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The Veteran Art Movement Joins Iraqi Artists in Calling on MOMA to Divest from Toxic Philanthropy
By Kevin Basl
In February, 45 veterans from the emerging Veteran Art Movement (eVAM) sent an open letter to Museum of Modern Art PS1 (MoMA PS1) calling on its board of trustees chairman, Leon Black, and board member Larry Fink, to divest from "toxic philanthropy." Black holds ties to defense contractor Constellis Holdings, formerly Blackwater, the US mercenary group responsible for the massacre of 17 Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square in 2007. Fink's corporation, BlackRock, is heavily invested in the two largest US private prison companies, GEO Group and Core Civic.
The veterans' open letter was written as a gesture of solidarity with 37 artists featured in an exhibition at MoMA PS1, Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991 to 2011, who sent their own open letter to MoMA, in January. The 37 artists, many of whom are Iraqi, offered an important critique in the letter:
[...]this war has been invisible and far from the attention and concerns of most Americans. We appreciate the visibility this exhibition gives to the Iraq wars and to the work of Iraqi artists; however, we also wish to make visible MoMA's connection to funds generated from companies and corporations that directly profit from these wars.
Additionally, several of the featured Iraqi artists could not view the exhibition in person because President Trump's travel ban barred them entry into the US.
The protests surrounding Theater of Operations are part of the #MoMADivest movement, started by Art Space Sanctuary and New Sanctuary Coalition, which is calling on the museum to divest from companies that profit from war, weapons, prisons, climate change, debt ownership and oppression. Actions began in October 2019, when #MoMADivest brought attention to MoMA's and Fink's ties to toxic assets in an open letter signed by over 200 artists and activists. A week later, protestors interrupted MoMA's reopening party, calling on Fink to divest. Then, on October 30th, just days before the opening of Theater of Operations, artist Phil Collins withdrew his piece "baghdad screen tests" from the exhibition in solidarity with #MoMADivest. Later, artist Michael Rakowitz pressed pause on his video exhibit RETURN and posted a protest statement on the wall (the museum, which had denied Rakowitz's previous requests to pause his work, promptly re-started his video and removed his statement). Rakowitz's statement extended the campaign to include the call for Leon Black to divest from Constellis, a key demand of the 37 artists' and 45 veterans' open letters, which soon followed.
On the final day of the exhibition, several eVAM artists supported Iraqi artist Ali Yass at an "alternative closing," an action co-organized with #MoMADivest. MoMA, anticipating the protest, pulled Yass' artwork from the exhibition earlier that day. Yass, who could not attend in person, addressed demonstrators via video call. "I will not talk about war," he said, "because it is from the past. I will talk about resistance because it is 'now'." Following his address, protestors he had pre-chosen ripped up a facsimile of his artwork to, in his own words, "reclaim the narrative surrounding his work and the context that allowed it to come into being." During the action, eVAM artists passed out fliers printed on Combat Paper made by Nathan Lewis, which featured a cartoon by Eric J. Garcia.
While Theater of Operations has closed, the #MoMADivest movement is ongoing.
The Veteran Art Movement's letter is included in full below.
February 3, 2020
Dear Directors and Trustees of MoMA PS1 and MoMA,
We, veterans of the US military, write this letter in support of the 37 artists featured in Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991 - 2011, calling for chairman of MoMA's board of trustees, Leon Black, to divest from defense contractor Constellis Holdings, formerly Blackwater. These artists have put their careers and reputations on the line in calling for Black to divest, while simultaneously demanding a realignment of values at MoMA (and, by extension, all cultural institutions). Following their example, we, the undersigned, call on all veterans—especially those who deployed to Iraq between 1991 and 2011—to support their campaign. MoMA claims a longtime commitment to veterans and service members. Accordingly, we are confident the board members will seriously consider our collective call for divestment.
As veterans of the Gulf War and the "Global War on Terror," as well as working artists ourselves, this issue is very important to us. We acknowledge our own role in creating the conditions for ongoing death and turmoil in Iraq, and we continue to grapple with this reality through our art, activism, and lives. We take responsibility for our past actions and as such choose to stand in solidarity with Iraqi artists and all activists calling on MoMA PS1 to "take a truly radical position by divesting from any trustees and sources of funding that profit from the suffering of others." Instead of accepting our current state of endless war and militarism, we follow in the footsteps of other military veterans who have resisted and denounced war through their art, such as Guillaume Apollinaire, Leon Golub, Black Panther Malik Edwards, and the artists of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
Defense contractors, like Constellis, have profited greatly from the coercive exploitation of Iraqis, while operating under the aegis of the US military, using service members as disposable labor and marketing props. The undersigned have witnessed firsthand the destruction and wastefulness of US wars of aggression, the failed "Global War on Terror," and the parasitic, profit-driven motivations of defense contractors (especially the notoriously violent Blackwater), which have nothing to do with freedom and democracy.
We also support the MoMA/BlackRock Divest campaign. MoMA board member Larry Fink is CEO of BlackRock, which invests in private prison companies. Such companies represent a domestic war against people of color and the poor. War and prison profiteering are intimately connected. The rampant privatization of the military and the prison system epitomize US militarism, prioritizing the profits of the few who make billions from war, tactical equipment, and mass incarceration, over the health, education, and well-being of the many.
If MoMA truly celebrates "creativity, openness, tolerance and generosity," as stated in its mission, MoMA will recognize the hypocrisy in displaying the work of dispossessed peoples—Iraqis in this case—while continuing to profit, if indirectly, from the bloodshed and misery of those very people. Such "toxic philanthropy," as Michael Rakowitz has called it, must end if we are to make the deep changes necessary to address issues like endless war, climate change, poverty, and racism. The successful 2019 campaign calling for the resignation of the Whitney Museum's former vice chairman Warren Kanders, CEO of Safariland, a company that manufactures tear gas and other weapons (and uses veterans and service members as marketing props), demonstrates that major cultural institutions will respond justly if enough people speak up. Accordingly, we are confident that MoMA will divest, and realign its values by extricating itself from all toxic philanthropy.
Visit the blog at veteran-art-movement.net for a list of signatories.
Kevin Basl is a writer and musician living near Ithaca, NY. He is a member of About Face (IVAW) and Veterans for Peace.