ART AS WRITING
In the dark days of the late 1970s, New York City was at its lowest ebb. Although Jimmy Carter never uttered the word “malaise” in his infamous “Malaise Speech” (1979), the Big Apple was a psycho poster city for malaise. Infuriated by the benign neglect of the Nixon Administration after the golden age of the Civil Rights era, communities of color felt alienated and angry. At the very moment in time when Milton Glazer was designing his “I Love New York” campaign, graffiti was everywhere, crawling and climbing over all available surfaces.
Graffiti was an alien invasion of the Other, who had taken up weapons, cans of spray paint, and was attacking the city. No place was safe, unless of course it was the carefully guarded enclaves of the rich—or those very people who would, in the eighties, eagerly spend their surplus income to buy the art of the very invaders who had terrorized the populace. And now it has all come home to roost, graffiti art has been consecrated by time and space and has been elevated into “art” and enshrined and mummified in the confines of the museum, where its original intent can be muffled and its screams can go unheard. It is no coincidence that those who had been written off by society called themselves “writers.”
In an earlier article on the censorship of the BLU mural, I criticized the curator of Art in the Streets, Jeffrey Deitch, for whitewashing the very kind of art he was attempting to promote and support. In a subsequent preview of Art in the Streets, I wrote for Artscene, I critiqued the very concept of putting street art in a museum. And I take back none of what I have written. But I will be the first to say that the exhibition itself is a dazzling fun ride, full of great art, and a real success for Deitch. The exhibition has been consistently well attended and the broad public—all ages, all ethnicities—seem to love the show and must be spreading the good news through word of mouth. The lines outside the Geffen go on forever, as people wait patiently to get in.
While there is good news and bad news about Art in the Streets, I would like to sort out some terminology for the sake of clarity, however momentary. Let’s draw a distinction between “graffiti” and “street art,” based on the intentions of the makers, which are very different. “Graffiti” tends to be tagging, an aggressive mark making by disenfranchised people (mostly males) in spaces that are supposedly “public.” On one level the tags are signatures, relatives of the palm prints of the cave dwellers and on another level the need to not just paint but to deface surfaces comes from an entirely different place. Tag bombs explode and disperse like shrapnel, cutting into the social contract that teaches respect for public spaces.
Graffiti is not merely stating, “Kilroy was here,” a conquering code employed by American G. I.s during their triumphal march over Europe during the Second World War. Yes, graffiti is a gesture of conquest, a visual take-over of territory, but graffiti is so much more.
Graffiti is a sign of complete and utter separation from the larger society and a signal that there is no investment in its values. Graffiti is a social protest, an indication that the rules and laws have no meaning to the man with the can, to the boy who randomly sprays a park bench, because they have been left out, left behind, and abandoned. Graffiti is a means of taking ownership, as if signing a property deed, and becomes, by default, a way of redistributing that which is designated as private to those who have nothing. To those inscribed within the cordon sanitaire of a slum, territory is everything: your street, your block—that is your world to defend. You mark your terrain.
Graffiti is a cry of rage and pain and the larger society correctly sensed danger, but instead of taking the warning to heart, the knee jerk reaction of the establishment was to strike back and to wage war—not at the poverty and the hopelessness that generated the practice—but at the young people who had lost all hope. All signifiers of social defiance and class interrogation coming from the disenfranchised were wiped out. The goal of the mainstream society was to whitewash the cultural condemnation from those who were not authorized to speak.
Out of this urban counter culture came artists who made “street art” and that is what this exhibition offers: art. Lady Pink is a case in point. She is seen in a photograph, post-tag, sitting in a subway car alive and crawling with graffiti, but it is 1982, and she was able to slip into the art world during that brief period when the art doors of exclusivity cracked open a bit.
Street art is not graffiti; graffiti is not street art. Street art evolves out of graffiti when artists realized that walls and halls and underpasses and overpasses, streets and sidewalks could be utilized as surfaces of expression. Most of these artists were “outsider” artists, so named because they were of the wrong color or wrong socio-economic strata to be “insider,” i.e. white and middle class. These “outsiders,” better termed “artistic outlaws,” were alienated from art school philosophies and could care less about the unwritten rules that governed the art world.
These artists just wanted to make art.
This may seem like a simple statement of fact, but think of the extremes these artists went through to put their art in the streets. They risked life and limb; they risked arrest and a criminal record. The larger community considered what they were doing as “vandalism” and a violation of the sanctity of public property, which is untouchable. We have become so accustomed to art being incarcerated inside of museums that we are stunned when art appears to walk among us. During the Renaissance, public art was everywhere. True it was used as propaganda, to educate the public of the viewpoint of the dominant class, but art was allowed outside and was expected to communicate.
Street art is an attempt to speak out, to speak up on the part of a large segment of society that had been written off. The dominant culture could see only art where it wasn’t supposed to be—the galleries and the museums—a younger and hipper audience saw themselves and their lives. But street art, unlike raw visceral graffiti, had pretensions to “art.” Despite the non-art materials and the non-art settings, street art displayed some disconcerting markers of “art.” Many of the artists were self-taught, informally but rigorously trained, sharing their practices as if in a Renaissance workshop, honing their techniques and skills under arduous circumstances. An art lover or a fellow artist could immediately see a firm grasp of the basics: color harmony, hue distribution, composition, facility with line, personal style and inventiveness. Street art was at once a collective style and an expression of the unique individual signature, recognizable by all.
If we go back to the time during which graffiti and street art was developing, the late 70s and early 80s was a time when the separation between art and life was near complete. The sudden insertion of “art” into “life” was shocking, because street art mocked the conventional definition of art. For art to be “art” an object had to be special, designated as “art” via a process of legitimation. Street art was totally illegitimate, totally unconsecrated, and totally out of bounds. But it was alive, living and breathing, an art that had content and meaning that came from outside the art world, far away from the middle class norms, and its energy attracted ever-hungry consumers of cultural juices—dealers and gallery owners. One of them was Jeffrey Deitch.
And the rest is history.
The good news about the exhibition is that Deitch has brought together a large number of artists and a large number of examples of “street art” into one viewing space. Although some of the works of art are more interesting that others, the overall quality is very high, from the orange crush ice cream truck of our very own beloved “Mister Cartoon” to the ironic skateboarding videos of Spike Jonze. Seeing all the art with the attention it deserves is a two-day job. I spent most of the day at the museum and took a lunch break at what is probably the only Chinese restaurant in Little Tokyo and still didn’t make it to the second floor. The average viewer will get an idea of the range and scope of a vital underground world of art making, even if the museum can do little more than present a tiny sliver of an intense and on-going activity.
When Jean-Michel Basquiat hit the art scene at the height of the Age of Greed in the art world, the white art writers, art dealers and the art audience tended to think of him as some kind of unschooled and untamed “primitive,” but today we know better. Basquiat was an art educated middle class artist who had an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of African-Americans and who had the temerity to teach his buyers the narrative of people of color. The fact that he came of the group SAMO explains the fact that his paintings were actually writings, social commentaries that were illustrated. But Basquiat seemed to be a fairly intuitive painter and created spontaneously.
I had assumed that other street artists were equally spontaneous, but I was wrong, wrong about Basquiat and wrong about street artists. Most of the street artists escaped the insatiable maw that was the art world during the 1980s, the demand that put Basquiat on an art-making treadmill disguised mass production as “spontaneity.”
That insight came to me when I realized that street artists planned their productions in advance, sketching out their designs, mapping out the colors. They had a game plan. They had to be organized. Painting under duress, they had not time to stop and figure out what might happen next. Street artists plotted their grandes machines as carefully as the academic artists of the nineteenth century.
STASH invented the “training pad,” or a sketchbook that featured carefully drawn railway cars, drawn from the side, so that the artists could compose the art that would be put up on the train. Train art must be executed hurriedly and the speed of the train allows any mistakes to simply zoom by. We owe a great deal to the dedication of Henry Chalfant who documented these rolling museums, packed with art that was soon to be destroyed. “Art, DAZE wrote in a true Duchampian spirit, “is anything you can get away with.” In the exhibition catalogue, Lee Quinones (creator of Howard the Duck), spoke of the Fabulous 5 Crew who painted “the first whole-train masterpieces that ran complete—ten cars, painted top to bottom, end to end.” And yet, somehow the combination of graffiti, street art, train art all came together and was called “The Wild Style,” writing on the move. And as the training pad below, designed for a German steel train, indicates, street art went global.
Street art became an international art form for young artists, paralleling the Documentas and Biannuals for the old people. The closer street art comes to graffiti and tagging, the closer it remains to social protest. The more street artists adapt their art to conventional canvases, the further away it moves from it roots. Through an act of appropriation by the very people against whom it once fought, street art becomes tamed, captive, a toothless form of entertainment. “Art” became a trap for street art and many of the “real” street artists were famously exploited and used up and spit out by the art world of the eighties. However, some of the so-called street artists, Basquiat, Scharf, Haring, were artists-in-waiting, exploiting street culture of the East Village, waiting to be noticed by the Big Money Crowd. And so street art became Street Art and began to engender its own history, from the Times Square Show to the FUN Club to Bischofberger.
For people who want some idea of the chronology of street art or of the cultural differences among the makers or of the various manifestation of outlaw art, this exhibition will not serve you well. The installation is a deliberate cacophony, mimicking the horror vaccui that is characteristic of street art. The need of the street artist to cover all available surfaces with graphics is mirrored in the jam-packed walls and floor space in a deliberate refusal to reduce a social performative activity into isolated works of art carefully placed at eye level. Rap makes only an occasional appearance. Break dancing? Couldn’t find any. Streetwear? Not present. Perhaps because he understood that street art was an example of a larger cultural expression, so widespread and so varied, that any traditional installation would be impossible, Deitch limited his exhibition to the visual arts.
The catalogue provides a timeline and a separation of the various cultures that contributed to underground art. Numerous essays state that the visuals arts and the performing arts and the musical arts—Blondie’s Rapture—all intermixed and impacted each other. But, if intermingling is the case, it is merely stated, not demonstrated through connections except in the catalogue texts. This book, otherwise an excellent reference, is equally brief on the social and economic factors that are at the heart of street art. Once again, brief assertive statements are made, but the ugly environment from which these artists emerged is a mere colorful backdrop.
Good News and Bad News
What impressed me most about the art was the level of craft and effort put into the individual paintings by artists who know how to take a utilitarian can of spray paint and transform this tool into a major and important art medium. There is an intersection between popular boy culture—comic books and graphic novels and video games—with an almost obsessive preoccupation with craft and skill. The art is marked by patience, dedication, concentration and serious intention. Street Art is a phenomenon its practitioners believe in enough to make art without guarantees, without any rewards beyond peer approval.
On the east coast the obsession with craft was demanded the materials themselves; on the west coast, the concern with surface was labeled “finish fetish” and came out of the car culture. And here lies one of my pet peeves with the show—the lack of distinctions that obliterate differences among the artists. New York does not have a car culture; New York has a train culture, and this very public culture allows artists to, as Los Angeles artist WISK stated, “to crush New York in a second…” The car culture of Los Angeles allowed art, sealed beneath candy flake finishes, to roll through the streets but the authorities took a dim view of such a confrontational display from barrio people. Although the need for cultural expression comes from the same place, painting trains with Kry-lon is a very different activity from the eighty odd coats it takes turn a “finish” into a “fetish.” And “heaven” in Los Angeles is not a train yard in Brooklyn.
Just as an airbrush is different from a spray gun, skateboarding culture differs from break dancing and comes from an entirely different cultural impulse and from different locales. I understand that street artists like to think of both as “performance art,” but, with all due respects, the divergences between a sport and a dance form need further discussion. Although distinguishing among the many aspects of street culture may be at odds with the intentions of the director, the Geffen is sufficiently large to allow for separations and for examinations of how and why the artistic expressions of the various subcultures diverge and blend. Somehow it feels wrong to have Mister Cartoon adjacent to a huge installation by twin brothers, Os Gemeos, from Sao Paulo. Equally disturbing is the near silence on the connection between prison tattoo art and cholo graffiti, although there are many examples of tattoo art offered in the museum.
Of course, there is little for the girl in all of us in this exhibition. Several female street artists are represented and are written about in the catalogue, but overall the show is all-boy and all male. Street art comes out of a macho culture that objectifies women and excludes them from as many collective cultural activities as possible. But that is also a description of the mainstream art world where women are still woefully underrepresented. To be a street artist when one is a woman is to be doubly courageous. Miss Van would have to brave a very male-dominated culture—France—and go out into a public sector—the streets, where women are not supposed to go—and engage in a dangerous, clandestine activity that usually takes place at night, in the dark, when women are supposed to be home, otherwise they are assumed to be prostitutes. Of course, today, Miss Van has evolved into an easel artist who mimics the look of street art. One can only hope that there will be more Lady Pinks, more Miss Vans, and more Swoons who will follow the example of Jenny Holzer, the original girl street artist.
There are far too many artists who were absent or underrepresented. In contrast to the large section for Shepard Fairey, there is not much Banksy. The absence of BLU and JR, the minor presence of INVADER is too bad and these artists are missed. I could find only one Basquiat, and Kenny Scharf’s main contribution is a truly wonderful car decorated with dinosaurs. In addition to a rather indifferently painted car, there is a memorial room dedicated to Keith Haring’s subway drawings. Although the late RAMMELLZEE is well represented, another street art veteran, Fab 5 Freddy, had more part to play in the catalogue than in the exhibition itself. Gone but not forgotten, however, is his immortal ode to Andy Warhol’s soup cans.
I am not sure, either from the exhibition or the catalogue, exactly what the exhibition intends to do—-to present a history of street art or to present examples of different kinds of street art. If one is going to do an exhibition on street art and exclude Chicano Mural art, then an explanation of some kind is necessary. While I do not agree with Christopher Knight of The Los Angeles Times that ASCO”s assault on the Los Angeles Museum of Art is an example of street art, mural art is part of the larger tradition of public art in Los Angeles. Either way, the show falls short: beyond a time line, the actual development of a specific history is not engaged and the collection of artists feels arbitrary. The erased mural by BLU that appeared for twenty-four hours before Deitch ordered its removal was pictured in the catalogue, taking up a two page spread at the back: no explanation, no excuses.
Given the vast scope of Art in the Streets, there is no way the exhibition can please everyone’s expectations. One must take the show at face value; accept it on its own terms, as ambiguous as its intentions are. There is a faint whiff of classism at the Geffen, just as there was the smell of sexism at “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” as if the white male art world has graciously gathered together all the art of the Other within easy reach and has thrown all available examples into a large space. As with the now infamous Whitney Biannual of 1993, there is a feeling of “now you’ve had your turn” so we can move on. I hope the audience takes away something more meaningful from the exhibition: that artists are everywhere, that art is a universal impulse, that no art forms should be shut out or disparaged in a culture that supposedly celebrates freedom of speech, even for corporations.
There is something profound about the ephemeral nature of street art, which was often effaced and erased by hostile authorities. This acceptance of being struck out and written over is not a theoretical stance, such as that taken by performance artists in the seventies who wanted to eliminate object-based art-making, but an understanding of being in an untenable social position—outside the mainstream. In the face of such unthinking disrespect and deliberate defacement, there is something tragically fatalistic about street artists who put some much time and effort into a work of art that might or might not be documented, that would almost certainly be destroyed, and that was made for an audience who might or might not appreciate it.
Not authorized as artists, outside the institutional framework of the art world, these young men and women made art because they needed to make art. They were not doing classroom assignments for a grade, they were making art because they had to; they made art because they needed to. Innocent of academic aesthetic ideas and free of theories of what “art” is, the street artists used every available and unavailable surface to make art about their immediate cultures, labeled “sub” because their lives took place off stage. In some ways, street art is the purest form of art making—art-for-art’s sake—whether you want it or not.
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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.