Category: Art Activism

Protest at the Detroit Institute of Arts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poster: I AM NOT THE ENEMY

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

“I AM NOT THE ENEMY.” Mark Vallen 2001 ©

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mainstream press reports mentioned that Singh is an adherent of the Sikh faith, and that his attackers had “misidentified” or “mistaken” him as a Muslim because of his beard and turban, as if the beating would have been acceptable had Singh actually been a Muslim.

The press has variously described Singh’s attackers as “a group of young men,” “a mob,” or simply “assailants.” However, Singh said of his tormentors, “it was dark, but it seemed like it was young African American men.” The Village Voice and BuzzFeed also reported that the attackers were African American. On Sept. 24, 2013 the NYPD released security video of the suspects leaving the scene of the crime, and asked for the public’s assistance in identifying those who took part in attacking Dr. Singh.

It’s a great tragedy of history that on Malcolm X Boulevard, young blacks would assault a man they thought to be a Muslim. Malcolm X, one of the most outspoken opponents of racism in the US during the late 1950s and early 1960s, was a Muslim. His ideas were perhaps best articulated in his By Any Means Necessary speech given at Detroit’s Ford Auditorium on Feb. 14, 1965. The oratory contained the famous words: “We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence… by any means necessary.”

A week later Malcolm was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom north of Harlem in New York on Feb. 21, 1965. Acknowledging his stature in the Black community, Lenox Avenue was renamed Malcolm X Boulevard by New York’s mayor in 1987.

While the involvement of young blacks in the attack against Singh underscores the tragic political and moral disorientation of a certain layer of black youth, the appalling incident points to a much larger problem in American society as a whole. Despite our being awash in information and early 21st century technology, the US is not far removed from xenophobic hysteria. These malevolent forces find expression amongst the disempowered and uneducated… which at the moment pretty much describes us all.

When the economy is in the tank and the nation is at war, and yes dear shopper, the nation is at war, you can count on the flames of tribalism being fanned.

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

Dr. Singh, an assistant professor at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and a practicing physician that specializes in community-based health care in East Harlem, told BuzzFeed: “This is my community, I live in Harlem, I see patients here, It’s not the side of Harlem I’ve come to know and not how I’ve been embraced.”

In a press conference held after his release from the hospital, Dr. Singh said: “If I could speak to my attackers, I would ask them if they had any questions, if they knew what they were doing. Maybe invite them to the Gurudwara (Sikh temple) where we worship, get to know who we are, make sure they have an opportunity to move past this as well.”

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

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

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

Big Brother Is Watching You

the_stars_and_stripes“I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity.” – Edward Snowden.

As of today, this web log will go on hiatus for an indefinite period as a silent protest against the colossal spying operation the Obama administration has unleashed upon the American people.

On June 9, 2013, Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former CIA employee working for the National Security Agency (NSA), was identified by the Guardian as the whistleblower responsible for exposing the massive police state surveillance now aimed at every American.

PRISM, the surveillance program run by the National Security Agency (NSA) for the Obama White House, collects the phone records of most U.S. citizens on a daily basis; the spy operation also monitors all internet activity conducted by Americans, extracting their photographs, e-mails, audio recordings, videos, documents, chats, instant messaging, and connection logs from nine separate internet companies – AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, PalTalk, Skype, Yahoo, and YouTube. In essence, the intelligence program snoops on the daily routines of hundreds of millions of Americans.

On June 7, President Obama defended his sweeping surveillance program, referring to media reports as “hype”. He depicted the spying as a “modest encroachment” on the rights of U.S. citizens. Just prior to Edward Snowden’s identity being made public, Obama’s Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, said of the whistleblower, “This is someone who for whatever reason has chosen to violate a sacred trust for this country”. I beg your pardon Mr. Clapper, but the only sacred trust that U.S. citizens have is to their Constitution. As an American artist I treasure that document – all of it –  because it not only guarantees my right to free expression, it secures all of my rights as a citizen. The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution reads:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized”.

I have just acquired a copy of David McCullough’s 1776, which recounts the history of the American revolution. McCullough’s fascinating book describes the struggle as seen through the eyes of those American patriots who fought for independence from the British Empire, as well as from the perspective of the King’s men, who saw the “riotous rebels” of America as little more than “rabble in arms”. The hoi polloi of course won the cause of liberty, imperfect as it was, but today our freedoms are in extreme danger.

How ironic that democracy is imperiled by someone who promised “hope”, “change”, and “transparency”, but instead delivered a surveillance state of unprecedented scope and power; it is not quite George Orwell’s 1984 writ large, but it is very close indeed. The U.S. has reached a point of no return, it shall either advance as a democratic society or it shall descend into the abyss of authoritarian rule; it is all up to America’s “riotous rebels”.

This is undeniably a time for active protest against an imperiously intrusive surveillance state, but it is also a period for contemplation and deep reflection. Once I have finished reading McCullough’s 1776, I shall return to writing and posting commentary to this web log.

Meanwhile… in Guatemala

"Meanwhile... in Guatemala" - Mark Vallen. 1988. © Pencil on paper 10" x 14". The U.S.-backed Guatemalan military tortured and murdered tens of thousands of civilians during that Central American nation's 36-year long civil war. When the fighting ended in 1996, over 200,000 civilians - 83% of them Maya Indian farmers - had been slain.

"Meanwhile... in Guatemala" - Mark Vallen. 1988. © Pencil on paper 10" x 14". The U.S.-backed Guatemalan military tortured and murdered tens of thousands of civilians during that Central American nation's 36-year long civil war. When the fighting ended in 1996, over 200,000 civilians - 83% of them Maya Indian farmers - had been slain.

On May 10, 2013, former Guatemalan tyrant Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity by a Guatemalan court. Specifically, he was found guilty of the murder of 1,771 indigenous Maya civilians. The 86-year-old Montt was sentenced to 80 years in prison, 50 years for genocide and 30 years for crimes against humanity. When I received word of Montt’s conviction I cried aloud, “Oh my God!”, hardly believing that justice had at last prevailed… at least, in part.

In the 1980’s I met a number of Guatemalan refugees that had fled the terror in their country for the relative safety of Los Angeles, and I was profoundly disturbed by the harrowing tales they told me of their homeland – stories regarding the torture, mutilation, and murder of friends, family, and associates back home. As a result, I spent a good portion of the 80s creating posters, flyers, and drawings that were opposed to the bloodbath then occurring in Guatemala and the rest of Central America; my artworks were circulated all across L.A. and beyond. The drawing pictured above, “Meanwhile… in Guatemala“, was one such artwork (view a larger version).

"ENOUGH!" - Mark Vallen. 1988. ©

"ENOUGH!" - Mark Vallen. 1988. © Offset flyer. 11"x14" inches. One of many street flyers designed and published by the artist that announced antiwar protests in Los Angeles during the 1980s.

While hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens joined me in protesting the wars in Central America, it was not a popular thing to do. The Cold War hysteria of Ronald Reagan’s America designated such activists “un-American” and “un-patriotic”. In short, making art in solidarity with the Guatemalans was not a path to career success. Now that Ríos Montt has been found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, I feel vindicated and joyful.

Montt was not the first nor last military despot to brutalize the people of Guatemala; he was from a long line of murderous thugs and assassins that throttled civil society and butchered Ixil Maya communities with impunity.

One could say it all began in 1954 when the U.S. government and the C.I.A. engineered a coup d’etat that overthrew Guatemala’s democratically elected government of President Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán (1950-54), but that is another story.

In announcing the Guatemalan court’s decision, Judge Yasmin Barrios stated that “The defendant is responsible for masterminding the crime of genocide”, and that “We are convinced that the acts the Ixil suffered constitute the crime of genocide… Rios Montt knew everything that was going on, and he didn’t stop it, even though he had the power to do so.” Barrios added, “We the judges are totally convinced that the goal was the physical destruction of the Ixil area.”

In March of 1982 Montt staged a coup d’etat that toppled the brutal dictatorship of President Lucas García, and Montt ruled until the next totalitarian goon – General Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores – overthrew him in a 1983 military coup. It was simply a falling out among thieves. Being a faithful servant to Guatemala’s oligarchs and Uncle Sam (he was a graduate of the U.S. Army School of the Americas), Montt came to no harm after being overthrown, in fact he was “elected” to the nation’s congress in 2007.

All the same, Montt’s 14 month military rule became infamous for the most vile abuses, including widespread torture and rape conducted by state forces. Montt launched a scorched earth military campaign meant to destroy the rural support base of the country’s left-wing guerilla movement. Making no distinction between the Maya civilian population and combatants, Montt’s campaign obliterated over 600 Maya villages and took the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent peasant farmers.

Montt’s counter-insurgency policies did have its supporters. On December 4, 1982, President Reagan met with Gen. Montt at San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Reagan gave his assessment of the fascist dictator to the gathered international press:

“I know that President Ríos Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment. His country is confronting a brutal challenge from guerrillas armed and supported by others outside Guatemala. I have assured the President that the United States is committed to support his efforts to restore democracy and to address the root causes of this violent insurgency. I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice. My administration will do all it can to support his progressive efforts.”

Only two days after Reagan made his statement, U.S. armed and trained Guatemalan special forces, the Kaibiles, raided the Mayan hamlet of Dos Esses, where they massacred nearly 300 villagers… mostly women and children. It was not an isolated incident; the slaughter of innocents had become government policy for Guatemala’s generals, and yet the U.S. government continued to pour millions of dollars worth of lethal military aid into their hands.

While the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other corporate newspapers have all mentioned the Ríos Montt conviction, few if any made mention of Montt’s crimes being facilitated by the extensive military, economic, and political backing of the U.S. government. In his 2003 book, Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, William Blum noted that the Reagan administration supplied Montt with “$3.1 million of jeeps and trucks, $4 million of helicopter spare parts, $6.3 million of other military supplies.”

What doubt is there that U.S. military aid was used by Montt and his death squads to slaughter Maya peasants by the tens of thousands? Blum also noted in his book how covert U.S. military aid was provided to the Montt dictatorship; “the United States was using Cuban exiles to train security forces in Guatemala”. In a October 21, 1982 Washington Post article, journalist Jack Anderson reported that “Green Berets had been instructing Guatemalan Army officers for over two years in the finer points of warfare”.

The question remains, if the former Guatemalan tyrant Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt is guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, what can be said of those in Washington D.C. who willfully supplied the dictator with the means to carry out his butchery?

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UPDATE: Guatemala’s highest court overturned the guilty conviction against Rios Montt on May 20, 2013, only ten days after the former military dictator was sentenced to 80 years in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity. Guatemala’s “Constitutional Court” cited procedural errors for canceling the verdict. Montt is to be “retried”. It is uncertain when that might occur. Have the good people of Guatemala not suffered enough torment? Where is justice?