What Do The Olympics Mean For L.A. Art?

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(Photo by Mr. Littlehand via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr)

Los Angeles has officially made a deal to host the 2028 Olympics, after months of back-and-forth on whether or not Paris or L.A. would win the bid for 2024. After the IOC announced plans to award both 2024 and 2028 simultaneously, it became clear L.A. would get one of the years. The only question left was which one, and last month's announcement settled the speculation for good.

Most of the talk around the Olympics' effect on L.A. involves the sports, money, ceremonies, and public transportation improvements around the games. According to the NOlympics LA group, a local activist network against bringing the games to Los Angeles, the discussion ought to include how much the focus on the Olympics distracts from urgent local crises like homelessness and police brutality. The official Games Concept includes something else outside of these main talking points, though: the cultural exposition. A cultural element of the Olympics isn’t new, and it rarely has the impact or reach of the athletic component, but its inclusion in the Olympics plan is worth noting because of the role cultural festivals have played in the history of Los Angeles.

The 1984 Olympics Arts Festival was a big moment for L.A.; the primacy of European art companies revealed the disparity between L.A.'s fine arts output and that of the rest of the world (groundbreaking films and subversive cultural art were plentiful in the Southland, world-class opera and dance were not). Brence Culp of LA 2028 told LAist how the 1984 games "sparked what has become an awesome art scene in LA." Her colleague, Joslyn Treece, added that "arts leaders have spoken about how that was such a seminal time in the growth of our arts and cultural community here in L.A." The 1984 Olympics' legacy on L.A.'s cultural relevance and local art scene is undeniable, however the arts impact of the games remains separate from the political motivations behind the 1984 festival; an internationally recognized cultural festival meant L.A. and the United States could present themselves as a pre-eminent diplomatic and democratic nation at the height of the Cold War against the Soviet Union.

Robert Fitzpatrick, the director of the 1984 Arts Festival, said "the goal of the festival is that art is not a form of propaganda but an instrument of truth, an opportunity to put aside differences and rejoice in being alive." Such a statement had a pointed connotation during the Cold War, because the Soviet Union had a strong tradition of artistic propaganda, and the U.S. was actively trying to recruit Soviet involvement in its arts festival (no better way to assert national superiority than by bringing your enemy to the basin of your country's commercial output). This didn't quite work out, though. The U.S. had boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow, and the Soviet Union would subsequently boycott the '84 games; "put aside differences," not so much. Ironically, of course, the modern conception of the Olympics was developed by French educator Pierre de Coubertin in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War (which ended in 1871), in an effort to bridge the resentment between France and Germany in the wake of France's defeat. He idealized his reincarnation of the Olympic Games as the purest form of transcending difference; salvation via competitive sport. In 1935, he said the following:

Célébrer les Jeux Olympiques, c’est se réclamer de l’Histoire. Aussi bien c’est elle qui pourra le mieux assurer la Paix. Demander aux peuples de s’aimer les uns les autres n’est qu’une manière d’enfantillage. Leur demander de se respecter n’est point une utopie, mais pour se respecter, il faut d’abord se connaître.
Celebrating the Olympic Games is a way of reclaiming history as well as better guaranteeing peace. Asking people to love one another is just a way of infantilization. Asking people to respect each other isn't a utopia, but to respect one another, it's first necessary to know one another.

In his view, the competition of sport could eliminate the need for political aggression. A cultural aspect of the game adds a new layer to the idea of forming bridges by doing so within the realm of a country's soft power rather than its military capability. In Coupertin's mind, a cultural element meant the Olympics could celebrate "the complete individual, not just athletic ability." The official LA '84 organizing group built on Coupertin's ideals; a list of the goals of the festival included "To showcase cultural diversity and excellence" and "To make a lasting contribution to Los Angeles and its artistic and cultural growth." L.A. transformed into the United States' best tool for presenting its soft power to the visiting nations of the Olympics.

The 1984 Olympics Arts Festival was also, to put it simply, a Very White Event. The Los Angeles Festival was born shortly thereafter as a response to this. The Los Angeles Festival, which only lasted a few years in the late 1980s/early 1990s responded to the Eurocentrism of the 1984 Olympics Arts Festival by bringing in the late-20th century “American Melting Pot” ethos; that is, internationalism as a sampler to broaden the tastes of a white audience. In 1990, Peter Sellars (the founder of the Los Angeles Festival) spoke to the New York Times about his motivation, saying, "[s]o this festival became a way of attempting to culturally remap Los Angeles and to say who lives here, what they are doing, what their lives are like. I wanted to ask: 'What is Los Angeles? What is unique here?' And what is here is the rest of the world."

The LA 2028 cultural exposition aims to have the impact of the '84 festival, with the cultural approach of the Los Angeles Festival, because it's "interesting to to think of the impact on the region another cultural program in 2028 could have," according to Treece. In the copy of their Olympic guide, the committee describes it as such: “The LA 2028 Cultural Olympiad will leverage LA’s unique cultural history and creativity by building on existing programs and developing new ones with key partners,” listing organizations like the Getty Museum, LA County Arts Commission, UCLA, and USC. The event focuses on a few different ways of executing a vision for cross-cultural creative collaboration:

Deliver programs focused on visual and performing arts that invite artists across the globe to collaborate with local artists in LA, idea exchange to convene global dialogue.
We will cultivate opportunities to integrate the cultural program with the education programs and community outreach initiatives to reach as many people as possible and to leave lasting cultural legacies for Los Angeles and the world.

These goals are virtually the same as those of 1984. Yet again, the Olympics are describing a festival bearing the weight of Los Angeles’ entire potential cultural output on its shoulders. The ideas they present are broad but also recognize a real need: to foster a sustainable and legitimized creative world that lifts the voices often relegated to the fray of cultural conversation.

One festival. A few weeks. As part of an international event whose budget could fund the National Endowment of the Arts countless times over.

And what voices are behind the festival? Besides the aforementioned organizations, the power behind the festival consists of most major Los Angeles museums and nonprofits. Arts institutions have a profound effect on a city’s cultural ecosystem because they wield the financial power.

Money = exposure = arbiters of what is good/bad = what we deem as culturally superior. These decisions come from the ecosystems in which they arise, which means white begets white begets white (or at least, privilege begets privilege begets privilege). And when culture only accepts a certain type of art, it creates an environment of animosity towards those who lack privilege. It’s an insidious animosity of “prestige” and “sophistication” and other manners of couched racism (the modus operandus of educated liberals everywhere), but this doesn’t mean the knives are any duller. The opposite; knives have time to sharpen when denial keeps the gaze away from the weapon. Even when our local organizations work to reframe the cultural narrative, (The Getty’s upcoming PST LA/LA exhibit, which recognizes the Latin American roots of Southern California, is one example, and the Olympics cites it as a jumping off point for its own festival), it distances itself from the message it purports to support.

As part of PST's LA/LA, LACMA is hosting an exhibition called Found in Translation: Design in California and Mexico 1915-1985. The exhibit will act as a "dialogue" between the two regions, because "[f]or centuries, people have moved back and forth between the two places, bringing objects, styles, and images whose meanings were shared as well as altered." This "shared meaning" will include a focus on the Olympics (Mexico hosted in 1968 and L.A. hosted in 1984), presenting them as perfect example of the interchange between L.A. and our neighbor to the south. The end of the exhibit will include "comparisons of burgeoning growth and urban sprawl as well as new voices of dissent in both places, all attesting to the richness and complexities in an ever-evolving dialogue." Dissent becomes dialogue; activism neutered into conversation. The museum chooses to highlight anger from the past as a fixed, discrete entity, existing only in our rearview mirror. Featuring posters advertising the Delano grape strike—the strike that had a huge impact on farmworkers' rights in the west and brought Latin America's history of progressive activism to American soil—imply the subjugation of farmworkers has run its course. This, of course, is untrue, especially considering that current farmworkers make as little as $10,000 annually.

If this exhibit is what LA 2028 wants to base its cultural festival off of, what type of "cultural legacy" does it create? Joslyn of LA 2028 said that the organization's "goal is to include as many folks as possible, making sure everything from opera to street food is fair game to be included in the celebration." Selling street food is still a highly vulnerable endeavor in Los Angeles, despite the city's efforts to de-criminalize the profession, but here it transforms into a tool to present L.A.'s cultural diversity for a billion-dollar enterprise that historically contributes to the militarization of police and displacement of low-income residents of Olympics host cities. Back in 2012, The Nation dove into the '84 Olympics' impact on the LAPD and how it contributed to the tensions leading up to the Rodney King uprising in 1992. It would not be surprising if the 2028 Olympics arts festival included artistic renderings of early '90s racial turmoil in L.A.

The Olympics have high-profile donors and massive amounts of cash associated with it, but will they do anything to offer true exposure to artists, or merely contribute to the feedback loop of exploiting L.A.'s diversity to build international clout while contributing to the systems that keep citizens marginalized? What is the real goal here?

Do we really want to cultivate programs that leave a lasting impact on Los Angeles and the world? Do we want to extend the reach of arts programming into every community, giving a platform for all artists to grow and develop their craft? Imagine committing the energy of an Olympics Cultural Exposition to the local artists who work day in and day out.

One blow-out event won’t change the face of cultural power. No one’s absent father successfully made up for years of neglect by showing up with a car at their kid’s 16th birthday party. Truly changing the face of art in Los Angeles would require systematically up-ending the paradigm of gatekeepers. It’s not an impossible task; Danielle Brazell is committed to art in the public sphere in her position as General Manager of LA’s Department of Cultural Affairs, ever reminding L.A. citizens how the city works for its people. Los Angeles also doesn’t have the ego of controlling the world’s art conversation for decades (hello, New York). The world here is still nebulous enough to go in a direction that fosters real engagement and and the dismantling of an industry’s hierarchy. If we commit all our money and energy to an externally-focused, international event, we’re committing ourselves to becoming a modern version of old paradigms. What if instead of trying to make Los Angeles the 21st century New York, we forged a new path of artistic engagement?