By Susanna Hecht, GPA Faculty Cluster Leader and Professor of Urban Planning
“Art does not shut up!” This phrase is from a mural in South-Central Los Angeles, an area where a vibrant public culture derived from diasporic communities embellishes wall spaces throughout the city. The images range from nostalgic tropical landscapes to ones of horrific whirlpool violence that provoked this migration in the past, and the violence present today (see above). There are also murals of the delight and happiness of daily living, of a realm of tranquility, of the beauty, and sorrows of life wherever and however it unfolds.
We all are outcomes of international forces, in ways sometimes we don’t know about, in ways that are intimate and often quite silent. The effect of diasporas is often like this, since the dispossessions are traumatic, the loss is of a world, and in many ways the social death of that world. In these processes, there are many who don’t survive. I’ve just come back from a trip to Mannheim Germany, in many ways the “family seat”, where my great grandparents resided. As a cultivated person of the elite Jewish banking families of Europe’s Belle Époque, my great-grandmother Helene Hecht had a salon where she cultivated artists, writers, and musicians. She was a life-long friend and probably mistress of Brahms. Felix Hecht, her banker husband, was the inventor of the land-based mortgage – a financial instrument now so common one hardly thinks it had to be invented. He had his bank across from the Palatine Palace the German seat of the Holy Roman Empire, which in terms of palace size in Europe rivals Versailles. Berthe Benz, also of Mannheim, commissioned the first car. Between mortgages, cars, real estate, and the gridded layout, LA on some level seems a sister city to Mannheim.
The late historian Tony Judt points out that “Lost Worlds” and “Evil” remain the central questions of the 20th century. They are also those of the 21st. While unwilling diasporas are as much a part of human history as anything (and surely LA can claim its vast share from Asia, Latin America and Europe), the explosive issues in Europe with the Charlie Hebdo massacre, migration displacement, and the simmering turmoil in the Middle East make it useful to look at some of these questions of the past diasporas, state and non-state violence and opportunism, and global reshuffling. And what and how art works in the retelling and reframing of histories when many of those who were overcome by these forces can no longer speak.
I grew up in Utah, was raised a Lutheran, and was entirely ignorant of my family history until last year. My time in Mannheim was spent rethinking an identity I didn’t know I had. The days I spent in Mannheim centered around looted artwork, and that has brought up the questions of art and its meaning, and how it doesn’t stop talking even when the people who commissioned, created, loved, and bought it are no longer on the scene. In a world where art has become an extremely valuable commodity, as the very anguishing histories of the Cranach looted from Berlin’s Herzog family and now in the Norton Simon in Pasadena, and of course the very famous Klimt painting for which the family had battled for years to have returned to them from a museum in Vienna (hear the story on NPR).
In the conflicts over who owned what, and what happened to them, there are stories about families, displacement, diaspora, death, and social death. And every time the issue comes up, it tells a tale of politics. We all understand how great art is ageless, transcending space and time, and how it moves us at the level where humanity recognizes itself. In this sense “Art does not shut up” speaks by infusing us with a kind of luminance about how differences and otherness are ephemeral categories, transformed in the presence of masterpieces. But this blog is less about the more prosaic forms of art – domestic painting, artifacts, and the daily art of cartoons.
At times, vernacular art speaks more loudly, like the cartoons that so defined Charlie Hebdo, and we know that German “Decadent” paintings – often quite cartoonish – were destroyed as well as the artists who produced them. LA’s murals speak to us everyday, and command us to think about the world we inhabit and what we have done to it and other peoples and are fellow Angelenos. These are less about artistic masterpieces and more about the “mundane”. Artwork that goes beyond their aesthetic impact make us ask questions about who made them, who commissioned them, and what was their world like, and the general world from which these art works emerged. And what then happened. In the case of the many LA murals, there is, like Helene Hecht’s life, a story of holocaust and diaspora, of a lot of people making it. The art demands that we work to find out, that we come to understand better the times and the lives in which the artwork pieces were enmeshed. And the brutality that extinguished them. They ask us to retell history.
They also ask that we honor them – the people, the art, and the times that produced them and that we not shut up about the forces of evil and the realm of the Lost Worlds in which they are imbricated especially since in many ways our governments actively produce them. Botero’s extraordinary sculptures and images of the bodies at the Iraqi prison of Abu Ghraib accuse us, and insist that we ask questions about the world we produce and inhabit.
Botero’s Abu Gharib piece
Helene’s portraits have been haunting my family for some time. My mother felt impelled to find out what had happened to the glorious works in Helene’s house, and to Helene and Felix’ portraits.
Helene was not shutting up.
Much remained silent, archivists know more our about our family than we do, but since then much memory has also been recovered, and much history has been excavated due the diligence of local art historians as and the citizens of Mannheim who have seen fit to remember Helene as a prized female artist. They also remember every single one from the City of Mannheim in a memorial that has every name written on it. Right in the center of town in the busiest walkstreet in front of the train station. These retell the history and the lives of this city. My family has allowed the portraits of Helene and Felix to stay in the Museum with a plaque explaining who they were and what happened to them. I personally am glad that Helene and Felix can stay and continue to be honored in the city they so loved and in whose civic and cultural life they played such a role. I am especially gratified that their history and stories will not reside in an archive somewhere, and that their paintings and story will not be sequestered in a private home, but will be materialized in a beautiful museum where they can continue to have a voice about their time and what happened to them. History doesn’t mean much if there is no one there to remember it, to retell it and to use it as a stepping stone to new understandings.
Memorial plaque on a street in Mannheim, Germany
Its also useful to keep in mind that besides these plaques and monuments, the German government has initiated a decentralized and profoundly moving public art project call the Stolpensteine: literally “stumbling stones”, that are placed in front of the homes or other sites of those deported and killed in the frenzy. This decentralized monument reminds anyone walking of what happened to some of the earlier residents of those streets.
Art, indeed, does not shut up.