Los Angeles

Free Chalk for Free Speech

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

A U-streamed image from the July 12 Art Walk mayhem.

I wasn’t there last night when L.A.’s downtown Art Walk, held monthly, turned into a stand-off with police. Instead, I was on my couch, three miles away, watching it all on CBS News’ U-stream and following updates on twitter. I dozed off when there were hardly any stragglers left on the street, just a line of police across Spring Street, waiting for orders on what to do next. The voice narrating the U-stream, who sounded like the kind of guy who always sides with the underdog but isn’t always sure which side the underdog side is, was frustrated by the whole situation (“They’re going to find out this is all a big misunderstanding,” he said). He was listening to police scanners, and telling us what he heard: “What they’re saying is, they’re just going to walk away. The cops are going to leave and let the traffic come through.”

Organizers affiliated with the Occupy L.A. movement had apparently decided to stage a peaceful, creative demonstration during the July 12 Art Walk. Some activists had been arrested for chalking political messages on sidewalks in previous weeks, and a pastel colored invitation distributed via facebook said, “Free Chalk for Free Speech, Come Decorate at Chalk Walk.”

The story, according to reports published online this morning, is that Chalk Walk did indeed happen – people wrote messages like, “Prisons are overpopulated and chalking is harmless” on Spring Street sidewalks, between 5th and 6th  Street. Then there was melee, but I still can’t quite fill the gap between the chalking and the rubber bullets, injured cops, LAPD choppers and arrests. Yesterday, the forced resignation of MOCA’s chief curator caused famed artist John Baldessari to leave the museum’s board, so artist Dominic Quagliozzi jokingly tweeted, “Artworld rioting over Schimmel firing, set off by Baldessari resigning from MOCA board.” But of course, no one there was there because of Schimmel. Tweeted Charles Davis, “It’s cool how LAPD is flying multiple helicopters with searchlights because people drew on the ground with chalk.” A moment later, he tweeted again: “And just got jabbed hard in the back by a cop while complying with their order to vacate the intersection. #occupyla #Chalkwalk

Karen Finley in front of the Supreme Court.

When I went to look for news about last night’s craziness, I went first to the L.A. Time’s arts page, just instinctively – Art Walk, chalk; it’s all art-related. But of course, the newspaper’s not-so-helpful stories appeared in the local news section.

Because artist Karen Finley will be performing in Chinatown a week from tomorrow as part of the more-or-less annual Perform Chinatown event, I spent part of yesterday reading old news stories about the National Endowment for the Arts controversies she had been involved in. It’s perverse to have nostalgia for 1990, when NEA grants were being taken away because senator Jesse Helms and friends were complaining about art’s obscenity, but I do want to see more art on front pages or in section “A.”

Timothy Greenfield Sanders, from "The Chocolate Shoot" with Karen Finley.

In the Karen Finley performance that made Jesse Helms particularly mad, Finley–moved by the story of a 15-year-old who was raped, covered in feces, than accused of making it all up–covered her own body in dark chocolate. Helms found this gross and indecent, and even disrespectful to women, as if Finley was committing an assault by responding to one. In 1998, after Finley lost her funding, and after she and other artists who had challenged the law that required “public values” be upheld by work receiving government grants, she did a reprise of the chocolate performance and she held a news conference during it. Still covered in chocolate, she said she had cried when she heard the ruling. “Having a start in the arts is going to be more dependent on coming from inherited wealth or making propaganda,” she said, according to the New York Times, “or being a straight white male.” Young artists who want to take risks will suffer most, she said. Has this happened? Has art retreated into safety, taking on the role of cushioned commenter more often than out-there actor?