Art Works Blog

Arts Journalism and the Community

Juan Devis (right) interviews urban planner John Arroyo at the confluence of the Los Angeles River and the Arroyo Seco. Photo courtesy of KCET

Good criticism reveals layers of hidden meaning, allowing audiences to uncover the relationship a particular work of art has to place and community. A critic who doesn’t understand local connections, or can’t translate them legibly for their audience, is unable to explain how culture and the production of art is embedded in daily life.

For example, the way that local geography, economics, and the law structures that staple of Los Angeles life---the backyard party---is fundamental to understanding the growth of DJ culture in Southern California. Similarly, the aerospace industry played a fundamental---but often unsung---role in the development of the art scene in Venice in the 1970s. Variables such as the economy, access, transportation, and landscape---to name a few---have had an enormous impact on the development of these artistic expressions.

The critic then needs to step away from the laptop and into the streets to see how art is produced and consumed by the citizenry in order to understand the cultural world that extends beyond museum walls and performance halls.

The work that we have been doing in Los Angeles through KCET’s Departures is such an attempt to reconcile the relationship that art has to place and community, and to the development of the city’s cultural identity as a whole.

We live in a networked, participatory culture where the consumption of art is not only multi-linear---see it, record it, social media it---but where the recommendation of a peer often carries more weight than the word of the critic.

This is forcing many of us to expand not just the ways in which we think and write about culture, but the traditional vehicles we use to communicate them.

Beyond writing a review and sharing an informed opinion, the art critic must become a context provider who creates stories that are not an end to themselves, but instead act as the seeds for engagement.

This expansion of the critic’s role brings with it challenges, first and foremost around the critic’s idealized historic role as impartial observer, since becoming a context provider forces the critic to engage with the artistic subject matter in unanticipated and perhaps unorthodox ways.

Similarly, the art critic should engage with the idea of access as central to his or her role as a public intellectual. In a new media environment, the critical problem becomes not just one of analysis but also  distribution, forcing the critic to create contextual spaces---platforms---where community members can become participants in the re-telling or creation of a story.

The production of culture now involves a web of interconnected variables that come together to articulate a story. We use social spaces to post, share and comment on photos, clips, songs, location-based check-ins and videos, all of which come together to create a multi-linear narrative of who we are as people, a groups and a society.

As mentioned earlier, this open story and narrative modality allows a critic to reveal new layers of meaning that can create a platform for audience participation and engagement.

A case study of how art criticism can function as engagement and participation platform can be found in a recent project we embarked on in the neighborhood of Highland Park---The Full Dollar Project---a partnership between KCET’s Departures, Occidental College, and Outpost for Contemporary Art.

More than any other neighborhood in Los Angeles, Highland Park's cyclical history can be seen as a microcosm of the evolution of the city as a whole, each era creating the context from the next generation to emerge.

Beginning with the land boom of the 1880s, new arrivals to Highland Park turned the riverbanks and hills of the Arroyo Seco into a natural retreat from the bustling, industrial downtown of Los Angeles. In the process they created the city's first art colony, which in turn gave birth to the Arts and Crafts Movement.

During the 1950s, Mexican immigrants and their descendants moved into Highland Park, generally claiming the area as their own. These new arrivals began changing the face of Highland Park at the same moment that the Civil Rights era dawned. New community organizations took root on the East Side, articulating a vocabulary of resistance and pride within the Latino and Mexican communities of Los Angeles.

It's no surprise then, that in the 1970s Highland Park became home to the influential Chicana/o artist’s collectives Mechicano and Concilio de Arte Popular, which included among their members some of the most important Chicana/o artists of their time. In marked contrast to the upscale gallery scene of West Los Angeles or the concerns of Westside artists in Venice, Highland Park was birthing art that emphasized the themes of community, cultural pride, and economic struggle. The work of these collectives on the eastside housing projects of Ramona Gardens and Estrada Courts and in numerous public spaces and institutions across the city,ignited an explosion of Chicana/o muralism in the 1970s, turning L.A. into the mural capital of the country.

As a way of celebrating and reconsidering Highland Park's vast and critically important artistic heritage in Los Angeles---from the Arts and Crafts movement to Chicano Muralism---Departures is working to understand and record the new cultural cycle that the neighborhood is currently experiencing. With that in mind, we've partnered with Outpost for Contemporary Art, artist-in-residence X. Andrade, and a team of Occidental College media art students to examine, re-interpret and reconsider the tradition of public art in Highland Park.

This project underscores the underlying paradigms, ideas, and directions discussed early in these answers. New public art projects and storefronts will be created in the area in collaboration with local artists, sign painters, and business owners; the process of production, the negotiation between parties, the exchange of ideas and the translation of cultural concepts, will be documented on the Departures website via video interviews, texts, essays and commentaries, maps, and QR codes as well as user and audience participation. Acting as meta-critic, the role of this project is not just to record, report and broadcast the cultural stories of out time; our aim is to create mechanisms---be it partnerships or online tools---through which audiences can take direct action in the creation of a more livable community.

Juan Devis is a Public Media artist and producer whose work crosses across platforms---video, film, interactive media, and gaming. His work, regardless of the medium is often produced collaboratively allowing for a greater exchange of ideas in the production of media and art. Devis is currently in director of program development and production for KCET, the largest independent television station in the United States.

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