State of the State: Truth is complicated so two ideas can stand in opposition

Dec 1, 2004

Pat Guinane
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

Chicago preserved a piece of its history, while Springfield erased part of its past.

In both cases, these communities were reacting to public art that was created to portray the lives of working people, a message -- and a medium -- almost always guaranteed to garner an emotional response. After all, public murals, statues and sculptures ask an entire community to embrace an issue that may be indefinable, even to individuals. And this is especially difficult when the subject itself is political.

For Chicago, it took time -- 118 years to be exact. 

This fall, the city unveiled a 15-foot-tall monument at Randolph and Desplaines streets on the near Northwest Side, an area once known as Haymarket Square. It was there, on May 4, 1886, that a bomb was thrown during a crowded labor rally. The explosion and the resulting melee killed eight police officers. The self-described anarchists were fighting for an eight-hour workday. Eight of the activists who organized or spoke at the rally were rounded up and tried for inciting the riot. Four were hanged. One committed suicide in prison. Three were pardoned seven years later.

The origin of the bomb remains a mystery, but the rally became a seminal event in the international workers movement. Outside the United States, May Day still commemorates May 1, 1886, when the American Federation of Labor declared eight hours a legal working day, touching off the nationwide strikes that led to the Haymarket violence.

But, until now, only a small sidewalk plaque marked the site, a huge disappointment for pilgrims from across the industrial world. A 9-foot statue of a Chicago police officer was erected there in 1889, but the overtly partisan artwork became a target for vandalism. It has been moved several times and now occupies the courtyard of the Chicago Police Academy.

Chicago artist Mary Brogger was charged with preserving this polarizing historical moment in a more inclusive manner. Her red-hued bronze sculpture depicts a crowd of faceless figures encircling a wagon similar to the one that provided a makeshift stage for the 1886 rally. The figures appear to be either assembling or tearing apart the wagon. 

‘I left it open to the possibility that it’s both at the same time,’ Brogger says. ‘That’s the reality of the situation. The truth is complicated and two ideas can stand in opposition to one another and both be real.’

The statue’s September unveiling attracted mild protests, but individuals representing both sides of the original dispute came together. The Chicago Police participated, as did the Illinois Federation of Labor, which paid to truck the statue in from the Oregon, Ill., studio where Brogger spent a year creating it.

That’s not to say the new monument has healed old wounds. While the Chicago Police are now themselves unionized, some have yet to forgive the anarchists. That was apparent this summer when officers objected to   naming a tiny Northwest Side park after Lucy Parsons, the activist wife of one of the anarchists who was executed.

In Springfield, no public protest marked the deletion of one of the city’s public murals. That’s because Springfield officials offered no advance notice this summer when they decided to replace the 22-year-old artwork with a fresh coat of white paint.

‘We own the building but had leased it to the Springfield Housing Authority, and they were the ones that decided to paint over it,’ says Ernie Slottag, spokesman for Springfield Mayor Tim Davlin. ‘Apparently it was getting tattered and deteriorating and needed some restorations, and they felt that it was outdated and just wanted to start from scratch.’

The 23-by-74-foot mural covered the north exterior wall of a community center. It was a splash of color motorists could catch a glimpse of as they passed the eastern edge of downtown Springfield.

As with the Haymarket monument, the mural tackled a touchy subject but left its message open to interpretation. A throng of multicolored figures reached for a factory door that read, ‘The System Inc. Do not disturb.’ Inside the factory, large cogs drove a conveyor carrying a box of human body parts toward a shredder that spewed greenbacks. This profitable operation was apparently assembling the missiles that occupied one corner of the mural.

To some, including Springfield’s newspaper, the State Journal-Register, the mural was a vision of hopelessness. Others saw a glimmer of hope in the black, white and brown hands reaching for the factory door. To them, the scene represented a diverse coalition willing to take on greedy machinery.

Although it was created in 1982, the mural was titled Corporate State: 1984, a reference to the George Orwell novel that depicts a totalitarian socialist regime in which, ‘All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as necessary.’

Mike Townsend, the University of Illinois at Springfield professor who helped create the mural, argues that this piece of history was maliciously wiped away.

‘I’m still outraged at what happened, he says. ‘I call it a cultural crime. You don’t just go do something like that and not say anything to anybody.’

The fresh coat of white paint was applied in June. A new mural could eventually replace the blank wall, but mayoral aide Slottag isn’t sure about the details.

‘The mural was in very good shape considering it was 22 years old,’ Townsend says. ‘There obviously had to have been some behind-the-scenes meetings about this.’

It was paid for with a small state grant, enough to bring John Yancey, then a Chicago artist, to Springfield, where he and Townsend worked with a group of east Springfield students. Now a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Yancey continues to paint, and his recent work includes public pieces for convention centers in San Antonio and Austin.

Springfield officials didn’t contact Yancey before whitewashing his mural, and no state law protects public art from the whims, or the paintbrushes, of public officials. The mural was too old to enjoy federal protection. If Corporate State: 1984 had been created after June 1991, it could not have been removed legally under the Visual Artists Rights Act. The federal legislation protects immovable murals created after it was signed into law.

While building construction and renovation can threaten such murals, the federal law also provides some protection from public passions. The vandalism toward the police statue that once marked the Haymarket site helps make the case for such protection. Unsolved explosions literally knocked the statue off its pedestal in 1969 and 1970, prompting the move to a friendlier home. 

Brogger had that sort of history in mind when she set out to create the new monument.

‘It’s already difficult to make public artwork. This was especially hard,’ she says. ‘I understood when I approached this sculpture why it’s been difficult to find a way to represent all the issues.’

Some may consider her sculpture purposefully vague, but she says abstract is a more apt term, one that speaks to a certain intellectual quality that allows the individual to assign meaning.

‘It’s more about being inclusive than vague,’ Brogger says. ‘Things can be more than one thing and be real and true and relevant at the same time.’

That same assessment could easily apply, at least posthumously, to Yancey’s Springfield mural. 

 

Pat Guinane can be reached at capitolbureau@aol.com

Illinois Issues, December 2004