Los Angeles School District Teaches Students a Lesson in Censorship by Destroying a Mural

Photo of a mural depicting Ava Gardner in profile on a wall at the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Los Angeles.
Beau Stanton's mural, The Lady of the Grove, on a wall outside the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Los Angeles (courtesy of Beau Stanton)
The Los Angeles Unified School District gave in to Koreatown residents who demanded that a mural be removed because it brings to mind the "Rising Sun" flag of Imperial Japan

Administrators at the Los Angeles Unified School District taught high school students at the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools a valuable lesson.

In institutional cowardice.

In a December 11 story, Los Angeles Times education reporter Howard Blume recounts how the school district caved to a local group and vowed to remove a mural that adorns an exterior wall on the school’s gated campus, formerly the site of the Ambassador Hotel, where Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in 1968.

The mural depicts actress Ava Gardner’s head in profile, accented with coconut palms, Moorish arches, and a monkey — all nods to to the exotic Hollywood glamour of the hotel’s Cocoanut Grove nightclub, where several Academy Awards presentations took place and where Gardner, Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich, and other Hollywood icons partied till the wee hours.

Rectangle with a red circle in its center, with alternating red and white rays that emanate to the flag's edges
The war flag of the Imperial Japanese Army, used from 1870 through World War II. The rising sun image, which dates to the early 17th century, is still commonly seen in Japan to this day, including by the military (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Artist Beau Stanton, who donated the work to the school in 2016, set the central image of Gardner and the palms against a background of alternating rays of blue and orange that emanate, starlike, from her head.

The rays drew the ire of the Wilshire Community Coalition, an organization of concerned residents in LA’s Koreatown, who say the rays resemble Japan’s “Rising Sun” flag, under which the Japanese Imperial Army carried out mass atrocities against the Chinese and Korean peoples, among others.

The group says that the “Rising Sun” flag, which displays a blood-red sun with red rays on a field of white, is as offensive to its many Korean members as a Nazi swastika would be to Jews or a burning cross to African Americans. Chan Yong “Jake” Jeong, the coalition’s president, told Blume and others in the media that the mural could be considered a hate crime and threatened legal action against the school district.

Blume discounts the latter possibility, quoting a legal expert who says it would only be a hate crime “if it embodies an attempt to terrorize or intimidate another.”

Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight pointed out in a December 13 commentary that the Wilshire group’s threat comes eighteen months after Stanton painted the mural.

Nevertheless, school district officials announced this week that they will remove the mural out of concern for the pain the image has caused in the Korean community. The artwork is to be whitewashed over — at a cost of $20,000 — during the school’s winter break.

Stanton told Blume he was taken aback by the school’s decision, explaining that he had not intended the ray pattern as a reference to the Japanese war flag.

“Radial lines terminating at a focal point are a common design choice,” he said, noting that the treatment dates back to ancient China and can be found in all manner of artwork, including the state flag of Arizona. (Added Stanton: “I think I just threw Arizona under the bus.”)

In his commentary, Christopher Knight skewered the school district for capitulating to the community group, calling the move “irresponsible and insupportable, especially for a school on a campus named for social justice warrior Kennedy.”

Knight observed that Stanton used the identical pattern in his work as early as 2011, and that similar sunbursts were common in many of LA’s famous Art Deco buildings from the 1920s and ’30s. And when the pattern dominated an exhibition from painter Mark Grotjahn at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art this past summer, no one raised an objection. Same went for a mural by famed street artist Shepard Fairey on the other side of town, at the West Hollywood Library, featuring an elephant holding a flower in its trunk and rays of orange and red emanating from the flower.

News of the school’s decision to paint over the mural has encountered pushback online and from groups such as the ACLU of Southern Arizona and the National Coalition Against Censorship.

Image of the Arizona state flag, which depicts a five-pointed orange star in the center, against a royal blue field on the lower half and alternating red and yellow rays that emanate to the edges above
The Arizona state flag uses ray pattern that recalls that of the Japanese “Rising Sun” (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

A misreading of the First Amendment appears to be at the root of the Wilshire Community Coalition’s objection to the mural. In a give and take on the group’s Facebook page, the coalition contends that “[t]here is a reason why Swastika of Nazi party is condemned, denounced and banned in US.”

In fact, the swastika is not banned in the United States, nor may it be banned — because of the First Amendment. In an ironic echo of the contretemps over Stanton’s mural, the swastika itself is an ancient symbol that’s found in many cultures around the world. In countries such as Japan and Korea, swastikas are widely used in Buddhist temples and religious art, often to the surprise of Western tourists.

Many on social media have rallied to Stanton’s support, along with a smattering of naysayers. In a recent Instagram post, the muralist posted a photo of the front page of the Los Angeles Times, where the controversy landed him.

“How do you feel about censoring art in an educational environment?” he asked. “Or misappropriation of universal symbols? LAUSD made a decision to destroy a 2 1/2 year old mural that I painted as a gift to the students and faculty at RFK Community Schools. Now we can have this fun conversation on the front page of the LA Times.”

In Other First Amendment News:
“ACLU and Right-Wing Provocateur James O’Keefe Both Claim Credit for Win in Massachusetts First Amendment Case”

About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

2 comments

  1. Why are Japanese still using the war flag of Japan that used during World War II?
    NEVER MIND !!! Japanese Imperialism? army flag? The Confederate flag Or the Nazi flag? Violent White Supremacy? Censorship? Freedom of expression in art???……
    BLAME!! Insensitive Japanese!!! Yes It’s you!!! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nc4D32a066s
    It is about the story of the most obnoxious news in 2018… made me sensitive to the pattern of sun ray, sun burst!!!
    I am sorry Mr. Beau Stanton!!! I am not worthy!!!
    https://www.google.com/search?q=beau+stanton&rlz=1C1AOHY_enUS752US752&tbm=isch&source=iu&ictx=1&fir=Ofp8dXWERlF3WM%253A%252CedxC0tqms6JTCM%252C_& I learned about your artwork now, …
    Why are Japanese still using the war flag of Japan that used during World War II?
    Are Japanese like to remember “Hiroshima bombing day”?

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