SECTION II PLACINQ THE FOREIQN IN THE ARTS OF THE U.S. PUBLIC ART AT THE GLOBAL CROSSROADS: THE POLITICS OF PLACE IN 1930S LOS ANGELES By Sarah Schrank California State University The relationship of art to place is pronounced in Los Angeles. A world center for the production and projection of visual culture, the city has a long history of investing in its own representational imagery for the purposes of civic promotion and regional boosterism. The pursuit of a unifying civic identity premised on classic conceptions of high art, and grounded in assumptions of white Anglo homogeneity, has led to a fraught public art history as excluded cultural groups, understanding the civic pursuit as a hegemonic exercise in dominance, have also sought a stake in Los Angeles’ self-representation.1 Struggles to assert what Dolores Hayden has called “the power of place?the power of ordinary urban landscapes to nurture citizens’ public memory, to encompass shared time in the form of shared territory,” have produced art controversies and art censorship that violently mark the cultural landscape and political history of the city.2 While these struggles continue today, and have a significant history throughout the twentieth century, the 1930s offer a particularly ripe moment when provincial civic imagery appeared increasingly obsolete in the face of direct political and cultural challenges from artists with transnational and multicultural experiences of Los Angeles. In effect, civic efforts to project a specific sense of place globally resulted in radical re interpretations of place locally. The 1930s provide us with a cultural crossroads when artists from different ethnic and immigrant backgrounds collided with the expectations of the civic imagination, laying bare the sharper edges of the city’s history and making urban geography a site for critical dialogue. Art became tied to the social production of place in Los Angeles in the early twentieth century when citizens concerned about the city’s cosmopolitan status and urban aesthetics founded the Municipal Art Commission in 1903 and made art, both in its physical form as paint on canvas and as a conceptual product of cultural capital, a useful tool for creating images of Los Angeles as fruitful, ever growing, and prosperous. Even before Hollywood’s movie and television studios transmitted artful fantasies of Los Angeles around the world, newspaper magnates, real estate lobbies, and members of the Chamber of Commerce promoted civic imagery grounded in classical concepts of fine art and high culture.3 Together, loosely associated art clubs and elite business leaders interested in building cultural status forged a civic arts movement. While some of their efforts went toward fundraising for museums, art collections, and municipal beautification projects, much energy went into booster propaganda intended to build the city a cosmopolitan reputation. Thus the Los Angeles County Civic Bureau of Music and Art would write in 1927 that “one must be convinced that Los AngelesThis content downloaded from 22.214.171.124 on Wed, 01 Feb 2017 23:52:41 UTCAll use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
436 journal of social history winter 2010 county is the center of a vigorous art culture, which is broadening and enriching the lives of her citizens and is destined to add worthy records to the history of the spirit of man.”4 Such hyperbolic fantasies about the region’s artful possibilities dominated promotional rhetoric and underscored commercial representations of southern California. Numbering in the thousands, citrus shipping crate labels, brochures, billboards, and train placards featured gorgeous labor-less fields, exoticized Mexican bodies, and nature mort horns of plenty in colorfully-rendered landscapes suggesting sentimentalized history, social harmony, and a prosperous future in a racially exclusive Eden. These images might have been ephemeral, often printed on cheap paper or taking some other disposal form; they nevertheless powerfully underscored Los Angeles’ conservative civic imagination. Figure 1 Citrus crate label, ca. 1910. Collection of the author. As effective as these images were in promoting the region as a specific type of place, and in attracting over a million residents, the 1930s marked a transition in the relationship of art to Los Angeles. Whatever the tastes and desires of a predominantly white Protestant elite, immigrant and ethnic American artists were also drawn to the city, often bent on producing monumental works that forcibly reframed the relationship of art to place. A celebrity artist such as Mexican muralist David Siqueiros was intrigued by a city steeped in the star power of the film industry but wrought havoc when his artistic representation of place did not promote the civic agenda. Invited to Los Angeles in 1932 and commissioned to paint a reassuring mural in a commercial tourist district, Siqueiros instead produced a brutal symbol of United States imperialism, and was sent back to Mexico in short order. Other artists, like Myer Shaffer, worked within their own ethnic community. Shaffer, a young Jewish American painter and Siqueiros protegee, assisted theThis content
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