Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Art (and Irony) of War & Peace

Two steps forward, one back...wayyyy back.

While this past weekend marked another highly successful House of PainT urban arts festival, The City of Ottawa demonstrated - once again - its short sightedness when it comes to art and public space.

A local community centre invited an artist and youth to collaborate on a mural (see story below). Some people in the neighborhood complained about the mural and before anyone could say "moral panic", the City of Ottawa covered it with a tarp until they City workers could paint it over.

Did it show pornography? Was there hate speach involved? Was there ANY violation whatsoever to any federal, provincial, or municipal laws? Nope.

Thanks to Mike Young who scanned the front page of the Ottawa Citizen for me (the on-line version curiously does not show the actual mural)

The images on the painting grew out of a workshop for young people held last week on the theme of love. Home, mothers, flowers, birds, music were some of the ideas tossed about. B├ędard said the artist, who was working with a parent volunteer, used those images as a way to “disarm” the gun and open a dialogue on violence. (Ottawa Citizen)
I highly encourage you to read the article in full for yourself, including the artist's comments.

Those who complained about the mural did so, it seems, on the grounds that the image was detrimental to other young people: media effects; this flawed logic assumes that reading an image (hearing a song, watching a TV show) literally will translate into negative action. It is a theory that completely undermines our ability as individuals to contextualize, to inquire, to listen to others, to produce intelligent responses. It simplifies how we interact with images, people and media everyday.

If you ask the person who makes this argument if the image makes them feel violent they will usually respond with "Oh not ME...but you know...OTHER people will..."

Given the speed that the city reacted to public complaints, one has to wonder if they would react as quickly for calls complaining about bothersome advertising.
Remember the 1970s-80s fears about lyrics? Stairway to Heaven was suspected of speaking sweetly to Satan. In the United States, such concerns played out in the courts over Ozzy Osbourne's song Suicide Solution. The courts found that:
"[M]usical lyrics and poetry cannot be construed to contain the requisite 'call to action' for the elementary reason they simply are not intended to be and should not be read literally.... Reasonable persons understand musical lyrics and poetic conventions as the figurative expressions which they are."(Art on Trial)
The real damage here is the message The City gives to young people in our city, but in particular to those involved in the production of this mural. Even though the mural was in NO WAY ILLEGAL, the City gave in to the squeaky wheels by telling the kids who are thinking about peace and violence to 'shut up'.

Why do they have to shut up? Because the City 'said so'. 

Is the image provacative? Yes.

And The City should have handled this thought provoking image in a productive way. They could have:
  • Supported a 'tour' of the image by the artist, children who contributed to it, the community centre workers. Curious or concerned citizens could hear about what ideas went into the making of this artwork.
  • Put up a plaque explaining the work to those interested in taking a closer look.
  • Invited local youth experts, police, and researchers to participate in a public forum to address fears about 'crime' and 'media' and 'youth'. 
  • Hosted a coffee shop or town hall discussion to help reassure concerned citizens that a mural would not cause crime or impair local children.
Tragically, The City buffed over the opportunity for individual parents sit down with their children in front of the mural and talk. Take the time, and talk. And perhaps that is what scared people the most. Taking the time to talk...

And here is the great irony of it all: The City of Ottawa and mainstream news media use the language of violence all the time, particularly when dealing with youth (speaking about a 'War on Graffiti' for example). But, when young people echo this back to us, The City worries that this kind of language will 'hurt' other kids. At least these young people were talking about neutralizing violence with peace... How dare the City silence them in this way. THAT is offensive.


And so, I end my rant today with this quote from Ray Bradbury's work, Farenheit 451:
With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word `intellectual,' of course, became the swear word it deserved to be. You always dread the unfamiliar.

1 comment:

  1. I was given this article to read as part of a Take Home Exam for my Durkheim class. I have had you before as a Crim Professor, and I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed this assignment. I find your perspective really intriguing, and I find this story to be absolutely infuriating. Since when does the city have a right to remove a mural when their website states that there is a difference between Urban Art and graffiti, because graffiti is vandalism and urban art contributes to the 'beautification' of the city? I think that almost all graffiti is a form of art. I did a research paper last summer on the sub-culture of graffiti artists in New York City and Toronto, and I found that graffiti artists learn their skills in the form of an apprenticeship. They work hard to create pieces that express their thoughts on society, and add colour to walls that would otherwise remain grey and boring... why are we punishing them for that? In this instance, why are youth who were taking part in a positive work shop being insulted by having their mural taken down by the city? To me, it is social injustice. Thanks for the very interesting blog, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Molly K. Murison