Culture Monster

All the Arts, All the Time

« Previous Post | Culture Monster Home | Next Post »

Nixon, Ford offer context for 1970s California art at MOCA

September 29, 2011 | 10:21 am

Nixon Ford 002
Museums use lots of different tools to provide visitors with context for the art on display in their galleries. For "Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981," a sprawling exhibition opening Saturday at the Geffen Contemporary in Little Tokyo as part of Pacific Standard Time, the Museum of Contemporary Art has come up with a doozy.

I'll have a review of the exhibition next week. Meanwhile, consider the show's opening date.

To suggest a grim sense of national dysfunction and the unraveling of the American Dream circa 1974, two documents introduce the show. A vitrine at the top of the entry stairs contains the type-script of President Nixon's resignation speech, complete with quickly scrawled, handwritten edits, as he left the presidency on the brink of impeachment.

And that's not all. The exhibition's true Ur-object hangs nearby on the first wall.

On Sept. 8, 1974, President Ford issued a pardon -- Proclamation 4311 -- to void any potential grand jury indictment of Nixon "for offenses against the United States." On loan from the National Archives in Washington (the resignation speech comes from the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda), the brief, 1-1/2-page document tees up the enormous show that unfolds in the art museum's galleries.

The pardon remains controversial today. Ford explained his decision by writing that "the tranquility to which this nation has been restored by the events of recent weeks" -- that is, by Nixon's resignation a month earlier in the wake of Watergate crimes -- "could be irreparably lost by the prospects of bringing to trial a former President of the United States." The claim echoed Ford's earlier statement upon elevation to office as the nation's first unelected president that, "My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over."
Nixon Ford 001
Since then, others have suggested that it might have been just beginning.

Ford's decision has been cited by numerous commentators as having an unintended consequence -- setting a precedent by which all manner of potential crimes by the highest government officials not only remain unprosecuted, but are subtly encouraged. The pardon, while perfectly legal, has been interpreted as a public declaration of unconditional authority -- that is, a two-tier justice system that protects government officials but not ordinary citizens.

The documents also give MOCA's historical exhibition contemporary relevance. Unconditional authority is the basis for the contentious theory of a unitary executive, promoted during the recent presidency of George W. Bush; his vice president, Defense secretary and other White House officials served three decades earlier in the Nixon administration. In his book, "Broken Government," former Nixon White House counsel John Dean wrote, "In its most extreme form, unitary executive theory can mean that neither Congress nor the federal courts can tell the President what to do or how to do it, particularly regarding national security matters."

Either way, the two displayed documents make for a savvy, sobering start to MOCA's exhibition of California art during a tumultuous period. "Under the Big Black Sun" will be on view at the Geffen from Oct.1 to Feb. 13.

-- Christopher Knight

Photos, from top: President Nixon's resignation speech, Aug. 9, 1974; President Ford's Proclamation 4311 pardoning Nixon, Sept. 8, 1974; Credit: Christopher Knight/Los Angeles Times