Artists and Lawyers in the Struggle for Free Expression
The third artist panel discussion around the work of the muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros last Friday, titled “Freedom of Speech and Censorship,” included a distinctly non-artist speaker: Tom
Saenz, president and general counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF).
The previous two speaker panels — sponsored, like this one, by the Mexican Cultural Institute — were held at that organization’s headquarters on Olvera Street. This time, MALDEF’s meeting room, in a venerable 1930s-era building on Spring Street, served as the location for the event. So it wasn’t at all unusual to include its president, coat and tie and all, in the festivities. Still, as a civil rights attorney, Saenz probably had the most incisive comments of the evening.
“In 2010, anything, in whatever form, that challenges people’s world views is often subject to some
form of censorship or repression,” Saenz said. “That ranges from day laborers who are out looking for work, challenging someone’s world view of what’s appropriate, to artists whose works may be changed or altered as a result of public perception or public reaction.”
moderated by artist Raoul de la Sota. Each of them had something to say about how they navigated efforts by outsiders to change their personal vision of a particular work.
Torrez, for example, talked about a mural he painted in France, and how he had to be responsive to the opinions expressed by members of the community that lived around the space where the mural was going up. And de la Loza talked about works he had done in the past, including one painted across the street from a police station, that now have been whitewashed.
But Saenz showed how matters of art can often become indistinguishable from the struggles ordinary people face in life, expounding on the atmosphere of fear and repression that existed in Los Angeles in 1932, when Siqueiros spent seven months here and painted three controversial murals. Two of them, América Tropical and Street Meeting, were later either whitewashed or allowed to disintegrate.
“América Tropical was censored because it challenged the historical-sociological views of people who had the power to paint it over,” Saenz said.
Only a year before Siqueiros arrived in Los Angeles, he said, federal and local authorities rounded up several hundred Mexican-Americans, among them many U.S. citizens, as part of a mass “repatriation” to Mexico.
“That, too, I see as a form of censorship,” Saenz said. “Having too many Mexicans challenged
someone’s world view of what Los Angeles was or should be.”
Saenz said it was not a coincidence that the roundup and the whitewash occurred at roughly the same time. To him, the two events were enabled by the same political environment, one in which the powerful were trying to stamp out all points of view but their own.
“That’s why I think it’s auspicious that all of the work that has been done to restore América Tropical, and to bring it again to public view, is happening now,” Saenz said. “In our neighboring state we’ve got a similar form of attempted censorship, because having too many undocumented immigrants, or really having too many Latino people in Arizona … challenges some folks’ views of what Arizona is or should be, and what the United States is or should be. So they’re engaging in a certain form of censorship by trying to drive people out.”
Saenz was referring to SB1070, the tough new Arizona immigration law signed in April by Arizona governor Jan Brewer and largely invalidated by a federal judge in July. MALDEF was one of the lead agencies that sued to block it, claiming the measure is unconstitutional.
“Exploring the censorship that was part of the history of América Tropical has so much to tell us about what’s going on contemporaneously,” Saenz said. “It’s not just in Arizona. It’s now spread elsewhere.”
The Siqueiros artist panel discussion was one of several events and at least three exhibitions that deal with different aspects of the artist and his work. The Autry will present Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied, from Sept. 24, 2010 to Jan. 9, 2011. The Museum of Latin American Art focuses on another aspect of Siqueiros in its exhibition, Siqueiros: Paisajista/ Siqueiros: Landscape Painter, from Sept. 12, 2010 to Jan. 30, 2011. And the José Vera Gallery in Eagle Rock will present Confronting Revolution: A Siqueiros Esthetic, an exhibition of Siqueiros original prints, from Sept. 4 to Oct. 27. It will also join with the Autry to present A Print Dialogue: Siqueiros and the Graphic Arts, an artist discussion of the print, on Sept. 18 at the Center for the Arts, Eagle Rock.
For live streaming video of Friday’s panel discussion, click here.