In 2010, musician Amy Cook wrote on a public wall to her girlfriend” “i love you so much.” It was on the side of Jo’s Coffee Shop in Austin, and it has since become one of Austin’s major tourist attractions.
I believe in the authenticity of this mural, which is really more or less a kind of graffiti tag. Its simplicity reads as a genuine romantic gesture. It’s also a manifestation of Austin’s capability to solidify these kinds of eccentric moments as uniquely “Austin,” rather than manufacturing them inorganically, for the sake of attention.
Unfortunately, Houston caught wind of the “i love you” mural and has proceeded to vomit a degenerate spawn version of it all over the city in the form of half-baked visual representations of “love.”
Before I continue, I feel I should preemptively defend myself: I am not some Eeyore-esque pessimist towards love or romance, nor do I have commitment issues. But I can’t help but feel the itch of claustrophobia at the seeming 8,764 murals across town who have no idea who I am, yet claim to love me. Let’s take a look at what differentiates Cook’s sincere scrawl from these contrived Houston murals.
It ultimately comes down to ulterior motive. Cook’s tag was a deeply personal, yet reads as a universally relatable act. It’s rooted in spontaneity and vulnerability. Houston’s amorous infestation, on the other hand — like some desperate first date — is practically (and in some cases literally) begging for our attention and approval, and attendant publicity. This is painfully obvious with the various murals that have gone so far as to attach a hashtag right onto the artwork, so as to dictate to the viewer what he should stick on his Instagram feed and how to label it. Asserting that much control over the narrative of and how the viewer interprets and engages with the work is not only lame, it’s borderline unethical within the definitions of ‘art.’
One could argue that while any image may be imperfectly mediated through an Instagram feed, if the mural is being disseminated and the public is interacting with it, isn’t the mural fundamentally doing its “job?” My problem with these works is not necessarily their ubiquity on social media — although I think the encouragement of the secondhand viewing of an artwork via social media rather than firsthand experience is problematic — rather, it’s that their primary function and motivation is to be made popular on Instagram in the first place. There’s nothing thoughtful or intelligent or even remotely interesting about that. So maybe a more pressing question for Houston about these contrived love murals should be: Why does a world-class art city (not to mention the most diverse city in America) put up with such shitty and saccharine public art?
I think back to Tommy Gregory’s recent work as Public Art Curator for the Houston Airport System (HAS). I remember walking through a Houston terminal and seeing the work of Hillerbrand + Magsamen and a JooYoung Choi, among others, and feeling elated. I remember thinking: This is so thoughtful, and its placement is so interesting in the airport, and so much better than every Sedate Gigantic Light-up Monstrosity I see at other airports. In short, Gregory doesn’t treat the greater traveling public like they’re stupid or shallow.
Call me overly optimistic, or naive, but I believe that the average viewer will appreciate and engage with thoughtful public work if the city delivers it. It’s time for someone besides Lawndale to infuse our walls and public spaces with intelligence and excitement. That doesn’t mean lazy curation like covering every damn electrical box with “whatever.” It means really looking and asking the vast well of artists in this sprawl of a city, as well as the custodians of public space, to rethink how our murals can and should function. Maybe it means asking artists who are not normally muralists to dream up new ideas and solutions. But I do know that it’s up to all of us to demand change and standards for Houston’s burgeoning mural landscape.
Right now it threatens to overflow with insipid, didactic desperation. We all deserve something better and more reflective of the city itself, something dislocated — something surprising and nuanced.