The media giant continues to throw weight around when subject turns
to changing city rules on public art.
By Alex Taylor
On Nov. 9, Portland Mural Defense, The Portland Alliance, and KBOO 90.7 FM sponsored In Defense of Art, a conference on murals and public art in our corporate culture.
The event featured presentations from local muralists Jennifer Joyce, Joe Cotter, and Isaka Shamsud Din; mural historian Jim Prigoff; and Philadelphia artist Theodore Harris.
Theodore Harris showed slides of his collage work and told the story of his exposure to art through the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. At the conference Harris story and heavily political art served as an in-the-flesh reminder of the benefits of a public art system that is in touch with the community it serves.
It was my gateway to the world of art, Harris said at a dinner after the conference. Harris collages portray the brutality with which African Americans and others have been and often continue to be silenced in the United States. His theme underscores the significance of art as the type of expression that the First Amendment was designed to protect.
The hope is that having the freedom to air greivances publicly improves the likelihood that those greivances will be addressed. The practice of free expression falls short of this hope.
Perhaps the most important barrier to meaningfully free expression is a financial one. Case in point is the current situation of billboards and murals in Portland. While billboards are unavoidable almost everywhere, murals are few and far between.
As it stands, the Portland sign code classifies billboards and murals as large signs, and requires any new large signs to undergo a $1400 adjustment process. The code was crafted to discourage saturation billboard development. Thats difficult to do, however, without simultaneously curbing murals, because the Oregon Constitution demands that speech not be restricted based on content. Advertisements and art are different, the court told the City in 1998, only in content.
Portland Mural Defense organized the gathering to draw attention to Mayor Katz Public Arts Mural Proposal, which aims to solve the riddle of encouraging murals while discouraging rampant billboards. Portland Mural Defense has given the proposal its conditional support because, in the words of member Mark Meltzer, its as good as were going to get for now.
If the proposal is approved by City Council at its hearing on Dec. 1, Mural Defense hopes to persuade the Regional Arts and Culture Council to nominate an active muralist from a relatively unvoiced population to the Public Art Advisory Committee, the bureacratic body that will oversee the process by which murals gain public art status.
The proposal would stand little chance of defeat if it were not for Clear Channel Communications. The largest owner of radio stations and billboards in Portland, the United States, and the world, Clear Channel believes that their rights are being trodden upon by a proposal that they believe does not give them equal rights to expression. They have threatened to sue the city if the proposal is accepted.
Clear Channels argument that the proposal amounts to censorship lacks
even a nod to common sense, and ignores the central lack of discrimination
between commercial and artistic speech that Katz lawyers worked into
Not only that, but Clear Channel has very recently demonstrated its stance that, when it comes to censorship, its fine as long as they hold the gag.
In August, a group called Project Billboard filed a breach of contract claim against the advertising company for rejecting a billboard advocating peace. Featuring a bomb draped in an American flag with the words Democracy is best taught by example, not by war, the sign was slated to run at New Yorks Times Square during the month of and preceding the Republican National Convention.
In explaining why the billboard was rejected, Clear Channel asserted its right to do so, saying their general policy was to avoid placing billboards which might cause [children] to ask difficult questions.
Although Clear Channel denied that the heavy donations of the companys executives to the Bush administration and Republican groups had anything to do with the decision to censor the billboard, some are skeptical.
Yeah, right, says one member of Portland Mural Defense. As evidence, the member points to Clear Channel radio stations pro-war rallies and syndication of Rush Limbaugh, and dismissal of anti-Bush Howard Stern on tenuous grounds. I see Clear Channels rejection of the design as an in-kind campaign donation.
Further bringing into question Clear Channels dedication to free expression is its near-complete homogenization of the radio industry. To borrow the sense of Corliss Lamonts book Freedom is as Freedom Does: if expression is not as diverse as understanding, that expression is free only in name. The political and market forces that form Clear Channels corporate imperative do not leave room for the gamut of social expression.
While persuading Clear Channel to shift its stance against the Public Mural Arts Proposal may require a more thorough campaign against its belligerence, citizens are welcome and encouraged to voice their diverse opinions on this matter to City Council. On Dec. 1, the councils vote will either leave murals in the cold, or bow to Clear Channel threats.
Alex Taylor is a local activist and writer.
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Last Updated: December 7, 2004