The Morals of Murals
Returning from my detour and back on the grant funding highway, there has been one development in my own city that has me thinking about the ins and outs of public art. The Kindling Fund is probably the most prominent form of artistic funding in Portland, providing money for individual artists and groups. One Kindling-funded project, the Portland Mural Initiative, consists of a group of painters working to "bring contemporary art into the public spaces of Portland and its surrounding areas." Four murals have been finished in one of my favorite, grungier parts of town.
The work is beautiful: I am easily taken by large swaths of color, and there's a sense of belonging to the murals, like they grew out of the brick on their own. The organization built a few public gatherings in the area into their project, a place to discuss the murals and foster a discussion about public art, Portland's visual presence, and whatever else came up. I like the idea that this post exist as my contribution to said discussion. I was trained and educated in a sphere of non-judgement, and while criticism necessitates taking a position, I hold to that philosophy. I really enjoyed seeing the work and the way it looks in the space, yet there's a potential to any art in a public space I don't see fully realized.
I should recognize that the Mural Initiative doesn't claim to be a "pubic art" project, isn't trying to provide any concrete public service. They set out to bring contemporary art to Portland's streets, and now there is beautiful art in Bayside. Mission accomplished. Ultimately, I'm not entirely comfortable with this mission. In a reading from the Art as Social Action class I sat in on last spring, Erika Doss lamented the loss of the public sphere as a place for controversy and productive discussion: "Public space has always been an essential ingredient in the makeup of American culture, traditionally providing a dynamic locus for democratic engagement and debate by a richly diverse and perpetually shifting public," she writes in Spirit Poles and Flying Pigs. Art in a public space is inescapable to the public, wherein lies our ability to communicate what the public might not choose to hear. The Mural Initiative's work is generally inoffensive, and it is there it leaves me wanting. I want some controversy; I want the art we see on the street to remind us that art isn't just what we might see on our walls.
Murals have long provided cultural education, raised awareness of relevant issues and commemorating those making an effort to improve their society. I refer readers to wandering around the Mission in San Francisco, where Clarion Alley offered portraits of deceased leaders in the fight against AIDS, and Guernica references based on the systemic oppression of the minority population of the Bay Area. To be fair, Clarion Alley has its share of abstract murals, but alongside the more political pieces they gained a context of art with a vivid and meaningful cultural background necessitating free public display. I felt the charge of a community with a deep, tumultuous history. Portland is no Oakland, I know, but every city has problems and societies should encourage critical reflection on them. Public art is such a effective way to do this I can't help but be disappointed by the current offerings.
I am encouraged by this start. The Portland Mural Initiative contributes to the normalization of large-scale works in Portland's public areas and the general acceptability of public art in the area. As a city we've had failures, both in execution and aesthetics, and it's good to see something adding to its environment. As usual, I'm just a bit impatient.