“What do you paint when you paint a wall?”
Said John D.’s grandson Nelson.
“Do you paint just anything there at all?
“Will there be any doves or a tree in fall?
“Or a hunting scene like an English hall?”
“I paint what I see,” said Rivera.
Ottawa isn’t New York, an allegedly hip clothing store isn’t the Rockefeller Center, and Shepard Fairey may not be Diego Rivera, but an historical echo could be heard this week in Ottawa.
Diego Rivera, the socialist Mexican painter and spouse of Frieda Kahlo, was commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller in 1932 to create a mural on the ground floor of the Rockefeller Center. Rivera began work in 1933 on Man at the Crossroads, but ran into trouble with his patron when he depicted a May Day procession headed by V.I. Lenin.
Rockefeller asked him to substitute a generic American worker for the well-known revolutionary, but Rivera refused. The result was that the mural was draped, and later destroyed. Working from photographs of the original by one of his assistants, Lucienne Bloch, Rivera re-created his mural later on at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. He renamed it Man, Controller of the Universe.
Canada has too often, and with reason, been accused of imitating all things American. In Ottawa a few days ago, a pallid imitation of the Rivera-Rockefeller controversy was enacted, virtually step-by-step, but with a classic Canadian resolution.
Norml Clothing on Rideau Street decided to commission Fairey, the street artist whose iconic Obama “Hope” poster is well-known, to paint a 30 by 50-foot mural on the wall of the three-storey building.
Considerable consternation ensued when an image of a police officer with a baton, and the phrase “I’m Gonna Kick Your Ass And Get Away With It,” appeared on the wall. It wasn’t part of the city-approved design.
The image was covered “within hours because of its controversial nature and the possible anti-police message some might interpret,” [store manager Naj] Peterson said.
The store owner told the installation crew to hide the “offensive” image, and the team then reverted to the original design. Meanwhile, earlier reports of an “antipolice image” had awakened the ire of the Downtown Rideau Business Improvement Area, who, according to the store manager, promptly withdrew plans to fund illumination for the mural at night.
The executive director of the BIA claimed, however, that there had been no such offer in the first place. But she was none too happy about the mural anyway—according to her, it could be construed as a form of advertising because the word “obey” appeared. Fairey had indeed launched a clothing line under that name, but, as the store manager noted, the word had been heavily used by Fairey in his street art well beforehand.
So the original mural is back, unilluminated and presumably inoffensive. This being Canada, no destruction of the wall was necessary, just a little agreed-upon painting over. No reproduction of the modified mural has appeared in another venue, at least to date.
Art, meet life. Ottawa police brutality has had more column-inches devoted to it recently than most Ottawa stories. A culture of impunity has reigned. One of four officers involved in the most recent case has actually been charged, an event so momentous and unprecedented that it made the headline in Wednesday’s Ottawa Citizen.
But it is deemed “offensive” to refer to unchecked police brutality in a mural, whether it occurs here, or in Toronto at the G20, or in a Vancouver airport.
Art is still supposed to be somehow hermetically sealed off from the real world of events. No obvious politics or ideology*, no controversial content, just doves and trees in the Fall and hunting scenes. And formal experiments, of course, are permissible if housed in museums.
“You can’t write poems about trees,” said Bertold Brecht, “when the woods are full of policemen.” Why, yes, you can. And you can paint murals that ignore them as well: in fact, in Ottawa, 2011, you must.
* Of course, the absence of same, as the case under discussion demonstrates rather nicely, bespeaks politics and ideology as well.