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Arts and Culture

Another Casualty of L.A.’s Cultural Indifference?

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Posted on Dec 9, 2013
AP/Nick Ut

Art restorers work on the “America Tropical” mural, painted in 1932 by Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros, in Los Angeles. The mural is the only surviving public piece by the famous artist in its original location in the United States.

By Paul Von Blum

While lecturing a class of undergraduates at UCLA, I presented a slide of Paul Conrad’s “Chain Reaction,” the latest artwork to suffer from Los Angeles’ cultural malaise. The towering sculpture currently stands at the Santa Monica Civic Center as a majestic monument for peace and against nuclear war. I was pleasantly surprised when many of the students recognized it and expressed their dismay when they learned that the city of Santa Monica has threatened to remove the artwork if supporters are unable to raise the (ludicrous) sum of $400,000. I was especially delighted when one of the students volunteered to participate in the community effort to save this extraordinary work of public art.

The ultimate fate of “Chain Reaction” is unclear as 2013 draws to an end. Supporters remain hopeful that some compromise with the city may be possible and that its estimate for repairs can be adjusted to a more realistic figure, with contributions from both private and public resources. This would be an entirely legitimate expenditure from a comparatively affluent municipality like Santa Monica, a place that prides itself on its progressive image and reputation. Continued fundraising, political organization and pressure increase the chances for a favorable outcome that would preserve the artwork in its present, highly visible location across the street from Rand Corp.

The controversy around “Chain Reaction” itself raises deeper questions about the status of visual culture in the Los Angeles area. The artistic record in a region that justifiably aspires to and robustly proclaims its world-class status and recognition has been problematic when it comes to censorship and preservation. If Paul Conrad’s sculpture is removed or destroyed, it would continue a troubling pattern of cultural indifference—or worse—that clouds the area’s quest for global artistic leadership. Overt censorship, pervasive neglect and widespread ignorance have combined to obliterate some of the most compelling artistic treasures in Southern California. Not surprisingly, many of these artworks have been powerful expressions of visual social and political criticism.

Examples, unfortunately, are legion and should galvanize the progressive community even further to save “Chain Reaction.” In the most highly recognized act of artistic censorship in Los Angeles in the early 20th century, the mural by Mexican master David Alfaro Siqueiros, “America Tropical,” was whitewashed in 1932 shortly after he painted it. Siqueiros provocatively featured an anti-capitalist theme by depicting an indigenous figure impaled on a double crucifix of the Catholic Church and imperialism—subject matter wholly unacceptable to the extremely conservative leadership in Los Angeles at the time. For decades, “America Tropical” was covered in plywood and unavailable to public audiences. In 2012, it was finally reopened at its Olvera Street site for public viewing, but its restoration is a pale shadow of the original vibrant public artwork.

Murals have been traditional censorship targets, not only in Los Angeles, but also throughout the nation and the world. Another, more recent example occurred in 2010, when former Museum of Contemporary Art Director Jeffrey Deitch whitewashed a politically engaged mural that Italian street artist Blu painted on the museum wall. The mural, originally commissioned for MOCA’s Art in the Street exhibition, featured coffins draped in dollar bills, a trenchant critique of war and capitalism. Deitch claimed that Blu’s work was inappropriate and insensitive to the surrounding Japanese-American community. But this rhetorical incantation merely echoed the usual rationalizations for the political suppression of politically critical artworks.

Other socially critical murals in the Los Angeles area have been lost or damaged through neglect, public apathy and insufficient governmental commitment to the arts. Venerable Compton artist Elliott Pinkney has produced many striking and nationally respected murals throughout Southern California. From 1979 to 1984, he painted the “Five Pillars of Progress” under a freeway in Compton. These works highlighted the African-American freedom struggle and showcased major figures of African-American political and cultural life. These expressions of black pride no longer exist, depriving audiences of a unique and dramatic opportunity for an alternative vision to conventional educational treatments in schools and the media.

Similarly, Pinkney’s 1991 mural, “Ceremony for Smokers” at the Watts Towers Arts Center, is now gone. The mural’s powerful images of death and bondage vividly critique tobacco usage among young people of color and condemn tobacco companies for targeting these communities with their billboards and other advertisements. The work’s uncompromising stance against America’s most lethal legal drug made it one of the most compelling political artworks of its time.

One of the most poignant losses of public political art occurred more recently with the destruction of John Pitman Weber’s iconic 1993 mural “Our History/Toward Freedom” at the site of the former Valley Cities Jewish Community Center in Van Nuys. Chicago-based Weber is one of the most celebrated figures of the modern American mural movement and this work was regarded as one of the finest murals in the nation. It depicted the Jewish exodus and liberation and portrayed the ways that Jewish history connected with the struggles of other oppressed populations. Among its other dramatic details, the mural had images of murdered civil rights martyrs Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, reflecting the artist’s vision of historical and continued Jewish/African-American solidarity. The campaign to save the mural was vigorous but unsuccessful, revealing yet another gap between Los Angeles’ cultural pretensions and its more dismal record on the ground.


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