California Public Art Under Attack

Right-wing activists from the organization, Save Our State (SOS), have called for the removal of a public monument called Danzas Indigenas located in the Metrolink Station in Baldwin Park, California. Joseph Turner, executive director for the anti-immigrant group, plainly stated his organization’s opinion of the monument, “we will not tolerate its anti-American message. This is not art. This is not freedom of expression. This is government-sanctioned sedition.” SOS activists are calling for and organizing a noon time demonstration at the monument on Saturday, May 14th, 2005, and they are demanding that the monument be altered - if not removed.

What exactly has drawn the ire of these self-proclaimed guardians of the American way? Designed in 1993 for the MTA by famed Chicana artist Judith F. Baca, the monument bears several engraved statements upon it, one reads “It was better before they came”, and the other “This land was Mexican once, was Indian always - and is, and will be again.” SOS calls the monument “propaganda” from “radical organizations” who wish to “return the Southwestern US to Mexico.” The organization’s website declares that California’s cities have been turned into “Third World cesspools as a result of a massive invasion of illegal aliens.” SOS has threatened that if the “offensive passages” are not removed from Baca’s artwork before the American Independence weekend, they “will take additional steps to ensure that the passages are removed.” That sounds like an open appeal for vandalism and property destruction to me. For all the hot air about being patriotic defenders of freedom and the American way, the SOS organization sounds much like the fundamentalist Taliban, who because of their racial and religious prejudices blew up the magnificent 2000-year-old statues of Buddha at Bamiyan, Afghanistan.

Left-wing activists have responded with their own calls for a counter-protest. Groups like the Southern California Human Rights Network, the International Action Center and its Committee in Defense of Immigrant Workers, the International Socialist Organization and many others I’m sure, will counter-demonstrate to demand “Full Rights for Immigrants”, an “End to Racist Attacks on Immigrants and Mexicans”, and the protection of “Indigenous Heritage”. But where is the left’s defense of artistic freedom? What the left and right seem not to understand in this escalating battle over Baca’s Danzas Indigenas is that this is more a struggle over art and censorship than of the politics of race, national identity and borders. One side wants to censor or destroy an artwork for political reasons while the other side counters with its own political arguments that have nothing to do with the rights of artists - both ignore the underlying primary issue - an artist’s freedom to create and display a public work of art.

Judith F. Baca is an internationally respected artist, one of America’s acclaimed contemporary muralists, and the Founder and artistic director of the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) located in Venice California. As a socially aware artist engaged in community art projects for many decades, she is a highly regarded and cherished member of the Los Angeles community. Without hesitation, I wish to express my total and unconditional solidarity with Ms. Baca, and I urge all other working artists to do the same. If reactionaries succeed in censoring one artist, then all stand in peril.

In her own defense Baca has posted an artist’s statement on the SPARC website where you can also see a photo of the monument she created. The great irony of the SOS attack on Baca’s artwork is over the passage “It was better before they came” - which SOS misinterprets as a Mexican’s racist view of Whites. However, Baca makes clear in her statement that “While this group has cast this artwork as part of a Reconquista movement it is in fact neither advocating for the return of California to the Mexican government nor saying ‘it is better before they came’. This statement was made by a white local Baldwin Park resident who was speaking about Mexicans. The ambiguity of the statement was the point. About which ‘they’ is the anonymous voice speaking? Our capacity as a democracy to disagree and to coexist is precisely the point of this work. No single statement can be seen without the whole, nor can it be removed without destroying the diversity of Baldwin Park’s voice. Silencing every voice with which we disagree is profoundly un-American.”

For those who understand artistic expression to be a sacred human right - for those who appreciate public art as part of democratic culture, for those who recognize the despoilers and abusers of art as the shocktroops of an incipient fascism - stand up to defend Danzas Indigenas and the right of artists to free and unfettered self-expression. Please attend the peaceful and legal demonstration in defense of these right to be held at the monument on Saturday May 14th, from noon until 2 pm, at the Metrolink Station, 3875 Downing Ave., Baldwin Park, California 91706. (Map)

Comments are closed.