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Author of the Month: February 2009

Published: February 16, 2009

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

Sarah Schrank, Associate Professor of History

Published in 2008 by the University of Pennsylvania Press, the illustrated 216-page Art and the City: Civic Imagination and Cultural Authority in Los Angeles places the current arrival of Los Angeles on the world cultural stage within the context of 20th-century art controversies and political contests over modern art and art spaces. In her first book, Schrank traces different art communities’ struggles for visibility in a city with a strong political and capital investment in the visual arts. Some of these groups include modernist painters in the early decades of the 20th century as well as the assemblage and pop artists of the late 1950s who fought to find a toehold in a local scene still reeling from the censure of the McCarthy era. Schrank also traces the significance of public art and civic projects for African-American, Mexican-American and Jewish artists who challenged the white hegemony of the city’s cultural infrastructure. She, in turn, explores how urban sites like the Watts Towers, Barnsdall Art Park, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Griffith Park and Olvera Street became sites of contested cultural expression. Schrank argues that the city’s origins as an art center date back to the early 1900s, challenging the common perception that Los Angeles only emerged as a significant place for the arts in the 1960s. Debates over modernism among artists and civic leaders made art a charged political issue as early as the turn of the 20th century, with Hollywood collectors and philanthropists entering the fray in the 1930s. Controversy continued through 1966 when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibited Edward Kienholz’s “Back Seat Dodge ’38” with its gritty portrayal of teenage sexuality. “Conservative critics who long held that art should promote the city argued that this specific artwork did not shed the best light on Los Angeles,” said Schrank, who joined the university in 2002. One of the loudest critics was then-county Supervisor Warren Dorn, who was caught in a classic photograph closing the door to Kienholz’s car. “As much as it was a political gesture, it also suggested a generational and cultural split within the local art world and an effort to keep Los Angeles’ image of sunshine, youth, and prosperity free of social criticism,” she said. “Dorn’s efforts to close down the 1966 show didn’t work and it became one of the museum’s most popular and notorious exhibits.” Schrank doesn’t seek to portray art controversies as unique to Los Angeles. “Their specific meaning is historically contingent, as they always are, in any city,” she said. “What makes Los Angeles art history especially interesting to me is the close relationship between urban aesthetics and capital investment that underscored the development of 20th century Los Angeles. That fraught relationship has sustained the social and political value of art debate in this city.”

Art and the City