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“Even paradise could become a prison if one had enough time to take notice of the walls.”~ Morgan Rhodes, Fallen Kingdoms (Wall Quotes, n.d.)
A pivotal yet neglected architectural structure, walls hold more power than we’d like to accept. Depending on where they’re situated, walls exist to divide or protect, separate, or resist. They may function literally as a political strategy, or metaphorically as a personal defense mechanism.
In Ursula LeGuin’s The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, walls exist to contain a dystopia within —what would otherwise be— a utopia (1975). LeGuin’s utopia —a vibrant, picturesque, fairytale-like city— could only exist with a necessary dystopia —a feeble, shriveling child— confined within walls. Walls exist to protect the people of Omelas from guilt, desensitize them to injustice, and retain their privilege and happiness, thus maintaining the city’s status as a utopia.
Clarion Alley in San Francisco’s Mission District presents a similar picture. The aesthetic, bright, colorful walls of art offer a picturesque utopia, drawing in 200,000 visitors annually from all across the globe. The dystopia, however, lurks within these aesthetic walls –its murals tell stories of oppression, injustice, inequality, pain, and death. Yet, the containment of these dystopias within walls protects the visitors from outright confrontation, thus allowing them to engage in a superficial reality of aesthetic vibrance. Clarion Alley —like Omelas— can only maintain an external image of a utopia because its dystopia is contained within walls.
History and Presence
Stretching for one block between Mission Street and Valencia Street, Clarion Alley has had a dynamic history. Starting from 1992, the Alley has been covered with murals by the Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP) “initiated by a group of artists, community organizers, and muralists who lived on or near the Alley” (Kessler, 2015). The effort began around the time the Mission District was beginning to see its Latino population displaced, and CAMP’s aim was to “use public art as a force for those who are marginalized”. Built due to a history of injustice and marginalization, Clarion Alley was meant to provide a voice to the voiceless, to dignify and humanize the “other,” to shed light on the issues and concerns of the oppressed in society. To date, the Alley has represented over 700 murals and given a voice to over 500 artists “of all ethnicities, ages, and levels of experience, with an emphasis on… a social justice framework”.
Beyond aesthetics, Clarion Alley’s art is political. It is raw. It is meant to provoke an emotional response. It is meant to spark a revolution. It is meant to evoke outrage at the immorality and injustice of our dystopian society.
Yet, over the years, its art has lost its poignance. Its revolutionary power has been diluted by the “tourists —and tour buses—” engaging only in its aesthetic vibrance for their Instagram selfies and artistic entertainment. Its “social justice framework” has been tainted by popular shows like Sense8 and GirlBoss using its murals as an aesthetic backdrop that has gained Clarion Alley international fame and recognition simply for being “edgy” and “vibrant.” As one author puts it, “Clarion Alley is in danger of being loved to death.”
“Omelas sounds… like a city in a fairytale, long ago and far away, once upon a time”~ LeGuin, 1975, p. 82.
LeGuin’s The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas begins with an elaborate description of a joyous celebration for the Festival of Summer. Her portrayals of “the great joyous clanging of the bells,” “a cheerful faint sweetness of the air,” and “(the) white-gold fire across the miles of sunlit air, under the dark blue of the sky,” engages all our senses and invites us to bask in this utopic city of tenderness, grandeur, and perfection. Omelas does indeed sound like a fairytale, its essence captured in a timeless portrait with LeGuin’s depiction. It is almost too perfect, too happy, too flawless to be real. But more than that, it is too intoxicating in its unattainability.
As imperfect beings, our nature is to always chase after perceived perfection, to idealize the unachievable, to strive towards a better reality. Yet, we are also incredibly doubtful creatures. When presented with this extravagant depiction of a too-perfect city, our first instinct is to discard it as an impossibility, a fairytale, a fictional alternate reality. It is precisely this aspect of human nature that LeGuin targets when she asks, “Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.” Sensitive to her audience, LeGuin understands that a simple utopia would be too banal, too boring for her readers to accept. For as much as we strive for perfection and paradise, we don’t really want it. Or perhaps, as humanity is built on a history of pain and suffering, imagining a world without that anguish may be too ludicrous for humankind now. Perhaps we have a masochistic tendency to derive satisfaction from pain, to idealize suffering and agony —after all, don’t we revere Van Gogh more because of how much he suffered? Don’t we romanticize artists who ache and grieve? Don’t we glorify their art built from this —or perhaps, despite this— torment?
From LeGuin’s perspective, it is this glorification of pain that makes us view “happiness as rather stupid,” so much so that “we can no longer describe a happy man, nor make any celebration of joy.” LeGuin views this as “the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.” If we subscribe to her worldview, then every artist at Clarion Alley has committed treason in painting the evil, painful realities of existence. Perhaps our glorification of pain is what has tainted the true purpose of CAMP’s “social justice framework.” Perhaps our romanticization is what is causing Clarion Alley to be “loved to death.”
The people of Omelas, however, seem to have liberated themselves from this dependence on and glorification of pain. Above all, as LeGuin argues, they were happy people. Unlike us, they accepted “the festival, the city, the joy” as their paradise. The beauty of the city, the grandeur of its festivals, and the external absence of pain all present Omelas as a utopia. Translate this to the real world, and Clarion Alley presents a similar picture. Kessler discusses how “the art [at Clarion Alley] interacts with the architecture to form a messy, vibrant, and colorful spatial corridor… Every inch is awash in vivid, bold color(s).” The vibrance and colors fool the eye and trick the mind into engaging in a superficial, external image of a utopia. LeGuin discusses “the treason of the artist,” but I argue about the treason of the viewer: the outrageous, incredible ability to look yet not see, to see yet not observe.
“One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt”~ LeGuin, 1975, p. 82.
Omelas is not as simple, as bland, as perfect as LeGuin made us believe, for we soon find out that the city’s splendor, the people’s happiness, the festival’s delight, are all built upon a “child’s abominable misery.” A child —scared, alone, miserable— locked within the walls of a tiny room in a basement or a cellar. A child, its identity so erased, so unimportant, that “it could be a boy or a girl.” A child that “used to scream for help at night” but nobody answered, and his cries grew quieter and quieter.
Clarion Alley’s murals underwent a similar transformation, where its political messaging and outrage was loud and impactful but grew quieter and quieter as people refused to hear them anymore. Justice, a mural by Saif Azzuz, poignantly depicts this silencing and identity erasure as it sketches people fighting for a diverse range of issues, yet these people have no faces, no names, and therefore, no identities. Their silhouettes merge into the backgrounds, their voice attempting to be heard, yet it exists simply as a black-and-white mural that people pass by to admire a more aesthetically vibrant one.
Figure 1: “Justice” by Saif Azzuz (2018). Mural in Clarion Alley. Photo by Author.
Omelas and Clarion Alley are both “utopias” built upon the oppression and suffering of the most vulnerable. Clarion Alley depicts the realities of today’s society where power hierarchies and privilege are built upon the pain and mistreatment of minorities. It is privilege, then, that blinds people, persuades them to don a veil of ignorance, urges them to commit the treason of the viewer. It is privilege, then, that allows the people of Omelas to fight against their anger, their tearless rage, their sense of morality at “the bitter injustice” of the feeble child, sniveling in the dark.
However, what truly allows guilt to not exist in Omelas is the containment of this horrifying utopia within walls. There is a crude comfort that human beings find in having the painful locked up, the wretched hidden away, the injustice and oppression that we have caused contained within walls. It allows us to evade accountability; it protects us from direct confrontation; it lets us become indifferent and oblivious to the horrors we have created. Walls desensitize us to violence and injustice so much so that a mural as strong and powerful as Waters’ Enough is Enough –Stop Murdering Our Children is incapable of provoking a passionate response from its viewers. It is heartbreaking, then, that Clarion Alley —the very medium that was meant to provide a voice to the voiceless, that was meant to empower the most vulnerable and drive social change— has been reduced simply to a name in an “Aesthetic Places to See” list within San Francisco tour guide books. In both Omelas and Clarion Alley, the vulnerable’s pleas for justice are contained within walls, thus allowing a superficial utopia to exist.
Figure 2: “Enough is Enough – Stop Murdering Our Children” by Mel C. Waters, 2018. Mural in Clarion Alley. Photo by Author.
The Ones Who Walk Away
Not all hope is lost in Omelas, however. LeGuin describes the curious case of “the ones who walk away from Omelas,” the ones the story is named after. These are the ones who resist the treason of the viewer, who resist the temptation of privilege and paradise. These are the ones who refuse to accept that the pain and suffering of an innocent child is moral to preserve the health and happiness of Omelas. With these few individuals, the ones who “walk ahead into the darkness,” a little ounce of hope is retained. Morality wins, no matter how momentarily.
However, Clarion Alley presents a different picture. There, the ones who walk away are the ones who give in to temptation, who commit the deepest treason of the viewer. For in Clarion Alley, walking away represents walking back into the darkness viewers came from, into the ignorance and oblivion that they have allowed themselves to become comfortable with. Walking away symbolizes a failure of the murals of creating outrage, of igniting that spark of revolution it was meant to.
Staying is revolutionary.
Staying is the spark of revolution, no matter how momentary.
Kane, P. L. (2016, November 17). Revolution Lane. Retrieved from https://www.sfweekly.com/culture/feature-culture/revolution-lane/.
Kessler, M. D. (2015). The Licit and Illicit Vandalizing of San Francisco’s Early Garages. Change Over Time, 5(1), 111–116. doi: 10.1353/cot.2015.0011
Kukura, J. (2017, October 20). Clarion Alley Mural Project Turns 25: A Historical Primer. Retrieved December 2, 2019, from https://sfist.com/2017/10/20/clarion_alley_mural_project_turns_2/.
LeGuin, U. (1975). The ones who walk away from Omelas. The wind’s twelve quarters. New York: Harper & Row. (MC Coursepack)
Starin, D. (2018, February 21). Clarion Alley Confronts a Lack of Concern. Retrieved December 2, 2019, from https://solidarity-us.org/p5224/.
Walls Quotes (158 quotes). (n.d.). Retrieved December 2, 2019, from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/walls.
Wilson, M. (2016, October 19). Clarion Alley Mural Project. Retrieved December 2, 2019, from https://clarionalleymuralproject.org/.
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