Living Walls and the Perils of Public Space, Part II

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Protester in Pittsburgh neighborhood. Photo by Dustin Chambers

Artists sometimes slip up when it comes to placing art in communities. But that doesn’t let communities off the hook. When do communities go too far? This is the second of a two-part article on the subject. Part I appeared in the pages of BURNAWAY last week, accompanied by some intriguing commentary from our readers.

The recent dustup over Roti’s Allegory of the Human City mural isn’t the only such controversy to ruffle feathers in this country. It’s not even the first for Living Walls. Last fall, a Living Walls mural in Chosewood Park by Argentinean street artist Hyuro that depicted a woman shedding her clothes met with confusion, disdain, and outrage resulting in a formal request for its removal. Beyond Atlanta, street art powerhouses Os Gêmeos created a mural in Boston depicting a figure that was said to look too much like a terrorist. One in St. Paul was decried for its depiction of two bears looking suspiciously amorous. And in 2011 a mural on the outer wall of LA MOCA by renowned Italian street artist Blu was famously painted over, before the first peep of outrage, because director Jeffrey Deitch feared the mural might cause offense to someone somewhere someday.
Os Gêmeos, The Giant of Boston, 2012, mural at Boston’s Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway

Efforts to restore mural in Pittsburgh after vandalization. Photo by Dustin Chambers

Back in Atlanta, Allegory was finally painted over after a fierce turf war on December 11 by the Georgia Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over the 240-foot retaining wall. The mural’s destruction took place despite a promised community forum that was to bring together pro and con constituencies sponsored by the neighborhoods’ city council representatives. As of the time of this writing no such forum has occurred.
Allegory‘s naked torso, fish scales, and alligator head caught Roti in the bear trap of the public’s idea of what art means. But the swift and silent way in which the mural was finally destroyed likewise highlights how limiting, perhaps even toxic, the idea of “the community” has become in its modern guise. According to several press accounts, opinions among the residents of Pittsburgh were split at best and, at worst, those opposing the mural may have been a minority, albeit a vocal and powerful one. But all of that complexity, with all of its potential for nuanced interpretation, was wiped away with the monolithic coat of gray paint that “the community” allegedly demanded.
In one the most heated controversies over public art in recent memory, Hyuro’s mural in South Atlanta was painted over shortly after last year’s Living Walls celebration. Photo by Dustin Chambers.

Sociologist Richard Sennett described this sort of conundrum in his influential analysis of the public sphere, The Fall of Public Man. With the social roles of modern life constantly in flux and in turmoil, Sennett wrote, “the community”—whatever and wherever one thinks that is—has become the one place where we insist on being ever our real selves, safe and unchallenged. Even the family doesn’t provide that sanctuary for many people in the modern age. So we’re always on the lookout for signs that someone else may not really belong. Everyone is constantly testing everyone else, and the price of failing those tests is excommunication. “Fraternity,” wrote Sennett “often becomes an exercise in fratricide.”
That’s why those who speak for this or that community are almost always the most strident voices. They are the voices least likely to be confused for an outsider’s. In other words, whoever speaks for the community is whoever’s most “down” with the cause at hand. And the easiest way to be the most down is to take an extreme position—to insist that a mural be erased utterly with no conversation, no public debate, or conversely to insist that the work remain just as its artist intended it no matter who it offends. Both are extreme positions that grow out of the sense of belonging to a community that’s clear on who’s “one of us” and who’s not.
Stefan Hirsch, Justice as Protector and Avenger, 1938, Charles E. Simons Jr. Federal Courthouse, Aiken, South Carolina. This Works Progress Administration mural was the subject of controversy due to its modernist style and the image of justice characterized with dark skin and exposed feet. Image reproduced courtesy of the Fine Arts Collection, United States General Services Administration.

Historically, the race to out-down the next guy has proven especially vexing in matters of public art. In the 1930s controversies over public murals were both more frequent and more acrimonious than anything this country has since experienced. In that decade and through the culture wars of the 1980s, pleasing the community often meant appealing to its loudest and most conservative voices. A single strident no could outweigh a thousand yeses.
Street art is the newest guest at the table of public art, and as such Living Walls now finds itself on the receiving end of that pitiless please-the-public-or-die logic. Joining guerilla-style street art with sanctioned public art makes for a strained marriage. Street art is often illegal and anonymous. It answers only to its own artistic vision. Public art, on the other hand, is often at its best when undertaken with the deep involvement of surrounding neighborhoods.
Roti, Untitled mural, 2011. Image courtesy of the artist

Roti has been typical of an old-school street artist: throughout his early practice, none of his work in the public spaces of his native France was sanctioned or asked for. He needed answer only to himself and his own aesthetic impulses. That practice of willful self-determination, however, carries a baked-in tension with communities that may otherwise have their own priorities and aesthetics. As the two worlds merge, that tension is likely to become more and more evident.
The tension is unsustainable. In each case something’s got to give. In one scenario, the street artists will begin to think of their work less as their own expression, and more as a collective expression that may include views of the world quite different from their own. The alternative is that we dismantle the idea that a community should be a safe place where one’s most fundamental truths are never challenged. The first option runs against some of the most cherished notions of how an artist should function, and the second runs counter to the way communities have come to function. This impasse isn’t likely to be dislodged anytime soon, and the resulting turf wars of meaning and interpretation are likely to be constant companions.
Roti, Untitled mural, 2011. Image courtesy the artist

In an ideal world, a skirmish such as the one over Allegory would produce more than just a clash of ideas; it would serve as an exercise in getting along in a democratic society.
Every modern person in a pluralistic democracy such as ours must constantly question what he or she assumes to be true about the world. Every cosmopolitan, multi-cultural society in modern history has developed some culture of healthy doubt, and the US is no exception. Doubting our received beliefs is what allows different races, different religions, and those of different political viewpoints to avoid all-out war and, occasionally, even live in something approaching harmony.
The opposite of doubt is certainty. And it’s certainty—the belief that no legitimate explanations for the world exist outside one’s own—that marches soldiers onto battlefields and flies planes into buildings.
In a much less dramatic arena, it’s also the impulse to plug our ears and refuse to believe that a piece of public art could have very different meanings within the fabric of daily life depending on the texture and history of each life.
Protests in Pittsburgh neighborhood. Photo by Dustin Chambers

When a few residents in the Pittsburgh neighborhood caught wind of Roti’s admittedly baffling mural, the logic of certainty quickly took hold on all sides. The battle lines were drawn and genuine openness to doubt became impossible. What should have been an opportunity to encounter new ideas and new ways of seeing the world instead became a series of tribal calls-to-arms to defend this or that community.
That’s why the cancelation of the promised neighborhood forum to discuss Allegory is the true tragedy here. Without the public outlet as a first step to hash out opposing ideas, anyone involved in the debacle can instead walk away convinced of their own righteousness, secure that no alternative explanation of the situation was possible. For the life of a democracy, an enforced silence around the mural is far worse than all the noise and fury the mural sparked in the first place.
The art world isn’t the only place where people fracture into self-enclosed juntas. It isn’t hard to see the same dynamic increasingly at work in our electoral politics. When someone disagrees with us politically, the past decade has shown that we’re more likely than ever to misunderstand each other.  When these arguments happen, we don’t simply assume that the other person is under the sway of wrong ideas; we assume that they must be the wrong kind of person. Not just mistaken, but evil. No wonder we have no language of compromise. When you’re certain of your own rightness and equally certain of your opponent’s evilness, compromise always looks like selling out.
Political tribalism didn’t start with public art and won’t be solved by public art. But if we can’t use it to work out a vocabulary of compromise, a language of productive disagreement, then all the controversy will have been a waste. Public art won’t save democracy, but it may at least remind us how easy democracy is to lose.
This concludes the second installment of Cinque Hicks’s two-part article, “Living Walls and the Perils of Public Art.” Join the conversation and let us know what you think!