By: Tommy Vinh Bui
Downtown Los Angeles is a stronghold of arts and culture. Starting from the Central Library where you can bulk up your brain with a windfall of books and eye-capturing architecture and art deco decor you can then take a quick jaunt to the nearby Broad Museum and descry a Lichtenstein or three. Or wander on over to the adjacent Hauser & Wirth and have a retinal romp with the wall-space in a vibrantly repurposed former flour mill. Ample amounts of art opportunities to be seen and savored downtown.
Armed with an armful of freshly checked-out library books to be delved into for the weekend, I’m moseying along Central Avenue and enjoying the callithumpian chorus of the urban tintinnabulations of Little Tokyo dulcetly burrowing into my ears. I find myself in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and people-watch awhile at the throngs coming and going into the exhibit hall. Therein I was awash with a mosaic of memory and stirred to recall a particularly hurly-burly of a saga concerning a much-debated mural adorning MOCA’s wall several years ago.
In 2010, Italian guerilla street artist Blu was commissioned to paint a massive mural along MOCA’s façade for an upcoming Art in the Streets exhibit. The mural was bold and daringly defiant in its brazen anti-war and anti-capitalist message. The imagery consisted of a flotilla of military coffins ceremoniously draped with outsized dollar bills. The scale of the mural was immense. Nigh three stories high and roughly the length of an entire football field. Powerful in aesthetic execution and a poignant commentary on the runaway military industrial complex. Alas, the imagery was deemed a little too provoking and was ultimately slated for whitewashing before it could be unveiled to the public.
The driving argument for the destruction of Blu’s mural was that it could be construed as insensitive to a nearby neighborhood that contains a Veterans Affairs hospital along with a war memorial commemorating the service of Japanese American soldiers in the immediate vicinity. Controversial, yes. But many street artists would argue that the suppression of thought-provoking artwork is a far more dubious course of action and a much more egregious slight to the ideals of free artistic expression. Blu is renown for this type of politically-charged and agitation-prone artworks. Yet many were flabbergasted when the institution didn’t support the product of what the artist is best notorious for. Many eyebrows arched at the museum’s handling of this fractious and divisive dilemma. A bonafide fraught situation for MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch who had to strike a balance and struggle between standing up for Blu or risk being perceived as insensitive to the surrounding community. The hubbub was hairy. Polarizing and primed for public pratfalls no matter how you suss it.
The artist himself has submitted that the removal of his mural was a form of artistic censorship at its very worse and found irony in the asinine foofaraw of an institution charged with supporting and promoting art, quite conversely, destroying it. An unfortunate series of decisions that culminated in an unsparing artwork being muzzled and a missed opportunity for a much-needed thoughtful and productive community discussion.
I’m roused out of my reverie. I stand before the giant wall and wonder and wax internally about Blu’s incendiary artwork lurking under several year’s since worth of lick after lick of paint. And pine for a day when the knee-jerk reaction to potentially objectionable artwork isn’t to immediately grab a paint-roller and bucket of primer. I can only cleave to my optimism at this point. So I continue the leisurely stroll to the subway station. Books in hand, bygone artwork on the brain, and hope in my step.
The hope propels me all the way home.
Tommy Vinh Bui is a paragraph-peddler hailing from the bonnie barrios of Pacoima. He has an assortment of lugubrious-sounding degrees and was a Peace Corps volunteer in a dusty and distant land long ago. Tommy has an unswerving interest in intellectual freedom and his fingertips and keyboard reflect this. He may have impulse control problems.