California: A myriad of pieces in a mighty mosaic

I was once told that California Pizza Kitchen could never have happened anywhere but California.  The idea of a restaurant offering Thai Chicken Pizza or Sonora Eggs Rolls would have been rejected in New York.  But in California the tradition of borrowing and combining from all the places and cultures Californians once came from made the idea of Mango Tandoori Pizza obvious and irresistible.  Today California Pizza Kitchen is a global success with Wall Street investors and New York fans.

The ethos that gave rise to California Pizza Kitchen is the ethos of the state’s DNA.  California has long been characterized by a willingness to embrace the new and experiment with new fusions and combinations.  It is inherent in the persistent mythology of California as a new land, a terrestrial paradise and the land where tomorrow comes today.  The first peoples in what became California were among the most linguistic diverse in the world.  Yet archeological evidence is clear that trade and cultural interchanges connected the Miwok with the Chumash with the Gabrielinos with the Mojave.   Though linguistically distinct, these tribes were open to borrowing from each other’s cultures and practices.  Later European arrivals were not as homogenous as conventional history taught.   As Kevin Starr often reminds us, Los Angeles was founded by representatives of an international empire open to mixing and borrowing from its subject lands.  When John Sutter first sailed up the Sacramento in search of his dream, his party included Californios, Germans and ten Hawaiians.  From the Gold Rush to today, Californians were the people from somewhere else here to find a new land and new lives.  

Politically, this ethos helped make Californian willing to write and adopt a state constitution (borrowed heavily from Iowa’s), elect a governor, a legislature and two U.S. Senators nearly a year  before Congress and the President got around to admitting California as a state.  It helped make Los Angeles and later the entire state open to borrowing the Swiss invention of initiatives, referendum and recalls.  It helped create innovations, for better or worse, like cross-filing, professional campaign consultants, and direct mail.  Openness to new ideas and a willingness to innovate also helped foster a long tradition of principled but practical politician like Earl Warren, Pat Brown and Ronald Reagan whose administrations were marked by constructive and innovative compromises like the Master Plan for Education and the 1971 Reagan-Moretti welfare reforms.

If the ethos of innovation and adaption seems gone in the political realm, it is still alive and well in the arts.  From Garcia de Montalvo’s Queen Califia in his 16th century adventure novel (written 30 years before the first European step foot in California) to PIXAR creations, California has long inspired artistic creativity.  All regions inspire art but most pale next to the tremendous diversity, depth and breadth of California art.   Moreover, there are few places where reality and imagination have become so intertwined as California.  The Santa Barbara County Courthouse, for example, is a stunning example of Spanish colonial architecture rooted not in reality but in the imagination of Hollywood set designers.

How California has shaped it arts and, in turn, has been shaped is the focus of the 20th Annual Envisioning California Conference: California Imagined: The Arts of the Golden State.  What are the intersections of art, place and imagination in California?  How has California, real and imagined, affected the arts?  What is the role of government in the arts and how can the often artificial marginalization of the arts from public policy be avoided?  Is art education the driver of creativity as well as educational achievement?  
The annual Envisioning California Conference, organized by Sacramento State’s Center for California Studies and the Center for Southern California Studies at CSU Northridge, typically focuses on questions of governance and public policy. But this Sept. 18 and 19 at the Sacramento Convention center, the Arts of the Golden State will take center stage.  Panels will cover innovations in music, Hollywood, visual arts, art education, video art, literature, the legacy of Teatro California, youth and street art, social policy and the arts, as well as speakers like novelist James D. Houston, PBS commentator and writer Richard Rodriguez, and Arts Council director Muriel Johnson.  For information, see www.csus/ or call (916) 278-6906.

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