Sarah Schrank


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

Cover Interview of March 19, 2009

The wide angle

My interest in the topic of public art and modernism in Los Angeles grew out of a lifelong concern with artistic and literary censorship.  Early in my career, I learned that artists in 1950s Los Angeles had red-baited other artists at a painting competition, leading to municipal efforts to censor any public art exhibition featuring abstract paintings.  Given how popular abstract expressionist art was in the United States in the postwar period, with Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning showing up in popular magazines like Life and Vogue, I grew curious as to why Los Angeles would have such a reaction to abstract painting.  The fact that Los Angeles had emerged in the 1950s and 1960s as a center for the Beats, Pop Art, jazz, surfing, and a new postwar youth-based consumer culture, made this stodginess seem especially strange.  As my inquiry deepened, I expanded my study of modern art politics in Los Angeles to include public art and most of the twentieth century, learning along the way that the city had a deep history of public art controversies related to ideas about modernism and concerns about civic identity and civic culture.

Daunting social issues like racism, poverty, urban renewal, and claims to public space have played out in the arts in Los Angeles, from the formation of the 1903 Municipal Art Commission to Judith Baca’s “at risk” teen painters of the 1976 Great Wall of Los Angeles, the longest mural in the world.  For the 1903 Commission, led by business and Hollywood elites, using art as a political tool was a way to articulate a civic vision of the city as wealthy and well heeled.  Urban structures from streets, fountains, and lampposts to power stations and public buildings were meant to represent an elite view of the city and the city’s public art was supposed to follow suit.  In contrast, for Judith Baca, public art meant that politically and economically marginalized people would get to say something big and permanent about their history, and the history of their city.  By painting a half-mile of North Hollywood flood channel, Los Angeles teenagers, some of whom had gang affiliations, could claim a piece of the urban landscape and inscribe it with an alternative history of Los Angeles and California.

Ultimately, Art and the City addresses the relationship between art and the civic imagination.  How did people imagine Los Angeles as a coherent city, what were the political and social implications of these imaginings, and what role did art play in forming an identity for this city?  As obsessed with constructing its own self-image as it may be, Los Angeles is a city whose popular notoriety lies in its dark tales of corruption, false promises of stardom, smoggy sun, and relished artifice.  Hollywood has played an important role in spreading all sorts of visual images of Los Angeles around the world, from the most unflattering noir dramas to tabloid commentaries on fake tans, silicone breasts, bleached blondes, and gym-sculpted physiques.  Other movie images feature the immense ethnic diversity of Los Angeles, urban poverty and violence and, of course, the freeway traffic jam.  One of the effects of the huge number of media representations that have characterized Los Angeles since World War II is that people often feel they “know” Los Angeles in a way they don’t know other cities, even if they have never been here.  Historically, visual art has been employed in Los Angeles by both civic elites and marginalized social groups to redefine the city in the face of Hollywood’s powerful cultural representations.  This has important political implications: if a social group does not have visibility in the city, it is that much easier to exploit them.  For example, freeways run directly over the poorest neighborhoods, rendering them more marginalized because it is easy to pretend they aren’t there if you do not have to see them.  When kids graffiti freeway murals and tag the LA river channel, it forces people to see other members of a giant metropolis.  Renegade artwork like graffiti, I argue, does serve as a kind of alternative civic voice.