Finding Wisdom — Coit Tower Murals, San Francisco

On this site on most Sundays I’ve written about writers and thinkers who have not only advanced knowledge about their subject matters, but provide some insight into the human condition to provide us a guide for wisdom.

The frescoes of the interior of Coit Tower depict the rise of the proletarian movement and with it the trend of social realism in art.  Art critics in New York, Chicago, Paris, and elsewhere considered this art, showing common people at work and play, to be inferior to the other styles of the time, a form of Regionalist art and American scene painting: American expressionism, abstract expressionism, post-impressionism, and other modern forms.

Social Realism had also been co-opted for propaganda purposes in both Germany and the Soviet Union, undermining its legitimacy, especially since many of the artists at the time had become radicalized by the oppressive practices of the large industrialists and the widespread poverty engendered by the stock market crash and Great Depression.

So how do we find wisdom in art?  I believe, that it goes to the purpose of art itself and what drives the artist–or any creative person–to do the thing that he or she does.  The best of art, music, film, and literature take the pedestrian and make it larger, bringing to the viewer, the reader, the listener into the world created by the artist, documenting the human condition in ways that sterile facts cannot.

In the visual arts, when the artist paints a scene, it is not simply to create a photographic portrayal of what is being seen composed through charcoal, oils, or plaster.  That is simply illustration.  Instead, in art, the use of light, expression, juxtaposition, point of view, perspective, distortion, and the inclusion and exclusion of objects are used to make an emotional connection both to the subject and the viewer.  When all of this works, the simplest subjects can record a moment in time that transcends time itself, providing a glimpse into the experience of existence and all of the hopes, fears, joys, comedy, and emotions associated with human existence.

The murals in Coit Tower are artifacts of their time, but they tell us something about human existence that transcends their own time and place.  As most great art tends to be, the final product was quite controversial in its day, which spilled over into politics, civil disobedience, and class conflict.  It was the first Works Progress Administration (WPA)-funded art project.  Twenty-six Bay Area artists participated in creating the murals.  When it was completed there were demands that the murals be removed or white-washed.  Fortunately for us, artistic expression won out over social convention.

In its American form, Social Realism became the art of the common man and woman.  In many ways it hearkened back to the Dutch Golden Age of painting, though it took the subject of daily life out of the interior and into the open air.  As such, its lasting images reflects a democratic people going about their business.  Even in those scenes that depict social upheaval, poverty, and protest, it is an art that records an optimism in the human spirit even in the face of heavy labor and the regimentation of the age of the machine.

In this panel of a city scene by Victor Arnautoff, an auto accident is recorded in the background.  In the foreground the mail is being picked up from a box, a policeman is directing traffic, and as he is checking his watch a man is having his pocket picked.

Coit Tower 'City Life' mural left half


In the next panel, which depicts a library, people are reading books and newspapers.  The headlines in the papers, some of them radical, record the topics of the day.  To the artist, Bernard Zakheim, the choices for the country at the time were between unfettered capitalism (“rugged individualism” as it was then called), the New Deal, or communism.  The man just to the right of window in green is taking down Marx’s Das Kapital.


Library mural in Coit Tower


In the next panel, city life is again recorded, with people from all walks of life going about their business.

Coit Tower 'City Life' mural right half


The following two panels by Gordon Longdon depict the California agricultural industry.

Coit Tower Mural: California Agricultural Industry by Gordon Longdon


Coit Tower Mural: California Agricultural Industry by Gordon Longdon


John Langley Howard completed this panel to record California industry.  The vision of progress and hydroelectric power is juxtaposed against a man panning for gold, homeless families washing clothes in the river while living in tents, and striking workers.


Ralph Stackpole completed these panels for the Industries of California mural series.

Coit Tower 'Industries of California' mural left half

Coit Tower 'Industries of California' mural right half


There are many more panels in Coit Tower and each depicts the varieties of life in America.  Though they depict a particular place and time, the overall effect is a message that speaks to us today–a message of continuity, of change, of dissent, of both the mindlessness and the therapeutic effects of different kinds of work, of a people that are rich in cultural and material assets, that must grapple with their blindness to poverty and class differences,  Moreover, the murals drive home the message that we are a social species that cannot survive without one another, whether that be from the labor or the assistance of others.