Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Faith of Graffiti, Redux

I originally posted this review in 2010. But the book is an important one,  so I'm bumping the review to the top of the queue.
* * * * * 
Norman Mailer and Jon Naar. The Faith of Graffiti, New Edition. It Books, 2009.
Conceived by designer Mervyn Kurlansky, executed by Jon Naar (photographer) and Norman Mailer (writer), and named by CAY 161 (writer), The Faith of Graffiti hit like a bomb when it was first published in the Spring of 1974. Graffiti was still young, hip-hop didn’t exist, and the war in Vietnam was still taking lives. Faith got a full page in the New York Times Book Review, helped, no doubt, by Mailer’s name on the jacket. But Mailer’s remarkable essay wouldn’t have meant jack if its hopes and claims weren’t supported and amplified by Jon Naar’s powerful photographs.

One can’t have an art book without photographs of the art, but Naar’s photographs are more than that. For he’s not photographing self-contained works framed to be hung on walls. The names he’s photographing – for that’s what graffiti is, names, variously written, embellished, tricked out, disguised, and transformed – do not imply natural boundaries. They’re written directly on walls, then in New York City — though Philly's Cornbread was up first. Wherever arms could reach, names followed. (You can see some of these photos at Naar’s website.)

Here’s the wall of a paddleball court: COMET, BABY 183, Bingo, STiTch I, KEY II, FAST ED, PiE, Barbara 62 — 10s and 100s of names, a community of names, on this one wall. Naar has framed this shot by two paddleball players, backs to us. Then there’s FRANK 136 in large white letters on the surface of a playground, a girl skipping across at the upper right, two boys and a basketball, upper middle, and a name-laden wall across the top edge, those names showing the beginnings of the elaborations that would become pieces, aka masterpieces. Elsewhere: MARiA I, FRANNY, and CHETTA in bright red, TooTs and Sissy in blue and red, and others, all on a deep green background, flecked here and there with yellow. What about three TUROK 161’s, two FRANK 207’s (plus three stars and a crown), all on the red side of a subway car. Or: “Rube” in bright red followed by an “N” just scratched on a metal surface – RubeN – with four tic-tac-toe games to the lower left.

In many photos the city and the people take up more space than the graffiti, thus placing the graffiti in the life of the city. Where it is / was / belongs. Yes, the subway cars (inside as well as out) and platforms and stations, but also the steps and stoops, apartment houses, trees, statues, parks, fences, bridges, underpasses, shacks and sheds – the fixed and mobile infrastructure of the city. Some of the writers posed for Naar, he got some action shots too, and there’s a blurred photo of some police cornering some writers. In many shots we see people just going about their business on the streets, on buses, and in the subways.

And light playing about all of this.

Naar had to figure out how to SEE this, what to see, how to frame it, what’s there, what’s only implied. If you’ve done much photography with serious intent you know that, no matter how deliberate you may be about a given shot, you don’t know what you’ve got until you’ve taken your work out of the camera. And when Naar took these photos, he was often challenged in the deliberation department — 3000 shots in two weeks, and some of that time running from police. There is thus a sense in which Naar didn’t know what he was doing when he took these photos, and he did it very well indeed.

A lesser photographer would have blown the assignment, and Mailer would have had nothing to justify what he wrote, though the graffiti would still have been there, in the streets.

Writing your name on the wall, not your legal name, but a street name, a nom de guerre, is a way of taking charge of the world – as Mailer tells us in his essay. Naar's photos show us, give us a permanent record of, how a group of marginalized young men – for it was mostly, though not exclusively, young men, and children – asserted their dominion over a world that had no interest in their lives. Those names on the walls induct the city into a different social universe, into an alternative world, and Naar’s photographs record that transvaluation and conquest. And that, I suspect, more than the pigment itself, is what made graffiti so unsettling to so many New Yorkers. It showed them that theirs was not the only New York in the world. Nor is the New York art world, and the larger art world to which it connects, the only viable art world.

This is where Mailer’s words come into play. His essay is not particularly long, perhaps 10,000 words in five parts. And in those five parts he takes the measure of graffiti by measuring it against the world. It is an astonishing feat, well worth closer analysis and attention than I will give it.

Sure, it is full of bombast and swagger as Mailer puts himself at the center of things by giving himself a nom de guerre, A-I, Aesthetic Investigator. But then this is the man who put himself at the center of opposition to the war in Vietnam and delivered Armies of the Night to the world, and, incidentally, to the Pulitzer committee as well. This is the writer who teamed up with another writer, Jimmy Breslin, to run for mayor of New York City. This is a writer who believed deeply in the polis and staked his soul on his ability to speak to it. This A-I had the audacity and folly to believe that these other writers, these kids with spray paint, would lend themselves to his voice even as he gave them his.

And so he interviews them and runs with them, joining Naar on the streets. It is CAY 161 who tells A-I “the name is the faith of graffiti.” And so Mailer allowed another writer to name the book to which he would affix his name. How many egomaniacal geniuses would have the generosity of spirit to do that? And if, by witty chance, you’re thinking that A-I is a steak sauce, well, the Aesthetic Investigator’s got you covered, cracking wise on that one at least twice.

A-I interviews the mayor, John Lindsey, who’d declared war on graffiti. As Lindsey explains, the city’d just put those new air-conditioned cars online and the people so liked them; it broke their hearts to see them marked up by ink and paint from that Alternative World:
A-I put his demurrer. “Deface,” after all, was the core of the argument. Some people might think subway graffiti was art. He suggested in passing Claes Oldenberg’s classic remark “. . . You’re standing there in the station, everything is gray and gloomy and all of a sudden one of those graffiti trains slides in and brightens the place like a bouquet from Latin America.” (p. 23)
One geography, two worlds shaping it, one vastly more powerful than the other. It’s still like that. The Alternative World lost the battle for the subways. But graffiti’s lent its styles and motifs to skateboards, sneakers, and even high fashion. It’s entered the corridors of power, albeit only the outer reaches. And the vandals still get up, but not on the subway trains.

The state of this other battle, for the future of art, that’s not at all clear. But A-I knew that that’s the battle that had been engaged. In his second paragraph (p. 4) he mentions the rationalization of 3-D space that ushered in the Early Modern era. Later in the essay (p. 17 ff.) he talks of how the 20th century exploded that space into abstraction and wonders whether the one-dimensional name of the graffiti contains the seeds of a new aesthetic space. He talks of dinosaurs and whales (the subway cars), of ancient men inscribing animals on the walls of caves – aside: with no written language, they couldn’t write their names, could they? Knowing that the graffiti writers had not been schooled in the ways of Giotto & Raphael, Cezanne & Matisse, nor Rauschenberg & de Kooning (who make their entrance in paragraph four), he posits an ethereal resonance between their work and apposite work on museum walls, a biology of the spirit.
So he had the happy thought in his visit to the [Museum of] Modern Art to decide that some paintings might be, by whatever measure, on the air – leave it to the engineers of some oncoming future occult, some techno-coven, to try to determine the precise migrations of Miró’s The Family over into the head of an espontanéo with a spray can looking over his shoulder for the black mother in a uniform who will beat his own black blue. Let us, by such comfort, take hope that investigation into the mystery of why the name is the faith of graffiti may be able to go on. (p. 18)
A-I spends much of his fifth section weaving bemused contempt for ‘art’ that’s degenerated into impoverished concept, as though the machine from Kafka’s In the Penal Colony had been put to use cranking out a post-aesthetic program for the post-aesthetic avant-garde. First he spins out a fantasy about a Guggenheim show consisting of hundreds of computer printouts hung by a janitor, and then he contemplates Chris Burden, who made himself famous by having a friend shoot him in the upper arm.
The descending line of the isolated artist and the solitary work goes from Michelangelo all the way down to “Shoot,” and if we are cast back into the emotional imperative of the cave painting and trying to make some scratch in the world before us in order that we may discover if disaster exists, it is Chris Burden we can comprehend more easily than the writers of graffiti. They are still somewhat other. (p. 30)
The score so far: In this corner we have Chris Burden representing the forces of civilization. In that corner we have the graffiti writer representing the forces of the ghetto. One might think that A-I has retreated to the romantic primitivism that Mailer had expressed years ago in “The White Negro.” And, yes, that current flows in this essay. But A-I has moved on, and sees more. He continues (p. 31):
For the kids work together. The cave painting is now collective. One rushes in to prevent the drip of another. With his breath he flowers the drop about to fall and presses it back into its defining line.
The graffiti writer, he who gets his nom de guerre up there as high and as often as possible, nonetheless works as a member of a crew. He has become they. The romantic myth of the lone genius seems to have been set aside, perhaps never even encountered. If the one-dimensional line holds the seeds of a new conception of visual space, perhaps the collective writer holds the seeds of a new myth of creativity.

That is what Jon Naar photographed almost three decades ago, that is what Norman Mailer articulated. Neither of them could have anticipated what happened to graffiti since then, no one could have. Graffiti has become an international language of youth culture, so much so that New York City can no longer claim to be the center of graffiti, which has no center. The art world is still top-heavy with empty posturing serving no purpose other than giving the mega-rich a means of one-upping one another. And the outsider dynamic that fueled the original writers is still active. Writers still commit vandalism and, while some have come to specialize in elaborate pieces, tagging remains fundamental. The luminosity of Naar’s photographs is as important now as it was in 1974 and Mailer’s words still have their prophetic power.

Giving birth to a new world takes time.
If our name is enormous to us, it is also not real – as if we have come from other places than the name, and lived in other lives. – the Aesthetic Investigator

Cross posted at The Valve.

ADDENDUM: Here's a short interview with Naar in which he talks about the book:

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