The L.A. County Fair: Paradise Lost, Lost, or Nostalgia Ain’t What it Used to Be
The city they call Rome, O Meliboeus, I fancied in my foolishness like ours here, whither we shepherds are often wont to drive the tender weanlings of the sheep. Thus I knew the likeness of puppies to dogs, of kids to their mothers: thus would I compare great things with small. But she bears her head as high among all other cities as any cypress will do among trailing hedgerow shoots.
Virgil, Eclogue I
A trip to the L.A. County Fair appears at first sight an extremely obvious thing, no more odd than a trip to the shopping mall or to any of the festivals, fairs and amusement parks that are available as the week in Los Angeles slides into the weekend. But the more you consider it the stranger it seems. To begin with, the very idea is itself paradoxical: a celebration of agriculture adjacent to a city so unashamedly metropolitan that the TV ads for the Fair make a joke of the fact that its inhabitants don’t even know the origins of wool. Yet the Fair’s fundamental strangeness is not this collision of rural and urban; after all, city dwellers have from time immemorial sought respite from the alienation of city life by escaping to the country. Nor is the Fair exclusively the preserve of urban Angelenos, since much of the surrounding Inland Empire has long-standing agricultural roots, roots that the Fair is, at least in part, designed to nourish and sustain. Instead, its strangeness lies in the somewhat perverse way the encounter between city and country is played out by the Fair and its exhibits, and the way the pastoral is experienced (or isn’t experienced) by the majority of its visitors.
A visit to the County Fair is an overwhelming sensory experience. After a jaunt along the freeway, you enter through that most quintessential of Southern California spaces, a paved parking lot. Here, proximity to the entrance booths is determined by your willingness to pay for the privilege (general $8, preferred $10, VIP $15). As you look to the north on your walk to the ticket booths the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains provide a dramatic backdrop, while to the south a screen of trees is partially obscured by the Fair’s luminously multi-colored promotional banners. Once through the gate you emerge into the carnival area, filled with the commotion of whirling and flashing fairground attractions and concession stands. From here a steady stream of people makes its way down through the “Palms MarketPlace” where gaudy trinkets and highly calorific foods are sold, to the Grandstand where a public address announces opportunities to gamble on the horse races taking place. Located underneath the Grandstand, the “Village on Broadway” houses demonstrations and contest entries, encompassing everything from pottery and knitting to “tablescaping,” culinary expositions and competitions. Walk further still and you arrive at the “Big Red Barn” (opportunely sponsored this year by Paramount Pictures’ forthcoming film “Charlotte’s Webb”) where livestock lounge in their pens, or are milked, sheared, and on special occasions give birth to their young. Adjacent to these farm animal displays are the vast commercial halls featuring a mind-numbing array of consumer product displays.1
Amidst these attractions stands the Millard Sheets Gallery, one of the County Fair’s longest-standing institutions, which traces its history all the way back to the founding of the Fair in 1922, beginning its life as the Fine Arts Program. Named in 1995 after local artist and teacher Millard Sheets (the program’s director for many years), the Gallery has recently been given renewed purpose and direction under its new Executive Director Dan Danzig, who has realigned the gallery much more towards the L.A. contemporary art scene. This year’s exhibition, Fair Exchange, curated by Irene Tsatsos, highlights the encounter between rural subject and urban viewpoint by inviting artists from the city of Los Angeles to submit works that re-imagine the traditional techniques associated with county fairs, as well as the various social, political and environmental issues the Fair raises.
There is a considerable cultural tradition of this kind of encounter between town and country. Starting with the bucolic poetry of Virgil and Theocritus in classical antiquity, artists and writers have presented scenes that, though taking place in a rural setting, are actually highly sophisticated, urbane constructions. Seeming to echo this ancient tradition, exhibits at the Fair present pastoral traditions in ways that speak to a distinctly urban audience. Yet fundamentally the way the Fair does this runs against the grain of the bucolic imagery of the past, which relied on nostalgia to evoke a sense of the loss of certain social values.
That something was missing from urban life, something that the image of the countryside offered to restore, has been apparent to many producers of pastoral imagery, who created a bucolic aesthetic dominated by nostalgia for something lost. Virgil’s first Eclogue, for instance, is saturated in a feeling of longing for a simpler way of life that the countryside embodies. The poem recounts the conversation of two shepherds, one of whom has lost his farm while the other still possesses his. The second shepherd, quoted in the epigraph above, tells of his visit to the city of Rome where a young, god-like man (Caesar Augustus) had granted him his farm. But the drama of the poem is determined by the contrast between the viewpoint of the man who is staying and the one who is leaving, which gives a nostalgic aspect to the way the country is seen because it is, from the exile’s point of view, something that has been lost. Looking back nostalgically in this way, the pastoral way of life serves as a model for a simpler, more desirable way of conducting affairs.
Traditionally, agricultural fairs have followed this pattern, integrating an aesthetic of nostalgia as part of their visitor appeal.2 In fact, such events can be conceived as creating a kind of ideal community within the life of the population they serve. They have the effect of enhancing memory, stimulating pride, and becoming a repository of shared experience.3 Generations of urban dwellers have nostalgically craved this lost pastoral state as an antidote to an increasingly alienated present. Yet this feeling and these ideas seem absent from the L.A. County Fair, which highlights a condition that is highly characteristic of metropolitan Los Angeles, a condition that consists of a lack of the shared concepts of art and of the pastoral that in the past have bound people together with shared practices and values.
Entering the Millard Sheets Gallery from the commotion of the Fair, it is difficult to find your bearings, or to know how to look at the works on display. Already overwhelmed with visual stimuli, it is difficult to connect with intimate works such as those presented in the Gallery, which were presumably selected for their effectiveness in a conventional gallery context. The exhibition space is set out to facilitate an easy flow of people, with artworks in the first two rooms arranged traditionally around the walls and on platforms, and the curator clearly regards these rooms as typical of any gallery space, where spectators are left to experience and respond to the work as they move through the exhibit. But this attitude has problematic consequences. It means that Fair Exchange fails to take into account the effects that the wider experience the
Fair has on its visitors. The pervasive and intoxicating sensory experience characteristic of the Fair has a way of enduring after exposure to it has ceased. So even well- informed spectators bring with them a certain residual way of looking at objects from the Fair outside—a kind of habituated gaze that regards everything before it merely as a procession of appearances. Consequently, the tendency is to meander from work to work much as you would from display to display in the commercial buildings next door, not paying much attention unless these works are unusually entertaining or engaging.
In fact, a number of works succeed in functioning on this level, a notable example being Martin Kersels’s hilariously entertaining video work Pink Constellation. In it a room seems to undergo strange shifts in gravity, and at one point the furniture chases the unfortunate inhabitant from wall to wall, and from floor to ceiling. The appeal of Pink Constellation is in part due to the inherent accessibility of video as a medium — people know what to do in front of this type of work. But the meaning of other works remains remote in this context, particularly the sculptures of George Stoll and Jessica Rath, which get rather lost in the cavernous space of the gallery’s first room. Stoll’s subtle and humorously lyrical work relies on close observation to distinguish his recreations of mundane household items, in painted balsa wood or pine, from the real thing. Rath, meanwhile, incorporates found natural and man-made objects—a tree stump, a block of tarmac—into hybridized amalgams that powerfully illustrate the tenacity of nature as it finds a place within the city environment. Both of these artists’ work is intriguing, complex and multilayered, but their meanings evaporate in an environment that overwhelms them.
Wittgenstein’s later philosophical ideas sought to show how a number of cultural activities — language, knowledge, seeing—depend on shared concepts in particular contexts.4 Such activities only make sense and have meaning, he contended, if we understand the concepts that structure them within a shared form of life.5 If art is to have meaning, therefore, it has to be regulated by a shared concept of art and its audience must be able to perceive the significant common features of this concept.6 Of course, such concepts, particularly concepts relating to practices of art, change historically and from group to group. Indeed, groups within a culture sometimes have particular ideas that give their activities a meaning that is not accessible to the wider community. Such has historically been the case, for example, with the artistic avant-garde who developed ideas that made their artworks viable and meaningful to a few, but incomprehensible to the public. Yet the eventual acceptance by a wide audience of avant-garde works and their continued relevance to culture demonstrates that there exists, at least potentially, a shared perception of what constitutes art.
From this standpoint one significant aspect of the Fair is that it embraces two distinct artistic communities who have quite different notions of what constitutes art. On one hand we have contemporary artists and visitors who are acquainted with the ideas of contemporary art, concepts that are in general complex and self-reflexive, but tend to be outside the experience of many of the Fair’s visitors. On the other are those who participate in, or appreciate, the Fair’s competitions and demonstrations, for whom art is conceived as a more traditional practice. This kind of art is frequently categorized as craft.
In her book Ordinary Life, Festival Days, Leslie Prosterman compellingly examines the aesthetic issue of craft within the context of traditional Midwestern county fairs. Pointing out that participants will readily apply the label “art” to their own work, she notes that the concepts of art this label embraces have more in common with eighteenth- century notions than those advocated by the avatars of contemporary art. Despite this anachronism (or perhaps because of it), Prosterman perceives great aesthetic and artistic value in this kind of production, a value ignored by the elitist judgments of the art establishment, which oftentimes unfairly relegates craft to a subsidiary status within its artistic hierarchy. She persuasively argues that craft embodies an interest in shared processes and values applied to familiar things which, integrated into everyday life, produces an intensified reordering of the world that focuses the participant’s aesthetic system.7
In some ways, Fair Exchange is very mindful of these issues, and is at pains to acknowledge the artistic value of the hand-made products exhibited by practitioners in other areas of the Fair. Many of the artworks displayed feature craft techniques that are given a critical twist, from knitwear that bears sociopolitical slogans by Lisa Anne Auerbach, to bizarre, hand-crocheted cacti and kelp sculptures by The Institute for Figuring that model hyperbolic space (a mathematical alternative to the more familiar Euclidean geometry that structures our everyday perception of the world). But by the same token, by engaging this issue, Fair Exchange finds itself in a dilemma: should it embrace those ideas and risk losing a certain high-art cache or should it maintain the hierarchies of an elitist establishment that belittles the concepts of art shared by many of the Fair’s other participants?
As a way of allaying anxiety on both these counts the gallery seems to have attempted to keep a foot in both pools, but in fact has only dipped its toe into the former. A small number of exhibits are displayed outside the gallery space in the “Village of Broadway,” alongside competitive craft submissions. Daniel Marlos’s handmade quilt, entitled What’s That Bug?, works perfectly well in this environment, and has been admired for its technical skill by the competitors whose work surrounds it. Nearby, the installation of The Institute for Figuring not only evinces great skill and labor but encourages the viewer to uncover the layers of significance its forms contain. This work seems to exemplify and amplify Prosterman’s conclusion that craft activities have a revelatory, reordering effect on the world. The association between these two practices that this juxtaposition makes highlights questions about what makes each different, and allows a wide variety of spectators to consider how much they actually have in common.
The success of this exhibiting strategy in provoking ideas and putting contemporary artists’ works within reach of a far larger and more diverse audience draws attention to the failure of other parts of the exhibition in achieving such a goal. For the most part, Fair Exchange replicates the uneasy separation between high art and low craft, sequestering away most of its exhibits in the confines of the Sheets Gallery. By doing so the exhibition not only limits the artwork’s potential audience to those who seek it out, but also stifles projects that have a potentially wide- reaching, interactive ethos. The work of the collective Fallen Fruit, for example, a collaboration between artists David Burns, Matias Viegener, and Austin Young, is tucked away in the cramped final room of the gallery along with a number of other installations. Fallen Fruit seeks to investigate and promote untapped public food resources in Los Angeles, particularly those that are produced by fruit trees in public spaces. The project aims to involve people in its activities and to extend its activism to the dispossessed, homeless and hungry, yet its Fair Exchange installation, which includes a playful, old-fashioned, fairground-style cut-out allowing visitors to put their heads through holes and have their pictures taken as radiation-suit-clad activists, fails to reach many of the public to whom it seems designed to appeal.
The installation of Civic Matters also feels limited in the exhibition’s back room, though it too has the potential to engage a much wider audience. Entitled á la LA, the work presents what they refer to as an “indoor piazza” incorporating reading material, displays of various kinds, straw bales for seats, and at its center a potted tree. Designed as a sort of research and meditation center, the installation provides an area for meetings (casual or planned) and provides resources for reflection and study. It also incorporates the contributions of visitors who are invited to write messages and suspend them from dangling paperclips beneath the canopy of the tree. (One message reads “I love you America, but please LET THERE BE PEACE!!!!,” while another simply states “I like pizza.”) This has resulted in a lively, charming and diverse communal discourse, the work functioning to facilitate the active participation by the public whose ideas create part of the meaning of the work. Moreover, by drawing its audience into the process of making the artwork it demonstrates that the regulation of the concepts of art is a collective activity that plays a part in bringing different ideas about art closer together.
Although distinct sections of the Fair are marked on the map, you cannot escape the feeling of homogeneity encompassing the proceedings. This aesthetic phenomenon is common to many fairs and expositions, where everything is presented as something to be consumed, the effect of which is to flatten things on display into uniform commodities.8 Emblematic of this condition is the way signs and promotional material organize the experience of the L.A. County Fair’s visitor, characterizing everything as “fun” of various kinds (“Smelly FUN,” “Spendy FUN,” “Noisy FUN,” “Speedy FUN,” “Tasty FUN,” etc.), bringing a uniformity not only to your expectations of these experiences, but transforming experience into predictable, pre-digested spectacle. Indeed, so pervasive is this uniformity that it even extends to the most distinctively un-commercial of areas—the livestock pens—which, as visitors make their way round to this furthest flung part of the site, are indicated as “Udderly FUN.” The ramifications of this condition for the Sheets exhibition and the Fair’s other participatory exhibits and demonstrations are considerable. Under these circumstances it becomes difficult to draw people’s attention to the value of the handmade artifact when so much of the rest of the Fair conceals this quality beneath a veil of uniformly commodified surfaces.
In many ways the L.A. County Fair is unlike a traditional county fair, which places Fair Exchange in a bind. The Fair’s scale, its primarily urban audience and its “mall-like” quality, noted by Irene Tsatsos in the exhibition catalogue, all tend to obscure the utopian qualities of production Prosterman identifies in the Midwestern fair.9 In order to effectively convey the tension between the handmade art product and the mass-produced commodity that dominates the commercial aspects of the Fair, it is crucial that Fair Exchange emphasizes the distinct difference of these forms. Indeed, we might broadly define art as those objects we look at with an aesthetic attitude, or, in other words, objects that we perceive as having a particular or even peculiar quality. Art then has to be singular, or distinct from other things.10 How, then, should the exhibition position itself within a context that has a pervasive, all-encompassing commercial function?
Theorists since Marx have argued that the central defining phenomenon of urban commercial modernity is the commodity. Georg Lukács identified this economic category as having a profound cultural significance as well. He pointed out that the commodity form is able to shape the world around it or “remould” life “in its own image,” as he put it, in effect making the world and the people and things in it merely a spectacle of commodities on display.11 The consequence of this is that any area in which the commodity dominates will be rendered part of an ersatz world in which social relations, and relations between people and their natural surroundings, are estranged.12
In this context, the lack of a shared concept of art among the Fair’s diverse community can be seen as part of the wider absence of shared ideas and practices at the Fair, most noticeably a want of a collective sense of history. According to Donald Preziosi, art and history are both “coconstructed artifacts in the great enterprise of modernity,” as both represent a culture’s ideas about itself in relation to its past and future.13 Modernity gave a greater urgency to the traditional historical functions of art because modern, alienated people felt more deeply the lack of wholeness in modern life. Art and history integrated this anxiety and provided an antidote by evoking two imaginary states that offered to restore this lost plenitude: a golden age of the past and a utopian future.14 It is the former of these states that the agricultural fair, and indeed the entire tradition of pastoral imagery from antiquity forward, have sought to evoke. This is the grandest of myths, the myth of paradise lost, the myth of a fall from grace.
But the L.A. County Fair marks the latest break with this history. The influence of the metropolis, its urban aesthetic and values, is so self-sufficient and so over- whelming that the rural basis for the Fair is rendered all but nominal. It may be emblematic of our late capitalist condition that the Fair is a supremely un-nostalgic experience, where the visitor does not experience any sense of the loss of a pastorally superior state. Curiously, this culture seems no longer to be dreaming of an innocence it once had even in this ostensibly agricultural setting. It seems to be one condition of what some might call our Post-Modernism that the ideal of a shared agricultural past, and a common experience of art, are both rendered an increasingly marginal aspect of people’s lives. This does not mean, I think, that we have gone beyond the alienating conditions of Modernity. Instead, they have become so powerfully pervasive that in some situations the commodity has succeeded in hiding the lack of truly unifying shared values beneath its artificial veneer. Too often the Fair Exchange exhibition acquiesces to this pervasive condition. Ultimately, however, this makes the isolated moments of truly meaningful experience the show contains all the more valuable, for when they break through this malaise to engage visitors in a common experience the exhibition succeeds in evoking a sense of community that the pastoral idyll still holds out.
Jon Leaver is Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of La Verne.
- For more on the basic structure characteristic of the American county fair see Leslie Prosterman, Ordinary Life, Festival Days: Aesthetics in the Midwestern County Fair (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995).↵
- See Prosterman, p. 56, and Sharon Jensen, “Fairs and Their Changing Communities: Adapting to Urban Communities,” in Agricultural Fairs in America: Tradition, Education, Celebration, ed. Julie A. Avery (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Museum, 2000), pp. 5-6. According to Prosterman, since urban populations became more involved in fairs in the 1960s, periods of economic recession have been particularly fruitful in attracting urban visitors for whom the fair may substitute for more expensive vacations. Participation in the fairs’ activities was seen as reviving declining community relations, thus linking a greater interest in agricultural practices to a condition of nostalgia.↵
- Prosterman, p. 194.↵
- Wittgenstein’s ideas on meaning and the use of language are scattered throughout the Philosophical Investigations. On seeing as a culturally specific form of interpretation see Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. by G. E. M Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1976), pp. 193-206.↵
- Ibid., pp. 8-9, 11-12, 88.↵
- For an application of Wittgenstein’s ideas to the ontology of art, see Richard Wollheim, Art and Its Objects (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 2nd Edition, pp. 91-93.↵
- Prosterman, pp. 184-198.↵
- Donald Preziosi, Brain of the Earth’s Body: Museums and the Fabrication of Modernity (Minneapolis and London: Minnesota University Press, 2003), pp. 92-115.↵
- Irene Tsatsos, “The Shock of the Familiar,” Fair Exchange (Pomona, CA: L.A. County Fair, 2006), exhibition catalogue, p. 9.↵
- Wollheim, pp. 96-98.↵
- Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. by Rodney Livingstone (London: Merlin, 1971), p. 83.↵
- See also Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: a Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. by Harry Zohn and Quintin Hoare (London: Verso, 1983), p. 166. Benjamin thought that the most potent space for this phenomenon was the great 19th Century World’s Fairs, events with which the L.A. County Fair shares aesthetic and structural similarities.↵
- Preziosi, pp. 104-105.↵
- Ibid., p. 105.↵