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Art in the City of Freeways

Re-Visioning L.A. Sprawl as a Nest of Creativity

March 23, 2003|NELSON HANDEL

Nineteen suburbs in search of a city, so goes the old joke about Los Angeles. Today, the number is more like 100 and counting. An academic might term our horizontal sprawl a "polynucleated postmodern megalopolis." That, of course, would denote a big city with many centers. But whatever you call it, the isolated nature of L.A.'s neighborhoods is both a weakness and a strength.

Nowhere is that paradox clearer than in the history of L.A.'s community-based arts groups. "The Sons and Daughters of Los," a new collection of essays edited by David E. James, a professor at USC's School of Cinema-Television, posits that for many of the city's venerable performance groups, finding a niche had as much to do with place as race--and that L.A.'s cultural history is far more richly diverse than might be supposed.

Starting in the 1970s on the heels of the civil rights movement, the city has nurtured an assortment of groups such as LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions), Self-Help Graphics & Art, Highways, and Visual Communications whose sense of racial, ethnic or behavioral identity was as strong as fealty to a chosen medium. "Sons and Daughters of Los" insists there is an unexpected payoff to L.A.'s much-maligned sprawl and fragmentation. "The ability for ethnic groups to segregate in L.A. provided energy for group identity movements," James says. "East L.A.'s Self-Help Graphics & Art was born of the Latino affinity for pictorial arts, their mural and printmaking traditions. At Highways in Santa Monica, the gay and lesbian communities articulated themselves around varieties of performance art."

Of course, the organizations discussed in "Sons and Daughters" grew up in the shadow of the entertainment industry, another variable in the history of L.A.'s arts community. "For cultural workers in L.A. there is a sort of double pull," says James. "On the one hand, the local community that sustains them, and on the other, the international corporate entertainment industry that tempts them away. From East L.A., you can still see the Hollywood sign just over the hill." But the key element in the mix, James says, was a cityscape that allowed arts groups to identify themselves spatially. Areas such as Leimert Park became synonymous with the African American cultural community, and East L.A. an identity center for the Chicano arts movement.

At a juncture when L.A. is emerging as a cultural model for 21st century cities the world over, there is something delicious in the argument that arts groups in the city of freeways have stayed distinctive to a degree impossible in cities such as New York, where population density breeds a melting pot culture. For all the jokes about Angelenos' reluctance to get into the car on a Saturday night to go see art, L.A. still shelters a vibrant arts community, James says. "Even in a city people would likely say is inhospitable to cultural activities, these organizations have grown [and] thrived."

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