As part of the Global Urban Humanities Initiative Colloquium called Reading Cities, Sensing Cities, we have asked students and visitors to write responses to each of the weekly guest lectures. On September 11, 2014, Lauren Kroiz spoke about Berkeley—The City and Its People, a mural by Romare Bearden that once hung in Berkeley City Hall, was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, and is now indefinitely in storage. She asked viewers to consider the intentions of the city leaders of 1973 in inviting a well-known African-American artist from the East Coast to portray their city. Kroiz is Assistant Professor of Art History at UC Berkeley.
By Faith Hutchinson
In representing a place, we are as much limited by the constraints of the two-dimensional canvas as we are by our narrow experiences. Romare Bearden’s mural “Berkeley--The City and Its People” presents an example of the flattening of place into symbols, artifacts of emotion, memory, and still other intangible provisions of identity. Berkeley deconstructed itself during the Free Speech movement of the 1960s, and as the city entered the 1970s, residents found in the renovation of City Hall an opportunity to manifest the transformation via monument. Thus, the démodé landscape photograph that occupied the chamber of City Hall was to be replaced with a mural by Romare Bearden. The selection of this black artist served to communicate Berkeley’s embrace of diversity, but why not select a person of color who was a local son or daughter? Much like the decision to establish a symbol of the new Berkeley, the selection of this artist was an explicit vision of the city.
Based in New York for the majority of his life, Bearden was an established name in American art by the 1970s. In commissioning him, Berkeley councilmembers used the artist’s race, urban subject matter, and art-world renown as a proxy for describing the city’s progressive, cosmopolitan, and aesthete qualities. Bearden was famously known for capturing life of a specific segment of Black America. His collages are scenes of brownstone and cement where the lifeblood of community flows through arteries of a bustling physical environment. As mentioned during the class discussion, “Berkeley--The City and Its People” depicts a busy jumble that feels more like the artist’s home of New York City. The style of Bearden’s mural gives the impression that Berkeley is a bustling, vibrant place, but this summary necessarily discards the quiet and the somber, the routines that inform daily life. It was said that Bearden’s 10-day visit to the city came with a detailed agenda, and in designing the artist’s experience in this way, the patrons of the mural had to decide what to highlight. In effect, the mural was created by committee, but it is arguable whether the resulting pastiche shows the compromise of collaboration, the limited engagement of the artist, or the idealism that is part of bestowing identity to a place that means different things to different people.
Faith Hutchinson is a candidate for the Master of Information Management and Systems at the UC Berkeley School of Information.