The West, 2021 Day 12: We Getty Art, and Food to (San) Die(go) For


If you're new to Non-Boring History, welcome! Right now, things are a little hectic. I'm on the road in California, with my tolerant spouse, He Who Shall Not Be Named On the Internets (HWSNBNOTI, pronounced Hoosen Benoti). I’m reporting on our historical discoveries, and I'm sending more than my usual 2-3 emails each week.

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The problem with writing about our visit to the Getty Museum (the other one, not the villa) is that, just as with the Museum itself, it’s hard to know where to start. How can I describe how overwhelmingly moneyed and enormous it is? I can cheat with photos. So I will. Hoosen and I boarded an actual tram that took us to the top of a steep hill, where we saw THE ENTRANCE.

Photo: Annette Laing, 2021

A One-Woman Crash Course in Art Appreciation

Look, neither Hoosen nor I are art experts. My English school took me at age 16 to the Tate Gallery, as it then was. This was part of a desperate attempt to give us some polish before unleashing us on an unsuspecting world.

The senior curator who had written the guidebook to the Tate was brought out to give us an introductory talk. I recall him asking my friend and me, with obvious distaste, if we were part of the school group.

“Oh, yes,” said my friend (the one who went on to a distinguished career as an academic and writer), “We’re absolute philistines.”

He eyed her with even greater disdain, and said sourly, “Quite.”

After that, we were very much determined not to appreciate art. I vividly recall the same friend mocking the Mark Rothko paintings. “I could have done those on my lunch hour!” she announced.

Actually, that may have been fair enough. There’s a lot of pretense in the art world, and I loved the hatchet job done on it by the fun and fascinating movie Who the **** is Jackson Pollock? It’s all about Teri Horton, a truck driver who bought a painting at a yard sale that she was convinced was a genuine Pollock. Art experts were dismissive of her to the point of insulting. I won’t tell you the rest. See it.

It wasn’t until I met Posh Brit Mary, an actual art expert from London, while we were both living in L.A., that I first decided I wanted to Know About Art. There’s a reason Mary and I are still friends after more than thirty years, although I think I got the better end of the deal.

The thing about Mary is that she is a woman of great knowledge and enthusiasm. She lives near London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, and on my very first visit with her, she took me round some of the galleries to look at her favorite pieces. She was memorably and infectiously enthusiastic. In short, she got me interested in art. I still don’t know about art, but I can now recognize the work of a fair number of great artists. And I know what I like.

Which is, Mary said, pretty much the point. That’s not what you hear from Pretentious Art People.

I was once intimidated by Art Museums. I’m over it. Now, it’s just a lot of fun to go. And lots of other people think so, too. Admission to the Getty Museum (this one, just like the Getty Villa we visited a couple of days ago) is just $20 for parking, and tickets are free, so it’s accessible to almost everyone.

It’s an opulent day out, I tell you. Here’s the fountain.

Oh, and the buildings? All covered in stone imported from Italy. Once again, the phrase “over the top” springs to mind.

Something about this made me feel countercultural.

So, rather than immediately heading to look at all the European paintings, sculpture, furniture and whatnot (and it’s an amazing collection) we started with an exhibit called Photo Flux, the work of L.A.-based artists, mostly artists of color. I'm interested, and I'm also keen to see elite spaces become much more welcoming.

The small exhibit started out with a statement from the curator that ticked all the wokey boxes.

I have to interrupt myself here to say I've been teaching the history of race and racism in America fully and frankly for thirty years, but I'm not a fan of Critical Race Theory. I realize that this may confuse you. If you're that keen to know why, here’s a reading list of the critics (mostly liberal and Left, because that’s how complicated this debate really is) but there will be a test on the reading before I’ll discuss it. I will say I am passionate about free speech and academic freedom, because I don’t know how education is supposed to happen without them.

I am also not a big fan of artists’ and curators’ statements, so, as usual, I did my best to ignore being told what to think before I even clapped eyes on the art.

And then I saw this. Captivating photos of girls gazing into the camera.

Photo: Annette Laing, 2021

On the left? These two tiny, indistinct photos remind me that we are getting very mixed messages in 2021 about whether Asians and Latinos in America count as oppressed minorities. At top left is a photo of two Japanese-American girls playing in a World War II internment camp.

Asian Americans aren’t usually considered an underrepresented minority, because often they simply aren’t, which isn’t to say that they don’t suffer discrimination. Were they included in this exhibit because, honestly, it’s politically awkward at the Getty to leave them out? Is this a grudging inclusion, based on the obvious injustice of the Japanese-American internment? Does the Black girls’ gaze imply skepticism about them being included at all? And the photo of a lowrider car, to represent Latinos, I guess, and maybe indigenous people (because in California, those are often the same people) puts the car, not the person, first, and the driver is a guy, where the other pictures are of girls. I can BS like this all day about art! Such fun! No evidence required. But to a plain old non-Theory historian like me, to use CRT fans’ favorite phrase, it’s all a bit . . . problematic.

I love this picture. The young man looks more vulnerable than the tough guy image he seems to try to project. His name is Gordon. It’s hard to be a tough guy called Gordon.

It’s a bit awkward that this is only a temporary exhibit. The Getty’s statement, posted on the wall, comes across as both pandering and patronizing. Here is the final paragraph, which sounds mealy-mouthed and unenthusiastic (my emphases):

This exhibition, long overdue at the Getty Museum, underscores our growing recognition that this work and these artists matter. We acknowledge that adding diverse voices to our galleries requires both immediate action and long-term effort.

It sounds like the Getty just reluctantly noticed that, say, Black people exist. But please don’t cancel them. Even though the permanent collection is biased to the Western art that was J. Paul Getty’s passion, this is not a simple story of “the museum was racist, and now it’s not going to be.” Although being snotty will carry on being OK, I guess.

Here’s my suggestion (not that the Getty cares what I think, but it’s worth a try): Pair the photos of the Black girls with this one from the museum of Napoleon’s nieces in 1821. Hoosen says I should show them side by side, but, bizarrely, Substack can’t do that yet:

Photo: Annette Laing, 2021

How about putting the photo of Gordon side by side with this 18th century swagger portrait in the Getty, with Gordon’s picture on the right?

Photo: Annette Laing, 2021

I would never presume to know what people like in history or art based on their ethnicity. You’re looking at someone who once spent $5 at an estate sale in rural Georgia, and came home with a captivating painting that turned out to be by a black South African folk artist. People are individuals, and we have every right to be. There was a very diverse California crowd at the Getty, drawn to the European art. Like people, art itself really isn’t as it’s caricatured (although the art world might well be).

I want to show you just one illustration of why I dislike lazy misunderstandings (or put-downs) of history along the lines of things haven’t changed, they have always been awful/great, who needs to read books?

So I leave you with two arresting works of art from the Getty’s permanent collection. Make of them what you will.

This portrait of an African woman was sculpted by an Englishman in 1859:

And this man was a professional artist’s model in Paris in 1818:

Photos: Annette Laing, 2021

If you look to find ways to reduce a complex past and present to a simple list of beliefs that can be tied with a bow, you’ll find it. But that’s not, repeat, not what historians should do. It’s the complexity that matters. We embrace it. And we keep asking questions of the evidence, and ourselves.

This, of course, helps explain why most historians don’t get invited to parties. But do beware of the historians who do, who stay popular by only saying things that their chosen audience agree with. As Cambridge professor and brilliant TV presenter Mary Beard puts it, “part of the job of the academic is to be the gadfly.” That means we should tick everyone off eventually, because real life isn’t tidy, and its our job to point that out. I accept this thankless role.

Who was J. Paul Getty?

Oilman, philanthropist, strange and awful human being. How strange and awful? I invite you to read about him on Wikipedia. Don’t miss the tragic story of what he did to his grandson, John Paul Getty III. You may need therapy afterward.

It dawns on me that there are a lot of weird and evil billionaires. I must admit, visiting the Getty Museum (this one, built after his death), starting up the steep hill from the underground parking lot via exclusive tram, made me feel like I was in a Bond film, with Getty as the villain. Before I kill you, Dr. Laing, let us tour my vast art collection in my private mountain retreat.

Taking in the spectacular view over L.A., I realized Getty’s legacy is twofold: Yes, there’s his extraordinary collection of art, along with the antiquities at the Getty Villa, and the Villa itself. are his legacy to Los Angeles.

But so are the Mad Max freeway system and the visible smog layer, both partly the responsibility of a billionaire whose pile came from the ruthless pursuit and promotion of oil. The Getty Museum’s hilltop site was threatened by last year’s fires. God forbid it should ever be touched, but the irony is striking.

Photo: Annette Laing, 2021

Not that Getty himself had to live with smog and freeways and fires, mind. He spent most of his life on his country estate in England. It’s a tradition among super-rich people, starting with early American slaveowners, to quietly move far from the unpleasant consequences of their actions.

Dinner in What Used to Be Mexico

California was once part of Mexico, and before that, belonged to many indigenous peoples, from the Tongva to the Nisenan, before they were devastated by exploitation, attempted cultural erasure, and murder. In San Diego, we are now half an hour from the border with Mexico as it is today. Old Town San Diego, the first European town, is a bit of a tourist trap, but you can absolutely find history here, from the original inhabitants, the Kumeyaay, to Spanish and Mexicans (even the Mormons were here) . You can decide for yourself who the heroes and villains are in California’s fascinating past. I have to tell you, after my comments on Getty, that historians aren’t really about heroes and villains most of the time. A professor of mine once suggested “all the time”, but I must have had “Hitler” written across my face, because he backed down.

Hoosen and I, on a flying visit to San Diego, ate at the Old Town Mexican Cafe. It’s the best in town, according to the Latina ahead of us in line. But then Hoosen, an Asian-American Californian, likes cheap Chinese grub from the nearest takeaway, and I don’t recommend trusting his opinion of Asian eateries. Why not just take it from this white Brit foodie? I taught at San Diego State while I was finishing my doctorate, and the Old Town Mexican Cafe was my hands-down favorite place for after-work margaritas and good eats.

Here’s how their tortillas are made. By hand, right there, by Tortilla Ladies, using techniques that go deep into indigenous, Mexican, and Californian history. Order corn AND flour tortillas when you visit San Diego just to try this place, because you should. They’re that good.

This new dish from the cafe’s repertoire, the Molcajete (named for the volcanic-rock mortar in which it’s served), makes me want to get deeply cross at every other Mexican joint. Several tasty proteins, cactus, and avocado swimming in yummy sauce.

Photo: Annette Laing, 2021

The great thing about California is that wherever we’re from, we are united in many ways, including in our love of great grub. If you never lived in the Golden State, trust me, you won’t grasp America until you do. Oh, and Californians? You need to get out more, too. America doesn’t end at the Nevada border, you know.