Unlike U of T, Queen’s, and UBC, the University of Alberta is not often heralded as a beautiful campus. This is partly because we’re in Edmonton, a city that Maclean’s once called “despair-inducingly ugly.” But it doesn’t help that our school takes it upon itself to commission pieces like the “Trade and Commerce” mural at the north end of HUB, which stands out as one of the most unsightly works of art in this godforsaken city. And that’s saying something.
In this painting, we see the visual timeline of the great neoliberal destiny of Edmonton. Our city’s saga begins when a peaceful pastoral landscape inhabited by First Nations people is cast away by a Ukrainian babushka, symbolizing European colonialism. A manifestation of Adam Smith’s invisible hand extends from her ass and shakes hands with another fist. The mural is a bizarre mishmash of images, and it seems as though the artist put it off until the last minute and just sort of improvised.
In the next few scenes, we’re presented with the most innovative, cutting-edge technology of our time — generously provided to us by companies like Telus, who commissioned this piece — including a 1990s computer lab, Jeff Goldblum’s cell phone in Jurassic Park, a train, a plane, a boat, and an RBC debit machine. What connects the past and future is a chiseled Aryan businessman, bursting forth from the shimmering womb of business school to rescue the population of Alberta from the savages of yesteryear. Either that, or he’s fleeing from Canada Revenue tax evasion claims.
The fact that the hero of the mural bears a startling resemblance to Christian Bale’s character in American Psycho shouldn’t go unnoticed. Behind the wealth he generates lies a grisly past of feeding stray cats to ATMs and murdering homeless people for the hell of it, or at least a legacy of colonialism and cultural genocide.
The message the artist is trying to convey is that progress is borne strictly through capitalism. Some of the business students who use the pedway likely enjoy this mural, as it supports the capitalist ideology they have come to study in their degrees. They can actively picture themselves as the hero, briefcase in hand, jumping through their own piles of cash.
Arts students, on the other hand, are forced to stare at this painting as they make their way to their classes in Tory basement. They see it as a contradiction to everything they’ve learned in their university career from their socialist professors. Development is not achieved solely out of wealth, but out of ideas. Or, if they’re an asshole like me, these students feel an unfounded sense of superiority over their colleagues in business for “forgetting” to pay their taxes and fellating Karl Marx in the angry essays they write for their political philosophy classes.
The mural plays off all the worst stereotypes of business students as money-grubbing dicks. There seems to be no point to this useless image, other than to indicate that the apex of history is a relentless money-chase. No ideas, no bigger picture, no concept of exchange or reciprocity — just a fuckton of money in a hurry.