Monday, June 27, 2011

The Sky’s Falling! and Graffiti’s to Blame

Helena Handbasket, in her persona as Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald, has taken Art in the Streets, an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, as the occasion for a spirited, fascinating, and only sporadically reasonable polemic against graffiti. Trying to straighten out this confused mess and responding to the occasional bits of reason would take more time than I’ve got at the moment. I’m afraid I’m going have to rest content with a drive-by.

Let’s start with a point that Ms. Mac Donald is likely to regard as pedantic. At the end of her opening paragraph she tells us that the term “street art” is a euphemism for graffiti. Not at all. It’s a different, though related, phenomenon. The term came into use a good two decades after graffiti got up and refers to a variety of art on the streets. But, as I’ve indicated here and there, the two movements have an uneasy relationship to one another (see, for example, this post). Thus when Mac Donald asserts that one term is a euphemism for the other she is, in effect, declaring that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about and she doesn’t care.

Well, now, I suppose that’s something of an over statement. She does know what she’s talking about: it’s art on public or private walls that’s put there without the permission of whoever owns the walls. Whether that art is graffiti or street art makes no difference to her, so she’s taken the time to tell us that by deliberately conflating the two terms. By the same token, we can presume that she’s not talking about art that’s done with permission – if not downright commission – that looks pretty much like the illegals.

And she does have a point,. That much graffiti and street art is vandalism is a legitimate issue. It’s also a complex issue, but she simply assumes that public space belongs to the people who own the walls visible from that space. That’s not at all clear. (See, for example, this recent post for the merest hint of the discussion Mac Donald doesn’t recognize.)

But let’s cut to her central example:
There is no clearer example of the power of graffiti to corrode a public space than the fall and rebirth of New York’s subways. Starting in the late 1960s, an epidemic of graffiti vandalism hit the New York transit system, covering every subway with “tags” (runic lettering of the vandal’s nickname) and large, colored murals known as “pieces.” Mayor John Lindsay, an unequivocal champion of the urban poor, detested graffiti with a white-hot passion, but he was unable to stem the cancer. The city’s failure to control graffiti signaled that the thugs had won. Passengers fled the subways and kept going, right out of the city. To the nation, the graffiti onslaught marked New York’s seemingly irreversible descent into anarchy.
Uhh, what? This is news to me. To be sure, I wasn’t living there at the time, but I visited the city several times a year from the 70s through the mid-1990s, when I moved to Jersey City, right across the river. I saw the graffiti on the trains and in the stations but I wasn’t aware that graffiti had actually driven people to leave the city and thereby set it on the road to ruin. Nor was I aware that the rest of the nation regarded graffiti as a sure sign of New York’s decline. As far as I can recall, the nation didn’t much think about graffiti at all. I’d like to see some evidence that graffiti itself sent New York City on the road to ruin.

She goes on:
Yet in the late 1980s, the city vanquished the subterranean blight by refusing to allow scarred cars onto the tracks. That victory was a necessary precondition for the Big Apple’s renewal in the following decade; it was the first sign in years that New York could govern itself. Riders flooded back — by 2006, 2 million more passengers each day than in the eighties. The subway’s rising ridership was a barometer of the city’s rising fortunes.
I don’t know what this says. A “necessary precondition” is one thing, a “barometer” is another. I can imagine that graffiti removal encouraged more people to ride the subways. I’d like to see ridership figures for, say 1980-85 as compared with 1990-95 along with an argument that graffiti removal is responsible for (some part of) any increase. But I rather doubt that whatever difference there is between 1996 and 2006 has much of anything to do with graffiti removal.

Then we have her grudging admission that some graffiti does have aesthetic merit: “... some graffiti murals are visually striking, showing an intuitive understanding of graphic design ...” There is that word, “intuitive,” which functions as a code word for mindless and unschooled. In another time critics writing about music would praise the “natural rhythm” of the musicians. Same thing. There’s something worthwhile there, but it didn’t take any deliberate effort and discipline. It’s natural, intuitive.


Saber, an LA writer, got all over her on that one: “But her assumption that this skill is purely intuitive reveals how little she understands. Far from ‘infantile solipsism,’ the skills of artists in a crew are developed through mentoring.” Not even such a basic thing as can control is intuitive. You have to work at it; the difference between writer with can control and one without it is immediately visible on the wall.

Finally, there is her critique of the art world that embraces graffiti. She’s got a point there. The contemporary art world has an insatiable need for product it can push on clients with more money than taste. Graffiti and street art are reasonable sources of that product. So what? How does that distinguish graffiti from the product being pumped out by the art schools?

The graffiti world’s been aware of this phenomenon for years. You’ll find all sorts of stances toward it, from enthusiastic participation and cynical gulling of the rich rubes through principled avoidance and conscious critique. Graffiti is not exempt from the 90% rule: 90% of graffiti is crap, but then 90% of everything is crap.


Including art criticism and social criticism.


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