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L.A.'s Long Tradition of Conflict Over Art in Public Spaces

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''Murals in Compton'' booklet from Compton Communicative Arts Academy Collection I Courtesy of California State University, Los Angeles

Look past the public art movement created by Los Angeles murals in the last 30 years, or the city's development as a center for contemporary art during the 1960s, and you will find a structure of civic policy that combatively drove the city's visual identity.

That conflict becomes part of Los Angeles urban growth, as well as its art history. In "Art and the City Civic: Imagination and Cultural Authority in Los Angeles," (2008) by Sarah Schrank, Associate Professor of History at California State University, Long Beach, 100 years of conflicts between city and its art are detailed and placed into context. Those themes were also touched on in 2012, when she participated in a panel that pondered the question: "Is L.A. the Creative or Anti-Creative City?"

There are many stories waiting to be unearthed, and Writing on the Wall asked a few questions that Schrank kindly answered.

Writing on the Wall: What was the connection between Compton Communicative Arts Academy and Sam Rodia's Watts Towers?

Sarah Schrank: The relationship between the Compton Communicative Arts Academy (CCAA) and the Watts Towers Art Center (WTAC) is direct. Judson Powell, who ran the WTAC with Noah Purifoy in the early 1960s through 1965, went on to found the CCAA.

The goals of the two art centers were similar in that Powell believed strongly in teaching students from poor neighborhoods about the creative process, in the hope that it would encourage learning and keep them out of trouble without imposing a white liberal agenda about assimilation. Both organizations were very pragmatic about melding art with the resources at hand.

Communicative Arts Academy from CCAA Collection | Couresy: California State University, Los Angeles
Communicative Arts Academy from CCAA Collection | Couresy: California State University, Los Angeles

CCAA gave Los Angeles murals like Elliott Pinkney's "Ignorance and Poverty." Is it important to recover the back story that shows that this institution was as vital as Self-Help Graphics?

Yes. And, in fact, I have a graduate student writing a brilliant thesis right now on the CCAA and other black arts centers in Los Angeles during the postwar period through the 1970s. I would argue that it's always important when doing institutional histories of any place of note, in this case, Self-Help Graphics, to put it in the broader context of related

One of the problems with the art and urban history of Los Angeles has been a tendency to focus on one site or neighborhood at a time, and the bigger picture gets lost. Understanding the CCAA, Watts Towers Art Center, Brockman Gallery, Leimert Park, etc., all in relation to Self-Help, Plaza de la Raza, etc., gives us a stronger sense of how inter-ethnic politics and cultural exchange worked here in Southern California.

Elliott Pinkney looking at decorative art on front of Arena | By Willie Ford, courtesy of California State University, Los Angeles
Elliott Pinkney looking at decorative art on front of Arena | By Willie Ford, courtesy of California State University, Los Angeles

In many ways, Edward R. Roybal is seen as a preservationist for the city while he served on city council, but he was also very progressive. You write and lecture that the late councilman was a champion for abstract art during a time when the City's self-image was conservative. What was his shining moment that later influenced public art in Los Angeles?

Ed Roybal is one of the heroes of the story I tell in "Art and the City." In the thick of the red-baiting in 1951-1952 that paralyzed what had been a very progressive public arts program in Los Angeles, Ed Roybal cast the sole vote against Harold Harby's Building and Safety Committee's resolution to declare the annual All-City Art Show was infiltrated by Communists, and modern art Communistic in intent.

He worked hard to protect the public art program, run by the beleaguered Kenneth Ross, but couldn't stop a system of auditing by the city council, which led, ultimately, to the gutting of public art programs in Los Angeles for many decades. Roybal understood very clearly that what was at stake wasn't just public art, but social justice and a sense of public welfare that had been behind his support for public housing, which was also decimated during this era.

Are you optimistic about the mural ordinance creating policy change for murals?

Yes, I am optimistic about the policy change in Los Angeles. I think it speaks to a nationwide interest in supporting and preserving murals, and hopefully will foster a new mural movement and help protect and preserve the murals we already have. Not only were new murals not easily produced during the ban, but iconic murals disappeared under whitewash without public discussion about whether or not they should be destroyed.

Councilman Edward Roybal (on telephone) with Mrs. Roybal and father, Baudilio Roybal. November 8, 1958 | Courtesy LAPL Digital Collections
Councilman Edward Roybal (on telephone) with Mrs. Roybal and father, Baudilio Roybal. November 8, 1958 | Courtesy LAPL Digital Collections

You are quoted as saying, "In cities, public art is frequently a controversial way for the powerful to exert their power and for the powerless to have a voice." Yet, a traditional mural is public art that stays up as long as possible. Can the current trend of nomadic street art have the same impact as traditional murals to voice the powerless? Or is street art being used to reach a young consumer demographic, and becoming another example of the powerful exerting a message?

The question of what street art means now is a big one, and nowhere was it laid more bare than in MOCA's 2011 "Art in the Streets" exhibition. There, graffiti art, long a radical cultural form, was canonized, brought indoors, and commercialized. While some artists saw their previously uncompensated efforts given monetary value, other artists understood the exhibit as marking the end of vernacular street culture in the U.S. But there will always be kids tagging and renegade muralists throwing up pieces in American cities.

Like any cultural form, graffiti and murals are subject to corporate and bureaucratic appropriation, but there will likely always be push back from artists. That's why the public fora are so important to protect.

Other than "América Tropical," what art movements or forms coming out of Los Angeles before World War II influenced the way the city engages with art in public space?

The art movements of early Los Angeles are the topic of the first part of my book, "Art in the City," and more details can be found there. But basically, L.A.'s early art scene was characterized by private salons and art organizations functioning without the support of a public, or even private, art museum. And those involved in the early days of the LACMA in the nineteen-teens were inexpert at best. The effect was to create a highly privatized system, with wealthy collectors dictating what could be seen. Given that many were tapped into the city's growth industries of real estate, railroads, and agriculture, visual imagery tended to be boosterish, making it difficult for modern painters/sculptors to have their work shown in large venues. This tension would set up some of the problems to come, with "América Tropical" in 1932 and the decimation of the public arts program in the 1950s.

Muralist Myer Shaffer was also a member of David Alfaro Siqueiros' "Bloc of Painters," and deserves to be better known. Did his work, like the mural at Mount Sinai home in 1938 that was destroyed, or his mural at the L.A. Sanitorium (now City of Hope) that had a clenched fist added, to be read as a communist salute, as powerful statement as the one that had "América Tropical" be censored?

Myer Shaffer's murals were at least as powerful as Siqueiros', but of course he had neither the name recognition of Siqueiros, nor was there similar publicity around the destruction of his work. Shaffer's interracial visions of social equality and economic justice had both specific meaning for the Depression era in which they were produced, and universal value for generations to come, so yes, I would agree that the censorship of his work was as damaging as the censorship of Siqueiros' "América Tropical."

Myer Shaffer, 'The Social Aspects of Tuberculosis,' 1938 | Courtesy of City of Hope, Durate California
Myer Shaffer, 'The Social Aspects of Tuberculosis,' 1938 | Courtesy of City of Hope, Durate California

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