THERE’S A MURAL ON THE SIDE OF Olympic High School. It’s of Muir Woods and to be honest, it’s seen better days. Everyone involved agrees on that point and acknowledges that something needs to be done. The school wants a new mural, designed and painted by students. A very small group of very vocal protesters disagree. They want the old one restored by a now out-of-town artist. The protesters are wrong and the school is doing exactly what it should in commissioning a new piece.
The Woodites opposition to the new mural is based on the work having some historical value, and it does, but their campaign has been both deceptive and selfish so far.
Time after time, the Woodites have talked about saving the mural from being “painted over.” They talk about the benefits of public art and the importance of art in community spaces. Those are fine arguments, but they’ve been constructed in a way that that insinuates the school wants to remove all art from that space. That’s a lie. The mural will be replaced with another mural. Any arguments being made about the value of public art will apply to the new work just as much as to the old. The issue isn’t art or no art, it’s trees or something else.
The trees were painted when the school was still John Muir Elementary and at the time, the work made sense. That’s no longer the case. The school is now Olympic High School so the context isn’t correct anymore.
The protesters say the work is historically significant and sure, it’s older than some other works in the City, but just because something is old, doesn’t mean it’s valuable. The value of the trees to the small number of people who care about them is less than the value of a new work would be to the students and much as the Woodites like to ignore this fact, the school’s primary responsibility is to the students, not the protesters.
Olympic is a continuation school meaning it’s a place for those students deemed at risk. For many of them, this is the last chance to emerge from the education system as a functional member of society and to be blunt, they’ve been dealing with benign or active neglect for years. They have a left-over campus, with left-over equipment and are often forgotten about in the larger educational debate.
Showing these students that they can take ownership of their community, that their thoughts, opinions and actions matter, that they are valued members of the community is a critical function of Olympic. Telling them they can’t paint their own walls because people they’ve never met, worked with or talked to don’t like the students’ choices does exactly the opposite.
The students deserve better and they have every right to want to put their stamp on their school because it’s their school. That’s an important point and one that the activists don’t seem to understand. A school isn’t a community center, it’s not a public park, it’s not a monument to the past. There are certainly times and places for schools to provide benefits to non-students but when there is conflict, the school should do what is best for the students.
The conflict here is fundamentally about money. Work needs to be done and work costs money. In a fantasyland of infinite resources, there’d be enough money to restore this and paint something new. But there isn’t so there’s one shot at this project and the school is using the necessity of repainting as a chance to provide students with a sense of ownership, a sense of pride and a sense of identity.
It would be nice if the Woodites would put the needs of the next generation ahead of their own and it would be great if political candidates sided with students instead of pandering to potential voters. Neither is likely so it falls to school administrators. They have the ultimate say in this and they’ve already shown a willingness to work with the community on the project, but that’s not good enough for the vocal minority.
The discussion of the project will continue and hopefully, the community at large will rally around the students because this is a chance for Santa Monica to think longterm and invest in the next generation. It would be a shame if we couldn’t see the forest for the trees.