PRINT May 1988



WHATEVER ELSE HAS ACCRUED to it in the much-vaunted moment of its art-world upturn and euphoria, Los Angeles has had its “other side” written out or written over. The pomp and circumstance of regional self-assertion has necessarily ignored, disavowed, or effaced whatever resistance to tickertape and tinsel arrivisme has survived the incorporation within the LA art scene of new structures, new managerial protagonists, and new pretensions. And now that the dust has settled on the various institutional unveilings, real questions are emerging about the whole constitution of the LA scene. These questions counter the rhetoric that Los Angeles is “becoming the Athens of the Pacific Rim” with the proposition that the area is, in fact, “flunking as an arts Mecca,” as the L.A. Weekly headlined it in March. (One notes but passes over the conflation of Athens and Mecca as a hybrid, wished-for art Elysium.)

The bottom line in this diagnosis is economic. It looks as if Los Angeles will flourish as an entrepôt for visual internationalism, but the city does not support the visual practice of its own in the same way as the more philanthropic urban liberalism of the East Coast and elsewhere. Indeed, its ranking on the Philistine-to-Medici index that documents per capita spending on the arts is pitiful—nearly 600 percent less than New York’s. The most (in)visible casualty of this impoverishment is thought to be the loose network of “alternative” or artist-run “spaces,” the brief history and activities of many of which were documented recently in the first-decade-anniversary publication of LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions), probably the most energetic LA space.

Many people have thought that Los Angeles cannot nurture a counterculture, except, perhaps, far away, in ethnic suburbia. Such a reading (and it is a common one), however, merely visits the hygienic order of the great white western sub-urb (Orange County) on the already cleanly grids of the various cities that make up LA. This imagination renders LA as dispersed and spineless, conceives its industrial archeology as too light, sees its downtown as gentrified before its manufacturing orders are fully obsolete, envisages little or no passage between industrial occupancy and fitness center, no space for decay, no decent interval for the gestation of “alternativism.” While it glimpses something of the consequences of speedier transition and quicker zoning in LA, such a view is really reading across from the older, higher-density urbanism of downtown New York.

In fact, whatever crisis there is in the various sectors of social and cultural “alternatives” in LA at the end of the Reagan decade comes out of a different and larger history. According to an early-’70s survey by Theodore Roszak, California then was overrepresented fourfold in America’s production of organizations and resource centers for “alternative life-styles.” This overrepresentation has probably continued, though proportionally diminished, into the ’80s. So: something like four times more alternativism and maybe four times less available funding.

This suggests that subcultures and special-interest groups have operated here on microeconomies often truly marginal to central market economies. In the art world, for example, no panoply of collector/dealer interests exists in Los Angeles sufficient to pull alternative practices into its zone of control, as did those in New York that quickly rendered the East Village an amphitheater of trade and subcultural striving (and disguise). One result of this is that the proliferation of activities in the LA club scene, the music scene, in the streets, and on the (real) walls has not usually been taken up by commercial galleries, or by the entertainment industry. Talent-spotting has its own well-lit place, and doesn’t stoop so low. (Almost) the only graffiti art you might have seen in the Santa Monica galleries during that movement’s vogue would have been imported, well-packaged New York “Wild Style.”

Los Angeles claims an impressive roll call of places that work between alternative practices in situ and the sites of commerce and institutionalization. One of the longest-standing, perhaps paradoxically—in view of the oft-cited (retail) unbookishness of the city—is Beyond Baroque, which for twenty years has focused its activity on textual practices with admixtures of performance and music. Between the formation of Beyond Baroque (1968) and LACE (1977), more than a dozen groups, associations, and places, including the Woman’s Building, LAICA (the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art), LACPS (the Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies), and SPARC (the Social and Public Art Resource Center), have struggled against the grain of our recidivist times. In view of the apparent potential of alternativism in California to impact on future social and political policy—in advance, perhaps, of the older codings of the East1—it will be crucial for us all to watch (or work for) the next steps of these spaces. They will walk a tightrope of spiraling real-estate prices, of the augmenting glamour of commerciality, of maintaining allegiance to marginal practices while attempting to expand, perhaps out of necessity, their rapprochement with the sponsorship sector, and with certified product. As one demises (LAICA) and one proceeds apace (LACE), we may even have to read their entrails for the future of alter(c/n)ation.

John Welchman, an art historian and critic, is a visiting scholar in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University, New York. His column appears regularly in Artforum.



1. See, for example, Ted K. Bradshaw and Edward S. Blakely, “Policy implications of California’s Changing Life Styles,” California Policy Seminar 1, Berkeley: University of California, Institute of Governmental Studies, 1978.