El muralismo on campus


Murals on college campuses can be weird and creepy.  When I visited University of Wisconsin, Madison a few years ago, I discovered one of them right in the midst of the student union.  From all other appearances, the union is wonderful.  It overlooks a large wooded lake, and there’s what looks to be a beer hall where students can weather the cold winters in contentment.  But when I went there, I found one room of the complex featuring twin murals facing each other.  They depicted landscapes and struggles, rich with a diversity of people, men and women of all races.

The controversial element of the mural is somewhat obscured in this official UW Madison photograph.

What did I do when I saw this?  Something I do whenever confronted with a work of this nature: I performed a white man check (disclosure: I am not a white man).  On one of the murals, the only two figures who appeared more than likely to be white men happened to each have a noose around their neck.  Perhaps they were martyrs for some good cause.  But I suspect the mural might have run into resistance if the noose had been around any minority status necks.  Really, does the heart of a Federally subsidized land grant university need to be so edgy?

Back on the Left Coast, the University of California, Davis, has its own diversity mural on the wall of its Memorial Union.  It depicts people, artifacts, and architecture from diverse cultures.  Performing the white man check on it reveals a forlorn-looking marble bust from Western antiquity, sulking in the far corner, while a colorfully painted Mesoamerican leads the rest of the world in a rollicking two-dimensional block party.

"The Unfinished Dream," UC Davis

The bust from Western antiquity (far left) looks a little bummed out compared to his Mesoamerican friend. (DavisWiki)

Another mural undertaken last year on the same campus elicited some unexpected criticisms from community members who felt underrepresented by it.  Critiques included that the mural did not represent students of Southeast Asian descent more clearly, and that it failed to recognize the campus LGBT community by the newer, more bleeding-edge politically correct moniker: LGBTQIAA.  The school newspaper’s editorial board recognized the absurdity of expecting such a project to so meticulously account for all “body types, sexualities, hair types and cultures.”

Unrealistic expectations aside, campus murals are often unsuitable to universities, inasmuch as they are supposed to adorn places safe for open intellectual inquiry.  El muralismo, the Mexican school of murals developed by Diego Rivera and others in the 1920s, inevitably incorporates themes of popular revolution and uprising.  Thick, sturdy figures populate brown-washed scenes of agrarian landscapes alternating with molten-lit caverns industrial might.  The imagery recalls the regrettable chapter of global history when national governments promised utopias by pursuing various forms of totalitarianism.

Portion of “Man at the Crossroads” by Diego Rivera. Note Vladimir Lenin at far right. (Wikimedia)

It’s incredible that significant parts of academic culture, so wary of fixed truth, would readily employ a format devised as unabashed propaganda.  Large and imposing, murals tend to bully a public space.  One will think twice before reading Thomas Sowell or mentioning William F. Buckley while under the watchful gaze of social revolutionaries.  Today, murals are not in service of class revolution as much as a progressive conception of diversity that feels awkward being in the same room as Plato and Thomas Aquinas.  Or Thomas Jefferson for that matter.

Winston Churchill

That stalwart defender of Britain, Winston Churchill. (Wikimedia)

To the extent that the universities’ commissioned artists might draw upon muralismo, diversity can’t even be properly served.  The range of physical differences among races, such as they might be conceived, tend to be limited when manifested.  Rather than people who look distinctly white, black, Asian, or whatever, everyone in these murals seems to have a tame variant of a mocha complexion.  The format is not just ideologically rooted, it is ethnically rooted.  To be clear, nothing is wrong with Mesoamerican culture and people themselves.  Problems of a related sort would emerge if a student association chose to depict diversity through Chinese scroll paintings or any other single format with a strong cultural association.

The next time some university entity contemplates public art for their campus community, they ought to look beyond the muralismo tradition.  It seems newer state schools are generally bereft of a classic form of art: statues cast in metal.  You know, like Lord Nelson at Trafalgar Square, or Winston Churchill near Westminster.  Maybe they’re avoided because there have been too many dead white men honored by the medium.

The AP, Obama, the ‘S’-word and E.J. Dionne

I never get tired of calling out the mainstream media.  Its reporters give us steeply slanted stories and we’re supposed to believe they are fair and objective.  A recent AP piece–not marked by Yahoo! as commentary or analysis–defends President Obama against the “socialist” label while simultaneously slapping down conservatives.

The article’s language allows the writer to circuitously vent his disdain for Obama critics.  In his prose, they “pounce,” “slur,” and “denigrate.”  Other words color the tone for us: contention, epithet, shock value, nonsense, insult.

He weaves quotes from academic experts.  One proclaims he is “weary” of the socialist label.  Another points to a “hysterical outbreak of abuse” and “animosity” coming from a “certain segment of Americans.”  In other words, racist bigots are saying bad things about the President.

Besides saturating his article with inflammatory language, the writer gets smarmy by informing the reader that it was a socialist who wrote the Pledge of Allegiance.  He faults Obama critics for missing a strict definition of socialism, but goes on to quote and mention people who do not fit the bill he uses.

As written, this purported news story is just a string of unsubstantiated quotes and couched words meant to take conservatives down a notch.  But this patronizing corrective is not the first.  I remember NPR running a piece like this just prior to election day 2008.  For years now mainstream journalists have been meticulously removing criticism from the President as if they were remora eels attached to the belly of a giant, lumbering whale.  Hopefully a one-term whale.

These nominally non-ideological reporters work in tandem with analysts and commentators who are open about their Left/liberal leanings.  E.J. Dionne is among the more effective of this clean-up crew.  Whether in his weekly sparring with David Brooks or on the talk radio circuit promoting his new book, Dionne often comes across as sharp, earnest, and even magnanimous.  For many in the political middle that could be swayed, his style threatens to give credence to his thesis that conservatives have moved radically rightward, abandoning what he calls a traditional balance between private and public, individual and community.  Never mind that he conflates government with community or that families, churches, and civic associations don’t neatly fit into his talking points.  For some swing voters, tone and presentation will matter more than substance.

Anyone who wants to stave off the misfortune of another four years of Barack Obama and his liberal, Leftist, progressive, and Democratic friends should consider carefully how they’re talking about him.  “Socialist” may be a cogent term that energizes the base, but it will turn off at least a few independents who are paying attention.

What I’m suggesting is not the abandonment of principle but getting fancy with footwork.  In conversations that count, identify the common ground and frame the choice in those terms: personal responsibility, the dangers of centralization, or whatever it may be.  Make it clear that even if Obama and Democrats don’t satisfy some strict definition of “socialist,” it is a distinction without a difference.

We don’t need to renounce our partisanship like mainstream journalists do; it’s better to confess rather than suppress your bias.  But beyond the statistics, labels, and gotchas that get thrown about, we must connect the dots, clearly articulating why it is we believe what we believe.

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