In the mid-twentieth century a literary movement known as New Criticism became extremely popular. It tried to consider works, mainly poems, as self-contained and aimed for objective, even scientific, study. It was built mainly on the work of John Crowe Ransom, three-time winner of the Poet With A Rock Star Name Award, and was also influenced by T.S. Eliot who believed poetry and its study must be impersonal. This included disregarding the biographical and historical context of a work, and it’s understandable why that would be appealing. Most of what we think we know about some of the world’s greatest authors, such as Homer, Shakespeare, or Anonymous—author of both Beowulf and that limerick about the guy from Nantucket—is really based on guesses, and they’re not always educated guesses. Taking the biography out of the picture removes that guesswork and instead focuses the guesswork on the text itself.
And yet it also seems obvious that taking historical and biographical context away removes a lot of what can be said about a text. If you didn’t know anything about Emily Dickinson what could you say about Because I Could Not Stop For Death? It’s got an ABAB rhyme scheme and can be sung to the tune of “The Yellow Rose Of Texas” and that’s about it.
The reason I’m pondering all this is because sometimes it’s really hard to know what to say about graffiti which is often so anonymous it’s not even attributable to Anonymous. Even when it’s a piece I really, really like, one that has bold colors and a striking design, what can I say? Well, it’s got bold colors and a striking design and it can’t be sung to the tune of “The Yellow Rose Of Texas”, and that’s about it.
Well, that, and I like it.