Art and the City: Civic Imagination and Cultural Authority in Los Angeles

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No longer represented only by Hollywood and the commercial fashion industry, Los Angeles in recent years has received international media attention as one of the world's new art centers. From the appearance of local artists in major European exhibitions to widely reported multimillion-dollar museum endowments, Los Angeles has entered the world cultural stage.

Art and the City: Civic Imagination and Cultural Authority in Los Angeles places this celebrated arrival in the richer context of art controversies and political contests over modern art and art spaces in the twentieth century. The Ferus Gallery's pop-infused "L.A. Look" and "finish-fetish," now synonymous with Los Angeles's postwar modernist aesthetics, emerged from a dispersed art community that struggled in the 1950s to find a toehold in a local scene reeling from the censure of the McCarthy era. The Watts Towers have long faced neglect despite their international fame, while Venice Beach, Barnsdall Park, Griffith Park, and Olvera Street proved highly contentious sites of urban cultural expression.

Challenging historical accounts that situate the city's origins as an art center in the 1960s, Art and the City argues that debates over modernism among artists and civic leaders alike made art a charged political site as early as the 1910s. The legacy of those early battles reverberated throughout the century. Because of a rich tradition of arts education and the presence of Hollywood, Los Angeles historically hosted a talented population of contemporary artists. However, because of the snug relationship between urban aesthetics and capital investment that underscored the booster goals of the civic arts movement, modern artists were pushed out of public exhibition spaces until after World War II. Art and the City uncovers the historic struggles for cultural expression and creative space that are hidden behind the city's booster mythology.

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About the Author:

Sarah Schrank is Associate Professor of History at California State University, Long Beach.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction

One year before millions of people took to the streets to protest new federal policies mandating the criminalization of undocumented workers in the United States, Los Angeles hosted its own demonstration of anti-immigrant sentiment. In the spring of 2005 the group Save Our State called on the city of Baldwin Park, a largely Latino municipality within Los Angeles, to remove offending language from Judith Baca's public artwork Danzas Indigenas. Installed at the Baldwin Park Metrolink station in 1993, the piece, which resembles eroding Spanish mission archways, is inscribed with passages from Chicano literature and Native American folklore. Danzas Indigenas had been commissioned by the city of Baldwin Park, which asked Baca, a University of California at Los Angeles professor, nationally acclaimed public artist, and youth activist, to create a monument that reflected the different voices of its community. According to Save Our State spokesman Joseph Turner, the offending passages included "It was better before they came" and a quotation from author Gloria Anzaldúa, "This land was Mexican once, was Indian always and is, and will be again."

On May 14, 2005, members of Save Our State showed up at the Metrolink station waving American flags, carrying signs protesting "hate speech" and the "reconquista," and loudly proclaiming their support for the vigilante border patrollers known as the Minutemen. The protesters numbering around forty shouted at the largely Latino counterprotesters to "go home." Over the course of the day the protests became more heated, with more than six hundred people showing up, the vast majority in opposition to the Save Our State demonstration. Though as a precaution Baldwin Park spent $250,000 on helicopters and police overtime to protect Save Our State, no violence occurred. By the end of June, Baca and the residents of Baldwin Park had claimed victory when the city presented the artist with a written proclamation promising to keep Danzas Indigenas intact and protect it in the future.

It is both meaningful and ironic that Save Our State, a group that had previously received national attention when it attacked a Spanish-language radio station for its billboard reading "Los Angeles, Mexico," would choose as its next protest site a public sculpture that had been displayed in a well-traveled transportation hub for twelve years without comment or controversy. In many ways it was a poor choice. At a Metrolink art installation in Los Angeles County, where, more than any other social group, people of color, immigrants (documented or otherwise), working people, and the poor ride public transportation, Save Our State was protesting in front of passing trains filled with the most unsupportive of audiences. Save Our State organizers also clearly overlooked the fact that the city of Baldwin Park had commissioned an artwork popular with residents and taxpayers who resented the incursion of an outside group attempting to rile up anti-immigrant hysteria in their own neighborhood.

Though the Danzas Indigenas controversy is important for how it reveals the ongoing problem of xenophobia in U.S. society, it is also significant for what it tells us about the complicated relationship between art, public space, and cultural authority, the subject of this book. Public artwork and the visual arts, more generally, were part of a complex cultural and political discourse in the Los Angeles metropolitan area for the better part of the twentieth century. Daunting social issues such as racism, poverty, urban renewal, and claims to public space played out in the realm of the arts, from the 1903 Municipal Art Commission's policies of urban aesthetics to Baca's "at risk" teen painters of the 1976 Great Wall of Los Angeles. For the commission, led by businesspeople and Hollywood elites, deploying aesthetics as a political tool was a means to preserve its members' social status in the face of urban growth and articulate a civic vision of the city as exclusively white and well heeled. For Baca, 1970s murals in Los Angeles challenged the civic and political invisibility of different cultural groups who, while demographically significant, lacked socioeconomic power. When Save Our State chose Danzas Indigenas to make a political statement using a modern art installation, it entered into a historic discourse with deep roots in the city. That it failed in its agenda in the face of an even larger counterprotest is not surprising, given the fraught political nature of art in Los Angeles.

Art and the City chronicles this story of public art and municipal politics. In doing so, it examines the lesser-known history of visual culture in Los Angeles prior to the era of protest art in 1970s southern California. That period, characterized by Judith Baca's Great Wall project, Los Four, the Compton Communicative Arts Academy, Judy Chicago's Womanhouse, and others, represented a sea change in civic art discourse, a change that, as this book demonstrates, built over the course of the twentieth century. Moreover, in its focus on Los Angeles, Art and the City demonstrates the centrality of public art in shaping the contours of urban culture. Indeed, this same story could be told in other cities, such as Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York. In Los Angeles, however, artists such as Judson Powell or Judith Baca not only had to fight against racial and gender prejudice, but they also created art in a city with an enormous historical investment in controlling its visual imagery. In Los Angeles, because art played such a significant role in how civic leaders imagined their city, public art controversies, especially those focused on questions of modernism, galvanized civic debate and municipal and county politics for the better part of fifty years. Art and the City tells how art became a tool of elite boosters and other social groups competing for space and representation in an emergent metropolis.

Carved out of the desert to function as an irrigated urban paradise, Los Angeles was expensive to build, and investors wanted assurance that they had not misplaced their money. With no natural harbor and with commercially lucrative crops still in the future, the Mexican ranching town was in desperate need of a hard sell, and boosterism became the local export. Thus, the first civic art of Los Angeles was found in the promotional imagery painted on trains, printed on Chamber of Commerce propaganda, and slapped on produce crates to eventually become colorful, collectible ephemera. The promise of these images proved inadequate to attract enough middle-class residents, however, and early civic leaders felt that the city's landscape needed to look more like the pictures for their city to grow. Thus the Municipal Art Commission, one of the first government bodies of its kind in the United States dedicated solely to urban aesthetics, was born in 1903. With its purpose to make reality match the civic imagination, literally to create an "official" urban aesthetic, a snug relationship between visual culture and capital investment developed. This relationship profoundly affected how civic identity evolved in Los Angeles and how artists formed creative communities in which to practice and promote their craft. Over the next century, art would serve as both booster tool and booster foil as control over the civic culture of Los Angeles was never certain.

As obsessed with civic identity as Los Angeles may be, it is a city whose popular notoriety lies in its dark tales of corruption, false promises, smoggy sun, and relished artifice. In contemporary urban scholarship, Los Angeles is both celebrated for its postmodern eclecticism and criticized for a historical amnesia that stands to erase legacies of social struggle and community building. It is a city that has lost a river, misplaced a mass transit system, and razed, removed, and rebuilt entire neighborhoods. A native Mexican population has been recast as a foreign interloper. A history of colonialism, bloody conquest, and land appropriation has been reincarnated as whitewashed Spanish revival architecture, visible in the omnipresent red tile roof. The visual vocabulary of Los Angeles also stands out from that of other cities because of the significant influence of the film industry. Due to these filmic versions of the city, people often feel they know Los Angeles in a way that they do not other cities, even if they have never been there. In Los Angeles, as the historian Dolores Hayden has so aptly put it, "the sense of civic identity that shared history can convey is missing."

Thus, for all the early efforts to forge a visually based civic identity, Los Angeles was known for lacking civic institutions, or any civic culture at all, a situation that corporate interests have attempted to rectify. Until 1965, when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art opened in Hancock Park, along with the Music Center including the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (1964) and then Ahmanson Theater (1967) and Mark Taper Forum (1967), there was little beyond the original County Museum of History, Science, and Art in Exposition Park to lend the city much-desired cultural status equal to that of the country's cosmopolitan centers. The founding of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in 1979 and its opening in 1986 established a civic cultural stronghold in a downtown that had galvanized elite urban development efforts early in the century. The opening of the Richard Meier-designed Getty Museum and Research Institute (1997) and Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall (2003) helped round out the art and music offerings, adding space and prestige to civic cultural projects begun in the 1960s. With its star-studded architectural prowess, Los Angeles is now, according to press releases, a "World City," with civic culture that "will celebrate the diverse cultural traditions reflected in the Los Angeles population and welcome the community at large."

It is significant, if ironic, that this recent civic cultural explosion represents a continuation of the projects begun just as Los Angeles attracted worldwide attention as the host of one of the worst civil uprisings in American history, the Watts riot of August 1965. The week of burning, looting, arrests, and shootings, with broadcast images of the National Guard in the streets of south Los Angeles, ushered in an era of urban uprisings in the United States and forever dimmed the city's image. In response, the city and county of Los Angeles turned to cultural institutions to restore media-friendly representations of civic stability. Shortly thereafter the Los Angeles County Museum of Art opened on Wilshire Boulevard, and construction continued on the downtown Music Center. In 1971 John Paul Getty's Roman-styled villa opened as a privately endowed art museum in Pacific Palisades, free to the public. The latest crop of major civic culture institutions adds to new international trends in the "super civic," by which major cities hope to mark their position in the global marketplace with the tourist troika of a Frank Gehry building, an aquarium, and a Holocaust memorial. The immensely popular reopening of the Getty villa in 2005 after years of renovation and retrofitting represents an emblematic return to the civic boosterism of an earlier period. Its ancient architectural stylings above sand and ocean reach backward toward a fantasy past marked by antiquity, premodern ruins, and art as an uncontested display of wealth and power. This disturbing turn in Los Angeles' long saga of articulating civic identity both reflects and contributes to an equally long and conflict-filled relationship with artistic modernism.

"Modernism" can mean many different things to different people depending on context. In this book "modernism" and "modern" generally refer to two distinct discourses: that of artistic modernism in the twentieth-century United States and Europe, and that of a political discourse surrounding abstract art, social programs such as public housing and public art, and urban growth and development in post-World War II Los Angeles. For many readers, this may seem an awkward and arbitrary set of definitions, given art history's marking of modernism's origins with the self-reflexive and political art following the French Revolution and the urban explorations and anxious repulsions of mid-nineteenth-century impressionism or, in the American context, anything painted or sculpted in New York after World War II. My definitions also might seem unnecessarily narrow given the broad parameters of the cultural and social theory that the critic Marshall Berman, for example, lovingly deploys to define "modernism" as a confusing maelstrom against which we "struggle to make ourselves at home in a constantly changing world." I have tried to narrow the scope of "modernism" because the subjects of my study—artists, art enthusiasts, politicians, and local residents—often articulated personal and quite specific meanings of the term that were expressed in ways that might be characterized on the one hand as progressive, inclusive, and creative or, on the other, as retrograde, resistant to change, and intolerant. In Los Angeles' local political context, "modernism" could have been a reference to Russian expressionism, American abstract expressionism, pop art, jazz, freeways, Jews, African Americans, sexuality, urban renewal, or a public housing project. "Modernism" could have been wielded as a weapon with which to red-bait artists in early 1950s Los Angeles, or it might have be worn as a legitimate mantle of progress by architects and planners who sought socially attuned projects that would make housing affordable for everyone. The term might also include urban projects that displaced, relocated, and destroyed neighborhoods in the name of renewal and redevelopment. In Art and the City, "modernism" refers to schools and styles of twentieth-century art as well as programs for social, cultural, and urban development.

Major studies of modern art in Los Angeles focus on the post-World War II era, with a few notable exceptions. Cécile Whiting's work is perhaps the most provocative, arguing that pop artists contributed in important ways to Los Angeles' "urban identity as an emerging art center while avoiding the clichés of either the city's boosters or its detractors." My work offers an alternate interpretation suggesting that rather than sidestepping clichés about the city, pop fit perfectly into early twentieth-century booster claims of Los Angeles as a city of prosperity, leisure, and endless consumer possibility. Pop was perfectly poised for appropriation by elite art collectors and business interests as it neither challenged nor competed with traditional representations of the city. The more interesting question is: What happens when we posit Los Angeles' emergence as the nation's "Second Art City" within the context of a long history of rejecting modern art as part of its civic identity rather than viewing it as the inevitable outcome of a pop-culture- savvy metropolis? That contemporary art was to be claimed in the 1960s as representative of the city speaks less to how artists depicted Los Angeles' urban identity than to what broader sociopolitical transformation had taken...

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