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A Colorful Piece of Santa Monica’s Cultural Life Could Be Lost

By Will South

September 18, 2017 -- Stanton Macdonald-Wright’s mural, History of Santa Monica and the Bay District (1939–1941), is a work of art. Like every work of art made in the past, it can communicate different things to different people in the present.

Today, some people feel the depiction of Native Americans in this mural reflects racism and the dominance of conquerors. That view is understandable given the composition where we see Native Americans positioned below Europeans.

The History of Santa Monica Mural

The "History of Santa Monica" mural is, however, a complex object, much like the culture that produced it.

Made under the Works Project Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression, the mural was part of a nation-wide effort to put people to work during the worst economic crisis in this country’s history.

The first thing to understand about the mural, then, is that it was part of a vast federal program aimed at employment. It was also, of course, a hugely political venture under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

"History of Santa Monica" (Courtesy City of Santa Monica )

Administrators of the WPA focused on emphasizing the positive with projects, whether visual, literary or theatrical, highlighting the richness of America’s land, people and history. Not surprisingly, a good many murals from this period look like advertisements selling the “good life” that so many Americans did not experience.

A second point to consider in understanding the "History of Santa Monica" mural is that for American artists in the 1930s, including Macdonald-Wright, it was important to show Europe and the rest of the world that America had its own unique history and culture, one that included Native Americans, immigrants, and, yes, colonists.

This was the era of Regionalism, of Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry. Macdonald-Wright was not particularly a fan of regionalism per se, but he made it clear that no art should bow to the dictates of Europe, or, in his opinion, New York.

Thirdly, the WPA was also an opportunity to elevate the role art could play in daily life. Many artists believed that federal support of the arts might continue indefinitely and become a formal part of our government. (Today, the arts continue to be supported by the federal government, but that support is a fraction of what it was under the WPA.)

Stanton Macdonald Wright Self Portrait Stanton Macdonald-Wright was the director of the WPA’s art project for Southern California. In this role, he designed murals such as the "History of Santa Monica," but he also oversaw the design of others and approved the design of the majority of WPA art in the Southland.

He sponsored lectures on the arts, exhibitions, classes, and even designed a downtown gallery to highlight the work of WPA artists. The WPA, under administrators like Macdonald-Wright, could educate as well as entertain, it could even inspire, on occasion.

A fourth thing to know about the "History of Santa Monica" is that it depicts the legend of how Santa Monica got its name.

"Self Portrait" Stanton Macdonal Wright (Courtesy of Peyton Wright Gallery)

Father Juan Crespi, part of the Portola expedition of 1769, was taken to a fresh-water spring by local natives. According to legend, Crespi said the spring reminded him of the tears of Santa Monica.

One Native American sits in a casual pose, neither fearful nor paying homage to the standing figures. The second Native American is kneeling as he drinks, not the activity of one who kneels subserviently.

Macdonald-Wright skews this narrative toward the ultra-positive in the "History of Santa Monica" mural, consciously avoiding politics, which he abhorred. The companion mural to this one in City Hall shows then-contemporary citizens enjoying themselves. Life, Macdonald-Wright was propagandistically saying, was good before and it still was.

Fifth -- Stanton Macdonald-Wright was not a saint. Few people are. He had his biases. Indeed, he had his obsessions. He hated to be wrong, and could be mocking of other artists and art movements. He was both a maverick organizer for the arts, and at the same time an elitist.

That said, he ran the Art Students League of Los Angeles for decades and all students were welcome there. He had many Chinese American students, many Japanese American students. A wide variety of young people came to revere him, despite (and in some cases, because of) his flaws. He was, in short, a complex person. As we all are.

But, in reviewing the art he made over a long career, it would be difficult to find examples of him using art to denigrate. Unless, as in the case of the "History of Santa Monica" mural, we take the mural out of context and make wholly inappropriate comparisons to things like the Confederate Flag.

Sixth, and lastly, what is at stake here in the debate over this mural is what is always at stake in a free society: the parameters of our freedoms. Removing this mural, if it were to happen, could be declared an act of righteousness. Or, an act of censorship.

For Americans, who so cherish our freedoms, censorship should always be the policy of last resort, used only when a consensus has been reached as to why a given work of art is injurious to the community.

The solution to the "History of Santa Monica" mural is the public commentary that is happening now. The detractors must be heard. So, too, must other voices be heard.

If the mural is felt to be deleterious to the community by the majority of Santa Monica City Council members, then they, representing the citizens of Santa Monica, may vote to support its removal. This action would be transparent and democratic.

Such an action, however, would not be historically informed. It would represent an extreme disservice to all of those who might have seen it and discovered something rich and intriguing in the history of American art.

A colorful piece of Santa Monica’s cultural life would be lost. It would also smack of censorship, the invisible poison of a free society.

Will South, PhD, is the author of "Color, Myth & Music: Stanton Macdonald-Wright & Synchromism."

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