3.19 / Review

From Los Angeles: Free Chalk for Free Speech

By Daily Serving July 19, 2012

As part of our ongoing partnership with Daily Serving, Art Practical is republishing Catherine Wagley's article "Free Chalk for Free Speech," on the clash between police and demonstrators at the July 12 Art Walk in Los Angeles, as well as Karen Finley’s upcoming performance for Perform Chinatown. You can also read the article here at Daily Serving.


I wasn’t there last night when Los Angeles’s downtown Art Walk, held monthly, turned into a stand off with police. Instead, I was on my couch, three miles away, watching it all on CBS News’ U-stream and following updates on twitter. I dozed off when there were hardly any stragglers left on the street, just a line of police across Spring Street, waiting for orders on what to do next. The voice narrating the U-stream, who sounded like the kind of guy who always sides with the underdog but isn’t always sure which side the underdog side is, was frustrated by the whole situation: “They’re going to find out this is all a big misunderstanding,” he said. He was listening to police scanners, and telling us what he heard: “What they’re saying is, they’re just going to walk away. The cops are going to leave and let the traffic come through.”

Organizers affiliated with the Occupy L.A. movement had apparently decided to stage a peaceful, creative demonstration during the July 12 Art Walk. Some activists had been arrested for chalking political messages on sidewalks in previous weeks, and a pastel-colored invitation distributed via Facebook said, “Free Chalk for Free Speech, Come Decorate at Chalk Walk.”

The story, according to reports published online this morning, is that Chalk Walk did indeed happen—people wrote messages such as, “Prisons are overpopulated and chalking is harmless”  on Spring Street sidewalks, between Fifth and Sixth Street. Then there was melee, but I still can’t quite fill the gap between the chalking and the rubber bullets, injured cops, LAPD choppers, and arrests. Yesterday, the forced resignation of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA)’s chief curator caused famed artist John Baldessari to leave the museum’s board, so artist Dominic Quagliozzi jokingly tweeted, “Artworld rioting over Schimmel firing, set off by Baldessari resigning from MOCA board.” But of course, no one there was there because of Schimmel. Tweeted Charles Davis, “It’s cool how LAPD is flying multiple helicopters with searchlights because people drew on the ground with chalk.” A moment later, he tweeted again: “And just got jabbed hard in the back by a cop while complying with their order to vacate the intersection.”

A U-streamed image from the July 12, 2012 Art Walk, Los Angeles. Courtesy of U-Stream.
Timothy Greenfield Sanders with Karen Finley. The Chocolate Shoot. Courtesy of Daily Serving.

When I went to look for news about last night’s craziness, I went first to the Los Angeles Times’s arts page, just instinctively: Art Walk, chalk; it’s all art-related. But of course, the newspaper’s not-so-helpful stories appeared in the local news section.

Because artist Karen Finley will be performing in Chinatown a week from tomorrow as part of the more-or-less annual Perform Chinatown event, I spent part of yesterday reading old news stories about the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) controversies she had been involved in. It’s perverse to have nostalgia for 1990, when NEA grants were being taken away because senator Jesse Helms and friends were complaining about art’s obscenity, but I do want to see more art on front pages or in section “A.”

In the Karen Finley performance that made Jesse Helms particularly mad, Finley, moved by the story of a 15-year-old who was raped, covered in feces, and then accused of making it all up, covered her own body in dark chocolate. Helms found this gross and indecent, and even disrespectful to women, as if Finley was committing an assault by responding to one.  Finley lost her funding in 1990, and in 1998, after she and other artists who had challenged the law that required “public values” be upheld by work receiving government grants lost the battle in the Supreme Court, she did a reprise of the chocolate performance during which she held a press conference. Still covered in chocolate, she said she had cried when she heard the ruling. “Having a start in the arts is going to be more dependent on coming from inherited wealth or making propaganda or being a straight white male,” she said, according to the New York Times. Young artists who want to take risks will suffer most, she said. Has this happened? Has art retreated into safety, taking on the role of cushioned commenter more often than out-there actor?

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