American Graffiti.

Some people call it ugly. Some people call it art. I call it urban enhancement.

Getting There.


It’s very hard for me to define art. Every definition I come up with always seems to exclude something that, when I think about it, could also be art. For instance if I conclude that art has to be something people make I then think about, say, a spider’s web, which I can find just as beautiful and moving and meaningful as any work of art. It doesn’t even have to be a picture of a spider’s web, which I think most people would say qualifies as art—it can be a spider’s web itself. I tend to have these prolonged arguments with myself that never go anywhere, and I’m not sure if I had the argument with someone else they’d go anywhere either, which reminds me of a story about the art critic David Sylvester. He was still a young man, although already establishing himself as a writer, and was hired as a part-time secretary by the artist Henry Moore, but they spent so much time arguing about art that Moore fired him, although I think any artist should know better than to hire a critic.

I guess what I’ve finally concluded about art is that I know it when I see it, and, yes, that’s also the definition of pornography given by United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, and, yes, I think even pornography can be art, although I’ve never been much of a fan of Jeff Koons, but that’s another story.

Anyway I’ve realized in these lengthy debates that art isn’t even necessarily something that’s created, at least not intentionally. Whoever left a door in a frame standing next to the road probably didn’t put it there are any kind of artistic statement—it was on a stretch of road that was about to be closed for several months for maintenance and I think the road crew put it there to hang notes on, or maybe they were planning to build a temporary office around it. From that perspective it’s just an ordinary door, but it’s how you see it that makes all the difference. The wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’s first Narnia book seems to be just an ordinary wardrobe until Lucy steps into it, eventually followed by her siblings, and two books later Lucy, Edmund, and their cousin Eustace are transported to Narnia by a painting. Recently the Orangutan Librarian—the blogger, not the one who works at Unseen University, although I think they’re both equally well-read—compiled a list titled Favourite Fantasy Worlds I’d Love to go on Holiday To… which is part of what sparked my thinking about that door out by the road, and doors in general, as well as windows, paintings, and books as portals to other worlds. We were, if not debating, at least in conversation, even if one of us was unaware of it. Anyway that brings me around to the conclusion that the one defining characteristic of art, the one thing I can be absolutely certain of, is that it takes you somewhere.

The Flag.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots that for many mark the start of the modern LGBT rights movement. It also marks the 41st anniversary of the rainbow flag as a symbol of LGBT movement. It was designed by artist Gilbert Baker and flown at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade on June 25th, 1978. It supplanted the pink triangle as a symbol of gay rights, which reminds me of the time I started to go into a pub but then hesitated because there was a pink triangle in the window. It was off to the side, in the corner of a window, and so small I might have missed it, but I saw it anyway and thought it meant it was a gay pub then wondered why that would be a problem because I just wanted to get a pint like everyone else in there, so I went in and had a pint. And while I can’t say whether anyone in there was gay–there were men and women at the bar engaged in local talk but it seemed to be a place that welcomed everybody–I realized the pink triangle in the window was a Bass ale logo that had faded in the sun. Anyway to get back to the rainbow flag, ten years ago the radio program/podcast Studio 360 asked listeners to submit ideas to redesign the rainbow flag and asked fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi to judge. He picked this redesign of the United States flag with only seven stars:

Source: Core77

The stars represented the only states that allowed same-sex marriage at the time: Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and New York. Vermont would be added later that same year, other states would follow, and with the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision in 2015 same-sex marriage became the law nationwide, so the flag that Mizrahi picked six years earlier effectively had fifty stars. The flag Mizrahi picked made a statement that was quickly outdated, and limited to the United States, but LGBT people are everywhere.

For what it’s worth the design I would have picked is this one, since I think it’s a truer representation of the human spectrum:

Source: WNYC

There have also been variations of the rainbow flag almost from the beginning. Originally the flag’s stripes were hot pink, red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, indigo, and violet. Pink and turquoise were removed in 1979 and replaced with blue. Later there was a variation that included a black stripe as a memorial to AIDS victims, a tragedy that, like Stonewall, galvanized and propelled the LGBT rights movement.

I think the rainbow flag persists and has become so popular because it’s an inclusive symbol. A few years ago I was in a small town and went to a coffee shop and, as I was going in, I noticed a rainbow sticker. It was off to the side in the window and so small I might have missed it, but I didn’t hesitate to go in because I knew the coffee shop was a welcoming place.

Anyway I’ve noticed something interesting in the way the flag is often displayed. While it’s usually flown from a flagpole with its stripes oriented horizontally I’ve seen it more frequently hung in buildings and windows vertically. It’s a simple, and probably unintentional, redesign, one that puts the stripes side by side, so that all the colors are equal.

 

 

A Matter Of Time.

There are certain areas, not just in Nashville but anywhere there are people, where it just seems that anything that sits still long enough will get graffitied. It’s as though it grows up from the ground, or precipitates out of the air, although I know there’s a person, or persons, behind every work of art. And it takes time to make anything, and usually a lot of time to make something complex and large, which is why this really intrigued me.

Whoever made this must have spent a lot of time on it, and it required a lot of planning—like bringing a ladder, or maybe if it was made by several people someone got up on somebody else’s shoulders, or maybe it was just one really tall person. I even considered the possibility that it was a commissioned mural since it’s in the Nations neighborhood which has a lot of public art, but it’s also one of those areas where anything that’s around long enough gets graffitied. Well, almost everything. I’ve noticed that in spite of graffiti’s association with crime and shady characters most artists respect public murals. This particular piece also popped up in my Instagram feed of Nashville graffiti, and RASMO is a local tag. This respect for murals is, in a way, a break with graffiti’s early history. The word “graffiti” comes from the Italian graffio, “to scratch”, because tourists—originally ancient Greeks, I think, so I’m not sure why the Italians get the blame—would go to monuments like the pyramids and scratch their names and maybe a message like, “cool ‘ramid, would visit again” into the rocks.

It was difficult to get a single good shot of it in part because of the pole in front of it, but also because there was a pickup truck with a boat parked in front of it so I couldn’t really back up enough to get a good view. A funny thing happened while I was there. A guy in a blue Ford Fairlane convertible—an early model with fins–stopped and asked if I needed any help. “No, I’m just taking some pictures,” I said. He waved and drove off, and I watched him go, thinking that he, or at least his car, was from another time.

In The Details.

When I took the picture I thought it said NIT, and that was funny to me—I had this whole essay about nitpicking and attention to detail planned out—but then when I got home and looked at it on my computer I realized it said NITE. And that’s okay. The artist who created this still paid a lot of attention to details, from the interesting color pattern to the odd design of the E which is placed off to the right, cleverly changing NIT to NITE.

And by a funny coincidence I just read an article by New York Times critic Jason Farago about his decision to spend half an hour with Van Gogh’s Starry Night at the MoMA, before it closed for the summer for an expansion project. Starry Night is one of Van Gogh’s most popular works—one that’s become as ubiquitous as the Mona Lisa or, well, it’s hard to think of another painting that’s appeared on everything from coffee mugs to pens to t-shirts and just about any other swag you can think of, and inspiring countless copies and even animated versions. Maybe that’s why people who see it at the MoMA take so many selfies with it or pictures of it. When Farago decided to spend half an hour in front of it he picked the worst possible time, from 5:30 to 6:00 on a Friday afternoon, and he was understandably distracted by fellow visitors and their screens and had a hard time focusing on the painting itself. This is my second-favorite of his observations:

5:46 p.m. It’s a little calmer now. Smart teenager to my left tells her friend: “This was my favorite painting when I was, like, 13.” Friend responds with a weary postmodern admission that would make Jean Baudrillard proud: “I know this is the real painting, but it’s like I can’t see it.”

My favorite observation, though, is one he makes a few minutes later:

5:55 p.m. Move to the extreme right side. Only from this angle can I see van Gogh’s impasto; never had I seen the thick, canary-yellow lines in the hollow of the crescent moon.

I’ve never seen Starry Night in person but this does remind me of the experience of seeing other paintings in person that I previously only knew from books. To really appreciate any painting you have to see it alive and up close, although also with the understanding that paintings change over time. Van Gogh’s paintings are praised now for their slightly muted colors but were originally much brighter–dust and the breakdown of chemicals have changed the look of his paint.

What would I see if I looked at Starry Night? I’ve always thought it’s a beautiful painting but I also know Van Gogh painted it while in an asylum after the famous ear-cutting incident. Hannah Gadsby in her show Nanette had a brilliant takedown of an audience member who tried to tell her Van Gogh wouldn’t have been a great painter if he’d been medicated. Spoiler alert: he was medicated. Maybe that’s why sometimes when I look at it, albeit in reproductions, those swirling lines don’t look beautiful; they look terrifying, like worms consuming the universe. It’s what happens when I look at the details too closely. And then I step back and it becomes beautiful again. It’s all in how you look at it.

Source: Wikipedia

 

We’re All Bird Brains.

Source: Netflix

When I heard about Lisa Hanawalt’s new show Tuca And Bertie I was excited. Hanawalt’s a very funny artist and I really like her work, and she did most of the design for the characters and overall look of Bojack Horseman. Then I wondered…will it be anything like Bojack? After all Hanawalt is an exective producer of Bojack and Bojack’s creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg is an executive producer on Tuca And Bertie. And the answer is no, in spite of the cross-pollination between the two shows. Comparing them is like comparing apples and oranges—or maybe even like comparing apples and pineapples. Bojack inhabits an alternate reality that’s not too far off from the one we live in, but with anthropomorphic animals and the occasional animal-pun. One of my favorite aspects, which I’ve written about before, is the art references. Tuca And Bertie live in a very different universe—although Bertie does work for the publisher “Conde Nest”—where almost everything—including plants and buildings—is, if not anthropomorphic, then at least weirdly sentient and mobile. The jokes are subtler, the humor more conceptual. In one of the first episode’s funniest gags Tuca, who’s just moved out of the apartment she shares with Bertie, decides to visit her old friend. The style switches to a video game with Tuca jumping over a graphic rat on her way to Bertie’s apartment. Which is in the same building. Two floors down. If you want a comparison Tuca And Bertie could be sort of described as Broad City meets Adventure Time.

Among other things, as Hanawalt explained on a recent episode of the Bullseye podcast, whereas Bojack is tightly scripted the direction and writing of Tuca And Bertie is much looser. She tells the directors they can add scenes, cut scenes, and change styles if they want, and as much as she loves sitcoms she wanted to get away from the traditional sitcom structure.

Tuca and Bertie, played by Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong, are very funny characters and very appealing, and the overall vibe of the show is upbeat, although with occasional sad touches. Tuca is loud and outgoing but with a vulnerable side, and Bertie is shy and quiet, but ambitious. It’s great to see her get a promotion but disappointing when she realizes what comes with it. That same episode also deals with sexual harassment both seriously and in a hilariously weird way.

Really though it’s the distinct artistic style—or rather styles—of Tuca And Bertie that to me makes it so fun to watch. It’s frenetic and weird, and I’ve had to pause and rewind several times during an episode to catch details I missed the first time around. It’s fun to see the funny, sometimes intense drawings from Hanawalt’s books transformed into an animated TV show. Hanawalt talks about how different the communal process of making a TV show is from drawing cartoons, and also how Tuca and Bertie represent different sides of herself. She’s multi-faceted, which is reflected in both the stories and the look of the show, but also reflects us–we’re all muti-faceted. We’re all different animals.

Looking In.

Normally I don’t look in anyone’s windows, even office windows just because it’s rude to stare at people even if they’re working, or maybe especially if they’re working, since I always make more mistakes when someone’s looking at me, and I like to keep my windows open to let in natural light to balance out the glare of the fluorescents, or at least I would if I had windows in my office, but that’s another story. Anyway the other day I glanced over at a ground-level office window and saw this:

It made me laugh and also a little sad. Offices are our natural habitat? And then I thought that maybe this is the office of someone who really loves what they do and that made me feel better, and they probably work better when they’re being stared at, which made me feel even better, but then I thought maybe they missed their calling as an actor, and that made me sad again.

It also reminded me that Edward Hopper would ride trains around New York and was sometimes inspired by people he saw through windows, creating paintings like this one:

Source: Wikipedia

It’s an interesting painting for a lot of reasons. The title Office At Night suggests that this couple is working late and that there may be more than work going on once they pull down the shades. It’s also ironic that Hopper took what might have been a fleeting glimpse and turned it into a painting which we, the viewer, can linger over and study in detail.

It also reminded me of this, from the back cover of The Far Side Gallery, which I got for my birthday when I was a kid. This portrait of Gary Larson seemed like a bonus joke which made me laugh, but then I thought, holy mackerel, they’ve got him in a really small space, which made me sad, and then I thought, yeah, but he probably has an outdoor enclosure where he can go and hang out, and that made me feel better.

Source: Reddit

Also I think a person’s “natural habitat” is wherever makes them happy. That’s just me, though. What’s your natural habitat?

 

A Place To Park.

If you’re a driver you’ve gotta park somewhere, which is why it bothers me that parking garages are usually dull and dismal places. I suppose for cars they’re the equivalent of a hotel room—not really your destination, but rather a stopping place to rest your head and store your stuff. Although I realize there may be people who enjoy hotel rooms, who look forward to them as part of the travel experience. There may even be people who plan their vacation around a specific hotel rather than the things they can do in the surrounding area. If you’re one of those people, great, no judgment—even if your possible existence did get me completely off what I was trying to say, which is that even if a hotel room is part of the journey rather than the destination there is some effort in making them comfortable and making them look nice. Is it too much to ask the same of parking garages?

That’s why this sidewalk-level entrance to a parking garage on Nashville’s West End caught my attention:

And it’s a lucky thing too because if I hadn’t been walking I might never have noticed what’s in the parking garage.

This is not the first time I’ve found public art decorating a parking garage, but, unlike the previous one just off Elliston Place, this one included these great statements by artist Brian Tull, who’s responsible for quite a bit of public art around Nashville. And these murals, like the vehicles that park in front of them, can transport you–even if only metaphorically.

I just hope these paintings don’t make whatever you’re driving feel insecure.

In Harm’s Way.

Is art ever dangerous? There are plenty of examples throughout history, right up to the present, of those who tried to limit various forms of expression, but only things which threatened their own power. Is their ever a case when we could say a work of art, by itself, actually hurt someone? Well, if a large statue fell on you that could cause some damage. Generally, though, suppressing expression seems to do more harm than allowing it. As John Milton argued in his 1644 Plea for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing,

Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye.

What got me thinking about that is seeing graffiti on the back of interstate signs. It’s surprising and raises all kinds of questions like, how did they get up there? When did they do it? What prompted the artists responsible to pick that particular spot where it’s often kind of hard to see? Chances are if you do see it at all you’ll see it from the other lane or maybe in your rearview mirror. Interestingly they often seem to use block letters. Is that a purely aesthetic choice or is there something restrictive about the signs that makes block letters easier?

Here’s also an example of a group that tagged the front of a sign:

The pictures I’ve taken weren’t easy to get, and I wish they were higher quality. They were all taken while my wife was driving–for obvious reasons I’m not taking my hands off the wheel to take a picture. At least I hope the reasons are obvious. There are also a lot of examples I missed just because I don’t have my phone out all the time even when I’m not driving, and at highway speeds some of them tended to surprise me.

And that got me thinking about whether this really is dangerous art. I’ve been to some risky places to get pictures of graffiti, but never any place really dangerous, and I’ve never put anyone else in harm’s way. In a car traveling at high speed, though, any little distraction can throw off a driver. I wonder if the artists who created these works were risking more than just their own lives. Freedom of expression is a wonderful thing but it’s also a powerful thing and power should be used responsibly. Don’t drop a sculpture on someone.

In Depth.

The artistic tradition of trompe l’oeill—fooling the eye—goes back at least as far as ancient Greece, which had stories of competing painters who tried to paint the most realistic pictures. The painter Zeuxis produced a picture of grapes that was so realistic birds flew down to peck at it, which isn’t a big deal because birds are idiots, andhe was outdone by his rival Parrhasius whose painting of curtains was so realistic Zeuxis tried to pull them back, hence the expression “it’s curtains for you”. It also may be why Plato wanted to kick artists out of his ideal society. He saw artists imitating reality as a threat to understanding what was really real, which makes me wonder if Plato knew what was really going on.

The Greeks understood perspective but much of what they’d learned was lost during the Dark Ages, then recovered in the Renaissance which saw the rise of increasingly detailed paintings. Many Dutch artists, including Vermeer, are known for their highly realistic paintings, although there’s some controversy over whether Vermeer and other artists used a camera obscura, essentially copying images projected onto the canvas. It’s an interesting question but one I think is ultimately unanswerable until we develop time travel. And whether artists from the 17th century or other periods used a camera obscura or other means of reproducing images their technique is still pretty impressive. And it reminds me that in the 19th century some French sculptors were accused of surmoulage, the practice of simply using casts from bodies–a charge that haunted Rodin and that he tried to avoid by making statues larger than life, but that’s another story.

Anyway I realize the graffiti above isn’t really an example of trompe l’oeill art, but it is very cleverly done and appears to have depth. It even looks like it might move right out of the wall.

Behind Every Answer Is Another Question.

GUILDENSTERN: What’s the first thing you remember?
ROSENCRANTZ: Ah. (Pause.) No, it’s no good, it’s gone. It was a long time ago.
GUILDENSTERN (patient but edged): You don’t get my meaning. What is the first thing after all the things you’ve forgotten?
ROSENCRANTZ: Oh I see. (Pause.) I’ve forgotten the question.

-from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard

One of the problems with collecting graffiti and trying to talk about it like any other art form–because it really is like any other art form, or at least any form of painting or visual art; it just happens to be placed in places where it’s not always wanted–is that usually I don’t know anything about the artists who produce it. I used to think that every work of art should be judged individually, which I know is a pretty extreme position, but think about it this way: if somebody tells you a musical composition is by Mozart you’re probably going to think it’s better than you would if they told you it was by Salieri, especially if you’ve seen Amadeus. And maybe that’s true even if you know music pretty well. Why does Mozart deserve a leg up just because of name recognition? He was kind of a genius, and even if not everything he did was great most of it was at least pretty darned good.
And there’s also the fact that every artist’s work changes and evolves over time. They’re influenced by where they’ve been, what they’ve done before, and what they’ve encountered. And the same is true for us, the audiences, viewers, spectators–whatever we are. We don’t see, hear, read, or experience anything in a vacuum. Everything we experience is judged by and compared to everything we’ve experienced before.
These are things I keep in mind in case I do meet a graffiti artist because there are so many things I’d like to ask: what are your influences, what made you choose that particular tag, how much did you have to practice, did you have help or did you learn on your own, what do you want to accomplish with your work? Knowing me of course I’ll probably forget all these questions.

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