By: Tommy Vinh Bui
“Those with the courage to enter the moral conflict will find themselves with companions in every corner of the globe.” – Robert F. Kennedy
The Los Angeles Central Library downtown proficiently pummels the ocular senses. It’s a library that hits all the right aesthetic chords and provides a real respite to the retinas. From Renee Petropoulos’ stunning ceiling mural to Lee Lawrie’s magnificent bronze chandelier in the grand rotunda, one can effortlessly find themselves idling aimlessly for hours held captive by the visual feast on offer. And your eyes lap up every last optical crumb. Gawking and gazing until the lights dim and the closing announcements ring out from the PA system.
Public artwork and public libraries have been kith and kin historically. A space for artwork in an inviting public environment like libraries is a critical part of the social infrastructure. You find a library somewhere and you’re likely to find a piece of public artwork skulking around the vicinity ten out of ten times. Be it a mosaic, a mural, or some other arty offering. And it was during one of my many weekend ambulations to collide cataracts with the art deco façade of the Central Library that I started thinking about Los Angeles public artwork overall under the lucent lens of censorship issues. And that irrevocably brought me to a recent kerfuffle involving a particularly contentious mural.
The artwork that’s at the epicenter of this furor seems innocuous enough upon cursory glance. Downright unburnishedly benign at first blush. The outsized thirty-by-forty feet mural makes residence in Koreatown spangled along the wall of a school gym at the Robert F. Kennedy Community School. The painted vista features a depiction of Golden Age uber star Ava Gardner bathed in a vibrant kaleidoscope of hues festooned with palm trees and other imagery closely associated with Los Angeles history. But a small enclave of incensed local citizens had their dander ruffled and vocally demanded the mural’s immediate withdrawal from public view. The specific objectionable imagery that triggered this actionable affray were the geometric ray patterns sprouting forth from Ava Gardner’s crown. The irate group Wilshire Community Coalition protested and posited that the emanating rays resembled the motif of the rising sun sometimes associated with the Imperial Japanese battle flag. A flag that can invoke indignation at the atrocious war-crimes committed against Koreans during World War II.
The reaction to the reaction to the mural was swift and administrators conceded and agreed to fling a coat of fresh paint over the mural lest any more ire is inspired. The artist commissioned to craft the mural Beau Stanton was flabbergasted at the response and scrambled to propose solutions to mollify this dire disputation. Namely, solutions to avoid complete capitulation and lack of thoughtful dialogue and discourse over the impugned mural. But these avenues of amelioration tragically fell upon deaf ears. It was a gloomy day for artistic expression and a banner one for the unabashed censorship of creativity. And as a librarian that supports and defends the uprightness of intellectual freedom and the inherent right to creative expression without restriction, an icy chill raced up and down my spine too. When free speech is stifled, a critical and core component of our society is besmirched. As such, I was prompted to really ruminate on the matter further and see if I can suss out any semblance of sanity from this mural malarkey.
The National Coalition Against Censorship was also stirred into action. This organization ably advocates for and represents the interests of a number of groups including the American Civil Liberties Union. The organization asserts that the kowtowing to public pressure sets an ominous precedent that resoundingly doesn’t align with the principles of embracing diverse viewpoints and efforts toward productive community discussions. It’s dangerous to tamper with moral rights and the right to artistic expression. It’s an indelible disservice to society at large when free speech is impeded and imperiled.
The opposition to the mural’s censorship arrived in amplified voice and full chorus. Such was the force of the pushback that administrators ultimately decided not to whitewash the mural. Seemingly chastened by the symphony of chagrin against the murals impending desolation, the reification of artistic integrity saw out the battle the victor. After the dust settled, one couldn’t help but to make the connection between this mural melee and the relevance of the Federal Visual Artists Rights Act enacted by Congress in the 90s. This law bolsters the rights of artists and dictates against the defacement and destruction of a given artwork. Artists had finally had the official backing of federal laws with this piece of empowering legislation. The California Art Preservation Act enacted in 1979 is another piece of significant legislation that holds legal bearing in support of an artwork’s right to exist and poses obstacles to the destruction of controversial fine art.
The mural stands unmutilated for now. And, more importantly, the rights of artists against the foremost foe of censorship remains unscathed.
So gander away, companions. Undaunted and without fear of bowderlization.
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.