Alfredo Ramos Martínez: Picturing Mexico

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– // –

Addendum:

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

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

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

Roger Scruton at TRAC 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– // –

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

Newseum: Super-Sized R-Rated Version

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prometheus: José Clemente Orozco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Champion For The Arts?

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

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

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

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

xxxxxx xxxxxx

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– // –

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

Serigrafía: Chicano Art at the PMCA

 "Boycott Grapes" - Xavier Viramontes. Serigraphic print. 1973.

"Boycott Grapes" - Xavier Viramontes. Serigraphic print. 1973.

The Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA) is presenting Serigrafía, an exhibit of thirty silkscreen prints created by twenty-three Chicano/Latino artists from the early 1970s to the present-day.

I am proud to announce that my own work is included in the exhibit. Opening on January 19, and running until April 20, 2014, the exhibit offers prints that are consummate examples of the Chicano Arts Movement as a stronghold of socially conscious art. The exhibit offers hand-made serigraphic prints that tackle social and political issues head-on, demonstrating that social realism in the visual arts is far from being on its last legs.

The PMCA’s press release for Serigrafía describes the exhibit: “Beginning in the late 1960s, graphic art created at and distributed by artist-led collectives, or centros, contributed significantly to the public discourse. Emerging in concert with the civil rights movement and demanding political and social justice for marginalized groups, these prints confront political, economic, social, and cultural issues on both a personal and a global level.”

PRINT magazine published The Enduring Power of Posters to Promote and Provoke, an illustrated interview with Carol A. Wells, Founder and Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, regarding Serigrafía at the PMCA. Serigrafia was first shown at Arte Americas in Fresno, CA (Sept. 8 - Nov. 3, 2013), and in upcoming exhibits will be shown at the San Francisco Public Library (July 20, 2014 - Sept. 7, 2014), and the Vacaville Museum - Nov. 9, 2014 - Jan. 4, 2015.

Serigrafía includes my 1980 silkscreen print, Nuclear War?!… There Goes My Career! That particular serigraph was initially produced as a Los Angeles street poster that expressed unease over the possibility of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. I must first preface remarks regarding my poster by mentioning my involvement in the late 1970s L.A. punk movement, which had enormous impact upon my political and aesthetic viewpoints. It was the apocalyptic vision of punk, the innately confrontational if sometimes humorous attitude of Chicanarte, combined with the fervently radical aesthetics of the French Situationists of the late 1950s and early 1960s, that led to the creation of Nuclear War?!… There Goes My Career!

"Sandinista" – Mark Vallen. Linoleum block & serigraphic print. 1986. Nine color silkscreen print created to commemorate the anniversary of Augusto César Sandino’s death.

"Sandinista" – Mark Vallen © Linoleum block & serigraphic print. 1986. Nine color silkscreen print created to commemorate the anniversary of Augusto César Sandino’s death. This print is not included in the "Serigrafia" exhibit.

As a piece of subversive art the print was an unqualified success at achieving its principal goal, that of helping to build popular support for nuclear disarmament. But in retrospect I feel somewhat ambivalent about the poster.

While it no doubt fulfilled its political objective, the poster’s aesthetic was an aberration in my development as an artist.

In essence I am a figurative realist draftsman, painter, and printmaker, and on a personal level the most fulfilling work I do is in that sphere. Years prior to creating the détourned graphic image I had made a firm commitment to figurative realism, and my body of work from the period bears this out.

That is the reason why this article includes other prints of mine created during the period represented by the show, works not exhibited in Serigrafía.

As I have argued over the years, Chicano art is a well-spring that may help to invigorate the long dormant genre of American social realist painting. While Serigrafía focuses exclusively upon silkscreen prints, it is worth noting that a number of the exhibiting artists are also painters (including this writer), and that Chicano/Latino print circles have long had very close association with the creation of public murals. If Serigrafía has a weakness as an exhibit, it is that it freezes its artists in a moment of time, and does not even hint at broader artistic production outside of poster making.

"No Pasaran" (They Shall Not Pass) – Mark Vallen. Serigraphic print. 17 x  21 inches. 1984. This seven color silkscreen print was created in opposition to the U.S. war against Nicaragua. The title of the print came from a popular slogan in Nicaragua against foreign domination.

"No Pasaran" (They Shall Not Pass) – Mark Vallen © Serigraphic print. 17 x 21 inches. 1984. This seven color silkscreen print was created in opposition to the U.S. war against Nicaragua. The title of the print came from a popular slogan in Nicaragua against foreign domination. This poster is not part of the "Serigrafia" exhibit.

The PMCA is also presenting another important exhibit from January 19, to April 20, 2014, Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez in California. I have been interested in Martínez for decades, as he is the artist that actually began the modernist school of Mexican social realism that came to hold Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and other notable Mexican artists as unfaltering adherents. Yes, it all began with compañero Martínez. The artist holds special fascination for me as he came to live and work in my hometown of Los Angeles from 1929 to 1946 (where he died at age 73 in 1946). The beautiful and sympathetic portraits of Mexico’s poor and indigenous people that Martínez painted have long been an inspiration to me. The PMCA’s survey of his work is the very first museum exhibit of the works he created in California.

The Opening Reception for Serigrafía is Saturday, January 18, 2014, from 7 to 9 p.m. The exhibit runs from Jan. 19 to April 20, 2014. Museum admission is $7, free for PMCA members. The museum is located at: 490 East Union Street, Pasadena, CA 91101. Web: pmcaonline.org

Also not to be missed, on Sunday, March 2, 2014, at 3 p.m., Carol A. Wells, one of the curators for the exhibit, will present a lecture at the PMCA on the history of Chicano/Latino poster art and the issues they address.

– // –

The posters illustrating this article, Sandinista and No Pasaran, are both available for purchase.

Frida in Dubai-landia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

slaves_of_dubai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What Lies Behind Us” - 2013

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

bernstein4

Leonard Bernstein

Beauty is truth, truth beauty ( Jan. 19 )

“Given the abysmal level of cultural literacy in the U.S. at present, it is utterly astonishing that some 50 years ago a nationally televised popular show like Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concert series even existed on mainstream TV. By comparison, today’s television broadcasting only provides further evidence that we have slipped into the New Dark Ages. (….) The high arts, which include classical music, prepare one for lofty thoughts, ideals and dreams, and without these we cannot hope to create a better world.”

Merlin's "Black Legion"

Merlin's "Black Legion"

Maurice Merlin & the Black Legion ( Jan. 24 )

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

Iraq: 10 years ago

Iraq: 10 years later

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

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

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

Maggie Dead

Maggie Dead

Iron Lady: Rust In Peace (April 19)

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

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

Painting by Barthel Gilles

Painting by Barthel Gilles

Echoes of Weimar ( June 8 )

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

Brave New World

Brave New World

A Postmodern 4th of July (July 2)

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

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

Image by Kimball

Image by Kimball

Ward Kimball - Art Afterpieces (July 7)

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

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

bad joke

Bad joke

Farewell Mr. Deitch (July 26)

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

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

The way forward

A way forward

Chicano Park & Chile (Sept. 11)

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

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

The fight back

The fight back

Protest at the Detroit Institute of Arts (Oct 5)

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

Muse Costume Ball

Muse Costume Ball

LACMA Halloween Nightmare (Oct 25)

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

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

Art Is For Everyone! (Oct 18)

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

Christmas Thoughts: 2013 Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

####

Ghosts of Christmas Past:

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