Refugees, Art, Democracy
By Anthony RendonOctober 20, 2022
I would like to believe that this state’s most recent arrivals hold a key to our future.
Perhaps the energy and creativity of those who can see something completely new in California is what can keep our democracy vital. Exiles, immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers and their children are often viewed in terms of their national origins, but we also hold the key to where California is going.
I say we, because this is one of the identities I hold.
My grandparents were immigrants from Mexico. My wife Annie’s family consists of political refugees from Southeast Asia. My small daughter, who just turned three this month, carries both of those paths within her and she represents the future. Asian Americans are California’s fastest growing ethnic group. Latinos are number two.
Berthold Brecht wrote a book called Refugee Conversations in which he said, “Refugees are the sharpest dialectic thinkers.” When you can look back and look forward, when you have learned to think in two or more languages, it makes it easier to look at opposing ideas and figure out the right way. Clearly, what we face today is a clash of opposing ideas, and we need to find a way to democracy.
California can lead the way.
Unlike many other parts of the country, we relish our immigrant history. Even Joan Didion — seemingly the archetype of a patrician Anglo California native — has made much of the way her family came to the state in the 1800s, along with many others who were desperate for a better life. When Thomas Mann arrived in Los Angeles, almost a century after the first Didion ancestors came to California, it was the focus of a different kind of emigration.
The city was a center for German-speaking exiles from Europe. It was such a magnet for great minds — Feuchtwanger, Neutra, Adorno, Mann, and Rudolf Schindler, among others — that some have referred to the concentration as Weimar on the Pacific. Mann was a particular kind of exile: a refugee from the Nazi regime to which he was a vocal opponent. His clear-eyed vision of the past and potential future led him to emigrate again, after he saw the threat of Sen. Joe McCarthy and his allies. When Mann said, “democracy does not look back, it looks forward,” he did not mean that we cannot learn from the past. He meant that we cannot use the past as our model.
Conservatism literally wants to preserve a past that no longer exists. Conservatives seek a time when there were no immigrants, there were no abortions or strong women, there were no homeless on the streets. That is a time that never existed. Instead, we must look forward to what we want.
But what do we want? I would like to believe that art and artists hold the answers we are looking for. Yes, democracy is a political issue and, yes, I am a politician. I am also someone who believes deeply in the capacity of art to guide us. It is not just a decoration. It is a challenge to how we think.
I can see that juxtaposition of politics and the challenge of art right outside my office in the State Capitol. I asked to have Governor Jerry Brown’s official portrait hung there. It is by Don Bachardy who, by the way, lives not far from here in Santa Monica. If you don’t know that painting, you should look it up. It is the most challenging official political portrait I have seen. It says, “We can think differently.”
The other reason for turning to artists is something Mann said: “No artist does his work in order to augment the glory of his country and his people. The source of productivity is the individual conscience.” We need conscience, not glory.
Glory is the whole point of the inartistic Make America Great Again slogan. “Great Again.” There we see the mythical past I spoke of. I have studied artistic manifestos and have been taken by the vision of the Dadaists and the Futurists and others. Again, this is not because I think these artists of the past have the answer to our future. It is because they, in their own times, had visions of a new future and how to see it.
In Adorno’s aesthetic theory, he argued that “authentic art” is exactly that: a new vision. It is something that had not been there before. By contrast, the Nazis and their modern counterparts thought authentic art was conservative. They called the modernists “degenerate.” In recent years, we saw the former president issue an order to make classical style the default architecture for federal buildings. It was a conscious step backwards.
The most exciting visions today are totally different.
They don’t spill out in manifestos but in a kind of chaotic questioning of the world we live in. It is a paradoxically positive nihilism that yells about everything it sees, but dreams of something better. I have always been drawn to that aspect of punk music which has been described as three chords and a “fuck you.” But it is more than that.
There is an LA rock group that represents a lot of what I have been talking about. The Linda Lindas is a kind of all-American product of immigration. They consist of four girls, Latinas and Asian, and none older than 18. They have grabbed onto anti-sexism and anti-racism as messages that resonate with punk energy. Maybe that is a piece of our way forward, but I want to see more. I also want to see what art our newest refugees have to offer. Yes, right here in LA we already have the Gustavo Dudamels, the David Hockneys, the Frank Gehrys and other exiles of high culture.
I want to see what can be produced by new, young refugees who are here from Afghanistan and Ukraine and Syria. They have been the most direct victims of global proxy conflict. If they can capture the dialectic of that conflict and America’s pretensions to the purest of democratic ideals, I think we will see something that is not just culturally exciting.
I think it can draw us forward, not with didactic social realism, or social abstraction or social punk.
With something that is totally new.
Anthony Rendon is the 70th Speaker of the California Assembly. Prior to serving in the Assembly, he was an educator, nonprofit executive and environmental activist. Rendon currently resides in Lakewood with his wife Annie Lam and daughter, Vienna.
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