The recent controversy over a public mural begs the question: If art can’t speak for itself, who gets to speak for it? This is the first installment of a two-part article on the subject.
When the French street artist known as Roti painted his mural An Allegory of the Human City in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Southwest Atlanta, he assumed everyone would understand it as a commentary on the brutality of capitalism. They did not. That at least is apparently what he told the New York Times.
Instead, the mural was decried by a vocal coterie of residents as containing “demonic” imagery reminiscent of the pervasive destruction the neighborhood has suffered. It’s clear that not all of Pittsburgh’s residents shared that interpretation, but it was the one adopted by high-profile residents including a former state representative, Doug Dean, and the Atlanta-based group Concerned Black Clergy.
The mural, which was part of the annual Living Walls street art program, sparked a controversy that included rounds of destruction and remediation of the mural, ending finally in the work’s removal.
As a work of street art, An Allegory of the Human City was a tour-de-force. (This photo by Dustin Chambers gives a sense of the mural’s scale.) Executed as all of Roti’s murals in monochromatic, freehand spray paint, the mural depicted a dense, machine-like cityscape packed with Gothic architecture and elements reminiscent of Industrial Revolution–era smokestacks and waterwheels. Running through this city and emerging from either side was an enormous fishlike creature, which the artist himself calls a snake, but which had fins and other fishlike characteristics. From the creature’s front end emerged the torso of an unclothed man, fracturing first into a crystalline structure at the neck and then into a full-fledged alligator head, which in turn issued forth (or was swallowing) a series of ever smaller and ever more numerous fish of various species swimming into distant space in a swirling school. The mural contained a number of other objects that implied rich, mythic importance: a lantern-like clock with lock and key, a fishing rod held by the alligator-snake-fish-man, a trailing birdcage that had captured the moon.
Roti has executed numerous murals in the United States, none of which appear to have sparked any significant controversy. The city of Ithaca, New York, in particular has several, all painted in a similar style, employing similar imagery of human-animal hybrids, birdcages, fish, and perhaps most consistently, densely packed Gothic cities. For Roti, the city is both the source of human inspiration and the evidence of human dysfunction.
Many of the arguments in support of the mural have depended not on a defense of the mural’s content, but on a cluster of well-worn clichés about art as such: that art is always socially beneficial, that art need never stoop to justify itself, that some art is always better than no art.
But are those claims valid? What if art can do harm as well as good? And who decides when harm has been done? In short, does the art speak for itself, and if it can’t, whose interpretation counts?
Roti’s Allegory can be considered an example of what I call “neosymbolist” art. It’s a coinage that has been obscurely used in other contexts, but whose meaning can be redirected to apply to a large number of artists practicing today.
The original nineteenth-century Symbolists—Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon, and others—sought to make works that existed purely on their own terms. Focusing on spiritual and imaginative ideas, these artists were suddenly free from imitating the outside world. Instead, the real subject matter was the artist’s idiosyncratic, psychological interpretation of the outside world. They could pursue their inner visions into any dark, fantastic, or sublime corner of the psyche those visions might lead. Thus the work was willfully obscure, esoteric, and even occult. And it’s not unlike a great deal of work that has emerged from artists in recent decades.
Indeed, most of what you probably believe about the role of the artist in society comes straight from the pen of Symbolist poet and critic Stéphane Mallarmé and his cohort: Verlaine, Rilke, Rimbaud, Yeats, and others. It goes something like this: the artist is the unique visionary whose insight into the world is so powerful, so inherently salutary, that the artwork needs no justification outside of itself. Its only obligation is to its own internally created reality. And that work of art, when out among people, must necessarily enlighten anyone who would trouble to probe its self-referential obscurities. The myth of the artist as the high priest of the dark, creative demiurge is so airtight in Western culture that any artist who behaves differently risks being accused of not being an artist at all.
Many contemporary artists have taken these ideas to a twenty-first-century extreme. This neosymbolist work can be almost photorealistic, yet it specifically rejects any commonly accessible reality or any established pictorial language. The more recognizable and readable the figures in the work, the more outlandish other elements of the composition must be in order to free it from the tether of common experience. Hence the explosion of pattern, color, and surreal narrative in many such works.
The work of, for example, Marcy Starz, Jason R. Butcher, and Joe Tsambiras exemplify this mode of working. All three local artists, along with others working elsewhere such as Camille Rose Garcia and Os Gêmeos, might be considered neosymbolists whose exquisitely drafted works are replete with private symbols and obscure, self-contained narratives.
According to Roti’s own statement, Allegory does in fact have a very precise and unambiguous meaning for him personally: fishes represent humanity, the key represents the ability to stop time, and the moon represents uncontrollable forces of nature. For the artist, there is a neat one-to-one correspondence between images in the mural and their meanings in the real world. But the glossary needed for that translation exists in the artist’s head, not in any commonly understood, generally available mythos.
That’s when audiences create their own meanings. In the privacy of a gallery or the controlled context of academic settings, this act is almost always benign. Many artists even cherish the ways in which audiences help them create meaning.
But when the work is placed in a broader public space, those meanings occasionally get out of control. Thus a former state rep and a group of clergymen in the Pittsburgh neighborhood attached a meaning to the snake-like image that the artist couldn’t anticipate. Those interpreters did what every one of us without privileged access to the artist did when we encountered the mural: we rummaged around our collective store of symbols and came up with the most fitting interpretation we could muster given the clues we were given. When symbolic imagery enters public space with no other explanation, it should be no surprise that it will be recognized by whatever symbolic system is most available.
Broad, common symbolic systems form part of what critic Michael Kimmelman has called the “aesthetic common denominator” required of all public art. If the work doesn’t avail itself of that common denominator, one will be imposed on it, as it were, against its will. Ironically that imposition is likely to leave both the artist and the audience feeling aggrieved.
Allegory shows one possible outcome of neosymbolist expression as it comes out of the galleries and off the web to engage with public space. Most often, audiences respond with appreciation and delight. But not always. Private allegorical language can be laced with minefields and trap doors if an artist stumbles upon a symbol whose accumulated meaning may be thousands of years older than the artist’s 23-year-old imagination.
The controversy over An Allegory of the Human City is a controversy over real things: about the overlay of incompatible mythologies and histories in public space and who bears the responsibility of interpretation. My purpose here isn’t to lay blame on any artist, community, or arts organization.
It is my purpose, however, to dispel the notion that the dispute is somehow the result of silly people on one side or the other. This dispute is not silly. It is not superfluous. It stands right in the heart of how public discourse functions.
If we accept that art has to power to uplift or heal or educate, then the same logic dictates that it also has the power to oppress or injure or mislead. The question for us all is whose job is it to decide which is which?
Please check BURNAWAY next week for the second part in Cinqué Hicks’s opinion piece, “Living Walls and the Perils of Public Space, Part II,” discussing why “the community” is the biggest problem for public art today.