Art and the Citizen—Through the PST Lens of Southern California

The Pacific Standard Time gathering of artists, through the generosity of the Getty and Hammer funding collaboration, portends an invaluable insight and commentary regarding the creative voice in Southern California following the armistice and conclusion of WWII.  David Wiles has written definitively on the role of artists as a citizen within society.  The author states:  “Today we are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as being, preeminently, individuals—that is, unique personalities complete with feelings that we assume are peculiar to ourselves—and it is an article of faith that we are endowed with free will that equips us to make democratic choices.  Seen through this contemporary lens, citizenship is a function of ‘me’, not ‘us’…Our modern common sense is challenged when we try to get inside the head of Aristotle, who declared nearly two and a half millennia ago:  ‘It is clear then that the state is of its nature prior to the individual’.  Most of Aristotle’s contemporaries would have agreed with him, and reasonably enough, for no human being can grow up or survive without social interaction.  From the Greek perspective, there was no distinction between selfhood and citizenship, because it is in the nature of developed human beings to gather themselves in communities.  A view from the ancient world gives us a critical purchase on what it is to be a ‘citizen’ and will help us understand how citizenship could, should, or might relate to what we have learned to call ‘the arts’.”

What are your thoughts/ideas/comments on David Weil’s attempt to tie the artist to citizenship through free will?

Artist/Art/What is it to be Human

Picasso insisted that artists needed to be chroniclers of their time.  He felt the responsibility to let people know his thoughts about events—even at the global level—for those who were contemporary to him AND to those who would come after Picasso’s time.  The American philosopher and writer Cornel West takes up Picasso’s staff of the artists responsibilities and refines the vision to the human condition within the art of living.  West exclaims:  “You can’t talk about the struggle for human freedom unless you talk about the different dimensions of what it is to be human.  And when you’re talking about art you’re talking about meaning, you’re talking about love, you’re talking about resistance, you’re talking about imagination, you’re talking about empathy.  All of these are part and parcel of what it is to talk about human freedom.  And so art is about those who have the courage to use bits of reality to get us to see reality, in light of a new reality.  So it’s about vision by means of imagination, it’s about empathy in terms of looking through this world and seeing the possibilities fo a new world, a more decent, a more compassionate world.  And so be one a painter, musician, sculptor, dancer, in fact, be one a human being who aspires to learn the art of living, because in the end I think that’s what the arts are really about, how do we become, all of us become, artists of living?  Which has to do with courage, which has to do with love, which has to do with justice, which has to do with leaving the world better than we found it.”

So, what are your thoughts/insights/comments on human freedom as evidenced in the cry for freedom expressed by Southern California artists after WWII?  Do the Pacific Standard Time exhibitions that popped up within the Getty/Hammer collaboration embrace Cornel West’s philosophy about being human and about being an artist?

Artist/Painter/Passionate Chronicler/AnInstrument of War

During the 20th century to the present time, artists have been very cognizant of the fact that they have an opportunity to comment on the human condition.  One of the great contributions of the Pacific Standard Time (PST) exhibition we have been focused on this Fall 2017 semester is the range/depth of curating an installation of Southern California artists many of whom took the responsibility of being contemporary commentators.  These highlighted artists in PST have accepted what Pablo Picasso said some years ago about what an artist is.  “What do you think an artist is?  An imbecile who only has eyes, if he is a painter, or ears if he is a musician, or a lyre in every chamber of his heart if he is a poet, or even, if he is a boxer, just his muscles?  Far from it:  at the same time he is also a political being constantly aware of the heartbreaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image.  How could it be possible to feel no interest in other people, and with a cool indifference to detach yourself from the very life which they bring to you so abundantly?  No, painting is not done to decorate apartments.  It is an instrument of war.”

What are your thoughts/insights/ideas/comments regarding Picasso and his clarion call to be a commentator of one’s era?  Is art decorative and meant to be placed over the couch?  Or is art far more significant and substantial within the cultural context of its time?  Your thoughts please.

Artists—To Being Taken Serious Or Not—That is the Question!

For many Americans, art may be defined in a number of ways.  Warhol believed most Americans thought art was first and foremost a person’s first name!  Others feel art is something that looks good on the wall over the couch!  There are some Americans who believe art chronicles both the time and the context of the artist’s life.  There are perhaps a few who still believe that art and artists have a responsibility to express something significant with their ‘gift’ be it beauty, criticism, insight, or some form of thought-provoking insight.  In an interview with a journalist Billy Al Bengston was asked to reflect back on his career as a Southern California artist in the early Post WWII days and express his thoughts.  The artist made the following observation:  “For me, the heyday was in 1959. It was before the Ferus Gallery moved across the street, in the days when Ed Kienholz and Walter Hopps ran it. At that time, art was taken very seriously in terms of being an artist, and not as a profession.”

As art students close to graduating from an art program of study, how do you see art?  What does art mean to you in 2017?  And, what is your role as an artist in the 21st century?

Billy Al Bengston, Venice, 1973

Billy Al Bengston, Sonny, 1961

Billy Al Bengston—How to Keep One’s Attention!

Have artists in the United States become entertainers?  Do we, the audience, really want our artists to divert us from the realities of contemporary urban living by redirecting our eyes and thoughts to those things an artist’s gaze deems beautiful?  Maybe I am being too literal here but the following message from Southern California artist Billy Al Bengston may be interpreted from a number of different points of view—none of which seem especially uplifting or forward moving.  Bengston stated:  “I paint stupid things; that’s what I do. I can’t think of anything more boring than a really beautiful thing. You have to mess it up. There has to be something a little kinky to keep their attention.”

Maybe this statement from Bengston relates to his youthful extreme experience of racing motorcycles and embracing the motorcycle culture of Southern California.  What are your thoughts of the current role American artists play in today’s urban society and how does that perception fit into the driving force of the Ferus Gang in Los Angeles during the late 1950s through the 1960s?

Entrance to Billy Al Bengston’s Retrospective Designed by Frank Gehry

Billy Al Bengston Racing

Billy Al Bengston, Buster, 1962

Early Experiments with Perceptual Environments in the Southland

Los Angeles founded the West Coast Chapter of E.A.T. in 1969—E.A.T. stands for Experiments in Art and Technology—in a concerted effort to promote/utilize/collaborate/participate/incorporate the skills sets of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) physicists, the engineering talents at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), with the experimental artists working in new materials and perspective who were residing in Los Angeles.  One exciting outcome of this merging of science/engineering/art would be the Southland group Chrysalis and their staged performances/manifestations such as Inflatable Environment of 1970.  What are your thoughts on the merging of Science/Technology/Art in the last quarter of the 20th Century?  Is such blending of  professional occupations good or bad for Art?

Chrysalis, Examples of Inflatable Environments, 1970+

Love, Beauty, and Truth: John Maynard Keynes

Seems a little strange and out of context to develop a blog post on Southern California Art with thoughts from the brilliant British economist John Maynard Keynes but, for the first half of the 20th century, the sharpest mind regarding “the Group Dynamics” within a growing global economy was that of Keynes.  Keynes understood the power of the Collective Experience and wrote about it in terms of Love, Beauty, and Truth.  “In the long run we are all dead…The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent…The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones…The appropriate subjects of passionate contemplation and communion were a beloved person, beauty and truth, and one’s prime objects in life were love, the creation and enjoyment of aesthetic experience and the pursuit of knowledge.”  How do you think Keynes perception of the Collective Experience relates to the visual arts developing in Southern California during the post World War II era under the curatorial leadership of Walter Hopps and the artwork of Edward Kienholz?

Photograph of John Maynard Keynes

Photograph of Walter Hopps

Edward Kienholz, The Wait, 1964-65



Los Angeles Post WWII Art: Engaging European Traditions With So Cal’s Unique Expressions

  • Curators and artists collaborated together to create an exhibition where Made in L.A. 2012 could successfully tap into the trend-setting vision of L.A.-based artists/arts administrators who offered the seminal PST exhibition.  Southern California post-WWII artists looked somewhat passively to NYC and European art centers–London, Berlin, Paris–as they wrestled with their distinctive nuances of the time within which they were living.  The Ferus Gang were confident that their generation of American West Coast artists did not need to continue to pay allegiance to apprenticeships either nationally or internationally.  Such thinking to them was both humiliating and condescending to their distinctive aesthetic beliefs.  PST and Made in L.A. 2012  are two exhibitions of note that thoroughly close the book on So Cal or West Coast artists needing to subvert themselves to the constancy of the past.
  • Thomas Gaehtgens of the Getty stated the following in PST:
  • “In Los Angeles, a very distinct engagement with European artistic traditions merged with California art’s unique expression of openness, mobility, modernity, individuality, light, and color to create a new aesthetic, one well suited to an innovative style of West Coast living. During the 1960s and 1970s, political activism and resistance spurred artists to new fields of discovery.”
  • What are your thoughts on a prevailing cultural expectation that American artists were compelled, by the general public, to look to NYC and the Art centers of Western Europe to sustain constancy with the past which So Cal artists rejected with a firm stamp of disapproval?
  • Steven Von Huene, Tap Dance, 1967

PST—What Does It Really Mean For The Arts?

As our gaze now opens up and we look beyond the Ferus Gallery and the Ferus Gang of artists promoted by Walter Hopps and Irving Blum, we begin to recognize that there genuinely was something significant going on in greater Los Angeles during the Post-WWII years as far as the visual arts were concerned.  Under the leadership of the Getty Foundation, visionaries in Southern California arts administration not only recognized the tremendous contributions made by both Hopps and Blum, but their collective effort was in serious danger of being contextually lost with the passage of time and the death of its leaders and artists.  This precarious situation caused the Getty leadership to mobilize and seek to recognize, celebrate and preserve the greater Ferus/LA legacy.  Deborah Marrow, Interim President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, stated the following in the Pacific Standard Time Exhibition Catalog:

“Identifying and preserving the archives that document the milestones of contemporary art in the postwar period of our region…We wound up with the most comprehensive and public collaboration by cultural organizations in Southern California, or perhaps anywhere, and one that is now itself a creative landmark.”

What are your thoughts on an organization like the Getty Trust stepping in and using it’s foundation financial strength to initiate a series of document gathering endeavors and representative exhibitions of the Post-WWII era visual art production in Los Angeles?

Deborah Marrow of the Getty Trust

“…the city as a whole was incredibly conservative”

It seems quite daunting today to picture Los Angeles and Southern California as “incredibly conservative”.  But, as we turn our gaze back to the immediate years following the cessation of hostilities with the end of WWII in 1945, that is exactly the situation for visual artists living in the greater Los Angeles area.  In filmmaker Morgan Neville’s The Cool School, the cinematographer exclaims to Madeleine Brand:  “Before the gallery opened (i.e. The Ferus Gallery), the idea that you would make a living as an artist was really foreign to anybody in Los Angeles…The environment was hostile to art, and despite the movie industry, the city as a whole was incredibly conservative”.

For those gifted and talented artists living in Los Angeles and Southern California (i.e., So Cal), pressure was applied on those who wanted to seek fame and fortune to do so in New York City.  The Ferus Group of artists heard that admonition constantly but felt confident enough to stay in the Southland and produce in their studios.  In The Cool School documentary, Neville points out: “The artists in the scene were glamorous…They were good-looking men, they were surfers and beatniks and hard-living, hard-drinking, womanizing artists..And because there was bi established art scene in Los Angeles, they were able to easily push past what elsewhere would be limits”.

What are your thoughts on the Ferus Gallery and the Ferus Group of artists who, for all intents and purposes, established a strong West Coast aesthetic that was both different from NYC yet just as strong and significant?  Can what happened in Los Angeles in the 1950swith The Ferus Gallery and Ferus Group of artists happen in Las Vegas?  Is our desert community ripe for such a development of high end culture?

Ferus Gallery, ca. 1962

Walter Hopps (left) and Ferus Gang at Reunion