LAST WEEK, artist Kent Twitchell’s six-story mural, “Ed Ruscha Monument,” which for over 20 years covered the side of a building in downtown L.A., was mysteriously painted over. Public reaction has ranged from shock to outrage to sorrow. Times’ art critic Christopher Knight compared the news to “hearing of the unexpected death of a casual friend. I’ve been bouncing around various stages of grief -- denial, bargaining, depression -- with acceptance nowhere in sight.”
Though we’re often loath to admit it, deaths have a way of turning us into shrewd appraisers. Why, we wonder, did one person die rather than another? How can we possibly make sense of a world in which, on any given day, young, kindhearted people die of diseases and severe injuries while countless scumbags continue to live? Such is the case with this mural tragedy.
With so many eyesores in Los Angeles that we’d love to see obliterated, why did we lose something that’s not only a celebrated work of art but also depicts a celebrated artist (Ruscha, a longtime Angeleno, is considered by some critics as influential as Andy Warhol and Donald Judd)? If only the elusive wielder of this giant roller brush could have tackled those kiddie-porn ads for American Apparel.
We don’t yet know who’s responsible for this defacement (although if a six-story advertisement for “The Break-Up” suddenly appears on the building, we might get an inkling). Even when the culprit is revealed, it’s likely we still won’t entirely understand his or her motivations. That’s because if there’s anything more confounding than universal healthcare or the story lines of “Deadwood,” it’s the nature of art -- namely what it is, who decides and, alas, how many people really care?
Though Twitchell is a prominent and respected artist, there’s no denying that public art has a bad reputation. That’s because much of it is very, very bad. “Community art” conjures images of sterile, abstract sculptures, life-size statues of multiethnic folks waiting for the bus, or murals that suggest Malcolm X was actually a member of Pink Floyd.
Of course, those examples make for a grossly unfair generalization. Yes, plenty of cities purchase pre-made statues and memorials from foundries, but the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is also public art, as is some of the work of Richard Serra and Christo, though Christo doesn’t accept government funding.
Jack Becker, editor of Public Art Review, says that as the culture becomes more diversified, artists and those who commission them face challenges that can compromise the final product. “We do get a lot of mediocre art because it often tries to appeal to several different communities at the same time,” Becker said Thursday from his office in St. Paul, Minn. “But I think public art is perceived as an enhancement and a benefit generally. It’s just that the whole question of how you evaluate it has never been resolved. And there’s a lot of ignorance out there about artists’ rights.”
Though no one’s suggesting at this point that Twitchell’s mural was painted over in an act of willful aggression -- more likely this is a case of bureaucratic cluelessness -- the debacle highlights the degree to which the blurred lines between creative expression and commercial interests have undermined our ability to recognize art when we see it.
Every city in the United States is awash in images. There are advertisements on billboards and buildings. Corporate logos appear on T-shirts, car windows and even on people’s faces (last year, a Utah woman auctioned her forehead on EBay and received $10,000 in exchange for a tattoo reading “Golden Palace Casino”). To compound the confusion, some advertisements look like art, and some billboards are actually rented to artists as a means of exhibition. And let’s not forget guerrilla artist Ron English, who’s famous for illegally altering billboard advertisements to make political statements (and getting arrested in the process).
No amount of ruminating can mitigate the injustice done to Twitchell’s mural. All we can do is hope that Twitchell wins the lawsuit he’s already filed and, moreover, that the perpetrator, once identified, is subject to some form of public humiliation (perhaps in the form of a mural). Though it may be in the eye of the beholder, art demands a respect that often takes the form of an honor code. That’s not to say we shouldn’t do our best to lobby for good art and prevent bronze statues of bus riders before they happen, but once the work is there, regardless of whether or not we like it, we must regard its preservation not as special interest but as a civic duty.
Unless, that is, we’re talking about casino logos tattooed on foreheads, in which case the only civil thing to do is look the other way.