City Lights: Art didn't deserve butchering

Two of my greatest passions had a nasty scuffle recently in Huntington Beach. Animal rights won on the street, while artist rights scored a knockout in the media.

At times like these, it smarts to be in the middle.

For those who missed Chris Epting's last In the Pipeline column — and the spate of sympathetic followups in the local and national media — here's a recap: A mural on a liquor store wall, which faced a McDonald's near Edinger Avenue and Edwards Street, got an unrequested paint job recently. The bottom of the mural, which featured Ronald McDonald and other characters hanging out in Surf City, had the word "vegan" superimposed in large black letters.

Who the perpetrators were, we may never know. But there's no question who's getting bad publicity right now. Consider the headline of Gustavo Arellano's piece in the OC Weekly: "Vegans Vandalize Beloved Huntington Beach Mural with McDonald's Characters On It." And then the Huffington Post "Vegan Graffiti On Beloved McDonald's Mural."

In our nation's headlines, there's now a war going on with "vegan" on one side and "beloved" on the other. And as one who abstains from both steak and crime, I write this column with more than a little trepidation.

Let me start with an anecdote. A few years ago, at an animal rights convention, I had a spirited debate with three or four activists over a T-shirt on sale at one of the vendor booths. The shirt sported the words "[Bleep] Speciesism" — speciesism being the notion that one species (i.e., humans) has free reign over others. We differed on whether that slogan was an effective way of converting skeptics.

I argued that it wasn't, and in doing so, I cited the example of Martin Luther King, Jr., who fought racism and violence by spreading a message of tolerance and peace. One of the keys to rallying support for a cause, I said, is to adhere to a high behavioral standard. If King had built his campaign around threats and profanity-laced rhetoric, he might have lost the general public's support — namely, by creating an image of civil-rights crusaders as violent malcontents.

Others in the group argued the opposite. The key to getting the public's attention, they said, is to jolt it to awareness rather than impress it with nobility. Before long, our debate sounded like a war between adages. "An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind" or "It takes a thief to catch a thief"? "Blessed are the meek" or "Nice guys finish last"?

Those debates will go on as long as the human race survives. I don't deny that aggression can be effective in the right situation, against the right target.

But the mural in Huntington Beach was not the right situation — and Saeed Danosian, the Iranian-born artist who painted the work a decade and a half before his death in 2008, was most definitely not the right target.

In Epting's last column, he told a little about Danosian's life story: how he struggled to support his family after moving to the United States, how he managed to land a job with McDonald's and accepted his boss' invitation to paint a mural for children who visited the restaurant. Unlike some artists, Danosian was able to parlay his skills into a steady career, teaching at Westwood College and painting murals at Mission San Juan Capistrano and elsewhere.

When I pass a shrink-wrapped chicken at the grocery store, I believe I can empathize with how an animal feels. They have families and crave food and shelter. They quake at the slaughterhouse like any of us would. But as one who has drafted many a poem, outlined many a story and, yes, painted a few pictures, I know how an artist feels as well.

I know the stages: the first glimmer of inspiration, the sketches and revisions, the moment the final draft begins or the brush first touches canvas. I know the moments of doubt and the anxiety about the public's reception. I know the feeling of release when the work, after so much planning and labor, is finally done.

I also know the feeling of violation when that art is compromised from the outside. Once, I had an editor deface a manuscript I had written to the point where I refused to attend the book launch unless all the changes were reversed. When I became a publisher myself years later, I laid down a simple creed: that I would never make any change to an author's work, however small, without consent or warning.

So back to the vandals who ruined Danosian's mural. How else could they have gotten their point across?

Jean-Luc Godard, the French New Wave director, once said the best way to criticize a film is to make another film. (Think of "Platoon," for example, as a swipe against the "Rambo" movies.) If the Huntington Beach vandals had artistic skills — and, considering how smoothly they stylized the word "vegan," they clearly did — then why not paint another mural? Even if there wasn't a spot available nearby, the many meatless restaurants around Orange County, from Native Foods to Au Lac, might be in the market for some eye-catching art.

How about distributing leaflets outside McDonald's? I've done similar things. Staging a sit-in protest? Plenty of historical precedent for that. Film screenings? As one who gave up meat after watching documentaries, I can guarantee they work. Here's something else that works: patronizing vegan businesses and companies, which need all the support they can get.

But judging from the public's reaction — and just the word "beloved" in one headline after another — destroying a local landmark is not the way to advance a cause. My sympathies in this case go to McDonald's, even as my money, pointedly, goes elsewhere.

City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at

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