I had a roommate in college whotook great pleasure in making fun of the art students on campus. His favorite routine was to start complaining about boho art students and their clothing and hair. Then he would stop, put his ear to an object… and say in low soft voice “Arrrrrt”… as though he were a kitten hearing something soothing and purring in response. Maybe you had to be there…
Art and artists may engender that kind of reaction, but their role in making us consider that which we otherwise would not is invaluable in a free society. Expression of late has come to mean less as it seems too often to be whittled down to the modern paradigm of someone blurting out a provocative sound bite, which is then followed by a media spray of reaction. That becomes a grey paste of “content” that sticks to our lives whether we like it or not. Charlie Sheen still won’t wash off, even though we’re all tired of him clinging to us.
All this caused me to react very positively to the event at 825 Berkeley Street in Santa Monica, in a quiet neighborhood just south of Montana. Adam Corlin purchased the property and in midst of his work on the place he had a graffiti artist who goes by the tag “Risk” install a huge mural, dedicated to Heal the Bay, over the existing structure. Risk had been a surfer, so he was all-in for the project. As reported in the LA Weekly, Risk liked that the project would be “not just a wave or a dolphin. It stops you and makes you wonder, ‘What is it?’ Something that you have to look at and think about.”
But not for long. In collaboration with the artist Retna (I need to get a “tag!”) the mural went up and came down in less than two weeks. The mural work was concealed under tarps, revealed on September 8… and gone when I visited the address this past Monday. Cops showed up, then city code enforcement officials. So much for building a large art work without going through channels.
I’m sorry I never saw the work before it was removed, but I take pleasure in the notion that large scale expression is at least possible for limited periods in a time when the most dramatic visual displays we’re offered are bright LED billboards touting cell phone service or movies about death and mayhem. Everyone involved with the installation wanted citizens to think about the value of the oceans, not a luxury car or a “bold” new chicken sandwich.
When Simon Rodia began his 33-years of work on the Watts Towers in 1921, his neighbors were reportedly suspicious that Rodia was actually building an antenna for communicating with enemy Japanese forces and they allowed their kids to vandalize the work. In 1981, artist Richard Serra installed Tilted Arc, a curved 3.5 meter high arc of rusting steel in the Federal Plaza in New York City. There was controversy over the installation throughout the process, especially from those who thought it obstructed movement through the plaza. In May 1989 the piece was cut into three parts and consigned to a New York warehouse where it lives to this day.
Something about being suddenly confronted with art in locations not identified as museums or galleries seems to bump people. I’m guessing there’s still a group ready to attack Jonathan Borofsky’s 30 foot-high “Ballerina Clown” at the corner of Rose and Main the minute somebody gives them the signal. Yet there’s very little passion brewing right now against a plan to make the corridor surrounding the planned football stadium downtown into an eyeball-burning alley of bright LED advertising. Why the emotion over art and not visual advertising sprawl? Why do we fear public artistic expression and tend to shrug off giant electric Pepsi ads?
For one thing, advertising never challenges us. Instead it’s meant to connect with us at a level of soothing impression leading to action, such that we think “That is a big ass electric sign but, yeah, I am kind of thirsty and some Arizona Iced Tea might hit the spot.” But imagine that every one of those LED billboards that have quietly invaded our visual landscape was somehow programmed to project images touting Michele Bachmann as the answer to our prayers. Would that expression stir us to revolt, or a shoulder shrug? Worse, would its wide and repetitive carpeting of our conscious thoughts actually turn our thinking?
I think that alone sets up a justification for art that surprises us and asks us to consider a non-Pepsi/non-Bachmann thought we might otherwise not have had on the day we view it. From there, we might move on to the question of beauty or visual satisfaction. Having visited the Berkeley Street site too late, I can only imagine that the mural brought something better to an otherwise dreary construction site. But I did observe the following: The neighborhood surrounding the site is one of well-manicured lawns and handsome homes. For some reason, there’s loads of open street parking. And it’s very quiet there. The event of the Heal the Bay mural appearing there suddenly, being right in its message and intriguing in its execution, was among other things just a little bit magical. Communicating with ourselves in creative and artistic ways that surprise and delight is as least as necessary in a free society as any of our other expression. And that it happened right here in a quiet neighborhood in Santa Monica… well, that is beautiful.