Art of Our Arrogance

A selective survey of American jingoism might make savory reading, but can it make art?

Yes, in fact. Visit the Art Institute and ponder The Monroe Doctrine: Theme and Variation, a photo-composite that hangs in the photographic group show “Reordered and Revealed.”

Superimposed on outlines of Central and South America and a 1927 photograph of American officers reviewing the Nicaraguan national guard, loom the words of American statesmen through the ages. We read, for example, the observation of Under Secretary of State Robert Olds in 1927: “Until now, Central America has always understood that governments which we recognize and support stay in power, while those which we do not recognize and support fall . . .”

As long ago as 1820, future Secretary of State Henry Clay opined: “It is in our power to create a system of which we shall be the center and in which all South America will act with us . . .” Seen up close, the letters that state Clay’s vision are nothing but unintelligible blips. The artist drives the viewer back–to a distance that reminds us of the distance that Washington is from Managua–and from afar Clay makes sense.

We are longtime admirers of Esther Parada, the creator of this work. Not all her art is so political or so pointed–some of her finest pieces, also at the Art Institute, are meditations on her family. But there is an unfailing elegance to her collages. (And in mediocre hands is any device more facile than juxtaposition?)

“Born and bred to a comfortable middle-class life and educated at an exclusive eastern school,” as she’s described herself, Parada joined the Peace Corps in the 60s “for the sheer love of adventure.” She taught art in Bolivia. She came to a conclusion that many other volunteers also reached: “We were the velvet glove over the iron fist of U.S. foreign policy.”

Today, Parada teaches photography at Circle campus, writes, lectures, and makes art. “People see my work moving from personal, complex fine-arts photography to more didactic work, which makes some people uncomfortable,” she told us. “They raise some legitimate questions about what it means to deal with political material. I feel committed to that, although I agree with some of the judgments of my more recent work. It’s missing for me a certain dimension, a certain richness of detail.

“I want to link it to other levels of my own experience and maybe other people’s experience, in a way that makes it richer and accessible and more compelling.”

It’s pretty compelling now. U.S. Democracy Over Central America: 1820-?, a huge installation we saw a year or two ago, positioned Central America on the floor by the door in such a way that viewers were obliged to step on it. Parada labeled each Marine landing in the region–all 23 of them (her source was the Marine booklet 180 Landings; The United States Marines 1800-1934). In Nicaragua, the Marines first landed in 1912 and left for good in 1933, a peasant uprising crushed and the country in the hands of Anastasio Somoza and his national guard.

“We sabotage the new revolutions,” Parada said. “We drive these countries into the hands of the Soviets. It’s a question of wondering if our government is structurally incapable of allowing another form of government to flourish in this hemisphere.”

In 1985 the Village Voice ran a political art competition. Parada won it with the wall poster Who Is Smedley Butler? She pictured the runty Marine general–a veteran of the Nicaraguan campaigns–standing feistily between opposing texts. One came from a 1984 Smithsonian article that remembered Butler as “a legendary and almost archetypal Marine [who] fought his country’s battles from China to the Caribbean, winning two Medals of Honor” and recalled that Douglas MacArthur had hailed Butler as “one of the really great generals in American history.”

(Butler earned his Medals of Honor in Mexico and Haiti.)

On the other side was Butler’s own description of himself. “I served in all commissioned ranks from a second lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism . . .”

Parada is boning up on a new subject for her art. It’s one we think promises a synthesis of the personal and political art she has made so far. It is our own revolution. The memory of which, she notes, is exploited to peddle everything from Dodge cars (“an American revolution”) to Sam Adams beer.

“The rhetoric of revolution is very chic,” Parada told us. “That’s what Sam Adams beer is all about–declaring your independence. I’m really interested in Sam Adams as a figure–Sam Adams and his group were looked on as a gang of rabble-rousers and outside agitators.” Indeed, she said, the loyalist governor of Massachusetts condemned the firebrand instigator of the Boston Tea Party as “a Machiavel of chaos.”

What’s she’s learned about the period fascinates her. In 1775, she mentioned, a band of patriots invaded and destroyed the printing shop of loyalist editor James Rivington because they didn’t like what he was publishing. It seems even our own high-minded revolution was riddled with wanton behavior.

“I’m interested in how we demonize revolutionaries in other countries,” Parada said. “We don’t make those kinds of associations with our own revolution. And as long as we don’t, we will have a sense of other revolutions as tawdry and evil.”

Rethinking Vietnam

Major General Mike Healy went to Paris last month. He attended an international conference whose purpose was to rethink the Vietnam War. Henry Kissinger was there; so was Robert Komer, the CIA officer who ran the counterterrorist “pacification” program in 1967 and ’68; authors Norman Podhoretz, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Jean-Francois Revel (How Democracies Perish); Colonel Harry Summers Jr., author of the highly critical reassessment On Strategy; several Vietnamese emigres; and many others.

Mike Healy, who was the first commander of the Green Berets, spent five and a half years in Vietnam. We called him at his home outside Washington, D.C. (until recently he lived in Chicago), and asked about the conference.

One thing that all the “really knowledgeable” participants agreed on, Healy told us, was that “the real aims of the peace movement”–of its leaders, at least–were widely misunderstood. It was not peace they wanted, Healy explained, and that became clear when the 1973 peace accord was violated by Hanoi and these leaders didn’t want the United States to do anything about it.

“Now, when I see these same people, who are supposedly so strong for peace, and they’re against people fighting an action [in Central America and Afghanistan] to determine their own future and right of self-determination–it kind of falls apart when you look at it closely. There may be in our world people who believe in some kind of a theory of inevitability in regard to the socialist people of the world, and they want to vocally oppose from the sidelines any initiative that precludes that.”

We asked Healy if the conference reached a consensus on Vietnam. Somewhat, he said, and told us what mistakes he personally thought the United States had made.

“We overmilitarized,” he said. “I think the introduction of conventional forces in Vietnam was something that will be argued for years to come. We superimposed ourselves on [the South Vietnamese] command structure. We removed from them a great learning capability.

“It became our war,” Healy said, “and it wasn’t our war. One of the things that was a sin of ours, and the neocolonial arrangement we tried to produce, was that we had all the answers and they had none.”

This was his opinion in Paris, but not everybody’s. Robert Komer, for one, would not have agreed.

“We had almost a pseudo- or colonial affairs office established,” Healy remembered. “People assigned found themselves a niche and they stayed on and on . . .

“Mr. Komer came along and became practically a czar and many Vietnamese resented it. One of the things we did that concerned me was we’d take a minimally trained American youth and put him out in the villages as an adviser. We had no real in-depth competence in understanding the nuances of Vietnamese politics on the provincial or regional level. If the local guy didn’t take [the American’s] advice, the favorite way to take care of that was a charge of corruption.”

Healy told us that during the conference, Robert Komer denounced one South Vietnamese commander as “a disaster, because he didn’t listen all the time and comply.”

This was Pham Van Phu, the South Vietnamese general who abandoned the highlands in the closing weeks of the war. Healy said Phu was everybody’s scapegoat. This angered Healy, who remembered Phu fondly from the war’s earlier days.

Healy recalled a conversation they’d had. Phu asked Healy, ‘Do you really believe you know more about the people we’re trying to help than we do?’ I said no. He said ‘That’s what we would like, your suggestions, your advice, but please, please, as much of an American patriot as you are, I am a Vietnamese patriot.'”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lewis Toby.