With controversial films like The Master and Savages hitting theaters and dominating box office profits, it’s easy to take creative liberty for granted.
We live in a time where if you want to take your vision and bring it to a big screen or canvas, no one can really stop you.
Decades ago, however, that wasn’t necessarily true. If you look back to October 1947, you will discover a much more tense climate for artistic production. That time proves the focus of the outdoor sculpture by Jenny Holzer, “Blacklist.”
Located near the doors of USC’s very own Fisher Museum, the work arose from the suggestion of undergraduate student Drew Weinbrenner. In 2005, the sculpture came to life as a garden seating area that features important quotes from the turbulent time. The work especially gives attention to the “Hollywood Ten,” a group of filmmakers asked to stand before the House Un-American Activities Committee for scrutiny because of their political beliefs. The Hollywood Ten’s refusal to cooperate put their names on a blacklist, which prevented them from gaining future employment. Some of the members even found themselves in prison.
During the ’40s and ’50s, many other creative minds also came under examination and “Blacklist” stands as a reminder of these events. In light of modern American entertainment, which gets away with quite a bit of controversial and risky material, the sculpture becomes even more important.
Amid other works of art in a calming garden, the work would perhaps go unnoticed by passers-by, who might perceive the sculpture as just a seating area. But once you enter the work, it immerses you in its history.
When you first walk up the steps and walk up to any of the 10 benches, you encounter quotes from names such as Gregory Peck and Alvah Bessie. Each of the 10 benches belongs to one of the Hollywood Ten, with the members’ names on the side and a quote with the year on top.
Known for working with text in everything from projections to LED lights, Holzer masterfully creates a unified piece. The artist utilizes the circular shape of the work cleverly, placing quotes along the round edges. As viewers enter, they walk straight on top of these quotes and let the words of the Hollywood Ten guide them around all 10 of the benches.
“My opinions are not an issue in this case. The issue is my right to have opinions,” reads one bench engraved with a 1947 quote from John Howard Lawson, head of the Hollywood division of the Communist Party USA. Regardless of viewers’ political opinions, these quotes provide insight into an age where artists’ work was dramatically affected by censorship.
Though situated in a quiet corner of campus, the work speaks loudly. The fact that viewers must know where to look in order to find the work only reaffirms Holzer’s idea: In order to appreciate a past where controversial art led to serious legal issues, we must look past today’s free creative climate.
The location also raises another question: Shouldn’t the work be near the School of Cinematic Arts? It would seem so at first glance, however, though the subject matter obviously pertains more to SCA than to the Roski School of Fine Arts, that would limit the message to only one world. Holzer remains an important and respected artist whose messages reach out to all members of society through common issues such as economics and gender.
Holzer creates an experience that could leave students who don’t have a background in film history with a feeling of awe. Moreover, she chose the quotes with care, as they have the potential to leave an impression on whoever might read them. Quotes such as “Only an act can be a crime, never an idea” from journalist and screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. apply to fields outside of the film industry.
As a group, the quotes invoke images of how these figures spoke out against censorship and helped bring true creative freedom. Though some might argue that American artists today still suffer from forms of censorship, their struggle doesn’t compare to that of artists from decades ago.
Holzer lets us sit in on 1940s artist’s hardships and allows us to appreciate today’s artists’ creative freedom. In the solitude of the garden, we can take in history and use it to shape the future.
Holzer focuses on the power of words: If these figures could change history through their declamation against an unfair system, nothing can stop us from doing the same decades later.
Art, however, remains an important part of this effort. These powerful quotes might live on through words, but art provides a way to easily communicate this section of history.
Eva Recinos is a senior majoring in English. Her column “Two Cents A Piece” runs Tuesdays.