Sunday, January 29, 2023

Murals Destroyed For Their Message

I have written about murals before as the subject is close to home here in Santa Fe where a multicultural celebration by a Hispanic artist was taken down because the Art Museum found it went against the modernist aesthetic of the new contemporary branch … though other excuses were found, of course!

With a history that can be traced back 30,000 years to cave paintings, today’s murals have often become community centerpieces bringing people together to celebrate the heritage and history of their home. At least that is the hope for the mural of Martin Luther King in Syracuse, New York, commemorating his 1961 visit to Syracuse University. Painted by local artist, London Ladd, it incorporates King’s words and is adjacent to a mural of abolitionist Frederick Douglas. Public Images like this are meant to evoke discourse and communication but many in this country want to curtail this kind of discussion under the guise of protecting children from upset about their history.

What about murals that are destroyed because of their specific content?

What prompted me to look into this was a brief article from NPR about a student who painted a mural on the wall of the Child and Adolescent Health Center at Grant Middle School in Michigan, intending it to be a sign of welcome for all. Instead, parents felt that the work was promoting Trans and Gay propaganda because of colors associated with LGBTQ flags used in the clothing of the children depicted. One objector believed he also saw the devil in a mask from a video game which he found to be “discrimination against Christian beliefs”.  You decide...

In the 1930’s a Russian Immigrant artist, Victor Arnautoff, who had been an assistant to Diego Rivera, painted a 13-panel mural of the Life of George Washington. It was created for the eponymous high school in San Francisco. Some of the panels depicted violence against Native Americans and slaves that Washington had owned. For several years there was much debate and in 2019 the school board decided to take on the estimated $845,000 project of covering up the offending panels so as not to upset the children. A segment of our society wishes to bury the idea that slavery ever existed in this country. Maybe they don’t realize that slavery existed all over the world and in certain places persists today. Those who wanted their children to learn from history and not repeat it protested, saying this was analogous to book burning. In a June 23, 2022, New York Times article, Zachary Small reported that with a new School Board the decision was reversed.

Sometimes there are discussions about what the disposition of a mural should be and sometimes people take matters into their own hands. After the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers it is estimated that around the world 2,700 pieces of street art were created to commemorate the event. Many were defaced by protesters.

Here is an example of a similar but little-known defacement motivated by discrimination and hate. In Memphis Tennessee in 2022 a year the rapper Adolph Robert Thornton better known as “Young Dolph” was slain at a local bakery by 3 men putting 22 bullets in his body. The IdaMae Family Foundation, founded by the family of the rapper distributes food and clothing to the needy. To celebrate his life for what would have been Dolph’s 37th birthday, the Foundation commissioned a black artist, Cameron Hill, to do a mural on a wall of a shopping center where Young Dolph had made his best-known music videos. The artist was harassed and even threatened on account of the mural and ultimately the mural was defaced by the haters just before it was to be officially unveiled.

When will people learn that not only is this behavior reprehensible, whether by individuals or a committee, and that it only gains sympathy for the artists and notoriety for the work. In the meantime we stand to lose works of art through which we might have learned to come together as a community.

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