At a symposium I attended last week on Philippine literature and politics, the panel was asked a rather difficult question: in a country with a history of turmoil and oppression, could art ever be made just for the sake of art anymore, or is everything inextricably linked to a political agenda? Since the panel consisted of mostly writers, they were specifically asked if they felt they had to write to send a message or if they could just write to write. It took several moments for anyone to attempt to answer. I couldn’t blame them.
This past summer, I faced a similar question while touring San Francisco with a group of international students. We were in the area to feast our eyes on the famed and fantastic murals of the Mission District. San Francisco is home to over 600 murals. The city’s mural tradition is magnificent and diverse, with murals painted on numerous surfaces, from building walls and facades to fences and garage doors. Even pavements and sidewalks serve as canvasses for artists’ brushes and spray cans. The colorful Mission District has the greatest concentration of murals in San Francisco. On any given street, one would find huge, vivid painted scenes framing storefronts or adorning residences.
The mural movement of the Mission District—and San Francisco, in general—was largely inspired by the Mexican tradition of monumental public art celebrating and commemorating history and cultural heritage (a tradition that the writers at the symposium also follow). Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Siquieros, known as “Los Tres Grandes” or “The Three Greats,” were considered the masters of mural painting. According to the Precita Eyes Mural Arts and Visitors Center, the “Chicano (Mexican/American) and civil rights movements of the 1960’s inspired a new generation of muralists to rediscover the works of Los Tres Grandes and indigenous heritage continuing the tradition of monumental art addressing social and political issues, with themes of culture and community” (precitaeyes.org). The predominantly Latino community of the Mission District have been painting murals in this vein since the 1970s.
Balmy Alley, located between 24th and 25th streets, is one of the many fruits of the neighborhood muralists’ labor. In this little street, the walls, fences, and garage doors glow with figures of Hispanics, whether they are famous for something specific or simply emblematic of everyday people; and images of scenes and objects related to the Hispanic culture. Here, the murals demand our thoughts turn to such difficult topics as AIDS, war, poverty, immigration, political strife, and other human rights issues. Nearly every painting implores viewers to bear in mind the struggles of the community that keeps these works of public art alive.
A few blocks over, Clarion Alley shines in all its brightly hued glory. A younger relative of—and directly inspired by—Balmy Alley, Clarion Alley was initiated and is maintained by the Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP). CAMP was established in 1992 by a volunteer group of six North Mission residents. Unlike Balmy, CAMP did not begin with a single focus. Its two main goals were social inclusiveness and aesthetic variety, with an emphasis on emerging artists and new styles. As a result, Latino, Caucasian, African-American, Native American, Asian, Indian, Queer and disabled artists of all ages and all levels of experience have produced more than 150 murals on the surfaces of Clarion Alley. The paintings here range from surreal and whimsical to political and subversive.
It was in these two alleys, most especially Clarion Alley, that I was asked the question. Several of the international students had noticed that some of the murals blatantly carried a message (i.e. the images were accompanied by quotations or slogans) but others did not. Were the paintings without words emblazoned on them still saying something then? Or are they merely visuals imagined by the artist? After taking some time to study the murals, I answered in the same way that one of the panelists at the Philippine literature and politics symposium answered: it depends. And a lot of it on the viewers’ interpretation. The artist (or the writer) may or may not create something with the intention of promoting a particular opinion but if the audience sees something in their works that could be construed as a “message,” it would be hard for the audience to un-see it, no matter what the artist says. Yet, whether or not they are all saying something, there is no arguing that the murals contribute to the Mission District’s rich character. And, as Precita Eyes describes, the “community murals are painted by and for the community whose walls they enhance. Whether they espouse political views, family values, cultural pride, or historic events, they reflect the needs, hopes and dreams of the community members who paint them” (precitaeyes.org).