The SHINE Mural Festival recent effort to bedeck blank walls along Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, Florida is said to boost the city as an art destination. So says art critic Lennie Bennett of the Tampa Bay Times on Aug. 26. But it doesn’t.
When it comes to mural art that says something, Central Avenue is a silent movie. Shine’s murals adorn, yes. They’re colorful, yes. But so is a beach umbrella. Even when figurative these murals, like one of elephants riding bicycles or another of a flying shark, seem too generic to be meaningful. Art history tells us that mural art is meaningful.
Before the daybreak of recorded history, when humankind didn’t know how to read or write, grow food or build permanent shelters, we made wall paintings. As cave dwellers we covered our dark, rock-lined rooms with the days of our lives. Murals defined us in prehistory. They told our story. What story do the Central Avenue murals tell?
Leon Bedore, a graphic artist who heads the Shine project, told Bennett that the project was meant to convey the idea that murals are art. “It’s not signage, not graffiti.” Then he said something that denies his point. He said, “Murals are rarely permanent installations.” The ancients knew better. In the words of Hippocrates, “Ars longa, vita brevis” (Art is long, life is short). Old Rome’s murals, painted in Pompeii in 80 BC, still stand. In contrast, a SHINE mural at 1049 Central Ave. has already been replaced.
“They’re not meant to last forever,” Bedore went on to say of the Shine murals. “Some younger artists have a mind-set that they’re sacred. If you want to put your work behind glass, maybe you’re not cut out for public art. Enjoy it while it’s here and look forward to the next one.” Spoken like the graphic designer he is. Graphic designers are big on logos and branding and product design. Graphic design is functional. Graphic design is anonymous. Art is none of those things. Just ask the 20,000 visitors who line up every day to view the 503-year-old mural paintings on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Bedore seems unaware of art history. He doesn’t seem to know that mural art is not like party balloons that come down after a birthday bash. Art – public or otherwise – is not a here-today-gone-tomorrow blip on a computer screen. When Bedore makes art temporary, he reduces it to a passing fancy.
If anything, the Shine murals are the stuff of plop art – not site-specific. True mural art needs to be commissioned with specific subject matter. St. Pete should look at Punta Gorda Historic Mural Society. The group’s murals, which debuted in 1994, celebrate the community all over the city. Lake Placid, Florida also boasts murals of the city’s past. They’re credited with revitalizing a once blighted downtown.
Granted, the long tradition of mural-making waned for a while until the Great Depression brought it back. FDR’s Works Progress Administration hired artists to paint on public buildings. Today, their murals continue to stand as keepsakes of a low time in American history.
St. Pete deserves a mural program to chronicle its rich history: the 1888 Orange Belt Railway built by a Russian émigré who named the city after his native St. Petersburg; the start of baseball spring training for the St. Louis Browns; the Tony Jannus flight across Tampa Bay, said to have given rise to commercial aviation; the arrival of the Rays in the ‘90s.
A pictorial record emblazoned on walls through St, Pete’s downtown is in order, if for no other reason than to escape the look of Anywhere, Florida.