catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 9 :: 2013.04.26 — 2013.05.09


Progress defamed

There’s a large mural painted on a bridge near my home that ostensibly tells an abbreviated history of our small, rural city in pictures.  If I’m reading it correctly, the story goes something like this: in the beginning, there was an Indian.  Poor Indian — he looks to the past for answers, gazing longingly back toward a pristine wilderness full of untapped potential, which is why his backward culture was replaced by a new culture that is forward-thinking, white and Christian.  See how the first rugged settler looks solemnly toward the future, where he can see beyond the log cabin to a model twentieth-century family frolicking ‘round the iconic popcorn stand.

Now, I doubt that the designer of the mural had this version of the story in mind (and to his or her credit, there is a nod to women’s suffrage), but I do believe that symbols matter and that art can say things we would actively deny, and perhaps subconsciously believe. I’m a big fan of public art.  I love to see places full of color and life, and I especially believe that the planning and creating processes hold great potential for building community.  But I think we would do well to consider more carefully what stories we are telling in the public art that we create.  Often, like our local history mural, our public art tells a story of what we believe about progress.  Who are the winners and who are the losers?  Who are the masters and who are the slaves?

These questions are as relevant to public art as they are to historic markers.  My husband Rob has been watching Ken Burns’ documentary series about the Civil War, which was the backdrop to much of the development of our city, including the building in which we live, which was constructed the year Lincoln was assassinated (1865).  It was during the Civil War that so-called improvements to weaponry made it possible to shoot a target from further away with bullets that did more damage to the human body.  In one telling of our nation’s history, this development is progress; in another, it is regression — mere cleverness put to the service of our worst instincts.

I think about this clash of stories when I pass our stereotypical “cannon in the park.”  A weapon of war that theoretically killed people stands unassumingly next to the petting zoo, where children can climb on it like another playground toy.  In The Lure of the Local, art critic and activist Lucy Lippard addresses this phenomenon with a subversive suggestion:

With adequate funding sources…public artists might set up social and political spaces in which energies could come together, dialogue and alternatives or opposition could be concretized. These might be seen in relation to the familiar “framing” strategy: what is already there is set in sharp relief by the addition of an art that calls attention both to what is there and what is missing. There are times, for example, when a long-obsolete object in wholly new context has as much to say by its surrealist disjunction as it did by its original function. Judy Baca’s valid remarks about the “cannon in the park” notwithstanding, the out-of-context or defused absurdity of a locomotive or old fighter plane stranded in a city park is part of their appeal. With proper “captioning,” they can be read as critiques of military-industrial pomp and the rapid obsolescence of technological brainstorms.

Interestingly, local graffiti artist — I’ll assume several, though there may be just one — is already taking up Lippard’s challenge.  These artists have decorated the peeling, faded mural with a series of biting critiques.  Though they have been confounding local officials and building owners, I’ve been thoroughly intrigued by the way they seem to get it: the blinders over the patriarchal eyes of a founding father, the cry for revolution, “mind control” painted over the mural’s tribute to the first Jesuit mission.  Whether these additions are motivated by undeveloped angst or mature concerns is rather beside the point.  More importantly, they are claiming a rightful space of public conversation about who we are and what we believe as a community. As Lippard writes, “‘Parasitic’ art forms, like corrected billboards (clandestine transformations of military and commercial advertising into oppositional messages) can ride the dominant culture physically while challenging it politically, creating openly contested terrains that expose the true identities of existing places and spaces as well as their function in social control.”

Parasitic art and insightful graffiti at their best can serve to draw our attention to other signs that what we call progress has not taken into account all measures of motion: persistent poverty, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, species deformed by chemical pesticides.  But I have to believe that the story of our future is as mutable as the story of our past, and that a reinterpretation of what has been could encourage us to reimagine what is to come, beginning with our local communities.  We’ll need artists, for sure, but we’ll also need metalworkers who know the first thing about turning swords into ploughshares, and we’ll need bankers who can figure out how to measure profit not just in dollars, but in the exchange of skills and time and stories.  We’ll need politicians elected on the basis of their wisdom who study war no more, but study peace instead — more specifically, conflict transformation and innovative community development.  We’ll need doctors, social workers, teachers and pastors who can collaborate to create systems that care for the whole person. 

Though stories like our local history mural tempt me to hide my light under a bushel, I’m guessing my hopes for the future of my community give me away: I truly believe that the cross painted outside the Jesuit mission stands for so much more than mind control, that there is a new creation that is coming into being already, through our hopeful gestures toward goodness for all, and not yet, for reasons I can’t pretend to understand.  If I believe the story that runs from creation through the cross and into the present, there will be lions and lambs, cities and gardens, and all other manner of reconciliation.  And if I believe one of my favorite artists, Andrew Bird, there will also be “tables and chairs…pony rides and dancing bears” and don’t forget, “snacks.”  May we all get “so tired of being mild.”

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