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.
Plain neglect has likewise kept audiences from fully appreciating other major examples of public political art. In 1996, Noni Olabisi painted one of the most controversial murals in Los Angeles history. “To Protect and Serve” is a favorable view of the Black Panther Party. It highlights the party’s social welfare projects, including its free breakfast programs and its educational efforts. “To Protect and Serve” also features imagery that attacks domestic racism, including details about the Ku Klux Klan, police racial violence and the outrageous treatment of Panther leader Bobby Seale during the Chicago conspiracy trial of the late 1960s.
Despite a unanimous recommendation by the panel charged with approving murals for inclusion in the city mural program, the conservative city arts commission refused to fund it, generating a massive fight against its de facto censorship attempt. After considerable community support, the artist completed her mural and it was a source of neighborhood pride. A few years ago, however, the artwork was seriously defaced and its original grandeur has been diminished. Like Conrad’s “Chain Reaction,” repair and restoration should be a matter of urgent municipal priority.
Another iconic mural, by Richard Wyatt, is entitled “Cecil,” also at the Watts Towers Arts Center. Painted in 1989, this work features a portrait of the late Cecil Fergerson. He was widely known as the “community curator,” a man who devoted his life to the promotion of African-American visual art in Southern California. Fergerson was a tireless and visionary advocate. Wyatt’s mural not only commemorates the man, but also inspires younger generations to continue his efforts to promote the visual contributions of people of color. Unfortunately, this mural, like many others throughout the region, has suffered the debilitating consequences of weather and pollution and is presently so faded that it is scarcely recognizable. Like many others, it needs a relatively small infusion of funds to ensure that the Los Angeles region truly matches in cultural practice what it proclaims so boldly in theory.
One other profound cultural loss in Los Angeles reflecting governmental and community indifference requires mention, even though it involved a private collection. For many decades, the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company, a black-owned corporation in South Los Angeles, held one of the most magnificent collections of original African-American art in the country. In 2007, the company, facing strong financial pressures, sold most of its major artworks, including some of the most famous works like Charles White’s internationally known “General Moses,” a striking portrait of Harriet Tubman. Swann Auction Galleries in New York City sold 94 works of art from the collection.
Despite the attempts by supporters of African-American art to save these masterpieces, few political leaders, major art and cultural figures, or others in a position to intervene or speak out did anything to preserve this cultural treasure in Los Angeles. Thousands of visitors had seen the works for 30 years; this opportunity, especially for youngsters in the African-American community, is now gone. Preserving this collection would have had enormous value not only to the African-American population, but also to all people in the increasingly multicultural region of Greater Los Angeles.
Cultural legacy matters enormously. We can ill afford to lose another major work of public political art. “Chain Reaction” must be preserved for several reasons. It is an outstanding public artwork by a master artist whose reputation for political cartooning will long endure. Moreover, it is a chilling reminder of the continuing danger of the potential of nuclear warfare, a danger that has scarcely dissipated in the early 21st century. That reminder reflects the highest educational purpose of public political art. But above all, its preservation would reverse the distressing tendency in the Los Angeles region toward cultural indifference. The time has come to align the official rhetoric of regional greatness with actions consistent with that vision.
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.