Changing Cultural Paradigm

Rip Cronk

Chapter 8

 

                       The Community Mural and the Changing Cultural Paradigm in America

Sociocultural (aesthetic, psychoanalytic) symbolism has been gutted of ineffable content by the effects of the television mystique, academic reductionism and the rabid commercialization of culture. With the decline in intensity of the Western cultural experience, traditional venues for acquiring ethical and aesthetic values have lost their influence on society. Today we stand at the end of an epoch as a new stratification of culture comes into being.

American culture was never based on long-standing traditions handed down from generation to generation. We have no historical roots to preserve and respect. There are no Roman ruins, no Renaissance structures, no cobblestone streets. Without traditions on which to ground culture, our value systems have been particularly susceptible to the influence of the media. While culture is associated with artistic and intellectual pursuits, it is foremost aesthetic, ethical and metaphysical values. It is the subjective alliance that binds society. Culture is not material or tangible. It is not image or information or technology. Culture is in the experience. It requires active involvement. Turning on the television is not enough. 

In a tribal gathering that has gone on for over fifty years, America settles in around the television set every evening. The audience enters into a state of apathetic suspension as it is lulled and dulled in the security of a mundane predictable medium. Television’s cool glow warms society with a sense of belonging. As television radiates its message, society is bound together with a common set of experiences. With undue reliance on television viewing as a way to define cultural ground, the stage was set: The public persona, replete with cultural values, became an attribute of style, subject to change in response to television programming and advertising. The gullible mainstream community has been easily manipulated for political and economic gain by those in control of the editorial policies of the media.

Passive involvement in the television mystique and the shallow returns of consumer myths lack the ontological bearing of traditional cultural mythologies. In response, in recent decades a growing population has turned to participation in subcultural affiliations to recover values lost to television addiction. While media-produced culture still dominates the image of America, a variety of subcultures coexists just below the radar. This includes active communities of gays, hippies, street gangs, bikers, feminists, survivalists, jocks, cowboys, Indians, an extensive drug culture and various Asian, Hispanic, Eastern European and African immigrant communities, just to name a few. Each group is increasingly connected by their own publications, cable television channels, web sites, chat rooms, music venues, churches and social activities. Academic communities are regarded as out of touch by mainstream society and have been relegated to the subcultural undercurrent. Contemporary fine art and other high art disciplines are also considered irrelevant.

While painting the mural, MET Theatre Bulletin Board, 1998, in a multicultural Hollywood neighborhood with a group of apprentice artists of different ages and backgrounds, a revealing circumstance demonstrated the extent of subcultural diversity existing in America today. In the month or so we were engaged in painting the mural, we would routinely hear music blasting from passing cars. I never recognized any of the music. At first I wrote it off as being out of touch with the younger generation. As weeks passed I started inquiring of the apprentice artists, which included an Albanian immigrant high school student, a hispanic gang-related street artist, an Asian-American art college student and a twenty-something housewife, if they recognized the music. It became a standing joke that seldom did any of us recognize the tunes emanating from the traffic.

The traditional view of a hierarchical majority culture flanked by a handful of subcultures no longer describes what is going on in America. Our society is no longer structured this way. Mainstream society as portrayed in the media is something of an illusion. America still participates in the nightly viewing ritual, but the influence of television programming on cultural values is on the wane. Today, instead of a majority culture, there is an array of coexisting and overlapping subcultures, each protective of its own traditions, values and autonomy. These subcultures have no desire to exert influence on, or be assimilated by, the mainstream.

In the new arrangement of multiple subcultures, individual communities have become subcultures in their own right. Communities take pride in their distinguishing features and share in their desire for an identity independent of mainstream society as it has been portrayed in the media. The movement to generate collective cultural values at the local level is facilitated by the artist. In the new cultural paradigm, the job of the public artist is to create cultural icons featuring the defining symbols of the particular community. Imposing incomprehensible esoteric art in a community setting is an insult. Public art has to be specific to the location, or at least include content within the grasp of the target audience.

The community oriented mural creates a matrix between community and outside world. Through the microcosm of an idealized event, the outside world recognizes the universality of the human experience. While the subject matter of the mural expresses community ideals to outsiders, inwardly it works as an initiating symbolic experience for assimilation into the community. The encounter with the mural bonds the community with shared ideals and values. The community mural has become an important source of the aesthetic symbolism that enlivens cultural mythology. The mural provides orienting experiences of culture at a time when traditional sources of aesthetic symbolism have lost their ability to inspire the audience. Establishment fine art venues seem to have run their course. With few exceptions, they are no longer vehicles for exploring the ontological foundations of culture.

Do not expect significant new movements to emerge from the current arrangement of art and institutions. In a catch 22, esoteric gallery art is a pseudo-autonomous discipline limited by its own ideology. The idea that art is independent of non-art is a means of control. Autonomy is a misnomer that masks the artist's obligation to the art market. The established system of accreditation defuses and absorbs revolutionary art forms before they can effect underlying ideological priorities that support the status quo. In order to affect change, art must gain critical and public recognition without becoming a commodity with resale value.

The art community maintains the premise that cultural values ‘trickle down’; that is, their esoteric commodities are imbued with inherent cultural value that has (or will have) a positive effect on society. With the lack of a clear hierarchical order in the new cultural paradigm, this would no longer appear to be the case. For art to have an impact on society, it has to function as cultural mediator for a broad spectrum of the community.

The community oriented mural is not bound by economic and elitist priorities of gallery and museum art. The regional and pop cultural motifs and community orientation of the mural distinguish it from other creative disciplines. Neighborhood murals are the product of a grassroots approach to art. For the artist, the goal is to generate cultural values from the ground up by infusing the art object with locally relevant content. The encounter with the community mural transcends class distinctions and social barriers. It works its magic on every passerby. Everyone, from every strata and age group, assesses the aesthetic value of the public mural. It is not exclusive.

Innovation in art has left the canvas. Innovation is now found in exploring new ways to interface the context of fine art and society. Fortunately, aesthetic symbolism is not limited to the set of symbols currently atrophying from reductionism and commercial exploitation. In crossover efforts such as community oriented Pop art, the artist casts off the yoke of tradition in search of symbolic experiences of cultural transformation. As society adapts to changing conditions, new symbols are emerging to assimilate the harmonious spirit of man.

There is a significant difference in the response to gallery art and the wall-painted mural. Gallery art is removed from the viewer’s world. The space between them is discontinuous. By contrast, the viewer identifies with the mural as part of the community. The wall painting attaches a fine art context to the locality in a way that framed art cannot. The wall-painted mural becomes part of the wall, hence a literal extension of the community, as opposed to an art object that is mounted on the wall and can be removed and resold. Painting the wall and encountering the wall are contiguous acts with potential to produce a vital experience not available to gallery art. A stronger bond exists between artist’s intent and viewer’s perception. Mural art is an energized visual language equally connected to fine art and community. The community-based wall-painted mural carries the art historical context of fine art and has the added advantage of maintaining the context of the environment of which it is a part.

The community mural has power because of the role it plays in realizing the potential of artist and viewer within a cultural context. The mural de-alienates and delineates the individual in society. Ironically, the autonomous self is dependent on immersion into culture. As a function of culture, the community mural inspires symbolic experiences of an actualization process that reveal our potential as well as define our limitations. A subtle ‘leap of faith’ occurs as the viewer identifies with values and ideals expressed in the mural. The experience integrates the viewer into society as it provides validation for the supporting belief system. While it does not circumvent the perceptual veil of the ego as it was once believed, the myths we live by are recast by the experience. Content in art has always shaped the individual in society. Whether the epic poem of ancient Greeks or the painting of the Modernist, art provides images of the self in transition. The artist searches for the hypothetical image that best fits the needs of individuation in a changing world.

Symbolic knowledge acquired during the encounter with art is sublimated to the search for a meaningful ‘way to be’. This is a euphemism for ethical value derived from an aesthetic experience. With its egalitarian strategies, public mural art works as an integrating force in the community. As the neighborhood mural unites the community with symbols of their common ideals and values, it subverts the dynamic that reduces art to economic and elitist priorities and restores art to the role of cultural mediator.

The previous constellation of Western symbols have been largely depleted of transcendent value. Neighborhood murals, expressing community-specific symbolism through permanent installations, enliven a new generation of symbolism with icons of the new social order of subcultural pluralism. This parallels the way the outsider art of Impressionism was adopted by the burgeoning social order in the late nineteenth and was similarly imbued with symbolic authority as the icons of the bourgeoisie.