating themselves before the insatiable God, Moloch, who in this case is depicted as a modern Sport Utility Vehicle. The ancient Canaanites sacrificed their children to Moloch in order to atone for their sins.

People in or near Los Angeles have a unique opportunity to expand their understanding of the life and times of Philip Stein, Siqueiros, and the school of social realism, by attending the Blind Justice exhibit at L.A.’s Gallery 1927. In actuality the show is a duplication of A Civil Defense: Paintings of Estaño, an exhibit of Stein’s paintings and drawings held in 2012 at the Take My Picture gallery in downtown L.A. Both exhibits were made possible by Estaño’s daughter, Anne Stein, who has quite admirably worked tirelessly at preserving her father’s legacy.

While the so-called “art press” and the rest of the media in the U.S. effectively paid no attention to A Civil Defense, Spain’s International News Agency, EFE, interviewed me in Sept. of 2012 as part of their coverage of the exhibit. The largest Spanish language newswire service in Spain, Latin America, and the U.S., EFE is also the 4th largest worldwide newswire service. It operates like the Associated Press, offering reports that news sources pick up and publish. Reporter Fernando Mexía of EFE put questions to me concerning the life and works of Stein, details that appeared in an EFE report published by Spain’s ABC.es, Argentina’s Yahoo! Noticias, Mexico’s Siempre!, Ecuador’s El Comercio, and dozens of other Spanish language publications worldwide.

"The Cursed." - Philip Stein. Pyroxylin on masonite. 1951. Stein painted his piece in pyroxylin, the nitro-cellulose paint DuPont manufactured for painting cars, and which Siqueiros pioneered the use of in his murals and easel paintings. The Cursed gives a picture of what might be Conquistadors on their way to battle Aztecs, or a depiction of soldiers from a modern, mechanized army. Stein once told me that his painting depicted "the evil arm of wealth, the plague of this earth."

"The Cursed." - Philip Stein. Pyroxylin on masonite. 1951. Stein painted his piece in pyroxylin, the nitro-cellulose paint DuPont manufactured for painting cars, and which Siqueiros pioneered the use of in his murals and easel paintings. "The Cursed" gives a picture of what might be Conquistadors on their way to battle Aztecs, or a depiction of soldiers from a modern, mechanized army. Stein once told me that his painting depicted "the evil arm of wealth, the plague of this earth."

Based on the EFE newswire report, MSN Latinoamérica featured a Spanish language video titled Philip Stein, el desconocido asistente de Siqueiros (Philip Stein, the unknown assistant of Siqueiros). The well produced short video gives a glimpse of the Civil Defense exhibit, along with some splendid close-up shots of Stein’s paintings and drawings. If you missed the 2012 exhibit, be sure and see Stein’s paintings in the Blind Justice show at Gallery 1927. It is not known when, or if, the evocative and intelligent works of Estaño will be seen again soon.

Blind Justice runs until November 10, 2013 at Gallery 1927 at the Fine Arts Building. 811 W. 7th Street. Los Angeles, CA 90017. (Ph: 805-217-2186).

"The Temperature Has Risen." - Philip Stein. Acrylic on masonite. 1989. An excerpt of a larger painting that warns of ecological collapse. Stein said of the artwork, "Scientists have warned of an impending disaster."

"The Temperature Has Risen." - Philip Stein. Acrylic on masonite. 1989. An excerpt of a larger painting that warns of ecological collapse. Stein said of the artwork, "Scientists have warned of an impending disaster."

LACMA Halloween Nightmare

Alternative BP logo - Anonymous. Submission from the BP "Logo Makeover" contest sponsored by Greenpeace UK in May of 2010. © All rights reserved/Greenpeace UK.

Alternative BP logo - Anonymous. Submission from the BP "Logo Makeover" contest sponsored by Greenpeace UK in May of 2010. © All rights reserved/Greenpeace UK.

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

By a route obscure and lonely, haunted by ill angels only, the museum promotes their monstrous masquerade ball as “haunted by the ghosts of old Hollywood,” and entreats those who are fearless enough to attend, to “make your red-carpet debut and toast the town, but don’t be surprised if you feel some darkness lurking behind the red carpet.”

Oh yes dear baddies and cackling cacodemons, there are evildoing specters oozing, percolating, leaking, and bleeding all over the LACMA campus, and the foul spirits reek of viscous crude oil!

Ghoulies and harpies attending the Muse Costume Ball will be bedeviled, and distressed by various exhibits and art happenings in and around the unholy grounds of LACMA.

Clairy Browne and the Bangin’ Rackettes will regale rapscallions and banshees alike with their clichéd sultriness, Theophilus London will get dem dry bones clattering with the type of rap so fresh that it makes a George Romero reanimated corpse look like a newborn, and Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group will do their very best to scare the bejesus out of bored, jaded, trend mongering, L.A. bon vivants. For youse jack-o-lantern headed, worm-eaten postmodern art loving goons, you can feast yer vacant eyes on Richard Serra’s Whatchamacallit, Bruce Nauman’s Gang Signs For Beginners, or Chris Burden’s super expensive Tonka Toy set, Metropolis I love you. Wow, all those performers and artists… really scary stuff.

Alternative BP logo - Based on Edvard Munch's artwork, "The Scream" © All rights reserved/Greenpeace UK.

Alternative BP logo - Based on Edvard Munch's artwork, "The Scream" © All rights reserved/Greenpeace UK.

A horrid night will be had by undead art superstars, devilish art critics, and other ne’er-do-wells, but perhaps the most disagreeable and ghastly evening will be had by none other than Michael Govan, the Director, CEO, and numero uno mischievous sprite of LACMA.

It is rumored that Govan will make an important announcement at LACMA’s Muse Costume Ball, the acquisition of a most important “land art” masterpiece from New York based conceptual artist, Bob Dudley.

Titled Massive Tar Mat, Dudley’s earth art magnum opus makes use of natural materials from the Gulf of Mexico; sand, shells, water, and a few lifeless sea creatures. The controversial work of genius is said to measure 165 feet long by 65 feet wide, and Govan has secretively kept the piece underwraps, though it is beginning to stink of petroleum and death.

Dudley’s Massive Tar Mat was purchased for an undisclosed price rumored to be as high as $18 billion. Much bigger and far more expensive than Michael Heizer’s $10 million boulder, Levitated Mass, Dudley’s tour de force will no doubt put LACMA on the map for worldwide art tourism. No-goodniks and wraiths at the Muse Costume Ball will breathlessly be anticipating the unveiling of Dudley’s masterwork.

Alternative BP logo  - Anonymous © All rights reserved/Greenpeace UK.

Alternative BP logo - Anonymous © All rights reserved/Greenpeace UK.

Meanwhile, there are those interfering and annoying do-gooders who just want to spoil a damned good night of mischief-making.

The California Attorney General has filed a lawsuit against BP for violating state law on handling hazardous materials and toxic waste, accusing BP of endangering public health by not properly inspecting and maintaining underground gasoline storage tanks for 750 California gas stations.

Oh come on, why be so upset about a little lethal waste? Besides, BP is a major contributor to LACMA, how can the museum keep telling people of BP’s “commitment to sustainable energy” with the state of California suing the oil giant?

But wait, there is more… paranormal events have been spooking LACMA’s grounds in the days just before the Muse Costume Ball. The disembodied spirits of the 11 workers killed when BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico on April 26, 2010, have been seen on the roof of LACMA’s “BP Grand Entrance.” Atop that wretched entry, the ghostly workers reenact desperate attempts to evacuate the burning oil rig that led to their demise. No doubt the specters will continue to haunt LACMA’s entrance as long as it bears such a hellish name.

Alternative BP logo  - Anonymous © All rights reserved/Greenpeace UK.

Alternative BP logo - Anonymous © All rights reserved/Greenpeace UK.

Museum patrons have reported that poltergeists have rebuilt the large reflecting pools of water that once graced LACMA’s grounds. Younger Angelenos will not remember the pools on Wilshire Boulevard that nearly surrounded the entire museum in its early years.

Because oil from the nearby La Brea Tar Pits continually seeped into those lovely pools, they were emptied of water and eventually filled in; a portent of LACMA actually becoming the oil museum. But since poltergeists love to plague and pester, they have created phantom pools containing not water, but tar balls and smelly petroleum.

Those who have seen the mirage-like black pools swear they contain horribly mutated sea creatures from BP’s Gulf disaster; shrimp born without eyes, clawless crabs, fish with oozing sores and other nightmares.

When on October 26, hipster hobgoblins, suburbanite zombies, and edgy demons with androgynous hair cuts try and make their way to LACMA’s Muse Costume Ball, they may well have to circumnavigate Bob Dudley’s malodorous Massive Tar Mat, a phantasm burning oil rig, and some really pissed-off mutant sea creatures in order to do so. Not to mention encountering the scary Attorney General of California gnashing her teeth out in front of the BP Grand Entrance.

Oh, and there is one more nightmarish thing to deal with, ticket prices. LACMA’s monster mash is not for bête noire proletarian miscreants, it is strictly for upper-crust bloodsuckers and villainess socialites. At $100 per general admission ticket, what is a poor working ghoul to do?

Ya know… creeps and bugaboos might be better off staying at home and watching reruns of The Walking Dead.

The New World Border Exhibit

The New World Border traveling exhibit was originally organized in 2011 by three artists from the San Francisco Bay area of Northern California, Francisco Dominquez, Art Hazelwood, and Doug Minkler. The exhibit is comprised of prints created by thirty artists from around the U.S. who are opposed to the construction of a giant “security” wall along the U.S./Mexico border. The collection of linoleum cuts, silk-screens, monoprints, offset and digital prints has so far been exhibited in 9 states across the U.S. in sixteen different venues.

The exhibit premiered at the La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley, California, where it ran from March 3rd to April 30, 2011, and it concluded a run at its sixteenth venue, La Casa del Túnel: Art Center in Tijuana, México, for the month of September, 2013.

"No Border Wall" - Mokhtar Paki. Digital print, 2011.

"No Border Wall" - Mokhtar Paki. Digital print, 2011.

Included in the exhibit is Mokhtar Paki’s digital graphic, No Border Wall, an anthropomorphic depiction of the barrier that scars the boundary between the U.S. and Mexico. The artist portrayed the wall as having been transformed into a goliath police force automaton.

Created from inanimate materials - concrete, barbed wire, and a closed-circuit television spy camera for an eye - the creature has been endowed with life by the national security state in an attempt to keep humanity divided. The concrete slabs that form the monster’s head also allude to the so-called “Security Fence” Israel has constructed around the Palestinian West Bank.

However, since its creation, Paki’s artwork has been given another layer of meaning. President Obama’s NSA surveillance program is currently spying on every American that sends an e-mail, views a webpage, posts a photo to social media, or uses a cell phone.

I am not a fan of “appropriation” in postmodern art. Too often the methodology is employed in such a way that the “repurposing” of another artist’s work not only leads to a facile style that does not require much imagination and even less skill, it also strips history from our collective consciousness. As a rule such works offer little more than cynicism and a supposed “ironic” view of life, concomitantly avoiding any substantive critique of the social order.

An accepted practice with today’s elite art establishment and its stables of revolting art stars, “appropriation art” is a far cry from its origins, the radically subversive “détournement” that members of the late 1950s Situationist International (SI) advanced.  For those revolutionists, it was a method of “turning expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself.”

That being said, Nancy Hom’s digital print, Catalina’s World, is an example of how appropriation works best in visual art. Hom is counting on the viewer being familiar with the famous 1948 painting by Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World, since her print would be meaningless without foreknowledge of Wyeth’s tour de force. Hom re-imagined Wyeth’s realist painting as a hard-edged, silkscreen-like image, and in the process transformed Wyeth’s magnum opus into a depiction of the sad realities now occurring at the U.S., Mexico border.

"Catalina’s World" - Nancy Hom. Digital print, 2011. "As she treads wearily towards the promised land of El Norte, the very earth she crawls upon becomes death itself."

"Catalina’s World" - Nancy Hom. Digital print, 2011. "As she treads wearily towards the promised land of El Norte, the very earth she crawls upon becomes death itself."

Wyeth painted a portrait of his neighbor Christina, a woman incapacitated by polio whose courage and will to live was not at all stricken; as Wyeth put it, she was “limited physically but by no means spiritually.” Somehow the depiction of the woman crawling through a parched field of tall grass towards a hilltop wooden farmhouse conveys a great sense of optimism; Wyeth’s brilliant treatment of sunlight and open space suggests, not a world of pain, but one of boundless freedom. Christina is an enchanted being that makes her way through a dreamlike realm where all things are possible. Wyeth’s celebration of mystery and the indomitable human spirit can easily be categorized as “magical realism,” a genre that today is most often associated with the artists of Latin America; here we begin to slip into Nancy Hom’s vision.

In Hom’s print, Christina has metamorphosized into Catalina, an archetypical Latina. As an “everywoman” figure, Catalina also displays bravery and the will to persevere, but instead of finding herself in a sunny dreamland where hope imbues every blade of grass, she is trapped in the nightmare world of the border region. As she treads wearily towards the promised land of El Norte, the very earth she crawls upon becomes death itself - a morbid reminder of the thousands who have perished from thirst or violence in failed attempts to cross the border over the years.

"Quetzal" - Fernando Marti. linocut, monoprint, and hand painted watercolor. "Complying only with the laws of nature."

"Quetzal" - Fernando Marti. linocut, monoprint, and hand painted watercolor. "Complying only with the laws of nature."

Fernando Marti’s Quetzal is a dazzling poster, for its message as well as its technical virtuosity; the print is a combination of linoleum cut, monoprint, and hand-painted watercolor.

The simple black and white linoleum cut of the border security fence is convincing in its minimalism, as is the rocky barren landscape it divides. Soaring above the scene is a magnificent Quetzal, the bird most closely associated with Central America; sacred to the indigenous people of the region, the bird is a symbol of freedom to many.

The pre-Columbian border design and the “speech glyph” emanating from the bird, allude to the role the Quetzal played in the ancient Maya and Aztec civilizations. The Quetzal flies freely over the fence, complying only with the laws of nature and ignoring the false divides imposed by nation states.

"Ningun ser Humano es Ilegal" (No Human Being is Illegal). Mark Vallen. Offset poster ©. This photo shows the poster carried at the 2010 Chicano Moratorium march in Los Angeles, CA.

"Ningun ser Humano es Ilegal" (No Human Being is Illegal). Mark Vallen. Offset poster ©. This photo shows the poster carried at the 2010 Chicano Moratorium march in Los Angeles, CA.

My own No Human Being is Illegal poster is included in the show. First published as a bilingual street poster in 1988, its title eventually became a catchphrase for today’s defenders of immigrants’ rights. The poster’s axiom is an emphatic affirmation of the inherent rights possessed by humankind. It cautions that when individuals are stripped of humanity and designated as “illegal,” then even worse abuses cannot be far behind. Not so long ago it used to be said that a child born to unmarried parents was “illegitimate.” I am hopeful that in the future, the opinion that some people are “illegal aliens” will also become an archaic expression.

No Human Being is Illegal was original published in conjunction with a 1988 drive conducted by the Los Angeles based Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), to secure the rights of undocumented Central American war refugees in the U.S. During the 1980s Central America was convulsed by revolution and murderous state repression. Seeking to escape the carnage, hundreds of thousands of people furtively entered the U.S., only to find themselves targeted for arrest and deportation back to the killing fields.

Welcome to the Land of Your Dreams by Jos Sances, takes a scatological approach to the issue at hand. Grimly sarcastic, the land of milk and honey resembles nothing so much as an enormous dung-heap, a foul pile made from the detritus of empire. Composed of discarded refrigerators, cars, TVs, disposable consumer products of all kinds… and human bodies, the enormous lopsided rubbish mound is perilously close to falling over from its own weight. The fetid mass is protected by a razor wire topped cyclone fence, the vehicle of an armed security patrol parked at the ready alongside the security fence.

"Welcome to the Land of Your Dreams" - Jos Sances. Digital and Screen-print, 2001.

"Welcome to the Land of Your Dreams" - Jos Sances. Digital and Screen-print, 2001.

At the pinnacle of the mountain of crap sits an amusement park carousel ride, except that the merry-go-round’s painted wooden horses have been replaced with grotesqueries; sitting atop the carnival ride’s rooftop is the logo for the American International Group (AIG). Formerly one of the world’s biggest insurers, AIG collapsed in 2008, was then bailed out by the U.S. government using taxpayer dollars - $182 billion worth - after which AIG used around $1.2 billion of the bailout funds to pay their CEOs lavish bonuses. The dung-heap must be maintained.

Adding a surrealist touch to the miserablist landscape, a gargantuan housefly buzzes over the rotten panorama like a converted crop duster towing an aerial advertising banner; flapping in the wind, the streamer is emblazoned with a mock advertising jingle, which also serves as the title of the print… “Welcome to the Land of Your Dreams.

On the face of it New World Border has a single focus, the border between Mexico and the U.S, but the exhibit provides an opportunity to look closer at a very complex situation; modern Mexico is in a tailspin, and U.S. governmental policy has much to do with it. Mexico is tormented by a vicious “Drug War” that has taken the lives of some 70,000 people, workers in Mexico and the U.S. have suffered immense setbacks under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the Mexico government is run by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), a corrupt political party that has held power almost continuously for 71 years. While not directly addressed in the New World Border, these facts form a backdrop for a deeper understanding of the exhibit.

A quick look at Mexico’s humble corn tortilla reveals much. The domestication of corn began in Mexico some 9,000 years ago, and it became the foundation of the great Olmec, Maya, and Aztec civilizations. Corn went on to become a main food crop and staple in Mexico’s centuries old village-based corn economy, with the corn tortilla still reigning supreme. Then came NAFTA. Signed into law by President Clinton, Canadian Prime Minister Mulroney, and Mexican President Carlos Salinas of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the supposed goal of NAFTA was the abolition of trade barriers between the capitalists of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

One result of NAFTA was that Mexico was flooded with inexpensive U.S. corn imports produced by American corporate agribusiness, so much that Mexico’s farmers had no chance to sell their corn at competitive prices. Hundreds of thousands of Mexican campesinos stopped growing corn, can no longer maintain their farms, and have lost their land and livelihoods. Today Mexico imports more corn from the U.S. than it grows; the corn tortilla in Mexico is more likely made of cheap GMO corn from the U.S. than from a Mexican farmer. To think, the Aztecs used to worship “the Lord of Maize.” As Mexico’s corn economy continues to collapse, the country’s farmers and agricultural laborers migrate to the U.S. in search of work.

Despite promises from President Clinton that “NAFTA means jobs, American jobs, and good-paying jobs,” the results of NAFTA have been the deindustrialization of the U.S. and the exportation of hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs to the Maquiladora “Free Trade Zone” of Mexico. Mexican workers labor in those U.S. owned plants for as little as $50 for a 60-hour work week. Largely composed of women, the work force suffers from severe exploitation, miserable working conditions, a total lack of union representation, grinding poverty, and environmental hazards. U.S. and Mexican elites have made off like bandits, while workers on both sides of the border have suffered nothing but losses.

The “Drug War” fought in Mexico since 2006 has taken the lives of 57,449 Mexicans as reported in late 2012 by the Monterrey de Milenio newspaper. Let us put that statistic in context. U.S. soldiers fought in Vietnam from 1955 to 1975, and during those twenty years 58,209 U.S. soldiers died in combat. In Aug. of 2012, the Mexican non-governmental citizens action group, Movement for Peace With Justice and Dignity, put the drug war death toll at 70,000 - so far. As the Mexican government supposedly combats groups like the Sinaloa and Los Zetas drug cartels, the well armed cartels battle each other for control of turf and profits. The war is exceedingly brutal, as this photo essay in The Atlantic attests. Mass killings, torture, and beheadings committed by cartel gunmen are routine; it is all done to feed the drug habits of North Americans.

Much has been made of arms purchased in U.S. gun stores ending up in the hands of Mexican drug gangs. But the weapons seized by Mexican authorities often include the same type of weapons the Pentagon supplies the Mexican military. The U.S. has provided $2 billion in military aid to Mexico’s police and armed forces since 2009. Leftover rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, and fully automatic AK47 rifles from Central America’s civil wars are also available on the black market. It should be apparent that corrupt members of the Mexican government, military, and police run a pipeline of arms to the cartels.

The Obama administration claims that it tried to smash cartel arms traffickers in 2009 with Operation Fast & Furious. Agents of the ATF allowed criminals working with the cartels to purchase guns in the U.S., then tracked the arms as they were brought into Mexico. It is alleged that the operation was to meant to identify and arrest the drug lords receiving the guns. However, the weapons were never traced to their end users, they disappeared into the cartel underground; no cartel boss was ever arrested as a result of the “sting.” The operation started to unravel when U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was killed in 2010 near the Arizona-Mexico border by gunmen using two AK47 rifles traced to Fast & Furious. Since then hundreds of Mexican civilians have been killed by guns traced to the operation. Of the over 2,000 guns Fast & Furious brought into Mexico, 710 have been found at crime scenes or otherwise “recovered,” the rest remain in the hands of the cartels.

"PRInocho: Peña No Cumple" (Peña Fails) - Opposition poster against President Nieto. "Pinocho" is Spanish for "Pinocchio", so PRInocho is a play on words that equates Nieto with the marionette whose nose grew longer when telling a lie, and identifies Nieto as a string-puppet of the PRI.

"PRInocho: Peña No Cumple" (Peña Fails) - This poster against President Nieto is not part of the New World Border exhibit. "Pinocho" is Spanish for "Pinocchio", so PRInocho is a play on words that equates Nieto with the marionette whose nose grew longer when telling a lie. The poster also identifies Nieto as a string-puppet of the PRI.

Then there is Mexico’s rigged general election of July 1, 2012. The contest was between Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI, and Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the “left” social democratic Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).

Massive vote rigging swept Nieto and the PRI into power; reports of fraud, vote buying and tampering with ballots were rife. The AP reported that the PRI distributed untold thousands of pre-paid “gift cards” in poor neighborhoods in exchange for votes.

The Sydney Morning Herald of Australia quoted Eduardo Huchim of the Civic Alliance, which is funded by the United Nations Development Program; ”It was neither a clean nor fair election, it was perhaps the biggest operation of vote-buying and coercion in the county’s history.”

Latinos Post quoted an electrician and trade unionist, Heliodoro Maciel; “Yes, the PRI has experience. They know how to steal. They know how to make pacts with drug cartels. And they know how to kill.”

President Obama telephoned Enrique Peña Nieto in the aftermath of the sham election to congratulate Nieto for winning a “free, fair, and clear” election. Nieto’s reign will not be any different than that of his crooked PRI predecessors; historically the PRI has been the party of oligarchy, repression, and naked reaction.

In 1938 left-leaning President Lázaro Cárdenas nationalized Mexico’s oil at a time when U.S. and British oil companies completely dominated Mexico’s oilfields, taking the lion’s share of the profits. Cárdenas’ nationalization of the country’s oil has long been a wellspring of national pride for Mexicans. But Nieto wants to privatize sectors of Mexico’s Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), the state-owned oil company. El Presidente wants the nation’s oil resources sold to the highest bidding foreign oil companies - which is the real reason he received a heartfelt “congrats” from Mr. Obama.

On Sept. 8, 2013, over 40,000 people gathered in Mexico’s capital beneath a gigantic banner that read, “No To The Robbery Of All Time,” in opposition to Nieto’s privatizing the oil industry. Just 3 days before Mexico’s Independence Day (celebrated each Sept. 16th), President Nieto ordered 3,000 riot police to forcibly remove tens of thousands of striking Mexican teachers who were protesting in the capital’s central plaza. Prior to seeing Nieto shout “¡Viva México!” from the balcony of the National Palace in the annual commemoration of the revolution against the Spanish Empire, the nation got to witness riot cops tear-gassing, and bludgeoning teachers.

Stories more revealing of Mexico’s excrescent ruling elite could not be told.

The New World Border exhibit has been shown at venues from Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, to exhibit spaces in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Missouri. At the end of 2012 an entire suite of prints from the show was acquired by the U.S. Library of Congress for that body’s impressive permanent collection. In mid-October 2013, a PowerPoint display of New World Border prints was presented at the Borders, Walls and Security international conference held at the University of Quebec at Montreal, Quebec, Canada, bringing the exhibit to three countries.

New World Border is also scheduled to be shown from November 2013 to March 2014 at the main library of City College of San Francisco in San Francisco, California. In addition, a full set of New World Border posters will be donated to the collection of Cal State University at Sacramento, California, were a future exhibition of the prints is currently being scheduled.

Art Is For Everyone!

On September 27, 2013 the “liberal” American magazine, The New Republic, published an article by its editor-at-large Michael Kinsley. In the piece titled If They Replaced Detroit’s Art Treasures with Fakes, Would Anyone be Able to Tell?, Kinsley suggested that a proposal made by Harvard political scientist Edward Banfield 30 years ago might be the solution to the crisis at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). Banfield had written that museum collections should be sold off and replaced by reproductions, his logic being that most people would not know the difference. Kinsley remarked that personally he “certainly couldn’t” tell the difference, and then went on to add his own smug ignorance to Banfield’s bottomless pit of philistinism by adding that fakes placed in the DIA would not even have to be good quality reproductions.

Kinsley claimed that “most people’s appreciation of art” comes from seeing “posters or postcards or beach towels or t-shirts,” and he concluded his piece of writing with the tongue in cheek intimation that the DIA’s masterworks could be replaced “secretly” by making “the switcheroo late one night.” Kinsley was being facetious of course, but his flippancy masked a barely concealed contempt for art and its enthusiasts. Kinsley neglected to mention that Edward Banfield was also opposed to the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts and that he was an advisor to Republican presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan. So much for liberalism.

But there is a precedent to the boorish notions of Banfield and Kinsley. At the end of 1962 the Louvre in Paris loaned Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to the U.S. government for exhibit in the United States. The painting was endlessly hyped by the media, resulting in a sort of frenzy, or what arts writer and social historian Robert Hughes came to call, the Mona Lisa Curse.

On January 8, 1963 the Mona Lisa went on view at the National Gallery in the nation’s capital; U.S. President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson were in attendance. The painting itself was given Secret Service protection at the same level ordinarily given to presidents. On February 4, 1963, the Mona Lisa went on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where during a three and a half week run, over one million people shuffled by the celebrated oil painting. When hearing that the Mona Lisa was coming to America, Andy Warhol made the oafish wisecrack, “Why don’t they have someone copy it and send the copy, no one would know the difference.”

Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight apparently could not countenance Kinsley’s foolishness, and so fired a metaphorical “shot across the bow” at The New Republic’s editor-at-large titled, A suggestion to replace art with reproductions in bankrupt Detroit. Knight’s withering screed berated Kinsley for adding to the “rich tradition of know-nothings writing about art and museums,” and for advocating “Art for the aristocrats, reproductions for the peasants.”

Though I agreed with much of what Knight wrote, he concluded that Kinsley’s piece failed as satire because it labored under “the common misconception that art is for everyone, even though it isn’t. Art is not for everyone (that would be TV), it’s for anyone - which is not the same thing.” In those words I find an assessment as absurd as Kinsley’s. Knight contradicts himself by admonishing Kinsley for having an aristocratic view of art, then proceeds to express what is the quintessential patrician view of art - it is not for everyone.

I have no regard for the works of postmodern artist Tracey Emin, who I am told is one of Britain’s greatest living artists and a “leading light” in the circle of bloated art star frauds nicknamed the “Young British Artists.” But after she received the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) at the investiture ceremony held on March 7, 2013 at Buckingham Palace in London, Emin said: “I think that art’s for everybody and everybody’s entitled to the best culture, the best literature, the best education, the best that everyone can have.” Emin, who has declared herself to be a royalist, voted for the Conservatives in the 2010 election, and accepted a commission from Tory Prime Minister David Cameron to create an installation piece for 10 Downing Street.  She can proclaim that “art is for everybody,” but the art critic at the “liberal” L.A. Times declares the exact opposite. My goodness… the world has been turned upside down.

If “art is not for everyone” as Mr. Knight tells us, why then is it part of the core curriculum of the U.S. public education system? Should we stop teaching children about art? Art education in U.S. public schools has suffered brutal cutbacks for the last few decades, and Mr. Knight’s unhelpful proclamation only serves to place the finishing touches on its demise. My point is that we are not born with language and writing skills anymore than we have an inborn sophisticated appreciation of art and aesthetics… all of these things are obtained through education and socialization. If, for whatever reason, we stopped teaching children the use of language and writing, we would not have to wait long to see the harmful results. Curtailing or eliminating arts education in American schools will have no less a detrimental outcome.

Knight rebukes Kinsley for his “slide into phony populism” and then stakes out the anti-egalitarian position for himself by writing: “a great thing about democracy is that it aspires to create opportunities for anyone to become an elitist (….) That’s a primary reason we even have places like the Detroit Institute of Arts.” Actually no, the great thing about democracy is that it takes power from the hands of elites and places it in the hands of ordinary people, at least in theory it does. I do not call for the defense of the DIA because it helps to develop and maintain elitism, I support the museum because making a great collection of art accessible to everyday working people is a fundamental aspect of a democratic society.

Kinsley’s open contempt towards art and its aficionados, and Knight’s doggedness that “art is not for everyone” are both unwise if not laughable positions. I find them irksome because I have always believed and advocated that art is for everyone. I say this not as an activist, a trendy dilettante, an academic, or God forbid, a bourgeois art critic. I make the pronouncement as an artist who has been creating drawings, prints, and paintings his entire life.

A foundation of this conviction of mine is partly based upon seeing how art and culture has operated on a grass-roots level in the Mexican American community. “Making due with what you have” is a partial definition for “rasquache,” a Chicano term that describes an aesthetic of necessity and defiance. Rasquache sprang from poor barrios where working class people had few resources and even less access to art, at least how the dominant society defined art. Creating something out of nothing was rasquache, it was a “people’s art” made by those untrained in art, and it became a primary force in Chicano art and aesthetics.

In this short interview with Dr. Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, a foremost scholar of Chicano and U.S. Latino art, we are given a clear definition of rasquachismo and how it has shaped working class Chicano culture. Ybarra-Frausto makes clear that rasquache is not analogous to the kitsch or low-brow art of the postmodern “avant-garde.” Rasquache has a class dimension, it is rooted in poor Chicano communities and has always been a form of cultural resistance to the dominant society.

During the Chicano Arts Movement of the late 1960s, artists embraced rasquache and exalted the sleek modernist lines and intricate paint jobs of low-rider cars, the altars and religious icons of pious Catholics, the uniquely ornate placas (graffiti) found on the street, the attire of Cholos wearing button down flannel shirts with bandanas around their foreheads, the “Mom & Pop” storefronts painted in bright colors, the iconography of pre-Columbian civilizations and the Mexican Revolution, and so much more. Chicano artists were stirred by the life found in their communities, and they distilled that experience into a unique aesthetic. Those artistic sensibilities still largely imbue and guide contemporary Chicano art.

Rasquache is a word that once referred to things tawdry and cheap, but its meaning was changed in the late 60s to describe the assortment of visual cues, histories, and cultural identifiers that made up the new Chicano aesthetic. At the time there was an explosion of murals, theater pieces, and posters that were rooted in rasquache sensibilities, works that sought to uplift, beautify, defend, and unite the Mexican American community through art. This is something my friend and artistic associate Gilbert “Magú” Luján (RIP) discussed with me on more than a few occasions. Artists like Magú felt that art was for, and sprang from, the community. Mexican Americans have developed their art and culture from the ground up, nurturing and cultivating it even as it was denied a place in America’s cultural institutions. To Chicanos, Knight’s proclamation that “art is not for everyone” sounds not only ridiculous, but discriminatory.

But there was another dimension to the Chicano Art Movement in the late 1960s. We were inspired by the likes of Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros of the Mexican Muralist School. Those artists created public works in the belief that art was for everyone, and that working people would be enriched by interactions with art. Though snubbed today by those who spout postmodern gobbledygook, that democratic impulse in art still survives.

I must remind the “art is not for everyone” crowd of the 1932 América Tropical mural created in Los Angeles by Siqueiros. Preserved in situ by the Getty Conservation Institute, the mural on L.A.’s downtown Olvera Street now has its own museum, which opened to the public in October, 2012 to great acclaim. América Tropical is one of L.A.’s finest historic examples of art being for everyone; it is a work that birthed a new phase in American muralism that eventually led to Los Angeles becoming the “mural capital of the world” by the early 1970s.

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

Leave the critics to argue amongst themselves.

Protest at the Detroit Institute of Arts

"Show Me The Monet" -  This photo shows protestors at the Defend the DIA demonstration of Oct. 4, 2013. Photo by Tanya Moutzalias for MLive.com.

"Show Me The Monet" - This photo shows protestors at the Defend the DIA demonstration of Oct. 4, 2013. Photo by Tanya Moutzalias for MLive.com.

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

A sizeable flying picket line of protestors gathered in front of the museum; they walked behind a large banner that read “Defend The DIA!” and carried homemade signs that read, “Don’t show me the money - Show Me The Monet,” “Gogh Away from the DIA,” and “Preserve the Picasso - Defend the Dali - Maintain the Michelangelo.”

Perhaps the most poignant handmade sign that I spotted was carried by a young woman, it read, “Hearts Starve as well as bodies, We Want Bread and Roses!” The sign was a direct reference to the Great Lawrence Textile Strike of 1912 carried out by mostly female immigrant workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Also known as the “Bread & Roses Strike,” the workers took their slogan from American poet, James Oppenheim, who had written the pro-labor poem Bread and Roses just a year earlier: “Yes, it is bread we fight for - but we fight for roses, too!” Oppenheim’s poem denoted that the fight for pragmatic necessities like jobs and decent housing is crucial, but the quest for beauty and the spiritually sublime is also essential to our wellbeing.

As more than a dozen drummers gathered at curbside and people chanted slogans like “Hey, hey corporate vultures, keep your hands off our culture!”, and “The working class is here to fight, culture is a social right!”, Auguste Rodin’s 1904 bronze sculpture The Thinker seemed to survey the lively scene from its granite base located on the steps of the DIA. Even the words chiseled into the stone facade of the museum contributed to the spirit of the day: “Dedicated by the People of Detroit to the Knowledge and Enjoyment of Art.” Video of the protest anonymously uploaded to Youtube shows the type of glorious activism in defense of art that I have advocated for years. I hope to see much more of this type of joyous but combative creative action in the months and years to come. It is long overdue in the United States.

"The Orator, Madison Square" - Martin Lewis. Etching. 1916. Collection of the DIA.

"The Orator, Madison Square" - Martin Lewis. Etching. 1916. Collection of the DIA.

I first wrote about the crisis at the DIA in a March 2009 post titled, Zombie Banks, Art Museums, & War. That was followed up by a June 2009 post titled, The Death of Motor City. As the economic collapse in Detroit escalated and the city threatened to auction the DIA’s holdings to pay down city debts, I wrote two major articles, Killing the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Defend the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Needless to say, I am heartened that the people of Detroit took to the streets on Oct. 4th to stand up for the DIA; I was there in spirit.

The protest to save the DIA was organized by the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) and its youth wing, the International Youth and Students for Social Equality. Largely coordinated and promoted on the SEP’s World Socialist Web Site, the party has closely followed the crisis at the DIA and has published innumerable insightful and informative articles on the matter; they have certainly dedicated more column inches to the subject than an other publication or organization that I can think of. The SEP has set up a dedicated website, DEFENDTHEDIA, from which they hope to maintain and enlarge their campaign.

As of this writing the protest has only been covered by a few Detroit media outlets: ABC Detroit, The Detroit News, MLive Detroit, Examiner.com, and CBS Detroit. It is telling that the “paper of record,” the New York Times, could not be bothered to report on the demonstration, despite the national and international implications of the story. Likewise, major dailies like the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post have also ignored the protest. Notably but not surprisingly, the so-called art press did just as poorly, due no doubt to its general political apathy and postmodern detachment.

It was the alleged “left” press in the U.S. that possibly made the worst showing of all, which only fuels my general disdain for what now passes as a political left in the United States. During the course of this year self-styled “progressive” websites like The Nation, Mother Jones, Common Dreams, and The Progressive have not written a single solitary word concerning the possible destruction of the DIA and what this will mean for the American cultural landscape! Democracy Now, the vaunted flagship news and views show of the “progressive - liberal” Pacifica Radio network has remained completely silent regarding the Detroit Institute of Arts. Over the years these social democratic types have been droning on about what a threat the U.S. rightwing presents to the arts; it is an accusation that only serves to mask their own philistinism.

 "The Arc Welders at Night" - Martin Lewis. Drypoint etching. 1937. Collection of the DIA.

"The Arc Welders at Night" - Martin Lewis. Drypoint etching. 1937. Collection of the DIA.

The general indifference concerning cultural and artistic matters displayed by the contemporary U.S. “left” make the efforts of the Socialist Equality Party all the more remarkable.

Critics may say the SEP is only attempting to recruit members, but organizing a defense of art and culture is not exactly the way to further an organization’s growth; art is not a “meat and potatoes” issue for most people.

The SEP has gone out on a limb to make the DIA, and broader cultural issues, a focus of their work: if only such a commendable stance was taken up by others - especially, from my perspective, by those professionals working in the arts.

But I am not making an argument meant to promote or otherwise advance the SEP, which is more than capable of doing so on its own. I have never joined nor endorsed any political party; you know, “artistic temperament” and all. I really enjoy being a contrarian and a totally independent artist, but I do admire the SEP for taking up the banner of the DIA and bringing some clarity, passion, and necessary visionary action to the fore.

Mary Harris “Mother” Jones (1837-1930), the American labor agitator and cofounder of the Industrial Workers of the World, once said: “If I can’t sing and dance in your revolution then I want nothing to do with it.” The faux “radicals” and art world hipsters that think the struggle to save the DIA is beneath them and a waste of time, should deeply contemplate the meaning of Jones’ famous quote. As for myself, I will continue to cover events in Detroit and beyond, and I shall carry on the “fight for roses, too.”

Free Poster: I AM NOT THE ENEMY

"I AM NOT THE ENEMY"- Mark Vallen 2001 © 11" x 17" inch poster.

"I AM NOT THE ENEMY"- Mark Vallen 2001 © 11" x 17" poster.

In the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, I created a street poster widely distributed in Los Angeles titled, I Am Not The Enemy.

The poster was derived from an original pencil drawing of mine created in part as a reaction to the murder of a Sikh American man in Arizona, Balbir Singh Sodhi; the killing would be the first post-9/11 violent attack against an innocent civilian on U.S. soil thought to be “the enemy.”

Mr. Sodhi owned a gas station in Mesa, Arizona, and he was shot while arranging U.S. flags in front of his business. When arrested, his killer yelled, “I am a patriot!” and “I stand for America all the way!”

Mr. Sodhi’s murder was in the context of innocent Muslim Americans being blamed, abused, and assaulted all across the U.S. in revenge for 9/11.

When people are denied the right to worship freely, or are otherwise persecuted because of their faith, democracy is threatened. This principle is enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

Given the recent upsurge of racist attacks in the U.S. aimed at those perceived to be Muslims, I have decided to re-release my poster, making it available for free as a downloadable .PDF file that can be printed on any ink jet printer.

The black & white poster measures 11 x 17 inches, and it should be used in the spirit in which it was created, not for profit, but as a simple expression of human decency and solidarity. Further reasons for offering my poster as a free download are to be found in the remainder of this article.

On September 21, 2013, Dr. Prabhjot Singh, a professor from Columbia University, was strolling in New York’s Harlem district near the corner of 110th and Malcolm X Boulevard. He was confronted by a crowd of some 20 young men on bicycles, who yelled anti-Muslim slurs at him, shouting “Get Osama,” and “Terrorist” before launching a vicious physical attack. The gang pulled Singh’s beard, and repeatedly punched and kicked his head and body. Singh might have been killed had it not been for the three good Samaritans that came to his aid to help fight off the hoodlums. The professor’s jaw was broken, and he suffered an injury to his lip, multiple fractures, the loss of several teeth, and a puncture wound to his elbow.

Mainstream press reports mentioned that Singh is an adherent of the Sikh faith, and that his attackers had “misidentified” or “mistaken” him as a Muslim because of his beard and turban, as if the beating would have been acceptable had Singh actually been a Muslim. The press has variously described Singh’s attackers as “a group of young men,” “a mob,” or simply “assailants.” However, when pressed by a reporter in an interview on the Huffington Post, Singh reluctantly said of his tormentors, “it was dark, but it seemed like it was young African American men.” The Village Voice and BuzzFeed.com also reported that the attackers were African American. On Sept. 24, 2013 the NYPD released security video of the suspects leaving the scene of the crime, and asked for the public’s assistance in identifying those who took part in attacking Dr. Singh.

It is a great tragedy of history that on Malcolm X Boulevard, young blacks would assault a man they thought to be a Muslim; one of the most outspoken opponents of racial oppression in the U.S. during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Malcolm X was a Muslim. In 1964 he embraced Sunni Islam and traveled to Mecca to participate in the Islamic pilgrimage known as the Hajj. That experience led him to take the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. That same year he founded the political group, the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), which organized against the racism, colonialism, and imperialism of a capitalist “international power structure.”

Malcolm’s ideas were perhaps best articulated in his By Any Means Necessary speech given at Detroit’s Ford Auditorium on Feb. 14, 1965. The oratory contained the famous words: “We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence - by any means necessary.” A week later Malcolm was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom north of Harlem in New York on Feb. 21, 1965. Acknowledging his stature in the Black community, Lenox Avenue was renamed Malcolm X Boulevard by New York’s mayor in 1987.

While the involvement of young blacks in the attack against Singh underscores the tragic political and moral disorientation of a certain layer of black youth, the appalling incident points to a much larger problem in American society as a whole. Despite our being awash in information and early 21st century technology, the U.S. is not far removed from xenophobic hysteria and blind racism. These malevolent forces find expression amongst the disempowered and uneducated, which at the moment pretty much describes us all. When the economy is in the tank and the nation is at war - and yes dear shopper, the nation is at war - you can count on the flames of tribalism being fanned.

Those that attacked Dr. Singh did so out of distorted notions of patriotism, but where do these ideas emanate from? Twelve years after the 9/11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center, American society still produces individuals who ignorantly lash out at the innocent for the heinous crimes committed by others. Here, the words of Malcolm X come thundering in: “You’re not supposed to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who says it.”

Dr. Singh, an assistant professor at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and a practicing physician that specializes in community-based health care in East Harlem, told BuzzFeed.com: “This is my community, I live in Harlem, I see patients here, It’s not the side of Harlem I’ve come to know and not how I’ve been embraced.” In a press conference held after his release from the hospital, Dr. Singh said: “If I could speak to my attackers, I would ask them if they had any questions, if they knew what they were doing. Maybe invite them to the Gurudwara (Sikh temple) where we worship, get to know who we are, make sure they have an opportunity to move past this as well.”

But Dr. Prabhjot Singh’s ordeal was not an isolated incident. This past January, Mississippi Police accused a Sikh truck driver of being a “terrorist” for not complying with an order to remove his sacred Kirpan talisman; Sikhism requires male devotees to wear a Kirpan and a turban. When appearing in court Jagjeet Singh (all Sikh men carry the last name of Singh, which means Lion) was told by a County Judge that he would have to remove “that rag” from his head or leave the courtroom. Singh eventually pleaded guilty to the charge of “refusing to obey a command” and had to pay a fine. This is not an example of the American “Religious Tolerance” that U.S. citizens take so much pride in, but an instance of xenophobia and ignorance displayed by the state.

Singh and others of his faith have every reason to expect acceptance in the “Land of the Free,” Sikhs first came from India to the U.S. over 130 years ago. Because of the oppressive colonial practices of the British in India, thousands of Sikhs emigrated to the U.S., with most coming to California to labor as agricultural workers. The oldest Sikh temple in the U.S. was built in Stockton, California in 1912; Sikhs have been contributing to the American family ever since.

I have never been a fan of the Miss America contest, since I oppose the sexual objectification of women, but I must bring up the competition in the context of racial bigotry and the attack on Dr. Singh. On Sept. 15, 2013, Nina Davuluri won the Miss America crown at the pageant held in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Born in Syracuse, New York to parents who came from the Republic of India in South Asia, the 24-year-old Davuluri was beset with a torrent of xenophobic comments on social media immediately after her win. Online comments against Ms. Davuluri included the likes of: “Miss Arab wins Miss America,” “9/11 was 4 days ago and she gets Miss America,” “Miss America is a terrorist,” “Congratulations Al-Qaeda, our Miss America is one of you,” and “How the f**k does a foreigner win Miss America?” That Davuluri is an American citizen means nothing to such people.

U.S. history is replete with “nativist” individuals and organizations that favored “true Americans” over immigrants, and sadly, nativism continues to run through the fabric of American society. In the early 1800’s Irish immigrants in the U.S. were considered to be uneducated brutes, lazy, criminally minded, and hopeless alcoholics; the Irish were systematically denied employment and forced to live in slums and were in fact referred to as “white negroes” by those who detested them. Likewise, Italian immigrants in the U.S. also occupied the unenviable position bestowed upon the Irish. The largest mass lynching in U.S. history took place in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1891 when thousands of upright citizens broke into a prison to seize 9 Italian men just found not guilty in the murder of the city’s Police Chief. The Italians were beaten and shot, and dragged into the streets where they were lynched. Two additional Italians imprisoned on unrelated charges were taken from the prison and hanged for good measure.

After Imperial Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japanese Americans suffered through a wave of humiliating and violent racist hysteria that culminated in all people of Japanese ancestry on the West coast of the U.S. being rounded up by presidential order and forcibly shipped to isolated concentration camps. These U.S. citizens were stripped of their possessions, homes, and businesses simply because of their skin color.

On Sept. 9, 2010, the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), the Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress (NCRR), and the Japanese American National Museum of Los Angeles conducted a candlelight vigil against the scapegoating of Muslim Americans. I participated in that vigil of some 200 souls on the steps of the museum, and I was honored that copies of my poster, I Am Not The Enemy, were unreservedly and fervently utilized as statements against racist bigotry, religious intolerance, and national chauvinism. I hope that my current offering will be used in the same manner.

Sept. 11, Chicano Park & Chile

On Sept. 7, 2013, I went to the Southern California coastal City of San Diego, where I revisited the famed Chicano Park murals located in the Mexican-American community of Logan Heights. I spent a day photographing the park’s huge murals that are painted on the monolithic pillars of a freeway overpass, and in months to come I intend to present photos of the wall paintings along with essays on the how’s and why’s of their creation. But this post is more than a “sneak peak” at the photos. Sept. 11, 2013 marks the 40th anniversary of the Chilean coup, and this article will focus on one particular mural in Chicano Park titled, Tribute to Allende.

"Tribute to Allende mural" in Chicano Park. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

"Tribute to Allende mural" in Chicano Park. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

Eleven Minutes, Nine Seconds, One Image: September 11 was an independent film on the subject of the al-Qaeda terror attacks that targeted Americans on Sept. 11, 2001. The movie was actually 11 different visualizations of those events, as told by 11 directors from around the world; the film won two awards at the Venice Film Festival when it premiered in 2002. The contribution to the movie from U.K. director Ken Loach focused on a Chilean folk singer named Pablo. Exiled in London as a result of the coup d’état that took place in Chile on Sept. 11, 1973, Pablo is filmed writing a letter to the American people expressing his sorrow over the 9/11 attacks. He also explains that “enemies of freedom” ravaged and bloodied Chile on 9/11/73. Viewing the film’s segment sets the tone for the rest of this article.

On April 22, 1970, working class Mexican-Americans living in Logan Heights discovered that a parking lot for the Highway Patrol was being constructed in an open area beneath the just built Coronado Bridge. Already stinging from poverty, racism, police brutality, and the displacement of 5,000 families and their homes due to the construction of the Interstate 5 eight lane freeway and the Coronado Bridge, the community had had enough. The Chicanos of Logan Heights seized the land, stopped the bulldozers, drove off the construction workers, and began to build a park for their district. Activists wanted a “people’s park”, and demanded that the land become a liberated zone where Chicano art and culture could flourish. The police arrived in great numbers and a standoff over the park lasted for twelve days. Finally the city agreed to acquire the land for the development of a community park. On January 1, 2013, the National Park Service placed Chicano Park on its Register of Historic Places.

"The 'Tribute to Allende mural' is wrapped around a massive concrete column that holds up the freeway, so the artists took advantage of the architectural support and made their work three dimensional." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

"The 'Tribute to Allende mural' is wrapped around a massive concrete column that holds up the freeway, so the artists took advantage of the architectural support and made their work three dimensional." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

I was seventeen-years-old in 1970, and I had been following news of the Chilean revolution in America’s underground radical press. I do not recall how I got a copy of Por Vietnam, the 1968 album released by the Chilean group Quilapayún, but it changed my life. I had already heard of Victor Jara and Nueva Canción Chilena, so it was the work of Chile’s artists that made me pay closer  attention to what was happening in their country. Of course, there was turmoil everywhere in 1970, and El Movimiento (the Chicano Movement) was at its height in California. The anti-Vietnam war Chicano Moratorium march and rally would take place in East Los Angeles on August 29, 1970, and at seventeen I was very much involved in the spirit of the day.

"Copper for Chile" - Street mural by the Ramona Parra Brigade. Circa 1972. Photographer unknown. The great majority of political street murals from the Allende years were destroyed by the U.S. backed dictatorship of General Pinochet.

"Copper for Chile" - Street mural by the Ramona Parra Brigade. Circa 1972. Photographer unknown. The great majority of political street murals from the Allende years were destroyed by the U.S. backed dictatorship of General Pinochet.

Through the Chicano and antiwar movements I learned that young muralistas in Chile like the Brigada Venceremos, Brigada Ramona Parra (BRP), and other collectives were painting vibrant political murals. I learned that David Alfaro Siqueiros went to Chile in 1941 to paint his influential mural, Muerte al Invasor (Death to the Invader) in the southern Chilean town of Chillán. The mural was painted during a time of political crisis in Chile; during a 1946 general strike in support of striking miners, government soldiers killed six protesting workers, including a 20 year old activist named Ramona Parra -  the BRP’s namesake. From afar I watched in abject horror as Chile was drowned in blood on Sept. 11, 1973.

I believe the earliest mural in Chicano Park was the 1973 Historical Mural, a panorama of events and heroes important to Chicanos. Along with muralist Victor Ochoa and a collective of others, L.A.’s own Gilbert “Magú” Luján (1940-2011) lent a hand in creating the painting. Dozens of mural works followed over the years, and some of these will be pictured in future posts. Tribute to Allende was painted in 1974 by Smiley Benavides & Team from Los Angeles, showing once more how Chicano Park served as a lightning rod for Mexican-Americans throughout the Southwest. Like many of the murals in Chicano Park, Tribute to Allende was fully restored and preserved in 2012 as a result of The Chicano Park Mural Restoration Project. The artists who restored the mural are Norma Montoya, Guillermo Rosette, and Mario Torero.

Detail of "Tribute to Allende" mural in Chicano Park. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

Detail of "Tribute to Allende" mural in Chicano Park. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

I consider Tribute to Allende to be one of the finest mural works in Chicano Park. Many of the park’s murals were created by teams of non-professional artists, but while some of the murals might be lacking in artistic excellence, they all excel when it comes to expressing meaning, community spirit, and the zeal for creating a new society. Tribute to Allende was obviously created by skilled artists; Internationalist in flavor, the mural transcends Chicanismo to address larger issues and the world community. Aesthetically it takes its cue from the militant Chilean murals of the Allende years, capturing the energy of a people struggling against tyranny and oppression. Like a number of Chicano Park murals, Tribute to Allende is wrapped around a massive concrete column that holds up the freeway, so the artists took advantage of the architectural support and made their work three dimensional. Almost abstract, the mural’s nearly Day-Glo colors positively glow in the Southern California sun.

In the early morning hours of September 11, 1973, the armed forces of Chile carried out a coup d’état against the democratically elected Socialist government of President Salvador Allende. Within a few hours the military controlled the entire country with the exception of Santiago, the nation’s capital. President Allende and his loyal bodyguards were surrounded inside La Moneda, the presidential palace; Allende was defiant and refused to surrender to the military. The Air Force bombed La Moneda, hitting it with at least 17 bombs. The generals say Allende took his own life, but it was the military that murdered Chilean democracy.

Detail of "Tribute to Allende" mural in Chicano Park. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

Detail of "Tribute to Allende" mural in Chicano Park. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

What followed was a military dictatorship that reigned until 1990. Led by General Augusto Pinochet, the regime outright murdered some 3,200 people and arrested well over 130,000. Sports stadiums were used as prisons and “interrogation” centers. At the time of the coup, Santiago’s Estadio Nacional (National Stadium) held over 40,000 detainees. At the Estadio Chile (Chile Stadium) in Santiago, thousands were held by the Army, including the pro-Allende folk singer Victor Jara. Recognizing the popular singer, soldiers pulled out his fingernails and smashed his hands with rifle butts, then mocked him by requesting that he play them a song on guitar. The soldiers shot Jara in the back of the head, then raked his body with machine gun fire.

Over the years, thousands of people became desaparecidos (the disappeared), kidnapped by security forces and never seen again. Tens of thousands more were sent to detention camps where they suffered beatings, rape, and torture. The regime created the Caravana de la Muerte (Caravan of Death), an Army death squad that rounded up and assassinated dozens of political opponents. All this and more… the entire country of Chile had become a torture center.

"Rebirth of Quetzalcoatl Tolteca" - Restored by Guillermo Rosette in 2012.

"Rebirth of Quetzalcoatl Tolteca" - Restored by Guillermo Rosette in 2012. On the base of the heavy column that supports the freeway overpass, the artist painted the feathered serpent deity of the Aztecs. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

As it turned out, the Nixon administration had long plotted to overthrow the government of President Salvador Allende, who had committed the unpardonable crime of nationalizing Chile’s resources. Up until the Allende administration, Chile’s three largest copper mines were owned by two U.S. companies, Anaconda Copper Company and Kennecott Copper Corporation. On July 11, 1971, President Allende’s proposed constitutional amendment allowing nationalization of Chile’s copper mines passed the Congress by unanimous vote. The U.S. plot against Chile went into high gear.

Declassified U.S. documents show that the White House and the CIA played a direct role in the overthrow of the Allende government. In 1970 President Richard Nixon gave the CIA orders to “make the economy scream” so as to “prevent Allende from coming to power or to unseat him.” A 1970 memo written by the CIA deputy director of plans stated: “It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup. It is imperative that these actions be implemented clandestinely and securely so that the USG (the U.S. government) and American hand be well hidden.” On June 27, 1970, Henry Kissinger, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, infamously remarked, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people.”

On Sept. 10, 2013, it was announced that Victor Jara’s family succeeded in serving a civil lawsuit to the former Chilean Army officer allegedly responsible for ordering Jara’s murder. The former officer, Pedro Barrientos Nuñez, was found living comfortably in Florida, enjoying U.S. citizenship through marriage to an American woman. In December 2012 a Chilean court charged Nuñez in absentia for the brutal murder of Jara… Nuñez had fled to the U.S. in 1989. The lawsuit brings seven claims against the ex-commander, including crimes against humanity, torture, and extrajudicial killing. It is a welcome break in the nightmare legacy of the Pinochet coup, but after 40 years, justice has still not been served. The affair however does make the Tribute to Allende mural as relevant today as it was in 1974.

Detail of "Tribute to Allende" mural in Chicano Park. "Internationalist in flavor, the mural transcends Chicanismo to address larger issues and the world community. Aesthetically it takes its cue from the militant Chilean murals of the Allende years." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

Detail of "Tribute to Allende" mural in Chicano Park. "Internationalist in flavor, the mural transcends Chicanismo to address larger issues and the world community. Aesthetically it takes its cue from the militant Chilean murals of the Allende years." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

The young artists that created the murals in the Logan Heights Barrio, painted their spiritual, political, international, and Chicano visions onto the walls for all to see. Those murals continue to be a great source of community pride, moreover, they stand as examples of an authentic “people’s art,” the very antithesis of today’s detached, elite, postmodern art. Rather than being frozen in the past, the Chicano Park murals embody a way forward for today’s artists.

Kosovo, Syria & WW3

I see things through the eyes of a socially engaged artist. Making art is intellectual work that entails conceptual thinking and problem solving, capabilities that must also be applied to the world of politics. As a painter I believe that art is the enemy of war, the converse is also true: war is the enemy of art.

In 1999 I created the pencil drawing that appears in this post as the U.S. and NATO were bombing Serbia and Kosovo. Titled We are all Targets, my drawing was inspired by those Serbian civilians who openly defied U.S. and NATO bombers by wearing target symbols while gathering on streets or bridges spanning the Danube river. The target symbol became an international antiwar icon that spread across the globe. Sadly, my drawing continues to be relevant, simply replace Serbians with Syrians. In truth, the drawing is a portrait of a protestor I spotted at an antiwar demonstration that took place in Los Angeles during that period. The artwork was made into a poster announcing the activities of the “Peace Center” of L.A., which at the time was coordinating anti-intervention marches and teach-ins against the war in Los Angeles.

© xxx

"We are all Targets" - Mark Vallen. 1999 ©. Pencil on paper - 17" x 23" inches.

I am alarmed to read that President Obama has been studying former President Clinton’s 1999 U.S. led NATO air war against the Serbs of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia as a “blueprint” for military attacks against Syria. That U.S./NATO air war lasted 78 days and reaped enormous destruction. There are many parallels between that war and the conflagration looming in Syria - so many that I have an unnerving feeling of déjà vu.

As of this writing America has moved closer to war; on Sept. 4, 2013, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 10 to 7 on a resolution to give President Obama authority to bomb Syria in response to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians. The vote next goes to the full Senate, where the Democratic controlled chamber will most likely authorize Obama’s war. Whether or not the Republican controlled House rejects the war resolution remains to be seen. The steps towards war are being taken by the Democrats and Republicans despite the multiple polls that show Americans oppose the war in huge numbers.

All this while millions of Americans are out of work, deep in debt, or have lost their homes. Americans are looking at their communities literally falling apart. The U.S. economy has flat-lined and prospects for the near future are shaky at best. On Aug. 30, 2013 President Obama acknowledged that Americans are “war weary,” adding that “I assure you nobody ends up being more war-weary than me.” He went on to say that attacking Syria was vital “to our national security.” Yes, we are war weary alright, but we are also weary of clueless politicians sending us into unwinnable foreign wars.

Who knows what Obama’s strike against Syria will cost the U.S. taxpayer. DefenseNews.com reported “hundreds of millions of dollars” would be spent on weaponry and logistical operations. The site reported that each Tomahawk cruise missile Obama intends to launch against Syria costs around $1.4 million each, and with the president saying his attack would “not put boots on the ground,” one can assume that a great number of cruise missiles will rain down upon Syria. The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, have so far cost upwards of $3.1 trillion. Mr. Obama’s war on Libya cost $1.1 billion (more on that later). A military strike against Syria will add untold millions - if not billions of dollars - to America’s war debt. War weary indeed.

Obama has said his strike against Syria will be a “limited, narrow act.” But there are no limited acts in warfare. The huge explosions from the hundreds of cruise missiles that Obama intends to send sailing into Syria will reverberate well into the future, and given the region, a wider full-scale war could result. The Sept. 4th Senate resolution included an amendment from Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) and Sen. Chris Coons (D-Delaware) that called for “democratic government in Syria,” in other words, regime change. The resolution also “limits” Obama’s strike to 60 days of military action, and a 30 day extension of the operation - that is 90 days of intense bombing - before having to come back to Congress for further authorization.

President Obama is on record saying that he does not need congressional authorization to strike Syria. Such an attack would violate Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the United States Constitution (”Congress shall have Power To declare War”) as well as the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which states that a President can only send U.S. armed forces into action abroad by a declaration of war by Congress or in “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.”

Obama is no doubt interested in how former president Clinton bypassed the U.S. Congress and the U.N. Security Council to wage the Kosovo war by executive order. It should be remembered that the U.S. House of Representatives refused to declare war against Yugoslavia in 1999, denying Clinton congressional authorization for the war. Despite not receiving approval from Congress, Clinton went ahead with the war. President Obama may well do the same.

"Targets All" - Anonymous artist. Xerox flyer. Antiwar leaflet announcing protests in Los Angeles. Collection of Mark Vallen.

"Targets All" - Anonymous artist. Xerox flyer. 1999. Antiwar leaflet announcing protests in Los Angeles. Collection of Mark Vallen.

A major difference between the period of the U.S./NATO assault on Kosovo/Serbia and the present buildup to war with Syria is today’s total collapse of the so-called “antiwar movement” in the U.S., which for all intents and purposes folded itself into the Democratic Party and the 2008 presidential campaign of Sen. Obama. It has not since regained its footing. One can only imagine how those liberals and leftists who proclaimed Obama to be an “antiwar president” would be reacting if it was President Romney that was preparing to plunge the nation into war with Syria.

As the drums of war grow louder, there is only a deafening silence from liberals and leftists. It was not so during the 1999 U.S./NATO bombing of Kosovo/Serbia, as the few artworks peppering this article illustrate.

Known as the “Kosovo War,” the 1999 conflict began as a secessionist movement, with ethnic Albanian Moslems striving to carve an independent state named Kosovo out of the Yugoslav province of the same name. By 1991 the “Kosovo Liberation Army” (KLA) launched a terror campaign against Serbian authorities, police, and villagers, precipitating a military response from the Serbian government of Slobodan Milošević. But the KLA also assassinated ethnic Albanians that opposed secession. The U.S. government had the KLA on its official list of terrorist groups, but inexplicably removed the organization from the list just before Clinton’s 1999 war. Robert Gelbard, the U.S. special envoy to the Balkans under the Clinton administration, said of the KLA in 1998, “I know a terrorist when I see one and these men are terrorists.”

The London Sunday Times ran an article on March 12, 2000 titled, CIA aided Kosovo guerilla army. The report disclosed that “American intelligence agents have admitted they helped to train the Kosovo Liberation Army before NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia” in 1999. Yugoslav army and Serbian militias within Kosovo carried out brutal reprisal attacks against the KLA, its supporters, and the general population of ethnic Albanians, killing an estimated 2,500 Kosovar Albanians in 1998.

"Stop The Bombs" - Anonymous artist. Xerox flyer. 1999. Antiwar leaflet announcing protests in Los Angeles. Collection of Mark Vallen.

"Stop The Bombs" - Anonymous artist. Xerox flyer. 1999. Antiwar leaflet announcing protests in Los Angeles. Collection of Mark Vallen.

President Clinton claimed the Serbs would commit genocide in Kosovo if the U.S. and NATO did not intervene. The U.S./NATO bombings started on March 24 and lasted until June 11, 1999. Under the bombings, Serbian forces attempted to drive ethnic Albanians from Kosovo by force, which only increased the intensity of the U.S./NATO airstrikes. Suddenly the KLA were recast as “freedom fighters” by NATO and the two began to cooperate.

At the time antiwar protests occurred across the U.S. in opposition to the Kosovo war, and demonstrations took place in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other big cities.

Liberal/left circles were however deeply divided, with many “progressives” siding with Clinton’s “humanitarian” bombing. “Laptop bombardiers” became a disparagement used by left radicals against liberal supporters of Clinton’s war. Numerous people, both left and right, mistakenly accused Clinton of launching the war in an attempt to deflect attention from “Monicagate,” the 1998 sex scandal that resulted from Clinton’s extramarital affair with the 22-year-old White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.

The 1997 film, Wag the Dog, also caught the imagination of Clinton’s opponents, and the film’s title was commonly seen on placards at antiwar protests. The basic premise of the film was that of a U.S. president getting caught in a sex scandal with an underage girl, and his staff hiring a spin doctor and a Hollywood movie producer to concoct a distraction, which turned out to be a media-spectacle sham war with Albania. The film turned out to be chillingly prescient. The scandal-plagued Clinton would two years later actually start a war, ostensibly to “protect” ethnic Albanians living in Kosovo. I have even heard recent accusations from the right that President Obama is currently engaged in a Wag the Dog scenario with Syria in order to deflect attention from the NSA surveillance, Bengazi, IRS, and Fast & Furious scandals.

"War Party" - Mark Vallen. Xerox flyer. 1999. Announcement for a May 15, 1999 antiwar protest at the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, California, where President Clinton held a $25,000 a plate fundraising dinner. Collection of Mark Vallen.

"War Party" - Mark Vallen. Xerox flyer. 1999. Announcement for a May 15, 1999 antiwar protest at the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, California, where President Clinton held a $25,000 a plate fundraising dinner. Collection of Mark Vallen.

However, the Wag the Dog movie is really about the relationship between government, the “culture industry,” and manipulating the public into supporting the unsupportable.

Despite its flaws, it is a brilliant film whose narrative is as applicable to the present as it was to events occurring in the late 90s. But let us be clear, Clinton waged war, just as Obama does, for the geopolitical interests of empire. Wars are always fought over resources, territory, and political interests - the “patriotic” and humanitarian concerns professed by leaders that instigate and conduct wars is nothing more than propaganda.

As the radical American intellectual Randolph Bourne wrote in the midst of World War I, “War is the health of the State.”

In the case of the Kosovo war the U.S. objective was controlling the strategic region and its oil flow. The region is expected to be the main route for a future central Asian pipeline that will carry oil and gas to the West. When the bombing stopped in 1999, the Pentagon constructed Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo; it is one of the largest U.S. military bases in the world. Some 7,000 U.S. soldiers are based at Bondsteel, which also provides NATO’s KFOR with equipment and headquarters. This also falls in line with the U.S. military doctrine of “full-spectrum dominance,” which according to the U.S. Department of Defense, is “the cumulative effect of dominance in the air, land, maritime, and space domains and information environment that permits the conduct of joint operations without effective opposition or prohibitive interference.” In this case the “prohibitive interference” in the region is Russia.

In Nov. 1998 the former U.S. energy secretary, Bill Richardson, perhaps put it best when talking about U.S. policy regarding Caspian sea oil: “This is about America’s energy security. It’s also about preventing strategic inroads by those who don’t share our values. We’re trying to move these newly independent countries toward the west. We would like to see them reliant on western commercial and political interests rather than going another way. We’ve made a substantial political investment in the Caspian, and it’s very important to us that both the pipeline map and the politics come out right.”

As for Obama’s interest in Syria, that should be obvious. On Sept. 4, 2013 the New York based International Business Times (IBTimes) reported that Syria possesses “the largest conventional hydrocarbon resources in the eastern Mediterranean.” The IBTimes report quoted the Oil & Gas Journal’s estimate that Syria has around “2.5 billion barrels of crude oil,” putting it in second place behind Iraq. It also possesses some 50 billion tons of oil shale resources. Russia and China play significant roles in Syria’s oil and natural gas production, and both countries are negotiating contracts with the Syrian government for offshore oil drilling rights. Removing Bashar al-Assad from power and replacing him with a puppet government, would not only give the West full access to Syria’s oil and gas, it would take Syrian oil and gas out of Russian and Chinese hands. Perhaps just as important in the West’s desire to destroy Assad is the strategy of isolating Syria’s ally, the Islamic Republic of Iran. With proven reserves of some 150 billion barrels of oil, nearly 10% of total global oil reserves, Iran is the ultimate goal.

"TARGET" - Anonymous artist. Xerox flyer. 1999. Used in global antiwar protests, the target graphic was initially created by Serbian art students and distributed over the internet. This flyer was collected at a demonstration in Los Angeles, California. Collection of Mark Vallen.

"TARGET" - Anonymous artist. Xerox flyer. 1999. Used in global antiwar protests, the target graphic was initially created by Serbian art students and distributed over the internet. This flyer was collected at a demonstration in Los Angeles, California. Collection of Mark Vallen.

In the Kosovo war U.S. and NATO bombers hit factories, oil refineries, government buildings, businesses, roads, bridges, airfields, and other civilian infrastructure targets in Yugoslavia.

On April 12, 1999, a U.S. F-15E Strike Eagle jet fired two missiles at the bridge spanning Grdelica gorge south of the Serbian capital of Belgrade. Instead of hitting the bridge, the missiles hit a passenger train, killing 14 civilians and wounding 16 others. The pilot said he did not see the train.

U.S./NATO bombers also managed to blow-up a good many ethnic Albanian civilian refugee columns attempting to flee the fighting. On April 14, a U.S. F-16 fired at a column at Đakovica, incinerating 73 non-combatants. There were many such attacks, more would come.

On April 19, 1999, the U.S. State Department claimed 500,000 Albanian Kosovars were “missing and feared dead.” Other statements from U.S. and NATO officials alluded to genocide and spoke of Serbian forces killing hundreds of thousands of Kosovars and burying them in mass graves.

On April 23, 1999, the U.S. fired four sea-launched cruise missiles at the private residence of President Milošević and his family in the Serbian capital in an obvious “decapitation” strike. The Washington Post reported that Clinton said the Serbian leader was not a target (!), and the U.S. Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder - yes, that Eric Holder, said the cruise missile barrage against Milošević was “consistent” with the U.S. prohibition on assassinating foreign leaders!

On June 5, 1999 an estimated 10,000 protestors in San Francisco, California marched from U.N. Plaza to Dolores Park in a demonstration against the bombing of Yugoslavia. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

On June 5, 1999 an estimated 10,000 protestors in San Francisco, California marched from U.N. Plaza to Dolores Park in a demonstration against the bombing of Yugoslavia. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

There were many egregious atrocities committed by both sides during the Kosovo war, but at the top of my list was the deliberate NATO bombing of the Belgrade headquarters of Radio Television of Serbia (RTS).

On the evening of April 23, 1999, NATO fired a cruise missile at the station while some 120 civilians were working in the building. Sixteen civilians were killed and another 16 were wounded. One young technician trapped beneath concrete slabs could only be pulled out of the rubble after rescuers amputated his legs. Hours after the bombing, Clare Short, the U.S. Secretary of State for International Development, announced that RTS was “a legitimate target” since it was “a propaganda machine.” Writing for The Independent on April 24, journalist Robert Fisk, who was stationed in Belgrade and witnessed the attack, wrote: “once you kill people because you don’t like what they say, you have changed the rules of war. And that’s what NATO did in Belgrade in the early hours of yesterday morning.”

One of many protestors to wear a target symbol at San Francisco's June 5, 1999 antiwar march. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

One of many protestors to wear a target symbol at San Francisco's June 5, 1999 antiwar march. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

On May 7, 1999, five U.S. “Joint Direct Attack Munition” (JDAM) smart bombs slammed into the Belgrade embassy of the People’s Republic of China, killing three Chinese citizens. The Chinese were outraged and condemned the bombing as a “barbarian act.” President Clinton said the bombing was a “mistake,” and the Pentagon attributed the error to an “outdated map.” A week later a NATO jet blasted a refugee column at Koriša, killing some 87 civilians and wounding 60. There would be dozens of such “mishaps” during the war.

Once the war was over and U.N. forensics teams of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) entered Kosovo to search for and exhume mass graves containing the bodies of ethnic Albanian Kosovars - few could be found. The ICTY’s report of Nov. 1999 listed 2,108 victims found in graves, which led to articles like the Washington Post’s, Despite Tales, the War in Kosovo Was Savage, but Wasn’t Genocide.

The hunt for mass graves has continued, both in Serbia and in Kosovo. There is little doubt that more bodies will be found. The International Committee of the Red Cross, Kosovo’s Centre for Research, Documentation and Publication, and other organizations have reported that there are still 1,754 people missing from the war. Not to sound callous, but that is a far cry from 500,000 dead civilians. It is evident that U.S./NATO claims of genocide were totally fabricated.

It should be understood that when President Obama talks about “sending a message to Assad,” or “firing a shot across the bow,” with cruise missiles… the actual results will be incidents like those presented in the above.

In Syria, immediately after the chemical weapons attack allegedly carried out by the Assad regime, the medical organization Médecins Sans Frontières reported that 355 civilians had been killed. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is opposed to the Syrian government, claimed 502 people were killed - 46 of  which were rebel fighters. The antigovernment Syrian Network for Human Rights said that 587 civilians were killed. The armed rebel group, Syrian Revolution General Commission put the civilian death toll at 635. Another opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, reported that 650 civilians had died. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said that the Obama administration “knows that at least 1,429 Syrians were killed in this attack, including at least 426 children.” Where did Kerry’s numbers come from?

On Aug. 25, 2013, upon hearing that UN weapons inspectors in Syria would be visiting the site of the chemical weapons attack to conduct an investigation and collect samples, a senior Obama administration official told the press that any findings made by the UN team would be “too late to be credible” because “the evidence available has been significantly corrupted” because of the passage of five days. On August 28, 2013, Scientific American ran an interview conducted with Charles Blair, the senior fellow on state and nonstate terrorist threats with the Federation of American Scientists. In that interview Mr. Blair discussed the scientific challenges of identifying chemical agents in the field, and said that traces of a nerve agent like sarin “should linger in the soil for up to 29 weeks.”

After ruminating over the reasons why the Assad regime might have launched the chemical weapons attack, Blair made the following point: “So then you look at the opposition - they had a lot more to gain through the use of chemical agents. From their perspective, [the opposition] likely understood that it would trigger a large-scale U.S. intervention. So you could have had a situation where they said yes, people are going to die, but more will die if we don’t do this [to] trigger U.S. intervention.”

On Aug. 28, 2013, Obama said the following about the chemical weapons attack: “We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out. And if that’s so, then there need to be international consequences. We do not believe that, given the delivery systems, using rockets, that the opposition could have carried out these attacks.” Mr. Obama did not offer any direct conclusive evidence to back up his assertion.

On Aug. 30, 2013, Obama said he had “high confidence” the Assad regime had gassed Syrian civilians; high confidence perhaps, but no confirmation. As a former professor and Senior Lecturer at the Law School of the University of Chicago, Obama knows that allegations, even ones that lawyers have “high confidence” in, do not win court battles - verifiable facts do. Obama also stated that the Syrian government has the types of munitions used in the chemical weapons attack, but UN weapons inspectors in Syria had not yet completed gathering evidence, let alone confirm what type of chemical agents were used in the attack when Obama made his statement. Moreover, on Sept. 4, 2013, regarding the U.N. inspection team’s findings, the Washington Post reported that “The Obama administration has asserted that the findings - expected in less than two weeks - no longer matter, citing its own evidence that the Syrian government was behind the chemical weapons attack last month.”

Carla Del Ponte served as the Chief Prosecutor for the ICTY from 1999 to 2007; the primary mission of the ICTY is to prosecute those responsible for war crimes. In Del Ponte’s case she prosecuted those who committed such crimes during the Kosovo war. She is currently a member of the U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. Del Ponte stated in May of 2013 that U.N. human rights investigators suspect that Syria’s rebels have used sarin chemical weapons: “Our investigators have been in neighboring countries interviewing victims, doctors and field hospitals and, according to their report of last week which I have seen, there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated. This was use on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities.” Del Ponte’s statement casts reasonable doubt upon the Obama administration’s “high confidence” that the attacks were carried out by Assad.

Just who are the Syrian rebels?

Reuters reported that in August of 2012, President Obama signed a secret order that authorized $25 million in “non-lethal” covert aid to the Syrian rebels. Much of that aid went to the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA), the main group of fighters backed by the U.S. and its allies; the Obama administration has also found other ways to support the FSA, like allowing U.S. based “support groups” to provide direct financial aid to the fighters. One of the major units of the FSA is the Farouq Brigades, which has some 20,000 men under arms. In May of 2013, Abu Sakkar, a commander of the Farouq Brigade, was video-taped cutting open the chest of a dead pro-government soldier and extracting the heart, Sakkar took a bite of the organ as he ranted, “I swear to God we will eat your hearts and your livers, you soldiers of Bashar the dog.” U.S. intelligence analysts view the Farouq Brigade as “moderately Islamist.”

In an Aug. 27, 2013 interview with The Hill, former Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) said “So what, we’re about to become Al Qaeda’s air force now? This is a very, very serious matter that has broad implications internationally. And to try to minimize it by saying we’re just going to have a ‘targeted strike’ - that’s an act of war. It’s not anything to be trifled with.”

On Sept. 2, 2013, President Obama touted that he had won support for bombing Syria from Republican Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina). The two were among the first U.S. Senators to express open support for Obama’s war plans against Syria. One should recall that Sen. McCain traveled to Syria in May of 2013 to meet with the anti-government “Free Syrian Army.” After promising more support for their cause, McCain was photographed with FSA soldiers. Not long after it was noticed that two of the gunman posing with the Senator had been part of a kidnapping ring that seized and held Shia religious pilgrims for ransom in order to finance the war against the Assad regime. McCain’s office responded that the Senator had no idea the FSA men were hostage takers, but this only reveals the fatal flaw in U.S. government support for the Syrian rebels… which ones are “moderates” and which ones are religious fanatics, and how exactly does one tell them apart?

At congressional hearings during the week of Sept. 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry made a remarkable statement in response to a question from Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican. McCaul asked, “Who are the rebel forces? Who are they? I ask that in my briefings all the time. And every time I get briefed on this it gets worse and worse, because the majority now of these rebel forces - and I say majority now - are radical Islamists pouring in from all over the world.” Mr. Kerry replied:

“I just don’t agree that a majority are al Qaeda and the bad guys. That’s not true. There are about 70,000 to 100,000 oppositionists … Maybe 15 percent to 25 percent might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys.”

The U.S. government has made it its business to hunt down al Qaeda terrorists and kill them wherever they are found - or so we have been told. Is that not what the “war on terror” has supposedly been all about? The Bush and Obama administrations have spent trillions of dollars mobilizing the military to destroy al Qaeda in Iraq and Afghanistan - occupying those countries for years in the process. The two administrations have pursued individuals and small groups of what were said to be al Qaeda operatives, in remote areas of Yemen, Pakistan, Sudan, and Afghanistan and killed them with Hellfire missiles fired from Predator drones. Even an American citizen, Anwar Al-Awlaki, was killed in a drone strike carried out in Southern Yemen, though charges were never made against him. But now the U.S. government is pushing to support and arm an insurgency that al Qaeda is fighting in?

Kerry made his remark only a few days before the 12th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001. Remember the sentiment, “Never Forget 9/11.” Now the U.S. government says that only 25 percent of an insurgent movement it supports in Syria is composed of al Qaeda fanatics! At the congressional hearings Kerry went on to say that “moderate” opposition groups in Syria are gaining in strength and influence, but U.S. intelligence sources are saying that the al Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front, is the strongest and most effective fighting force. What happens if the Assad regime is toppled and the al Qaeda affiliated armies take control? What then Mr. President? Perhaps we can see Syria’s future in Libya.

In his build-up to war against Libya, President Obama told members of the U.S. Congress that military action would last for “days, not weeks.” The president refused to call it a war, instead dubbing it a “kinetic military action.” Obama conducted his war on Libya without authorization from Congress. He ignored the War Powers Resolution, arguing that it did not apply since military operations were “limited in their nature, duration, and scope” and did not involve U.S. combat troops on the ground. The U.S./NATO attack began on March 19, 2011 and continued until October 20, 2011, when NATO bombers attacked Maummar Gaddafi’s convoy as it fled the city of Sirte. The wounded Gaddafi was seized by Libya’s “rebels,” who ran a knife up his anus before killing him.

And what are the fruits of Obama’s “liberation” of Libya? It is a nation now overrun by Islamic militias; the militants that Obama and NATO armed in their war against Gaddafi attacked the U.S. diplomatic mission at Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, killing the U.S. Ambassador and three other Americans; Libya’s dysfunctional U.S. backed government is controlled by the ruling “Justice and Construction party” - formed by the Muslim Brotherhood in March of 2012, and the country has become al Qaeda’s headquarters in the region. A war that topples Syria’s President Assad will likely end with the same results.

Contact your representatives in Congress and tell them you do not support U.S. military strikes against Syria.

Defend the Detroit Institute of Arts

Why is an artist in Los Angeles, California writing to defend a museum in Detroit, Michigan? Because I understand that whatever the fate of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), it will affect museums all across the United States. The agony of Detroit is one of today’s enormously complex political and economic questions, but one that American artists must grapple with. While many in the U.S. arts community support the DIA in its time of crisis, there are those that side with the forces bent on selling off the museum’s collection of masterpieces. One such voice is James Yood.

Mr. Yood teaches modern and contemporary art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In addition, Yood is a regional correspondent and art critic for ArtForum, and a contributing editor to art ltd., where he published an editorial that was circulated in the Visual Art Source (VAS) newsletter on Aug. 9, 2013. I felt compelled to respond to Mr. Yood’s editorial, which calls for the “deaccessioning” or selling of art treasures in the permanent collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), in order to pay off Detroit’s multi-billion dollar debt. On May 26, 2013, I wrote a web post titled Killing the Detroit Institute of Arts, that addressed that same issue.

Mr. Yood’s editorial titled, Deaccession in the Civic Context, can be read on the VAS website. Excerpts of Yood’s editorial will be contested by this author in the following:

James Yood: “I’m not sure why everyone has their knickers in a twist over the possibility that the Detroit Institute of Arts might auction off some of its collection to assist Detroit defray an $18 billion deficit, one that has put the city into bankruptcy.”

It is difficult to take Yood seriously when in his opening sentence he uses the idiom - “knickers in a twist” - to belittle those who are outraged over the anticipated pillaging of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The expression of ridicule is usually aimed at someone who is upset about a trivial issue. The matter at hand, the value and future of American museums and the public’s access to them, is far from being a frivolous affair.

Detail from "Scheme for the Decoration of the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel" - Michelangelo. 1508. Pen and brown ink and black chalk on cream laid paper. 14 11/16 x 9 7/8 in. Collection of the DIA.

Detail from "Scheme for the Decoration of the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel" - Michelangelo. 1508. Pen and brown ink and black chalk on cream laid paper. 14 11/16 x 9 7/8 in. Collection of the DIA.

On March 14, 2013, Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder appointed Mr. Kevyn Orr as the unelected “Emergency Manager” of the city of Detroit.

On July 18, 2013, Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy; it is the biggest municipal bankruptcy filling in U.S. history. With near dictatorial powers to restructure the city’s finances, make cuts to government spending, and see to it that the city’s debts are paid, Orr set about ascertaining the value of everything the city might be able to sell, from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department to the Coleman Young International Airport. The collection of the DIA was quickly targeted by Orr as a potential “asset” to be sold.

For his part Detroit’s Mayor Dave Bing, a Democrat, cut $247 million from the city’s budget last year, and has submitted a 2013-14 budget that will bring even more extreme cuts to social services and government spending. Emergency Manager Orr proposes huge cuts to the pensions and health care programs of police and fire departments, as well as emergency medical teams and other public workers, not to mention slashing the pensions of retirees.

The massive privatization of public assets and services is well underway - and it is a bi-partisan attack. Rather than have his editorial raise volatile political issues, Yood instead launches a dissertation on the history of “deaccession” and how the practice of de-acquisitioning a collection supposedly benefits art museums:

James Yood: “Deaccessioning art has been standard practice for so long as to be an integral part of the museological landscape (….) That’s the way it works - it might be the museum world’s dirty little secret, but trust me, all museums deaccession, it’s happening where you live, in the museum you love, amidst the permanent collection you always thought was, well, permanent. It’s how museums prune their collections, dispose of duplicate material, etc. (….) When the Art Institute of Chicago or a similar institution sells a Picasso from its permanent collection at Christie’s or the like it is obligated to use all of the funds it accrues - and these can run into millions of dollars - solely in its acquisitions budget.

In other words, institutions that are members of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) have agreed never to sell works from their permanent collections to pay salaries or operating budgets, but are free to deaccession to amass funds to buy that Malevich or LeWitt they’ve always coveted.

(….) If a museum has 30 paintings by Monet (the Art Institute of Chicago currently owns 33), why not provide another museum or collector the opportunity to purchase the one your curators believe is the least significant, and in so doing get the funds to buy that Tissot or Morisot that will make your collection broader, richer?”

It is hard to believe that Mr. Yood could miss such an obvious point. The Detroit Institute of Arts is not being asked to voluntarily auction its art treasures “to assist” the government of Detroit in paying down the city’s long-term debts. Nor is the museum planning to “prune their collection” as Yood put it, in order to acquire new works. The DIA’s collection is estimated to be worth around $2 billion. Simply put, the government of Detroit has declared that the museum’s entire collection is a “city asset” that the state can sell at auction, an assertion that the director of the DIA, Graham W. Beal, strongly refutes.

Mr. Beal insists that the DIA’s holdings are a public trust. Apparently Michigan’s top law enforcement official, Attorney General Bill Schuette, agrees with him. On June 13, 2013, Schuette’s office released a 22-page opinion that read in part: “The art collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts is held by the City of Detroit in charitable trust for the people of Michigan, and no piece in the collection may thus be sold, conveyed, or transferred to satisfy city debts or obligations.”

Mr. Yood mentions the principles of the American Alliance of Museums in an attempt to further his position that deaccession can fund new acquisitions for a museum, but again, the profits from a forced sale of DIA holdings will not go to the museum, but to Detroit’s creditors. Yood does not tell his readers that the president of the American Alliance of Museums, Ford Bell, opposes a forced sale of the DIA’s holdings, saying that “the museum should be a rallying point for the rebirth of Detroit and not a source of funds.”

James Yood: ” Back to Detroit, though - because the fig-leaf of selling permanent collection art to raise funds for acquisitions isn’t at play here - my conclusion is that since that city is in bankruptcy, in fiscal extremis, and as citizens and businesses and tourists are all going to be asked to help, to make sacrifices, why shouldn’t its art museum?”

Mr. Yood’s way of thinking should sound familiar. What comes to mind is how the Bush and Obama administrations handled the economic crisis after the pirates of casino capitalism crashed Wall Street on September 29, 2008. The reckless speculators responsible for the crash were rewarded with government bail-outs totaling hundreds of billions of dollars… all provided by U.S. taxpayers. In 2010 PBS reported that the actual cost of bailing-out Wall Street was close to $12.5 trillion. In the wake of the 2008 crash, millions of Americans lost their jobs and their homes, but the Obama administration did not arrange a bailout for them.

"Self Portrait" - Paul Gauguin. 1893. Oil on canvas. 18 1/8 x 15 inches. Collection of the DIA.

"Self Portrait" - Paul Gauguin. 1893. Oil on canvas. 18 1/8 x 15 inches. Collection of the DIA.

Now that Detroit has crashed, developers, speculators, investors, and assorted oligarchs have descended upon the city like a murder of crows. The asset stripping Emergency Manager Orr is holding a fire sale, and the money bags are itching to buy.

Oh, the working people of Detroit will have to “make sacrifices” to be sure; they will suffer the loss of their hard earned pensions, health care plans, government services, and perhaps their homes and livelihoods. They may also lose the DIA. But the plutocrats will get along fine, in fact, just as with the Wall Street Crash of 2008, they will make out like bandits.

In March of this year CBS Detroit reported that Forbes Magazine published its annual list of the richest people in the world, and in the words of the CBS local affiliate, the list revealed that “10 percent of the billionaires’ club resides right here in and around the Motor City.” The station also reported that the combined wealth of these 12 individuals tops $5.4 trillion. Let us take a look at just two of these Detroit billionaires, Mike Ilitch and Dan Gilbert, and how they will “make sacrifices” for their city.

Mike Ilitch owns the Little Caesar’s Pizza chain, as well as the Major League Baseball team the Detroit Tigers, and the Detroit Red Wings National Hockey League team. Forbes rated Mr. Ilitch’s net worth at $2.7 billion as of March 2013. Ilitch has convinced Mr. Orr and the Detroit city government to spend over $400 million on building a new hockey arena for Ilitch’s Detroit Red Wings. As Emergency Manager Orr slashes the retirement pensions and health care plans that many thousands of people depend on, as he cuts the pay of police, firemen, and emergency medical teams that serve the city, as street lights are permanently shut off, he will also be funding Mr. Ilitch’s new sports arena with monies provided by Detroit tax payers.

Dan Gilbert tops the Forbes list of Motor City Moguls. With an estimated worth of $3.5 billion, Gilbert owns Quicken Loans, the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Detroit based real estate company, Rock Ventures. CNBC reported that Gilbert wants to “tear down chunks of Detroit,” quoting the mortgage tycoon as having said, “There’s something like 128,000 buildings, commercial and residential, that need to be removed. And once that happens, there’s going to be opportunity…where developers and people can start making investments again.” Guess who will be there to make a killing. According to Yahoo News, Gilbert is “buying up, remodeling, and repurposing downtown properties” like they were going out of business, because… well, they are. Big fish eats little fish, or as John D. Rockefeller infamously put it, “The way to make money is to buy when blood is running in the streets.”

So according to James Yood, the Detroit Institute of Arts will just have to make sacrifices like everybody else. And when it is all over, when the schools, libraries, and hospitals are shuttered, and those 128,000 buildings that Mr. Gilbert dreams of bulldozing are turned to dust like the rest of Detroit’s history, the pirates of casino capitalism will have won another victory. But since the DIA will have been forced to sell their collection, the oligarchs may very well walk away from their latest triumph with a few of the DIA’s “assets” tucked into their investment portfolios.

James Yood: “Does anyone really believe that the DIA would no longer be a great art museum if they carefully deaccessioned about five or six works - choose among their great Poussin, Van Eyck, Caravaggio, Brueghel, Bellini, Cezanne, Bronzino, Van Gogh, or many others - and raised and then chipped in about $1 billion of the $18 billion Detroit owes? What’s wrong with a museum functioning as a good citizen in a time of crisis?”

Does anyone really believe that what we are witnessing in Detroit is anything less than a massive redistribution of wealth from those on the bottom to those on top? The great Poussin, Van Eyck, and Caravaggio canvases Yood mentions might very well end up in some billionaire’s private collection - never again to be seen by the public. There is a great certainty that the artworks would be moved out of Detroit, or perhaps out of the U.S. entirely.

What Yood proposes - that the DIA sell its masterpieces to help pay down government debt - flies in the face of the autonomy from government decree and control enjoyed by U.S. museums. What about the endowments made to the DIA over the years, works and collections bequeathed to the institution with the understanding that the donated artworks became part of a public trust? Are these works merely to be stripped away as “assets,” ignoring the original intentions of their donors? Diego Rivera’s glorious Detroit Industry mural series at the Detroit Institute of Arts was commissioned in 1932 by the museum’s Director, William Valentiner. Like all of Rivera’s monumental fresco paintings, he intended Detroit Industry to be a public work of art, specifically, a tribute to the American working class. Is this historic work now to be privatized? I should mention that the DIA commissioned Rivera during the Great Depression, and throughout that period of extreme crisis, there were no demands that the museum sell-off its collection.

"The Beach Hat" - Robert Henri. 1914. Oil on canvas. 24 x 20 inches. Henri was the founder of America's very first avant-garde art movement, the Ashcan School. Collection of the DIA.

"The Beach Hat" - Robert Henri. 1914. Oil on canvas. 24 x 20 inches. Henri was the founder of America's very first avant-garde art movement, the Ashcan School. Collection of the DIA.

The government of Detroit is pressing for a forced sale of the DIA’s art treasures, and not just of “five or six works” as Yood would have you believe. On August 5, 2013, Detroit’s Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr revealed that Christie’s auction house had been contracted by the city to appraise the holdings of the DIA, and that the city would pay Christie’s $200,000 for the appraisal.

This is a serious indication that the city fully intends to liquidate the DIA’s collection, otherwise, why would it pay such an outrageous appraisal fee while city workers are having their pay, hours, health care benefits and pensions cut to the bone? Christie’s is expected to complete their appraisal of the DIA collection by October, 2013.

Detroit is not the only major U.S. city faced with bankruptcy, it is just the first to declare it. The big picture is that the U.S. government currently faces debt that is expected to be somewhere around $20.541 trillion dollars by the end of 2013.

Given his editorial stance Mr. Yood should have absolutely no objection to the collections of America’s top museums being sold off to help bring down the national debt. The National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, DC has a stunning collection surely worth a few billion dollars on the auction block. The NGA has in its permanent collection the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the America’s - the incomparable portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci (just think of the millions that painting alone would fetch at Christie’s or Sotheby’s).

But why stop with the National Gallery of Art? Let government force the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, in Boston, Massachusetts, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and every other great American art museum large and small, to sell their masterpieces in order to help bring down the U.S. debt. The logic of Yood’s position demands, “never mind that these museums have played absolutely no role in creating the government’s enormous debt, make them pay regardless.”

James Yood: “Those paintings, all of which somehow left collections in Europe to come to Detroit in the first place, would just move on to another life somewhere else. Are museums frozen tight, never to evolve, mausoleums for art, or might a little interior ebb and flow actually be interesting, and freshen the eye?”

Let us apply Yood’s logic to the trillions of dollars worth of federal debt faced by the U.S. government. There are scores of famous monuments in the U.S. that could be placed on the auction block in order to help pay down the national debt, take the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor for instance. Heck, it was a gift from France that moved “on to another life” in Manhattan. Similarly, the original U.S. Constitution on display in the Rotunda of the National Archives Building in downtown Washington, D.C. would make a fine edition to some oligarch’s private collection.

James Yood: “I hear no one suggesting that the DIA’s entire collection should be sent tomorrow to Sotheby’s for immediate dispersal (though such an act could theoretically bring in more than $18 billion - what’s the opening bid for their Diego Rivera murals?).”

Mr. Yood should read the comments section of mainstream websites that are publishing reports on the possible auctioning of art treasures held by the DIA. There is unfortunately a great number of people who think it is a grand idea, and Yood’s editorial does nothing to disabuse them of the notion. Though he cannot name anyone that might suggest the entire DIA collection be put on the auction block, Yood ignores the preparatory moves currently being undertaken to do just that. He barely conceals his excitement over the prospect of the entire DIA collection bringing in over $18 billion on the auction block, and shamelessly jokes about the bidding price for Rivera’s Detroit Industry mural series at the DIA.

That an art critic for ArtForum writes such bilge in support of a forced sale of a major museum’s permanent collection is beyond disgraceful.

I would like to reiterate my view that plans to seize and auction off the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts, if successful, will be a strategy visited upon museums all across the country. We should all give direct assistance to the DIA, by visiting the museum’s website to make a donation or by signing up to become a member.

James Yood: “But if your community is dying you have to consider what you can do to help it survive. If the Art Institute of Chicago or your local art museum can (and did, and will again) sell something like a first-rate Braque, why can’t the Detroit Institute of Arts sell a first-rate Brueghel? Why?”

Yood writes about bankruptcy as if it were an act of God for which we mortals must pay penance, and he makes no attempt at describing the context of the crisis… the political and economic decline of the U.S. over the years and how this has deeply impacted Detroit (not to mention other U.S. cities). He writes as if the state auctioning off the permanent collection of a major American art museum is not an earth-shattering political event with profound national and international implications. He fails to explain why the DIA should be made to pay for the greed and mismanagement of those who are actually responsible for Detroit’s financial crisis. In essence, he writes as an apolitical intellectual.

"The Resurrected Christ" - Sandro Botticelli. 1480. Paint on wood panel. 18 x 11 3/4 inches. Collection of the DIA.

"The Resurrected Christ" - Sandro Botticelli. 1480. Paint on wood panel. 18 x 11 3/4 inches. Collection of the DIA.

Yood’s position denies the museum as a commons, a vital gathering place where people can share ideas and collective experiences. In the case of the Detroit Institute of Arts, a museum founded in 1885, we are talking about a very rich history indeed. The DIA is an integral part of the community, city, and nation, not a building full of what creditors and bureaucrats might simply see as “assets.”

To say that “art is for everyone” might sound like a glib cliché to some, but for the people of Michigan’s Oakland, Macomb, and Wayne counties outside of Detroit, the phrase was taken seriously. During an August 7, 2012 election, voters passed a tax increase for their Tri-County area that would help fund the DIA. The magnanimous vote indicates just how important the DIA is to the people of Michigan.

Currently Oakland County supplies approximately $9 million a year to the DIA, Macomb County puts in around $7 million, and Wayne  County pays some $10 million. These monies are a significant portion of the DIA’s current operating budget, which has been cut drastically over the years. Personally, I was ambivalent about the tax increase, thinking that it would not shield the museum from escalating cuts, but the good people of the Tri-county had their say. However, there is a caveat to the recently passed legislation. Oakland County wants to pass a resolution that stipulates, if the state seizes and sells any art from the DIA collection in order to satisfy creditors, the special Tri-County tax will be terminated. Macomb and Wayne counties plan to follow suit.

To counter Yood’s hyperbole head on, if a community is dying, the first obligation of the citizenry would be to ascertain who is responsibility for killing it - and then hold that individual or group accountable. The working people of Detroit are not responsible for the city’s financial mismanagement and collapse, and neither is the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The venerable Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word “museum” as follows: “An institution devoted to the procurement, care, study, and display of objects of lasting interest or value; also: a place where objects are exhibited.” Webster’s also defines the word “stock exchange as follows. “1): a place where security trading is conducted on an organized system. 2): an association of people organized to provide an auction market among themselves for the purchase and sale of securities.”

Perhaps the problem with James Yood’s editorial is that he has forgotten the difference between a museum and a stock exchange.

– // –

UPDATE: On August 18, 2013, the Detroit Free Press published an article titled, “Christie’s appraisal will reveal value of Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection.” I encourage readers of this web log to read the article. Here is a brief excerpt:

“‘This is like the weighing of souls,’ said Maxwell Anderson, director of the Dallas Museum of Art. ‘This is biblical stuff, not the approximations that insurance companies look for. It’s extremely problematic for all museums, because it alters the public’s perception of artworks from being ciphers of public heritage of transcendent value, to objects for sale to pay other people’s debts.’”