Mark Vallen's Newsletter. Nov. 2003
Art Activism & Social Change
A R T  F O R   A  C H A N G E


1) - WAR STORIES... Antiwar group show at L.A.'s Workmen's Circle/Der Arbeter Ring
2) - THE HUMAN PREDICAMENT... The Social Surrealism of Irving Norman
3) - THE BARBARIANS ARE AT THE GATES... Escapism is not Freedom


Drawing by Mark Vallen

WAR STORIES is the latest exhibit to be mounted at the A Shenere Velt Gallery of the Workmen's Circle/Der Arbeter Ring in Los Angeles. The group exhibition focuses on the horror and folly of modern war.

I'm honored to have two artworks in the exhibit, including the drawing shown at left, Not Our Children, Not Their Children.

In the words of the Workmen's Circle curators, the exhibit includes artworks "from veterans of world wars to nascent peace activists, Midwestern homemakers and Manhattanites down the street from Ground Zero." Both professional and amateur artists alike will be displaying art that comprise the "stories" to be told. Works on display range from paintings and drawings to Byzantine icons, three dimensional miniatures, photographs and textile art.

The Workmen's Circle/Der Arbeter Ring is a 200 year old organization dedicated to enriching the Jewish community, celebrating Yiddish Culture, and promoting social justice. The L.A. chapter has been in existence since 1908. The War Stories exhibition will be on display from November 9th, 2003, through January 1, 2004, at The Workmen's Circle - A Shenere Velt Gallery, 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., L.A.

There will be an Opening Reception with many of the artists in attendance Sunday, November 9th from 3 - 5 pm. Gallery hours are from 10 - 5 weekdays. For more info or to arrange a group viewing, call 310.552.2007, or visit the Workmen's Circle website, at:

The Social Surrealism of Irving Norman

Irving Norman left the world a huge body of work made up of oil paintings, watercolors, and drawings based on his observations of social reality. The artist's scathing critiques were couched in the language of surrealism, and his works were so overwhelmingly detailed that they appeared to be the fevered visions of some long forgotten Gothic Master. In fact, many of his monumental works have the look of medieval stained glass.

Detail of Painting by Irving Norman

Working in a style he called Social Surrealism, the artist spent his career attacking war and the social divisions inherent in a hierarchical class society. His paintings are the stuff of nightmares, populated by oceans of alienated and lonely individuals. The visual style of the artist's claustrophobic urban landscapes predated by decades the negative utopia presented in the film, Blade Runner. Norman's fastidiously painted multi-layered narratives remind one of some type of Buddhist Hell. Yet beneath the unrelenting focus on the ills of a world gone mad, there was a profound humanist vision. Norman's paintings were like screams of anguish pleading for a better world.

Detail of Painting by Irving Norman

Aside from the perceived bleakness and hopelessness of Norman's works, his paintings were shunned and ignored not just for being political, but because the artist insisted on painting in the figurative realist style at a time when abstract art was in the ascendancy.

Irving Norman died in 1989 but is survived by his wife Hela, who now supervises the Norman estate. Hela graciously allowed me to use details of her late husband's artworks in illustrating this newsletter. The Norman estate maintains a website where many of Norman's creations can be viewed. Offered are a timeline of the artist's career and accomplishments along with exhibitions of his works arranged in chronological order. Visit the webpage, at:

Escapism is not Freedom

the state of art can be summed up in two disparate events... the destruction of the California Arts Council (CAC) through budgetary cuts, and the continued absurdity of the Turner Prize competition in the U.K.

Goya's "Disasters of War" defaced by postmodernists

The CAC was the lead funding institution in California for painters, sculptors, and other visual artists. It not only provided opportunities for artists to teach at schools and museums, but provided statewide funding for the majority of artist residencies. Then came the state budget crisis. The state Legislature slashed the CAC budget from $18 million dollars to $1 million this year. In the year 2002 California ranked 40th in the United States when it came to per capita arts funding... a ranking that in 2003 dropped to last place. That means California, with the fifth largest economy in the world, only contributes 3 cents per person towards the arts. Compare that with the U.S. national average of $1.10 per state resident. An even more illustrative comparison would be the current European national average, where no less than $5.00 per person goes towards arts funding.

Enlightened people around the globe have always viewed the arts as one of the greatest expressions of the human spirit. Where painting, music, and poetry flourish... brutishness, malice, and intolerance tend to recede. Without art there is no life, only drudgery. The eminent British art critic and social commentator of the Victorian age, John Ruskin, once noted that "industry without art is brutality." The California Legislature unfortunately is working to bring Ruskin's observation to fruition.

However, blame for the sorry state of art cannot be entirely placed at the feet of narrow minded politicians. The artworld itself has also played a role in diminishing the relevance of art. Witness the modern art competition now taking place at the celebrated Turner Gallery of London. In years past the prestigious Turner Prize was meted out to individuals who had pawned off a pickled shark and an unmade filthy bed as profound works of art. Contestants in this years 20th annual competition offer a painted bronze casting of a pair of large sex dolls engaged in fellatio, displays of flowers and fruit designed to rot over the course of the exhibit, and ceramic vases decorated with images of child abuse and sadomasochism. The winner of the contest receives the grand prize of $30,000.

Jake and Dinos Chapman are among the finalists competing for this year's Turner Prize. The duo are favored for having defaced a rare edition of Disasters of War, the famed etching series by Francisco Goya. The etchings were legally acquired but then altered by the Chapman's, who replaced the faces of Goya's characters with cartoon drawings of mouse eared clowns and puppy dogs. The Chapman's describe themselves as "anti-humanists" who metaphorically spit upon the idea of art being "uplifting or redemptive." Instead the team insists that art is an inadequate and powerless form of protest in the face of war. They have even gone so far as to mock Guernica, the transcendent antiwar mural by Pablo Picasso, for being "pathetic." They deny their art makes a statement concerning the ongoing war in Iraq, an unfolding tragedy the two greet with the yawning indifference displayed
by many postmodernists.

Jake Chapman exposed his politics when he remarked, that "there's something quite interesting in the fact that the war of the peninsula saw Napoleonic forces bringing rationality and enlightenment to a region that was marked by superstition and irrationality." That assertion sounds remarkably close to the opinions held by Italian Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, who wrote the essay "War - the World's Only Hygiene." Marinetti's path eventually led to Mussolini and Fascism, but perhaps the Chapmans are already appreciative of that fact.

Some think it revolutionary when icons of the past are shattered, but such nihilism amounts to little more than the wanton destruction of history... a conduct engaged in by barbarians. No doubt the Chapman's bemuse themselves with the notion that they are doing something groundbreaking by disfiguring the works of Goya. Someone should remind them and their devotees of Marcel Duchamp. He shocked the bourgeois artworld 83 years ago when he created a "readymade" artwork by adding a mustache and goatee to a reproduction of the Mona Lisa. At least for Duchamp it was an original idea.

After the horror of September 11th it was said that the world had changed forever. How is it then that artists continue to work as they did before 9-11, creating art as if they are above social reality and beyond the reach of politics? The arts have always represented the very embodiment of freedom, but escapism in a time of carnage and butchery is not freedom.

What is the antidote to the artworld's smug ivory tower twaddle? An art theory and practice that's deeply rooted in community. An understanding of art as necessary for the betterment of humanity, and that humankind's spiritual needs are more important than the enrichment of investors and speculators. In short, a renaissance in the arts that rejects the dispassionate and misanthropic cynicism of the so-called postmodernists in favor of a new art practice for the 21st century.

Mark Vallen's ART FOR A CHANGE website serves as a resource center for Art Activism. It encourages and promotes the creation of artworks that envision a just, peaceful world. Please inform others of this site, and forward this notice to all appropriate lists and individuals. If you wish to be added or removed from the AFC mailing list, or if you'd rather receive a text only version of this mailing... send an e-mail request to
"Art is an effort to create, beside the real world, a more human world."
~ Andr Maurois (French Author)