May 09, 2005

Botero's Empty Outrage

I've never been a huge fan of Fernando Botero's rotund, distorted sculptures (so wasn't particularly thrilled when Park Avenue was pock-marked with them back in '93) but this is just absurd. Botero, we learn, is up in arms about the "great crime" of Abu Ghraib:

Now, Mr. Botero, 73, who lives in Paris and New York, has taken on an even more explosive topic: the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Forty-eight paintings and sketches - of naked prisoners attacked by dogs, dangling from ropes, beaten by guards, in a mangled heap of bodies - will be exhibited in Rome at the Palazzo Venezia museum on June 16.

"These works are a result of the indignation that the violations in Iraq produced in me and the rest of the world," Mr. Botero said by telephone from his Paris studio.

"I began to do some very fluid drawings, and then I began to paint and the results are 50 works inspired by this great crime."

Here is one offering:

08botero.1841.jpg (click through the NYT article for additional "art" samples from Botero's Abu Ghraib series).

Look, regular readers know how horrified I was by the torture scandal of Abu Ghraib. I've condemned it loudly and clearly. I'm even on the record in the pages of the New York Times stating that Abu Ghraib had me reconsidering whether to support Bush. But let's get a reality check here, shall we? Botero has been active for decades now (since the 1950s) and, with the exception of his native Columbia, has always shied away from political subjects. During these long decades since Botero began his artistic career, genocides have occurred in Cambodia and Rwanda. Genocidal policies have scarred Kurdistan, Bosnia and Kosovo. We have witnessed the massacres of students in Tiananmen Square whose only crime was a hunger for liberty. Kim Jong Il presides over a, yes, 'hellish nightmare' of a state that has his people wallowing in near-starvation. I could go on. And the "great crime" that pushed Botero to broach a political subject, through all these long decades of turbulent post WWII history, was a torture scandal in an American prison during war-time? Ah, but this rare foray into politically-oriented art is because he holds the U.S. in such high regard, doubtless. Fernando was let down, you see. But the hundreds and hundreds of thousands slaughtered by Pol Pot, by Karadzic and Mladic, by Rwandese genocidaires--there were not "great crimes" that provoked sufficient outrage. Call it the Cannes-ization of the art world. Bashing the brutish American imperium is sexy and subversive and chic and comme il faut. Also so often empty, hyperbolic, dishonest, and increasingly tiresome.

Posted by Gregory at May 9, 2005 12:59 AM | TrackBack (0)

But let's get a reality check here, shall we? Botero has been active for decades now (since the 1950s) and, with the exception of his native Columbia, has always shied away from political subjects.

as the Times story makes clear, you are being decidedly unfair to Botera here. He shied away from political subjects entirely until last year, when he started documenting the civil war in Columbia. To act as if he deliberately ignored subjects such as Rwanda, Cambodia, Kosovo, etc. in favor of attacking the US is simply absurd---when those atrocities were happening, none of his art was political in nature.

Posted by: p.lukasiak at May 9, 2005 02:37 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Great post. I wrote on Botero's exhibition a couple of weeks ago, and the post drew an unusual amount of fire in the comments section (by the standards of my blog) -- people calling me a Nazi and such. There are people who believe that artists are in some way sacred, and that to criticize them -- even when they enter the political realm in their art -- is inherently beyond the pale.

Posted by: TigerHawk at May 9, 2005 03:18 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

ANd perhaps, Luka, if Mr. Botero shares your interest in fairness, the find room in his 50 to paint a scene a fat, anguished Nevada National Guardsmen, as devasted as any socialist upon hearing the news...

Las Vegas Review-Journal (Nevada) May 08, 2004

Nevada soldiers who fixed prison 'devastated'

In-Depth Coverage By Keith Rogers

Soldiers of the Nevada military police company that renovated and guarded the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq said Friday they feel disgraced by the Maryland Army Reserve company that relieved them and now is the target of a prisoner abuse and sexual humiliation probe.

'I was devastated. It was unbelievable,' said Capt. Troy Armstrong, commander of the Nevada Army National Guard's 72nd Military Police Company.

He was describing his initial reaction to the pictures of gloating MPs from the 372nd Military Police Company next to naked, kneeling and hunched-over Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib, some in sexually explicit positions.

'All our soldiers know you couldn't take pictures of detainees period. And that was crystal clear,' he said.

Armstrong, his first sergeant and three other soldiers from the 72nd spoke openly about their duty at Abu Ghraib during an informal session with reporters at the Nevada National Guard Armory in Henderson.

They said they were appalled by the acts of abuse that have infuriated officials and citizens at home and abroad.

'It pisses you off,' said Spc. Douglas Fry, 26, of Las Vegas. 'It makes the 72nd look bad. The acts of a few knuckleheads makes the United States look bad.'

One of the 19 female MPs and support personnel in the company, Spc. Sandra Flores, said, 'It makes me mad because I know our MPs worked hard to keep this from happening.'

Spc. Michael Roe, 27, of Henderson said those responsible for what he called 'horrendous' acts of abuse need to be jailed themselves. 'We need to show the world we are able to police ourselves and not quote, unquote, cover it up,' he said.

Roe said that during the time he guarded detainees the only time he saw them naked was when they took showers.

'Did I ever see an Iraqi butt? Yes. Did I ever strip someone down and put a leash around their neck? No,' he said.

One photograph that shocked them appeared in newspapers Friday. It shows a woman MP from the Maryland company, identified as Spc. Lynndie England, standing with a leash attached to the neck of a naked detainee on the floor of what Armstrong said is probably the 1-A section of the prison compound.

That cell block, which he said was occasionally guarded at the door by 'one or two' of his MPs, was taken over by military intelligence units when his company of 110 soldiers turned over control of the compound on Oct. 15 to the 372nd, a combat support company twice the size of the Nevada unit.

Armstrong and 1st Sgt. Daryl Keithley said no such abuses occurred during their six-month-long watch at Abu Ghraib.

But near the end of that stint, about the time the Maryland-based 372nd arrived, some changes occurred, particularly in areas holding so-called 'security detainees,' those kept apart from the prison's general criminal population because they were suspected double agents or had intelligence value, such as knowing information about former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

'There was one incident when we were asked to keep detainees awake, to wake them up with metal drums. We said, 'Absolutely not.' I stopped them from doing it,' said Armstrong, a 37-year-old child protective services worker from Las Vegas.

He said he believes the idea to pound trash cans to keep the detainees awake came from military intelligence officials. 'We really weren't involved in M.I. (military intelligence) operations,' he said.

'I'll be frank. There was a request for us to support M.I. operations before we left,' Armstrong said. 'We didn't have the personnel to do it.'

Keithley said there were times when, for safety reasons, soldiers from their company put hoods on detainees to escort them to interrogation sites at the request of military intelligence officials. That was done, he said, to keep them from seeing quarters where MPs lived inside the prison.

Despite revelations out of Geneva on Friday that the International Red Cross had warned U.S. officials more than a year ago about prisoner abuse in Iraq , Armstrong said, those complaints never surfaced in discussions the Red Cross had with his chain-of-command.

'Nobody ever came to us with those complaints and said, 'What are you going to do about it?' ' he said. The only complaints expressed to him were about living conditions at the prison, which his company was trying to resolve through the rebuilding effort, he said.

As conditions improved, Armstrong said, prisoners who were released were often given spare MREs, meals ready to eat, and bottles of water. 'They would hug us and try to kiss us,' Keithley said.

One prisoner returned to give the soldiers gifts, Armstrong said.

He said the 72nd MPs attended classes on the Geneva Convention and laws of war both in Nevada and at Fort Lewis, Wash., before they deployed for Iraq.

They arrived at the Abu Ghraib prison, about 20 miles west of Baghdad, in late May 2003. Their first job was to rebuild much of the mile-square compound, known as a death camp under Saddam's reign.

'When we rolled in, there were sheep herds and goat herds running around in the compound,' Keithley recalled.

There were also reminders of the prison's reputation as a torture ground and death chamber.

Said Armstrong: 'There were gallows with two hanging platforms and gas chambers underneath. We heard rumors about mass graves. We found lots of bones and different things.'

Besides reconstructing the compound and installing concertina wire for holding pens, the company provided force protection along the perimeter, escorted criminals to trial, and ran the Alsahyat jail some 40 miles away in east-central Baghdad.

The first 200 detainees were criminals accused of looting and weapons violations. Eventually the prison population grew to about 800 including security detainees and criminals charged with murder.

Keithley said the prison, in the heart of the so-called Sunni Triangle, was often the target of mortar attacks and small arms fire. Ten soldiers in the 72nd Military Police Company received Purple Heart Medals for their wounds.

No one from the 72nd was killed but two U.S. soldiers from another unit were killed in mortar attacks and three others were killed responding to attacks on the prison. About a dozen Iraqis died in those attacks and some 100 were wounded, he said.

Regarding the six-month-long prison duty, Spc. Fry said, 'It sucked. It wasn't great. We went into a mission and it was wartime.

'We were too busy to ever think about doing anything like this,' he said, referring to prisoner abuse.

'Many times,' he said, 'mortars came to within 50 meters of my tower. I was writing my mother one time and bullets started whizzing over my head.'

While in Iraq, the 72nd was, for the most part, under command of the active duty, 18th Military Police Brigade and the 400th Military Police Battalion.

Armstrong said he reported to Lt. Col. Dale Burtyk, who handed him a copy of A.R. 190-8, Army regulations for handling enemy prisoners of war and civilian internees, and instructed him to review it.

Armstrong, in turn, said he advised his soldiers about the regulations. 'The words I used were be firm, fair and respectful at all times.'

The effort to transfer control of the prison to the 372nd Military Police Company took place in late September and early October.

By Oct. 15, Armstrong had relinquished control to the Maryland company's commander, Capt. Donald J. Reese of New Stanton, Pa. Reese now faces administrative charges in connection with prisoner abuse allegations.

The 72nd traveled in convoys to reach Kuwait for their return to the United States. The last soldiers had arrived in Kuwait by Nov. 10. Armstrong recalled how the prison operation began to change under the new commander.

'Initially they changed a security position, a couple different positions,' Armstrong said, explaining how this reduced security that the 72nd had set up along the stone-wall perimeter.

'But there was nothing that would have led me to believe it would lead to all of this,' he said.

Posted by: Tommy G at May 9, 2005 04:18 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

How about painting the men, women and children blown apart by terrorist bombs in Iraq?

Nah, that wouldn't be anti-American.

Posted by: Kevin P. at May 9, 2005 05:16 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I wish I was talented enough to paint the lynching at Fallujah, or a terrorist on one of the 911 flights killing a pilot, or the recent stoning of that poor woman in Afghanistan, or maybe the aftermath of a suicide attack in Israel, or perhaps a few scenes from Darfur.... unsurprisingly, the list goes on and on and on.

Posted by: mariana at May 9, 2005 05:57 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

you've forgotten the dialectic. ANYTHING that the US does (or any white european or westerner) is by definition bad and evil. ANYTHING that a non-Westerner does is by definition good and noble.

The exception is years after the fact, when say the killings in Rwanda are all the fault of evil Americans who did not stop the killings (forget Kofi Annan ORDERING Daillaire to "preserve the UN's neutrality" and not "interfere with internal Rwandan affairs"). Then when Americans stop killing in other places they are "bullies" and international menaces and international law must be restored.

Don't forget, the Left DOES love it's anti-American killers. If Idi Amin had slung the lingo around more, he'd be celebrated like Che. As it is, groups like the IRA to Red Brigades to various jihadis are celebrated as "the resistance"

Posted by: Jim Rockford at May 9, 2005 09:11 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The point is outlined very clearly:

Calling himself an admirer of the United States - one of his sons lives in Miami - Mr. Botero said he became incensed because he expected better of the American government.

So did most of us.

We expect torture from terrorists, dictators, and genocidal maniacs. We do not, however, expect it from the American government. The USG must be held to a higher standard.

Posted by: rdg at May 9, 2005 11:10 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

We expect torture from terrorists, dictators, and genocidal maniacs. We do not, however, expect it from the American government. The USG must be held to a higher standard.

you'd have a hard time convincing most of the commenters at this site of this. They all seem to think that the appropriate point of comparison is the absolute worst examples of atrocities --- as long as we aren't currently involved in deliberate genocide, or feeding detainees through shredders, the US is absolutely above criticism. (Nor can the US's own history of genocide ever be mentioned, nor our harboring and support of terrorism, nor our use of torture and 'extraordinary rendition' be part of any discussion with these people. They are incapable of seeing the US as the world sees it --- both the good and the bad ---- and see only what they want to see.)

Posted by: p.lukasiak at May 9, 2005 12:31 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The most frustrating part of this has to be the fact that this was considered for the news section of the Sunday NY Times. I was shocked to see it there and not in the Arts & Leisure section (to fill the void of the promoted-to-Op-Ed Frank Rich). I read every word of the story, trying to figure out why it was news. Perhaps the artist was there? Perhaps the artist had access to some photos the rest of the public had not? First hand eyewitness accounts?

Of course, none of that. Turns out these are images "inspired" by descriptions pulled from media reports and publically released investigations. Whatever is may or may not be a fair depiction of the occurrances In AG prison. (Like the bloody beaten prisoners chained on the floor.... I do not remember any photos or discussions like this- but let me know if I am forgetting something).

So in conclusion, large photos fictionalized paintings of something that happened over a year ago appears on the fifth page a reader turns to in the most read paper in America on Sunday.

How do they justify this? Orkent? Why is this a news story?

Posted by: ed at May 9, 2005 05:27 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The US never gets anything but criticism. Criticising the US isn't brave, it's the de facto position. Meanwhile people committing crimes that dwarf what happened at Abu Ghraib are treated as sacred. Must not criticize! Bullshit.

I want someone to make a series of 73 paintings of Mohammed Atta in heaven. 72 paintings of him having sex with a different woman. And then the 73rd of him sitting on a pile of naked women. Think Bosch meets Goya's Black Paintings mixed with Disney.

Posted by: mariana at May 9, 2005 10:10 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Painting as a fine art continues to struggle, and it's another blow that *no* painting can be as powerful as those photos from Abu Ghraib, or of that little boy who saw his parents blown away in a checkpoint incident.

Posted by: Anderson at May 9, 2005 11:13 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

There are plenty of paintings more powerful than the photos from Abu Ghraib. Those photos were shocking and horrific and, well, there are no words to describe how disgusted they make me feel, but I detest the blinders most people wear when it comes to the war on terror. The same blinders are worn when dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Also, as a former painting student, I can attest fully to the fact that painting struggles because there's been a conscious choice to no longer teach students how to paint. An artform that has intentionally been hobbled.

Posted by: mariana at May 10, 2005 02:37 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Oh, OK Luka - how very noble of you to call us to task.

But here, let me repent, to you. You great, tedious, smarmy, redundant moralist.

I'd like to take this opportunity to accept personal responsibility for the genocide of the Indian Nations of North America, and especially my conduct during the events of those troubled times.

Great. Well, I don't know about anyone else here, but I feel transformed by my grand gesture, seein' as how I have healed this great nation. Perhaps now we can get back to fighting the $%#@* War on *%$ - $*&$# Global Terrorism.

Posted by: Tommy G at May 10, 2005 03:07 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I applaud Fernando for his paintings on Abu Ghraib. Art isn't about "fair and balanced" for Christ's sake.

I'm so sick of the, "oh, look over here, look over there...why don't you comment or paint about that", meme. It's an intimidation tactic and sooo "Fox News". Yawn.

Posted by: sofia at May 10, 2005 06:02 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Good grief. Are you ignorant or something?

""oh, look over here, look over there...why don't you comment or paint about that", meme. It's an intimidation tactic and sooo "Fox News"."

Since when is speech an intimidation tactic? It's not even speech urging hatred or violence. It's criticism. If criticism is "sooo Fox News", then the other news channels aren't doing their jobs.

Posted by: mariana at May 10, 2005 06:12 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"Good grief. Are you ignorant or something?"

No, but it sounds like you are.

Criticize away. It just sounds petty.

Posted by: sofia at May 10, 2005 06:36 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

clarification: It sounds like a petty attempt to deflect attention away from the Abu Ghraib torture scandal.

Posted by: sofia at May 10, 2005 07:08 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Alright then, Sophie - allow me.

While I'm at it, I'd like to take this opportunity to accept personal responsibility for my part in the Abu Grab torture scandal, although I continue to maintain my indifference as to it's correct spelling.

WOW! That felt even more empowering than the first apology.

Now that we've cleared that up, I'd like to know what's so terrible about criticizing artists. Isn't that a paid profession?

Posted by: Tommy G at May 11, 2005 12:30 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Botero, has stayed out of commenting on his country's ongoing civil war. ..insurgency. . .

his son, I recall, was Samper's Defense Minister,

when they pretty much gave into the Cali Cartel,

the Paramilitaries; (through the PEPES) and

subsequently the FARC and ELN. I'm willing to wager that the practice of counter insurgency and insurgency in Colombia, (and don't bring up the SOA into it;there's a reason they call it "La Violencia" )on any given day, dwarfs that bungled menage a quatre that Mrs. Englund, Mr. Graner, & Mrs Ambuehl were performing that night in November 2003

Posted by: narciso at May 11, 2005 04:30 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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