Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Crime in the Museum, from Antiquities to Graffiti

I continue to think about Heather Mac Donald’s outrage over Art in the Streets, the graffiti and street art show currently running the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. It’s clear that whether or not any of the work on view is REALLY ART is, at best, a secondary concern. She’s concerned about the fact that much graffiti and street art is vandalism and about the separate but related fact that, in mounting this show, a major cultural institution would thus seem to be endorsing crime.

The horror, the horror!

It’s the second issue I want to address in this brief post.

Let’s consider the podcast she made with Paul Beston, associate editor of City Journal. Here’s how Beston frames the discussion in his introduction: “... We’re gonna talk today about her feature essay in our Spring 2011 issue, Graffiti’s Radical Chic, which examines how defacement of private property has achieved avant-garde status in today’s art world.” And here’s Mac Donald’s opening remarks:
Well, Paul, it was worse than anything I expected, because I was prepared to find some acknowledgment of the morally complicated nature of doing a museum show on a crime. And there was absolutely nothing. It was as if the whole question of graffiti’s illegal status and the destruction of property didn’t exist. And I decided to test their attitude towards graffiti myself by a few times making to write my tag on their walls. And, of course, was stopped immediately by the guards.
I think she’s got a point. Glossing over the fact that she conflates graffiti and street art, the often illegal nature of the work is important to many of its practitioners. It certainly should be discussed in any comprehensive museum show, which this purports to be. As for her attempted tagging, well, it seems to me that there she simply bought into the theatre of it all and did a bit of grandstanding of her own; she knew very well she wouldn't be allowed to tag the musuem walls. OTOH, she could have earned some street cred if she'd gone through with it and gotten arrested.

I wonder, however, just how serious she is about the complicity of museums in criminal activity. It seems clear that the antiquities collections of many museums are founded on art looted from other countries (see, e.g. Michael Gross’s history of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogues Gallery). To be sure, that art wasn’t created through acts of vandalism, but the way it ended up in museum collections is a rather shady process in which wealthy and powerful nations simply took what they wanted from poor and powerless ones. That, it seems to me, makes the museum more directly complicit in crime than does showing photographs of subway graffiti vandalism or showing perfectly legal works by artists who have also done illegal street pieces.

In this respect, then, MOCA is just doing what museums have always done, which is to benefit from criminal acts. As for Mac Donald’s moral dudgeon, I’ll take it more seriously when, for example, she condemns the British Museum for its continued possession of the Elgin Marbles. How about a little outrage over how looting other people's cultural heritage has long been bread and butter for the major museums of Europe and America.


  1. H-mac's got some pluck, eh.

    Actually if you knew what LA ahht snobs (ie the Geffen crowd) were really about (and you got ...a soul, or at least ..heart), you'd have yr cronies send checks to that grrl.

  2. So, has her screed help drive up the prices of gallery graffiti?

  3. Not sure--it probably has irritated quite a few Ellay hipsters and ahhtistes-- sent them to their therapists, etc.

    She may overexaggerate the property damage issue, but ...that's understandable to a degree. Some people in SoCal know what its like to have ugly gang-related tags posted on neighborhood walls--or parks, overpasses, etc. Besides, the ahht snobs focus only on the snazzy lettering and urban "rapper" tags, right. I doubt yd see, like, swastikas or 'skin tags in the museums (tho' in some areas of Socal--OC--they might appear).