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Artwork and Politics Make for Volatile Mixture in Maine Mural Flap

THURSDAY, APRIL 14, 2011

By Harold Hower


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Murals are considered one genre of decorative painting, so we thought it would be interesting to bring to the attention of our decorative painting artisans, as well as to those who might use the service of these artisans, news about recent actions by the governor of Maine to remove an “offensive” mural from a government building and the state attorney general’s justification for the action.

You might call it a sign of the times, as the current climate of tension between state governments and organized labor figures into the story.

Gov. Paul LePage ordered a mural depicting the labor history of Maine removed from the state’s Department of Labor headquarters because, he said, the 11-panel mural was biased in favor of labor at the expense of business interests. He also ordered that Department of Labor conference rooms, which carried the names of labor organizers, be renamed for mountains or other “neutral” designators.

Maine Mural

Judy Taylor Studio

The mural that inflamed Maine

Removal of the mural sparked opposition rallies and a federal lawsuit filed April 1 on behalf of three artists and other interested parties, alleging infringement of free speech. The lawsuit seeks the restoration of the mural in the lobby of the Department of Labor, where it formerly resided.

The state’s attorney general claims the state was exercising its right to “government speech” when it removed the mural. In constitutional law, government speech has been established as a doctrine that provides a narrow exception to the First Amendment’s free speech clause, allowing governments to express their opinions when it is important to their functions.

The plaintiffs’ attorney insists the government-speech doctrine doesn’t apply in the Maine case because the state government has banned speech (the mural in this case) specifically because of its viewpoint. The doctrine of government speech is a contentious area of constitutional law.

News about the legal dispute was reported in Bloombergs Businessweek, among other publications.

But wait! In recent days, the U.S. Labor Department entered the fray. The department, citing the fact that it supplied a big chunk of the $60,000 total cost of the mural, said that if the painting is not on display, the state must return the funds provided by Labor (see Reinstall Mural or Pay the Price).

Not propaganda, says artist

Also weighing in on the subject was the mural artist herself, Judy Taylor. Described as a reluctant party to the heated rhetoric surrounding her artwork, Taylor said in an interview with the Portland, Maine, Press Herald that her murals simply depict history, and don’t carry a propaganda message.

“Propaganda art is angry. My murals are not angry,” she told the newspaper (see Mural shows people, not politics).

Installed in 2008, the 36-foot, 11-panel mural depicts a history of labor in the state and includes images of strikes at a paper mill and a shoe plant, female shipbuilders, and a former Maine Labor Secretary.

Murals: Pushing a political hot button?

It seems public artwork at times does have a tendency to inflame emotions. More often than not, it’s a matter of taste---public disdain for works the citizenry finds offensive or downright awful.

But politics did figure in in another famous case of public-artwork removal. Diego Rivera’s mural, Man at the Crossroads, was removed from Rockefeller Center in 1933, presumably because of its proletariat sentiments. But this removal was the action of a private entity, not a government.

Should a government take on the role of public-art critic to pass judgment on what can or should be seen by its citizens? And a related question: Should public art be used as a pawn in the current war being waged in many states against labor unions?

ABOUT THE BLOGGER

Harold Hower

Harold Hower, CEO and founder of Technology Publishing Company, likes to think about ways of improving conditions in the architectural coatings industry.

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Tagged categories: Murals; Unions

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