Sunday, November 20, 2005

Murals and the Integration of Art, Work and Community

Introduction To A Book In Progress

This is a history of murals from the caves to the present that understands them as forms of the work and expression of society. It examines the social functions murals have performed, who decided their messages and was served by them, who actually created them and how. Walls and ceilings of very different societies—those of rock shelters, temples and churches, palaces, capitol buildings, post offices, schools and neighborhood walls today—have borne murals because people believed they were necessary to their well–being, even survival. The making of murals has contributed to the bonding of societies. Murals like all art have made visible people’s values, traditions and identity. They have been created to assist their collective hopes and ward off their fears.

This study explores how historically art was once integral to the ordinary work of humanity, how art and work became divorced and how the community murals of the past 40 years point the way toward their reintegration. The moral of this story is that art needs to be recovered as a natural and necessary component of all work or we continue to be denied our humanity. Lacking art in our work, our efforts remain incomplete and we as individuals and social beings unfulfilled. But to recover art in their work, people must control their labor. Art is the sign of people’s control of their work, the verification of their freedom. (Work and labor are understood here as equivalent.) [Some commentators have sought to distinguish work and labor, assigning the first to the production of durable products and the second to things readily consumed like food and the performing of routine maintenance. The distinction implies that the former can be things of lasting beauty, the latter not, and that work requires more skill than labor, which is often onerous toil. While the distinction may be useful in other contexts, here it would be arbitrary. Cf. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1958]

The reason for studying the reintegration of art into work and community is that their union is the mark of fulfilling productive activity. Conversely, their divorce is a sign of oppressed labor. People once required that all things that they produced and used express in their visual form their values, ideas and abilities. Doing this well required that it be done with style, the traditional forms of community or a personal form and flair. This was also expected of the manner of performing face–to–face service. Sensitivity to others, courtesy and grace were regarded as enhancing human exchange. Most people of course still hold at least to the latter practice. The reintegration of art into work and community is important because for most people today livelihood is not only insecure, it barely if at all utilizes their talent, initiative and caring for others. As a result it is stultifying or minimally tolerable.

Ability creates its own need: the possession of aptitudes and skills urges their use in ways people believe are worthy. Others who could benefit from them suffer by their suppression. People want to express their ideas and values in their work. They want their work to be useful and to utilize their abilities. Individuals may have unique capacities and personal messages, or traditional competencies and values they want to engage. In either case they want to do well what they regard is important and they personally identify with. They want to bring into full being what is only potential in them while it remains unformed. They want to bring themselves into full existence, to actualize themselves in their work and be of use to others they care about. They want to see themselves reflected in their work. They also want to work with others who share the same objectives.

It is argued here that both secure livelihood and work that engages the energies and expression of people require that they control their labor and that the only way that that can be accomplished is if they cooperate toward that end. When work accomplishes these purposes, it takes on the character of art. The murals that have been painted in the barrios and ghettos of this country and in communities around the world during the last 40 years point the way to these objectives.

One reason that murals are especially useful in studying the relation of art and work is that their very scale makes more evident than other forms of art that all are in fact products of manual labor as well as mind. Murals are not only painted, they are constructed. Murals are integral to the building on which they appear. Fresco, the perennial technique of murals around the world, physically imbeds imagery into the wall as part of its fabric. A mural is usually produced by groups of workers, as most utilitarian products are. In some epochs the construction of a public building was not regarded as complete unless it possessed a mural. During the Italian Renaissance, murals were not adventitious or applied art; they were cult images necessary to the function of churches. Again in 20th century Mexico and the US during the 1930s, people believed that murals were essential to government buildings, including schools and post offices. A mural makes its wall articulate: it speaks to the functions of the people who work or live inside; it announces how its building should be used.

Further, the reintegration of art, work and community is most clearly demonstrated by murals because they are pre-eminently a form of public and social art, intended to draw people together before them and focus their attention on current concerns and issues in the light of their enduring bonds—their shared traditions and long–term goals. Murals are intended to bring many people together before them at one time, reminding them that they are members of society and inspiring them to employ their efforts for it. This is true whether their society is authoritarian or democratic. It was only in the 20th century that art, especially public art, could be counted on to express the view of its actual creators after a lapse of many centuries when it was subject to the prescriptions of elites who had no other role in its making. It is only in a society of equals that true community is possible since only then do all share fully in the decisions and benefits of life.

The separation of art and work occurred when self–appointed elites overcame what had previously been egalitarian societies and compelled the majority to provide for them, forcing regimented toil so that artistry was eliminated from most of people’s productive activity. Most of the art that was created in these class–divided societies was for the masters who could commandeer talent. Through much of history murals have been commissioned by elites to advance and ornament their power. But early in the past century in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution, the first partially successful national liberation struggle of its era, the creation of murals came again under the control of the people who created them. Moreover, the muralists painted on behalf of working people and claimed that they as artists were “cultural workers.” Even more revolutionary, the muralists sought to revive the creativity of all people not only by giving them a chance to assist them in doing murals but by urging the reintegration of art into all work by workers gaining control of it. Work was to become cultural. This was not far–fetched because most Mexican workers were still close to craft traditions and had not yet been deskilled by industrialism.

These muralists were moving in the opposite direction from the great muralists of the Renaissance who, caught up by the spirit of the entrepreneurial individualism of their time, did everything they could to distinguish themselves from skilled artisan-craftsmen as well as one another, to say nothing of the unskilled. Nevertheless, as artists they had to concede, often grudgingly, to the agendas of their patrons, whether prelates, autocrats or merchant princes. This has been the paradox of individualism in Western society. Artists since the Renaissance have been par excellence careerists and entrepreneurs, the principal exponents in our society of self–expression . But they have found it much more difficult than other professionals to earn a livelihood. They have engaged in perpetual trench warfare to win approval and patronage, while trying to distinguish themselves from other artists and preserve the integrity of their vision, which often yearned for social connection.

During the past century the Mexican muralists and those who painted with their communities in the US and abroad pursued an altogether different model. This study concludes that the murals produced in the deprived communities of the United States and the world during the last half century followed the Mexicans’ example and have sought to reintegrate art, labor and community. They have attempted to democratize human production and thereby liberate the creativity of all people.

My thesis is that the recent murals, particularly of this country’s deprived communities, by drawing out residents’ creativity have provided to all of us a model of the integration of art and socially useful work. These murals have shown that all work can and should express the values of its workers. They have also shown that community requires mutual communication and one of the major ways it can be accomplished. They are a unique form of work that have connected the trained and untrained to use their insight and best abilities, stifled in daily labor or joblessness, for their common well being. While protesting against racism, the murals have promoted community-controlled education, health care, housing, cultural centers and gardens that provided residents food, all of which offered dignified work to those most in need of it. These undertakings, too, have been animated by a creativity, initiative and caring about the community that are the qualities of art. The murals together with these services have successfully countered racism with ethnic pride, generating respect for residents both from the police and the downtown power structure. In these activities people of color displayed a will to resist discrimination and a resilience reinforced by their rich cultural heritage. They demonstrated the refusal of human beings to submit long to the repression of their innate creativity. It was partly because of their traditions but also because the makers of community murals were deprived that they were compelled to cooperate and to provide for themselves what no one else would or could—a public voice.

The community murals and services anticipated and provide an example to today’s New Localism of community and regional self-reliance guided by participatory democracy. Under the banner, “Another World is Possible,” the current generation of activists who include people of all races and nationalities, workers, family farmers, students and professionals, are seeking to transform regimented daily work of often doubtful social utility into projects that engage their values and talents. They envision the networking of sustainable self–managed localities that would provide an alternative to socially–irresponsible corporate globalization and statist imperialism. In this they are engaged in the most far–reaching art, that of structural social change and the transformation of their way of life.

Community murals are a form of “appropriate technology,” a kind of economic development, originally conceived by aid workers and tailored by the deprived of the Third World during the 1960s and ’70s to meet their needs and utilize their aptitudes and resources with a view to stimulating their initiative and control of their lives. It was therefore a democratic technology in contrast to those designed to enrich the already privileged. As a communications technology appropriate to the people who operate and use them, community murals pioneered the New Localism.

What makes community murals art is not only that they are a form of visual communication. They are art because they are work in which their makers engage their talent, thought and feeling, giving the things they produce a design and embellishment that symbolically express their values and concerns. As a result, the experience of making and viewing these images heightens vitality and provides new energy for living. This is the esthetic pleasure of making and doing, consuming and using. It is not only what today are called the fine arts where human expression can present itself. In fact all products that have visual form and all services, especially when they are delivered in person, offer opportunity to express the serious thinking and feeling of their makers and most important, to do something about them. When this occurs, this creativity conforms to what has traditionally been regarded “art.” Art and creativity do not require innovation or new insight. These are uncommon amplifications that are certainly desirable, but lively customary expression is also refreshing. Energizing and renewing us is enough. A feast requires no more.

The process of creating community murals has been especially satisfying to locals who participate because it is a cooperative undertaking of people who examine with their neighbors an issue important to them, seeking a solution, then how to visualize it, and finally taking on together the challenge of painting. The process for them is as fulfilling as the product, as the process of digesting it often is for viewers. The process of creation is not merely a means to a product. It is satisfying as an activity that draws out their inner resources and though which they grow. By re–orienting attention to the experience of creating a work of art, community murals have shifted the focus from art as a precious treasure to be placed on a pedestal and displayed in a museum, to a living exploration and transformation by their makers of the world and themselves. This is after all what life is at its best, the on–going creative engagement of people with their social and natural environment. By thinking about art as a process of production, it becomes easier to compare it with ordinary work. This is facilitated also by thinking of the viewing and digesting of the work also as an experience that to some extent recapitulates that of the maker. This active “art appreciation&rdquo is conducive to the work inspiring the viewer’s follow–through in his or her action in turn.

The efforts of local people to create a mural have become a model for other workers that helps them realize that the daily process of work could be intrinsically fulfilling. The mural process becomes a model of work and a way of life in which work becomes art when it activates the values, abilities and initiative of its producers and users. When the process of production of any well-designed product is intrinsically satisfying, the worker is also a consumer, and the means to the product or service becomes an end in itself. That satisfaction is esthetic, the pleasure of watching, and even more so, of causing, things to take shape. The worker then becomes an artist, and work becomes a deeply meaningful way of life, not only a livelihood.

Luminaries such as Karl Marx, William Morris, John Dewey, Paul Goodman, C. Wright Mills, Adolfo Sánchez Vásquez, Paolo Freire, Gustavo Gutiérrez, Raymond Williams, Herbert Read, Ivan Illich, E.F. Schumacher, Matthew Fox, Amanda Coomaraswamy and Studs Terkel are the best known of those who advocated for work that allowed people to realize their innate creativity, which when it did, took the form of art. This view of art was restated by René Yañez, an organizer of some of the first mural projects in San Francisco, when he said that “If something has good craftsmanship and a little soul, it shows. I believe that anything that is done well and with love, honesty and skill is art.”
Yañez invited local people, who came from different ethnic groups, to exhibit in a community arts center their regional breads and pastries, homemade altars, their richly detailed low riders and family photos (where people present themselves in distinctive ways). He helped contributors and visitors understand that these were forms of art, art that they made. This resulted in raising their self-esteem as producers of culture and recognition of one another’s worth: this was empowerment.

Nora Watson, a staff writer of an institution publishing healthcare literature, interviewed by radio host and author Studs Terkel says something similar:
“I think most of us are looking for a calling, not a job. Most of us, like the assembly line worker, have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people. A job like mine, if you really put your spirit into it, you would sabotage immediately. You don’t dare. So you absent your spirit from it. My mind has been so divorced from my job, except for a source of income, it’s really absurd.” [Studs Terkel, Working, New York: Avon, 1972, p. 675]
Spirit, soul, this is what makes skill art. She says that she wants her work to be a profession of herself.

The vernacular crafts that Yañez exhibited like folk art before them have historically been the last remnant of the creativity of working people when they were compelled to devote most of their efforts to performing routine toil for employers or in previous ages, masters. In societies where people directed their own labor, the production of the substance of daily life—their apparel, utensils, tools, weapons, shelter and sanctuaries—not only required manual skill but design and imagery that expressed local traditions and values, thereby integrating art into work. These societies included the native tribes governed by councils of all adult members, the free cities of the Middle Ages presided over by craft guilds, isolated communitarian experiments during the last 500 years, and trade unions of self–employed artisans and skilled workers that have survived through the industrial revolutions that deskilled people.

Murals have always been regarded as utilitarian work necessary to the well being of their society. They began as the magic of prehistoric hunters who believed that the images that they created on cave walls contained the animating spirits of the mammoths and lions represented and that the images could affect the hunt, ward off attacks or transfer the animal’s power to the hunter (if the conduct of their Stone Age counterparts that have survived to this day can be counted on to inform us about them.) As magic, art made things happen. When millennia later artists created murals in the tomb chambers of their kings, they believed that the painted servants would provide for them in the next world. As people came to have faith that the power that controlled everything resided in deities, murals were utilized to invoke the gods, another form of work. Gradually society has come to understood murals as no more nor less than a means of affirming the shared identity of its members and arousing them to action—to slave for a despot or rebel against him. Murals have remained utilitarian in their purpose.

The present prevailing separation of art from work is the mark of oppressed labor since workers, when they control their labor, tend to produce like artists. The divorce of their expression from their products and services has been the plight of most working people since warlord and priestly elites imposed what is described generically as the “state” and divided society between the privileged classes and their providers. The elite commandeered a minority of the talented to promote their power and entertain their leisure with what came to be called the “fine arts.” But the majority of the population was reduced to regimented drudgery to provision the elite, its taskmasters and the military. Much later employers inflicted their own form of forced labor by controlling all sources of livelihood. Any benefits with regard to working conditions and livelihood had to be fought for and was, with art being as important a weapon to the protesters as it was for the privileged.

This divorce of art from work that began in ancient times continues to this day in the industries, offices and fields where people have to sacrifice working with their hearts and talents to making a livelihood. It was not technology as such that deskilled labor as much as employers who organized work to maximize profits, and for that purpose not only imposed the division of labor and assembly lines, but also had machinery designed to produce as much as possible for as little as possible, reducing the number of workers and deskilling them so that those who remained became the proverbial tenders of machines and now key punchers. It is contended here that, if workers controlled their own labor, they would likely design power tools to facilitate their skill and expression as well as the uses they determined. Moreover, the family farm that was once a cherished way of life in most countries is being wiped out by agribusiness with its big combines.

The greatest violence that has been perpetrated against people throughout history has not been the intermittent wars and individual acts of mayhem that has taken so many lives but the continuous suppression of human creativity by the powerful few who control the labor of the many and channel it to serve only their own purposes.

Indeed, the frustration due to that suppression of creativity in work has likely stimulated a substantial amount of personal aggression that has been channeled into state-sponsored mayhem. Compensation for blocked expression also feeds the consumerism where people seek the illusion of control by compulsive buying. The satisfactions of acquisition become a poor substitute for those of realizing oneself in production and service. The cynical acknowledgement of the failure of society today to provide for the deepest inner needs of people appears in the Army’s recruitment slogan: “Be all you can be.”
Community murals are at the growing tip of humanity’s age–old efforts at communication and community building. Communication is community, and community, communication. These mutually re–enforcing activities have been elemental functions of our species to invent itself: each tribe, community or nation constructs and has sustained itself by its creative labor. Part of that is its making images to identify itself, where it believes it has come from, its attachments to the world and where it is going. Murals have served people by conceptually shaping their society at the same time as they have aided everyday practical tasks of procuring food, providing security, bonding members and reproducing them.

Today’s community muralists have not been simply decorating walls. They have been engaged in community building, in transforming people’s atomized, often alienated living and working only alongside each other and being exploited by those far distant. The muralists, who include neighbors who never before put brush to wall, have been occupied not only in protesting oppression but also making the first draft of a better world. In doing that they have been already working and living as they want to be, creating in fact the society they envision on their walls. The process is the product.

The community murals of the last four decades are reconnecting art, which has been largely self–absorbed since the mid–20th century, with social reconstruction. To that end they are exploring the reintegration of art and all productive activity, which the modern profit-driven economy has pulled apart ever since craftsmen were forced to decide between working with their heart and pursuing a livelihood. Community murals have in fact become a model for daily work in which producers and consumers cooperate to create their products and services, drawing on their best abilities and expressing and continually re–examining their values and how they act on them.

They are the most vivid example of democratic economic and social development by which deprived communities and professional artists have together been building an alternative to top-down, capital-intensive aggrandizement, which can discard people because they are not permitted to control their work. Doing murals in a setting of community self-reliance projects an economy of creative and socially useful work as well as sustainable livelihood rather than private profit, consumerism and acquisitiveness. Community murals are in fact at the leading edge of efforts to reconstruct the way of life not only of the deprived but the whole society.
This book is based on a number of propositions:
* Human beings are innately creative. They deeply want and find fullest satisfaction in exploring the world and discovering and expressing themselves in their work--their insights, skills and caring for one another. They feel a profound need to project their aptitudes into the real world and see their mind and hands reflected in their work.
* Creativity is the way that human beings actively adjust to their natural and social environment, By changing the world, they change themselves.
* We are social beings, needing one another to be cared for and to care for in turn. We need others to educate our abilities and to provide opportunities to be useful and validate ourselves through our work, gaining through it the respect of others. Our sense of selfhood and even individuality is profoundly influenced by the kind of society we live in.
* Creative work, work that expresses the insights and abilities of its makers and serves other people, is art. It enriches experience and generates in its makers and users new energy for life.
* To be able to work in this way requires that workers control their labor, which can only be accomplished cooperatively.
* Community murals are the products of the most deprived members of society together with professional artists who are concerned that together both of them engage their creativity. The professionals bring their skills, while the deprived bring not only their concerns but also their own creativity that has often been enriched by their ethnic culture that has been essential to the survival of the oppressed as a community. This has been the case of all oppressed peoples who have cultivated their traditions as folk and vernacular cultures in the face of the dominating social order.
* Community murals therefore offer a model of remoraling not only art but also labor, that is, restoring their function of meeting the fundamental needs of people, not only for livelihood but also personal and collective expression.
* The community mural movement is a key current in the global tide in which both the deprived and the advantaged have sought creative work, community, health, peace and, to achieve all of these, control over their lives. In the pursuit of these objectives, they are seeking to overcome the aggrandizement of global capitalism and political hegemony. While the main work of this global movement has occurred in communities around the world, representatives have met annually in World Social Forums at Porto Alegre, Brazil, and Mombai, India, to share their achievements and issues under the banner, “Another World Is Possible.” They have supported popular organizing among deprived peoples around the world who have been organizing to resist the depredations of the transnational corporations and local elites. This has involved demonstrating against the transnational corporations and world leaders at their frequent meetings.
* The community muralists provide models that offer guidance to this worldwide movement to restore creative work, community, local and sustainable economic self-reliance and global networking. They, too, have been meeting at different sites around the world to share and advance cooperation, discussing many of the same issues. All of this lays the groundwork for the true enrichment of life and peace.
Community murals compel us to re–examine what art is. They remind us that art consists of a system of symbolic forms by which people designate what and how they see and understand their world.. Science tells us that the real three-dimensional world registers on the mosaic of nerve receptors at the back of our eyes—the concave retinas—as two stereoscopic upside-down two-dimensional images that are subsequently united and “righted” by our brains. “Righted” by turning them right-side up to correspond with our knowledge of the world acquired by touching it. The original data are further ordered by visual schemas that our brain seems wired for and our culture reinforces: for instance, our predilection for frontal and profile views that are easier to remember and represent in drawing. This is loaded with a whole baggage of meanings based on previous personal experience but even more on the ideas and feelings that we have assimilated from our society. What we literally see and understand are visual forms that are shaped by visual experience and community culture. These visual forms are therefore symbolic, bearing an accretion of meanings and associations attached to the shape of the fabricated object or the image it bears by our learned culture. Crucial to this formulating and stabilizing of our visual and conceptual notions of the world are the images we make of them on flat walls, canvas and paper as well as three-dimensional sculpture. For these images fix in stable symbolic forms our ideas of the world, how it looks and what it means. Our hand–made images, our art, affect what we see and how we respond to it.

The source of human creativity is the labor process, for ordinary work changes nature, shapes it to meet human needs and provide new satisfactions. By changing the raw material of nature every day to provide the wherewithal of their existence, people are being creative. When they alter their daily ways of doing this to meet their and their community’s desires, they are even more creative. By changing the world and their relations to it, people change themselves; they make discoveries about the world and themselves; they develop new abilities and grow. The pleasure of such growth—of greater understanding and capability is at the root of esthetic pleasure. People thereby generate new functional relations with their human and natural environments. They generate new coherence and order, an important component of art. A short definition of art is any making that expresses meaning and feeling through its shape and imagery. It heightens the experience of making and using, generating fresh energy for life.

While humans are otherwise weak in relation to their environment, the unique source of their power and astonishing development has been their ability to create visual and verbal symbols, the media of their communication and thinking. Their making of symbols and all forms of discourse are part of their creativity and their labor. Art therefore is inherent in productive labor.
Murals were among the earliest forms of art. Nominally a mural is wall art, actually art that fills most of a surface or is large enough to dominate the space around and before it. Murals from their first appearance in caves often traveled up walls and across ceilings. In religious sanctuaries of every era, murals reached up to vaultings and depicted the heavens. Michelangelo painted the ceiling and one wall of the Sistine Chapel. Since ancient times large pavements like those of the Hellenistic era have also been covered with imagery, sometimes pictorial scenes, like the Alexander Mosaic from Pompeii, usually in mosaic. The term “mural” has been used loosely to refer to all monumental mainly two–dimensional art. Many of these works are in low– or even high–relief, as in the case of the prehistoric caves, as well as the carved relief sculpture of the Assyrians and the Parthenon Frieze, both of which were painted. Because of their scale, murals are a type of environmental art that transforms the space before them and suggests what lies beyond them, beyond the immediate vicinity. The tapestries of the Middle Ages, altar pieces and Gothic stained–glass windows will be taken as a closely allied form. While all art attempts to transport viewers to somewhere else or make the what is remote present, murals more than any other try to transform their immediate environment, lifting people out of their present lives to reshape consciousness and reality or identify and depict what their makers believe is real.

By their sheer scale murals become public statements in contrast to smaller easel works that tend to be personal and intimate. Murals are about people in their social relations. Their size usually requires the work of many, which is conducive to social rather than private expression.

Murals have been produced on surfaces where many could see them as they stood or knelt together, danced, yearned or prayed. This was what we now call “public art,” art that is to be taken in, not in private individual contemplation, but as people gather together or stop momentarily to view it during their work or coming and going in the street and public buildings, such as schools and government institutions. A mural by its sheer scale and location invites collective viewing and brings people together. It assumes and cultivates community, projecting its values and traditions: a mural is “social art,” proclaiming the bonds that make a society. If its art succeeds, a mural imparts a message to arouse and elevate: it alters or raises consciousness, imparting a social dimension to self–awareness: you are not yourself alone but a member of a collective body. A mural not only declares what is real; it often is employed to change reality or at least the conduct of its viewers, who in turn may try to change social and political reality. Beginning in the caves, murals were among the primordial forms of art, and they have continued as one of the fundamental means by which humans have addressed one another and the world— its forces, deities, or however they conceive their connections with everything around them. It is the power of murals to summon up our most serious concerns that distinguishes them from that other form of public art that is the billboard, which attempts a meretricious sell of commodities and candidates.


Prestoungrange said...

Dear Alan

Absolutely delighted that you will be coming to Scotland ... Prestonpans .. during the Global Conference mid August. As Chair, we are planning toschedule a session for you on Thursday [when Mural in a day is also running led by Andrew Crummy!]

5:12 AM  
anna said...

Dear Alan,

I am Delgadillo's daughter. I would like to get in touch with you and to talk about my father.

Please, get back to me.


11:09 AM  
arteporlibertad said...

hola soy guille de argentina
me gusto mucho todo

tambien pinto murales
aca les paso mi blog

espero tambien les guste

podríamos hacer links entre ambos

5:21 AM  

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