Chicano Murals and the Construction of Home

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2001

26 Pages, Grade: 2,0 (B)


Table of Content

1 Introduction: B always starts with Bacon, Francis

2 Art, Home, and Chicano Murals
2.1 Are Murals Art?- A Futile Question?
2.1.1 What are Murals?
2.1.2 Are Murals Art?
2.2 Remarks on Home
2.2.1 Components of Home
2.2.2 The Significance of Locality
2.2.3 The Construction of Home
2.2.4 Chicano Home
2.2.5 The Constructiveness of Chicano Muralism
2.3 A Case Study: Los Angeles

3 Conclusion

4 References
4.1 Works Cited
4.2 Works Consulted
4.3 Further Websites Consulted

1 Introduction: B always starts with Bacon, Francis

In Chicano quarters, the barrios of East Los Angeles or in Mission District in San Francisco for instance, one can discover many outdoor walls covered with huge paintings, murals as they are called. However, Chicano muralism is little talked about. In fact, it turned out to be rather tedious to gather information for this essay. In several German libraries there was not a single art dictionary that listed Judith Baca, one of the leading Chicana muralists in Los Angeles. B always starts with Bacon, Francis.

Or take Western travel literature on the places mentioned as an example. I have checked 35 travel guide books and magazines as well as illustrated books, most of them published in the 1990s in Germany or the UK, some in the US and elsewhere. All of them stress the high percentage of the Chicano or the Latino population Californian cities. 16 out of them show photographs of murals. However, the murals' origin and location are often not indicated. Only half of the books that depict murals (that means less than a quarter of the total amount) put straight that they are dealing with Chicano murals by providing a short written explanation[1]. Out of the remaining eight some pictures were obviously taken in Santa Monica, Hollywood or China Town.

In 1993 German Hoffmann & Campe publishers dedicated the March issue of their monthly magazine Merian to Los Angeles. 1993 was not a year not familiar with positive ethnic awareness. Thus it is surprising that although the magazine predicts a 50 % Latino population in Los Angeles within the next ten years only two articles mention Chicanos. The first one deals with gang fights among as well as within different ethnic LA population groups, including Chicanos. It underlines outrageous violence as part of every day life. Chicano culture apparently seemed worth two pages: Ostroff's "Mauern sprechen vom Kampf" (122- 23) gives the reader a very short introduction into Chicano muralism in Los Angeles. But before murals are mentioned at all we learn that (stigmatized) graffiti, marking gang territories, is found everywhere. Wall paintings, so the author, came into fashion in the early 1970s. Depicted, he says, are scenes of immigration and barrio life. The following words are meant to summarize qualities of Chicano murals: The paintings are "heroisch, wütend, stolz" (122), and "Comicsprache, christliche Mystik, Leidenskultur und ein naiver, kraftvoller Glaube an die eigenen Fähigkeiten mischen sich in dieser leidenschaftlichen Kunst" (123). The Chicanos - a bunch of violent people pitying and overestimating themselves? Luckily Judith Baca is given the chance to speak for three lines: "Der melting pot existiert nicht. Chicano-Murals drücken subjektive Gefühle aus, sie handeln von konkreten Menschen und Situationen" (123). So the pictures on the walls are based on reality, their topics connected to individuals. However, why exactly the Chicanos have reason to be enraged we can only guess. Why they have reason to be proud we do not find out. Passion perhaps might be put down the Spanish blood in Chicano veins, but what about the origins of their alleged naivety, suffering, and self-confidence? In 1998's April edition of the Merian magazine, Kalifornien, the article "Kunst in L. A." (30- 37) does not include murals at all. This might have several reasons. Maybe murals are not art. Maybe muralism is politics. Or maybe, Merian magazines are simply meant to address people who cannot be bothered by murals, whether they are pieces of art or political acts.

I think that murals still have not received the proper amount of attention and regard, at least among Europeans. "Übertünchte Probleme, Kosmetik an der Oberfläche - so reagieren europäische Betrachter gelegentlich darauf" (Schulz 1991: 211). Murals are, I my opinion, works of social art that serve as a significant means to construct home. I claim that indeed just this circumstance is a chief reason for the underestimation of mural art. Surely, the general neglect of so-called minorities' art, which I will not talk about at length here, is one reason. An increasing recognition of minority art since the 70s yet has not granted murals access to the European canon. A number of reasons which I am going to name for this shortcoming were true for the States in the 70s, but are still true for Europe today. In 1972, the curator of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art refused to include Chicano art into exhibitions (Bright 1995: 2). However, in 1974 Los Four succeeded in exhibiting works of theirs there. In 1993, however, no Chicano artist participated in the exhibition "American Art in the 20th Century: Painting and Sculpture 1913 - 1993" held at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, and the Royal Academy of Arts and the Saatchi Gallery, London (Joachimides 1994). Furthermore, those contemporary murals that most resemble the ones of the early 70s still face the same problems. "Yes, the mural art is finding wider appeal. However, those murals that provide self-expression and self-definition to the impoverished [...] have seldom been valued by the formal art establishment" (Californian Murals).

Murals in particular have not generally been regarded as artistic works. The first chapter of this paper examines the artistic quality of murals. It looks at the style of murals and compares private and public art. From this, reasons for the neglect will be deduced. Another problem specific of murals is connected with the constructive quality of muralism. For I believe that many people concerned with home, artists or not, either merely describe their home, or the environment that is meant to become their home, or demonstrate how the place they live in fails to be their home. Moreover, in most cases this concern is communicated individually, and scarcely collectively. Frida Kahlo, while in the US, described her situation in several self-portraits. Sebald (1994: 238- 9) tells us how after Max Aurach had had to emigrate to England, the painter refused to dust his studio. The dust was a result of his production of charcoal drawings and apparently helped him to feel at home, to feel some familiarity in exile. He did not turn to other people, though. Other artists concerned, among other things, with their physical place in the world include the writers Bharati Mukherjee and Jean Rhys, and the visual artists David Hockney and Robert Colescott. That Chicano murals are neither merely descriptive nor destructive renders them a special case of artistic production. The fact that murals start a construction of home by constructively working on the material surroundings makes them even more peculiar. In addition, Chicano murals are usually created by a group of people. Those are people who for whatever reason decided to stay in the States permanently, to actually live there. In the second chapter I will turn to describing what the term home can mean and include. I will there differentiate between the physical (material), the intellectual and the emotional home. I will show how the significance of locality has increased over last decades. For the same and other reasons locality has become more important for Chicanos, too. Ironically enough, many white people yet do not seem to value the Chicanos ambitions to enhance their surroundings. Again, this is due to 'deviating' Chicano strategies. I will provide some famous non-Chicano examples of a construction of home to illustrate in which ways Chicano muralism is different. However, if locality is that important the concern for it should be valued in any case. The final chapter presents chosen murals found in LA, a place where Latinos are the largest ethnic population and with a flourishing mural culture. Judy Baca's Great Wall of Los Angeles is the main focus here.

2 Art, Home, and Chicano Murals

2.1 Are Murals Art?- A Futile Question?

2.1.1 What are Murals?

Murals are paintings on walls. In many cities in the south-west of the States Chicano murals adorn public buildings such as schools and churches and numerous, often shabby private walls. Usually in gay and bright colors, most of them are rather realistic or figurative than abstract, without spatial continuity, though. They talk of American history, of oppression, revolution and resistance and portray heroes of various nationalities such as Emiliano Zapata, Martin Luther King, and of course César Chávez . They often make use of traditional, pre-Columbian iconography. They often depict scenes of everyday barrio life including scenes of discrimination and violence against their own race. Religion is another frequent topic. Many murals show the Virgin of Guadeloupe. Other murals articulate hopes of a better future. Still other murals are merely decorative. Murals thereby convey a significant aspect of a minority experience: the question of assimilation to another culture versus sticking to one's own culture (an experience Chicanos undergo even where they are not a minority by numbers). Even decorative murals reflect a Chicano sense of belonging by using Mexican colors and motifs. The pictures of everyday life demonstrate the Chicanos' right to live such an everyday life in the States. The murals that show troubles Chicanos suffer from daily try to create an awareness of this injustice among both the Chicano and the non-Chicano population. For the same reason, many murals recall events of uprising. In a word, murals reflect society, and it is their intention to do so in a dialogue with all passers-by.

2.1.2 Are Murals Art?

Since nobody knows what art is there is no answer to the question whether murals are works of art or not, and it actually does not matter either. But if murals were considered art probably more attention would be paid to them. Or, the other way round, since some so-called intellectual people have not wanted to talk about them they found reasons why murals cannot be art and are therefore not worth being talked about. Carmen Lomas Garza complains that "Chicano art [...] was criticized by the faculty and white students as being too political, not universal, not hard edge, not pop art, not abstract, not avantgarde, too figurative, too colorful, too folksy, too primitive, blah, blah, blah!" (Bright 1995: 1). I am going to discuss some of these and other reasons, and then add some reasons why murals yet might be regarded as art, of which the latter seem far more convincing to me.

Various ethnic groups have found it hard to produce something that would be labeled art by whites. "Having been taught that art was 'what white man did,'" (Baraka 1998: 10), the first difficulty minority artists face is a lack of self-confidence. For obviously artists need to know they are producing art in order to sell it as such. In an interview, Amalia Mesa-Bains, Chicana artist and art critic, puts it the following way:

Whiteness has an assumed reality that is so potent--as though it is reality, that it goes unquestioned. It's not thought of as racial opinion--it is the cultural opinion. So when anyone comes in from another point of view--regardless of whether you represent 50-60% of the population, or an entire hemisphere, or thirty centuries of history--your opinion, or your critique, or your presence doesn't matter, because whiteness goes unquestioned in this universal and essentialist sort of way. (Morgan)

Murals, however, have additional qualities that make a classification as art apparently more difficult for some non-muralists. Graffiti[2] colors and a seemingly naive style probably have helped to blind many an observer to the actual subject matter of the mural, that is the scenes depicted, which in turn often explain a mural's intentions, origin, and necessity. Many murals are painted in a figurative style, often drawing on Los Tres Grandes, the three noted Mexican muralists of the first half of the 20th century Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco. These three artists painted monumental murals both in Mexico and the United States, where during the New Deal murals were likewise popular and supported by the government. These artists combined political, historic and mythological elements in their paintings. However, their choices of issues such as working class people and their manifesto of 1924 in which they repudiate easel painting as aristocratic and "supported 'monumental art' because it is public property" (Maciel 114) show the artists' closeness to communism and socialism. So some of their paintings in the US fell victim to the political act of whitewashing right after their completion. That was before World War II. After the War no white US-American artist turned to the way of painting connected with socialist muralism. Abstract painting was one way out.

Other artists continued to paint in a realistic way. Their New Realism, though, does not make a statement on the physically perceivable reality. It is highly self-referential and not politically or religiously didactic any longer. Contrary to Mexican and Chicano murals, issues come second to the material used (e.g. Robert Rauschenberg) and style. In particular, photo- or hyperrealism (Howard Kanovitz, Chuck Close, Kent Twitchell, etc.) examines the reality of illusion and challenges perception as our basis of experience, having given up the function as a social critic. Twitchell also painted murals but he "paints for money and does not portray problems or issues" (Vautier 7). In short, some Chicano murals, that is especially the ones depicting scenes of revolutions or demanding Huelga!, rather resemble unwanted socialist painting and hence cannot as easily be accepted as art works. Actually the Mexican muralists' manifesto "is closely related to the Chicano 'Plan espiritual de Aztlán'" (Maciel 114). Or murals are branded folk art, a less valued form of art. Others, showing every day life, are easily mistaken for mere decoration- and perhaps so on purpose. Krich calls the Mission District an "Asyl für die Seele" (72). The gay colors, according to Krich, are good for one's mood. That may well be true. But what about the energy of the artists that is in the pictures and the urges expressed thereby?

One reason for the figurative style of murals is that are meant to appeal to 'ordinary' people. For the same reason, murals come to you. Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol don't. White mainstream art is private in the sense that it takes a decision to go and see it whereas most murals are public. Treguer holds that "A mural painter has a very big responsibility: ordinary folk don't go to museums but they do walk past outdoor murals." Thus, murals reach, if not a chosen, a wider audience than oil paintings do (and than novels and songs, too). This effect aims at the public manifestation of certain urges and opinions, which makes sense if murals have a function as a critic of society. Compared to songs and literature murals have another advantage: they appeal to all people, no matter which language they speak, and no matter whether they can read or not. Since for instance "80 per cent of Haitians can neither read nor write" (Treguer) this is of major interest to many groups. However, you might view this as well as old-fashioned. For already Dürer employed paintings to convey Luther's ideas to the ordinary people. As to the question of murals being art or not, in the opinion of many art critics 'real' art is to be exhibited in galleries and cannot be public. It seems that cash value gives an art work its cultural justification. Murals do not have cash value. Murals often are skillfully painted pictures that would be worth to be exhibited in museums but due to their intention need to stay outdoors. Hence, murals in a way reverse Pop Art that takes products of everyday life into the galleries. In addition, the other way round, advertising, a major public affair, that usually is not counted as art, makes use of exactly the same effects as murals. Landart is probably the only white art excepted from consumerism, but is very different from urban muralism. For it usually celebrates (white) men's superiority over nature and seems like a continued expression of the Euro-American Manifest Destiny ideology[3].

Murals often deal with the local, with the barrio or even with just the wall they are painted on. Art that refers to art itself, though, seems to have a more universal concern. This discrepancy is reason enough not to see the artistic value of murals. For "'high' art [...] is universal or [...] communicates universal human concerns" (Bright 1995: 7). Fostered at universities, artists' "Disassociation from their origins [... is seen as] the highest form of achievement," complains Baca (Pohl 217). In the first place there is no objective reason to favor universality over locality. In the second place, as will be shown in chapter 2.2.2., local is not even a reduction of universal- not only because, as Kant might have put it, universality without locality would be empty, and locality without universality would be blind.


[1] Most of these books are published outside Germany.

[2] I will come to graffiti in the section on LA.

[3] One might argue that in 1967 in New York the City Walls, Incorporated was founded, who supported mural making in white quarters. But this happened in order to "den Bewohnern New Yorks, Kunst nahezubringen," and again the pictures' issues were art itself: "Verblüffung, optische Täuschung und Vorspielung von >>falschen<< Tatsachen" (Biancho 1984: 120).

Excerpt out of 26 pages


Chicano Murals and the Construction of Home
University of Leipzig  (American Studies)
Chicano Culture
2,0 (B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
635 KB
Chicano, Murals, Construction, Home, Chicano, Culture
Quote paper
Gesa Giesing (Author), 2001, Chicano Murals and the Construction of Home, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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