I love the idea of protected public space within the culture. National parks are the physical analog for the kind of thing I’m talking about: public libraries, public radio, monuments and murals of the type muralist Judy Baca calls “sites of public memory.” These are spaces of meaning freely available to each and every one of us, the king and commoner equally. For me, a livable society without them is unimaginable. This is a story about how the unimaginable is taking shape.
Protected public space has been getting scarcer and scarcer for the last few decades, certainly since the sea change of Reaganism. In 1980 the elevation to the U.S. presidency of this pure Hollywood product heralded the imminent expiration of the social contract prevailing since the New Deal of the 1930s. Today, in many parts of the country, people pinch pennies to send their kids to private school, having given up on mortally wounded public education; the diehards hold bake sales and raffles to pay for school supplies. Viewers pay for television, which now seems normal. A couple of weeks ago, there was even a news story about a soldier who’d been billed by the Army for the body armor that went missing in the chaos after he was wounded. (Read about it on CNN, and rejoice that the resulting scandal cancelled the bill.)
One of the largest and most repulsive encroachments on public cultural space is commercial advertising, which has now become so ubiquitous I half expect to hear a jingle every time I open the refrigerator. Try for a moment to imagine how life would be if every product you buy, every program you watch, every Web page you open and nearly every page of every periodical didn’t try to sell you something else while you were consuming it. Difficult to imagine? That’s understandable: total U.S. advertising revenue is projected to top $152 billion in 2006. This is just the cost of buying advertising time and space in print, broadcast, online and other media; it doesn’t take in the humongous cost of producing all the material in the first place.
One of my favorite policy proposals for supporting access and creation in the real live arts is a small tax on advertising revenues. Just a penny on every one of those dollars spent to place advertising would generate a fund of $1.5 billion, twelve times the current National Endowment for the Arts budget.
Now comes Clear Channel, a Fortune 500 advertising company valued at $20 billion (from global radio, TV and outdoor advertising), to proclaim an end to protected public cultural space. In 1998, an advertising company since bought out by Clear Channel won a court ruling that it was unconstitutional for the city of Portland, Oregon, to regulate billboards but not murals, thus erasing the legal distinction between art and signage. (For its trouble, the judge also awarded Clear Channel judgments and court costs amounting to $1 million, still tied up in litigation.)
This decision effectively created a six-year moratorium on community murals. Murals were to be treated as signs. To apply for a waiver of the signage code to permit a mural, artists and their community sponsors had to put up a fee of $1,400 (which they would lose if the application were denied). The City tried to wire around the court decision by creating a special status for public art whereby City authorization to create murals would be contingent on the owner of the wall deeding the mural to the City, effectively making it part of the city art collection. As such, murals would be exempt from sign ordinances. Inventive (if imperfect), but as it turned out, not all property owners were willing to enter into this type of relationship with the city, and several proposed projects went down over the lack of a signed easement from the property owner.
Even this highly restrictive compromise did not satisfy Clear Channel. Declaring the City’s new policy part of a “jihad” against sign companies, the corporation went back to court, claiming the new program violated the Constitution by favoring “art over other types of painted wall signs.” Local muralists (who obviously hold a stake in the decision) are trying to have a voice in the court case, which is finally set to come to trial next month. Clear Channel has objected to having artists represented in the case. A good article on the matter from Portland muralists details Clear Channel’s censorship of expression even in paid advertising, refusing to rent billboard space to progressive causes.
The article ends with a series of questions about why Clear Channel is fighting so hard to defeat community murals. I’m sure the corporation’s attorneys have a full array of whiplash-inducing arguments about protecting their client’s free speech, but truly, does Clear Channel need a reason? Like the old joke says: “Where does the 800-pound gorilla sleep? Anywhere it wants.”
There could hardly be a clearer expression of the conflict between freedom of expression and the rampant commercialization of absolutely everything, a different type of culture war, one that protected public space seems to be losing. Michael Schwartz, the Philadelphia muralist who alerted me to this issue, puts it succinctly: “I do not think murals are the only place where grassroots democracy is practiced, but I see it as being an important distinction between signs or billboards.”
Calling attention to Clear Channel’s destructive greed might help, so spread it around. You might also want to write to Clear Channel’s CEO, Mark P. Mays: markmays @clearchannel.com. For more information, contact portlandmuraldefense @yahoo.com.