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The Getty Sullies Itself With Ethnic Politics

Los Angeles: A museum grant plus tax money will be used to restore a Marxist Mexican mural on Olvera Street.

March 06, 1998|MICHAEL WARDER | Michael Warder is vice president of the Claremont Institute, which conducts public policy research

With a $1-billion facility and $5 billion of assets sitting on that Brentwood hill overlooking the city, the Getty Center is a tempting target for Los Angeles political sharpies and may be getting mired in some of their rather crabby agendas.

A case in point is the politics involved with the restoration of the revolutionary Marxist mural created by David Alfaro Siqueiros in 1932 on historic Olvera Street. Shortly after the painting was done, the city fathers whitewashed over the 16-by-80-foot mural. Now, the Getty Conservation Institute is putting in $1 million for the restoration project that will be matched by $1 million from taxpayers through the city's El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument Authority. This is not a shabby amount of patronage for an agency that has an annual budget under $3 million.

Miguel Angel Corzo, the director of the Getty Conservation Institute, oversees some 135 projects in 35 countries and decides what projects to take on. So apparently he ranks restoring the 1932 mural in the same category as conserving an ancient royal tomb in Egypt's Valley of the Queens and restoring aged cliffside Buddhist art in China. Of course, this is a judgment call, and no doubt the Getty feels pressure to be a good citizen in Los Angeles by sharing its resources to build goodwill.

The problem with the Siqueiros project stems in part from the mural's incendiary content. With a crucified Mexican peon at the center under an American "imperialist" eagle, the painting appeals to a crude ethnic and class divisiveness. When the mural was unveiled in 1932, America was in the midst of a presidential election and the Depression, with unemployment around 25%; Josef Stalin was imposing mass starvation on Ukrainian peasants; Adolf Hitler was consolidating power in Germany, and Japan had invaded China.

The times were potentially revolutionary, and Siqueiros sought to foment insurrection in Los Angeles through his art. That is why the mural was painted and why it was subsequently whitewashed. The artist, who traveled to the Soviet Union in the 1920s, who founded the revolutionary magazine Machete, who subsequently fought with the communists in Spain in the 1930s and who was imprisoned several times by the Mexican government, was not simply decorating the side of a building.

Nonetheless, let us assume that the project is important enough so that, of all the possible projects to fund, this one merits the support of the taxpayers and the Getty. And let's assume that times have changed and the issues of the 1930s, with that era's racial and class sensitivities, are things of the past about which we need not be overly concerned. There remains the way in which the Getty and the city commission portray this project.

On Feb. 11, at an evening public lecture at the Getty, Josephine Ramirez, a member of the El Pueblo authority commission, enthusiastically led a series of presentations that attacked the city leaders of 1932 as exploitative racists who condoned police brutality against Mexicans and others. According to two persons at the meeting, one of whom subsequently listened to an audiotape and made a transcript, the particular object of their venom was Christine Sterling, "the mother of Olvera Street," who more than anyone was responsible for saving this part of the city from neglect and decay. From 1926 until her death in 1963, Sterling devotedly and successfully worked to preserve and transform this historic area. The point man for the Feb. 11 attack on this good woman seemed, according to the transcript, to be William Estrada, a city-employed historian and curator at El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument.

We have today all too many shrill cries of "racism" as a kind of club with which to beat people into submission as groups of all sorts seek power and its spoils. That this type of language and attack should occur in the Getty is particularly regretful.

The Getty should be a force that inspires, lifts up and brings together the citizens of Los Angeles through its art. It has that potential. Nonetheless, the leaders of the Getty and Los Angeles need to take care that the divisive elements of our city do not drag the Getty down to their level.

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