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Art and the City

Art and the City explores the contentious relationship between civic politics and visual culture in Los Angeles. Struggles between civic leaders and modernist artists to define civic identity and control public space highlight the significance of the arts as a site of political contest in the twentieth century.

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

Sarah Schrank

2008 | 224 pages | Cloth $55.00 | Paper $26.50
American History
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Boosters, Early Moderns, and the Artful Civic Imaginary
Chapter 2. Modernism in Public Spaces
Chapter 3. Painting the Town Red
Chapter 4. Bohemia in Vogue
Chapter 5. Imagining the Watts Towers


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


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 place to make the modern, even the postmodern, acceptable. Had the civic undergone a remarkable transformation by the 1960s, or had modern art ceased to function politically in the way it had in the city for decades?

Art and the City owes much to the generative labor of scholars such as Lawrence Weschler, David James, Kevin Starr, and Victoria Dailey for establishing the extent of modernism's eclecticism in Los Angeles before World War II, and yet it diverges somewhat as the story herein does not always support their contention of the radical nature of the modern in Los Angeles. Here, the art itself was secondary to the struggle to exhibit it. In essence, this book argues that modern art, and the public discourse surrounding it from approximately 1903, when the Municipal Art Commission was formed, through the late 1960s, when the emergence of vocal and visible ethnic and feminist protest art radically changed the role of art in local politics, served as an elastic and exceedingly useful tool for diverse social groups intent on defining (or subverting) the city's civic culture. As Los Angeles grew in geographic size, economic power, and demographic diversity, art became an increasingly volatile site for public debate over what kind of city Los Angeles would be and who would control its cultural terrain.

Chapter 1 examines the simultaneous development of the promotional civic arts movement and the modern arts community in the first two decades of the twentieth century. While the California Art Club, Artland, and other elite organizations promoted a vision of an urbane, art-based city with both traditional Edenic aesthetics and sophisticated cultural taste, politically progressive modernists worked in tandem with iconoclasts such as Aline Barnsdall while negotiating for exhibition space and a stake in the city's civic identity. As dominant as booster images of the city were in the first decades of the twentieth century, inclusive modernist visions shadowed them.

Chapter 2 examines the emergence of a visible public modernism in the 1930s. This chapter focuses on the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros's theory of painting and its implementation on the walls of the city. I examine Siqueiros's predeportation celebrity in Los Angeles, complicating any sharp break between provincial antimodernist political players and liberal advocates for a revitalized civic art culture by showing how both groups loved having him there. Although Siqueiros's Communist politics would force him out of the United States, his six-month stint heralded the beginning of the popular front in Los Angeles and created a space for nonwhite, ethnic, and modernist artists to show their work; the 1930s saw the city's first African American museum and gallery shows. This is also the era when Hollywood became increasingly involved in public art, manifesting two different impulses: one toward building what the cultural historian Michael Denning calls a "Hollywood Popular Front," and the other uniting Hollywood money with elite civic cultural projects.

Chapter 3 examines how the federal government's deployment of the American avant-garde during the cold war played out locally in surprising ways. While the red-baiting in Los Angeles, especially with regard to the Hollywood Ten, was intimately connected to McCarthyism at the national level, anxieties about the aesthetics of locally produced art and communist influences in the municipal government led to the closing of public art spaces in the city. In the immediate postwar period, art was the tool not of civic culture advocates but of conservatives attacking modernism as a harbinger of progressive, multiracial, and socialist urban policies.

Chapter 4 chronicles the emergence of the Venice Beach and West Hollywood art culture in postwar Los Angeles. Contrary to popular notions that the city's bohemian scene grew out of a sudden and isolated burst of creative energy, these communities grew out of self-conscious efforts on the part of Los Angeles' young avant-garde to market their work as part of a cool, masculine southern California lifestyle typified by custom cars, surfing, and sex. At the same time, other artists such as Wallace Berman and Ed Kienholz had to work extremely hard to make creative use of the few urban spaces afforded them. Dank Venice apartments, vacant theaters, the back rooms of antique stores, and underground journals proved the only sites available during the late 1950s era of strict municipal surveillance of public art space. Even those who later became the darlings of American art criticism were in constant negotiation with the city to exhibit and sell their work. While Life and Look magazines publicized Venice Beach bohemians and the national art press celebrated the newly revitalized art scene, the city of Los Angeles planted undercover police officers in galleries and curtailed the arts by passing restrictive ordinances against late-night poetry readings and bongo drumming on the beach.

Chapter 5 explores the complicated relationship between the Watts Towers' preservationists, the surrounding neighborhood, and the municipal government. Created by the Italian immigrant Sabato Rodia over a thirty-three year period, the Watts Towers are located historically and geographically at the nexus of the city's suburban promise and socioeconomic failure. Once seen by thousands of daily train commuters, the towers faded from the landscape as new freeway routes and rapid economic decline in the 1950s contributed to Los Angeles' "urban erasure." As automobiles replaced trains and trolleys, the towers and the neighborhood disappeared from the city's popular consciousness. This presumably vanished artwork proceeded to morph over fifty years from an Italian immigrant's backyard fantasy to an iconic symbol of American blackness and a politically fraught civic landmark. In the struggle to render them visible to a local as well as an international public, the towers have become an important tool in understanding Los Angeles conflicts over civic identity, the city's politics of race and representation, and the significance of art in an often-avoided neighborhood.

Art and the City reveals that a broader public than previously appreciated—one representing diverse ethnic, economic, and political groups—participated in the debates over the meanings of art and civic identity in twentieth-century Los Angeles. This population is not included in the municipal or county government, the social elite, or art colonies and is difficult to research. It includes people who wrote letters to City Hall or the newspapers lauding or despising a particular artwork, anyone who picketed Los Angeles' museums, and those who tried to organize an arts and cultural center in a poor neighborhood. Personal letters to the city council were especially revealing, as were hearing transcripts and memoranda from city council files housed in the Los Angeles City Archives. As readers will find, I relied significantly on newspapers and art journals for accounts of art controversies and Los Angeles' role in national conversations about art, culture, and urban growth. While these sources are not always factually accurate and certainly are not objective accounts of historical events, for most Americans, art and the conversations and controversies it generates exist in the press. If newspapers and art journals did not talk about art shows, museum exhibitions, exorbitant amounts paid for incomprehensibly simple paintings, and the line between sexuality and obscenity, few would know anything about art at all. This is true now, and it was true in Los Angeles throughout the twentieth century. Thus, the newspapers and the art press played an important role in making art a significant part of the civic imagination and in articulating the hopes and fears Angelenos held for their city.

The critic Rosalyn Deutsche has claimed that "the city is art's habitat." Art and artists affect, and benefit from, the political economy of place, while cities provide art's audience and patronage. It could be suggested that in Los Angeles the visual arts form the city's habitat: art offers a site for political, ideological, and territorial struggles that have few other spaces in which to play out. Using the visual arts as civic space is critical in a city that delights in motion and transition at the expense of history and collective memo

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