May 12, 2018

Considering the Age-Old Question of Artistic Merit and Intent

A new art show called "Beyond the Streets" just opened up in a vacant building in Chinatown, so I went to go check it out.

Now, I've been very public with my mixed feelings about graffiti—which might not actually seem so mixed.

I take issue with vandalism. When I see a historic building or protected natural feature that's been spray painted, I think to myself, This is why we can't have nice things. It broke my heart when Angels Flight got tagged (though, ultimately, that ignited the campaign to get it restored).

I get that there's an art to it. I respect the fact that graffiti artists were able to revolutionize spray paint, a medium that was created to be purely utilitarian.

I appreciate that the few limited edition colors that would come out over the years would give a graffiti artist and their work a certain amount of caché.

But that belies the fact that this is a form of illegal art—and quite often, the more illegal, the better.

The tools of the trade are common and ordinary by necessity.

At least in the early days—before libraries started commissioning artists like Kenny Scharf to intentionally tag their white walls—the materials had to be small, light, portable, and inexpensive. Perhaps most importantly, they had to not rouse suspicion.

Now, of course, bystanders in any major city would probably be thrilled to spot some guy in a hoodie climbing a ladder with a bucket full of wheat paste and a brush. And the property owner might be elated to find out that this involuntary addition to his building just skyrocketed his property value.

But plenty of shopkeepers would prefer their roll-up doors not get defaced—especially since more often than not, it's not the work an artist with a message and/or talent. Sometimes, it's just blight.

Is there a difference? Absolutely.

Of course, it seems to be the natural inclination of man to scrawl his name and other simple messages across whichever surfaces he can find—whether it's the inside of a cave or the top of a school desk or the abandoned structures of a supposed Nazi sympathizer camp.

You kind of expect that that's going to happen—which is why places like Venice Beach have installed "public art walls," sanctioned locales where people can get their ya-yas out without destroying anything. And then their work is painted over in black and the process starts again—which is how,  back in the day, a lot of those so-called street art "murals" both came to be and came not to be.

However, underprivileged urban youth entering a turf war at an abandoned subway tunnel is very different than marking your territory in a national park, as "Mr. A" (who, by the way is an affluent Swede of 46 years in age) did so infamously back in 2015. So, how could the illegality of graffiti be a necessity of circumstance, as some might argue?

And if those with racial and socioeconomic privilege can just pick up their spray paint cans whenever they want and put them down whenever they want so they can go walk a red carpet somewhere, that looks a lot like cultural appropriation.

So, now there's a pretty sprawling gallery show that attempts to take a subculture that's become glorified over the last decade or so and explain it to outsiders. (You even receive a printed glossary upon arrival!)

It contains all the tropes of early era NYC beatboxing and breakdancing, straight out of Wild Style and Style Wars.

And some of the pieces are very cool to look at—but overall, it feels a but tone deaf, despite the street cred of the creative team behind it. It's more like something that might be mounted by a mainstream cultural institution like LACMA or MoMA.

I worry about a corporatized celebration of "Vandalism As Contemporary Art"—the show's own tagline—without explaining what these works are not, or why certain artists or pieces were not included.

Because not every spray-painted set of initials is influential. Sometimes, a person with no talent and nothing to say draws a wiener with a Sharpie somewhere insignificant to them and then moves on.

The curator of the show takes the time to note in its brochure that the representative artists were chosen because they also had strong studio practices in addition to their (legal or illegal) work on the streets.

But when you can buy Keith Haring- and Jean-Michel Basquiat-branded spray paint cans for 40 bucks apiece and everything else from tote bags to stuffed unicorn toys wearing red hoodies that read "I ❤ Graffiti," it just feels like the opposite of the guerrilla art movement that the graffiti pioneers were going for.

Maybe they weren't going for anything, who knows? So many scholars and historians have tried to reverse engineer the graffiti origin story—despite not having been a part of it themselves—that it's all conjecture in the rear-view mirror at this point.

So, I hope that the buzz and excitement over this show helps contemporary art to proliferate... but that it doesn't encourage vandalism.

And I hope that those who visit Beyond the Streets can figure out the difference and act accordingly.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Mr. Brainwash Art Show 2011 Closing Night
Keep Street Art on the Street
Photo Essay: The Walls Are Alive in Venice Beach

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