Repaint the wall, Annie Hall: Rethinking Ann Arbor’s bookstore mural

Tuesday, April 2, 2019 - 7:24pm

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Alexis Rankin/Daily

I have walked past the “Bookstore Mural” hundreds of times during my two years living in Ann Arbor. Whenever my errands drag me across the Diag, my heels instinctively turn the corner and put me onto the perpetually busy street of East Liberty. I find myself momentarily distracted from whatever music I have blaring through my earphones, and I glance up to see it, exactly where it has been since 1984.

Situated kitty-cornered from the fluorescent glow of the State Theatre and just down the way from the light-bulb encrusted Michigan Theater sign, it looms over downtown as one of the city’s most prominent pieces of public art. Beautiful and deliberate strokes of red, yellow and blue accentuate the features of the five portraits that are laid upon a contrasting black background, coming together to create what is colloquially known as the “Bookstore Mural.” The memorialized are writers Anaïs Nin, Franz Kafka, Hermann Hesse and Edgar Allan Poe — as well as screenwriter and filmmaker Woody Allen.

Painted in 1984 by artist Richard Wolk, a University of Michigan alum, the mural stands on the side of what was originally David’s Books and Discount Records. Later, Borders Books was located next to the mural. As reported by The Michigan Daily during the mural’s production, Wolk had previous experience creating public art, having painted a mural of famous figures on a record store on South University Avenue the year before. He then took his talents to the owner of David’s Books, Ed Koster, who commissioned the piece in order to replace an existing mural that was deemed unsatisfactory by the State Street Area Association, a merchant group that aimed to increase business in the area.

After the mural’s completion, however, this same group of critics did not give the replacement much praise. As it was put by Ann Arbor News reporter Charles Child in a July 8, 1984 report, “Oftentimes, years must pass before great art is finally appreciated by the public. Perhaps the mural needs more time.”

It has been 34 years since its creation, and the “Bookstore Mural” remains one of Ann Arbor’s most symbolic images. Appearing on seemingly every promotional video, social media post or Ann Arbor must-see list, the mural has become visually synonymous with downtown and the Ann Arbor community. This recognizability has increased since its 2010 restoration, when Wolk estimated it would not need to be re-touched for another 10 years. Wolk claimed he would again do the restoration, but also noted that if Oxford Property Management — the owner of the building the mural is on — wanted to replace it with another mural in the future, he would pass the opportunity on to a new, younger artist.

It’s been nine years since this restoration, and maybe it is time for the Ann Arbor community to start thinking about the mural’s next touch-up. When looking at the authors included in the mural, Woody Allen stands out for more than his film career. Having been accused of sexually assaulting a minor, he was thrown into a controversy that involved his image, work and influence on the film industry. Is this something Ann Arbor wants to promote through its public art?

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The allegations against Woody Allen date back to Aug 5, 1992  when he was accused of molesting his 7-year-old adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow. The allegation came to light along with the revelation of his affair with the adopted daughter of his long-term partner Mia Farrow, 21 year-old Soon-Yi Previn. This affair is claimed to have begun when Allen was 56 years old. He confirmed the relationship in a press release on August 18, 1992 — the same day the Connecticut State Police announced an investigation  regarding Dylan’s abuse allegations. Four days before, Allen had filed a lawsuit for custody of his and Farrow’s three children — the mutually adopted Moses and Dylan Farrow, as well as their biological son Ronan Farrow.

After seven months of inquiry, Allen’s lawyers announced on March 19, 1993 that he was cleared of the molestation charges, despite Farrow’s lawyer claiming the report, done by a team of child abuse investigators from Yale-New Haven Hospital that were brought in by Connecticut State Police, to be “incomplete and inaccurate.” The custody battle began the next day, which led to over two months of trial, until its verdict in Mia Farrow’s favor on June 7, 1993.

Acting Justice Elliott Wilk claimed Allen is “self-absorbed, untrustworthy and insensitive,” also denying him visitation with Dylan. Frank Maco, a state’s attorney from Connecticut, announced he would not further try Allen for the abuse against Dylan despite probable cause, as he did not want to subject her to further trauma through the trial.

Over the next 26 years, these allegations continued to be supported by the Farrow family. Dylan went on the record for the first time in 2013.

“There’s a lot I don’t remember,” she told Vanity Fair, “but what happened in the attic I remember. I remember what I was wearing and what I wasn’t wearing.”

Since this interview, Dylan has consistently and publicly supported her accusations through an open letter to The New York Times in 2014 and an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times in 2017. Both Mia and Ronan Farrow have shown public support for Dylan’s story, questioning the lack of accountability toward Allen and writing their own pieces in defense of her, like Ronan’s 2016 guest column for The Hollywood Reporter asserting his belief in his sister and documenting her struggles.

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The downtown mural featuring Allen and his controversy was an early part of the mental map I began building for myself when I first came to the University. As an amateur artist and someone who finds joy in the works of others, this piece used to mean a quick smile and feeling of warmth. The stark contrast of light and dark, white and color would lift my mood and prompt my admiration before I was again bopping along, my music intact. But early this semester, my friend Sophie ReVeal, an LSA sophomore studying Film, Television and Media, began a conversation with me about the impact of having certain idealized images within our community — like this glorified portrait of Woody Allen.

The question of how to regard influential artists after allegations of sexual misconduct has become a difficult debate in recent years, especially when their body of work is signified as having notable cultural capital. At the time of the mural’s creation, Woody Allen was regarded as the hip, progressive and culturally relevant filmmaker — and even today, he maintains recognition in the film industry. His 1977 Academy-Award-winning  “Annie Hall” is considered one of the earliest and most successful romantic comedies, and his emphasis on incorporating nervous humor into his films has made him one of the most well-known and appealing filmmakers of the modern era.

With these oustanding allegations against him, the question, Can you separate the artist from the art? is more than warranted. And this question is doubled when referring to the mural, as it layers the issue by having to think not only of Wolk and his art, but the lives and artistic work of the five featured artists as well.

This question becomes difficult to answer when an artist has made notable cultural and academic influences. And this same argument stands for Woody Allen, whose cultural influence on American cinema seems to be unignorable. A 24-time Oscar nominee and a four-time winner, Allen has been charming audiences since his emergence in the 1970s. However, is there a way to acknowledge this historical importance without creating public glorifications of him?

The subjects of the “Bookstore Mural” are understandably linked to the piece, as each is a prominent author. However, Woody Allen has more of an industrial connection to the mural, which is placed within sight of both the Michigan and State theaters. But is his image truly the best representation of what the film industry is? And if this image were to be changed, would that be erasing history, or simply avoiding a personal glorification of him?

LSA senior Sophia Georginis is studying both communication studies and Film, Television and Media. She is currently one of the general managers of WOLV TV, a student-produced television network on campus, and works with Sisters in Cinema, an organization intending to give female and non-binary filmmakers a chance to tell their stories. She said she is in favor of erasing Allen from the mural due to the abundance of other film icons without assault allegations.

“I don’t think it’s erasing him from history as much as it is putting people up on that mural who haven’t sexually assaulted somebody. There’s so many people that have impacted film — there’s so many women, so many people of color that have impacted film and have made changes. Greta Gerwig, Spike Lee, so many people that I can just name here.”

She also spoke on Allen’s existing influence on the film industry, stating that his position in academia is secure regardless of his place on a piece of public art.

“Yes, he has made impacts to the film industry,” Georginis said. “But it’s also like so many people have who haven’t done these disgusting things. And we’re not erasing him by taking him off that mural, he’s very much so in people’s memory. But it’s like putting somebody up on that mural that shows what the film industry is and where we’re moving.”

This attitude toward academic acknowledgement is echoed by another LSA senior studying Film, Television and Media, Maria Mikhailova, who works as outreach coordinator for Sisters in Cinema. In terms of the academic uses of film, Mikhailova said there is a way to keep relevant directors in the conversation without glorifying them and keeping them in positions of power.

“It’s just a matter of being transparent and saying, ‘This is why I want to show this film,’” Mikhailova said. “It’s not because this person in particular did it, it’s because this particular scene is relevant to what we’re studying right now. If we eliminate everyone who’s ever had allegations against them or anything like that, then we don’t have anything to study.”

This academic debate around the relevance and usability of Allen’s work remains justifiable, but this doesn’t seem to reflect directly on the use of his imagery and personal brand as a cultural symbol. To that point, Mikhailova also spoke in support of the idea of more worthy subjects for the community.

“It’s not erasure of history, it’s just making way of better history, for celebration of better history,” Mikhailova said.

These questions of erasure versus glorification were touched upon in a conversation I had with Tara Ward, a lecturer in the History of Art Department, who also has vested interest in gender issues. Ward said the battle between these combating ideas is a complicated conversation that should be dealt with seriously.

“(This) essentially (is) the debate. Is this about history, or is this about our contemporary values?” Ward said. “And it’s a hard call, and you know, it’s unclear what’s broadly the right thing to do politically. White-washing history doesn't stop it from happening it again, but allowing for a celebration of problematic figures is equally an issue. And so it does become, I think, a case-by-case choice.”

And in terms of a case-by-case decision, Ward said it is important to look at both the historical and modern context surrounding a piece of discussion in order to come to measured choices.

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In the fall of 2017, #MeToo was pushed to the forefront of societal conversation as the hashtag gained a strong following on Twitter, revitalizing the movement that activist Tarana Burke  began in 2006. This then spurred the Time’s Up movement, which was created with the intention of stopping widespread abuse by men in the workplace. The growth of these movements has increased social awareness of sexual assault and harassment, publicly challenging powerful, influential men who exploit their positions of power, and sometimes are still able to retain strong levels of cultural weight after allegations become public. 

Also during the fall of 2017, strong investigative reporting uncovered suppressed stories of abuse and brought survivors of assault to the public eye, playing a crucial role in increasing public awareness of institutional issues like sexual assault. One of these reporters is Ronan Farrow, Woody Allen’s son, who broke the Harvey Weinstein scandal in October 2017 in a piece for The New Yorker. His reporting opened the floodgates for a series of journalistic pieces regarding similar systems of abuse.

Farrow and Ken Auletta visited the University on March 19 for a Wallace House event. Auletta, another reporter for The New Yorker, took a moment during the event to briefly comment on Farrow’s connection to Woody Allen, citing it as his initial concern over Farrow’s motivations to pursue these stories. Farrow’s response to these claims, then and now, is that his sister’s abuse functioned as a contribution to his passion, not a conflict of interest.

Farrow used the event to speak to the big strides that were made in these movements, but referenced the remaining changes that need to occur.

“I don’t think we’ve achieved accountability … I don’t think we’ve extended the tentative steps towards accountability to all the segments of society that desperately need it,” Farrow said.

And in order to promote that much-needed accountability, Farrow claimed we need to “keep holding their feet to the fire.”

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And how do we do that? A clear place to start seems to be one’s own community. It’s easy enough to broadly and indirectly recognize the existence of power structures and imbalances that give certain people greater authority. It’s more difficult to look internally and see the ways one’s own city is supporting problematic people, like Ann Arbor’s inclusion of Woody Allen in the “Bookstore Mural.” But this type of identification takes self-reflective work that is often strenuous to community memories and values.

While speaking with Ysabel Bautista, an Ann Arborite and LSA sophomore studying biopsychology, cognition and neuroscience, she reflected on her experiences seeing the mural as a staple piece of public art in Ann Arbor.

“My mom and I used to go (to Borders bookstore) every weekend to get books, and then we’d walk down to Ben and Jerry’s and get ice cream, so when you’d turn that corner you’d see that mural,” Bautista said. “Every time I think of that mural I think of … going to Borders to buy books with my mom.”

This type of emotional attachment enhances the need for productive community dialogue about questionable public works in order to understand dissenting opinions. Bautista did, however, note her understanding of community concerns after reflecting on her new perspective as a student rather than a local Ann Arbor resident.

“I feel like everyone who’s lived in Ann Arbor who goes to the University of Michigan, you just see Ann Arbor in a different light when you’re living on campus because now you see perspectives of people who aren’t from Ann Arbor,” Bautista said. “And you’re like, ‘Oh wow, maybe Ann Arbor’s not as picture-perfect as I thought it was before.’”

Public art can act as a representation of a community, blending together an artist’s intention and the values of the place where their art resides, seemingly bringing the residents of an area together in acceptance of an image. But this does not necessarily need to be a permanent assertion of personal or community value. As perceived by Art and Design freshman Gabe Consiglio, art is allowed to change with the times given our new cultural landscape.

“With learning of allegations like the ones against Woody Allen, I don’t think an artist should be obligated to keep that stance that they had when they originally made the piece,” Consiglio said. “So I think if they wanted to, they definitely should be able to go in and change it based on new information that they learned. Because opinions on that should be ever-changing, you know, you shouldn’t ever need to hold the same stance on one issue. So I think definitely art is something that can be revisited and tweaked.”

Making a point of calling out damaging imagery or perpetuations of unfair power structures, like those that allow for the exaltation of prominent men like Woody Allen, is how community perceptions can be adjusted to champion more conscientious values. Being able to rally behind a change, or at the very least, generate a greater conversation about what our art says about our community, is how a community is able to challenge its own internalization of social hierarchies.

By continuing to talk to ReVeal, it has become clear that a conversation needs to be had about the art that is so prominently displayed in Ann Arbor.

“If we’re allowing someone who has horrible allegations against them in this public space, we’re perpetuating this idea that men who have done things like this can remain in power because of (professional) things that they’ve done, and we’re not taking into account the whole picture,” ReVeal said.

ReVeal and I are now in the early stages of reaching out to property owners and affiliates with the mural to start a broader conversation within the Ann Arbor community about the type of imagery that we promote. Woody Allen’s history of abuse exists clearly in downtown, but remains ignored in favor of an artistic glorification of his cultural impact. What exactly should happen to the mural is unclear, and requires the engagement and perspectives of the entire Ann Arbor community. But the city must take some agency over what is being displayed in their own backyard, because, in the words of lecturer Ward, “No painting, no film, no technical ability should let you get out of the ethical rules of humanity.”