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Painting Truth to Power: Public Art and the Politics of Place

Has not institutionalized advertising replaced former modes of communication, including art? (Henri Lefebvre, Everyday Life in the Modern World)

On city streets, history is a bus schedule or a billboard. When a city responds to the mystification and confining repetition of what the French call metro-boulot-dodo or subway-work-sleep life, it builds monuments, memorials, and parks. The visual rhetoric of these projects is often tame and in line with the views of urban developers and the tourism industry. This repetition of business-friendly motifs about landscape and national heroes of the nineteenth century places public art projects in a context-less culture of nice-ness. Affected pleasantries and sheer patriotism are terrible in this context not because they are false. There is time for such fantasies at the movie theaters. What makes (post)modern abstraction and state-funded propaganda reprehensible in the rhetoric of the street is its false promise of historical resolution. This simulation of common space, without acknowledging long-standing conflicts at the tangled intersections of class, gender, and race, represses dialogue and memory.

The spoils are, as was ever the case, carried along in the triumphal procession. They are known as the cultural heritage. In the historical materialist they have to reckon with a distanced observer. For what he surveys as the cultural heritage is part and parcel of a lineage which he cannot contemplate without horror. (Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”)

The reticence to acknowledge the contradictions of urban life on public walls is understandable. Shoppers—those consumers with discretionary income, who “kill time” browsing shop windows—do not want to think about the injustices of absentee landlords and racist police while they are shopping. Social critique complicates their experience and discourages sales. However, this capitalist rejection of realist aesthetics suppresses dialogue. Cities that appease privileged sensibilities of “proper” taste make public walls extensions of the un-reality of shopping malls. Like the tourism industry, they suggest dancing on the oppressed in simulacrums of retail-friendly historiography.

The spectacle is nothing more than an image of happy unification surrounded by desolation and fear. . . [It] belongs essentially to bureaucratic capitalism (Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle)

It is not all schlock. Public art projects grow out of two related and highly contentious cultural impulses. Distinguishing projects of gentrification from movements in local culture requires complex analyses of place. Where are these artists from? Whose visions do they express? For what purposes? Answers to these questions never simply amount to the personalities, histories, and symbols represented in the work—the content per se. For the question of salt in public art, answers exist in the circles of narrative and action that surround the works.

The black stone creates a reflective surface, one that echoes the reflecting pool of the Lincoln Memorial, and allows the viewers to participate in the memorial; seeing their own image reflected in the names, they are implicated in the listing of the dead. (Marita Sturken, “The Wall, The Screen and the Image: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial”)

Public art, by virtue of its position in the city, adorning bridges, parks, and warehouse walls, has the opportunity to acknowledge contradictions involved in its production, and it has the rare opportunity to create dialogue in the local politics of place. This opportunity is rare because local politics of place tend to challenge unequal lines of economic stratification and because views from Los Angeles, Manhattan, and Washington, D.C. dominate the media.

American muralists during the late 1960s drew inspiration from Mexican painters of a previous generation. Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, and many artists working on the side of the revolution raised scaffolds around state buildings and painted their people’s history. These state commissions were unprecedented and scandalous. Art critics of the time like Adolfo Venturi found this movement “unfortunate” because it “introduced a rather mechanical form and a social content, both foreign to art” (qtd. in Cockcroft xvi). Cubism, apparently, was supposed to be about apples and nudes. Nobody in Mexico listened to these reactionary critics. The intended audience was not in Europe with l’art pour l’art aesthetics. After Porfirio Díaz’s exile in 1911, quickly successive revolutionary leaders turned cathedral-like spaces of palace foyers and school facades over to revolutionary painters. Jean Charlot explains how he and the Mexican muralists adapted and critiqued European styles:

Parisian Cubism remains at the core of our murals, its angles softened mostly by the deep respect in which we held the taste of our own brand of street critics, mostly Indian villagers come to the capital to sell their hand-made wares. (qtd. in Cockcroft xvii)

They painted folk histories for the indigenous and local-dwelling people.

Unlike the Mexican movement half a century earlier, U.S. painters in the postwar black and working class neighborhoods of Chicago worked with scant or no funding. They formed activist collectives of artists organized around principles of social justice. Their work, painted on brick walls of tenements and concrete alcoves, symbolically rebuilt oppressed neighborhoods and expressed local histories. Olivia Gude and Jeff Huebner describe the American mural scene, initiated at this time, as “a kind of folk art or art brut—direct communications from community members to the community, unmediated by the support of professional artists” (12). Blasted by winter and gentrifying urban “renewal” projects, only a few works from this era have been preserved.

What the artists really wanted to do was to express their own ideas and understanding of the community, but also to put in front of the community the kinds of images that would challenge it to be thoughtful and reflective about itself. . . . This mural [“The Wall of Daydreaming and Man's Inhumanity to Man”] was never defaced, and if you consider the fact that it’s out in public in what would be considered a pretty tough neighborhood, . . . that’s fairly astonishing, and it does say the mural is respected for what it is. (Jon Pounds qtd. in “A Chicago Mural Tells a Story”)

In 1967, the American mural movement started on the South Side of Chicago. Taking direct action against the injustices of racial segregation, members of the Organization for Black American Culture (OBAC, pronounced like the Yoruba word for chieftain, obasi) got out the scaffolding and started painting on a dilapidated two-story building on the southeast corner of 43rd and Langley Streets. The building was part of an unpopular development project and set to be demolished. The inscription on the “Wall of Respect” stated, “This Wall was created to Honor our Black Heroes and to beautify our community.” Composed of portraits of heroes like H. Rap Brown, the wall became a site of arts festivals and political rallies over the next several years. Eva Cockcroft claims that anonymous bribes were offered to local gangs to vandalize the mural, but they refused and supported the project. Leaders of the Almighty P. Stone Nation actually met with OBAC and offered them help getting supplies.

The prolific muralist William Walker, who had gained permission for the project from the building’s owner and had proposed the idea to OBAC and the 43rd Street Community Organization, described his motivation as the adaptation and critique of “mainstream” painting:

It was in Memphis that I became aware of the fact that Black people had no appreciation for art or artists—they were too busy just struggling to survive. . . . In questioning myself as to how I could best give my art to Black people, I came to the realization that art must belong to ALL people. (“The Artists' Statement” 7)

The original “Wall of Respect” only lasted a few years, but its influence was profound enough to make its title a moniker for urban art projects around the country. By 1970, Walls of Respect could be found in urban environments from Oakland to Brooklyn. It was a mural renaissance.

Today, the few remaining murals painted entirely by Walker can be found on the Near North Side and in Hyde Park. On the grounds of the former housing project, Cabrini-Green, The Northside Stranger’s Home Missionary Baptist Church features a partially restored mural of four diverse interlocking figures and the symbols of world religions. Painter Bernard Williams and the Chicago Public Art Group led the restoration most recently in 2012 (Cuddy).

1strangers home.jpg

Fig. 1: Northside Stranger’s Home Missionary Baptist Church, N. Clybourn Ave. and N. Larrabee St.

Emblematic of civil rights-era urban folk art, the church is a quiet testament to a distant past. It stands in development limbo, a space actually between an Apple Store and a Target. The bulldozers seem to be circling.


Fig. 2: The view south from N. Clybourn Ave. and N. Ogden Ave., 20 December 2014.

On the South Side, one of the few remaining murals by Walker has been restored twice in the last three decades. Under the “L” station on Lake Park, his work can be seen alongside Olivia Gude’s.


Fig. 3: William Walker’s “Children of Goodwill” (1977) E. 56th Street and S. Lake Park Ave.


Fig. 4: Olivia Gude’s “Where are You Going?” (1992), E. 56th Street and S. Stony Island Ave.

And here is some good news:


Fig. 5: Open space under the “L” station at E. 56th Street and S. Lake Park Ave, 20 December 2014.

-Jason Hertz


Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968. Print.

Cockcroft, Eva S, John P. Weber, and James D. Cockcroft. Toward a People's Art: The Contemporary Mural Movement. New York: Dutton, 1977. Print.

Cuddy, Alison. “A New Effort Begins to Save Famous Chicago Mural.” Alison Cuddy: Art, Craft, Culture. Chicago Public Media, June 2012. Web. 9 Jan. 2015.

Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black & Red, 1977. Marxists Internet Archive. Web. 9 January 2014.

Eda, Eugene, William Walker, John Weber, and Mark Rogovin. "The Artists' Statement.” 1971. Private Collection of Victor Sorell, Chicago. Documents of the 20th-Century Latin American and Latino Art: Documents of 20th-century Latin American and Latino Art: A Digital Archive and Publications Project. Web. 20 Jan. 2015.

Ehmke, Layton, and Justine Jablonska. "A Chicago Mural Tells a Story of a Recent Past, but Will the Future Accept It?" Medill Reports Chicago 9 Dec. 2009. Medill School. Web. 9 Jan. 2015.

Gude, Olivia, and Jeff Huebner. Urban Art Chicago: A Guide to Community Murals, Mosaics, and Sculptures. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000. Print.

Lefebvre, Henri. Everyday Life in the Modern World. Trans. Sacha Rabinovitch. London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 1971. Print.

Sturken, Marita . “The Wall, The Screen and the Image: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial.” The Visual Culture Reader. Ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.

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