Category: Postmodernism-Remodernism

Year Zero: Converting from VICE to Virtue

VICE

Just another corporate media platform.

On April 9, 2021, VICE, the digital media and broadcasting company that touts itself as “the definitive guide to enlightening information,” published a ghastly interview with Matt Loughrey, a successful 42-year-old Irish photo restorer who developed a lucrative career colorizing historic photos. The article was titled, These People Were Arrested by the Khmer Rouge and Never Seen Again. It was subtitled, These portraits, recently colorized, humanize that tragedy. But that was all a lie. VICE and Loughrey’s efforts only “humanized” barbarism. In June of 2021 I stumbled upon this report quite by accident. Perhaps this essay can bring the story to a wider audience.

The VICE interview presented Loughrey’s colorized and digitally altered photos of prisoners held by the genocidal communist regime of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge (Red Khmers), the radical Maoists who seized power and tormented the country from 1975 to 1979. Some two million Cambodians perished under the harsh rule of the Khmer Rouge; they died of preventable disease, starvation, torture, and a campaign of mass execution. As an artist, I have always felt unease concerning the colorization of historic black and white photos. That is because I also have a great interest in, and respect for history; attempts at rewriting history raises my ire. But what VICE and Loughrey did was outside the bounds of good judgement and decency.

Cell block at Security Prison 21, circa 1979. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

Cell block at Security Prison 21, circa 1979. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

Loughrey based his altered colorized portraits on actual black and white prison induction photos the communists took of their captives before locking them up in Security Prison 21. Also known as S-21, the prison was located in Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh.

Inside the prison starvation, interrogation, torture, and execution was the daily regimen. It held 20,000 prisoners, but only 7 left the building alive in 1979. There were 150 such camps across Cambodia, though Security Prison 21 was certainly the largest.

S-21 was not a mass execution center per se. When masses of detainees were marked for liquidation, they were trucked to Choeung Ek, a large “killing field” outside of Phnom Penh. Still, hundreds of innocent victims were dumped into unmarked graves on the grounds of S-21.

When the Khmer Rouge government was driven from power in 1979 by an invasion of the army of Vietnam, the S-21 death camp was transformed into the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It continues to maintain an extensive archival collection documenting the genocide conducted by the Khmer Rouge. Part of that collection includes the S-21 prisoner photographs and the forced confessions detainees made under torture.

In his VICE interview Loughrey made the dubious claim that he colorized three S-21 photos for “a person in Cambodia” that had contacted him with the request; Loughrey offered no verification of such an appeal. VICE indicated that once Loughrey saw the size of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum photo archives, he decided to download and colorize even more images from the online source. In the interview he was quoted as saying: “The more I looked into it and the more images I saw, I thought, well, this has to be done.” VICE did not report he did so without permission from the museum. It is unknown how many images he filched.

Making things worse, and this is key, Loughrey went far beyond colorizing the photos, he changed the entire facial expressions of the prisoners by digitally painting smiles on their faces! The corners of their mouths curved upwards showing smile lines, their eyes were brightened, their cheeks were glowing. From their faux beaming smiles the prisoners looked as if they were attending a festive occasion rather than being shoved into a death camp. While VICE published Loughrey’ altered smiling photos, they did not publish the original photographs.

Unidentified men in Security Prison 21 are bound with rope and shackled together. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

Unidentified men in Security Prison 21 are bound with rope and shackled together. Photograph taken sometime between 1975-79. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

Without institutional backing, Loughrey colorized photos he lifted from the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum website. That alone was a violation of the museum’s terms and conditions, which states its historic images must never be altered or modified. But painting smiles on the faces of innocent people who were tortured before they were executed… that is hard to fathom.

One reason for Loughrey’s chilly indifference as an “artist” is that, consciously or not, he is part of the postmodern art world, where spectacle and shock carry more weight than substance, and truth is just a social construct. His insensitivity reflects postmodern art stars like Jake and Dinos Chapman, who once clothed ghoulish Nazi mannequins in SS uniforms, replacing their swastika armbands with smiley faces, and exhibited the entire mess at the White Cube gallery in London. Loughrey’s act of painting smiles on the faces of Khmer Rouge victims was pure Chapman brothers—though liberal art institutions will likely receive Loughrey less favorably than they did the “brilliant” Jake and Dinos.

Loughrey’s postmodernist ethics are evident in his obsession with “restoring” historic black and white photographs by way of colorization. He has made a career out of “re-imagining” the past. As a visual artist who has intentionally created many artworks in glorious black and white, I would hate to see a technician in the future colorize my works. Likewise, when I view a photo of Paris taken by Louis Daguerre in 1830, I want to see the world as he and his colleagues saw it. I do not want his vision to be “restored” or “re-imagined.” Colorizing Daguerre’s unique photos would be a crime against art and history.

Imagine the outrage if someone painted smiley faces on the photos of those who died in Nazi extermination camps like Auschwitz. In point of fact, Loughrey did something very close to that, provoking an angry response from the Auschwitz Museum (you will find the details if you continue reading). Most importantly, Loughrey and VICE committed an affront against the dignity of all Cambodian people, an abusive blow equal to a racist attack. The oh so progressive VICE did this, and it should never be forgotten.

Unidentified female prisoner in Security Prison 21. Photograph taken sometime between 1975-79. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

Unidentified female prisoner in Security Prison 21. Photograph taken sometime between 1975-79. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

The unaltered, black and white prisoner photos from S-21 are haunting. Looking through those photos archived online by the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, one young woman caught my eye. She is unidentified. Museum records state only that she was held in cell number 16 (indicated by the tags on her blouse), and that she was prisoner 3,753 (hand written on the photo by a Khmer Rouge guard). Aside from the fact that she died, everything else about her is a mystery.

It is difficult to interpret her expression; to me the young women looks as if she had seen too much evil and it no longer fazed her. That, or it was the demeanor of a woman who knew she was doomed. Before I discovered that Matt Loughrey had transformed Prisoner 3,753 into a gussied-up glamour doll, I chose to use the original unaltered photo to illustrate my essay. The altered photo reminds me of a lyric from a 1981 song by UK punk band, Crass: “Like a glamour billboard in a battlefield. At least the bloody-red poppy was of nature’s will.” Out of respect for the deceased, I will not post that altered colorized abomination to my article.

After VICE published Loughrey’s photos on April 9, 2021, Cambodian nationals and those in diaspora began to inveigh against the cruel racist provocation. April 10, 2021, the National Cambodian Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial in Chicago, Illinois, issued a statement that read in part: “We do not endorse those that seek to profit and benefit from the violent and lived traumas of our past and current history. Minimizing the pain and trauma of our community from those who are not connected to the experience is not only revising and erasing history, it’s a violent act.”

On April 11, 2021, Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts (MCFA) located in Phnom Penh, Kingdom of Cambodia, issued a statement that read in part: “MCFA does not accept this kind of manipulation, and considers this work of Matt Loughrey to seriously affect the dignity of the victims, the reality of Cambodia’s history, and in violation of the rights of the Museum as the lawful owners and custodians of these photographs.”

April 11, 2021 statement from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, Kingdom of Cambodia.

April 11, 2021 statement from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, Kingdom of Cambodia.

On April 16, 2021, the Auschwitz Museum located on the grounds of the former Nazi concentration camp in Poland, tweeted a message of solidarity with the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. In that dispatch the Auschwitz Museum made known they had contacted Matt Loughrey and asked him to remove from his Instagram account, a color animation he created of Czesława Kwoka. He refused. Kwoka was a 14-year-old girl who died in Auschwitz on March 12, 1943. She was a Polish Catholic and one of the approximately 230,000 children the Nazis sent to the camp for extermination. Only around 650 children survived Auschwitz.

Tweets from the Auschwitz Museum and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, April, 2021.

Tweets from the Auschwitz Museum and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, April, 2021.

Not surprisingly, without permission Matt Loughrey made his animation of Kwoka with images owned by the Auschwitz Museum. He used an imaging technique he developed called X-Oculi, arrogantly describing it as “a combination of unrivaled artistry and cutting edge orbital motion-tracking.” After refusing the reasonable request of the Auschwitz Museum, the pretentious Loughrey no doubt received a tidal wave of negative criticism. On April 16, 2021, the offending animation was taken down from Instagram without comment or fanfare.

A petition demanding that Matt Loughrey apologize “for the theft, manipulation and appropriation of these photographs,” and that VICE apologize for “publication and support of Matt Loughrey’s work” was initiated by Dany Pen and 7 other Cambodians. Pen lost her family members at the S-21 death camp, she had biting words for VICE:

“I strongly implore VICE to take down these photos that are promoting white supremacy, cultural appropriation, cultural erasure, and victim dismissal. It promotes harm and brings on psychological and emotional violence towards my Cambodian community.”

It is troubling that our time has produced characters like Matt Loughrey, as well as sensationalist rags like VICE. Loughrey’s website touts his “ambitious photo colorization project” as “an option for museums and libraries to upgrade and re-imagine their own visitor experiences.” With no sense of irony his website bears a masthead reading “Bridging a gap between history & art.” He dared to write, “we find ourselves in an age of image obsolescence,” and that his digital skills are “a form of visual defense against this.” He spouted even more rubbish with, “collections are being rescued, detail and character that could never be seen in the original images is being uncovered.” All while the ne’er-do-well erased history and painted a happy face on genocide.

Loughrey’s website makes no mention of insulting and hurting the Cambodian people. He does however brag that “current and previous clients include: DELL, 21st Century Fox, National Parks Service, BBC, ABC Australia, The New York Post, The Guardian, The Times, National Geographic and more.” If they had any principles these supporting companies would wash their hands of Loughrey. He should delete his websites and slink away, hoping no one will recall his depravity.

On April 11, 2021, the “editorial leadership” of VICE issued a short and confused statement that they were taking down the Loughrey photos and interview. Saying the photos were “manipulated beyond colorization” and the “story did not meet the editorial standards of VICE,” they called publishing the materials an “error.” VICE did not have an editor informed enough to realize at first glance that the photos were drastically altered. If the interview and photos did not meet the lofty editorial standards of VICE why publish them in the first place? The genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge remains a historically earth shaking story, but the vacant millennials running the show at VICE have blank memories. The remarks from VICE “leadership” is an admission the company has absolutely failed as a legitimate news organization. On April 16, 2021, they released an updated statement that was closer to an apology—but still worthless. I have entirely lost my patience with poseurs who feign humanitarianism.

On April, 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo, AP.

On April, 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo, AP.

I was 21-years-old when the Khmer Rouge seized Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh on the morning of April 17, 1975. That same day they ordered the complete evacuation of Phnom Penh and other cities. By force of arms they marched everyone into the countryside to undertake the building of an agrarian utopia. In doing so they closed schools, factories, and hospitals; the sick and infirmed were forced to march, so too children and the elderly—thousands died along the way as food, water, and medical care were not provided. At the time, reports coming out of Phnom Penh were unsettling. When I saw the photo of a Khmer Rouge soldier pointing his 1911 pistol at shop owners, demanding they abandon their businesses and leave the city, I knew Cambodia was doomed. Because of the Vietnam war, I had been following politics in Southeast Asia since the mid-60s as an idealistic pre-Teen, so I knew of the Khmer Rouge. But they were about to give me, and the world, a lesson in medievalist savagery.

The leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, who was referred to as “Brother Number One,” declared the communist takeover to be “Year Zero,” the beginning of an era when all vestiges of the past would be destroyed. Straight away, all money, banking, private property, and religions were abolished. The liquidation of the regime’s enemies started. Anyone who represented the past—educated middle-class professionals, technicians, artists, writers, filmmakers, musicians, were all exterminated. Wearing eyeglasses or speaking a foreign language could identify a person as an intellectual to be executed. Everyone in Year Zero Cambodia was forced to wear Khmer black pajamas and the traditional red and white gingham Krama scarf. To do otherwise was dangerous.

The “Marxists” of the Khmer Rouge envisioned the country’s peasants building communism through collective labor and people’s communes. They applied Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” and “Cultural Revolution” to their nation. In fact the Chinese Communist Party backed the Khmer Rouge, giving them political support and endless military supplies. But the Red Khmers also viewed the ancient 12th century Angkor Empire of Cambodia as an agrarian utopia to be replicated. They called their nation “Kampuchea,” using the Khmer pronunciation of Cambodia. They referred to their leaders as “The Angkar” (The Organization). And on Jan. 5, 1976, they presented the official red flag of “Democratic Kampuchea,” which incorporated a stylized Angkor Wat symbol in yellow. The Khmer Rouge were nothing if not ethnic and national supremacists.

The Khmer Rouge red flag of “Democratic Kampuchea,” incorporating a stylized Angkor Wat symbol in yellow.

The Khmer Rouge red flag of “Democratic Kampuchea,” incorporating a stylized Angkor Wat symbol in yellow.

Once taking power the intolerant Khmer Rouge began to annihilate 1000s of ethnic Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, and Cham people. Condemning religion as “detrimental,” the Khmer Rouge targeted Christians, Catholics, Muslims, and Buddhists for extermination.

In 1975 they destroyed the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Phnom Penh, taking it apart stone by stone until there was nothing left. It was one of 73 Catholic churches destroyed in Year Zero.

In 1975 there were 66,000 Buddhist monks and 4,000 Buddhist temples. Before the Khmer Rouge were driven from power, they murdered more than 25,000 monks and obliterated 1,968 temples.

Two reporters were working together in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge surrounded the capital—Cambodian photojournalist and interpreter Dith Pran (1942-2008), and NYTimes reporter Sydney Schanberg (1934-2016). Schanberg was one of the last Western journalists to stay in the city. The two witnessed the communist army take the city. In his last dispatch Schanberg wrote: “Most of the soldiers are teenagers. They are universally grim, robot-like, brutal. Weapons drip from them like fruit from trees… grenades, pistols, rifles, rockets.”

The Khmer Rouge wasted no time in unleashing large scale looting and executions. The two reporters were captured by guerrillas Schanberg described as “maniacal.” The two were threatened with death, and only the pleas of Pran saved them from being executed in the street. They took refuge in the French embassy compound along with a throng of desperate foreigners. Being Cambodian Pran was dragged from the embassy by the Khmer Rouge and marched into the countryside; they expelled Schanberg and the other Westerners from the embassy and trucked them to Thailand. As Schanberg noted: “With this act, Cambodia was sealed. The world could not look in. The killing could begin.”

The perilous journey of Dith Pran had just begun. He ended up in a Khmer Rouge work camp as a slave laborer—all for the good of the new “Democratic Kampuchea.” His captors fed him a tablespoon of rice a day, he supplemented his ration with an occasional beetle or small lizard he would secretly catch. He experienced beatings, torture, starvation, and witnessed endless executions. Pran endured four years of this, and when Vietnam overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979 he broke out of the camp and escaped over the Thai border. His 60 mile flight to freedom had him slogging through muddy fields filled with decomposing human corpses. These were the execution grounds where the Khmer Rouge slaughtered over a million people. Pran dubbed them the “killing fields.”

Excavated grave pit at Security Prison 21, circa 1979. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

Excavated grave pit at Security Prison 21, circa 1979. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

Today the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center stands outside Phnom Penh, it is built on one of the largest Khmer Rouge killing fields. Once an orchard before it was turned into a death camp, there are 129 mass graves in Choeung Ek. Heavy rains still uncover human teeth, bone fragments, and bits of clothing. A Buddhist “stupa” monument commemorating the dead stands in the middle of the killing field. Its plexiglass walls are filled with more than 8,000 skulls found onsite. Many of the skulls show evidence of having been bashed. To save ammunition the Khmer Rouge made victims kneel at the edge of a large pit, then clubbed their heads with steel bars or agricultural hoes; victims fell into the mass grave.

A “killing tree” is also found at Choeung Ek. Whole families were murdered at the camp, including babies. Khmer Rouge guards held toddlers by the ankles, then swung their heads into the tree. The tiny smashed bodies were tossed into a nearby open pit. Despite the communist aim of totally eradicating Buddhist “leeches and worms,” today the tree is covered in Buddhist string bracelets left by visitors as spiritual gifts to the slain little ones.

In 1980 Sydney Schanberg published his book The Death and Life of Dith Pran. The book served as the basis for the 1984 movie The Killing Fields, which depicted the agonies of Cambodia as seen through the experiences of Dith Pran and Sydney Schanberg. The book and the film brought international attention to the tragedy that had befallen Cambodia. If VICE really wanted to “restore” the history of Cambodia and “humanize” the tragedy, they would have recited the tale of Dith Pran to an audience completely unfamiliar with his saga. Instead, VICE published the vulgarities of braggart Matt Loughrey.

Unidentified female prisoner in Security Prison 21. Photograph taken sometime between 1975-79. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

Unidentified female prisoner in Security Prison 21. Photograph taken sometime between 1975-79. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

Cambodians were not the only ones tortured and murdered at the S-21 death camp. In 1978 the Khmer Rouge “navy” captured two hapless young Americans who were sailing off the coast of Cambodia. Michael Deeds and Chris Delance were sent to S-21 where they were tortured for 40 days. The Khmer Rouge were sadistic torturers who employed a variety of techniques in their “interrogations.” They forced prisoners to eat human feces, ripped out fingernails, burned detainees with hot wires or cigarettes, used electric shock, pushed needles under fingernails, administered beatings with sticks or electric wire, used water-boarding and other methods of drowning detainees, and covered victims with centipedes and scorpions.

Michael Deeds and Chris Delance were tortured until they signed “confessions” that they were CIA agents. The commander of S-21 was Kaing Guek Eav, aka “Duch.” After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Duch testified at his trial that he was given orders by Pol Pot’s right hand man to “destroy all human beings from S-21” before the army of Vietnam arrived. That included Americans Deeds and Delance. They were bound, wrapped in gasoline soaked tires, and set on fire. They were gruesomely executed two days before Vietnamese soldiers liberated the camp. The Vietnamese discovered the prison by following the stench of the many burned bodies left to rot and decompose in the tropical heat. Perhaps Matt Loughrey will digitally paint the two Americans with happy smiling faces.

It is an irony that Cambodian artist Vann Nath (1946-2011) occupied the cell next to where Michael Deeds was locked up. The artist was one of 7 detainees who survived Security Prison 21. Prior to 1975 he made a living painting landscapes and film posters, but in 1977 he ran afoul of the Khmer Rouge and they put him in S-21. Every evening Vann Nath would watch guards pull Deeds from his cell, dragging him elsewhere for “interrogation.” The artist would see the guards return hours later to dump their tortured victim into his cell, where he would forlornly sing to himself. Today, the paintings of Vann Nath are permanently displayed at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Each a depiction of unspeakable brutality, each a condemnation of tyranny. VICE never did a story about Vann Nath, no, they chose to interview the no account Matt Loughrey.

A prisoner interrogated by the Khmer Rouge. Oil painting by Cambodian artist Vann Nath. The painting is in the Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum collection

A prisoner interrogated by the Khmer Rouge. Oil painting by Cambodian artist Vann Nath. The painting is in the Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum collection

In the end, the excesses of the Khmer Rouge sealed their fate. Their xenophobic hatred of ethnic Vietnamese—who settled in Cambodia long ago, caused the Khmer Rouge to massacre them by the thousands. By 1977 the Khmer Rouge were crossing into Vietnam with troops and artillery to attack Vietnamese towns and villages. The last straw came when a large force of heavily armed Khmer Rouge marched four miles into Vietnam and slaughtered over 3,000 Vietnamese civilians in the Ba Chúc massacre on April 18, 1978. On Dec. 25, 1978, Vietnam launched the invasion of “Democratic Kampuchea,” rapidly crushing the lion’s share of Khmer Rouge fighters and overthrowing the Pol Pot regime. On Jan. 7, 1979 Vietnam rolled into Phnom Penh, effectively putting an end to the genocide.

Remnant Khmer Rouge dead enders retreated to jungle enclaves near the Thai border and continued their fight (which of course was backed by Communist China). In 1998 a Khmer Rouge officer put the ailing Pol Pot under house arrest, but Brother Number One died that same year. In 2006 the Cambodian government and the UN established the “Khmer Rouge Tribunal,” where the remaining three Khmer Rouge leaders were tried and sentenced. In 2012 Duch was jailed for life for having run the S-21 death camp. In 2014 Nuon Chea (Brother Number Two) and Khieu Samphan (Khmer Rouge head of state) were sentenced to life for crimes against humanity for their roles in the Year Zero forced evacuations. In 2018 Chea and Samphan were found guilty of genocide for the mass extermination of Vietnamese Cambodians.

VICE supposedly captured the millennial focused market in 2015 with its “alternative” approach to news. Needless to say, I always perceived VICE as just another corporate media platform to be avoided. Now, with their self-inflicted Khmer Rouge wound destroying their carefully constructed “progressive” image, my viewpoint has been vindicated. As for VICE being “the definitive guide to enlightening information,” that pretense was destroyed in a Year Zero of their own making. It is long overdue that journalists convert from a life of vice, to a life of virtue. After all, dictionaries define “vice” as a “wicked, immoral, corrupt, and depraved” practice.

Unidentified male prisoner in Security Prison 21. Photograph taken sometime between 1975-79. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

Unidentified male prisoner in Security Prison 21. Photograph taken sometime between 1975-79. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

Sanford Biggers Is Not An Oracle

On May 11, 2021 the Smithsonian Magazine ran an article with the headline, This Monumental ‘Oracle’ Statue in NYC Subverts Traditional Sculpture. Artist Sanford  Biggers was being touted by the magazine as the first artist to be invited by the Rockefeller Center to take over their campus with a multimedia survey exhibition. He was also being applauded for exhibiting his 25-foot tall Oracle bronze statue at the Fifth Avenue entrance to the Channel Gardens at Rockefeller Center. The statue is considered the centerpiece of the Biggers take over.

“Oracle.” Sanford Biggers. Bronze. 2021. Photo Daniel Greer, courtesy of Art Production Fund.

“Oracle.” Sanford Biggers. Bronze. 2021. Photo Daniel Greer, courtesy of Art Production Fund.

Whatever profundity the Oracle bronze supposedly possesses is outweighed by its absurdity; it is hard to take seriously.

The enormous African head teetering on top of a Lilliputian Greco-Roman figure holding a golden torch, does not provoke deep thought, but laughter. It reminds one of the jackalope, that faux American critter created by a 1930s taxidermist who grafted antlers onto the head of a jackrabbit carcass.

Oracle is part of Biggers’ Chimera project, it is the largest statue in that series. His Chimera sculptures, some of which are exhibited at the Rockefeller Center, combine African masks with classical European depictions of the body.

In the case of Oracle, humongous size is not matched by a beauty of equal magnitude.

Aside from its droll unsightliness, there is a three-ring circus side-show angle to Oracle. Biggers outfitted the statue with an interactive component allowing the public to ask the sculpture questions, once they activate a QR code. According to the artist, Oracle answers with the voices of “various celebrities” (well of course—there must be celebrities), and the responses will be “mysterious, poetic vagaries which will hopefully be, if not helpful, at least mystifying.” Perhaps Oracle could soothsay how far away in the future it will be before Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa speaks with a QR code initiated celebrity voice.

On a wide, double stepped, white platform, the Oracle sits on its royal black throne. Emblazoned on the seat of power one finds a repeated circular image of what appears to be a lotus blossom. A closer look reveals each petal of the lotus is the cross-section of a slave ship filled with its human cargo. It is an accursed flower, and it is Biggers’ vision of America.

The exhibition includes sculptures, mixed media “paintings” made on antique quilts, video, audio, a “mural” (if you choose to call a Photoshop file printed by an inkjet printer a mural), and flags, because, what would an art exhibition be without flags?

“Rockefeller Center Plaza.” Photo by the Wurts Brothers, circa 1934. Paul Manship’s “Prometheus” is in the foreground, while Lee Lawrie’s “Wisdom with Sound and Light” can be glimpsed in the background.

“Rockefeller Center Plaza.” Photo by the Wurts Brothers, circa 1934. Paul Manship’s “Prometheus” is in the foreground, while Lee Lawrie’s “Wisdom with Sound and Light” can be glimpsed in the background.

Rockefeller Center combines two building complexes, the original fourteen office buildings that were built in the 1930s in the Art Deco style, and four towers built in the 1960s and 70s in the International architecture style. American architect Raymond Hood was the chief architect. Biggers compared himself to Hood, saying “When Raymond Hood was designing this complex, he was grabbing from stories from antiquity, mythology, art, to wind up with this beautiful Art Deco monument. I wanted to reference various cultures and histories as well.”

The prodigious Raymond Hood was not “grabbing” bits from the past to “wind up” with an assemblage—that is the methodology of postmoderns like Biggers. Hood studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s School of Architecture, and in 1911 he graduated from the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris. His designs were meticulous, purposeful, and pragmatic, bearing Neo-Gothic or Art Deco embellishments. The mythology and art he was supposedly grabbing were the ancient Greek building blocks that Western civilization rests upon; foundations forsaken by postmodernists. Oracle is presumably the dubious stand-in for the “various cultures and histories” that Biggers mentioned.

“Chimaera fighting Bellerophon.” Ceramic cup, circa 575 BC. The black-figure style painting was created by the ancient Athenian artist today known as the “Heidelberg Painter.” Bellerophon was a hero monster slayer who captured and rode the winged horse named Pegasus.

“Chimera fighting Bellerophon.” Ceramic cup, circa 575 BC. The black-figure style painting was created by the ancient Athenian artist today known as the “Heidelberg Painter.” Bellerophon was a hero monster slayer who captured and rode the winged horse named Pegasus.

As with all of Biggers’ works at the Rockefeller Center, the Chimera sculptures are consumed by identity politics—an Afrocentric vision to be precise. So it is odd that he named his sculpture series after the Chimera of ancient Greece, a mythic fire-breathing female creature that was a hybrid of lion, goat, and snake. All of his exhibited works have the intent of dethroning “whiteness” in Western art. They are an attempt to supplant European mythos with blackness. In the language of artspeak, the artist “explores historical depictions of the body and their subsequent myths, narratives, perceptions, and power.” That is a tad more palatable than just saying “he kicks Western civilization in the teeth.”

According to Biggers the Oracle head is based on masks from various African cultures, including those created by the Luba people of the Congo, and the Maasai tribal group inhabiting parts of Kenya and Tanzania. I am left wondering, how does the king-like Oracle come to represent all of Africa? In modern Africa there are fifty-four countries—only one of them, Eswatini (Swaziland), is an absolute monarchy. The two others, Lesotho and Morocco, are constitutional monarchies. It seems Biggers is partial to the supreme power of an African king over the democratic rule of the people. In his view Oracle completes “the rest of the story” told by the classical European statues of Rockefeller Center. He says that Oracle contains “a lot of African elements.” Yet, when studying real world African art, those “African elements” appear to be dreamed up.

Biggers noted the body of Oracle was inspired by the Statue of Zeus that once sat in the Temple of Zeus in ancient Olympia, Greece. Difficult to imagine, since no accurate copies of the statue survive; the temple and its statue were destroyed long ago by earthquakes and fires. In 457 BC the sculptor Phidias created the 40-foot high chryselephantine sculpture of Zeus, King of the Olympian Gods. In this type of sculpture, gold (chrysos) depicted garments and accoutrements, while ivory (elephantinos) represented flesh. It is said Zeus was depicted with his outstretched right hand holding a statue of Nike, goddess of victory. His left hand held a scepter where an eagle perched. The statue became one of the Seven Wonders of the World. That will not be the destiny of Oracle.

Historically the Smithsonian and other art institutions have had few problems discerning persons from gods in artifacts from the ancient world. However the Smithsonian Magazine described Oracle as a “person or deity with an enormous head who sits majestically on a throne.” The statement seems confused because there is no tangible history behind Oracle, no celebrated personages, no gods, no legendary event, just a wan metaphor for black superiority. It is a mash-up where a simulacrum of ancient Greece is pitted against Biggers’ imagined “African elements,” and the winner is Wakanda, the fictional sub-Saharan country made-up by Marvel Comics.

“Seigaiha.” Sanford Biggers. 2021. Photo Daniel Greer, courtesy of Art Production Fund.

“Seigaiha.” Sanford Biggers. 2021. Photo Daniel Greer, courtesy of Art Production Fund.

Let us examine the flag series titled Seigaiha that Biggers said he created for the Rockefeller Center flagpoles. Media accounts report the blue flags display “a unique wave illustration designed by Biggers.” The artist says the flags with their wave patterns in white, are meant to represent the Middle Passage Slave Trade that brought enslaved Africans to the Americas. However, seigaiha is a Japanese word that means “blue ocean waves.” It describes a particular design element in Japanese art that consists of concentric circles symbolizing waves. It is obvious Japan had absolutely nothing to do with the Middle Passage Slave Trade, so why did Biggers bring Japanese culture into his denunciation of slavery?

"Rough Waves" pattern by artist Mariko Garcia ©

"Rough Waves" pattern by artist Mariko Garcia ©

The “unique wave illustration” was not “designed by Biggers.” It was hand drawn by New York based artist Mariko Garcia and based on the Japanese “Nami” design representing powerful, churning ocean waves. Garcia titled her drawing “Rough Waves” and made it available on merchandising sites like Adobe, Shutterstock, and Pixers.

On those platforms you will not find her design listed under “Middle Passage” or “Slave Trade.” Apparently Biggers took Garcia’s Rough Wave textile, had someone sew it up in flag form, then passed it off as his own design and claimed the turbulent waves represented the Middle Passage Slave Trade. How does this pass for significant art? Biggers’ Seigaiha flags have nothing to do with slavery, and everything to do with plagiarism.

Likely the most ridiculous thing about Biggers’ Oracle is that it is being juxtaposed to the celebrated masterworks associated with the Rockefeller Center building, particularly the works of American artists Lee Lawrie and Paul Manship. Those two virtuosos created works of irrefutable skill and artistry, and today their art continues to be enjoyed by the public at large for accomplished craft and timeless beauty. How tragic that postmodernism first obliterated, then blotted out the memory and concept of beauty in art. No one stands before an original Biggers to whisper in awe, “that is so exquisite, how did he do that?” Although some might say “why did he do that?” Poor betrodden Beauty, against her will she has been forced into a longterm hiatus.

“Atlas.” Lee Lawrie/Rene Paul Chambellan. Bronze sculpture. 1937. Photo: Michael Greene

“Atlas.” Lee Lawrie/Rene Paul Chambellan. Bronze sculpture. 1937. Photo: Michael Greene

In 1936 Lee Lawrie and fellow sculptor Rene Paul Chambellan created Atlas, a 45-foot-tall, seven-ton bronze statue for Rockefeller Center that stands outside the building at 630 5th Ave. Essentially Lawrie created sketches and models of the statue to be, and Chambellan translated them into sculptural form.

The ancient Greeks believed Zeus, King of the Gods, condemned Atlas to hold up the sky with his shoulders for eternity. Lawrie and Chambellan depicted Atlas shouldering the sky by showing him bearing an enormous armillary sphere, the astronomical tool representing the heavens used by the Greeks.

On the celestial sphere you can see the Greco-Roman planet symbols for Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

Lawrie was one of the greatest sculptors of his day. His creations include architectural sculptures on the 1926 Los Angeles Public Library, and the 1939 bas-relief bronze doors on the John Adams building of the Library of Congress, Washington DC. Those doors included twelve figures depicting gods or heroes from ancient Mexico, China, India, Mesopotamia, Greece, Persia, Germany, and North America, all associated with the advent of writing. The artworks are an example of the “diversity and inclusion” today’s radicals say are lacking in the American cultural landscape.

“Wisdom.” Lee Lawrie. Limestone sculptural relief panel. 1933. Photo: Jaime Ardiles-Arce.

“Wisdom.” Lee Lawrie. Limestone sculptural relief panel. 1933. Photo: Jaime Ardiles-Arce.

Lee Lawrie created a second tour de force for the Rockefeller Center—relief sculpture panels known as Wisdom with Sound and Light that sit over the main entrance doors.

Lawrie carved the panels from limestone and collaborated with artist and polychromist Leon V. Solon, who painted and gilded the sculptures. Solon advocated Architectural Polychromy, the decorative painting of stone buildings to make them more elegant and harmonizing. He made the following statement regarding his work:

“Color is a terrific force when introduced into an architectural combination, and is capable of producing an effect upon the observer equaled only by the fascination which firearms possess for small boys.”

The politically correct will no doubt be horrified. Perhaps they shall cancel the artworks of Lawrie and Solon.

In 1934 American artist Paul Manship created the statue titled Prometheus, seen in the lower Plaza of Rockefeller Center. His pre-Olympian Titan god of fire is an 18-foot-tall, eight-ton bronze sculpture gilded with gold. The ancient Greeks believed Prometheus created humanity from clay. It is said he stole fire from Zeus, and gifted it to humans.

“Prometheus.” Paul Manship. Gilded bronze sculpture. 1934. Photo: Will Powell.

“Prometheus.” Paul Manship. Gilded bronze sculpture. 1934. Photo: Will Powell.

Enraged by that act Zeus condemned Prometheus to eternal torment by having him bound to a rock, where an eagle would come to eat his liver. The liver grew back every night, and each morning the eagle returned to feast.

Manship depicted Prometheus clutching the stolen fire in his right hand as he falls through a gigantic ring representing the heavens. The red granite wall behind the statue is inscribed with the paraphrased words of the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus: “Prometheus, teacher in every art, brought the fire that hath proved to mortals a means to mighty ends.”

And what fire does Biggers bring? His Just Us mural on exhibit at the Rockefeller Center is a confused muddle in every sense. It is a Photoshop creation printed on an inkjet printer. It has all the gravitas of a pamphlet printed at a commercial print shop; its political message is baffling as well. During the 60s, radical civil rights activists said American justice was accessible only to white men, referring to US jurisprudence as “Just Us.” But who speaks the phrase in the Biggers mural, oppressor or oppressed? Is it a badge of honor or a victim’s fear? Why do the words hang in the heavens like an irreligious joke? Are we expected to be impressed with ambiguity? Just Us is too arcane to be a political statement, and even less noteworthy as a mural. Muralism has fallen from its once commanding position into the abyss of lowbrow kitsch, graffiti, and other postmodern inanities. That is where you find Biggers.

Biggers believes his Oracle bronze statue is a necessary companion to Lawrie’s and Manship’s bronze statues, because he imagines he has provided the missing puzzle piece of the African experience. Without naming a particular building or artwork, Biggers told the media that all throughout Rockefeller Center, “there are smaller symbols of the triangle trade and the slave trade. You see references to tobacco and cotton and sugar.” The press published his allegations without question or objection. You might think an explicit accusation that racist iconography is part of the architecture of Rockefeller Center might be cause for a journalistic investigation. Nope. Journalism is dead.

“Industries of the British Empire.” Bronze panel, Carl Paul Jennewein, 1933. Photo: Wally Gobetz

“Industries of the British Empire.” Bronze panel, Carl Paul Jennewein, 1933. Photo: Wally Gobetz

Biggers was alluding to the Rockefeller Center’s British Empire Building, designed by Raymond Hood to house British governmental and commercial offices.

In the early 1930s artist Carl Paul Jennewein created Industries of the British Empire, a huge relief panel in bronze for placement above the entrance door. The 18-foot high by 11-foot wide, blackened patina bronze panel was decorated with nine gilded allegorical figures representing the vital industries of the British Empire—Salt, Wheat, Wool, Coal, Fish, Cotton, Tobacco, and Sugar.

Eight of the laborers had tumbling gilded letters spelling out their industry placed next to them. European laborers from the British Isles, Canada, and Australia were identified with fish, coal, wool, and wheat.

Biggers might be shocked to find Jennewein identified those in his bronze panel working with sugar, tobacco, and salt, as workers from the subcontinent of India, not African slaves from the Middle Passage Slave Trade.

In 1792 the British Crown found it cheaper to produce sugar in British India than on Caribbean islands. Jennewein’s artwork showed an Indian man working with sugar cane, an Indian woman with tobacco plants, and another carrying a bag of salt. Jennewein’s artworks unintentionally exposed colonialism at work in India—but Biggers payed no attention.

“East India Sugar not made by Slaves.” Blue glass sugar bowl with gilt letters. 1820-1830. Made in Great Britain, merchandise like this was exported to anti-slavery activists in America. Photo Andreas Praefcke

“East India Sugar not made by Slaves.” Blue glass sugar bowl with gilt letters. 1820-1830. Made in Great Britain, merchandise like this was exported to anti-slavery activists in America. Photo Andreas Praefcke

He will not tell you that in 1791 British citizens by the hundreds of thousands were buying sugar from India where slavery was not used, and were spooning their Indian sugar out of abolitionist bowls inscribed with “East India Sugar not made by Slaves.” American abolitionists did likewise.

If Biggers does not understand the importance of salt in India’s Independence movement against British colonialism, he should read a few books on the subject.

Of the nine gilded allegorical figures in Jennewein’s bronze, only one portrayed an African—a woman working with cotton. Is Biggers also unaware that in the late 1800’s African cotton fed the British textile industry, and slaves from the Triangle Trade had nothing to do with it?

In Sudan the British Empire defeated Islamic fundamentalist leader Muhammad Ahmad in 1898, he claimed to be the Mahdi (“Guided One”), the deliverer and restorer of true Islam. His Mahdist army had established an Islamic State in Sudan that stretched from the Red Sea to Central Africa. After vanquishing the Mahdi and his caliphate, Sudan became a source of cotton for the growing British textile industry; it also gave access to the Nile, expanding British markets and suppliers.

Bronze figure gilded in gold representing sugar production in India. From “Industries of the British Empire” by Carl Paul Jennewein, 1933.

Bronze figure gilded in gold representing sugar production in India. From “Industries of the British Empire” by Carl Paul Jennewein, 1933.

Recall that Biggers said relief sculptures in Rockefeller Center depicted “symbols of the triangle trade and the slave trade.” But the history of colonialism and empire is complicated. During the Triangle Trade Great Britain sent trade goods such as cloth, iron goods, guns, and rum to Africa.

Many powerful African empires like the Kingdom of Benin (1440-1897), traded enormous numbers of black captives for those goods. The estimated number of captive slaves traded away by various African empires reaches as high as 20 million.

The Kingdom of Benin sold slaves to British, French, and Portuguese merchants for over 200 years. The slaves were shipped to the West Indies and the Americas. From England’s 13 Colonies, rum, iron ore, timber, furs, rice, indigo dye, and other goods were shipped to Great Britain, beginning the process anew.

Nothing I write here denies the ugly blot of the Middle Passage Slave Trade and the inhuman treatment of African people at the hands of slave traders. The empires of Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Belgium, and Spain mercilessly partitioned and exploited Africa. However, the Transatlantic Slave Trade would have been impossible without the partnership of slave trading African empires, who enslaved fellow Africans for material gain.

If an artist is going to confront the monstrous history of slavery, then fabrication and calumny are not the colors to paint with. It should also be remembered that France abolished slavery in 1794, Great Britain did so in 1833, and on December 6, 1865, slavery was ended in the United States—and the cost was the death of some 365,000 Union soldiers. Modern day slavery continues to exist in the world today, but “progressive” artists have very little to say about it.

What does Mr. Biggers say about the nation of Mauritania, also known as the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, where the “peculiar institution” bleeds into the present. Historically Arab Mauritanians enslaved the Haratin black Mauritanians. Mauritania gained independence from France in 1960, yet did not end slavery until 1981; it was the last country on earth to abolish slavery. According to the BBC it did not criminalize slavery until 2015. In 2017 the BBC reported 600,000 Mauritanians were held in human bondage. Despite all of that Mauritania was allowed to join the UN Human Rights Council in 2020!

So, where are the paintings, videos, audio recordings, murals, flags, and statues by Biggers exposing modern day chattel slavery in Mauritania? It is so much easier to bash Western Civilization for the umpteenth time, while giving an encore recitation on the crimes of “whiteness.”

Biggers’ racialist politics are barely camouflaged by postmodern aesthetics and artspeak; he stands with those who want to “decolonize” the art institutions of the Western world. They are convinced American and European Classical art are linked to white supremacy and its “colonial project.” A writer at the leftist art periodical Hyperallergic succinctly made the point: “America’s encyclopedic museums originated from worldviews not that different from those of today’s white supremacists and nationalists.” Another frenzied dilettanti from the same journal proposed the abolition of museums because they deploy violence “against black bodies, brown bodies, gender non-conforming bodies, colonized bodies, queer bodies, immigrant bodies, disabled bodies, poor bodies, as well as violence against the cultures that these bodies create and move through.”

I am horrified that a layer of contemporary leftists are arguing for the abolishment of museums in Europe and America. They insist museums be “reimagined” (I have come to loath that word), because they think those institutions are “at war” with people of color. That canard has a familiar ring, it reminds me of the Khmer Rouge communists who seized Cambodia in 1975. They declared they would “abolish, uproot, and disperse the cultural, literary, and artistic remnants of the imperialists, colonialists, and all of the other oppressor classes. This will be implemented strongly, deeply and continuously.” [¹] The Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot called the reign of terror “Year Zero.” And so they “reimagined” Cambodia by smashing every vestige of bourgeois society, art, culture, religion, and old traditions. Those “corrupted by imperialistic ideas,” and there were some 1.3 million of them—were executed. It was Pol Pot’s “Great Reset.”

Biggers and his art world allies want you to believe there has been a failure to “understand” classical European art as a “white-washed” history where people of color have been ignored. The decolonize art crowd maintains that classical European sculptures of white marble were once painted in bright colors, true—if speaking of the marble and bronze sculptures of ancient Greece and Rome, but that hardly encompasses the total output of Europe’s classical sculptures. Some insist the Renaissance aesthetic was a “mistake”! Roman statues unearthed in the 15th century were stripped of color by time and the elements, so artists of that period mistakenly deduced the statues had always been white. From the racialist view it follows that from then on, creating white marble statues was only “normalizing whiteness.”

Renaissance artists had good reason to sculpt from white Carrara marble, mined in Italy since the days of ancient Rome—it had nothing to do with race. Freshly quarried Carrara marble is generally soft and easy to carve, it possesses minimal veining which makes the surface consistent, it has a fine grain that captures detail, and it can be polished to extraordinary effect. Most important of all, white Carrara marble has a certain translucency, making it perfect for modeling the human form. Michelangelo (1475–1564) used Carrara marble to carved his Pietà and David masterworks. Renaissance artists made an aesthetic leap by introducing a natural, realistic treatment of subjects, infusing them with emotive power. Form, texture, the play of light across marble, was thought essential. The idea of painting such statues was unthinkable.

“John Brown.” Edmonia Lewis. Plaster. 1876

“John Brown.” Edmonia Lewis. Plaster. 1876

Biggers and the coterie around him will likely never mention Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907). She was the first African American sculptor to gain national and international recognition for her sculptures.

She studied sculpture in Boston, where she met abolitionists like John Brown and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw—commander of the Union Army’s 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment composed of free black men.

She created portrait busts of John Brown and Colonel Shaw after their deaths. Brown was hanged for treason on Dec. 2, 1859 for his raid on the Harpers Ferry federal armory. The US Civil War began on April, 12, 1861, and Lewis created her plaster sculpture of Brown in 1864. A year later the American Civil War ended on May 9, 1865.

On July 18, 1863 Colonel Shaw and the men of the 54th, attacked Confederate held Fort Wagner in South Carolina. They were cut to ribbons by fire from the 1,700 Confederates in the fortress. Of the six hundred soldiers in the 54th, 250 were killed or wounded.

“Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.” Edmonia Lewis. White Carrara marble. 1864

“Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.” Edmonia Lewis. White Carrara marble. 1864

Colonel Robert Gould Shaw was killed on the ramparts while fighting in hand to hand combat. At the bottom of her marble portrait of Colonel Shaw, where the bust meets its pedestal, Edmonia Lewis carved the words, “Martyr For Freedom.”

A surviving member of the 54th, William Harvey Carney, received the Medal of Honor for his gallantry. He carried the American flag into combat and planted it on the parapets. When the Rebels forced the 54th to retreat under fire, he brought the flag back with him despite being shot four times. Carney never let the American flag touch the ground.

Lewis’ portrait bust of Colonel Shaw was purchased by the Shaw family, who gave the artist permission to make plaster replicas of the bust to help advance the Union cause; Lewis created and sold 100 of these for five dollars each.

On a related note, the American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848–1907), created the bronze Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment that sits at the edge of Boston Common in Massachusetts. At a Black Lives Matter protest on May 31, 2020, the monument was vandalized with giant spray-painted red and black graffiti that read; “RIP George Floyd,” “All Cops Are Bastards,” “BLM,” and “FUCK 12” (twelve being a reference to police). Who shall tell the spirits of the 54th that Black Lives Matter defiled their monument?

Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment, defaced with BLM graffiti, May 31, 2020. Source: Twitter

Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment, defaced with BLM graffiti, May 31, 2020. Source: Twitter

I am unsure if Sanford Biggers is exhibiting his 2017 artwork titled Overstood at the Rockefeller Center, but it is worth mentioning to fully understand his body of work. Wrapped in his “African cultural perspective” cloak, Biggers uses the Jamaican patois word “overstand” to replace “understand” in the title. The artist described his work with the following:

“Inspired by a photo of a 1968 Black Panther Party protest and emanating from hand carved power objects on the floor, four larger than life elders look down on centuries of systemic disenfranchisement, pathological extrajudicial practices of the US government towards Black Americans, and the culture that allows these to persist. They witness, stand over and “overstand” that change must come.”

“Overstood.” Sanford Biggers. Sequins, canvas, fabric, tar, glitter, polystyrene, Aquaresin. 2017

“Overstood.” Sanford Biggers. Sequins, canvas, fabric, tar, glitter, polystyrene, Aquaresin. 2017

There are a number of problems with the artwork and its statement. Biggers did not credit Associated Press photographer Ernest K. Bennet for the photo of Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale and his militant comrades; who were not all Panthers.

It can be argued that not crediting Bennet is plagiarism, as with Biggers’ Seigaiha flags. Some will say fair use laws allow for such artistic practice, but I contend it simply shows Biggers has no talent or aptitude for drawing.

You might think an artist is expected to show a genius for the delineation of form by way of line, shading, and tone, but the art establishment of today insists drawing is passé, unless talking about meaningless scrawls and scratches.

The real headache regarding Overstood is its misrepresentation of the Black Panther Party and the artist’s cultural nationalist political baggage. Which brings me to the “hand carved power objects” Biggers has his “Panthers” springing from.

Plainly speaking the Panthers were not practitioners of religion, African or otherwise; they were adherents of Marxian dialectical materialism, not African spiritualism. Yet Biggers shows them, not only as creations of African spirits who have conjured them up, but as supernatural beings in some ethereal African afterworld. Clearly, Biggers is far-removed from the thoughts of Panther leader Huey P. Newton, and in alignment with the black supremacist cultural nationalism of Maulana Karenga. To understand the quandary lets review some historic facts.

Photo of Black Panther Party chairman Bobby Seale (right center) with fellow militants in Oakland, California. Photographer Ernest K. Bennett took the photo on Nov. 21, 1968. Sanford Biggers used Bennett’s uncredited photo to create “Overstood.”

Photo of Black Panther Party chairman Bobby Seale (right center) with fellow militants in Oakland, California. Photographer Ernest K. Bennett took the photo on Nov. 21, 1968. Sanford Biggers used Bennett’s uncredited photo to create “Overstood.”

The Black Panther Party (BPP) embraced revolutionary socialism and defined itself as the “vanguard of the revolution.” It held political education classes where party members were required to read and understand works like: The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon, The Last Stage of Imperialism and Class Struggle in Africa by Kwame Nkrumah, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Black Bourgeoisie by E. Franklin FrazierThe Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx, and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung.

The Panthers expressed solidarity with socialist Algeria, and the communist regimes of China, Cuba, North Vietnam, and North Korea. The BPP was not a black supremacist organization, it sought working relationships with all races. In 1968 its Minister of Information, Eldridge Cleaver, ran for president on the California Peace and Freedom Party.

“Eldridge Cleaver For President.” Presidential campaign poster for Black Panther Party Minister of Information, Eldridge Cleaver. He ran for President on the Peace & Freedom Party ticket in 1968. Artist unknown.

“Eldridge Cleaver For President.” Presidential campaign poster for Black Panther Party Minister of Information, Eldridge Cleaver. He ran for President on the Peace & Freedom Party ticket in 1968. Artist unknown.

The Panthers opposed the cultural nationalists of the US Organization, founded in 1965 by Ron Everett, who took the Swahili name of Maulana (master teacher) Karenga (keeper of the tradition). Karenga wanted no alliances with whites, insisting that a cultural return to Africa would restore black identity and bring deliverance to American blacks.

Followers wore African clothes, spoke Swahili, and gave themselves African names. In 1966 Karenga invented an African harvest festival he called Kwanzaa. His objective was to “give blacks an alternative to the existing holiday of Christmas and give blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.”

Karenga elaborated, “You must have a cultural revolution before the violent revolution. The cultural revolution gives identity, purpose, and direction.” U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris claims to celebrate Kwanzaa.

The leadership of the Black Panther Party, including Bobby Seale, referred to Karenga’s politics as “pork chop nationalism.” In a 1968 interview with The Movement publication of the Students for a Democratic Society, Newton described Karenga’s cultural nationalism as “reactionary” and “the wrong political perspective.” At the UCLA campus on Jan. 17, 1969, members of Karenga’s US shot and killed Black Panthers Bunchy Carter and John Huggins, because they ridiculed Maulana Karenga. Did the elders witness, stand over and “overstand” that act of political assassination?

One last comment on Biggers plagiarizing Bennet’s Nov. 21, 1968 photo. On that date Eldridge Cleaver delivered a speech at San Francisco’s California Hall. It was sponsored by his defense committee. It is somewhat likely Bobby Seale and his comrades were photographed at that event. Cleaver had been charged with attempted murder for an April 1968 shoot out with Oakland police where Panther Bobby Hutton was killed and two officers wounded. Sometime after his address Cleaver jumped bail to avoid imprisonment. He fled to Cuba, then to socialist Algeria, where the National Liberation Front had just won independence from France in 1962.

Some have implied Seale and fellow militants were photographed at the Third World Liberation Front student strike at San Francisco State College (Nov. 1968 to March 1969). Not likely, since Nov. 21st was not significant to the student action, despite two firebrands from the strike, Ben Stewart and George Murray being in the picture. Bennet’s photo is a conundrum. Cleaver’s speech and the student strike both happened in San Francisco, but the photo credit says it was taken in Oakland—across from the San Francisco Bay. There is no certainty regarding the event and location captured in the photo; it seems a detail lost to history. The only certitude is that Biggers concocted a narrative that he attached to a misappropriated historic photograph.

In conclusion, ever since Marcel Duchamp exhibited a porcelain urinal in 1917, artists have been subverting traditional sculpture. So, are the artists of today still yearning for the overthrow of classical sculpture? How is that even possible? What is left of traditional sculpture in the present day? How can the art of Sanford Biggers be considered “subversive” when it is embraced by galleries and museums, praised by art critics, and sanctioned by ruling class institutions?

Postmodern conceptual art, performance art, and installation art, rule the roost in present-day art institutions; that sphere supports Biggers. Traditional realist sculpture, painting and drawing is no longer spoken of in contemporary art magazines. It is shoved aside at art fairs and trendy galleries—one might find it cobwebbed in the basements of a few museums. It is not hyperbole to say realism has gone underground. It is time for a complete reversal of the situation.

As for the Rockefeller family and their namesake, the Rockefeller Center, there has been, shall we say, a rather prickly liaison with the art world over the years. I am certain Biggers does not know that during the Cold War of the early 1950s, the Central Intelligence Agency secretly worked with Nelson Rockefeller and other highfalutin members of the art world—including artists, to establish the dominance of American abstract art over the “Socialist Realism” of the Soviet Union. Yes, they even weaponized art. And today? Perhaps Biggers should do some reading on the topic.

So again the question, what is left of traditional art and sculpture? Not much, and regrettably artists like Sanford Biggers hope to fill the void. If toppling monuments to historic American figures and events subverts the mythos of the United States, then what mythology will supersede them? Mr. Biggers and his backers think they have the answer. Still I wonder. Instead of incessantly rubbing our noses in horrid things, why not create beauteous works of art, breathtaking works that uplift and unite people.

Would that be so difficult?

__________________

The Sanford Biggers exhibit at the Rockefeller Center, ran from May 5 to June 29, 2021.

FOOTNOTES:

1. George Chigas and Dmitri Mosyakov, Literacy and Education under the Khmer Rouge. The Cambodian Genocide Program, Yale University.

The Rise and Fall of LACMA

"Ahmanson Annulled." What was left of the top floor of the four-story Ahmanson Gallery at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) once the wrecking crane was finished on May 13, 2020. Photo Mark Vallen ©.

"Ahmanson Annulled." What was left of the top floor of the four-story Ahmanson Gallery at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) when the wrecking crane was finished on May 13, 2020. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

As a Los Angeles born artist, the tale of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is a personal story for me; I’m actually older than the museum. My anecdotes will offer a glimpse of its glory days, and my photo essay will depict its inevitable physical destruction under its Director and Chief Executive Officer, Michael Govan. Mr. Govan decided to demolish the old LACMA, and so commissioned Swiss architect Peter Zumthor to design a new LACMA. The price of this unnecessary project? A purported $750 million dollars.

Over the decades I attended countless exhibits at LACMA, and spent innumerable hours wandering though the museum’s halls, sketching, studying, drinking it all in. The following are but a few of the exhibits that not only inspired me, but impacted the wider community of Los Angeles and beyond.

"Headed for Oblivion." The Art of the Americas building faced Wilshire Blvd and housed American, Latin American, and pre-Columbian art. Photo Mark Vallen ©. May 9 2020.

"Headed for Oblivion." The Art of the Americas building faced Wilshire Blvd and housed American, Latin American, and pre-Columbian art. Photo Mark Vallen ©. May 9 2020.

In April 1965 I was a budding 12-year-old artist dabbling in oil painting when my working class parents took me to Wilshire Boulevard for the grand opening of LACMA. It was an event never to be forgotten. Designed by William Pereira, the museum complex was surrounded by a man-made shimmering lagoon. The campus was evocative of Italy’s city of Venice, or the ancient Mexican Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan—itself a metropolis built on a lake and crisscrossed with canals, bridges, and waterways. Fireworks were set off over LACMA at the end of the festivities, and I marveled at the display mirrored in the museum’s reflecting pool.

Of course LACMA is built on land where crude oil, methane gas, and tar have bubbled up from beneath the ground for thousands of years, creating giant pools of oil and tar that are still active; an outstanding locale for an art museum. The land is also home to the landmark La Brea Tar Pits. By 1966 the tar and oil oozed into LACMA’s once sparkling lagoon, despoiling the ersatz Venice and eventually necessitating the draining and removal of the body of water. This unfortunate event can be seen as a metaphor for LACMA’s destiny.

"The Amazing Shrinking LACMA." View of the museum from Wilshire Blvd. on April 10, 2020. The Bing Theater had met its demise and in the background the Hammer Building, which displayed special exhibits, was being destroyed. The Art of the Americas building at left would soon be razed. Photo Mark Vallen ©.

"The Amazing Shrinking LACMA." View of museum from Wilshire Blvd., April 10, 2020. The Bing Theater had met its demise and in the background the Hammer Building, which displayed special exhibits, was being destroyed. The Art of the Americas building at left would soon be razed. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

In 1966 my mother took me to see the Edward Kienholz exhibit at LACMA, his “Back Seat Dodge” assemblage was sending polite society into a tizzy—the LA Board of Supervisors called it “blasphemous” and many wanted the offensive Dodge coupe removed. As a 13-year-old I was surprisingly well versed in DaDaism and Surrealism, but Kienholz drove home to me how art could inflame and provoke… well beyond my then adolescent dreams.

I was 23 when the United States celebrated its 1776-1976 Bicentennial. As part of that observance LACMA presented Two Centuries of Black American Art—the first survey of art by Black Americans held in the U.S. While it featured the work of 63 artists, it was the art of Charles White that truly captured my imagination. Because of his humanistic and poignant figurative realism, in particular his sensitive black and white drawings and lithographs, I always considered him to be a mentor; the LACMA exhibit poster for the show featuring a drawing by White remains in my collection.

"Bing Theater Crater." Facing the Wilshire Blvd side of the LACMA campus, the Bing Theater was the museum’s main venue for symposiums, performances, meetings, art classes, and cinema. It was demolished and most of its rubble bulldozed away by April 10 2020. Photo Mark Vallen ©.

"Bing Theater Crater." Facing the Wilshire Blvd side of the LACMA campus, the Bing Theater was the museum’s main venue for symposiums, performances, meetings, art classes, and cinema. It was demolished and most of its rubble bulldozed away by April 10 2020. Photo Mark Vallen ©.

I was 25 when I stood in line for hours to see Treasures of Tutankhamun (Feb. 15-June 15, 1978), the most well attended exhibit in LACMA’s entire history. 53 stunning artifacts from the tomb of the young Egyptian Pharaoh were on display, including his hauntingly beautiful burial mask. Some 1.2 million Angelenos viewed the show during its four month run.

At 33 years of age I attended the groundbreaking exhibit Impressionist to Early Modern Paintings From the U.S.S.R. (June 26-Aug. 12, 1986). I rejoiced in seeing works from the Hermitage and Pushkin museums; Cezanne, Monet, Renoir, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, and many others. I still have hanging in my home LACMA’s exhibit poster for the show that features Guaguin’s Aha Oe Feii (Are You Jealous?).

The exhibit was presented during the Cold War, when the U.S. and Soviets were slugging it out in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and beyond. Of the 40 paintings exhibited, 33 had never been seen in the United States. Given the political environment, it was a miracle the show happened at all. The Republican business magnate Armand Hammer (1898-1990), a trustee of LACMA with close ties to Soviet leaders, made possible the cultural exchange.

"More Art." Like so many other lies from the year 2020, the new LACMA will actually have 80% less gallery space, and no room for the exhibit of Permanent Collections, which will be stored offsite. In other words LACMA will offer "Less Art." Photo Mark Vallen ©. May 14 2020.

"More Art." Like so many other lies from the year 2020, the new LACMA will actually have 80% less gallery space, and no room for the exhibit of Permanent Collections, which will be stored offsite. In other words LACMA will offer "Less Art." Photo Mark Vallen ©. May 14 2020.

I was 38 when I viewed Degenerate art: the fate of the avant-garde in Nazi Germany, LACMA’s most scholarly—and dangerous exhibit (Feb. 17-May 12, 1991). It was a chilling recreation of the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) show mounted by the Nazis in 1937 Munich.

That year the Nazis banned and seized art they viewed as Jewish, communist or “anti-German”; the art was confiscated from museums, galleries, and private collections and derided as the product of insanity. It was then displayed in the Entartete Kunst exhibit. Art was purposely hung lopsided, lit poorly, and placed next to slogans painted on the walls reading “Nature as seen by sick minds,” “Madness becomes method,” and the like. When the exhibit run concluded the Nazis auctioned off what art they could, and destroyed the rest by fire.

All of this was recreated by LACMA. Remarkably, 175 surviving works from the original Nazi show were displayed. What’s more, they were shown with the same cockeyed hanging, pitiable lighting, and mocking wall slogans! The exhibit was a blistering curatorial denunciation of Nazi horror, but also a warning against totalitarian systems of culture and thought. Since then LACMA has never mounted such a formidable exhibit, and in these overly sensitive politically correct times, it likely won’t do so again.

"Door to Nowhere." A taped-off door at LACMA’s gutted Art of the Americas building, served as a forlorn message concerning the ill-fated museum. Photo Mark Vallen ©. April 10 2020.

"Door to Nowhere." A taped-off door at LACMA’s gutted Art of the Americas building, served as a forlorn message concerning the ill-fated museum. Photo Mark Vallen ©. April 10 2020.

I attended many other world-class exhibits at LACMA before the tenure of Michael Govan. The museum continued to be an invaluable cultural institution, until Mr. Govan took over as director in February of 2006. I always said he would destroy LACMA, but I had no idea that my dire premonitions would end up being an actual physical reality.

Govan became the perfect postmodern museum director, a promoter of kitsch, installation art, and conceptual art; someone at home in the circus world of vapid art stars and tasteless collectors. But instead of advocating the museum as an institution that acquires, conserves, and displays works of historic import and technical skill, he became a purveyor of the museum as citadel of entertainment and spectacle. And so Govan arranged the exhibitions Stanley Kubrick (Nov 1, 2012–Jun 30, 2013) and Tim Burton (May 29–Oct 31, 2011).

Ironically, Michael Govan’s ultimate contribution to LACMA might be his having molded the museum—according to a 2016 fluff piece by CNN, into the “World’s most Instagrammed museum.” Though even there it was put in 4th place.

"Gutted." The Art of the Americas building on the LACMA campus, facing Wilshire Blvd.—its interior metal parts gutted and bulldozed into a gigantic heap. Photo Mark Vallen ©. April 26 2020.

"Gutted." The Art of the Americas building on the LACMA campus, facing Wilshire Blvd.—its interior metal parts gutted and bulldozed into a gigantic heap. Photo Mark Vallen ©. April 26 2020.

I first felt something was awry when I discovered in 2007 that Michael Govan’s annual salary as Director of LACMA was $915,000—twice the amount of a sitting U.S. President ($400,000). Investigating further I found his actual compensation, after perks, was $1,029,921 per year. LACMA provided Govan with a free $5.6 million house in Hancock Park worth $155,000 a year, according to tax fillings. Clearly, the U.S. presidency with its formidable world-shaking powers, is insignificant when compared to the directorship of LACMA.

In 2007 Michael Govan and Jeff Koons, the “King of Kitsch,” announced their plans to erect a monumental public art “sculpture” by Koons in front of LACMA. Titled Train, it would be an actual 70-foot-long steam locomotive hung from a massive 161-foot heavy construction crane; three times a day the Choo Choo Train would blow its steam whistle and spin its wheels. Of course this would give the museum the look of an entertainment theme park, but Govan compared Train to the Eiffel Tower, saying he hoped it would become “a landmark for Los Angeles.”

The Koons Train project was estimated to cost $25 million, incredibly LACMA was awarded $1 million from the Annenberg Foundation to conduct a “feasibility study” on constructing the curio. Due to the collapsing economy of the Obama years, LACMA was unable—thankfully—to raise enough money to build the banal edifice. Heaven knows where the feasibility study money actually went.

"Dragon Lair." Like a dragon coming out of its lair, a bulldozer pops out of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to dump the guts of the museum in a pit of rubble. But in this tale there’s no Saint George to slay the beast. Photo Mark Vallen ©. May 14 2020.

"Dragon Lair." Like a dragon coming out of its lair, a bulldozer pops out of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to dump the guts of the museum in a pit of rubble. But in this tale there’s no Saint George to slay the beast. Photo Mark Vallen ©. May 14 2020.

Also in 2007 Govan commissioned conceptual artist John Baldessari to design the gallery space for LACMA’s exhibit Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images (Nov 19-Mar 4, 2007). I always favored the Belgian Surrealist René Magritte, both for his technical skills as a realist painter and his playful wit. However, Baldessari’s scenography garnered more attention than Magritte’s sixty-eight paintings and drawings. And it didn’t help that Magritte’s beautiful oil paintings were surrounded by twaddle from collagist Barbara Kruger, plagiarist Richard Prince, and “works” from other postmodern whiz kids.

Next came a 2008 commission for a large-scale public artwork from performance and installation aesthete Chris Burden (1946-2015). He was best known for his 1971 Shoot performance piece, which involved an assistant shooting Burden in the arm at 15 feet with a .22 rifle. Naturally this hokum made Burden famous, the performance was celebrated as a reaction to nightly news reports on U.S. television regarding the Vietnam war. If so then Burden should have had himself shot with an M16 rifle with its more powerful 5.56mm round, that’s what U.S. troops used in Vietnam… but then, I’m an artistic purist.

"The Ruins." It was the most artful thing I'd seen at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in some time; made me think of that old Situationist slogan, "Playing in the ruins of tomorrow, today." Photo Mark Vallen ©. Sept 13 2020.

"The Ruins." It was the most artful thing I'd seen at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in some time; made me think of that old Situationist slogan, "Playing in the ruins of tomorrow, today." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©. Sept 13 2020.

Chris Burden’s commissioned piece turned out to be Urban Light, a grid of 202 antique metal street lights that once illuminated the avenues of Los Angeles in the 1920s and ’30s. A contractor sanded the columns, painted them grey, capped them with period glass globes, wired them, then raised the street lights—as per master Burden’s instructions, in front of LACMA. There they remain, a backdrop for tourists, fashionistas and their endless selfies.

Here’s the truly grotesque thing about Urban Light. As I photographed the demolition of LACMA starting in April 2020—over the months, despite the racket of jackhammers and bulldozers, the clouds of pulverized concrete, the heaps of crumpled metal, wire, and broken cement, and the sight of LACMA’s walls crashing to the ground; people continued to obliviously flock to Urban Light for selfies. If the new LACMA is never completed they will still gather around those damnable street lights like moths to a flame.

"Selfies." In the background you can see wrecking cranes and tractors pulverizing LACMA into dust, as people take selfies at the Urban Light "sculpture." Photo Mark Vallen ©. May 13, 2020

"Selfies." In the background you can see wrecking cranes and tractors pulverizing LACMA into dust, as people take selfies at the Urban Light "sculpture." Photo Mark Vallen ©. May 13, 2020

In 2012 Govan acquired and installed Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass for an estimated $10 million. Considered a “great sculpture” by the postmodern crowd, Levitated Mass is simply an enormous un-carved 340-ton granite boulder that straddles a deep concrete trench and path that allows people to walk beneath it. If archaeologists from the distant future ever dig through the colossal mountains of commercial detritus formally known as Los Angeles—smashed titanium bicycles, shattered liquid crystal displays, crushed cars made from carbon-reinforced plastic, mashed kevlar bulletproof vests… what on earth will they think of the 340-ton boulder?

"Skeletonized." As good as any abstract painting formerly displayed at the museum, is my demolition photo of the nearly demolished Wilshire Entrance of LACMA, taken April 25 2020. Photo Mark Vallen ©.

"Skeletonized." As good as any abstract painting formerly displayed at the museum, is my demolition photo of the nearly demolished Wilshire Entrance of LACMA, taken April 25 2020. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

For me the coup de grâce was the Ahmanson Foundation refusing to gift LACMA with European Old Master paintings and sculptures. The decision came in Feb., 2020 after a 60 year relationship that saw the Ahmanson donate more than $130 million in art treasures to LACMA. The Ahmanson Foundation had provided the core of the museum’s European art collection, and its founder, banker Howard Ahmanson, played a pivotal role in the creation of LACMA.

The Ahmanson ended its relationship with LACMA because Govan’s new museum will not provide dedicated exhibition space for the display of permanent exhibits, which the Ahmanson acquisitions were meant for. Instead, the art will end up in offsite storage; some of it will see the light of day at the new LACMA only if selected for rotating exhibits. That means paintings by Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Titian, and many others will languish in storage. This is not how a prestigious art museum serves a community—but it is a prime example of Michael Govan’s total lack of leadership. The entire postmodern putsch is a war against art.

"Going, Going, Gone." Emblazoned on the wrecking crane slamming the facade of LACMA’s Ahmanson Building is the slogan of GGG Demolition Inc., the company that conducted the destruction of the museum. Aptly enough, the three Gs stand for "Going, Going, Gone." Photo Mark Vallen ©. Sept 13 2020.

"Going, Going, Gone." Emblazoned on the wrecking crane slamming the facade of LACMA’s Ahmanson Building is the slogan of GGG Demolition Inc., the company that carried out the destruction. Aptly enough, the three Gs stand for "Going, Going, Gone." Photo Mark Vallen ©. Sept 13 2020.

"Reflections." Across the street from LACMA is the 5900 Wilshire skyscraper; my photo captures the museum reflected in the skyscraper’s windows. Marking the 1989 demolition of the Berlin Wall, 10 original segments of the Wall were installed at the 5900 in 2009. Ironic that LACMA and the Berlin Wall are both gone. Photo Mark Vallen ©. Sept 13 2020.

"Reflections." Across the street from LACMA is the 5900 Wilshire skyscraper; my photo captures the museum reflected in the skyscraper’s windows. Marking the 1989 demolition of the Berlin Wall, 10 original segments of the Wall were installed at the 5900 in 2009. It's ironic that LACMA and the Berlin Wall are now both gone. Photo Mark Vallen ©. Sept 13 2020.

And speaking of war. As a result of his 2003 invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush built a sprawling U.S. Embassy in that war-torn country that cost $750 million dollars—people bitterly complained that it was a complete waste of money, I know because I was one of them.

What else can $750 million purchase? In August 2020, the Trump administration signed a $750 million deal with Abbott Laboratories to buy 150 million rapid-result Covid 19 testing kits. That seemed a necessary thing in a time of pandemic, but does tearing down a first-class art museum and constructing a new one in its place for over $750 million appear to be a crucial imperative in pestilential times?

Michael Govan’s LACMA boondoggle, with its declared $750 million price tag, will likely cost more than $1 billion. Nevertheless, aside from the bold and fearless minority of art advocates who fulminate against the demolition of LACMA… who’s complaining?

"Everything’s Fine." A couple leisurely strolls by the massive piles of rubble that were once the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo Mark Vallen ©. Sept 13 2020.

"Everything’s Fine." A couple leisurely strolls by the massive piles of rubble that were once the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo Mark Vallen ©. Sept 13 2020.

“Playing in the ruins of tomorrow, today” is an old Situationist aphorism that very much describes the postmodern state of Los Angeles. In characterizing my home city to visitors I have always remarked that it reinvents itself every twenty years, tearing down the “old” for the “new.” How apropos that LA’s once celebrated art museum now lies in utter ruin. It’s an open wound on the metropolis, one that I fear will never heal.

"The Scar." LACMA’s director Michael Govan created this scar on the landscape of Los Angeles—may he always be remembered for it. Photo Mark Vallen ©. Sept 14, 2020.

"The Scar." LACMA’s director Michael Govan created this scar on the landscape of Los Angeles—may he always be remembered for it. Photo Mark Vallen ©. Sept 14, 2020.

"Razed in L.A." Here today, gone tomorrow. The LACMA campus obliterated. This is the end, beautiful friend, this is the end. Photo Mark Vallen ©. Feb 14, 2021.

"Razed in L.A." Here today, gone tomorrow. The LACMA campus obliterated. This is the end, beautiful friend, this is the end. Photo Mark Vallen ©. Feb 14, 2021.

"LACMA Idyll." A formidable grey security wall some 15 ft tall, encircles what is left of museum grounds. The barrier completely forbids the public a view of ongoing construction. An incongruous "welcome" sign cloaks a drab tableau of destruction. Photo Mark Vallen ©. Feb 14 2021.

"LACMA Idyll." A formidable grey security wall some 15 ft tall, encircles what is left of museum grounds. The barrier completely forbids the public a view of ongoing construction. An incongruous "welcome" sign cloaks a drab tableau of destruction. Photo Mark Vallen ©. Feb 14 2021.

This is not art. This is art. Not Sure.

Sam Gilliam's 1980 abstract crayon drawing, "Coffee Thyme," a study for a print series Mr. Gilliam had in mind. The question was simple, "Is this image art?"

Sam Gilliam's 1980 abstract crayon drawing, "Coffee Thyme," a study for a print series Mr. Gilliam had in mind. It was a simple question, "Is this image art?"

Give me a canvas covered in used bubblegum…
…I’ll give you $500,000 for it.

I was exasperated by a recent “poll” that maligns realism in art. If you have any doubts that every single facet of American life is today being weaponized for political purposes—even the enjoyment of art, then the following should open your eyes. The alternative title for this essay could have been, Data For Entropy.

In September of 2019, pollsters conducted a survey of 1,100 individuals who were asked if they thought a particular image was a legitimate work of art. The details of the scribble were not revealed to those being polled, but the picture bore a striking resemblance to a child’s crayon drawing. The question was simple, “Is this image art?” Respondents were given the option of checking one of the following boxes: “This is not art” “This is art” or “Not sure.” Of those polled, 46 percent said it was art, 38 percent said it was not art, 12 percent were unsure.

The cagey pollsters had intentionally used a crayon drawing titled “Coffee Thyme” created by the celebrated abstract artist Sam Gilliam in 1980. I believe the pollsters were confident that liberals would call the scribble “art,” while conservatives would not—that was the whole point of the “poll.” But the survey not only revealed the pollsters bias towards non-objective abstract art, it revealed an ideological bias as well.

Wouldn’t you know it, from the survey results the pollsters made some wild extrapolations. They concluded that those who saw the doodle as a legitimate artwork disapproved of President Trump, while those who said the scrawl was not a genuine work of art were supporters of President Trump. In other words the pollsters were saying, if you appreciate abstract art you are enlightened, if not, then you are an ignorant deplorable.

The poll was a collaborative project conducted by the groups Data For Progress and YouGov Blue; but what are these organizations all about and what exactly do they espouse? The poll results were immediately, but not surprisingly, published by the art publications Artnet News, and Hyperallergic, as well as the “progressive” website Vox.

The Data For Progress website states that its goal “is to show how a progressive agenda can win nationwide.” It goes on to say that “a new generation of progressives is rising. A generation not afraid to fight for what we believe in—Medicare for all, a Green Job Guarantee, Abolishing ICE.” The website also presents position papers from Democratic Party Presidential hopefuls Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and other democrats like California State Senator Kevin de León and “Squad” member Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts. However, not a single position paper has anything to do with the subject of art or aesthetics. Moreover, there is no mention of cultural matters on the entire Data For Progress website.

Data For Progress does mention that it distributes “our research over the internet because data can only help interpret the world. The point is to change it.” An interesting plagiarism—considering the original phrase was written in 1845 by a young Karl Marx, who wrote: “Philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways, the point however is to change it.”

YouGov Blue is a division of YouGov, which, according to their website, is “exclusively serving progressive and Democratic clients.” The current director of YouGov Blue is Alissa Stollwerk, who possesses “over a decade of experience in Democratic politics” and worked with the Hillary for America campaign.

You may be asking, “what does any of this have to do with art?” Well dear reader, it has nothing at all to do with art… but it has everything to do with deep manipulation and propaganda.

Because of the crooked Data For Progress/YouGov Blue poll, “left” intellectuals have coined the phrase “Coffee Thyme Gap” to describe the alleged philistinism of Trump supporters when it comes to art; comparing it to the supposed “College Degree Gap” of Trump supporters. The Coffee Thyme Gap was concocted for effete art snobs, nonetheless, the College Degree Gap idea peddled by liberals is an especially reactionary anti-working class sentiment. It implies that people who do not attend universities cannot possibly understand the intricacies of politics or art, let alone make significant cultural or political contributions to society. It is a profoundly elitist and undemocratic viewpoint.

"Untitled." Dan Colen. Chewing gum on canvas. 2010.

"Untitled." Dan Colen. Chewing gum on canvas. 2010.

It is laughable that Artnet News and Hyperallergic uncritically published the skewed poll alleging liberals appreciate contemporary art while conservatives do not.

Why, it was just a few years ago, 2017 to be exact, that both art publications were attacking First Daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner for collecting $25 million in contemporary art. The couple have been acquiring the chic baubles the postmodern crowd endlessly gush over in their cliquish art magazines and contemporary art biennales!

When writing about Ivanka Trump’s Instagram account, where she has pictured artworks in her collection, Hyperallergic put it this way: “It seems likely that little to no part of those millions of dollars arrive from figurative paintings: Ivanka’s feed exemplifies her and Kushner’s affinity for the abstract, the minimal, and the blue chip.”

Ivanka Trump's Instagram Feed with comments by plagiarist Richard Prince. Why was the question "Is this image art?" not asked about this Instagram?

Ivanka Trump's Instagram Feed with comments by plagiarist Richard Prince. Why was the question "Is this image art?" not asked about this Instagram?

Ivanka Trump’s contemporary art collection could fill a small museum. Her collection includes a “Relax/Outline” painting by David Ostrowski, stencil text by Christopher Wool, a “bullet hole” silkscreen print by Nate Lowman, and an Ivanka Trump Instagram selfie sold to Ivanka by artist Richard Prince for $36,000.

Prince is largely reviled for his plagiarism, yet he remains a wildly popular art star with postmoderns—and he’s filthy rich to boot. One of his scams was stealing the photographs from celebrity Instagram accounts (like Ivanka Trump’s), adding his own comments and signature, printing the images on large canvases, and selling the prints for exorbitant amounts of money. I am also amused that Ivanka Trump purchased a Dan Colen painting made of chewing gum—Colen’s cockamamy gum canvases have sold for over $500,000.

Speaking truthfully I think Ivanka has abysmal taste in art, she listens too much to wealthy art dealers and art investment brokers. I realize that these days it is heresy to say so, but, as I see it, a canvas covered with used bubble gum is not a painting. Apparently the “Make America Great Again” philosophy does not apply to art. Which brings me to the core issue of my essay—best explained by a debate that occurred at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA ) seventy years ago.

The debate took place at Art Education 1949: Focus for World Unity, a symposium organized by MoMA—the debate specifically occurring during The Artist’s Point of View lecture. Having ended in 1945, World War II was fresh in everyone’s mind; abstract art was gaining acceptance in established art circles, and artists and the art loving public were speculating whether abstraction or realism represented the future of art. At the symposium abstract artist Robert Motherwell and realist painter Ben Shahn made their case.

"The Wedding." Robert Motherwell. Oil on canvas. 1958.

"The Wedding." Robert Motherwell. Oil on canvas. 1958.

Motherwell argued that by avoiding politics and the depiction of reality, and instead focusing on brushstrokes, shapes, and colors, abstract art offered the virtues of spirituality and purity to viewers; he disparaged Shahn’s politically charged realist paintings and prints as propaganda. Ben Shahn countered in part with the following words: “Trying to get away from content seems to me a little wistful—somewhat like Icarus trying to shed the earth. And at our particular point in history, it’s more than wistful; it appears almost to consort with those forces which would repudiate man and his culture as ultimate values.”

"Peter and the Wolf." Ben Shahn. Egg tempera. 1943.

"Peter and the Wolf." Ben Shahn. Egg tempera. 1943.

From our point in history we know who won the debate—a tectonic shift took place in the art world; abstract art came to totally dominate the American and international art scene. From the 1940s to the late 1950s—abstract art almost completely buried realist painting. Artists who practiced realism were considered old-fashioned, and galleries and museums largely shunned them for the avant-garde abstractionists. But how did abstract art come to monopolize the art world and eclipse figurative realism?

Interestingly enough, during the Cold War the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency secretively promoted abstract art as a weapon against the Soviet Union. Muralist Eva Cockcroft (1937-1999), who painted social themes on the walls of Los Angeles, was also an art historian and writer. In 1974 she wrote Abstract Expressionism, Weapon of the Cold War, an important essay published in ArtForum magazine that same year. Cockcroft wrote: “Links between cultural cold war politics and the sources of Abstract Expressionism are by no means coincidental, or unnoticeable. They were consciously forged at the time by some of the most influential figures controlling museum policies and advocating enlightened cold war tactics designed to woo European intellectuals.”

Starting in 1995 British journalist and historian Frances Stonor Saunders wrote about the subject, first in a ‘95 essay titled Modern art was a CIA weapon, and later in her highly recommended 2001 book: The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters.

In the book Saunders detailed how the CIA planted positive articles about abstract art in magazines and newspapers; clandestinely organized exhibits of abstract art for national and international audiences, and surreptitiously funded abstract artists—along with the museums and galleries that featured them. The spy agency utilized New York’s Museum of Modern Art as a platform for abstract art; its director, Nelson Rockefeller, was a main proponent of abstraction—he called it “free enterprise painting.”

Enter “color field” painter Sam Gilliam. The end of the ’50s witnessed abstract painting being challenged by color field painting—it was the next big advancement in art, or so we were told by art world gatekeepers. Art critic Clement Greenberg praised it as “post-painterly abstraction,” as in, who needs painting? Color field entirely did away with the “gesturalism” of abstract art and instead filled canvases with fields of pure, solid color and nothing more. It’s the “tension” between the colors that excites the aficionados of color field, who say it is more “cerebral” than mere abstract painting.

Of course, abstraction and color field were superseded by pop, minimalism, conceptualism, appropriation, street art, and the rest of the postmodernist alphabet soup (just look at Ivanka Trump’s art collection). Figurative realism collapsed, and today’s art snobs have relegated it to the “unfashionable” world of Thomas Kinkade (no, I am not a fan). Figuration struggles to reclaim its former stature in the art world, but it mostly strives as an underground movement.

I am not arguing that the CIA single-handedly, and intentionally, blotted out the school of figurative realism; however, the agency did play an undeniable role in its demise. The main target of the CIA was the so-called “Socialist Realism” of the Stalinist Soviet Union, but it was America’s tradition of figurative social realism that became collateral damage. It was not by chance that abstract art developed alongside the political machinations of Joe McCarthy.

The American realist painter Edward Biberman (1904-1986), put it this way: “My speculation as to why this particular point of view, which avoids subject matter, coincided almost exactly with the Cold War is something which one cannot prove. The painters of the abstract expressionist and action schools did not have to wrestle directly with contemporary social issues.” Mind you, Biberman had no idea the CIA was pushing abstract art—the writings of Eva Cockcroft and Frances Stonor Saunders came years after Biberman’s suspicions.

There is a new McCarthyism afoot, twisted and distorted, it is now a child of the left; witness the successful attempt of progressives in censoring the mural The Life of George Washington, painted by communist artist Victor Arnautoff in 1936. The Data For Progress/YouGov Blue research is simply McCarthyism turned on its head.

Art world gatekeepers say we are living with a new plurality in art, where all styles form a rich aesthetic environment for the public to enjoy; but in my view serious figurative realism is still excluded. The art world is conflicted, moving away from its former preference for non-political art, to embracing art that promotes “social justice.” The conundrum is that the dominant school of postmodern art—which includes performance, conceptualism, etc., does not speak with a clear, concise, voice to the public at large. In essence, it has no effective language to communicate with the broader society. It is impossible to convey messages of social import with varnished clumps of elephant dung or animals pickled in vats of formaldehyde… at least in my book.

"No 61." Mark Rothko. Oil on canvas, 1953. Collection of MoCA, Los Angeles.

"No 61." Mark Rothko. Oil on canvas, 1953. Collection of MoCA, Los Angeles.

Robert Hughes, one of the very few art critics I ever paid any attention to, wrote about the abstract painter Mark Rothko in his book, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America. He lauded the paintings of Rothko for their emotive power, but chastised Rothko because his “work could not, in the end, support the weight of meaning he wanted it to have.”

In my not so humble opinion, that is the stumbling block for all non-objective art.

As an artist deeply involved in figurative realist art I have studied the achievements of realist painters throughout the ages, and I have traveled the world to see those treasures. With realistic drawings, prints, and paintings I endeavor to present the human condition. For me, realism is the incomparable technique when it comes to telling stories, which is the type of art I practice.

Like the ancient Ouroboros symbol of a serpent eating itself tail first, the liberal art press swallows whole and disseminates this new-sprung McCarthyite poison: “Abstract art is enlightenment, realist art is for ignorant deplorables.”