There’s a little girl – maybe 10 or 12 years old – whose family owns a store just a couple of miles from Downtown Los Angeles. She spends a lot of time at the place after her nearby school lets out for the day, sort of helping out but mostly just hanging around where her older relatives can see her.
I call her “Little Genius” because she’s always reading a book or busy at a computer or making paper dolls or working on some other challenge.
Little Genius is Asian/American, the daughter of immigrants, and I think the flavor of academic prowess that comes with the nickname makes her happy in part because it makes her elders happy.
It’s not just a nickname, though. I don’t know if Little Genius will grow up to be a great scientist or legal scholar or fill some other lofty role in our society. I do know, however, that she has the soul of an artist. Her paper dolls are much more intricate than the typical cut-outs. She recently put some craft clay and left-over cardboard from around the store together to make a scaled-down village occupied by little pigs. “The Pig Empire” went on display at the store for a few days, and plenty of customers enjoyed the work. Count me among them – it interested me, drew me close. I wondered about her motive and the inspiration for her little village.
I thought about Little Genius when 13th District Los Angeles City Councilmember Eric Garcetti recently spoke of using $2.8 million in city funds to forge greater links between the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in the gleaming Bunker Hill district of Downtown and the many ethnic and immigrant and blue-collar folks who live in nearby areas.
Garcetti pulled off a different sort of art – for a politician, anyway. He plainly spoke some truths that seldom get much of a genuine airing in our city. His brush strokes were bold, but applied with enough finesse to avoid offending anyone but the unduly sensitive. He said he’d like to see MOCA draw more visitors “who have never interacted with art in the visceral, provocative way that contemporary art can serve.” He called MOCA an institution with the potential to “set in motion a civic dialogue that’s been lacking in Los Angeles,” adding that that he hopes to see a variety of efforts focused on linking the museum to local schools, senior citizen’s centers, and everyday working folks by offering programs that appeal to them, and which they can readily attend.
Perhaps this seems a mild triumph of rhetoric, but art in our city is in such a state of withdrawal that Garcetti’s comments amounted to some useful provocation of his own. Hundreds of thousands of persons live within a short distance of MOCA. Many of them labor hard – for some it’s a downright struggle – to maintain themselves in the city. Not many of them, or their children, are getting to MOCA.
Garcetti’s comments also gave a reminder that museums and galleries might serve as reflections or repositories of art, but they should not be the exclusive province of what many refer to as the “art world.” I will go a step further – making clear that these are my thoughts and not Garcetti’s – and say that the moment artists, their patrons, and institutions such as MOCA come to believe that there is a distinct “art world” they lose touch with art itself.
Art is a reflection of culture. Our culture is all of us, all mixed up. Great art engages all of us and helps us understand this culture of ours. How can anyone claim to be an artist while carving off a separate “art world” of limited membership?
That’s the best reason for all of us to take seriously Garcetti’s recent comments. It’s time to call on MOCA to make new and stronger efforts to reach Little Genius and the teeming mass of others who might not be members of the so-called “art world” but nevertheless serve as the heart and soul of our culture – also known as the real world.
Jerry Sullivan is the Editor & Publisher of the Los Angeles Garment & Citizen, a weekly community newspaper that covers Downtown Los Angeles and surrounding districts (www.garmentandcitizen.com)