Los Angeles Muralists React to MOCA Controversy
Since the September opening of Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied, which spotlights a 1932 Los Angeles mural by Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros that was ordered whitewashed, the Autry has held panel discussions, art activities and public events to highlight discussions around the censorship of public art. But the censorship was assumed to be in the past tense.
Now comes the controversy over a mural by the Italian artist Blu on the north wall of the
Museum of Contemporary Art’s Geffen Contemporary building in Little Tokyo, commissioned as part of its Art in the Streets show scheduled for next April. Controversy because on Dec. 6, barely a day after the artist finished the work depicting coffins draped with dollar bills (as flags might drape the coffins of fallen soldiers), the museum ordered it whitewashed.
MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch called the work “inappropriate” and defended his decision to the Los Angeles Times as that of a responsible member of the Little Tokyo community, which in that area includes a Veteran’s Affairs hospital and a monument to Japanese-American soldiers. He also explained that because of scheduling problems, he did not have a chance to meet with Blu to discuss the mural proposal in more depth.
Blu, meanwhile, has called the move censorship and rejected the museum’s invitation to paint a new mural on the same wall.
For artist Barbara Carrasco, a portion of whose mural L.A. History: A Mexican Perspective forms part of the Siqueiros exhibition, the whole incident looks like deja vu.
“I think it’s really sad and this censorship is really a shame,” Carrasco said. “After all these years, you’d think people would learn from these censorship attempts and how that really divides the community.”
Carrasco faced her own furious court fight over L.A. History in the 1980s, when the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency that commissioned it asked for changes she ultimately refused to make.
“The mural was truthful,” Carrasco told a Smithsonian Institituion interviewer years later. “I couldn’t substitute it with images that were not truthful …. They were asking me to do something that I thought was wrong.”
Carrasco believes that, at the very least, there should have been a discussion in the community and an opportunity for the museum to discuss its objections to Blu’s mural. That is what, to some degree, occurred with L.A. History. Though the CRA ultimately decomissioned the mural, Carrasco said that debate involved more of the community.
“I’m disappointed the museum would do this,” she said. “A museum is supposed to represent the artists; it’s not supposed to turn against the artists.”
Stash Maleski, who participated in an Autry-sponsored mural painting event and a panel discussion about street art, also critiqued Deitch for failing to engage the community around the work.
“He was just trying to get up his billboard for the show he’s putting on,” Maleski said. “If he had gone through a process that would have been appropriate for a mural of that scope, all these issues would have been vetted long before this. He says he didn’t have time the to review the artwork himself and there were scheduling mishaps, but I don’t buy that. I don’t buy that Blu got out there and painted that entire thing with no assistance from museum.”
Maleski, whose I.C.U. Art has managed the Venice Art Walls graffiti artist space, pleaded full disclosure: he says he submitted a mural project for the show, with plans for a process that included community input, but did not get a response.
“In that sense, you could say I’m biased,” he said. “But every artist is going to be biased.”
Maleski said Deitch’s background managing art galleries appears to have clashed with the more deliberative and visible pace of his current role as director of a major museum. And he fears the controversy could hurt MOCA, though he can see a silver lining in Deitch’s efforts.
“In the end is that good or bad?” he said. “It’s good and bad. It boosts the profile of the L.A. street art scene to have this show. But is it doing justice to local street artists? I don’t really feel like it does.”