Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Graffiti punks as "artists"

We have punks with guns, punks on bikes, and punks with spray cans who vandalize our neighborhoods. But hold on: some city "progressives" insist on seeing this costly form of vandalism as "art." Bill Bulkley defends the spray can vandals in, of all places, the newsletter of the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association (July/August, 2009).

Bulkley would be a little more persuasive---not much, but a little---if his semi-literate argument wasn't riddled with errors in usage, grammar, and punctuation. He refers to former vandals who made the transition to respectability: "Famous contemporary artists Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Barry McGee, and Shepard Fairey all started as graffiti or street artists." All mediocrities, as it happens. 

McGee, you may recall, is the guy then-Supervisor Matt Gonzalez allowed to deface the walls of his City Hall office in the name of "art" with this slogan: "Smash the state." How creative. Gonzalez approved of this slogan being scrawled on the walls of a public building, even though that wicked state was paying him $100,000 a year!

Shepherd Fairey was recently busted in Boston for graffiti, but unfortunately he didn't get any jail time.

Critic Robert Hughes nicely sums up the Basquiat phenomenon:

The only thing the market liked better than a hot young artist was a dead hot young artist, and it got one in Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose working life of about nine years was truncated by a heroin overdose at the age of twenty-seven. 

His career, both actual and posthumous, appealed to a cluster of toxic vulgarities. First, the racist idea of the black as naif or rhythmic innocent, and of the black artist as "instinctual," someone outside "mainstream" culture and therefore not to be rated in its terms: a wild pet for the recently cultivated collector. Second, a fetish about the freshness of youth, blooming among the discos of the East Side scene. Third, guilt and political correctness, which made curators and collectors nervous about judging the work of any black artist who could be presented as a "victim." Fourth, art-investment mania. And last, the audience's goggling appetite for self-destructive talent: Pollock, Montgomery Clift. All this gunk rolled into a sticky ball around Basquiat's tiny talent produced a reputation.

See also City Journal

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At 10:46 AM, Blogger Michael Baehr said...

It's all cute for people to idolize the few taggers whose work comes somewhat close to "art", but the truth is that the vast majority of graffiti in this town is an attempt by criminal gangs to claim territory, and is thus tightly intermingled with violence.

When I see a tag on my block, I look at that as basically an assault on my neighborhood; a claim on it as "property" by someone who doesn't actually own property and hasn't done anything constructive or useful in my area.

Gangbangers love claiming things they don't own, like property or simple primary colors. Several non-gang-affiliated people have been murdered in the last two years because they were wearing the wrong color... apparently those colors now belong to a bunch of punks. I always thought God gave them to us as part of the electromagnetic spectrum, but I guess that's naive.

I'm grateful for SF's laws about graffiti removal, which are considered by some to be somewhat draconian, since they put the onus on building owners to clean it up. This may seem unfair but it results in it being cleaned up quickly. (A building owner can always claim a hardship and the responsibility for cleanup is negotiable under certain circumstances).

At 1:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to completely agree with you, Rob. Graffiti is vandalism, it's a crime, and on those occasions when I've had to spend days -- yes, days -- repainting part of my building after a vandal spent 5 minutes defacing it, I've half-seriously wished for the kind of draconian justice in which the culprit gets his/her hand chopped off for their offense.

I would mete a similar punishment to those who think it's cute to create false pavement markings (attempting to turn an entire traffic lane into a bike lane, for example, as recently happened near the Panhandle) or those who stencil things on the sidewalks, amusing as some of them might be.

At 1:59 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

San Francisco should consider what I call The Singapore Solution: mandatory caning for even first-time offenders.

At 5:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, I think anybody caught defacing property (with graffiti or otherwise) should be sentenced to many hours of graffiti removal and abatement as both a deterrent and to make amends for the damage they have caused. I'm pretty sure that after 50 or 100 hours of raw knuckles from scrubbing graffiti off of buildings, poles, fences, etc., someone is going to think long and hard before they offend again.

At 11:03 PM, Blogger robert said...

Do these folks need a (creative?) outlet .. ?
I don't think grafitti should be on my (or your) building.

Some of this 'art' .. I like ...
but most of it (for me) is destruction for destruction's sake.

Should we have somewhere that they can express themselves and their 'talents' such that they don't piss off other City dwellers ? Like skate parks but for graffiti artists ...

At 12:47 PM, Anonymous your friend said...

Where is your building? What's your address? I'll make sure me and my crew don't spray it.


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