Newseum: Super-Sized R-Rated Version

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prometheus: José Clemente Orozco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Champion For The Arts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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)

Billy Jack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obama and the Orcs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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