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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