By: Tommy Vinh Bui
Doddering around downtown usually delivers a roundhouse to the retinas in the way of elusive or oft overlooked artworks. From a canny clash of colours speckled on a public utility box to two-story murals clandestinely clinging to the side of a downtrodden dwelling somewhere in the Flower District. Pershing Square adjacent to the Los Angeles Public Library is one such haven of vibrancy and vivacity veneered at every available angle accessible to the eye.
And that’s where I currently find myself. Soles of my shoes worn bald by the constant pursuit of bonnie books and pulchritudinous public art (and when they converge serendipitously, it’s a mighty manna). Ping-ponging between Pershing Square and the Central Library provides ample time to let the mental cogs spin carefree. Be it breezily browsing a mile of bookshelves or neck craned upwards outside admiring a looming acre of acrylic; the mind tends to wander.
And on this particular afternoon my mind lumbered toward a perplexing episode in the vast annals of public art controversies. It was in 1932 that Nelson Rockefeller, Jr. charged world-renown Mexican muralist Diego Rivera to adorn the Radio Corporation Arts Building with one of his singular murals. Man at the Crossroads was to be an ambitious work. A lodestar to the optimistic direction that society was taking toward progress and the vision of a more positive future. The work was to inspire and uplift.
And, as per his reputation, Rivera didn’t skimp when it came to his ardor for agitating expectations with his art. Quite contrary to Rockefeller’s mandate, the sixty-four foot three-panel fresco featured in abundance imagery of the cold whirring of industrial machinery. The warmth and comity that Rockefeller had intended to instill was in stark contrast to what Rivera ultimately manifested. The mural portrayed throngs of protesters being set upon by truncheon-wielding police officers juxtaposed against images of upper crust socialites carousing happy-go-lucky. To stoke the flames further, Rivera also emblazoned the mural with a bold portrait of Russian communist talisman Vladimir Lenin leavening the overall artwork with an overt anti-capitalist overtone. The fervor further accelerated and the artwork quickly became an epicenter for the collision of creative freedom, politics, and commerce as Rockefeller raised objections to the content of the mural. Rockefeller and Rivera arrived at loggerheads with the artist undaunted and unmoved by the overtures to edit out the disputable Russian revolutionary and have his original conceptualization of the artwork compromised.
Ultimately Rivera was prevented from entering the premises and curbed from completing the artwork. At the strike of midnight on February 9th 1934, pickaxes and hammers rained upon the mural and the artwork was unceremoniously set upon and obliterated to dusty debris. And when the plumes of plaster particulate cleared, all that was left intact was the awful affront to artistic integrity. But when paintbrushes go head-to-head with sledgehammers, I think history will reify that the paint palette will ultimately prevail and triumph over attempts to creatively encroach. For Rivera was so stalwartly determined to unveil his vision to the public that he painstakingly reproduced his work at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. The mural was retitled Man, Controller of the Universe and, along with Lenin, a portrait of Marxist theorist Leon Trotsky was also added for good measure and to compound his uncompromising stance on censorship.
In my reverie ambling aimlessly around Pershing Square, I ruminate on these themes of steadfast creative freedoms and how historical issues of censorship can embroil but also raise significant questions about how we can productively discuss these controversies today. I also think on a few verses of a poem inspired by this distant discord and well-aged ado by E.B. White of Charlotte’s Web fame entitled I Paint What I See: A Ballad of Artistic Integrity. Stanzas that I think capture ably the crux of this combustible clamor:
“I paint what I paint, I paint what I see,
I paint what I think, said Rivera
And the thing that is dearest in life to me
In a bourgeois hall is Integrity”
As I mosey on along the concrete and commotion of downtown rush hour and pace away from Pershing Square, I hoard a small degree of consolation from this kerfuffle: Unlike paint, integrity isn’t so easily chiseled off a wall.
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.