Artists Against the Drug War

A unique benefit art exhibit aims to help stop the madness of the war on drugs.
What does the historical view of the artist as social commentator have to do with the war on drugs? Absolutely nothing, until Tuesday, March 29, when a host of leading contemporary artists joins forces with the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) in a historic benefit art exhibition.

The show is curated by art entrepreneur Diego Cortez, who has managed to gather together the works of 40 visual artists, among them Francesco Clemente, Ed Ruscha, Louise Bourgeois and Yoko Ono. The benefit's host committee includes such stars as Lauren Hutton, Arianna Huffington and Montel Williams, with additional support from George Soros and Jason Flom of Atlantic Records. "We are amazed and grateful that so many leading artists are willing to support our work," says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the DPA. Their donations of time and effort will empower our efforts to reform draconian drug laws that cause so much more harm than good."

Art as a social weapon has been around for a long time. In the early 1920s, Diego Rivera and the other Mexican muralists used their work as a tool for the oppressed against their oppressors. They expressed their opinions and got their message across to the literate and the illiterate alike and earned worldwide recognition. In April 1937, the world learned the shocking truth about the Nazi Luftwaffe's bombing of Guernica, Spain – a civilian target. Pablo Picasso responded with his great anti-war painting, Guernica.

In the '60s Leon Golub, the "painter of darkness," put together the group Artists and Writers against the War as a response to the Vietnam war. On the other side of the coin, in 2003 the Drug Enforcement Agency opened an art exhibit in NYC titled "Terrorists, Traffickers, and You," that attempted to link terrorism to drug use. And in 2005 the group I call Artists against the Drug War has emerged in response to the destructive consequences of the war on drugs.

Today almost two million people are locked up behind bars because of this "war." In 1988 while serving a 15-to-life sentence under the Rockefeller drug laws I painted a piece titled, Corporate Asset. It had the look of a giant pinball game. It portrayed how the war on drugs had fueled the prison industrial complex, with money raised from local, state and federal levels through the business of imprisonment. I am proud to have this piece displayed in the DPA benefit show at the Cheim & Read Gallery, which has graciously donated its space for the event.

This exhibit is historic in the context of the art world and follows the lead of past artists who have used art as a vehicle for social change. I have and will continue to use my art as a vehicle to fight the drug war. I hope this show will enlighten others to join us in our attempt to stop the madness of the war on drugs.

Visit the Drug Policy Alliance for more information about A Benefit for the Drug Policy Alliance, March 29, 6-8pm, at the Cheim & Read Gallery in New York.
Anthony Papa is the author of 15 To Life: How I Painted My Way To Freedom (Feral House).
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