On sunny days, I try to take extra pictures for a rainy day. On Sunday while I was photographing the mural on the backside of Microcenter in Cambridge, MA, I also snapped some shots of the mural on the side of Trader Joe’s, my actual post-practice destination. On sunny days, you need to save up for a rainy day, and on days when you drive to the Zen Center, you might as well stop on the way home for groceries.
Municipal murals are an interesting sort of propaganda; even more interesting are murals sponsored by a particular company. As far as I know, it’s sheer coincidence that a mural depicting the Cambridge freeway revolt is on the backside of Microcenter: as far as I know, Microcenter had nothing to do with this activism. But the mural on the side of Trader Joe’s, although painted by an established muralist responsible for other public artworks in the metropolitan Boston area, is pretty much a giant ad. If you look closely at the diverse cast of lounging locals enjoying a sunny Sunday along the Charles River, you’ll notice they’re all picnicking on Trader Joe’s products.
On one level, I have no problem with the product placements in this particular mural. The artist’s “canvas,” after all, is Trader Joe’s itself, and I’ve no doubt that the money for the project came from (yes) Trader Joe’s. If a grocery store or other business is going to paint an exterior wall anyway, why not hand a brush to a worthy artist who can put something pretty on an otherwise nondescript brick wall?
What I find interesting about corporate-sponsored murals, though, is the vision and ideals they depict. In a Trader Joe’s world, people of all ages and races enjoy a sun-drenched moment of leisure along the river. Mothers walk with children; children walk with dogs. Families and friends gather over food, and athletic types row by in their sculls. There’s a place for everyone at the “table” that is the Charles River, and there’s food enough for all. I find this brightly colored, utopian vision of a Trader Joe’s world just as tasty as any groceries I might buy inside.
I commented long ago on the amateur version of this idealistic Mural Mindset that can be found here in Keene, NH: “In our rainbow-happy world, we walk hand-in-hand with persons of all races and sizes, communing joyously with one another and with nature…” Here in shiny happy Keene, that old mural got tagged by graffiti hoodlums who presumably aren’t so happy. If your vision of Trader Joe’s, Keene, or whatever else doesn’t match that of actual locals, you might encounter some criticism…and apparently some critics carry spray-cans. It’s hard out here for a muralist.
The idealized mural view of either Cambridge or Keene reminds me of the viewbook perspective prospective students get of college campuses. In college viewbooks, it never rains or is cloudy, students of all races study and hang out together, and nobody gets sick, drunk, or expelled. Just as there’s no crying in baseball, there’s no crying in college viewbooks. No one in those pretty pictures ever gets homesick, dumped by a faraway high school sweetheart, or infected with an STD. In viewbooks, college campuses are pretty and pastoral, dorm rooms are spacious, and everyone is Best Friends with their roommate. Anyone who has actually been to college knows the real collegiate world isn’t like that, but the real collegiate world isn’t what prospective students are applying for. If a college degree is a necessary first step toward the American Dream, then a lushly illustrated Viewbook Dream is the first step toward pursuing a degree.
Blogs are more than a little like viewbooks and murals. When I showed J this picture of a larger-than-life beagle that bears more than passing resemblance to his real and life-sized one, he wondered where I’d taken it. Although J’s been to this very same Trader Joe’s, he’d never noticed either the mural on its side or the beagle included therein. Given all there is to notice during a shopping trip, on a college campus, or in a city the size of Cambridge, can we be blamed if we miss a detail here or there?
If the mere act of perception is selective–if we can’t see and notice it all, but only bite-size bits either randomly or consciously chosen–why shouldn’t we act like a master muralist, picking out, zooming in, and blowing up those details we want commemorated? I know there’s a graphic artist who Photoshops cigarettes out of the the candid campus photos that get included in the Keene State College viewbook, and I know there are details of my days I don’t mention on-blog. If you can’t squeeze everything into even a larger-than-life canvas, why wouldn’t you choose the brightest, most colorful, and rainbow-happiest images to include? Given the stocked grocery-shelf called Life, wouldn’t you add only the tastiest items to your menu?