Magazine article The American Prospect

California, Dreamed

Magazine article The American Prospect

California, Dreamed

Article excerpt

People who try to get their arms around California inevitably have trouble. The place is too large, diverse, and complex; it isn't really one place at all, except maybe in the minds of outsiders. So it's not surprising that Made in California: Art, Image, and Identity, 1900-2000, the monumentally ambitious and grandly titled show that runs through February 25 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), would run into equally monumental difficulties. Even as cultural history, which is what it's intended to be, it struggles.

From high art to kitsch, almost everything is represented somewhere: Richard Diebenkorn David Hockney, and David Park paintings; reproductions of Diego Rivera murals; Ansel Adams and Carleton Watkins photographs; Arts and Crafts "bungalows" and furniture; Frank Gehry architectural designs; Chicano street paintings; pottery, lamps, and glassware; rock-band psychedelics, bathing suits, orange-crate labels, glitzed-up car bodies, Barbie dolls, film clips, protest posters, movie placards, promotional postcards, magazine covers--all of it loosely organized not by form but by 20-year periods. As such this huge show itself becomes an artifact of our cultural confusion. "Think of the giant flea market at the Rose Bowl," said Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight, "albeit sifted and sorted and endowed with pretensions."

And yet even in this confusion, Made in California raises important questions, not only about California but also about our common national culture and its institutions. In a time when a proposed new $678-million Guggenheim Museum in downtown New York is to include a skating rink and basketball courts, when the original Guggenheim has given itself over to a suck-up show of Armani designs that one critic called "the world's longest store window," and when Las Vegas casinos are hanging Renoirs and Monets, where are the lines between high art and pop culture or between the museum as depository of great works and the museum as a marketing operation and center of popular entertainment? In a time when aesthetic and cultural standards are under assault everywhere, often in the name of diversity and democracy, it is no longer dear where art ends and social argument begins. While political and constitutional principles necessarily apply to all Americans, to what extent do we also require a common culture in order to remain a single nation?

But for the moment, take the LACMA show on its own terms, as social history. Its underlying theme is as American, and in some respects universal, as it is Californian: the dialectic between a mythic Arcadian image (with the New World, and particularly the West, as an Edenic virgin land) on the one hand and the industrialized agriculture, natural disasters, immigrant-crowded cities, and growing diversification of people and culture within it on the other. The Arcadian image, of course, was not made in California: It was envisioned by Europeans long before they'd ever set eyes on the real place--imagined somewhere else and thereafter reflected and remade here. It was then appropriated and exploited by the railroads, by auto club magazines, and, most of all, by real estate developers pushing what we all now know as the California dream. In the early days, every orange crate and nearly every painting produced there was a promotion of sylvan California. The art produced in and about California in the first decades of the twentieth century--Maurice Braun's evocative Moonrise over San Diego Bay, or the paintings of William Wendt or Guy Rose--was nearly devoid of human figures. French impressionists filled their work with people and contemporary life; California impressionists rarely did. And for the better part of a century, Indians, Hispanics, and Asians were either patronized, ignored, or demonized--as in Opium Fiend, Arnold Genthe's 1905 soft-focus photograph of a Chinese man. This was "the new Eden of the Saxon home-seeker."

In the show's section on the decades before World War II, the dialectical scheme--Arcadian paradise versus industrialized dystopia--seems to work fairly well. …

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