Art & social progress | PST era exhibitions and events

Can art create change? Does art matter? Why do we need to support art? On my cynical, negative days, I feel that society and culture are still in the dark ages and that art and individuals are not enough to challenge the establishment, but when I look back at the social conditions, laws and issues that existed during the era of the Pacific Standard Time initiative, I do see advancement. Though it probably did not happen at the pace and to the extent that the participants had hoped, I feel more positive about the role of art in the transformation of culture. At the very least, art reflects the state of society, but with the caveat that history is being portrayed by the select group that creates it. With that in mind, it becomes even more important that diverse communities participate in the creation, curation, understanding and sharing of art.

The first case for “Does art matter?” is Sabato “Simon” Rodia and his “Watts Towers.” It is a work that is often mentioned during the panels and essays and that’s probably why it made the cover of the PST exhibition catalogue. Despite not having formal training in art, nor institutional or financial backing, Rodia’s DIY project seems to have inspired so many other artists and endures as a symbol of creative expression and community. (His history is being preserved through Watts Towers Art Center.)

Like the decades that it took to build Watts Towers (33 years, from 1921 to 1954), almost all artists mention the tough years of toiling away with little support and near starvation. Most speak of struggling to pay for rent and materials in order to pursue their visions. Not one artist I’ve met speaks about it having been a breeze. It’s not like graduating with a Wharton Business School M.B.A. and immediately being hired into a $250k job. Many artists have masters and doctorates in the fine arts from the most prestigious universities, but on top of the academic requirements, they also faced huge debts and uncertain futures upon graduation.

One of the “Cinderella stories” exemplifying perseverance from the PST era is Judy Chicago. It had been mentioned in several of the panel discussions how Judy Chicago, in particular, had previously not been treated with respect by many of the museums and “cultural elites” of that time period. As a complete turnaround, she is now headlining many of the PST exhibitions and performance events and is recognized along with peers that had previously sneered at her work. Through her years of dedication, hard work and determination, she is finally receiving much deserved accolades and her courage has paved the way for the generations of artists that followed her. (See the PST video interview with Judy Chicago.)

Many minorities take it for granted that today we can freely enter restaurants, public spaces and apply for school and jobs, but previous generations did not have these options as women and ethnic or religious minorities were often not permitted to study, work or even live in any neighborhood they wanted. (See the PST & Zócalo half-day conference about existing and created conditions in Los Angeles.) On top of all the monumental struggles of pursing a career as an artist, those that are women or from ethnic backgrounds faced discrimination during the PST intiative era of 1945 to 1980. They also had to confront negative criticism, social outcasting and even police or community harassment in order to practice art that challenged conventions.

Of the stand-out examples of how art has a role in social change is Suzanne Lacy’s 1977, Three Weeks in May and her subsequent 2012 work, Three Weeks in January. In the era of Three Weeks in May, 1977, rape and violence against women had been crimes in which the victims faced as much persecution, or more, than the perpetrators. LACE gallery mentioned that in the original piece, the activists walking in Myths of Rape and In Mourning and In Rage (the Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz-Starus’s performance demonstrations for the project) had worn gauze blindfolds and covers in part to hide their identity for fear of repercussions. The social and cultural shift is evident in the improved 2012 statistics and current collaboration between civic leaders, police and community support groups. (See Suzanne Lacy’s video about art and activism.) Along with founders, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Arlene Raven and Judy Chicago, Lacy had been one of they key faculty members for the Women’s Building, an important institution bringing education and exhibition opportunities for women.

While I do not want to label any of the artists in limiting groups of being considered only by their gender, ethnicity or origin, I mention those groups because I want to recognize that in addition to the numerous hurdles all artists face, these artists had additional ones simply by nature of who they were born into being. I have personally benefitted from their struggles because of the social and cultural options that are now open to me. Had I been born in a prior era, I might not have been able to enjoy a university education nor the privileges of job opportunities or freedom of expression.

Among the motivating discussions about the importance of art was at the Fowler museum with Judithe Hernandez, who spoke about the role of women in the context of the Chicano art movement. I asked her about the challenges she faced from both gender and ethnic pressures and why she continued to pursue art. One thing she said that resonated is, “If you forgo your dreams, your children and daughter will sense it as well.” She spoke about women needing a better role model and how the concurrent Women’s Art Movement had been happening at the same time. Many of the women artists she knew had been torn between deciding whether to support their ethnic heritage over their gender. The Chicano art movement in particular was fueled by “macho” elements that were in clear conflict with the Women’s Movement. It was definitely a balance in figuring out how to honor to your family and heritage, loyalty to your partner/spouse and duty to responsibly raise your children. She recalled a quote she remembered someone else saying: “When you educate a man, you educate an individual, when you educate a woman, you educate a family.” She also spoke about Sister Karen Boccalero and how it had been her community center work with Self-Help Graphics & Art that had given many Chicano artists their start. (Hear artists speak about the controversial Sister Karen Boccalero.)

Despite all of the progress instigated by the pioneering PST generation, I still know many people, especially in certain demographic groups and neighborhoods, that do not participate in art or the appreciation of art for reasons that they either feel uncomfortable with not having the educational background to understand art or because they feel that the institutions that host art derive from the 1% or only cater to the near 1% and upper middle class, non-ethnic America. Because of these conversations I’ve had with people, I’ve been seeking to document art and cultural examples, as well as good role models, that have contributed to making social change and building the community in hopes of bridging gaps between groups and inspiring support and appreciation of what I feel are important resources in Los Angeles.

A role model and champion in outdoor and publicly accessible art is Judy Baca. Through her organization SPARC, she has supported the work of many other artists and communities. Importantly, these collaborative artworks have brought an educational element into neighborhoods by telling stories, sharing experiences and bridging diverse cultures, languages and groups, even navigating gang territories. Her projects are evidence of art having a role in social representation, public voice and consciousness raising. (More about her work exhibited at both the Fowler: Mapping Another L.A. and MOCA: Under the Big Black Sun. Also see the KCET retrospective article on The Great Wall of Los Angeles.)

Finally, my favorite PST era retribution story is Asco’s exhibition at LACMA, Asco: Elite of the Obscure, A Retrospective, 1972–1987. Not only had almost all cultural institutions ignored and marginalized art by one of the largest ethnic groups, but in 1972, LACMA curators had specifically made such a condescending remark about Chicano art that it prompted Asco members, Harry Gamboa Jr., Gronk, Willie Herrón, and Patssi Valdez, to graffiti their names onto LACMA’s walls and photograph it for LACMA curators as a self-fullfilling statement. (Spray Paint LACMA or Project Pie in De/Face.) Their current PST recognition in LACMA, MOCA, Fowler, MOLAA, Redcat, Orange County Museum of Art and even the October cover of Artforum is another fine PST reflection of how art matters and how it does create change. It may have taken almost 40 years, but payback has been sweet for Asco!

It seems heroic to me that despite gender and ethnic pressures, domestic life requirements of family and relationships, plus trying to survive financially as an artist, that Judy Chicago, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Suzanne Lacy, Judy Baca, Judithe Hernandez, Asco and others continued to pursue art during this time. They were able to expand the social and cultural boundaries of who created art, what is considered art, and where art should be included and accepted. I’ve had a lot of discussions with people about whether art matters and if it can create change on both a personal and community level. Looking back, it seems evident. Thankfully, the current generation has role models and cultural examples to understand that change can happen and art does matter. It will probably require hard work and courage to face challenges, but it is possible.

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Links, sources and resources of exhibitions and cultural events from this post:

Autry MuseumArt Along the Hyphen: The Mexican-American Generation

Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis CollegeDoin’ It in Public: Feminism and Art at the Woman’s Building | Woman’s Building History: Sheila de Bretteville (Otis College)

CAAM California African American MuseumPlaces of Validation Art & Progress | Women Less Known Here Celebrated

Fisher Museum of Art at USC | Sight Specific: LACPS and the Politics of Community:| Visions & Voices panel:

Fowler Museum at UCLA | Judithe Hernandez on the Role of Women in the Chicano Art Movement (in conjunction with exhibit Mapping Another L.A.: The Chicano Art Movement) | Mapping Another L.A.: The Chicano Art Movement & Icons of the Invisible: Oscar Castillo

Getty Research Institute | Women Curators Remember the L.A. Art Scene in the Sixties | Modern Art in Los Angeles: Assemblage and Politics:

Hammer Museum at UCLA | Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980

JANM Japanese American National MuseumDrawing the Line: Japanese American Art, Design & Activism in Post-War Los Angeles. Panelists: Nancy Uyemura, Linda Nishio, Nobuko Miyamoto, and Mike Murase

LACE | Los Angeles Goes Live

LACMAAsco: Elite of the Obscure, A Retrospective, 1972–1987:

MOCA Geffen Contemporary | Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974–1981 | Suzanne Lacy, Three Weeks in May, 1977

Redcat | The Experimental Impulse

Watts Towers Art Center | Civic Virtue

Zocalo Public Square | half-day symposium, How Los Angeles Invented the World

Art & Social Progress | #PluckTheDay #CarpeDiem #SeizeTheDay #SouvenirsOfProgress #LifeQuixotic

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