“Berkeley Says No to Torture” Week: Day Four – The Power of Art and the Power of the Pen (+ Video)

18.10.10

Last Wednesday, on Day Four of “Berkeley Says No to Torture” Week — the largest gathering of anti-torture experts and activists since the Bush administration’s “War on Terror” began over nine years ago — one of the obstacles to attracting support for a mass movement against the crimes and human rights abuses of the Bush years (and the continuing crimes and abuses of the Obama administration) was inadvertently revealed during “Defying Torture — The Art of Dissent,” a fascinating event at UC Berkeley Art Museum Theater, featuring the academic and art historian Peter Selz, and artists Clinton Fein and Richard Kamler.

Selz, the 90-year old Professor Emeritus of Art History at UC Berkeley and the founding director of the Art Museum, ran through artists’ scrutiny of torture, from Goya to contemporary artists like Clinton Fein and Fernando Botero, the internationally renowned Columbian artist who responded to the images of torture in Abu Ghraib, first revealed to the world in April 2004, with a powerful series of over 180 paintings and drawings, which were first exhibited in Europe, and were then shown in two powerful exhibitions in New York (in October and November 2006) and at UC Berkeley’s Doe Library from January to March 2007 (organized by the Center for Latin American Studies).

Two small paintings and a small drawing from this series were exhibited by the entrance to the theater for the event on October 13, but although Peter Selz pointed out that Botero donated 26 paintings and 30 drawings from the collection to UC Berkeley’s Art Museum’s permanent collection in September 2009 (and that the museum director who had been opposed to the work had lost his job), the sad truth is that, although the series was displayed at the museum from September 2009 to February this year, it should be on permanent and prominent display, because the architects of the Bush administration’s torture program remain unpunished, and one, John Yoo, who wrote the notorious “torture memos” that purported to redefine torture, creating a climate of impunity that led directly to the abuses at Abu Ghraib, is working as a law professor at Boalt Hall School of Law, just a stone’s throw from the Art Museum.

Fernando Botero explained in 2005 that his Abu Ghraib series was “born from the anger provoked by this horror.” and at the event on October 13, Peter Selz read out the following statement, which Botero had made in support of “Berkeley Says No to Torture” Week from his studio in Paris (where he works when not in New York):

Torture is often “justified” (“a means to gather information that can be used to save lives or protect society”) and “excused” (“the inevitable excesses that soldiers commit when confronted with the atrocities of war”) by some people. However, both are false. On no grounds can torture be justified or ever excused. Torture represents an insult to the body and soul of the human being, and goes against any definition of civilized conduct. I have denounced torture in my paintings because I believe that art can represent a permanent accusation, the only means we, as artists, have at our disposal to keep alive an idea that should never burn out: that we must never accept the unacceptable, and that any group, people or nation, if it loses its moral compass, can descend into violence and succumb to the horrors of barbarism.

That notion of art’s ability to represent “a permanent accusation” — and questions of censorship, which, to my mind, exist with reference to Botero’s work so long as John Yoo is still employed and Botero’s entire Abu Ghraib series is not on permanent, accusatory display — were also addressed by Clinton Fein and Richard Kamler.

An artist and educator, Kamler’s 35-year career has focused on issues relating to detention, power and responsibility, punishment and blame, through a variety of challenging installations, beginning with “Out of Holocaust” (1976), in which he reconstructed a full-size section of a barrack from a Nazi death camp, using cracked mirrors on the back wall to reflect broken images of the viewers back at themselves, and asking them to consider questions of responsibility. In the 1980s, his work prompted him to become a prison abolitionist, and since then he has sought to challenge the logic of punishment through a number of deeply challenging installations, including “Table of Voices,” described as “An installation on Alcatraz Island for four months that brought together the real voices of parents of murdered children and perpetrators in an effort to create a common ground around The Table.” What was particularly interesting, for those of us concerned with the question of US torture since 9/11, was how, in his work, he consistently works to create opportunities for those on both sides of the issues, as in “Table of Voices,” to engage in dialogue.

The work of Clinton Fein, born in South Africa, directly addressed the Bush administration’s torture program in his series, “Torture,” which was first displayed in San Francisco in January 2007, just before Botero’s exhibition was shown in Berkeley. Also working in response to the Abu Ghraib scandal, Fein created a series of large, high-resolution reenactments of the Abu Ghraib photos. As he told the audience during “Berkeley Says No to Torture” Week, the genitals of the naked and abused prisoners were pixellated in the original photos, creating the unnerving and deeply deceitful impression that the torture depicted is acceptable, and the only problem is the nudity. 

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A rather fuller explanation is available on his website:

Fein’s deliberate rejection of blurring, obscuring or even shading the blatant nudity in his images is a response to the blurring of genitals that characterized the images released to the public, and is consistent with Fein’s history of challenging the notions of decency, which included a Supreme Court victory over United States Attorney General, Janet Reno. “If one was to question which was obscene — the display of someone’s ass cheeks or graphic displays of torture — I don’t think there ought to be any confusion,” said Fein. “Obfuscation is at the heart of what is happening with the torture debate.”

Clinton Fein also showed the Berkeley audience images of two of his works that were never exhibited, because they were destroyed by the printers that he had entrusted to reproduce them — “Who Would Jesus Torture?” (see here) and “Like Apple Fucking Pie” (left, click to enlarge), a recreation of the US flag, with the stars made out of tiny silhouettes of the infamous hooded figure of Abu Ghraib, and the stripes composed of text from the Taguba Report, a military report into the Abu Ghraib scandal, conducted by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who found that, “between October and December 2003, at the Abu Ghraib Confinement Facility (BCCF), numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees.”

Ironically, even though Taguba was not empowered to look up the chain of command to ascertain who had authorized these abuses, he was ordered to retire in January 2006, and believes that he was forced out by Pentagon officials in retaliation for his report. In June 2008, he responded by accusing the Bush administration of war crimes in the preface to a report on Abu Ghraib by Physicians for Human Rights, stating, “there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”

From the Art Museum, it was a short hop to the University Lutheran Church on College Avenue for a “Round Table — Writers on Torture,” with myself (as author of The Guantánamo Files), Justine Sharrock, author of Tortured: When Good Soldiers Do Bad Things (also see here and here), Rita Maran, the indomitable 81-year old UC Berkeley lecturer, human rights activist and author of Torture: The Rise of Ideology in the French Algerian War, and Barry Eisler, the former CIA operative and thriller writer, whose latest novel, Inside Out, breaks new ground in dealing with the Bush administration’s torture program — “extraordinary rendition,” “ghost prisoners” and secret prisons — through the medium of fiction.

I’d been looking forward to meeting Barry for some time, ever since he contacted me out of the blue, and told me he loved my work, had been following it closely, and had used it — and the work of other independent journalists — for Inside Out. As he explains on his website:

Inside Out is dedicated to the bloggers — the independent sleuths who are after the truth, not a pat on the head from the White House; who have a passion for change, not “a vested interest in keeping things pretty much the way they are;” who serve the people, not the powerful.

Barry had sent me an advance copy of Inside Out, which I devoured eagerly, and I was delighted to provide an endorsement, which appears on the dust jacket. This was a pattern that was followed by Justine, who also asked me for an endorsement of her excellent book telling the stories of soldiers who signed up to serve their country, but ended up involved in the torture program — or, in Joe Darby’s case, blowing the whistle on it in Abu Ghraib.

Our discussions in the “Round Table” involved each of us explaining the context of our work, how and why we write about torture, and what we hope to achieve through it, and the session was moderated, in a suitably knowledgeable manner, by Shahid Buttar, the executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee. Short excerpts from the event are available below, via YouTube, and I hope that the full discussion will be available soon, as it was a fascinating fusion of different perspectives on the torture problem that has infected American society like a virus over the last nine years.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

4 Responses

  1. Tweets that mention “Berkeley Says No to Torture” Week: Day Four – The Power of Art and the Power of the Pen (+ Video) | Andy Worthington -- Topsy.com says...

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Andy Worthington, Mark E. Smith. Mark E. Smith said: RT @GuantanamoAndy: “Berkeley Says No to Torture” Week: Day Four – The Power of Art and the Power of the Pen – Report on Wednesday events http://bit.ly/czN6oX [...]

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Mui J. Steph wrote:

    Sounds like a wonderful powow, Andy — I’ve lived among academics most my life, so hopefully you’ll forgive me for the tease. It would be excellent if this could be repeated across the country. Getting so many people together with so many ideas is really helpful I think. And all that irony of Yoo being a stone’s throw away . . . Brilliant stuff.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Mui. So many great contacts were made that I hope other events emerge from this week. Certainly, it was important to get people together in person, as we all spend so much time in our own little worlds, or focusing on our own campaigns and projects. The Internet is wonderful for reaching out around the world to people you can’t be with — and I’m always delighted that it enables you and I, for example, to be in contact –but actually meeting up, as so many of us did last week, was very powerful.

  4. Shahid Buttar says...

    Without opining as to whether my participation was “suitably knowledgeable,” I will just echo Andy’s response to Mui: the week’s events were a great opportunity to share perspectives, strengthen arguments, and identify new allies with whom to work going forward. The battle for the soul of America is going to take some time, and any opportunity to gather and educate others will help advance the struggle.

    I hope to cross paths again soon, Andy!

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Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
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