So, Why Murals?, you might ask. What do giant paintings on the street do that little paintings in a gallery can’t (or don’t)?
Well murals, because of their size, because of their public nature, are able to bring together groups of people; make them work together to decide on a design and then to paint it; cause discussions between both the people involved in the process, and everyone that sees it, that can lead to stronger community or to political action; empower individual voices to feel more comfortable announcing themselves to their local community and to the larger world; and simply inspire creativity and support personal individual expression by giving it a prominent location in our cities (and…hopefully you could someday say…a prominent location in our culture). The Philadelphia Mural Arts Program sums it up: a mural’s most significant contribution is “devotion to a democratic creative process.” The people involved in painting a mural, from the people who come together to design it, to those who paint it, to those who simply walk by it and comment to their friend about it, all become “true democratic citizens” of their city. They engage with and impact their environment and their society.
Murals, then, act as catalysts for many different things (this part is long and more detailed…you don’t have to read it):
1. Community. Not surprisingly, this is probably considered one of the most important qualities of the community mural movement (It also happens that I have the most to say about it). Murals can strengthen and build community. A group of people come together to share their ideas and work together to build their individual perspectives into a “visual voice” that reflects the needs, ideas, desires, wishes, feelings, and expressions of the community, especially for the group that designs and paints the mural.
“Murals are painted with, not just for, their audiences,” writes Philly MAP (Murals Arts Program). For community murals, the process of painting a mural involves listening to the voices of a community. By supporting and including these voices, community and individual stories begin to emerge. The students and artists working on murals become community leaders, examining their neighbors’ and their own hidden histories, listening to stories, and engaging in dialogue. Community needs and values are focused and brought to life through this process, empowering those voices.
2. Politics. By empowering and focusing an individual or community’s issues and desires, discussions are started about these issues. People are made aware, but furthermore, a good mural will cause its viewers to really think about the issue. In this way, murals can actively address political concerns. They also can become rallying points for larger community action (for example, Chicago’s Wall of Respect (now gone), which is considered the first modern community mural in the U.S.).
There is a portable mural (painted on 15 or so large wooden panels) here in Portland called WE SPEAK, which was painted in 1992 in response to the Quincentenary of the arrival of Columbus in the Americas. The mural brought together many different artists to express their opinions on ‘the myth of Columbus’. “1992 also marks 500 years of rich, cultural traditions that have flourished in spite of repression,” the statement declares. “Our mural is an attempt to give voice to these vital stories and historical facts. It is our hope that we will not only improve our ability to live in a multicultural community, but we will empower the children of our communities by combining these various perspectives into a composite picture of the American experience…” This is about building community, but in a specifically political way.
3. Creativity. With art all around you, it’s hard not to want to go out and paint. Creative expression becomes infectious. After looking at murals for two weeks straight I woke up one morning and went out and bought paint supplies, and I haven’t touched a paint brush since 9th grade art class.
Furthermore, murals are all about inclusion. All artists, with years of training or if it’s their first time touching paint, are included in the process. Through that inclusion are empowered to, hopefully, continue doing art (something which is especially important in these days of not enough arts funding in schools). “Community muralists orchestrate design and painting processes that create opportunities for both skilled and less skilled participants to make meaningful contributions to the project,” writes the Chicago Public Art Group.
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It is important here now, I think, to make a distinction between community murals, which are designed and painted through an inclusive and democratic process by the community themselves, and murals designed and painted by individual artists and following their own individual vision. These two forms exist at either end of a spectrum: mural as radical community expression on one end, and mural as radical individual expression on the other. Most murals, it seems, tend to exist somewhere within these two
My question to think about, as I’ve been exploring and reading all about the world of murals, has been: do all murals on this spectrum act as catalysts like I’ve described above? If not, is there value in some of these murals and not others? Where do elaborate graffiti murals, which are extremely individual expressions, fit in to the picture?
Another question is: If the social justice value of a mural occurs in the process of creating it, and the social/political/creative actions it spurs into being, does the art itself even matter? That is, what is the actual piece of art doing? Does it even matter in itself, or is it just a stand-in that represents the democratic processes that have taken place?