As K and I were driving A and M home from the LA Temple, I observed something that made my blood run cold, and really made me think.
Every time I give the girls a ride home, I pass Chicano Time Trip by Healy and Botello (click here for an image of the main portion of this multi-panel mural), a significant and long-lived (painted 1977, 30 years ago) mural. That mural appears in numerous art history texts, whether survey or specialist, and is one of the more famous examples of the Chicano Mural movement. I’ve seen that mural numerous times and been impressed that it has survived as well as it has given that it’s in what can charitably be called a “rough Neighborhood.”
This single act did not destroy the entire Chicano Mural movement, but it was symptomatic of an ongoing trend, and it made me contemplative. Now, my views on the Chicano movement and the deep connection of Chicano art with it are, needless to say, not entirely positive given their connections with communist ideology and several other failings such as embrace of clannishness and stereotyping. That said, I’m not using this moment as an indictment of the movement itself, but rather I’m speaking to the decline of one particular segment of its artistic and cultural heritage: muralism.
For several decades, the mural was a sacred cow in Chicano art. It was regarded as the perfect expression of a certain cultural connectedness and was the visual “voice” of a people. In the eighties and nineties, that position underwent a number of attacks from within the Chicano movement itself as well as from without that I won’t really get into here, but basically I’ll say that it lost a fair chunk of its authority. However, muralism and murals remained valued and very much relevant. Hispanic people knew what the murals were and what they were supposed to represent, and even a lot of white people “got it,” and the Hispanic neighborhoods of numerous southwestern cities became studded with murals made by artists of assorted ethnicities, but especially Spanish speakers.
Los Angeles in particular has a massive number of murals, and has at times been referred to as the Painted City because of this. Drivers on the 10, the 405 and other area freeways motored daily past huge civic murals. The residents of the neighborhoods, who had been recruited to work on some of these huge projects, protected them and kept taggers away for two decades. When I first moved to LA in 1999, they were in good condition. Then, one day a solitary tag appeared on the LA Marathon mural. Practically overnight, most of these huge murals had been obliterated. Now, none of these freeway murals survive as anything other than fragments. Those murals were not explicitly Chicano, but had their genesis in the popularity of murals that movement inspired.
The specifically Chicano murals have fared better. Until now.
It’s clear that these murals have lost much of their cultural pull and significance. The youth of the very community that they were supposed to pull together have forgotten what they were supposed to represent. They don’t know the history, and what’s worse, they don’t care. in other words, the Chicano Mural Movement is gasping out its last breaths. Out with the old, in with the new as the saying goes and the world keeps rolling on its merry way. The center does not hold.
I’m pensive about this. I hate seeing art that was once revered forgotten and defaced. Whatever flaws (stylistic and conceptual) existed in the movement in question, there was certainly a vibrant artistic quality to a lot of the work that came out of it. There’s a lot of very interesting stuff going on artistically now, but it’s hard to see a tradition go.
I’m not going to make any broad statements about where the Chicano art scene is going to go in the future, but I am going to say that what was once sacred is now discarded.