Art in the Streets, MOCA, Los Angeles, Spring-Summer, 2011


In the dark days of the late 1970s, New York City was at its lowest ebb. Although Jimmy Carter never uttered the word “malaise” in his infamous “Malaise Speech” (1979), the Big Apple was a psycho poster city for malaise. Infuriated by the benign neglect of the Nixon Administration after the golden age of the Civil Rights era, communities of color felt alienated and angry. At the very moment in time when Milton Glazer was designing his “I Love New York” campaign, graffiti was everywhere, crawling and climbing over all available surfaces.

Graffiti was an alien invasion of the Other, who had taken up weapons, cans of spray paint, and was attacking the city. No place was safe, unless of course it was the carefully guarded enclaves of the rich—or those very people who would, in the eighties, eagerly spend their surplus income to buy the art of the very invaders who had terrorized the populace. And now it has all come home to roost, graffiti art has been consecrated by time and space and has been elevated into “art” and enshrined and mummified in the confines of the museum, where its original intent can be muffled and its screams can go unheard. It is no coincidence that those who had been written off by society called themselves “writers.”

In an earlier article on the censorship of the BLU mural, I criticized the curator of Art in the Streets, Jeffrey Deitch, for whitewashing the very kind of art he was attempting to promote and support. In a subsequent preview of Art in the Streets, I wrote for Artscene, I critiqued the very concept of putting street art in a museum. And I take back none of what I have written. But I will be the first to say that the exhibition itself is a dazzling fun ride, full of great art, and a real success for Deitch. The exhibition has been consistently well attended and the broad public—all ages, all ethnicities—seem to love the show and must be spreading the good news through word of mouth. The lines outside the Geffen go on forever, as people wait patiently to get in.

While there is good news and bad news about Art in the Streets, I would like to sort out some terminology for the sake of clarity, however momentary. Let’s draw a distinction between “graffiti” and “street art,” based on the intentions of the makers, which are very different. “Graffiti” tends to be tagging, an aggressive mark making by disenfranchised people (mostly males) in spaces that are supposedly “public.” On one level the tags are signatures, relatives of the palm prints of the cave dwellers and on another level the need to not just paint but to deface surfaces comes from an entirely different place. Tag bombs explode and disperse like shrapnel, cutting into the social contract that teaches respect for public spaces.

Graffiti is not merely stating, “Kilroy was here,” a conquering code employed by American G. I.s during their triumphal march over Europe during the Second World War. Yes, graffiti is a gesture of conquest, a visual take-over of territory, but graffiti is so much more.

Graffiti is a sign of complete and utter separation from the larger society and a signal that there is no investment in its values. Graffiti is a social protest, an indication that the rules and laws have no meaning to the man with the can, to the boy who randomly sprays a park bench, because they have been left out, left behind, and abandoned. Graffiti is a means of taking ownership, as if signing a property deed, and becomes, by default, a way of redistributing that which is designated as private to those who have nothing. To those inscribed within the cordon sanitaire of a slum, territory is everything: your street, your block—that is your world to defend. You mark your terrain.

Graffiti is a cry of rage and pain and the larger society correctly sensed danger, but instead of taking the warning to heart, the knee jerk reaction of the establishment was to strike back and to wage war—not at the poverty and the hopelessness that generated the practice—but at the young people who had lost all hope. All signifiers of social defiance and class interrogation coming from the disenfranchised were wiped out. The goal of the mainstream society was to whitewash the cultural condemnation from those who were not authorized to speak.

Out of this urban counter culture came artists who made “street art” and that is what this exhibition offers: art. Lady Pink is a case in point. She is seen in a photograph, post-tag, sitting in a subway car alive and crawling with graffiti, but it is 1982, and she was able to slip into the art world during that brief period when the art doors of exclusivity cracked open a bit.

Street art is not graffiti; graffiti is not street art. Street art evolves out of graffiti when artists realized that walls and halls and underpasses and overpasses, streets and sidewalks could be utilized as surfaces of expression. Most of these artists were “outsider” artists, so named because they were of the wrong color or wrong socio-economic strata to be “insider,” i.e. white and middle class. These “outsiders,” better termed “artistic outlaws,” were alienated from art school philosophies and could care less about the unwritten rules that governed the art world.

These artists just wanted to make art.

This may seem like a simple statement of fact, but think of the extremes these artists went through to put their art in the streets. They risked life and limb; they risked arrest and a criminal record. The larger community considered what they were doing as “vandalism” and a violation of the sanctity of public property, which is untouchable. We have become so accustomed to art being incarcerated inside of museums that we are stunned when art appears to walk among us. During the Renaissance, public art was everywhere. True it was used as propaganda, to educate the public of the viewpoint of the dominant class, but art was allowed outside and was expected to communicate.

Street art is an attempt to speak out, to speak up on the part of a large segment of society that had been written off. The dominant culture could see only art where it wasn’t supposed to be—the galleries and the museums—a younger and hipper audience saw themselves and their lives. But street art, unlike raw visceral graffiti, had pretensions to “art.” Despite the non-art materials and the non-art settings, street art displayed some disconcerting markers of “art.” Many of the artists were self-taught, informally but rigorously trained, sharing their practices as if in a Renaissance workshop, honing their techniques and skills under arduous circumstances. An art lover or a fellow artist could immediately see a firm grasp of the basics: color harmony, hue distribution, composition, facility with line, personal style and inventiveness. Street art was at once a collective style and an expression of the unique individual signature, recognizable by all.

If we go back to the time during which graffiti and street art was developing, the late 70s and early 80s was a time when the separation between art and life was near complete. The sudden insertion of “art” into “life” was shocking, because street art mocked the conventional definition of art. For art to be “art” an object had to be special, designated as “art” via a process of legitimation. Street art was totally illegitimate, totally unconsecrated, and totally out of bounds. But it was alive, living and breathing, an art that had content and meaning that came from outside the art world, far away from the middle class norms, and its energy attracted ever-hungry consumers of cultural juices—dealers and gallery owners. One of them was Jeffrey Deitch.

And the rest is history.

Good News

The good news about the exhibition is that Deitch has brought together a large number of artists and a large number of examples of “street art” into one viewing space. Although some of the works of art are more interesting that others, the overall quality is very high, from the orange crush ice cream truck of our very own beloved “Mister Cartoon” to the ironic skateboarding videos of Spike Jonze. Seeing all the art with the attention it deserves is a two-day job. I spent most of the day at the museum and took a lunch break at what is probably the only Chinese restaurant in Little Tokyo and still didn’t make it to the second floor. The average viewer will get an idea of the range and scope of a vital underground world of art making, even if the museum can do little more than present a tiny sliver of an intense and on-going activity.

When Jean-Michel Basquiat hit the art scene at the height of the Age of Greed in the art world, the white art writers, art dealers and the art audience tended to think of him as some kind of unschooled and untamed “primitive,” but today we know better. Basquiat was an art educated middle class artist who had an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of African-Americans and who had the temerity to teach his buyers the narrative of people of color. The fact that he came of the group SAMO explains the fact that his paintings were actually writings, social commentaries that were illustrated. But Basquiat seemed to be a fairly intuitive painter and created spontaneously.

I had assumed that other street artists were equally spontaneous, but I was wrong, wrong about Basquiat and wrong about street artists. Most of the street artists escaped the insatiable maw that was the art world during the 1980s, the demand that put Basquiat on an art-making treadmill disguised mass production as “spontaneity.”

That insight came to me when I realized that street artists planned their productions in advance, sketching out their designs, mapping out the colors. They had a game plan. They had to be organized. Painting under duress, they had not time to stop and figure out what might happen next. Street artists plotted their grandes machines as carefully as the academic artists of the nineteenth century.

STASH invented the “training pad,” or a sketchbook that featured carefully drawn railway cars, drawn from the side, so that the artists could compose the art that would be put up on the train. Train art must be executed hurriedly and the speed of the train allows any mistakes to simply zoom by. We owe a great deal to the dedication of Henry Chalfant who documented these rolling museums, packed with art that was soon to be destroyed. “Art, DAZE wrote in a true Duchampian spirit, “is anything you can get away with.” In the exhibition catalogue, Lee Quinones (creator of Howard the Duck), spoke of the Fabulous 5 Crew who painted “the first whole-train masterpieces that ran complete—ten cars, painted top to bottom, end to end.” And yet, somehow the combination of graffiti, street art, train art all came together and was called “The Wild Style,” writing on the move. And as the training pad below, designed for a German steel train, indicates, street art went global.

Bad News

Street art became an international art form for young artists, paralleling the Documentas and Biannuals for the old people. The closer street art comes to graffiti and tagging, the closer it remains to social protest. The more street artists adapt their art to conventional canvases, the further away it moves from it roots. Through an act of appropriation by the very people against whom it once fought, street art becomes tamed, captive, a toothless form of entertainment. “Art” became a trap for street art and many of the “real” street artists were famously exploited and used up and spit out by the art world of the eighties. However, some of the so-called street artists, Basquiat, Scharf, Haring, were artists-in-waiting, exploiting street culture of the East Village, waiting to be noticed by the Big Money Crowd. And so street art became Street Art and began to engender its own history, from the Times Square Show to the FUN Club to Bischofberger.

For people who want some idea of the chronology of street art or of the cultural differences among the makers or of the various manifestation of outlaw art, this exhibition will not serve you well. The installation is a deliberate cacophony, mimicking the horror vaccui that is characteristic of street art. The need of the street artist to cover all available surfaces with graphics is mirrored in the jam-packed walls and floor space in a deliberate refusal to reduce a social performative activity into isolated works of art carefully placed at eye level. Rap makes only an occasional appearance. Break dancing? Couldn’t find any. Streetwear? Not present. Perhaps because he understood that street art was an example of a larger cultural expression, so widespread and so varied, that any traditional installation would be impossible, Deitch limited his exhibition to the visual arts.

The catalogue provides a timeline and a separation of the various cultures that contributed to underground art. Numerous essays state that the visuals arts and the performing arts and the musical arts—Blondie’s Raptureall intermixed and impacted each other. But, if intermingling is the case, it is merely stated, not demonstrated through connections except in the catalogue texts. This book, otherwise an excellent reference, is equally brief on the social and economic factors that are at the heart of street art. Once again, brief assertive statements are made, but the ugly environment from which these artists emerged is a mere colorful backdrop.

Good News and Bad News

What impressed me most about the art was the level of craft and effort put into the individual paintings by artists who know how to take a utilitarian can of spray paint and transform this tool into a major and important art medium. There is an intersection between popular boy culture—comic books and graphic novels and video games—with an almost obsessive preoccupation with craft and skill. The art is marked by patience, dedication, concentration and serious intention. Street Art is a phenomenon its practitioners believe in enough to make art without guarantees, without any rewards beyond peer approval.

On the east coast the obsession with craft was demanded the materials themselves; on the west coast, the concern with surface was labeled “finish fetish” and came out of the car culture. And here lies one of my pet peeves with the show—the lack of distinctions that obliterate differences among the artists. New York does not have a car culture; New York has a train culture, and this very public culture allows artists to, as Los Angeles artist WISK stated, “to crush New York in a second…” The car culture of Los Angeles allowed art, sealed beneath candy flake finishes, to roll through the streets but the authorities took a dim view of such a confrontational display from barrio people. Although the need for cultural expression comes from the same place, painting trains with Kry-lon is a very different activity from the eighty odd coats it takes turn a “finish” into a “fetish.” And “heaven” in Los Angeles is not a train yard in Brooklyn.

Just as an airbrush is different from a spray gun, skateboarding culture differs from break dancing and comes from an entirely different cultural impulse and from different locales. I understand that street artists like to think of both as “performance art,” but, with all due respects, the divergences between a sport and a dance form need further discussion. Although distinguishing among the many aspects of street culture may be at odds with the intentions of the director, the Geffen is sufficiently large to allow for separations and for examinations of how and why the artistic expressions of the various subcultures diverge and blend. Somehow it feels wrong to have Mister Cartoon adjacent to a huge installation by twin brothers, Os Gemeos, from Sao Paulo. Equally disturbing is the near silence on the connection between prison tattoo art and cholo graffiti, although there are many examples of tattoo art offered in the museum.

Of course, there is little for the girl in all of us in this exhibition. Several female street artists are represented and are written about in the catalogue, but overall the show is all-boy and all male. Street art comes out of a macho culture that objectifies women and excludes them from as many collective cultural activities as possible. But that is also a description of the mainstream art world where women are still woefully underrepresented. To be a street artist when one is a woman is to be doubly courageous. Miss Van would have to brave a very male-dominated culture—France—and go out into a public sector—the streets, where women are not supposed to go—and engage in a dangerous, clandestine activity that usually takes place at night, in the dark, when women are supposed to be home, otherwise they are assumed to be prostitutes. Of course, today, Miss Van has evolved into an easel artist who mimics the look of street art. One can only hope that there will be more Lady Pinks, more Miss Vans, and more Swoons who will follow the example of Jenny Holzer, the original girl street artist.

There are far too many artists who were absent or underrepresented. In contrast to the large section for Shepard Fairey, there is not much Banksy. The absence of BLU and JR, the minor presence of INVADER is too bad and these artists are missed. I could find only one Basquiat, and Kenny Scharf’s main contribution is a truly wonderful car decorated with dinosaurs. In addition to a rather indifferently painted car, there is a memorial room dedicated to Keith Haring’s subway drawings. Although the late RAMMELLZEE is well represented, another street art veteran, Fab 5 Freddy, had more part to play in the catalogue than in the exhibition itself. Gone but not forgotten, however, is his immortal ode to Andy Warhol’s soup cans.

I am not sure, either from the exhibition or the catalogue, exactly what the exhibition intends to do—-to present a history of street art or to present examples of different kinds of street art. If one is going to do an exhibition on street art and exclude Chicano Mural art, then an explanation of some kind is necessary. While I do not agree with Christopher Knight of The Los Angeles Times that ASCO”s assault on the Los Angeles Museum of Art is an example of street art, mural art is part of the larger tradition of public art in Los Angeles. Either way, the show falls short: beyond a time line, the actual development of a specific history is not engaged and the collection of artists feels arbitrary. The erased mural by BLU that appeared for twenty-four hours before Deitch ordered its removal was pictured in the catalogue, taking up a two page spread at the back: no explanation, no excuses.

Given the vast scope of Art in the Streets, there is no way the exhibition can please everyone’s expectations. One must take the show at face value; accept it on its own terms, as ambiguous as its intentions are. There is a faint whiff of classism at the Geffen, just as there was the smell of sexism at “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” as if the white male art world has graciously gathered together all the art of the Other within easy reach and has thrown all available examples into a large space. As with the now infamous Whitney Biannual of 1993, there is a feeling of “now you’ve had your turn” so we can move on. I hope the audience takes away something more meaningful from the exhibition: that artists are everywhere, that art is a universal impulse, that no art forms should be shut out or disparaged in a culture that supposedly celebrates freedom of speech, even for corporations.

There is something profound about the ephemeral nature of street art, which was often effaced and erased by hostile authorities. This acceptance of being struck out and written over is not a theoretical stance, such as that taken by performance artists in the seventies who wanted to eliminate object-based art-making, but an understanding of being in an untenable social position—outside the mainstream. In the face of such unthinking disrespect and deliberate defacement, there is something tragically fatalistic about street artists who put some much time and effort into a work of art that might or might not be documented, that would almost certainly be destroyed, and that was made for an audience who might or might not appreciate it.

Not authorized as artists, outside the institutional framework of the art world, these young men and women made art because they needed to make art. They were not doing classroom assignments for a grade, they were making art because they had to; they made art because they needed to. Innocent of academic aesthetic ideas and free of theories of what “art” is, the street artists used every available and unavailable surface to make art about their immediate cultures, labeled “sub” because their lives took place off stage. In some ways, street art is the purest form of art making—art-for-art’s sake—whether you want it or not.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics (2012)



By Rob Christensen

North Carolina is a small state of little consequence, so why is a political history of “modern North Carolina” of any interest to people outside of the state? The immediate answers might be “John Edwards” and his horrifying fall from grace or the upcoming Democratic Convention this summer. But the long-term answer can be stated in two words: “Jesse Helms.” For the art world that name sends shivers down the spine, because during the last twenty years of his career, the notorious Senator began an on-going war against artistic freedom. But the name of Helms should resonate for other reasons—-he was, in his time, the spiritual and practical Godfather of the extreme Right Wing and of the Tea Party. The author Rob Christensen makes an interesting case that the future of many bad things begins in North Carolina.

In the South, race and class are everything, determinative, and have the half-life of uranium. Given that questions of race and class have shaped the past, present and future of the region, the most interesting aspects of this book is the undeveloped subtext—the legacy of slavery. Christensen, a newspaper reporter, writes in a Dragnet manner and, to be fair, is not a historian and thus does not put the story of North Carolina politics into a fully developed temporal context. The author is a newspaper reporter who has a column in the Charlotte Observer and is a veteran observer of the political scene in the state and his task is to inform the reader of the modern—twentieth century—political history of his state.

Christensen makes a compelling case that North Carolina is a state caught between progressive ideas and traditional values. At this time, North Carolina seems to count as a border state, lodged between the Old South (to the South) and the New South (to the North). Although it is not on the Mason-Dixon line, over the past two decades, it seems to have joined the category occupied by Virginia and Maryland. As with these in-between states, “outsiders,” business interests, and other “new” industries, such as technology, have invaded North Carolina. Maryland and Virginia are outliers of the federal government and home to people, who come from all over the nation, to live and work in the northern-most suburbs. The result has been a slow sea change in their political and cultural make-up that have left these states, like North Carolina, divided between the old and the new.

While Virginia and Maryland accepted the newcomers passively, North Carolina actively courted them. In North Carolina, the changes have been forced by the modernization of the state through the famed Research Triangle between Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill and the arrival of the big banks in the city of Charlotte. The state is now split into factions—the more liberal university communities and the more conservative business interests and the outlying rural regions that are reactionary in their outlook. The state that unexpectedly went “blue” for a Black man, Barack Obama, in November 2008 also voted for a ban on gay marriage in May 2012. Christensen’s book explains why the state should act in such contradictory ways.

Christensen sums up the contradictory nature of the state in his opening page of the book:

Politics was largely controlled by big business. The state lit the cigars for corporate executives but was hostile to organized labor; it generously spent money on roads and universities but was stingy when it came to the poor. State leaders sought a measure of fairness toward its black citizens, as long as it didn’t threaten the system of segregation. It was a business progressivism that was in tune with North Carolina’s growing urban middle class of lawyers, power-company executives, bankers, textile-plant owners, newspaper publishers and editors, and others.

On the surface, this description could be of many or any state with a substantial minority population, but most states don’t have the same cultural legacy that North Carolina does. For all its contrary aspects, for all its position as a border state, North Carolina was, is and will always be a Southern state burdened by the legacy of slavery. The fact that the culture of slavery and its unsettling consequences should still be so powerful is rather curious. If one compares crimes against humanity, it is customary for the succeeding generations to increasingly move beyond the sins of their grandparents and great-grandparents. The young people in Germany are more than ready to vow “Never Again” and to move forward; they, after all, are not the ones who have to atone.

The famous book, The Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behavior, by Alexander and Margarete Mitscherliche is instructive in that the authors point out the Germany, as a collective society, had difficulty in mourning their loss (the Jews) and were living with melancholia. Many studies, such as that of Lawrence Rees, The Nazis: A Warning From History, the generation that had to come to terms with their crimes refused to do so. Rees’s shocking book (made into a video) contains testimony of aging Nazis who are too old to prosecute and who were, therefore, willing to “confess” but not repent. Without getting into the weeds of how to compare cultural crimes, it might be said that the South still has not come to terms with slavery.

But what is the cause of the prolonged melancholia—a psychological condition that has persisted like a cancerous disease for over one hundred and fifty years? What is the “loss” for which the region is unable to mourn? Is the “loss” the defeat of the Confederacy? Or is the “loss” of the feeling of Mastery that slaveholding—owing human beings—brings to the owners (even those who had no slaves)? Or is the “loss” the loss of honor and moral standing for clinging to slavery long after the rest of the civilized world had outlawed it? Or does the melancholia come from the humiliating combination of being marked as wrong, sinful and brought low to a state of abjection? We can only conjecture at the reason for the South’s insistence that the local customs, however odious, must be maintained at any cost, but it is clear that what sets the region apart is its adherence to slavery and its inability to repudiate its past.

Part of the problem for the South is the consequences of slavery. And those consequences—a century of segregation—happened not so long ago. Many people living in the South benefitted and benefit still from segregation. Many people living in the South suffered and suffered still from segregation. Segregation has served the region quite well—if one is white. The result of the continuing benefits is a cultural defensiveness on the part of the whites, who evidence a resentment of “outsiders” who do not accept the unspoken rules of the game. It is difficult to be condemned by history and to be looked upon with suspicion by the present and to find one’s culture to be out of step with the tide of history. Many Southern states stubbornly defend an indefensible past and stubbornly fight to maintain the traditions of separate and unequal. But North Carolina splits the difference between an unpalatable past and an unknowable future—it will go along with inevitable change but not too fast.

Christensen outlines the tactics of North Carolina politicians who attempted to navigate the requirement to accept the inherent racism and acknowledge the strata of class in the state. The state began the modern era as a Democratic state. Republicans, the party of Abraham Lincoln, were few and far between. In addition to being the party that led the federal government to victory in the Civil War and the party that abolished slavery, Republicans were associated with the decade of Reconstruction. Reconstruction, not to put too fine a point on it, was the Occupation of the South by the North. During this period, backed up by the occupation forces, freed African Americans were given economic and political opportunities and rights.

With hindsight, it seems astonishing that a recently subservient group should move so quickly to political activism, but this remarkable accomplishment got little credit from the outraged whites. By the end of the century, this brief period of relative equality came to an end and white supremacy pushed African Americans out of legislatures and out of the mainstream of public life. Christensen outlines in horrifying detail the long and bloody campaign of the Democrats to regain power through terror and intimidation. He provides a chilling poem of White Supremacy:


The whites shall rule the land or die

The purpose grows in hearts of steel

With burning cheek and flashing eye

We wait what waiting may reveal.

But, come what may the whites must hold

What white men’s patriot valor bought;

Our grandsire’s ashes not yet cold, Hallow the soil for which they fought.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, whites were back in control and African-Americans began to experience life under the regressive laws of Jim Crow. Christensen gives an account of the violent ouster of African Americans from power in the city of Wilmington—an event of which I was unaware. Like Tulsa and Rosewood, Wilmington was a city where African-Americans prospered. But all that ended in the fall of 1898, like Tulsa and Rosewood, in the destruction of a Black community at the hands of white terrorists. As Christensen wrote, “Democrats engineered what must surely be one of the few coups d’etat in American history.”

He continued,

The forced exile of the Republican leaders was followed by a voluntary exodus of 2,100 black residents from Wilmington, including many members of the black middle class. Within two years, Wilmington was transformed from a city with a small black majority to a city with a slight white majority. Wilmington would never recover its position as North Carolina’s leading city.

The author noted that the entire campaign of terrorism was bankrolled by the business elite, who wanted to end, forever, the unlikely alliance of Republicans, African-Americans and the lower classes—the farmers and textile workers. By evoking race, Populism could be defeated. The lower class whites were bought off by being given privileges that African Americans did not have—everything from voting to being allowed to ride in the front of the bus. Or to put it another way, in order to privilege Whites, constitutional rights had to be taken away from Blacks. And after the campaign of domestic terror, the pre-war status quo was reasserted—African-Americans were inherently unequal and, if slavery were outlawed, then the Jim Crow laws would reify this presumed inequality.

Blacks were put back “in their place” all over the South. North Carolina was but one of many states that rejected federal rule and Reconstruction and any thoughts of racial equality. In addition, the pattern of separating the lower classes from their natural economic allies, the African Americans was replicated in all Southern states. North Carolina was a fiercely anti-union state and its antagonism to unions was fueled by a natural antagonism to outside “agitators” who would try to change the culture. Lower class mill workers would rather cleave to the upper classes who exploited them and be complicit in their own oppression because of their shared allegiance to white supremacy. In return for the workers’ willingness to be exploited, the businesses and industries did not hire their greatest competitors, the Blacks.

Having passed through North Carolina some years ago, I noted the presence of the linen industry, the furniture industry, liquor business, and the tobacco industry—long-time business powers in the state. These industries are huge, providing the nation’s living room sofas, chairs and tables, the nation’s sheets and towels, and the nation’s oral addictions and yet the state was improvised. On one level, the workers are paid such low wages that the state does not have much of a tax base; on the other level, these industries are enormously profitable and small North Carolina should be a very wealthy state.

Christensen discusses these dominating industries and their political power in the state but I wish he had solved the mystery that puzzled me—where do the tax dollars go? This is a state that lacked basic fundamental safety conditions on the streets and highways—no reflective paint in the median strips, no reflective caps, and street lights were few and far between, making night driving an exercise in Russian roulette. One can only assume that for over a hundred years, generations of politicians have been paid off by the local businesses and that taxes must be abnormally low, rewarding the few at the expense of the many.

And here is why this book has resonance beyond North Carolina. What is interesting about this book is that it sets out the conditions for today’s politics and patterns that seem inexplicable—patterns that, the author suggests, have spread throughout the nation. Much has been written about the “Southernization” of certain states and regions in America, most notably Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. Sadly, starting with Nixon’s Southern Strategy, aka playing the race card, what has been exported has been largely negative—racism, classism, creationism, fundamentalism—none of which is in keeping with the modern world but are defiant survivals of a dead social system.

Without repeating the entire history of all the state’s governors, ably laid out by the author, it is clear that, from the beginning of the century, white supremacy ruled. White supremacy ruled without challenge until the Civil Rights era of the sixties and ended with the two rulings of the Supreme Courts in 1954 and 1955 and the two Civil Rights laws in 1964 and 1965. Unlike other states that resisted the orders to integrate—Alabama and Virginia—North Carolina quietly complied. But the intervention of the federal government—again—“imposing” outside values and ideas upon a region that cherished its “ways” did not change the minds and hearts of the state.

The problem is that the South is a region of the nation that is often at odds with the Constitution and its ideals. Off and on, the federal government has to assert itself in attempts to bring these states back into the Union, whether through warfare or legal actions. There was a Southern cultural refusal to accept the authority of the federal government. Ever since the defeat of the South and Reconstruction, the South has understandably never been favorable to Washington D.C. However, the South conveniently ignores the fact that the federal government provides funds and jobs for most of the states through military bases, such as the Naval base in Virginia, and other federal projects, such as the space programs in Florida and Texas. North Carolina, Christensen stated twice, is “bristling” with military bases.

The problem is not how to escape the contradiction between being dependent upon federal largess and maintaining cultural customs but how to export the attitude of defiance and distrust of the “government” and how to maintain traditional “values” of racism, classism and homophobia. Enter Jesse Helms. Jesse Helms has long since gone to his maker and, upon his demise, cartoonists (who are artists) imagined him going (to his surprise) to Hell for his race-baiting attacks on the fine arts. But to the surprise of those of us in the art world, Helms had far more up his sleeve than the fight against art revealed. According the Christensen, Jesse Helms changed North Carolina from a Democratic state into a Republican state. As he wrote,

Helms became North Carolina’s most famous national political figure of the twentieth century. He helped transform the state into a Republican stronghold instrumental in the elevation of Ronald Reagan to the presidency, shifted the GOP to the political right, and contributed to the polarization of the nation’s politics.

The triumph of Jesse Helms and the Southern Strategy of White Supremacy rests upon the fact that in the South race trumps everything. Race trumps class. Race trumps gender. Race trumps economic self-interest. Race trumps morality and ethics and honor. Good and decent people are apparently willing to do anything to maintain the system of White Supremacy. Christensen does not go into that much detail but he make it clear, from time to time, that enormous amounts of time and energy are spent maintaining a system that oppresses African Americans. But now that so many citizens of color have migrated out of the state, joining the other thousands from other Southern states, this time and energy are expended in maintaining a cultural supremacy of Traditional Values.

That said, it seems that Helms was—compared to the more courtly Sam Ervin—blatantly open about keeping Blacks out of power, assuring that the rights of women suppressed, and maintaining business as the state’s overlord. The passage of the Civil Rights Act gave Helms an opening. Christensen remarked, “Few people understood the power of the white political backlash better than Helms.” The author explains that the Southerners were conditional Democrats, that is, they would support the national party if, and only if, white supremacy could be continued without interference. After decades of lynchings and oppression and Jim Crow systems could no longer be allowed to continue, the agreement was broken and Dixie sprinted to the welcoming arms of the Republicans.

One could wonder why the Republican Party—the party of Lincoln—would accept an entire region of White Supremacists, but the heritage of history is trumped by the desire for power. Helms was an early and loud voice of modern day “conservatism.” He was a one-man Fox News before Fox News, starting out as a newspaper and radio reporter who became increasingly unwilling to accept the political progress that followed the Second World War. By 1960, Jesse Helms was on television in Raleigh, appearing on a station owned by a conservative son of a Baptist minister. As Christensen wrote,

Although Helms did not host a talk show, in some ways he was a forerunner to Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and other national conservative commentators who would emerge in the 1990s, giving voice to conservative anger.

Indeed, the author quotes a few of the “commentaries” of Jesse Helms that sound familiar to anyone who follows the news today. Stating that “Helms preached an unvarnished libertarian conservatism. He called Social Security ‘nothing more than doles and handouts,’” Christensen further described the sentiments of Helms towards “…Rural electrification cooperatives were “socialistic electric power,” and Medicare was a “step over into the swampy field of socialized medicine.”

As quoted by Christensen, Helms opined that, “They didn’t call it socialism, of course. It was given deceptive names and adorned with fancy slogans. We heard about New Deals, and Fair Deals and New Frontiers and the Great Society.” In speaking of anti-war protesters, Helms stated, “Look carefully into the faces of the people participating. What you will see, for the most part, are dirty, unshaven, often-crude young men, and stringy-haired awkward young women who cannot attract attention any other way. They are strictly second-rate, all the way.”

These comments would be transplanted without much alteration onto the current debates on “Obama Care” and “Occupy Wall Street.” Helms (who had a well-earned reputation as a nasty political campaigner) became a United States Senator in 1972, riding to glory on the coattails of Richard Nixon. Helms would stay in place for the next thirty years, fighting the good fight, voting reflexively against everything federal. Christensen states, “…he was an ardent foe of nearly every social program, from food stamps to child nutrition programs; opposed nearly every consumer program, including the creation of the Consumer Protection Agency; and voted against nearly every environmental bill.” He was an early supporter of school prayer and was vehemently anti-abortion, bringing together like-minded Congress members to fight for and against their “causes.”

But for Helms, the real Messiah was not Nixon or Ford and not fellow Southerner, Jimmy Carter, but Ronald Reagan. Helms allied himself early on with someone he considered to be a true conservative. As Christensen writes, “By the beginning of the 1980s, Helms was the leader of a powerful political movement that would soon be dubbed the New Right. Helms had helped install Ronald Reagan in the White House.” Christensen quotes a Reagan biographer, Lou Cannon, who emphasized the importance of Helms to Reagan:

“…the 1976 North Carolina primary was the “turning point” of Reagan’s political career. Without his performance in North Carolina, both in person and on television, Reagan would have faded from contention before Kansas City, and it is unlikely that he would have won the presidential nomination four years later.

In addition to using newspapers, radio and television to spread the doctrine of opposition to the “government” and of White Supremacy, in addition to working hard to bring a fellow conservative, Ronald Reagan, into power, Helms was also a pioneer in forming a powerful financial and political machine to get himself elected. The Congressional Club was a forerunner of today’s “grass roots” organizations that serve as laundering operations for billionaires who want to control the government. The achievements and reach of this “Club” was astonishing. Christensen listed its accomplishments:

The Congressional Club not only engineered Helms’s reelection in 1978, 1984, and 1990, but it also elected John East, a political science professor at East Carolina University, to the U.S. Senate in 1980 and Clinton businessman Lauch Faircloth to the U.S. Senate in 1992. In the process, it defeated Democrat after Democrat. The Congressional Club handed four-term governor Jim Hunt his only defeat in 1984. It unseated Senator Robert Morgan, a moderate Democrat, and Senator Terry Sanford, a liberal. It scotched the hopes of John Ingram, a white populist, and Harvey Gantt, a black candidate. The Congressional Club also had a national reach. It helped elect Reagan, but it failed in its attempt to elect Steve Forbes as president in 1996. The Congressional Club tried in 1985 to buy the giant television network CBS because it wanted more conservative national news broadcasted. The club became a training ground for a generation of young conservatives—people such as Charles Black, Alex Castellanos, Carter Wrenn, Arthur Finkelstein, Richard Viguerie, and Ralph Reed—who later ran the campaigns of U.S. presidents as well as those of prime ministers of other countries.

In a prediction of the “permanent campaign,” the Congressional Club operated continuously for twenty years. The anti-gay, anti-Black, anti-government take-no-prisoners confrontational approach to politics of Helms was part of what Christensen called a “civil war” within the Republican Party. As early as the 1980s, a war began for the soul of the Republican Party, a battle between the “moderates” and the “conservatives.” Today, we know that the “moderates” lost and the Jesse Helms-types of politicians are now in control. In another foretelling, the 1982 race between the former governor, the progressive, Jim Hunt and Helms for the Senate was expensive. According to Christensen, “…the race cost $26 million, a national record for a Senate race at the time and the equivalent of $51 million in 2007. The advertising lasted nineteen straight months, breaking only for a week-long 1983 Christmas truce.”

Suddenly in trouble in this campaign, Helms resorted to the race card. Christensen recounts,

When conservatives are in trouble in North Carolina, they frequently turn to racially charged issues. The momentum in the race began to shift in October 1983, when Helms launched a heavily publicized filibuster against legislation making slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. For several days, Helms attracted headlines as he hammered away at King’s alleged communist connections. “King’s view of American society was thus not fundamentally different from that of the CPUSA [the American Communist Party] or of other Marxists, and political agitation, his hostility to and hatred for America should be made clear.

Helms also tied Hunt to “gay activists” to “right wing death squads” and continued his opposition to abortion rights. Christen noted that while the fight of Helms to fight against the Martin Luther King holiday played well at home but his stand against abortion was not as popular. But nevertheless, in another foreshadowing of the avalanche of “war on women” bills that have been put forward and bills that have been passed in the past two years, “During his career, he sponsored twenty-seven antiabortion amendments or bills. Helms called the legalization of abortions a ‘human holocaust with no parallel in history.’ And he said abortion should not be permitted under any circumstance. ‘Rape does not justify murder of an unborn child,’ Helms said in 1988.”

The last stand of Jesse Helms was, in another prophecy, against a Black man, the poised and polished Harvey Gantt. Helms had a long career opposing racial equality. Christensen writes,

During his Senate career, Helms managed never to find a civil rights bill that met with his approval. In 1982 he staged a filibuster against an extension of the Voting Rights Act, even though it was supported by seventy-five senators and endorsed by President Reagan. Helms sponsored bills that would have banned court-ordered busing for racial integration. He was a major backer of the apartheid regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia (now called Zimbabwe). For years, he blocked efforts to put a black judge on the conservative, all-white Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, prompting President Clinton to call his actions “outrageous.

And yet, Christensen continues, “Helms’s segregationist views in the 1960s reflected those of a majority of white North Carolinians, according to public opinion polls.”

Although it was the 1990s and thirty years after the Civil Rights movement, certain segments of North Carolina voters could not bring themselves to vote for a Black man, and Jesse Helms defeated Harvey Gantt twice during this decade. During the first campaign, the Helms campaign produced one of the most devastating ads against racial equality in modern history. More powerful and more aesthetically produced by Republican operative, Alex Castellanos, this ad is described by Christensen:

One TV ad dealing with racial quotas became perhaps the best-known political commercial in North Carolina history. The ad featured a pair of white hands crumbling a job application as the announcer says: “You needed that job, and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair? Harvey Gantt says it is. Gantt supports Ted Kennedy’s racial quota law that makes the color of your skin more important than your qualifications. You’ll vote on this issue next Tuesday. For racial quotas: Harvey Gantt. Against racial quotas: Jesse Helms.

Although he vehemently denied playing the race card with this ad, Helms evoking white fears of Affirmative Action, stated, “…you want quotas to dominate and dictate whether you get a job or whether you get a promotion, you vote for Mr. Gantt.”

Christensen also reports on the efforts of his campaign to suppress the Black vote— tactics that also predict those that are being deployed against people of color, students and the elderly today. Although he won his election through his usual underhanded and unseemly fashion, Helms, according to Christensen seemed angry, his customary victim pose: “The confederation of liberals has struck out again: the homosexuals, the defenders of pornographic artistry—if you want to call it that—the National Organization for Women, the pro-abortion crowd, the labor union bosses, and the left-wing news media,” he said. The only reason Helms seems to have decided to retire in 2001 was because of his declining health. Too bad, he would have like what he could see in today’s politics. Jesse Helms died in 2008, the year a Black man was elected President. A new era of backlash had just begun.

The career of Jesse Helms was a curious one. On one hand, he seems to be working against the tide of history and justice—opposed to the rights of women, people of color, gays, the working class, and social equity and equality—that wonders how he survived for so long. On the other hand, he spoke powerfully to all those who were fearful of change. The fears of losing Supremacy, whether of race, class or gender, are long-lasting and tremendous effort has been put towards maintaining the status quo. Jesse Helms was in artful and intemperate in his phraseology—-in his own time—but his crude coarseness is now commonplace in political “discourse.” Christensen pointed out that

As late as 1965, Jesse Helms was still defending the use of literacy tests. The real question, Helms said, “is whether illiterates ought to be allowed to vote. And that raises the question of what kind of politician is likely to benefit from a system in which people who cannot possibly understand their responsibility are allowed and encouraged to register and vote without question.

Today, it is accepted to propose an electrified fence on the Mexican border to kill “illegal aliens,” it is acceptable to suppress voting rights in a Redeux of Jim Crow laws, and it is acceptable to call for taxing people so poor that they are not eligible for income tax while, at the same time, cutting the taxes of billionaires. All of these “proposals” are part of a larger effort to restore the balance of power the way it was one hundred years ago. Undoubtedly it was that nostalgic longing for social control over a long list of people who should be suppressed that led to the passage of an amendment in May 2012 to deny the right to marry to gay couples. It is unlikely that the people who voted to (unconstitutionally) deny an inalienable right to a certain segment of the population actually know any gays or lesbians; they are voting against the future. But they were also voting in the face of increasing legal opposition to such oppression. On May 31, less than a month later, the federal court of appeals in Boston declared the Defense Against Marriage Act to be unconstitutional. The constitutionality of homophobia, a favorite bugaboo of Jesse Helms, will be decided by the Supreme Court sometime this year.

Christensen ends his book with a description of the rise and fall of John Edwards, just acquitted of campaign finance misdeeds.

There is a temptation to see Edwards as a tragic Greek figure like Icarus, who flew too close to the sun. Unquestionably, he was a man of immense political talents, but his vaunted self-discipline wilted under the pressure cooker of big-time politics and he lost his grounding.

But on a more upbeat note, the author recounts an attempt to undo the race riot in Wilmington:

In 2000 the state legislature created a commission to investigate the insurrection—patterned after Florida’s inquiry into the 1923 Rosewood Massacre and Oklahoma’s investigation into the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. The commission’s final report, issued in 2006, recommended greater efforts to educate the public about the violence, compensation to the heirs of victims who can prove a loss, creation of incentives to help Wilmington areas damaged by the violence, and efforts by newspapers to distribute the report and acknowledge their own role. In 2007 the Democratic Party apologized for its role in the white supremacy campaign.

It is always assumed that California, particularly Los Angeles, is the predictor of things to come. But, The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics makes a disturbing case that North Carolina, a small state caught between the past and present, is also a role model for how America deals with social change—one step forward two steps back. But, despite the one step forward, the legacy of Jesse Helms lives on in North Carolina that is still run by a well-funded political machine. Christensen’s book perhaps could not continue to present day, but North Carolina is now owned and operated by the “Knight of the Right,” James Arthur Pope, profiled in 2011 by the formidable Jane Meyer in the New Yorker article “State for Sale.” I quote her at some length to make the parallels between the foundation that Helms laid and today’s political tactics clear:

Yet Pope’s triumph in 2010 was sweeping. According to an analysis by the Institute for Southern Studies, of the twenty-two legislative races targeted by him, his family, and their organizations, the Republicans won eighteen, placing both chambers of the General Assembly firmly under Republican majorities for the first time since 1870. North Carolina’s Democrats in Congress hung on to power, but those in the state legislature, where Pope had focused his spending, were routed.

The institute also found that three-quarters of the spending by independent groups in North Carolina’s 2010 state races came from accounts linked to Pope. The total amount that Pope, his family, and groups backed by him spent on the twenty-two races was $2.2 million—not that much, by national standards, but enough to exert crucial influence within the confines of one state. For example, as Gillespie had hoped, the REDMAP strategy worked: the Republicans in North Carolina’s General Assembly have redrafted congressional-district boundaries with an eye toward partisan advantage.

Experts predict that, next fall, the Republicans will likely take over at least four seats currently held by Democrats in the House of Representatives, helping the Party expand its majority in Congress. Meanwhile, the Republican leadership in the North Carolina General Assembly is raising issues that are sure to galvanize the conservative vote in the 2012 Presidential race, such as a constitutional ban on gay marriage.

Republican state legislators have also been devising new rules that, according to critics, are intended to suppress Democratic turnout in the state, such as limiting early voting and requiring voters to display government-issued photo I.D.s. College students, minorities, and the poor, all of whom tend to vote Democratic, will likely be most disadvantaged. Obama carried North Carolina by only fourteen thousand votes and, many analysts say, must carry it again to win in 2012, so turnout could be a decisive factor. Paul Shumaker, a Republican political consultant, says, “Art’s done a good job of changing the balance in the state.”

And since Chrisensen wrote his book, this state—North Carolina—is the site of the 2012 Democratic Party Convention. While Barack Obama won the state in the election of 2012, the legislature and the governor were Republican. Under the first Republican majority in one hundred years, the state initiated a series of laws that restricted the reproductive rights of women and drastically curtailed the rights of certain groups, from people of color to students to vote. With Art Pope firmly ensconced at the heart of government, thanks to his funding of the election of Republicans throughout the state over a two year period, the distressed citizens of the state began to stage “Moral Mondays” to protest the actions of the legislature each week the representatives were meeting. Writing for Mother Jones, in an article echoing the early predictions of Jane Meyer, Andy Kroll wrote in “This is What a Multimillionaire Calling in His Chits Looks Like” (January 13, 2013),

Art Pope is the conservative mega-donor in North Carolina whose millions helped usher in Republican majorities in both chambers of the state legislature in 2010, and who dropped millions more in 2012 to elect Republican Gov. Pat McGrory. Perhaps to say thanks, McGrory promptly named Pope, a former board member of the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity group, the state‘s new budget director.

The leader of the Moral Monday movement, William Barber, and his followers protest and get arrested and march over issues ranging from voting rights to the right to health care. The fall of 2014 will perhaps be a time when voters, if they are allowed to vote, will cast judgment on the new Jim Crow laws passed since the 2012 election and the Supreme Court’s upending of Title V of the Civil Right Act.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Disintegration. The Splintering of Black America (2010)



by Eugene Robinson

Affirmative Action has been an unqualified success. A legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, Affirmative Action forced employers to give “preferential” treatment to those who had been discriminated against in the job market. For hundreds of years—or ever since the dawn of society—certain elements of society have been singled out and given privileges on the job market. For the most part, hiring has always benefited the male and excluded the female from all desirable occupations and from most paying jobs. In American, people of color joined women in the ranks of the historically discriminated against. But then came a series of Supreme Court decisions and laws that were passed over a decade, starting with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education and ending in 1967 when President Lyndon Bains Johnson issued an Executive Order, extending President John F. Kennedy’s of 1961 to include women. And with these decisions, laws and orders, Affirmative Action began to transform American society.

There is no way to go back in time and measure the loss that gender and racial prejudice caused to American society but one gets a sense of the magnitude when one compares this country as it existed in 1960 to the way it is today in 2012. What was lost, thrown away and denied for generations is incomprehensible. One can only grieve for the lives lost and contributions never realized. Thanks to Affirmative Action women and people of color have risen from the position of being excluded and oppressed to being leaders in business and politics and have become powerful voices and presences in society. Eugene Robinson, author of Disintegration. The Splintering of Black America (2010) notes that

The biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action over the past four decades have been women—mostly white women—who occupy a place in the workforce and the academy that previous generations could not have imagined. (When the feminist revolution came, black women already worked for a living.) Second, in terms of gains, have been middle-class African Americans..

The achievements of these people who just needed to be “affirmed” in the same way that the white male had always been affirmed have been remarkable. Even more striking, the advances were made within the space of one generation. In the 1950s it was “common knowledge” that Blacks were incapable of…fill in the blanks…and women were unable to do….fill in the blanks. Over half the population of American were systematically stigmatized on the basis of no evidence whatsoever. Given that prejudice is often internalized, the success of women and people of color is all the more remarkable in that each and every individual has had to fight discrimination both internally and externally. There is no doubt that few of these individuals could have acquired an equal education or a well-paying job or a decent home to live in without affirmative action. The fact that women are still routinely paid half of men and the continued complaints about Affirmative Action indicate that, if the federal government had not intervened, the white male would still dominate and discrimination would be unchallenged.

In a culture where the normal political processes no longer function and governments at all levels seem clogged and dysfunctional, it is important to take the time to measure the impact of social policies intended to bring about economic, social and political equality. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Eugene Robinson, who writes for The Washington Post, has set out the assess the progress of the African American community since the Civil Rights movement. Written in the wake of Katrina and the shocking sight of the dead floating in the flood waters, Disintegration describes what the author has designated as four categories among African Americans: the first and most familiar, thanks to Bill Cosby, is the Mainstream middle class upwardly mobile group, then there is the equally well-known, thanks to popular culture and politics, the Transcendent: the Ophras, the Obamas, the Tigers, the third group, less visible, is what the author calls the Emergent, or the recent African and Caribbean immigrants, and the last category is what America saw on television in the summer of 2005, the Abandoned.

The African American citizens of New Orleans, who had been left behind, were caught up in one of the most horrific hurricanes of the century. These helpless people had been abandoned in more ways than one—it wasn’t just that the buses to take them to high ground never came, it was also that somehow the Civil Rights Movement had not been able to lift them up out of poverty. Robinson dissects the reasons why some African Americans succeeded and some failed and continue to fail, and, even worse, will probably continue to fail. He stresses that the “disintegration” of the African American community refers to the splintering of the once solid group into faction in terms of income and class and historical memory. As these elements move further and further away from one another, the result is an increased diversity where the term “African American” means less and less or to be more precise, needs to be rethought.

Robinson undertakes a task that is extremely difficult. On one hand, there is a sizable portion of America that automatically responds to any African American as the Other and reflexively join together in an atavistic racial solidarity, whether to establish voter suppression laws or to defend the killer of a teen-age boy carrying nothing more than a bag of Skittles and an iced tea and a cell phone. On the other hand, the African American community is losing the solidarity that enabled its very survival during the dark centuries of slavery and segregation. In addition, Robinson points out, this community has become assimilated into the mainstream. As he stated,…black American experience is nothing more or less than an integral and necessary component of the American experience.” Indeed, much of what we define as “American” comes from the Black culture—jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, fried chicken. Robinson quotes the

MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant winner Charles Johnson published an article in The American Scholar titled The End of the Black American Narrative. He posited that a ‘unique black American narrative, which emphasizes the experience of victimization, is quietly in the background of every conversation we have about black people, even when it is not fully articulated or expressed. It is our starting point, our agreed-upon premise, our most important presupposition for dialogues about black America.’ This narrative is based on ‘group victimization,’ Johnson writes, and it is obsolete; it blinds us to ‘the inevitability of change’—and the fact of change..

While Katrina proved that there are numerous African Americans who are victimized as a group, it would seem that they are also the remnants of a tragic legacy of generational disadvantage compared to the other groups that managed to escape the “victim narrative.” Robinson begins this narrative, not with slavery, but with the end of Reconstruction. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the gains made by the former slaves after the Civil War were astonishing, which makes the fact that all the hard work and all the accomplishments were taken away by

…the virtual re-enslavement of African Americans and a return to what racists like Grady considered the “natural” order of things. Nowhere was this bitter pill more difficult for black people to swallow than in Atlanta, where the former slaves and their descendants had come so far. There, a critical mass of black ambition had ignited what seemed an unstoppable reaction. Black educational institutions such as Atlanta University and Morehouse College were producing an educated elite. Black businesses, while still small in relative terms, were expanding and producing real economic benefits for the whole African American community. The grand project of black uplift looked so promising; now it was being snuffed out. In Atlanta, which was the intellectual center of black America, prominent thinkers waged a vital debate: What could black people do about this brutal campaign to kill the black American dream?

To take away not just the dream but also hope meant that the bitterly disappointed African Americans would have to be crushed though a reign of terror carried on the dominant white population. The memory of the remarkable achievements of the post slavery decades had to be exterminated and wiped from the memories and the hearts and the hard lessons of inborn and innate inferiority had to be forced into internalization. The fact that African Americans daily evidenced abilities equal to whites was apparently particularly galling and the what Robinson calls “re-enslavement” was enforced by public lynchings and brutal Jim Crow laws. Any rumor of any infraction of the elaborate system of creating a second class (non) citizenship would draw instant retaliation. Robinson gives a frightening account of a “race riot” in Atlanta—one of many during the first half of the twentieth century—and notes that the term referred to whites rioting against Blacks and their property. He writes of the aftermath,

The full psychological impact of the Atlanta riot may be incalculable, but one specific result is clear. Many whites—even those who disapproved of mob violence, lynching, and the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan—were deeply shaken by the many instances during the melee in which blacks displayed the will and the means to fight back. Segregationists pointed to the resistance as proof that they were right—that blacks had to be kept down, had to be kept in their place. Measures to deny black citizens the vote throughout the South were perfected. Public accommodations were labeled whites only and blacks only; merchants began requiring black patrons to enter through the back door. This whole blueprint for the New South was codified into law as a way of delineating two ostensibly ‘separate but equal’ societies. Black Atlanta was effectively walled off from the rest of the city, left to make its own way in the world. The long, dark night of Jim Crow segregation had fallen..

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the Great Migration sent waves and waves of African Americans to northern cities and the South lost the best and the brightest, those most able to survive the wrenching sacrifices of abandoning friends and families and homeland to start anew in alien territories. But the diaspora of the African American culture enabled the next generations to enter into the Mainstream and allow some to become Transcendent. Not that the Northern territories were hospitable and welcoming. As Robinson stated, “It’s true that racial segregation in the South, enforced by law and terror, wasn’t the same as racial segregation in the North and West, which was often enforced by housing covenants but also had to do with custom and clan.” Recalling the solidarity within the Black community when he was growing up, he also noted, “We were all black, and to be black was to live under assault.”

Robinson compared the mood within the African American community before and after Jim Crow—optimism became pessimism and resignation. He writes of the

…enormous deficits that newly freed blacks faced. Without assets or education they had to start from scratch, but during Reconstruction they made rapid gains. The problem was that those gains were promptly and often brutally taken away by Southern officials when Reconstruction was abruptly halted. This betrayal was committed with the acquiescence of the federal government—which was more interested in reaching an accommodation with the South..

In the South, African Americans lived under a regime of terror; in the North, African Americans had hope and possibilities but the optimism was replaced with the need to survive and make the best of the new opportunities. He discusses how the deep despair and rage lying just beneath the surface broke out after the assassination of Martin Luther King. It is no wonder that, sixty years after migrating from the South to the Promised Land, that the community would react violently. It is at this point, in the spring of 1968, that “race riot” became linked to Blacks. Robinson writes,

The King assassination was too much to bear. It was not just a murder but a taking—the theft of our leader, our future, our reason for continuing to hope that America was finally ready to accept us as true Americans. The paroxysm of violence that followed was deliberately destructive: They take from us, we take from them. In the end, of course, we took from ourselves. The self-destructive nature of the 1968 riots was evident to all, even as the mayhem was unfolding.

Although Robinson does not note the link, this self-destructive act of internalized self-loathing explains the intensity of the hopes projected onto Barack Obama. Only when one understands the history of slavery, segregation, discrimination, prejudice and terror endured day after day, century after century does it become clear why the election of a Black President felt like the Second Coming. But Robinson points out that the 1968 “race riots” were the final act, punctuating, these centuries of injustice as with an exclamation point. Thanks to the Fair Housing Act, the African Americans who could escape from the confines of the ghettos became part of a second Migration. As he reports, some managed to get out and refugee to the suburbs while others were left behind in the slums.

Robinson makes an important and little noted point, that the White Flight was also a Black Flight that, as he said, “split” the African American community once again. First, those who could not or would not leave the South were left behind, and then, second, another group, once again, “did not make it.” With these migrations came increasing Black-White contact that would, over time, produce another category—the bi-racial individual. Most African Americans are distinguished from “Africans” by the presence of white blood, white ancestors, usually due to the slave masters raping the female slaves. But for centuries these somewhat whitened people were forced to remain behind the color line, due to the “one drop” rule. Robinson points out that, unlike other nations, such as Brazil, America was racially rigid and enforced its codes, imagining that somehow “racial purity” could be maintained.

However in 1963, interracial marriage became legal and by the early twenty-first century, the young generation thinks noting of racial mixing. Intermarriage encourages, even necessitates assimilation into a larger community that becomes a third alternative characterized by tolerance and acceptance. But by and large the progeny of these unions are, like Barack Obama, considered “Black,” because, as Robinson points out, the culture will not allow them to be anything else. Presumably, due to ties to the white comity, this group is considered Mainstream and, thanks to federal laws, can live anywhere they want, go to school anywhere they want, and are guaranteed equal opportunity to any job to which they aspire. these gains are the result of sixty years of waiting for the door to open again.

If Mainstream means “assimilated” out of the Black community and into the White community, then the African American Mainstream differs in significant ways. First, this affluent and successful group has a large number of single women, living alone or raising their children alone. Uninterested in dating outside their race, they are also disinclined to spend their time hunting for suitable African American husbands. Robinson muses over whether or not this situation of female independence is the result of a narrative of the Matriarchy, but it should be said, that regardless of the historical roots, the aloneness of these women is but part of a larger trend: the majority of the adults in America live “solo.” The other interesting aspect of this Mainstream group is the loss of deference to adult authority, from parents to community elders. More and more, the African American teenagers are acting like their white counterparts—typical rebellious teenagers. Unlike their parents and grandparents they have no memory of the hard times when family was all there was.

The “disintegration” of the Mainstream community has begun in Robinson’s own lifetime. He provides the reader with interesting sections on the solidarity of the professional educated Black community, held together by links of acquaintance and old school ties, held together though a network of fraternities and sororities. Robinson states,

They were established, beginning about a hundred years ago, to provide mutual support and encouragement among blacks who knew that when they graduated from college they would be taking their hard-won learning into a cruel, openly racist world. Obviously the world today is a different place. But the black fraternities and sororities have endured—and they have remained black.” He added, “Pi Phi, known colloquially as the Boule, from an archaic Greek word meaning ‘representative assembly.’ The Boule (pronounced boo-lay) is for high-achieving black professionals, and its reach is nationwide.

One wonders if the new generation of the Mainstream will continue to join these societies, for, as Robinson observes, “My generation, like those that came before, was forged in an all-black context amid a hostile society.”

Since 1990, Robinson notes, African immigration to America, still thought of as the Promised Land, has exploded. The result was a net community, composed of people of color who had no history of victimhood and slavery: the Emergent group.

Immigrants from the Caribbean began to arrive in larger numbers after passage of the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965. The law loosened restrictions on immigration based on geography—a system that favored Europeans over nonwhites—and shifted the emphasis to professional qualifications and family reunification. Subsequent measures in 1976 and 1980 made it easier for immigrants to come to the United States as students or refugees; an attempt at comprehensive immigration reform in 1986 allowed many undocumented immigrants to apply for legal status, including 135,000 from the Caribbean and Africa. For Africans, the key impetus was passage of the Immigration Act of 1990, which increased the number of immigrants admitted on the basis of their skills..

Allowed to enter, as Robinson writes, due to their skills and education, these immigrants had many advantages compared to the “local” African Americans. Although he does not mention the relative lack of prejudice against them, in fact the African African has had a somewhat easier path. For some reason white Americans consider such individual to have a higher status than those who are descended from slaves. Robinson notes that

Today, Africans coming here voluntarily on wide-body jets are the best-educated immigrants in the United States—better-educated than Asians, Europeans, Latin Americans, or any other regional group.” Indeed, he added, …wherever African immigrants had settled in substantial numbers: Their children were performing so well in school that they were overrepresented, relative to their overall numbers, in the lists of overachievers.

The author attributes this outstanding success to the mindset of optimism. I would also add that the psychology of the African immigrants is somewhat akin to that of the African Americans who migrated northward. Robinson writes,

Most immigrants who surmount all the obstacles and make it to the United States are accustomed to success. Whatever degree of political and economic dysfunction their home countries might be suffering, the immigrants managed to master or escape the local context. By virtue of their presence, they are among the winners in their societies. Optimism comes easily, and with it a certain sense of entitlement. All or some of this gets passed down to the next generation..

One could site the same thing of the Great Migration, if the word “hope” is substituted for “optimism.” That said, Robinson makes an interesting point: while the first generation of African immigrants were immune to the “stereotype effect” or the internalization of inferiority, the second generation were more susceptible to the narrative of certain failure. He also makes another important distinction between African Americans and African Africans and Caribbean Africans—they know their ancestry and have retained their heritages. In contrast, part of the process of conquest and enslavement in the American South, entire cultures from many parts of Africa were erased. He recounts,

When our ancestors were brought here, slave owners waged a deliberate, thorough, and successful campaign to erase all traces of our prior cultures. There were, for example, many slaves who left Africa as Muslims; Islam had been established on the continent for centuries by the time the Americas were discovered and the Atlantic slave trade began. Once in the Americas, Muslims were given no leeway to practice their faith. Christianity was the only religious option, and it was all but mandatory..

In contrast the Africans who were taken to destinations with a Catholic culture were allowed or were able to retain elements of their heritage. He writes,

“In Cuba and Brazil, they managed to fuse their religious tradition with Roman Catholicism in a way that was Catholic enough to satisfy the slave owners, but Yoruba enough to allow the slaves a sense of connection with their ancestors. These syncretic faiths came to be known as Santeria, candomblé, macumba—there are many names and many distinctions—and they basically associating specific Yoruba demigods, called orishas in Cuba and the other Spanish-speaking slave-owning islands, with specific Catholic saints.”

In conclusion, Robinson notes that no amount of DNA research can do any more than give an African American any but the vaguest idea of his or her ancestry. “…our ancestors’ history was obliterated,” he states,

In that sense, we really have no idea who we are.” One of the central theses of this book is how the lack of ancestral knowledge was, for a long time, overcome though a shared history of slavery and deprivation and group solidarity. But this common identity is “disintegrating” as the community is moving away from its roots, which were domination and oppression, towards a new upward mobility. Here is where the African American group identity splits apart into two extreme segments. If Eugene Robinson places himself within the Mainstream which socially and economically is linked to the Emergent group, then on either side are the Transcendent and the Abandoned.

Like the fraternities and the sororities, the Transcendent are bound together through ties of friendships and circumstances. Robinson uses President Obama as a prime example of a Transcendent, that is an African American that is beyond the reach of the narrative of race. He illustrates the network of the Transcendent by writing that

…the first African American president, confronting the direst financial crisis since the Great Depression, was able to summon an experienced African American CEO (Richard Parsons) out of retirement to oversee troubled Citigroup. It meant that when the president went to work on his campaign promise to bring the treatment of terrorism suspects back into line with civilized norms, he could task an African American attorney general (Eric Holder) with the job. It meant that as President Obama decided on diplomatic steps he could take to rid the United States of its Crazy Cowboy image in the world and chart a new course, he could pick up the phone and call two African American former secretaries of state (Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice)..

However, no African American is forever free of race. The Transcendent Obamas are a case in point. Robinson makes the good point that the couple has de-raced public assistance by going to causes that are universal—obesity and health care. But he also writes of the suspicion of the other Transcendents towards the President—with his white mother and his privileged position among the white community, is he “Black” enough? For a significant segment of the white community, Obama is too Black. Although Robinson does not go into the ways in which the President has been treated, the disrespect shown to him by his Republican and conservative opponents can be explained in on fashion other than open racism. I have something of an issue with Robinson when he writes, “I dwell on Obama’s candidacy because it was such a Rorschach test for the Transcendent class.” Unlike some Transcendents, such as Oprah, Will Smith, and Sean Combs, Obama is under constant scrutiny and attack. He has lived the first years of his Presidency like Jackie Robinson in Ebbets Field.

Those who find the preternatural cool aloofness of Barack Obama irritating may not be aware of what the “first Black” must endure. When Branch Rickey hired Jackie Robinson to play ball for the Brooklyn Dodgers, he knew that the athlete would be under constant siege. The exchange and bargain between the two men is famous:

Rickey: “I know you’re a good ballplayer. What I don’t know is whether you have the guts.”

Robinson: “Mr. Rickey, are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?”

Rickey, exploding: “Robinson, I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.”

Far from Transcending, Obama cannot fight back and he cannot speak up with the same freedom that a hip-hop star has. That said, Robinson makes a good point, that Obama is part of a generation that has little or no memory or experience of segregation. Unlike Jackie Robinson who was the grandson of a slave and the son of a sharecropper who migrated to California, Obama was not raised with a narrative of being a second-class citizen. Indeed, Robinson states,

These young Transcendents, generally in their forties, are indeed too young to have lived through Jim Crow. They are not too young to know what it was, and certainly not too young to believe as passionately as their elders in the need to keep fighting to advance the unfinished project of black uplift. But there is a difference between knowing what it is like to face racism and discrimination, which this next-generation black elite does, and knowing what it is like to be consigned by law and police authority to second-class citizenship, which it does not. In that sense, the post-segregation Transcendents carry less baggage through life.

It remains to be seen if Obama’s restraint is due to an incomprehension—after being schooled in non-racist environments by white people—Occidental College, Columbia and Harvard University—at how he is being treated—or a deep knowledge of—like Jackie Robinson—how carefully he must tread. Robinson pictures Obama as an Insider and he is, in the parts of America that have become “post-racial.” But in the Red States, he is not only an Outsider but an Interloper. While the President, in an interview with the author, talks of his awareness of the increased opportunities, he is also aware of the dark history behind the achievements. In an interview with Robinson, Obama said,

I do think it is important for the African American community, in its diversity, to stay true to one core aspect of the African American experience, which is we know what it’s like to be on the outside, we know what it’s like to be discriminated against, or at least to have family members who have been discriminated against. And if we ever lose that, then I think we’re in trouble. Then I think we’ve lost our way..

On the other end of the spectrum are the Abandoned. In contrast to the high achievers, they are invisible, tucked way in slums and fringe neighborhoods or incarcerated in jails. Pushed out of gentrified neighborhoods, these individuals are caught in a spiral from which there is no recovery. Despite his horror at the ugly spectacle of human suffering during the aftermath of Katrina, Robinson regards the Abandoned with a despairing realism and a surprisingly conservative stratagem. The Abandoned are those who have been left behind, weighted down by the preceding generations inability to escape poverty. Whether the Abandoned were Abandoned in the South during the Great Migration—almost certainly the cause of the poverty of the Katrina victims—or were Abandoned in the inner cities of the North, there is little hope for these people.

Commentators who had no understanding of the culture of New Orleans asked why the Black community had not evacuated. But these are people who had no means of transportation and who were unwilling to leave their homes. As Robinson discovered,

An unusually high percentage of poor African Americans in New Orleans own their homes rather than rent, and some were determined to protect their property against looting. The parts of the Lower Ninth Ward that are closest to the Mississippi sit on relatively high ground, and those streets had never flooded before Katrina..

The lack of transportation meant that the African Americans of the Ninth Ward and other poor neighborhoods could not follow the jobs and industries to the suburbs. The only jobs available were in the tourist industry that favored the kind of talent that could service and entertain the visitors. Robinson explains the tragic and unintended consequences of the Civil Rights Movement on those who would be left behind:

At the same time that jobs were moving out of the cities, African Americans were winning unprecedented rights and freedoms. Those who were best prepared to take advantage of the new opportunities moved away from places like the Lower Ninth, leaving the least-prepared behind. The 1960s riots hastened an exodus that had already begun. As the black Mainstream made for the exit, what had been economically diverse African American neighborhoods became uniformly poor..

The gaze of the television cameras on New Orleans allowed America to see what had become of those who had been Abandoned. But the same story—without hurricanes—could be told in many other cities, such as Detroit and Baltimore. Lack of education, lack of transportation, lack of self-esteem, communities divided between rootless males and female-headed families, hopeless anger and self-defeating behavior are generational pathologies and survival strategies. Robinson looks with empathy upon these communities where lives come and go, lived out in a flat line of neglect. “The web of restraints that keeps Abandoned black Americans from escaping into the ..middle class has been examined from every angle, described in great detail, and lamented ad infinitum. But the web continues to tighten.” He concludes, “It begins in the womb..

The African American child born to an Abandoned mother has almost no change in life. His or her plight is all the more stark, given the astonishing progress of the Mainstream. As Robinson states,

..As the Mainstream have risen, the Abandoned have fallen. To be black, poor, and uneducated in America is, arguably, a more desperate and intractable predicament today than it was forty or fifty years ago…for all intents and purposes, Mainstream African Americans have arrived. The Abandoned, however, have not. And the question is whether they ever will…Increasingly, between the Abandoned and the rest of black America, there is a failure to communicate, much less comprehend…Abandoned black America—increasingly isolated from the Mainstream—develop a cultural ecosystem that makes sense internally but nowhere else..

Robinson explains that young black females are well aware of the facts of life and of condoms but they deliberately get pregnant so that they can establish their own households and lives and have someone to love them. While Robinson approves of the independent single Mainstream mother, he understands the consequences of this pattern of single motherhood on a young girl without financial resources. He recommends a conservative approach—a two parent family—without explaining how the young males will be educated to take on such a responsibility. The young man is caught up in his own needs. If the girl needs to be love, the boy needs to be respected. As Robinson explains,

..For young people especially, material possessions, such as the most fashionable brand-name clothing and jewelry, are important because they command respect. The same is true in Mainstream society, of course, but the stakes are higher in communities where people struggle to afford necessities, let alone luxuries. Any teenager who obtains and flaunts high-status items—the right North Face jacket, for example, or the right Timberland boots—has to be willing and able to defend them. Taking such accoutrements by intimidation or force from the owner is the kind of bold action that can enhance another young man’s status among his peers, and in turn provide inoculation against those who might be tempted to try something like that with him..

One can understand how, to those who are Abandoned and who have no place in Mainstream society, territory and personal possessions would be important, worth fighting and dying for. The Abandoned have nothing else. According to Robinson,

…the unwritten code of insult, umbrage, and retribution that holds sway in Abandoned communities—enforced by a few, but followed by many—plays an enormously destructive role by choking off ambition and creating an atmosphere of randomness and uncertainty. Those capable of code-switching have a chance of leaping the chasm—those who understand, for example, that while “acting white” in school is seen as a sign of softness and weakness, it is possible to avoid showing vulnerability in public and at the same time earn the kind of grades that make it possible to go to college. Those who cannot live in both worlds, who do not understand both sets of values, are all but lost. The essential, and tragic, problem is that “keeping it real”—adhering to the code—requires either engaging in all manner of self-defeating behavior or finding elaborate subterfuges to avoid shooting oneself in the foot. The warping of values in Abandoned black America means that being successful requires being duplicitous—being literally two-faced. And that is never an easy way to live..

Robinson ends his book by presenting solutions to the seemingly intractable problems faced by the Abandoned. Regardless of the good intentions of the Mainstream or the Transcendent to help the Abandoned, these are individual efforts, well meaning but hardly adequate to the enormity of the task. He insists that Affirmative Action should continue but be targeted to the Abandoned or those in real need. He also suggests that the richest nation in the world can well afford a Marshall Plan for the inner cities. In a surprising move, Robinson suggests something akin to the badly received remark of Barbara Bush about the Katrina victims:

What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.

Robinson suggests that the gentrification or the taking of inner city territory from the Abandoned should be continued. As he states,

…gentrification breaks up tough knots of Abandoned poverty and scatters people to the winds, including to other areas that might be just as poor but are more racially integrated, the process actually can be to the displaced—with one big caveat. The caveat is that the displaced cannot simply be forced into another all-black ghetto—one that is more remote, with even fewer amenities and services. This is largely what has happened in Washington and some other cities, and the result is that the problem just gets moved, not solved. By far the best solution—and, yes, it costs money—is to preserve or create low-income housing that allows the Abandoned to stay in place while the neighborhood gentrifies around them..

I am not sure the author has thought through the consequences of such a contrast between the Abandoned and the Mainstream, nor is it clear how the “tough knots” are broken up if they are only transferred to a high rise. In addition, as the implosion of the Pruitt-Igoe projects in St. Louis suggested, poor people don’t take kindly to being herded into containment communities. As Alexander von Hoffman of Harvard University wrote of the fate of the 1956 high rise development,

Only a few years later, disrepair, vandalism, and crime plagued Pruitt-Igoe. The project’s recreational galleries and skip-stop elevators, once heralded as architectural innovations, had become nuisances and danger zones. Large numbers of vacancies indicated that even poor people preferred to live anywhere but Pruitt-Igoe. In 1972, after spending more than $5 million in vain to cure the problems at Pruitt-Igoe, the St. Louis Housing Authority, in a highly publicized event, demolished three of the high-rise buildings. A year later, in concert with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, it declared Pruitt-Igoe unsalvageable and razed the remaining buildings.

Whatever the problems with Robinson’s solutions, he asks the African American community to take responsibility for the Abandoned community. Without adding that the rest of America is loath to spend money on a cause that seems intractable, he suggests that,

Mainstream and those of the Abandoned coincide in the long run; ultimately, the goal is for the Abandoned to become Mainstream. But those interests diverge along the way. Two obvious goals for African Americans are consolidating decades of impressive gains into solid, multigenerational wealth; and doing whatever it takes to uplift the millions still trapped in desperate, multigenerational poverty…Transcendent CEOs can’t rescue the Abandoned, but they can serve as localized engines of economic development for the Mainstream by making certain that their companies actually practice diversity rather than just preach it. If they ensure that qualified and capable African Americans are represented among their executive teams, suppliers, and outside bankers, lawyers, and accountants, they will leave behind a far greater legacy than whatever the final numbers say on the balance sheet.

Although Robinson was writing in 2010, he mentioned the unfathomable sums of tax payer dollars shoveled to the troughs of Wall Street to “rescue” perfectly able bodied white males only in passing and noted, also in passing that Americans were willing to sent money to Iraq and Afghanistan but not to the Abandoned in their own country. I wish he had made more of this comparison, because surely part of the persistent poverty among the Abandoned is the fact that, as he points out in his analysis of the film Precious, Americans believe that if you are poor, you brought this condition upon yourself and that “you deserve it.” An updated version of this book might be able to add numerous comments made in the last two years by members of Congress who excoriate the poor and extol the rich for the purposes of taking money from those in need in order to give money to those in un-need. This lack of compassion and this refusal of responsibility and this deliberate unraveling of the social and moral fabric of America is the real definition of Disintegration.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Now I Have Become Death: Picturing the Bomb




Pasadena City College Art Galllery

October 5-Novemeber 12, 2011

One of the strangest confluences in art history was the painter, Georgia O’Keeffe, and the father of the atomic bomb, Robert Oppenheimer. Both loved the southwest. He had discovered the rough and radiant lands of Los Alamos on his holidays, when he was riding on horseback through the desert terrain. She had found artistic and personal salvation in the arid landscapes around Taos, far away from New York. One day, the lives of the artist and the scientist fused together during a bright and savage moment of the brightest light on earth—the first explosion of the first atomic bomb in history. The day was July 16, 1945; the place was Alamogordo and the bomb was named “Trinity;” and the dawn was irradiated with an unearthly glow that hovered above the earth, yet shook and scorched melted it.

After that moment in time, after that strange event, nothing would be the same. The outsiders of the neighborhood, who saw the light and felt the rumbling and heard the shattering of windows, were bewildered eyewitnesses to the coming of a new age. As W.B. Yeats said in The Second Coming of 1919, “…Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned…” These photographs, from the collection of the granddaughter of Enrico Fermi, Rachel Fermi, a faculty member of Pasadena City College, are routine documentary, slice of life images of the banality of the unimaginable (the un-image-able), showing that the majority of the people connected with the Manhattan Project had little or no idea of what they were participating in.

Los Alamos in the 1940s

Working with her partner, the photohistorian, Esther Samra, Fermi published a book on Picturing the Bomb in 1995, so this project is not a new one. The exhibition probably came about because of Fermi’s position on the faculty, but, sadly, the installation does not do justice to the gravity of the topic. Painted a sickly institutional pink, the gallery walls provide an unappetizing backdrop for prints of the original photographs of the building of the bomb at Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Los Alamos, New Mexico. Although the prints provide some information for the viewer, they are literally thumbtacked to the wall. One can charitably assume that such causal amateurism is an attempt to mirror the studied normalcy of the building of the bomb.

Oak Ridge, Tennessee

Total secrecy was combined with at attempt to create a normal life for the scientists, their families, the workers and the children who lived in forced isolation in faux towns of Oak Ridge and Los Alamos. Children play “ring around the rosie” outside an Oak Ridge Schoolhouse and scientists play with their children during their family time. Language was deployed, perhaps subconsciously, to domesticate the horrible death machine by calling it “the gadget.” And the “gadget” was treated with the same mundanity.

For example, the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were named “Fat Man” and “Little Boy.” For example, the Trinity bomb was assembled in the room of a farmhouse named McDonald’s. For example, someone casually recorded Herb Lehr, a member of the “Special Engineering Detachment,” whatever that meant, carrying the assembled bomb core in a case that resembled a six-pack for beer cans. Dressed in a white tee shirt and a pair of baggy highwaisted chinos, Herb looked unperturbed as he went about his mission. In contrast the photograph of Trinity, a day before “the gadget” was to detonate, is a large, leering and menacing orb entangled in thick vein-like wiring, looking like a creature from another world.

But the inhabitants of these atomic villages knew of the seminal nature of their project. Even if the workers were somewhat in the dark, all know that that level of secrecy would not be imposed unless something important to going on. And yet there was a fair amount of documentation going on, both official and governmental and private and perhaps clandestinely. Fermi and Samra worked for quite some time to put together a collection of family photographs from the collection of Enrico Fermi and the archived and declassified images of the Manhattan project.

With decades of history to look back on, these images resonate with meaning. Because we know what happened next—the annihilation of two cities, decades of Cold War, and the stockpiling of a nuclear arsenal that haunts us to this day. When my colleague and I visited the gallery, there were a few interested visitors as intrigued as we were over the combination of what we were seeing—eye witness accounts of the dawn of the atomic age—and what we knew about the ongoing debate over whether or not the Bomb should have been dropped or not. But the exhibition was not about now; the show was about then and the traces of a time suspended: the time of doing a task while doing the job of trying not to think of the consequences to other human beings.

The time of reckoning was to come, as Robert Oppenheimer foresaw when he famous quoted the Bhagavad-Gita: “…now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds…” But the installation does not take us beyond that moment and allows the audience to come to its own conclusions. For years the official histories of the United States skirted around the story of the “Bomb,” as it was called, by stressing the inevitability of the decision and the righteousness of the outcome, without discussing the actual effects of the explosion and radiation itself. As though there were a governmental conscience in deep denial, the United States allowed civilian populations and military personnel to be exposed to nuclear radiation from Nevada to Bikini.

Georgia O’Keeffe in the 1960s

In the same way, there is a gap in the art historical version of the life of Georgia O’Keeffe. The official histories of Ghost Ranch celebrate the presence of O’Keeffe but one has to dig to find out that this rough and rugged dude ranch was the approved site for the atomic scientists who needed relief from the isolation of Los Alamos. They arrived at Ghost Ranch for the weekends and stayed under assumed names. Their average and unassuming American names were at odds with the strong foreign accents, but the guests at the Ranch, like O’Keeffe, came in search of privacy and peace and respected each other’s right to small talk. O’Keeffe was famous for her imperious ways and would have been a far less congenial guest than the scientists who were, by all accounts, very sociable.

After years of living on the Ghost Ranch property she owned, Racho de los Burros, O’Keeffe purchased and restored an old house in Abiquiu in 1945 and spent three years making it a place she could live in. But she found building supplies hard to come by because of the construction of the military base at Los Alamos. There is an interesting parallel between an artist who was building a place where she could find solitude and scientists who were building a temporary site from which to launch destruction. Surely she was shaken awake the morning of July 16 by what felt like an earthquake, by the false dawn of the explosion, and the rushing winds that sent scouring sand exploding against the walls of buildings.

O’Keeffe. Pelvis Series, Red and Yellow (1945)

In contrast to the well-documented accounts of life at Los Alamos, little has been said of O’Keeffe and her art and the atomic bomb. One would think that she might have written to her husband about the strange event, witnessed and experienced by thousands of residents of the region. But no one seems to have put together the painting, Pelvis Series, Red and Yellow, painted in 1945—a view of a sky engulfed in a bright yellow ball of light—and the Trinity explosion. But then, for years after the event, the government did not permit photographs of this event to circulate. But when one compares the photograph of the explosion in the archives of Life Magazine and O’Keeffe’s painting, the resemblance is astonishing.

Even though the exhibition is based upon a project—-the Manhattan—-that is now sixty years old and a book—Picturing the Bomb—that was published over twenty years ago, the show was a timely one. As American recedes from two wars and rushes to intervene in other nations, none belonging neither to the twentieth nor the twenty-first century, we have yet to come to terms with the self-inflicted wound that is the cost of unconditional surrender and victory at any costs. Those who made the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan are long dead and have faced any Reckoning that was due to them; those who were determined to enter into a foreign policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) are contemplating the fruits of their actions in their waning years. We try to ask ourselves the question, after the Kami-Kazi attacks, after Iwo Jima, after Okinawa, what would we have done? Dropped the Bomb? Or not? And then what?

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]


Rebels in Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene in the 1960s




Hunter Drohojowska-Philip

Rebels in Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene in the 1960s is a lovely and delicious book. Delightfully and briskly written, it is far and away the best book Hunter Drohojowska-Philip has produced to date. She rightly calls the book “a love letter to Los Angeles” for it is narrow in scope and presents the sixties from a personal point of view. Did this book need to be written? Probably not, because the sixties scene in L. A. has been thoroughly discussed. The historical bricks and mortar are already in place but what the author provides are interesting bits and pieces, anecdotes about “making it” in the art world, California style. Most of the new material comes from oral histories of the definitive decade, so that the book is based on the artists’ voices. The reader can get through this book in a couple of hours, skipping lightly along the familiar and pausing for the occasional new gossipy nuggets about the marital musical chairs and who took LSD, who rode surf boards or motorcycles or hot rods and other mildly amusing stories of harmless fun in the sun.

It is very difficult to write this kind of book, which narrates history like a novel, but Drohojowska-Philip has the literary skills to pull it off. Take this nice opening passage:

A feeling of excitement charged the balmy evening air outside, and North La Cienega Boulevard traffic slowed as drivers gawked at the scene. Inside, stylishly coifed women in sleeveless dresses mingled with Los Angeles artists, awkward young men outfitted in thrift-store splendor. Warhol entered the filled-to-capacity gallery wearing a carnation in the lapel of his Brooks Brothers blazer.

This is a book you want to read. Compare the nicely elegant prose to his turgid mess from the opening of The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich:

It was probably the third cocktail that did the trick. It was hard for Eduardo to tell for sure, because the three drinks had come in such rapid succession—the empty plastic cups were now stacked accordion style on the windowsill behind him—that he hadn’t been able to gauge for certain when the change had occurred. But there was no denying it now, the evidence was all over him. The pleasantly warm flush to his normally sallow cheeks; the relaxed, almost rubbery way he leaned against the window—a stark contrast to his usual calcified, if slightly hunched posture; and most important of all, the easy smile on his face, something he’d practiced unsuccessfully in the mirror for two hours before he’d left his dorm room that evening.

The opening passage warns you that you, the poor helpless reader, will be trapped in a mire of terrible over-writing. This is a book you will never finish. Here’s another would-be masterpiece that defies even the most tolerant reader’s patience:

Standing in the kitchen of his Park Avenue apartment, Jamie Dimon poured himself a cup of coffee, hoping it might ease his headache. He was recovering from a slight hangover, but his head really hurt for a different reason: He knew too much. It was just past 7:00 a.m. on the morning of Saturday, September 13, 2008. Dimon, the chief executive of JP Morgan Chase, the nation’s third-largest bank, had spent part of the prior evening at an emergency, all-hands-on-deck meeting at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York with a dozen of his rival Wall Street CEOs. Their assignment was to come up with a plan to save Lehman Brothers, the nation’s fourth-largest investment bank—or risk the collateral damage that might ensue in the markets.

Deliver me from such wordy writing. Undoubtedly Andrew Sorkin had good intentions in Too Big to Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System–and Themselves but the book is an impossible slog. It is the bad prose, such as these examples, all too common in non-fiction books, which makes Rebels in Paradise such a nice change. Finally, someone who can write nonfiction. Drohojowska-Philip wisely sticks to simple description and lets her interesting cast of characters and their adventures drive the story. That said, the definitive version of the emergence of Los Angeles as a major art scenes in the face of East Coast indifference has still to be written. Anyone interested in the history of this period must to go through multiple volumes, starting with Cary McWilliams and Mike Davis and Peter Plagens and working up to recent updates by Peter Selz (Art of Engagement) and Elizabeth Armstrong (Birth of the Cool). The MOCA catalogue, Under the Big Black Sun, coming out in October of this year, looks promising with an interesting roster of writers but will probably have the same kind of narrow focus found in most of these books. The student of the history of Los Angeles art must put together a complete picture by cobbling together information from various genres and Rebels in Paradise is yet another addition to a larger pool of information.

A compendium of personal experiences and memories, Rebels in Paradise, captured from the aging group of pioneer artists and dealers their tales of building an art world based upon freedom and experimentation when no one was looking and no one cared. The audience for these Rebels was almost exclusively an audience of producers. Some of the seminal figures have died since the founding of the Cool School: Walter Hopps, John Altoon, and Wallace Berman, significant voices stilled. The book deals with the decade of the life of the Ferus Gallery, the key exhibition site of the sixties. A few other galleries and non-Ferus artists are included, such as Nick Wilder’s artist, David Hockney, and the rare woman on the scene, Vija Celmins. African-American artists and activist artists get a quick walk-on. Beginning with a prelude in the mid-fifties, which Drohojowska-Philip refers to as the “Beat” period, the focus is on the stable handled by founder Walter Hopps and his successor, Irving Blum. The Ferus Gallery was the equivalent of a tree-house for very immature boys only and a frat house for partying artists who enjoyed the cultural attitude of “boys will be boys.”

These boys included Billy Al Bengston and Ed Ruscha and Ed Moses and Larry Bell and Ken Price and John Altoon and Ed Kienholz and Robert Irwin, with some being given more coverage than others. The author includes Joe Goode, although he and his paintings with milk bottles were not part of the Gallery. She also includes a close friend and collaborator of the Ferus artists, the up and coming architect, Frank Gehry. The Ferus gang advertised themselves as “The Studs,” and many writers think that this label, seen in a gallery exhibition poster, referred to the constant diet of willing nubile young women who hung out with the young and handsome men. In fact, the “studs” reference the actual studs of the gallery walls where the nails were driven to hang the paintings….or so one of the artists now claims. But some of these frisky gentlemen, like Ed Kienholz and Craig Kauffman, seem to have collected wives. The art scene was so glamorous and so appealing that it attracted other brash young men from the movie industry, Dennis Hopper, Dean Stockwell, Russ Tamblyn, and pretty starlets, such as Teri Garr. These minor B list stars gave the scene added luster but also spoke of the unmade bed quality of the Los Angeles art world, where anyone could climb in, unless of course you were black, gay or a woman.

The focus of Rebels in Paradise is kept tight on the artists themselves, their lives and biographies. The art itself is only glancingly discussed and a reader not familiar with the paintings of Bengston or the ceramics of Price or the architecture of Gehry would be lost. Written for insiders, the account is uneven at times. The author relies upon a prior understanding of Every Building on Sunset Strip, for example, but provides a more informative discussion of Hockney’s portrait of the collectors, Marcia and Frederick Wiseman and a good account of how Robert Irwin constructed his convex dot paintings. The book has no social context and “history” is usually a few sentences, which work as establishing shots. There is some attempt to discuss the frustration of the African-Americans in Watts after the Civil Rights Movement but the reasons for the famous Peace Tower—the Viet Nam War—are glossed over. The relative lack of historical backdrop is a loss because the artists in Los Angeles were willing to tackle the social and political issues of the day, something the New York artists refused to do. The silence of so many East Coast artists makes the social critique provided by Vija Celmins and Noah Purfoy all the more brave and remarkable.

Aside from the comparative lack of social and economic and political context, the scope of the book is an excellent attempt to create a literary biography of an active and varied the art scene in Los Angeles. Drohojowska-Philip takes the time to include a thorough discussion of the Light and Space movement, which took place outside of the small stable of the Ferus Gallery. She also brings in the ebullient Rudi Gernreich and the very important print studio, Gemini GEL where Robert Rauschenberg began an important new phase of his career. In other words, Drohojowska-Philip emphasizes the New and keeps out the older traditions, which perhaps explain the comparative neglect of John McLaughlin whose paintings are connected to the California tradition of light but also stem from the hard-edge tradition of the East Coast. The author concentrates on the semiotic approach to painting—the conceptual paintings developed by Ed Ruscha, which relegates pioneers in abstraction, Lorsel Feitelson and Helen Lundeberg, to the past. The sixties in Los Angeles is an entirely new post-war plastic world, largely populated by Midwest and European immigrants attracted to the new possibilities of the Last Frontier.

I do not approve of critiquing a book for being something it was not intended to be but I do feel that it is important to state what Rebels in Paradise is—-a series of anecdotal biographies of a small group of significant artists—-and what it is not—a history of Los Angeles and its art at a particular moment in time. Because the author stays so completely in her chosen tranche, there can be no perspective on the people or the events as viewed from the position of the present. Today, the idea that an art scene could unfold without women and people of color seems strange and unforgivable, particularly in light of the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement. Drohojowska-Philip presents a racist, sexist, and homophobic art world that is typical of its time, a sort of Mad Men at the Ferus Gallery, but resists commentary or judgment. These years were the last of the total domination of the white male and it probably did not occur to any of these white and male artists that they were the last of their kind. And these lives and careers are now, fifty years later, coming to a close. It would have been interesting to have more of an epilogue—the illness of Teri Garr, the death of Dennis Hopper, the waning of Billy Al Bengston, the rise of the “Starchitect,” Frank Gehry and the contributions of Betye Saar and her remarkable daughters.

Overall the book is a very special sixties nostalgia trip, retelling the story of the making of an art world, without controlling art critics, without ruling dogmas, before the take-over of an international art market and before the control of the art schools. The author takes the reader a bit into the future by bringing in John Baldessari and Judy Chicago, leaders of the seventies scene which ended painting as it was known and began the challenge of feminist art—all done at Cal Arts. Again and again, Drohojowska-Philip presents statements by her artists stressing the importance of not being in New York and working in a brave new world where they could be completely open to new ways of making art. She provides a particularly amusing story of painter Robert Irwin taking a New York critic on a tour of the local Kustom Kar Kulture of Los Angeles but the critic could not imagine that painting a car could possibly be “art.” Irritated and impatient with such close-mindedness, Irwin put the critic out of the car and onto the highway and left the man standing beside the road. Such is the fate of those who do not heed the future and the future is in Los Angeles.

Read this Valentine of a book, you will thoroughly enjoy it.