What is so chilling about the front and back covers of MARK LOMBARDI: GLOBAL NETWORKS is not that "George W. Bush, Harken Energy, and Jackson Stephens, c. 1979-1990" (5th version, 1999) illustrates the nexus of big oil and terrorists, a notion we have become "used to," but that the direct nexus of Osama bin Laden and Big Oil is not found at Bush & Co. but at James R. Bath, whose political patronage flows not only from the Bushes but from Democrat and leading U.S. Senator (now retired) Lloyd Bentsen and his son Lan. The ability of big business to coöpt governance knows no party bounds.
The essay and annotations accompanying GLOBAL NETWORKS, by eminent art historian and critic Robert Hobbs, are a mating of the post-modernist perspective with a body of work whose subject matter happens to be the subject matter of post-modernist criticism - power structures.
Lombardi, who had been an abstract artist, became interested in the interrelationships of global players during the Savings and Loan scandal of the early nineties. At the time, he lived in Houston, so it's no surprise that he found a ripe field in the myriad, widespread and incestuous linkages of the oil industry.
Hobbs cites Herbert Marcuse as Lombardi's acknowledged aesthetical mentor. Marcuse was a "neo-Marxist" philosopher who asserted the sexual basis for class suppression in America and who became a darling of the New Left in the sixties. He has not fared well with the subsequent structuralist schools, who dismiss Marx and in turn Marcuse, and their respective dialectics, as obsolete. To me this dismissal seems wrongheaded, since it doesn't take rocket science to see, that through the mass media they control, global power networks use sex to render enervated and addled, and thus powerless, the majority they aim to subjugate and exploit. (Whether this constitutes coercion or bribery, as Hobbs asks, may be beside the point - perhaps sex is both.)
History also has come to the rescue of the New Left, since it is now generally accepted that the fall of the Soviet Union was the result of the strategic economic warfare waged by the United States in the Cold War, as predicted by New Left historians (such as Gabriel Kolko), not the inherent error of Marxism, as tory historians would have it.
As enlightening and ingenious as are Lombardi's illustrations, derived from scrupulously compiled index cards, the question occurs as to whether they rise to the level of art. The film critic Pauline Kael asserted that no matter how profound or truthful a movie, if it doesn't entertain it's no good. I believe the same applies to any work that aspires to art. Unless a picture has an aesthetic dimension, i.e. an element of beauty, it isn't art. It may be the brilliant and effective illustrations of a Norman Rockwell (who insisted he be called an illustrator) or Robert Maplethorpe, but its merits as art depend not on content but on form.
I think Lombardi was instinctively aware of this, for his Global Networks are more than just freeform flow charts but, when observed as wholes, organisms whose beauty depends not on what they mean but how they look. I'm reminded of the view of microbes through a microscope: a plague bacillus is just as beautiful as a penicillin bacillus. This dislocation between form and content, between "fictive" or "idealized" aesthetic and a given reality, between the "beautiful" aesthetic and the "ugly" reality, is at the heart of Marcuse's dialectic, upon which Lombardi has based his art.
And Lombardi's art has become painfully relevant in today's world. I say "has become," because Mark Lombardi died in 2000. I wonder if Lombardi's sense of vindication after 9/11, had he lived, would have been frustrated by his realization, that with the ascendancy of one of his "Global Networks," the Bush dynasty, the truth of art is trumped by the power of money. Perhaps, then, we must rely on faith in a future predicated on the belief, that such is not the case in the long run.
This volume, brilliantly conceived by Robert Hobbs, stands as a fitting memorial to an artist who demonstrates by his work, that the didactic can indeed be artistic, and that truth itself, whether pleasant or unpleasant, can be beautiful.