July 2002
volume 1, issue 1


LACMA's California Adventure

California's desire to create images of itself with which to both congratulatingly self-reflect and proudly present itself to the world culminated recently in the coincidence of two cultural events, the Made in California: Art, Image, and Identity show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the opening of Disney's new theme park "Disney's California Adventure," adjacent to Disneyland. Both of these cultural artifacts seek to create a coherent yet "playfully" diverse public image and identity for California and Californians by sharing in a celebration of a politics of identity whose function is to blur the line between the real and the fictional — with popular culture inserted as the connection between them. These projects could be seen as an assimilation and concretization of an academic trend that began in the 1980s, creating a sense of cultural haunting that is not ephemeral but material and persistent, however reconfigured.

In a radio interview featured on the show "Politics of Culture", hosted by Kevin Star on KCRW, Barry Braverman, executive producer of Disney California Adventure, explains the goal of the theme park: "We wanted Disney's California Adventure to be a reality-based park, to be in many ways a pop cultural statement. We wanted to embrace the richness of the culture that's around us today...we were consciously trying to adopt a slightly different tone, perhaps a more satirical, not satirical, but more a playful, kind of less literal tone with the park, and I think that the subject matter and kind of the tone that we began to develop turns out to play to a little bit older [visitors] than Disneyland, which is not a bad thing to our point of view...Our motivating idea here was the California dream." The desire here to be both "real" and "dream" is mind bending, but for Disney it seems to serve a sort of ideological purpose, which would be to create a sense of reality that maintains a sense of the ideal (the "dream") within the so-called "real" in order to suspend the evaluation of either category. As soon as one might focus on one aspect, it blurs into the other in a form of side-stepping more akin to consumerist projections than escapist strategizing. The fascination with popular culture is here both the means and the goal. The public attends in order to learn something about culture and specifically California's culture from seeing itself reflected back on a vast and yet consumable scale. What is "learned" is in a sense what is already known and familiar, in that it is drawn from popular culture and returned to it. But, importantly, because it is organized and presented in a systematic way it gives the impression of the acquisition of knowledge.

In the same radio interview, Stephanie Barron, co-curator of the Made in California exhibit at LACMA, acknowledged the similarities between the museum show and the Disney project with respect to "what it brought in, in terms of the immigrant experience, aspects of the noir, of the dour, the idea of multiple voices, different languages, and a not so pretty picture. And I feel that a lot of what we tried to get across in the Made in California exhibition was very similar in intent to what came through in the California Dreams film [a feature at Disney's California Adventure; the actual title reads Golden Dreams], which I thought was actually quite well done."

But Barron's apparent belief that the worlds of art and entertainment could share some commonality by sharing in a reflexive criticality becomes frightening when Disney's California Adventure turns out to be, not surprisingly, an orgy of every imaginable, but carefully edited, stereotype concerning California. From the blaring of the Beach Boys music across the park, to the fake farmhand vendors in their overalls and neat, brightly colored shirts selling fruit and bottles of coca-cola at the fake roadside stand in the "Bountiful Valley Farm" section of the park, to the "humorously" titled Mulholland Madness roller coaster, where even terror is safely straightjacketed into a "fun" form.

The Golden Dreams film that Barron references is a 20-minute documentary-style drama of the "history of California," hosted by Whoopie Goldberg as Calafia, the "Goddess of California" (though her lack of disguise and distinctive voice allow her to simultaneously maintain her persona as "Whoopie"). Before the show starts a Disney employee makes a point of telling the audience that what we are about to see "were real people, based on real characters, telling real stories in their own words," another mind-bending Disney-style blur of the "real" and narrative fiction. The "not so pretty picture" that Barron referred to was not only almost imperceptible, it was strategically inserted into the manufactured narrative so as to render it not just harmless, but redeeming: the struggle and hardship of foreign immigrants to California was touched upon in the film, but these portrayals were carefully rendered as heroic rather than exploitative, a process that, on closer examination, might reveal the means by which an academically critical impulse can reverse itself in a blur. Darker aspects of California's history were not mentioned at all, such as the violence of the U.S.'s territorial expansion and war with Mexico. And the killing of Native Americans was conveniently passed off as caused by the "Spaniards," the word derisively pronounced to theatrical effect by Whoopie, whose name also happens to contain uneasy referential contradictions, but most glossingly an expression of lighthearted fun. Ultimately, the message of the film is that all it takes is a dream to achieve happiness, and that California is the "land of dreams."

As Whoopie leaves us at the end of the film by "inviting us to dream," the complexity of what that dream territory consists of begins to become more evident, in that it is the deliberate and calculated metaphor for the active blurring of the real and the fake, the container for our idealizations and popular constructions. Not that this is any surprise concerning the Disney Corporation, but that the same construction is also at play at LACMA, "intentionally", is perhaps cause for concern. Barron defended the Made in California show by pointing out that "the critical response has actually been quite at odds with the public response. It seems that the general public coming to the exhibition comes back with comments like 'I've learned so much.'...Some of the criticism has certainly been, within the art press, directed towards the fact that we have brought into the museum examples of popular culture in a way kind of tainting that space of the museum...I think that the discussion that this kind of show provokes...and the kinds of questions that are being raised by an exhibition like this are all about what museums hopefully want to engage visitors with." In other words, Barron sees the Disnification of the museum as a valuable cultural development: it draws on pop culture and is in turn justified by its own popular success. A popular turnout is equated with a good show. This circularity both sustains it economically and rhetorically safeguards it from criticism.

The Made in California show consisted of "3850 works of art and 3450 ephemera and cultural artifacts," mostly from popular culture, from advertisements to fashion trends to Gidget's surfboard (a real object used by a fictional person). Though some of the works of art, and even some of the popular images, are compelling, in the context of the show they become flattened into moments of time on a monumentalizing historical timeline (eerily similar to the Golden Dreams timeline of the history of California) that runs through the show, dictating the form and arrangement of it. Central to the project is the concept that identity is the product of history and its representation (as it is in the Disney film) and the purpose of images is to testify to the "reality" of that narrative totality.

In the opening paragraph of Barron's introductory essay in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition she makes clear that it is not art itself that is the subject of the exhibition, but rather "the competing interests and ideologies that informed the arts and shaped popular conceptions of the state in the twentieth century." Meanwhile, the cultural ideology that informs the show (as opposed to its objects) is an interpretation of "diversity" where the complex concept of "representation" in the arts is removed from the object of the work of art itself and placed onto its maker, and more specifically onto the statistics concerning their "class, gender and race." As Barron states, "ethnic and cultural diversity is key to any effort to review artistic production in California." More than anything else, art becomes a matter of responsible statistical representation, both in the object and in its display. Other factors in choosing which works were selected for the show, things that might specifically touch on the works themselves, are not discussed. The show then, is less about art than it is about the politics of representation -- of the individual artist and by extension their clan, which it is the function of the work of art, the museum show indicates, to represent; and in turn through representing this object, the museum becomes, contradictorily, the institution which is capable of representing the individual in/as a totality. But meanwhile the internal contradictions of this construction, how diversity becomes a new totality, are avoided. Any complexity concerning representation is reduced to the simpler idea that the object in question reflects California, by literally picturing it or its inhabitants or popular cultural associations, or was physically made or produced in California.

Barron's goal is to popularize the museum, and aesthetic concerns are deemed too problematic for this goal: "most museums still present art in hushed, elegant galleries, contemplative spaces that are often disconnected from everyday experience and may even appear elitist or intimidating." In contrast, museums, for Barron, must strike an "appropriate balance between education and entertainment," and public polls are consulted, as in consumer polls, in order to register what the popular majority is seeking in a museum experience. The new museum renders itself as the content suppliers to a consuming public, which apparently desires to see itself reflected back in terms of its cultural diversity from the museum walls. But the assumption that the institution of the museum is a neutral ground in which to provide this service is open to question.

The new role of the museum is to provide, Barron proposes, "revisionist exhibitions," in that, "by exposing museum-going audiences to exhibitions that present art in relation to its social, political, and historical context, the public will grow to value artworks as more than timeless, transcendent, or universal objects of beauty that speak for themselves." As Barron sees it, what was previously an aesthetic function of the work of art in the museum context has become a social and political function. But for the museum these new agendas still exist in the abstract, so that the art objects placed there are reduced to an illustrative rather than critical function. Even Barron feels the show falls short of its own goal of fully or accurately representing all social groups. In response to a question concerning which aspects of California might have been rejected in order to present the story that the exhibition wanted to portray, Barron answers that the limitations really were due to space and time, but that ideally the show would "go more into the issues of feminism... we do a pretty good job in terms of Chicano and Asian cultures, I'd say we probably don't do as strong a job in terms of an African American presence."

Despite the efforts to rescue the museum from the allegedly alienating (and indeed suspect) effects of formalist engagement, the goal of representing diversity ends up being an ideal that is no less abstract, and no less problematic. Rather than a reconsideration of its own positioning(s), the museum renegotiates "art's" position — switching from the alienating effects of an extreme intrinsic framing of art to an equally alienating extreme of extrinsic framing — the museum as a kind of pointing machine, ever at work locating "art" for us. In its attempt to avoid what is read as the stifling totality of the work of art as a monument unto itself, the museum responds by erecting an alternate monument to a historical representation, which conveniently secures the museum's place as the locus of the simultaneous distillation and totalization that historicization requires. It enacts a reversal of the idea that art is an object to be interpreted or aesthetically engaged with (which was intimidating), to make the whole of the state of California the new "art", so that the products of culture become interpretive gestures for the state, which is rendered as the true object of engagement. The idea of complexity is transferred from the art object to the everyday world, with the cultural object serving as an explanation of that prosaic chaos. When asked whether visitors to California Adventure might eschew a tour of the actual state of California in favor of the theme park, as if visiting the Las Vegas "Paris" resort substituted for a trip to Europe, Barry Braverman answered, "the intention is that they will go on to explore the real California, I mean, we absolutely never intended to substitute for California, it would be silly to try to do that, California is so vast and rich and deep and multifaceted we couldn’t possibly approximate that experience in a theme park. But what we can do is, I think, and what we do succeed in doing in our best attractions, is what any good interpretive experience tries to do, which is to distill out of a kind of a multifaceted complicated set of places and ideas something that is very easy to grasp and perhaps hopefully illuminates some of the richness and complexity of a more in-depth experience."