Critic’s Notebook: LAUSD caves to claims of racism on a school mural. It’s deplorable
The Los Angeles Unified School District this week bowed to censorship demands over a benign mural painted on a wall at Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Koreatown. A mammoth image of golden age movie star Ava Gardner will be painted out during the year-end holiday break.
The move is irresponsible and insupportable, especially for a school on a campus named for social justice warrior Kennedy, who was murdered at the site in 1968. The censorship has all the hallmarks of a grievous mistake made a year ago in Hollywood.
Last year, it was a censored daybed. In the shocked aftermath of the gruesome Harvey Weinstein sex scandal, a perfectly innocuous sculpture of an Art Deco daybed displayed in a Hollywood shopping arcade was yanked after frenzied claims were made that it celebrated the abusive Dream Factory system of the casting couch.
Eventually the censors came to their senses, returning the sculpture to its rightful perch on a patio at Hollywood & Highland.
Now, however, whitewashing the school mural would make its grim fate permanent.
The Koreatown painting, a commission from Brooklyn artist Beau Stanton, shows the actress in profile, chin held high, with coconut palms, a monkey and a Moorish arch superimposed. The symbols refer to decorations in the Cocoanut Grove, the long-gone nightclub at the old Ambassador Hotel, now the site of RFK Schools.
This time, the censorship is prompted by a starburst.
An extravagant pattern of 44 red and blue rays emanates from behind Gardner’s languid eyes, as if radiating star power. Together with the other symbols, the vivid starburst evokes glamorous show-biz dreams.
Artistically speaking, I don’t have much use for the mural and its rather kitsch fantasy of Tinseltown celebrity. (The picture adorns the school’s gym.) But, that’s irrelevant. An innocent artist is being smeared as a promoter of hate speech, his work unfairly attacked for something it is not.
An inflammatory, 16-page letter sent to LAUSD last month triggered the unconscionable decision to obliterate the mural. Chan Yong “Jake” Jeong, president of the Wilshire Community Coalition, began the lengthy diatribe with a falsehood.
The mural, he said in the first paragraph, “depicts the Rising Sun Flag of the Japanese Imperialism from World War II.”
Not “loosely suggests,” “looks to me like” or “makes me think of” that notorious flag, but “depicts.” Which, of course, it does not.
Yet, the letter keeps repeating the falsehood. In reality, no such flag appears anywhere in Stanton’s mural.
The rising sun flag, a red disk with 16 crimson rays against a white field, is indeed a noxious symbol for a nation that committed hideous war crimes, many perpetrated against Korea. Jeong’s letter fills most of its remaining pages correctly articulating those manifold horrors.
Jeong, an attorney, went on to threaten legal action if the mural remained. Roberto Martinez, the senior school district administrator for the area, promptly caved.
The stylized motif of radiating light is one the artist has repeatedly employed at least since 2011. In assorted color combinations in murals, paintings and graphics, it radiates from behind images of a clipper ship, a tree of life, an oil tanker, a bearded man, an outstretched hand, the ancient Roman sculpture of Laocoön, Victorian architecture — even the torch of freedom held aloft by the Statue of Liberty.
Given the motif’s architectural roots in Art Deco design, the prominence of stylized light beams in nostalgic wall murals is hardly surprising. See, for example, the extravagant star and sunburst decorations over the doorways of the Eastern Columbia Building downtown. Indeed, the motif is all over the city — in the ceiling at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, on the doors of the Oviatt Building in the financial district, on the pyramid atop the Central Library, in the Wiltern theater a couple blocks west of RFK Schools and many more.
All were built during the late 1920s and 1930s — just like the old Ambassador Hotel and Cocoanut Grove, playground of L.A.’s elite back when the novel phenomenon of Hollywood was a major driver of the city’s booming growth. In fact, what better place to employ the motif than as decoration on a school built on that historic site?
To claim today that any radiating light beams represent the flag of Imperial Japan is absurd on its face. Take Shepard Fairey.
The celebrated street artist’s big mural on a West Hollywood library features an enormous burst of red and yellow beams of light emanating from a flower held in an elephant’s trunk. So does another Fairey mural on a store across the street from Fairfax High School. For the artist, the radiance symbolizes peace — illumination made manifest, an inescapable irony in the face of the vicious attack on the RFK Schools mural.
And where were the outraged censors last summer, when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art devoted half of the BCAM building’s third floor to not one but 50 monumental images of radiating light beams? Mark Grotjahn’s ensemble “50 Kitchens” pairs shafts of contrasting colors to create a mammoth prismatic display. The assembled pencil drawings became a selfie-magnet during the show, with visitors posing so that the beams seemed to radiate from behind their heads.
You know, like Ava Gardner.
The Wilshire Community Coalition’s letter even goes so far as to imply that the artist meant to terrorize its neighborhood, citing sections of the Penal Code of California. Yet, every citation requires proof of harmful intent to qualify a mural for removal, which is a direct attack on the artist’s integrity. I’m no lawyer, but the letter is, if not slanderous, surely shameful. That LAUSD has given credence to such nonsense is dispiriting.
The timing of the assault is also worth noting.
Stanton’s mural was finished in the spring of 2016. The WCC attack came 18 months later, in the fall of 2018 — just weeks after Mayor Eric Garcetti inaugurated the first “bridge shelter,” built to alleviate the city’s crushing homelessness crisis. The project, called “A Bridge Home,” has been controversial, generating noisy, not-in-my-backyard protests.
WCC is an organization whose mission is dedicated to stopping a bridge home from being built on a Vermont Avenue parking lot in Koreatown. In a coming showdown with City Hall, a small NIMBY outfit could do worse than flex its muscles by pressuring a powerful civic agency into backing down and censoring public art. That’s an easy, high-profile win.
It’s also deplorable. Deceptive claims have been weaponized to shut down free speech. The school mural is not the scandal; LAUSD’s imminent censorship is.
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