Visual Arts Commentary: Boston Mural Stirs Controversy

A mural painted on the side of a Big Dig ventilation structure in Boston’s Financial District has generated enormous controversy.

  1. By Kyle Clauss

Os Gemeos’ Boston mural has caused a stir.

Created by Brazilian street artists Os Gemeos, the mural in question is, if nothing else, a vivid addition to the Rose F. Kennedy Greenway, which is surrounded on all sides by imposing, grey skyscrapers. According to the Greenway’s website, the mural, commissioned by the ICA, depicts “a giant, yellow-colored character in brightly mismatched clothes who appears to have squeezed himself in between the towering buildings that surround him.”

A recent article by Hrag Vartanian for Salon dubbed the mural “a Rorschach test for idiots and racists.” While some consider the painting a whimsical splash of color in an otherwise drab, corporate landscape, others, like those who took to Fox 25’s Facebook page and spewed hateful Muslim epithets, believe the mural depicts a terrorist, or better yet, “Bart Simpson in a Mujahedeen outfit.”

All art, in one way or another, is a Rorschach test. For instance, pick any painting by Mark Rothko: is it a Nietzschean portal of “pulsing vibrancy” and “sublime spirituality” or is it merely rectangles beside rectangles? There is no correct answer, just as no one passes a Rorschach test. Art can be subjectively interpreted in myriad ways. Still, as American writer Flannery O’Connor wrote to an English professor whose class grossly overanalyzed one of her short stories, “Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little.”

The flap brings to mind my favorite mural, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera’s El hombre en la encrucijadas. In the early 1930’s, the Rockefeller family desired a mural for the ground-floor wall of the Rockefeller Center. After much persuasion, they hired Rivera and assigned him a theme: “Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future.” Rivera produced a magnificent mural that, much to Nelson Rockefeller’s chagrin, included the likeness of Vladimir Lenin. Promptly after paying Rivera, Rockefeller concealed the mural from the public eye, then ordered workers to smash it and pulverize the bits into an indistinguishable powder.

Personally, I think Os Gemeos’ mural is downright hideous, and I eagerly await November 2013 when the installation ends. My reaction upon seeing it was the same as when I first laid eyes on Occupy Boston’s squalid commune in Dewey Square; upon arriving at South Station from points unknown, should this be the first view of Boston visitors see?

Mexican muralist Diego Rivera’s El hombre en la encrucijadas

Regardless of the degree to which the mural chafes my aesthetics, I am not advocating its immediate pulverization. It has as much a right to exist as any other sanctioned mural in the city. Public art is created with no one individual in mind, and similarly, it must not bow to the whims of a narrow-minded and vocal minority. In other words, it does not matter what I think; it only matters that I think.

When Rockefeller commissioned El hombre en la encrucijadas, he hoped to make passersby stop and think for a moment. Though he may have gotten more than he bargained for, perhaps this is the noblest function of public art. ICA director Jill Medvedow echoed this sentiment in her defense of the mural in a recent press release. “This work of art is a joyful addition to Boston’s skyline . . . Good art gets people talking.”

This mural in Dewey Square, whether awe-inspiring or al-Qaeda inspired, certainly has people talking, which is more than the Big Dig ventilation structure has been able to accomplish.

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