David Sanchez poses a crucial question for ethical reflection: What should happen to the murals of Northern Ireland? This question implicates the ethics of justice and aesthetics, including the preservation of art and architecture of particular communities, including ones wounded by devastating conflict.
Sanchez expresses ambivalence about the proper fate of the murals; he clearly respects the people of Northern Ireland whom he has come to know in his ethnographic work and suggests that it is up to the people of Northern Ireland to come to terms with the wounds of its conflict. And, of course, Dr. Sanchez is correct. Normative principles can help to delineate questions, but often falls short of comprehending the delicate innerworkings of local situations.
Sanchez highlights an important ethical principle that can help to sort through the ethics of public art: that of democratic discernment. The people, the demos, el pueblo, ought to have a significant say in determining the fate of these murals.
The members of local communities ought to have a major role (even if not the sole role) in determining the outcome of these matters, especially given the history of local conflict associated with these works of public art. Further, neglecting the discernment of local communities in such matters—or replacing such discernment with the raw exercise of undemocratic powers (whether political, economic or ecclesial power)—promises to inflame existing social tensions and to engender new ones.
To illustrate the centrality of democratic discernment in the fate of public art, I turn to two cases where the voices of local communities have been ignored in decisions about the removal of murals from public spaces on the Northside of Denver, Colorado—just minutes from where the American Academy of Religion gathered for its annual meeting this past November: (1) the covering of the mural of Guadalupe’s appearance to Juan Diego at Our Lady of Guadalupe parish and (2) the removal of the legendary Primavera mural by the new owner of the building that served as its canvass. On Denver’s Chicano Northside (known by gentrifying newcomers as “The Highlands”), long-time residents are wrestling with the ethics of preserving their public art amid the social upheaval of gentrification that has enveloped their neighborhoods.
The first case involves the mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe’s appearance to Juan Diego at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Parish in Denver. The mural, which once stood behind the altar in the parish sanctuary, was painted by a Chicana parishioner at the invitation of Fr. Jose Lara, the church’s former pastor who was a presence in Denver’s multivalent Chicano movement in the 1960’s and 70’s. Lara asked the parishioner to depict Guadalupe as a beautiful Chicana. The mural served as the backdrop for decades of Eucharistic celebrations and as a work of public art that helped to sustain Denver’s Chicano movement.
In 2010, a new pastor of the church decided that the mural should no longer remain behind the altar. He argued that the mural confused parishioners about the meaning of the Eucharist. The parishioners organized to save the mural, but the pastor’s decision was upheld by the Archdiocese of Denver. The mural is now concealed behind a white wall; it is known by parishioners as “Our Lady of the Broom Closet.”
While the Chicano movement in Denver has often held the Catholic Church at arm’s length (even priests such as Fr. Lara labeled as radical by ecclesial authorities), the mural represented the community’s image and belonging within both church and society. The Archdiocese of Denver made a unilateral decision to excise the image of the Chicana Guadalupe and the Chicano Juan Diego from their own church, communicating that it was never truly theirs in the first place.
Beyond the church walls, Denver’s Chicanx community and cultural memory was dealt another blow when the legendary Primavera mural was sandblasted from the former Servicios de la Raza building on the corner of 41st Avenue and Tejon Street by the building’s new owner.
Installed in the early 1970’s, the mural depicted a conga player playing near a field of chili peppers. His song floats into the air on a rainbow and, in a similar manner as Guadalupe behind the altar, becomes embodied as a beautiful Chicana. For the Chicanx neighborhood, the mural instantly brings to mind the song “Primavera” by El Chicano.
Jerry Jaramillo, the mural’s artist, was devastated by the destruction of his mural: “It felt like I lost a child or something.” As journalist and Denver Northsider Bree Davies laments, “[Primavera] was a familiar sight to anyone who had some history in the neighborhood, but it won’t be part of the future.” For residents of the community, the corner of 41st and Tejon Street had lost its face.
The leadership of Servicios de la Raza has attempted to assure the public that they sold the building to new owners who they thought would do good in the community. But selling a public work of art like the Primavera mural—a landmark to a Chicanx understanding of the power of beauty to resist oppression—to a private owner with the right to do as she or he sees fit undermines the democratic significance of the mural by taking its fate out of the hands of the people.
It is also important to note that murals are not intended for permanent installation. As local communities are transformed, their public artwork will also change. At the same time, as Maureen O’Connell argues in If These Walls Could Talk: Community Muralism and the Beauty of Justice (Liturgical Press, 2012), community murals are democratic works of public art that ought to involve many members of the community. Simply removing murals without the involvement of a community risks fracturing the democratic trust engendered by the murals.
There are good reasons for ambivalence about popular aesthetic movements in the public square. After all, the white supremacist mob that converged upon Charlottesville in 2017 could be construed as a popular aesthetic movement opposed to the removal of an image it associates with a just and moral social order (the statue of Robert E. Lee as a public representation of what they see as the just values of the Confederacy and what they see as the just social order of white supremacy).
But, as participants in the resistance to white supremacist hatred and violence inspired by this aesthetic and social movement are quick to point out, the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee was popularly supported by Charlottesville’s residents, including those communities targeted due to their race, ethnicity, or religious beliefs by the Unite the Right mob. Similar to the situation of the Northside Chicanx community, those interested in maintaining a decidedly anti-democratic social order sought to overwhelm the consensus of the community.
Community murals, those designed, painted, and viewed by the community, are democratic public works of art. Their removal should involve a democratic process that solicits community participation in the fate of its public art. The practical application of this principle will differ from Belfast to Denver, from Denver to Charlottesville. Still, it is a fundamental norm in the discernment of the role of art in public life.