The Anti-Power of Destruction

Fire in the street

Within every person, there is the potential to make the world a better place or to become destructive and let primal instincts devour potential. Tools to make the world a better place come in many forms. Some people reach into the sciences, while others reach into the arts. Art itself also holds the potential to be constructive or destructive. Constructive art empowers the audience to take on the tasks of improving their outlook while destructive art removes its audience’s sense of agency, drowning it in victimhood.

Watching Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 brought back feelings of nostalgia for my childhood growing up in LA. Twilight is a documentary written and performed by Anna Deavere Smith. Smith performs various scenarios through the lens of the people who experienced the Rodney King riots. I remember hearing snippets about the Rodney King Riots here and there throughout my life. It was refreshing to hear about all the different types of people that reside in LA and their reactions to the riots. Anna Smith played a convincing role as each of the people she portrayed.

An interesting perspective came from Josie Morales, who mentioned that police violence happens much more regularly in Mexico. It is interesting how some citizens of America imagine it to be one of the worst places, yet other countries are much more corrupt. I am thankful for the opportunities I have had and the chances I have been given even despite my appearance at times.

The techno and metal music choices stuck out in my mind. Especially to see what scenes each genre of music was paired with — often night scenes that built tension and featured looting — dramatizing these scenes. All of the footage of the riots I had never seen before. There were several clips of opportunists who did not appear to care about the actual cause of the riots but instead sought out to loot and profit from the chaos and lack of police in a given area. When most people think of South Central they most likely think of all-black neighborhoods. An important point which was made by one of the characters was that 50% of South Central is Latino. Some of whom may not have known what was happening, since the Spanish-speaking news channels did not cover the news until after the riots.

News coverage plays a critical role in both current events and how people perceive the world. A destructive tendency that many news stations display is the tendency to over-dramatize a given event to increase viewership, ratings, and ad revenue. During the Rodney King riots, for example, the media played a large role in hyping up the riots: using speculation, scare headlines, and even staging tactics to incite fear in their viewers (Campbell 158–176). As a result, communities, rather than focusing on each other and solutions, are focused on the news: namely division, fear of one’s neighbor, and violence. With South Central being a predominantly Hispanic and Black neighborhood, Black people were commonly displayed as aggressors in news articles (Monroy 136–157). This increased fear and division among Hispanics who do read English news, as well as “non-violent” residents of the area. Even those who do not live in the city are then provided with reinforcement of the stereotypes that Black people have aggressive and violent tendencies and do not use their power or their actions for the benefit of the community. Not only did the riots come with the unintended consequences of actually reinforcing racist stereotypes, and cause division both in and out of LA, as Useem states in “The State and Collective Disorders: The Los Angeles Riot/Protest of April 1992.”, police in situations of active protest or rebellion has only a few strategies for regaining control or calm: forceful or diplomatic strategies. This increased use of police force in the South Central community caused further harm.

Aaron Fowler is a contemporary artist based in Los Angeles, where the riots occurred. Fowler focuses on constructive and empowering expressions of Black pride. His work consists of found objects that are discarded from his local surroundings in Los Angeles and his hometown of St. Louis. Fowler’s work is painting, sculpture, and installation all in one form. The work is made from broken mirrors, afro wigs, ropes, car parts, and more. Each piece takes inspiration from Fowler’s own experience, the experience of his friends or family, and imagined scenes. Each scene draws on American history and religious symbolism. All of Fowler’s works are illustrations of dreams and ideas which he is manifesting into existence. Fowler’s grandmother used to tell him, “You need to speak it into existence.”

Fowler is an inspiration to his friends, family, and community. He gives his community hope as he uses past oppression as a footstool for his work to stand on. Some of his work even shows incarcerated loved ones freed and hanging out together. The image of captive loved ones being free is a manifestation of the future to come. A future which Fowler not just hopes or prays for but actively creates through his work. It is important that we actively seek to create the future we want to see in the world. Even if our past may be clouded and dark, we can use our experience in it to manifest a better future. Every experience is worth something.

“Debt Free” showcases a rope attached to a sculpture with the words “debt” and “free” to show that Fowler is not chained or constrained to financial restrictions that oppress his family and community.

“Black Jesus” takes a religious iconography perspective of worshiping a powerful figure who is black instead of the picture painted by historical religions that Jesus is Jewish or even White. In this way, Fowler gives the Black community a sense of leadership and an idol to look up to.

Twilight and the work of Aaron Fowler both center around racism but handle it in different ways. Twilight accomplishes this feat by allowing the viewer to look through many different lenses that portray people of various socioeconomic statuses. Those in the upper-echelon were less affected by the riots as opposed to those who had to deal with more of the after-effects. Although the riots aimed to be a voice for those who disagreed with the outcome of the court trial, the people most negatively affected by the outcome of the trial were also the ones who were negatively affected by the riots.

ATM by Aaron Fowler. An installation art piece with mirrors, paint, and misc. materials
Fig. 1 — ATM by Aaron Fowler

Twilight focuses on the past. Fowler uses the past as a backdrop for creating the future. Looking at Fowler’s piece seen above (Fig. 1): the creation shows two figures; one in the forefront, flying through the air with the letters “ATM” over his eyes, while the second figure is ominously in the background. This art represents how people of color have been used as a source of cheap labor while their “boss” watches closely over them. However, the piece also has a second meaning. It symbolizes present-day Fowler accomplishing his dreams while money comes out faster than he can catch it. In contrast, Twilight solely focuses on the past. Meanwhile, Fowler’s “AMEROCCO” (Fig. 2) depicts Fowler alongside loved-ones. Some of the loved-ones depicted are incarcerated, yet the picture shows them all together with one another having a good time. They are above a landscape view of the desert with camels and North African symbolism. This is the power that Fowler brings by incorporating history together with future manifestations of freedom.

AMEROCCO by Aaron Fowler. A installation art piece with mirrors and paint.
Fig. 2 — AMEROCCO by Aaron Fowler

Twilight focuses entirely on racial inequality during a specific event. Fowler focuses on this as well as historical racism and religion. There are many stories throughout the length of Twilight. Although each story takes on a different perspective of what happened during that time, it all centrally focuses on a specific period of racial inequality. Fowler’s “Debt Free” (Fig. 3) shows a noose rising from the top of the piece symbolizing the unjustified killings of many black people throughout America’s history. What hangs from the noose is a portrait of Fowler in between the words “Debt” and “Free.” Attached to the wrists are broken chains representing Fowler breaking free from the all too common occurrence of debt, a new form of oppression, within the black community.

Debt Free by Aaron Fowler. An installation art piece with mirrors, paint, rope, nails, and misc. materials
Fig. 3 — Debt Free by Aaron Fowler

Examining artworks both constructive and arguably destructive, it is notable that destructive artworks give power away from those who may already lack it, while constructive artwork gives power back to those who have been systematically deprived of it. The propensity for well-meaning works to cause harm is the reason we should be cognizant of our mindsets and consumption of media. Constructive art empowers the audience to take on the tasks of improving their outlook while destructive art removes its audience’s sense of agency, drowning it in victimhood.

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Works Cited

Bert Useem. “The State and Collective Disorders: The Los Angeles Riot/Protest of April, 1992.” Social Forces, vol. 76, no. 2, 1997, pp. 357–377. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2580717. Accessed 29 Oct. 2020.

Campbell, Shannon, et al. “Remote Control: How Mass Media Delegitimize Rioting as Social Protest.” Race, Gender & Class, vol. 11, no. 1, 2004, pp. 158–176. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41675118. Accessed 30 Oct. 2020.

Monroy, Tiffany Dyan Kuniko, et al. “Fanning the Flames? Riot Commissions and the Mass Media.” Race, Gender & Class, vol. 11, no. 1, 2004, pp. 136–157. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41675117. Accessed 30 Oct. 2020.