Who’s in charge here?

Reasons for banning an image intended for public view often center around what people perceive as obscene or libelous. But grounds for suppression can also be political, which seems to be the case in Jersey where city officials destroyed a mural just a couple of months after they commissioned it. Politics as the prime mover for interfering with public art is such an old story that you might even call it an American tradition. (More about that in a moment).

Game over

The Jersey mural – painter Gary Wynan’s giant pavement picture spanning a wide swath on Newark Avenue -- was fashioned after a Monopoly board except with local street names and symbols.

Picture parts went through several changes ordered by the city. For instance, the mural originally showed a man of color in jail and Assemblywoman Angela McKnight reportedly objected, saying that the figure played up a racist pattern. Wynan, who is Hispanic, said the jailed figure was a self-portrait. But despite his compliance with the changes called for, the city deleted the mural without warning. City spokesperson Jennifer Morrill explained to the press, “artwork painted on a public street isn’t permanent.” The city figured on painting over the street all along, she said.

“I wish I was in Dixie”

Jas Chana, NCAC’s communications director for the National Coalition Against Censorship appealed to Steven Fulop, the Jersey mayor, to find another way to deal with complaints about public art besides expunging it. Chana also suggested that more than one person serve as arbiter of taste. The Jersey judge was a lone staffer in the Department of Public Works. As inadequate as a one-person jury sounds, it has happened before and with a high profile public work.

That’s when a member of Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet with a bias against freeing slaves dictated the look of one of our most celebrated civic monuments about freedom in Washington, D .C. Defying Lincoln’s goal for national unity and avoidance of all allusions to the Northern victory and Southern defeat, his Secretary of War -- pro-south leaning Jefferson Davis -- ruled the look of Thomas Crawford’s colossal bronze “Statue of Freedom” standing on top of the U.S.

Capitol building.

Davis, the cotton-growing plantation-slave-owner from Mississippi and future president of the Confederacy, not only held sway over the work, but also over what it stood for. The architect of the Capitol building, Thomas U. Walter, had envisioned a personification of liberty wearing the soft head-cover given to freed slaves in Old Rome. Davis rejected that idea. He wanted Liberty to wear a helmet. While known as the Statue of Freedom, a more fitting titled might be “Armed Liberty.” The only saving grace may be that the statue is so high above eye level that you can’t see how the concessions made to Davis muddles the message of freedom.

In that sense, Wynan was probably better served when Jersey City destroyed his concessions-riddled mural.

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