As she sits curled on a sofa dressed in black, the light of the setting sun floods an enclosed porch already drenched with memories of a life and a death. The frequent rustle of a bed of newspapers, triggered by the movements of a large iguana pressing itself against the room's glass wall, punctuates Zena Pearlstone's words.
She answers a a question about the meaning of the title, "Art as Technology," the newly published book (Hillcrest Press, Beverly Hills) she has completed and edited for the most significant person in her life, the late art historian Arnold Rubin.
"Art is not outside of our daily life, not outside of ourselves," she explains. "I think (Arnold) thought of it as part of the workings of a culture, it was a form of technology," in that it "had to be developed and it had to work. My own definition would be that art is about how people deal with their environment, rather than about aesthetics."
An expert in African art, and, later in his career, the popular culture of Southern California, Rubin always urged his students to "look beyond contemporary Euro-American art that separates form from context," says Pearlstone, who holds a doctorate in Native American art.
In the 1960s and '70s--as a graduate student and instructor at Indiana University and later as an associate professor of art history at UCLA--Rubin attempted to validate African culture at a time when most people believed Africa had no history or culture worth acknowledging before Europeans arrived.
From his experiences in Nigeria, Pearlstone writes in "Art as Technology," Rubin learned "that art evolved from the core elements of a culture--daily experiences and accumulated tradition--rather than from the visions of individuals, and he felt the need to bring his African experiences 'home.' "
In the 1970s, he examined the Tournament of Roses Parade, comparable in meaning and intent to aspects of many ceremonies in Africa and Oceania and among American Indians. Rituals in those cultures "involved similarly brief, intense experiences of a dramatically transformed landscape, marking nodes in the passage of time in the life of the community and leaving little or no material residue," he wrote.
His published research on the Tournament gave it legitimacy in the realm of academia. And, because he was an art historian rather than a folklorist, his research on the parade became part of the scholarship on the way festivals, as an art form, are organized.
Later, Rubin described the American renaissance of the ancient art of tattooing and other forms of body modification in "Marks of Civilization," published in 1988 by UCLA's Museum of Cultural History.
Weeks before his death two years ago, Rubin lay on a bed with intravenous tubes stuck in his arm and was interviewed on the same porch where Pearlstone now sits.
He called tattooing the most intimate of arts, a form of artistic expression most people consider "weird" at best, "perverse" at worst. Good, he said. Anything that shatters stereotypes about what it means to be civilized, and, hence, human, is what he was after. The point of his work was always to "raise people's consciousness about the diversity of ways of being human."
Focusing on the arts of Africa, Oceania, Native America and Southern California, "Art as Technology" was an evolving text Rubin planned to work on for decades, had he not died of gastric cancer at age 50.
In the book, Pearlstone notes how Southern California's ideology of transportation has produced communal artistic activities such as customized cars and hot rodding, which reached their peaks in the mid-1950s.
Drawing on Rubin's notes, she compares the mobility the car afforded modern Californians with the introduction of horses onto the American Plains.
"Mobility is a way to escape; mobility implies options," she writes. "These concepts are important enough that people look for ways to individualize their vehicles," methods such as personalized license plates.
By the end of the early 1970s, she says, the gangs of Southern California's Latino community countered the "hot rodder" with the "low rider." Owners of these cars were motivated jointly by gang loyalty and the possibility of finding the perfect car. Perched on tiny wheels, these cars went "low and slow, only a few inches from the ground. As opposed to Anglo cruising, which was destination-oriented, these cars . . . were slow-motion oriented," providing time for all to see the perfect profile of vehicle and occupant.
The cars also were elaborately painted, often by hand, as well as refurbished and decorated. Groups were organized for the purpose of customizing cars. Just as the famous stools of the African Ashanti people were elevated beyond seats, Pearlstone explains, the customized cars of California "came to be seen as works of sculpture and were elevated to uselessness--never driven, only shown with the trophies won in competitions."