Irish News July 2000
Five years ago a local journalist said during a television discussion that;
“the paramilitaries have brought Art to the people on the streets of Belfast; the only living art that we have got in the city.”
He was referring to street murals, and of course he was as wrong as he was condescending. Wrong; because they are not Art, condescending; because the people are not stupid enough to think that they are Art. They have as much to do with Art as a supermarket’s, promotional handout has to do with literature.
Over the years Belfast’s street murals have captured the attention of television journalists, press photographers, sociologists and even tour organizers. The latent assumption is that these wall paintings encapsulate some important characteristic of Northern Ireland’s psyche. Their simple directness appeals to the advertising and sound-bite mentality which is why they keep coming back like an old malady in press and television reportage.
This illness made its first appearance in the early 1900’s when King Billy on a white charger erupted on to the gable wall scene in Belfast. The contagion spread to all Protestant working-class areas. These murals combined a kind of politics;- “No surrender, Remember 1690” with a kind of religion;- “God is Love, No Pope here”
Republican murals appeared much later in the last century. I believe I saw one of the earliest of these. The year was 1948. The 150th anniversary of the 1798 Rebellion .I was a child living on the New Lodge Road and someone painted a mural on a gable wall in Ludlow Street. It depicted a figure of a man surrounded by the legend;
“HENRY JOY MC CRACKEN OUR PROTESTANT HERO.”
I remember as a nine year old initially wondering if the street had become Protestant, and then thinking, that it wasn’t a very good drawing anyway: and here we come to the art of the matter.
In an earlier column I said that the term,“Art”, had lost its definition and is applied willy-nilly to practically every activity. The political murals illustrate that. Over the years a conglomerate of commentators have elevated these wall daubings to the status of a public art in which technical ignorance and unsophisticated vision are accounted virtues. Its time for people to get up off their artistic knees and see these murals for what they are; - an extension of graffiti. Like graffiti they depend on symbols, slogans and aggression for their impact and a minimum amount of skill for their execution. The street mural is the big brother of graffiti. One reinforces the other; when we give artistic credibility to one, we give it to the other. In recent weeks a wall on the Shankill Road was defaced with a “mural” which listed the massacres of innocent people. Incorporated underneath this list was the Northern Ireland Office slogan; “ Wouldn’t it be great if it was always like this”
This combination of primitive art and primitive politics achieved its aim;- It made the papers. It might even have made somebody’s dissertation on “Wall Murals”. Somewhere these thugs with paint will be called “ Artists”.
It would be foolish to say that street murals are all uniformly bad. There are degrees of mediocrity. Some are better than others. Invariably the republican murals have more artistic characteristics than those of the loyalist. They are a form of social realism commenting on a wide range of issues, social and political. They are in fact political hoardings which is why they and graffiti go hand in hand. There is a tendency for wall painting, graffiti, and kerb painting to coalesce and create the kind of environment none of us wants. These murals have a built-in obsolescence because the texture of brickwork does not lend itself to paint; they begin to degenerate almost as soon as they are painted. A combination of time, weathering, additional daubing and even the occasional paint attack by daring foes speeds up the process. In no time a shabby, decaying image becomes the focal point of the street.
Give me an old, well pointed, brick wall any day.
I would like to make a suggestion to those who paint, organize or sponsor street murals. Why not transfer them to advertising hoardings. I am sure the Arts Council and City Council would help. The “ artists” would make the designs to be reproduced in poster form on the bill boards. They could be marketed throughout the country and abroad. New skills would be developed and the house gables would be left untouched.
In the meantime, hands up anyone who wants a mural on their gable wall?
What no takers?
Joseph Mc Williams July 2000©