By: Doron Levine  | 

Art, Anarchy, and Political Colonialism: Some Thoughts on Postering the Mural

In the beginning, there was no wall. And it was very good. The rust-brown tiled floor of Nagel Commons was overlaid with square rugs arranged in a row down the middle of the spacious room. Colorful pleather couches, the sort that now populate only the Heights Lounge, were thoughtfully positioned on the carpets and partitioned by elegant dividers to facilitate cozy socializing. The Nagel store was smaller; Marco peddled congeniality and snacks from a modest nook nestled behind a simple glass countertop. The hallway from Nagels to Glueck was carpeted and considerably wider. The narrow staircase leading from the ground floor to the library began at the hallway adjacent to the Glueck water fountains. The space was tastefully furnished, blessedly undivided, intimate but spacious. Paradise.

Of course, hindsight is far from 20/20: the couches are always comfier on the other side. When, from the perspective of the present, the past appears impossibly sweet, prudence recommends that we offset this beguiling form of sugarcoated reminiscence with at least a few grains of salt. But the kernel of this nostalgia is certainly accurate: the original layout of Nagels, before the addition of the stairs and the wall, was more sensible.

What happened? Anyone who frequented Nagels in the years before the construction could have easily explained to the architects why depositing a hinged wall and an unnecessarily wide staircase in the center of the room would be unwise. But a university is not a democracy, and the people designing the space were unfortunately not identical with the people who best understood how it might have been optimized for student use.

As the builders began constructing the wall, many afforded the architects the benefit of the doubt, hoping against hope that the structure was intended to be merely temporary. But even the most resolute optimists were disabused of their faith when artist Connie Rose appeared one morning, carefully laid out her materials, and began to decorate the wall. As psychedelic figures and shapes slowly morphed into a surrealist mural, it became clear to all that the new piece of architecture was here to stay. Even as Connie’s artwork cemented the wall’s permanence, it cemented student opinion that the Nagel Wall was a hindrance rather than a help.

One positive result emerged from this architectural blunder: for once, YU students were presented with a situation that they could all agree on. The Nagel Wall divided a room, but united a community; in an uncommon display of solidarity, students of all stripes rallied around their common distaste for this unnecessary barrier. Though many were thrilled with the updates to the library, anyone who used Nagel Commons on a regular basis knew that the wall and stairs were a mistake.

But empires rise and fall, and factionalism never dies, only slumbers. Little more than a year has elapsed since the completion of the wall, and a new movement threatens to undermine the blessed unity that it induced; the wall that united us is now being wielded as a tool of disharmony, to stir up the passions and sow seeds of discord.

During the last few weeks, two groups of students covered Connie’s artwork with creative displays of their own, repurposing the barrier as a platform to promote ideological agendas and reprimand fellow students. First an anonymous group of students hung pictures of immigrants and quotes from politicians to protest President Trump’s Executive Order on Immigration. Then the YU Feminists Club covered the mural with anonymous quotes, some plucked from Facebook comment threads and others overheard from unsuspecting students, in an attempt to publicly expose sexism in the YU community.

The first display could have been written off as an isolated act of vandalism; every society has its outlaws. But after the Feminists Club’s repeat performance, we can now address this phenomenon as, if not yet a bona fide addiction, at least a developing habit. If postering the Nagel Wall becomes an established and acceptable recourse for students seeking to air their assorted grievances, we should at least understand the consequences. Is this a healthy habit?

Evidently, the Nagel Wall is not a bulletin board. It is a mural, a piece of artwork sponsored by a generous donor and painstakingly painted by a brilliantly talented British immigrant. And art, even when displayed in a highly frequented area, must command a certain degree of respect. Even if, caught occasionally in the throes of distraction, or jaded by the plodding monotony of our dreary routine, we, regrettably blind to the beauty of our surroundings, occasionally neglect to pause and eyeball the celestial eyeballs as we amble by, the mural remains an object that commands dignity—an illustration created at the university’s directive to enchant students as they traverse the library stairs. It is an intelligent design, the kaleidoscopic brainchild of a woman who spent countless hours pouring her soul onto a wall, and it deserves some honor.

At baseline, we should treat the mural as we would treat any other piece of art; whether we admire abstract surrealism or not, our fundamental attitude towards the mural should be respectful at the very least. Generally speaking, art is not produced in order to then be concealed or defaced, and contributing members of polite society honor this premise. So when you cover up the mural, irrespective of your virtuous intentions and the merits of your cause, you are a renegade, you are transgressive, you are doing the unintuitive thing. Whether your cause is noble or not, you are publicly violating the common social expectation that protects works of art from willful contamination. You possess no formal permission or social license to cover our university’s mural, and therefore, I submit, no mandate whatsoever to complain if a student emancipates the artwork by tearing down your posters.

This is the danger of acting outside of the law. When you disobey social norms in the interest of self-expression, you expose yourself to the danger of ironic reciprocity; inspired by your behavior, others of similarly zealous constitution might likewise defy etiquette in order to publicize their opposing view. Too much free speech can undermine itself – taken to an extreme, this sort of activity can generate a dog-eat-dog climate (cannibalism!) where everyone jockeys to stifle everyone else’s self-expression in favor of their own. So the scandalized reaction of some to the “destruction” of these murals is ludicrous. You may treat Connie’s university-sanctioned artwork as a bulletin board, but other students must not lay a finger on your posters? Isn’t their removal of your display just as self-expressive as your putting it up?

At the same time, it would be pitiful to thoughtlessly fall in line with established norms. Sufficiently dire circumstances can call for desperate measures, and it’s hard to imagine a social norm the breaking of which would not be warranted in some far-out scenario. But revolution has its dangers. If you don’t abide by the formal rules, then you cannot reasonably expect other people to. Once you invite Anarchy in the door, you cannot simply ask him to leave when he begins to irk you.

The first step, I think, is for the creators of these displays to own up to the act of erasing art in the name of a political cause. Even if circumstances call for the silencing of a female immigrant’s artistic voice, the silencers should at least acknowledge the collateral damage. Perhaps they should even ask for her permission?

Next, creators of the mural need to understand, if they don’t already, that free speech is a double-edged sword. If you favor unfettered freedom of expression, then you cannot reasonably be outraged if other students design murals that you don’t like (especially if you put blank post-it notes on the wall to encourage audience participation). And if you favor removing posted material that contradicts your agenda (I actually saw one architect of the immigration mural remove a number of post-it notes with messages that contradicted the mural’s), then you cannot reasonably be shocked when a similar impulse inspires others to remove your own display. You cannot have it both ways.

Alternatively, maybe we should just leave the wall alone? This barefaced subordination of art to politics, the unilateral transformation of the mural into some sort of wailing wall where students pay homage to political awareness through written supplications, smacks of ideological colonialism. Must ideas taint everything, even art? Maybe, but maybe not. As Connie explained in an interview with The Commentator last year, she views her abstract surrealist painting as a deeply personal expression of her soul. Masking her artwork with agendas can too easily be interpreted as political appropriation, an imperialistic imposition of ideology onto an otherwise pristine aesthetic space. If our political divisions can infiltrate even the basic human appreciation of artistic beauty, little hope remains for unification around anything – except for, perhaps, our steadfast agreement that the wall does not belong here in the first place.