Schrank, Sarah. Art and the City: Civic Imagination and Cultural Authority in Los Angeles.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: McLean, Heather
Pub Date: 06/22/2010
Publication: Name: Canadian Journal of Urban Research Publisher: Institute of Urban Studies Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Institute of Urban Studies ISSN: 1188-3774
Issue: Date: Summer, 2010 Source Volume: 19 Source Issue: 1
Topic: NamedWork: Art and the City: Civic Imagination and Cultural Authority in Los Angeles (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Schrank, Sarah
Accession Number: 243797919
Full Text: Schrank, Sarah.

Art and the City: Civic Imagination and Cultural Authority in Los Angeles.

University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.

224 pp.

ISBN: 9780812241174.

In Art and The City, historian Sarah Shrank explores the importance of public art and the city's artistic subcultures in influencing civic culture. By illuminating interactions between city boosters, official arts organizations, various social groups, and individual artists between 1903 and 2005, Shrank illustrates the complicated struggles over representation in a nascent city striving to develop, project and maintain its own cultural pedigree. Shrank reveals the multifaceted ways these uneven representational politics have played out through the century: hip sporty bohemian cliques of white men garner cachet, while women and artists of colour are sidelined; middle class white art students and African American communities collide in their attempts to preserve community art; and women artists challenge exclusionary commercial galleries and sexist media representations.

Shrank begins by explaining Los Angeles' early growing pains. The emerging metropolitan paradise grew up out of the desert and early boosters--Chamber of Commerce representatives and investors--were absorbed with cultivating an appealing civic image to lure new middle class residents to the area as early as 1903. These groups collaborated with the newly formed Municipal Art Commission to create an official, marketable urban aesthetic. In the following four chapters Shrank draws on examples to illustrate the contested role the arts have placed in the city's growing identity.

Chapter 1 maps the development of promotional civic arts in the 1920s and 1930s which were favoured by elite boosters. In this same time period, avant-garde, modern art practices also proliferated, although these paintings and sculptures frustrated the more conservative boosters who favoured landscape paintings and what they considered more conventional artistic practices. Shrank continues this story about the emergence of modernism in chapter 2 where she interrogates the complicated relationship boosters and social justice advocates had with communist muralist David Alforo Siqueiros. Eventually deported for his political beliefs, Siqueiros carved out space for non-white, ethnic, and modernist artists; meanwhile anti-modernists and boosters also tried to instrumentalize his work that animated everyday street spaces.

Chapter 3 follows the story of modernism in Los Angeles. Shrank discusses how boundary-pushing artistic practices were attacked. Unconventional and political artists were stereotyped as harbingers of socialist and multiracial policies, flaring cold war anxieties and red baiting. Chapter four tells the story of the rise of 1960's bohemian arts culture including coffee houses and beach bongo parties. In this decade, Venice Beach and West Hollywood male artists cultivated images Los Angeles boosters were eager to market; in their promotional materials they celebrated cars, surfing and sex. Finally, chapter five portrays the complicated relationship amongst preservationists, Latino and African community members and city officials over Sabato (Sam) Rodia's Watts Towers, an impressive example of creative, indigenous folk art.

Each story traces the artists' struggle for identity and space in a rapidly transforming city; Los Angeles grew into a key financial hub and global city by the 1980s. Displayed in hip commercial galleries, respected municipal art museums and everyday urban spaces, the political murals, graffiti, neon-sculptures, collage, paintings and prints illustrated in these chapters are all implicated in their struggles to assert their distinctiveness as the city shifted around them. Some of these artists were intentionally political in their artistic practices, raising important race, class and gender issues. Meanwhile, other artists created work that firmly established their role in hip scenes, increasing their notoriety.

Throughout the book, Schrank provides examples where municipal authorities attempt to instrumentalize an artist's practices to promote a creative, distinctive and marketable Los Angeles. She also reveals how these networks police and censor artistic worked deemed too unruly and political. Unstable and contested, these value judgments shifted along with different political moments in the city. For example, Venice Beach's notorious coffee houses in the 1960s were contradictorily seen as quirky meeting places that were highlighted in tourist guidebooks as distinctive destinations, but were also raided by police aiming to catch pot dealers, quell undesirable behaviour, and monitor 'communists.'

Shrank touches on the role of various city boosters--real estate developers, policy planners, Chamber of Commerce and Olympics planners--in defining the role of culture in Los Angeles. In order to provide more insights for scholars interested in urban politics, Shrank could have focussed more on the influence of these networks, especially in the chapter that discusses the city's shift to financial centre or world city status in the 1980's. Overall, Art and the City is an important book for outlining the contested role of image production and aesthetics in Los Angeles's history. As civic boosters throughout the world jockey for recognition and cultural capital with arts festivals and Richard Florida style 'creative city' planning, Shrank's book reminds us that this race for identity and attention is not a new trend. The case studies in these chapters also alert us to the uneven race, class, gender and ideological tensions that exist between urban elites and those people that bring vibrant cultural practices to city spaces.

Heather McLean, PhD (ABD)

Environmental Studies, York University.
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.