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Chain Reaction

03/30/2012 01:07 pm ET | Updated May 30, 2012

What's the role of art in political consciousness-raising? And when's the last time you really worried about nuclear war?

Views are mixed about the former. But virtually no one shivers about nuclear winter the way we did back in the Cold War era. Which is rather shortsighted, as the Mideast could easily go fissile in the near future, dragging us in hook, line, and chain reaction.

In decades past, there was a highly active peace movement in America. It became a mass cultural phenomenon in the fight against the insanity of the Vietnam War, and continued on against the madness of MAD, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction that our political leaders believed justified the production of thousands of nuclear weapons, any one of which could change life on earth beyond recognition.

Spreading awareness of these anti-nuke and peace movements, and sometimes manning the front lines along with the boots-on-the-ground activists, were artists. Prominent musicians were key, but artists from other disciplines made their mark as well.

One man who felt strongly about our nuclear sickness was a bit older than most who rallied for that movement. He was from the greatest generation, having served bravely in the Pacific during WW2. A man who began his career and political outrage with Harry Truman. And for 50 years his pen was mightier than most swords, and he wielded it with wicked precision.

His name was Paul Conrad, three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning (mostly for the L.A. Times).

Conrad died in 2010 at age 86 -- but his legacy lives on. Primarily for his cartoons, tens of thousands of them brimming with visual wit, satirizing the political foibles of the movers and shakers of the day. But he was also an amazing artist. His stark black & white line drawings were collectible works of art unto themselves.

The ultimate artist/journalist hybrid, Conrad enjoyed other mediums as well, chief among them sculpture. He specialized in satirical sculptures of famous presidents, like one of George W. Bush, which was just a pair of short legs (no torso or head), underneath a giant cowboy hat. All hat indeed.

But there was one sculpting project that was very different, in both form and scale. He had this desire to make a bold statement about our nuclear madness, and came up with a concept for a gigantic mushroom cloud made out of chain links. He called it "Chain Reaction." You know, one atom splits into two, then four, then on and on in a ferocious chain reaction until you're vaporized. Fun stuff.

To ensure it had a prominent place to agitate from, Conrad offered it as a gift to the city of Santa Monica, with the help of an anonymous private donation that covered the costs. For the last 20 years or so, it's stood guard in front of the Civic Auditorium on Main Street.

Like all of Conrad's work, it's been controversial from the start. But it served (and serves) its purpose well. You cannot gaze at this 26' tall, five and half ton artistic provocation without thinking about what it means. And you can't help but hope Conrad was right with his inscription: "This is a statement of peace. May it never become an epitaph."

But death may soon come to the big metal cloud. Its component parts are decaying. The oceanside weather has taken its toll. It badly needs repairs. Repairs deemed too expensive by Santa Monica's Arts Commission. So they've recommended to the City Council that it should be torn down. Which is what will happen soon unless private donors come forward to cover the cost. In fairness to the city, that cost would be sizable, and they (like all cities these days) have a limited budget, so they too have to set priorities.

But at what cost to our common welfare? I guess that depends on how you value public art in general, and this piece (and what it symbolizes) in particular.

Meanwhile, Conrad's feisty fighting spirit continues to inspire his legions of fans, and they're pushing back. A merry band of grass rooters have organized to try to save the statue. Led by local peace activist Jerry Rubin, "Save Our Sculpture" (S.O.S.) has been lobbying the Council, and beating the drums of awareness in Santa Monica and beyond.

My personal connection to Conrad, and my deep respect and admiration for his work, stems from years of devouring his daily cartoons, and then with the opportunity to immerse myself in his incredible archives for a PBS documentary that I produced with Barbara Multer-Wellin. S.O.S. is providing a free screening of "Paul Conrad: Drawing Fire" at another one of their awareness and fundraising event this Sunday at Vidiots, at 302 Pico Bl. in Santa Monica.

If you missed the film when it played on PBS, come on down and have a look at how a genius political satirist nailed it day after day before the age of Jon Stewart. Or just come to support the effort -- and a vision of a world without nukes. Or just the vibrant role that public art should continue playing in our increasingly MAD society.

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