Sarah Schrank


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

Cover Interview of March 19, 2009

In a nutshell

My book argues that in twentieth century Los Angeles, a city famous for promoting movies and celebrities and a leisurely lifestyle, public art with its ambiguous meanings and controversial forms became a political problem.  Rich people who had invested in Los Angeles’ growth in the early 1900s had, in fact, invested in a city that did not quite exist yet.  The way to bring it into being was to attract white, middle class residents who would buy homes and cars and other consumer goods and build Los Angeles into a planned urban paradise intertwined with suburban development and an agricultural economy.

Promotional advertising that used bright visual images was employed to attract such people.  Paintings of bountiful crops, exotic people, enormous flowers, and gorgeous landscapes appeared on the sides of train cars, produce crate labels, Chamber of Commerce fliers, real estate brochures, and travel literature that circulated across the country and around the world.  In Art and the City, I refer to these colorful fantasies of what Los Angeles and southern California should look like as a product of the civic imagination.

From its modern origins, then, Los Angeles was wedded to a project of self-representation.  Visual arts were a key element in the efforts to promote a city of wealthy leisure nestled in an Edenic landscape.  Representational landscapes became the preferred genre in municipal and county art institutions and often echoed themes found in the promotional materials.  With Los Angeles’ booster interests and art interests often embodied in the same people and institutions, it was frequently difficult for modern artists and collectors of modern artworks to get their work into local exhibitions, juried shows, and galleries.

This created tension within the city’s art communities, with animosities building through the 1930s and 1940s to come to fruition in 1951, when local artists painting in an abstract expressionist style were accused of being communists and subjected to humiliating public hearings by members of Los Angeles’ city council.  By attempting to ban abstract painting and sculpture from city-sponsored exhibitions, municipal officials highlighted the fraught relationship between art and local politics.  Spectacular public art controversies would follow throughout the late 1950s and 1960s, with the most recent in 2005.  Art and the City traces the history of why modern art specifically would prove such a challenging cultural form, suggesting a root cause was the snug relationship between artistic aesthetics and capital investment that underlay Los Angeles’ civic culture.