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Joe Downtown

Joe Downtown: The decision to cover an LIB mural has launched a worthy discussion

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Slots of Dialogue: The LIB mural on Emergency Arts is no more, but the debate over it continues.
Photo: Steve Marcus

Life is Beautiful, or is it Life Must Be Beautiful?

Life is Beautiful was the festival held Downtown in late October. Music, art, food and “learning” were all on tap, and for the art component, festival organizers put together something that would last beyond the fest’s weekend run and do more to beautify the neighborhood than all the food, music and lectures put together.

They created a gallery out of a boarded-up motel and commissioned murals that have so improved the war zone on Seventh Street between Ogden and Stewart avenues that I’ve actually heard people talking about redevelopment there.

By most accounts, the festival turned out, well, beautiful.

Nothing goes off without a hitch, however.

One of the LIB murals located on a particularly prominent wall was painted over last week. The wall is part of Emergency Arts, whose building is owned by El Cortez, and the work by a member of Ukrainian artist duo Interesni Kazki showed a Vegas Vic-like character in a cowboy hat reaching toward hands stretching up out of the ground, an old-style slot machine in the foreground.

The meaning of the work is in the eye of the beholder. Those aren’t my words; that’s what Life is Beautiful public relations folks wrote on the festival’s website. They put it this way: “(Kazki’s murals) are inspired by themes such as science, religion, cosmology and social subjects, though they usually make work with free meanings that everyone can interpret on their own.”

Obviously, some people interpreted the cowboy mural as disagreeable.

“It didn’t reflect the spirit of all the people working Downtown at all,” said Jennifer Cornthwaite, who operates Emergency Arts and the Beat with her husband, Michael.

It’s no understatement to say that Jennifer Cornthwaite’s work on East Fremont Street has done much to transform the area. Long before anyone considered the neighborhood anything to invest in, she threw her own money into a tiny art gallery, Henri & Odette, in the ancient John E. Carson Hotel.

When the mural was covered last week, Cornthwaite said a group of interested Downtown parties, including festival folks, El Cortez, herself and others, had made the controversial decision to paint over it. Why?

“We want (something) positive that makes people happy and reflects the people that are here,” she said.

So it had nothing to do with the fact that the mural might be interpreted as anti-gaming, and that it was on the side of a building owned by El Cortez?

Whatever the reason, the decision has had a silver lining: It’s led to some of the smartest Internet discussions I’ve read in many years—not people bashing each other, but calm, sane opinions from artists and others whose voices are all-important in Downtown’s ongoing rebirth.

From artist Matthew Couper on Facebook: “I’m interested that this conversation about the aesthetics of the work happens after it’s gone, not while it’s still there. … But I do think it was a good artwork, a challenge, and if you looked at it for long enough and thought about its message, implications and intentions, (it) acted like a bore-size drill going into your head, which is my yardstick for a good work of art.”

In the same thread, artist Jevijoe Vitug wrote: “Art is all about artistic freedom of expression and artist’s conviction on his/her work. I’m not bothered about the mural. What bothers me is the idea of who decides what is 'positive' or 'negative' art? Or what is 'good' art vs. 'bad' art? Or what is art? What is not art?”

Last week, someone said that El Cortez owns the building and has the right to get rid of the mural. Then someone else asked what kind of message that sends to the international artists who will be invited to paint murals at the next festival and the one after that. Perhaps those artists will choose to create less subversive works. Or maybe they’ll simply find someone else with money who accepts their work and let those who view it interpret as they may.

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Joe Schoenmann

A native Wisconsinite, Joe earned a journalism degree to get out of college early but wanted none of the craft ...

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