The series of paintings done by Colombian artist Fernando Botero based on the Abu Ghraib photographs may become part of the permanent collection of the University of California, Berkeley, according to news sources. UC Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau has said that the university and the artist "have a gentleman's agreement" pending mutually agreeable conditions, and has said that he was impressed by the work's "emotional impact and technical brilliance."
Experts estimate the gift to be worth between $10 million and $15 million. Botero has said that he would never sell the paintings, and has turned down an offer from a German museum to build a wing to house the collection.
There's a lesson in marketing there somewhere for all artists. And also a lesson on the power of representational visual art to drive home a point – a political point in this case – by using the narrative powers of representational art to underscore an issue.
These images, in a sense, were already part of our visual art scene. After all, it was the photographs upon which they are based that exploded into our collective eyes when they were first released.
By basing his works on them, Botero skilfully recognized that in the 21st century painting is still king, and lifting an image from a photograph to create a painting still "elevates" that image to a higher fine arts realm in the minds of many people.
They're no longer just photos in our computer screens and newspapers; they're now fine art. And it also brought Botero back into the fine arts limelight and contemporary dialogue and away from fat people paintings.
It sounds like Birgeneau has just written to Botero and nothing has been heard back from the wily Colombian.
Which gives me an idea.
I think that the best place for these paintings is not Left Wing Nut U in California, but right here in Washington, DC.
And not as part of the permanent collection of any of our great DC area museums, most of which already have Boteros in their collection, but as part of the permanent collection of the Pentagon.
As many of the people who have taken the free Pentagon tour know, the building has a really impressive art collection on its walls. As one would expect, it is mostly military subjects and historical paintings.
I think that the Abu Ghraib paintings belong on the Pentagon walls – not to "shame" our Army personnel, but to show the world that we're still the only nation not only willing to show pride in our successes, but also strong enough to recognize our mistakes and learn from them.
Abu Ghraib was the result of an Army which hadn't handled foreign prisoners in many decades and a handful of improperly trained, misassigned miscreants in the wrong place at the wrong time, and certainly nowhere near a representation of the quality soldier that makes up our all volunteer Army.
And definitely nowhere near the level of torture that takes place in silence on a daily basis in places like Cuba, Iran, Sudan, China, many, many Arabic nations, and -ahem – Colombia, but Abu Ghraib was definitely a low point and a harsh learning experience for our men and women in uniform as we learn to fight a new kind of war. As a veteran I am proud of our Armed Forces and how they respond to the spectacular demands made of them.
Put them on the Pentagon walls to shout out that we understand and learn from our military mistakes just as well as we are proud of our military successes.
I call on Renée Klish, Army Art Curator, U.S. Army Center of Military History, or whoever is the curator for the Pentagon's art collection to write a letter to Botero and have Botero donate the Abu Ghraib paintings to the Pentagon.
And I also call for Botero to now turn his formidable painting and marketing skills to create a new series of paintings about the daily torture going on in Castro's miserable prisons in Cuba (a nation that has refused to allow Amnesty International to visit since 1988), and then seeing if the Cuban dictatorship is willing to accept those paintings and hang them where their military and their citizens can see them every day.
By the way, my good friend Jack Rasmussen over at the Katzen Arts Center scored a major coup a while back, as he will be bringing the first United States exhibition of the complete series, both paintings and drawings, to the Katzen in November.