On the Wall: Four Decades of Community Murals in New York City. by Janet Braun-Reinitz and Jane Weissma. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009
Pp. xvii, 244; ISBN: 978-1-60473-112-5 1604731125
Reviewed by James Peacock Keele University
If you were simply to assay the scholarly publications in existence on the subject of New York street art, you would be forgiven for thinking that there was nothing much of special cultural significance except graffiti. While graffiti both reflected and helped to shape the complex interactions between public urban space, politics, subcultural identity and aesthetics in seventies and eighties New York, it was by no means alone in doing so. Janet Braun-Reinitz and Jane Weismann’s passionately written and beautifully presented cultural history demonstrates the centrality of community murals to the diverse neighbourhoods in which and for which they are painted. Like graffiti, perhaps, they are “a window into the unwritten history of a neighborhood, providing a depth of understanding equal or perhaps greater than that provided by ‘official records’” (1).
The book is organised chronologically by means of what the authors conceive of as five more or less distinct phases of community mural activity. These phases are demarcated by key historical events such as the Vietnam War, as well as by the evolving aesthetic of the murals themselves as painters cease working in isolation and start to communicate across neighbourhood boundaries. Phase 1 begins in 1965 and ends in 1973 and is dominated by “politically charged narratives” (xv); phase 5, “Post September 11,” is characterised by unifying “symbols of grief and togetherness” (xvii). The left-wing politics of the book, as this brief synopsis might suggest, are never far from the surface. As the charged rhetoric of Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan’s foreword illustrates in its series of broadsides against advertising hoardings, gentrification and “the juggernaut of commodification” (ix), this volume is both an elegy for a rapidly disappearing history of grassroots community art and a call to bear arms (or at least paintbrushes and spraycans) against the capitalist homogenisation of urban space that is metaphorically and materially erasing that art.
The depth and detail of research into individual mural projects on display here cannot be faulted, and the book works as an exciting, expertly archived and written narrative. Yet – and I hope I can be forgiven for resorting to cliché here – the real stars of this book are the murals themselves, reproduced in a dazzling series of full and half-page plates. Some are technically accomplished, some naïve; some are visual implorations to peace and understanding, some are combative or even aggressive. Every one of them, however, is as colourful and as arresting as the city they adorn. And every one of them takes you there, into the neighbourhood it both creates and is created by.
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