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
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.
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.
— Wilshire Community Coalition (@wccinla) November 13, 2018
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.
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.”