It's not that often that my beloved Santa Monica finds itself in the news - both locally and nationally. But here it is. Today's LA Times headline reads "Santa Monica can bar Nativity Scenes." This morning's New York Times weighed in as well, with "A City Ban Changes the Christmas Scene."
You probably have already heard that on Monday, an LA federal judge denied a church coalition's request to allow Nativity scenes to be displayed along the Santa Monica beach in Palisades Park. For the last 60 years, these elaborate recreations of biblical stories have become a familiar sight during the holiday season. Last year, a coalition of atheist groups protested these religious scenes with their own displays, which were subsequently vandalized. As a result, the city of Santa Monica decided - wisely, in my opinion - to ban any unattended private displays from city parks entirely.
I remember seeing these exceedingly banal installations for the first time many years ago and thinking, "how touching, how lovely...and boy, how provincial." Then, Santa Monica was a small and inexpensive bohemian community of young artists, writers, and other creative folks. These days, Santa Monica is flooded with tourists crowding the shops along Third Street Promenade. A few blocks away is the famous home of architect Frank Gehry. Just a mile south, there is another architectural landmark, Gehry's Binoculars Building, which recently became the LA headquarters of Google. And let's not forget Bergamot Station, housing dozens of art galleries as well as the Santa Monica Museum of Art.
With all this and more, the city has become a sophisticated and desirable but rather expensive place to live. However, nothing has changed in terms of the embarrassing look of these Nativity scenes. Those cheap mannequins, as if borrowed from thrift store window displays, enact religious scenes without a hint of passion or imagination and with absolutely no artistry.
As an atheist, I am not offended at all by the religious subject matter of these scenes. But, as an art critic, I'm aghast. I love religious art - good religious art, that is. In my Art Talk last week, I highly praised two exceptional museum exhibitions full of masterpieces of religious art.
So, here is my humble solution to current tensions between the good people of Santa Monica. How about taking a new, different approach to these holiday displays? Why not ask up-and-coming LA artists to submit proposals for their version of these Nativity scenes? And then, a committee of leaders from both religious and art communities could choose the strongest projects. Who will pay for that, you want to ask? There are a number of mighty collectors and foundations that, if approached smartly, would consider funding such a unique display of public art. So, instead of being outdated and slightly embarrassing tools of religious propaganda, which rightly offend atheists and aesthetes alike, these nativity scenes might become an interesting venue for young artists to reach a wider audience and show their talents.
God knows, Los Angeles needs good public art. Just a few days ago, Century City unveiled an ambitious public project, a series of monumental bronze sculptures installed along the Avenue of the Stars.
Those familiar with the local art scene will immediately recognize these uniquely stylized sculptures of deer, coyotes, panthers, and eagles as works by well-known LA artist Gwynn Murill, whose works can be spotted in museums and various private collections.
And that's why the Century City Chamber of Commerce was successful in raising private funds to support this ambitious project. The bronze animals will grace the Avenue of the Stars in Century City for an entire year.
So, let this positive development in a nearby city be a friendly lesson for those fighting the Nativity battle here on the shores of Santa Monica.
Edward Goldman is an art critic and the host of Art Talk, a program on art and culture for NPR affiliate KCRW 89.9 FM. To listen to the complete show and hear Edward's charming Russian accent, click here.