American Graffiti.

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

Look Back.

There’s a relatively new idea among art historians, and if you’re rolling your eyes and thinking this is some dry, abstract, wordy theorizing that has no connection with the way non-academics think about art, bear with me. It’s some dry, abstract, wordy theorizing that has kind of a cool connection with how non-academics think about art. It’s called paradoxical history, although as some critics have pointed out there’s nothing paradoxical about it. Paradoxical history essentially considers art history backwards, going from newest to oldest, kind of like when I search my email for something and most of the time I start with the most recent messages first because they’re probably where the problem is, unlike the older messages which are problems that have already been swept under the rug, but that’s another story.

The idea got me thinking about the first art appreciation class I ever took in high school, the one that really got me interested in art history in the first place. The class started with Impressionism which was an okay place to start although Impressionism didn’t just happen, and neither did any other art movement in history. Anyway it then went through Post-Impressionism and Fauvism and took kind of a leap to Cubism and a quick detour into Expressionism, then things kind of fall apart with Dadaism and Surrealism which were also literary movements, and, oh yeah, there were also a couple of wars in there, and then things kind of settled back down into Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art and that’s where the class ended.

These movements were treated as links in a chain but the reality is that art history—like regular history—is messy and complicated with a lot of overlapping events.

Paradoxical history reflects one of the benefits and problems with studying art history, or even just art, in the here and now. Do you remember the first work of art you ever saw? Probably not. You probably don’t even remember most of the works of art you’ve seen throughout your lifetime and yet you’ve probably seen a lot of art. You may even have some pretty strong opinions about some of it not really being art, but whether you think it’s art or not it’s still influenced how you look at and think about art. It hasn’t exactly been in a straight line—almost everyone gets a mix of old and new and various art movements—but paradoxical history is a way of understanding how we got from here to there, and how, whenever you look at any work of art now, what you see is layered with the influence of every other work of art you’ve ever seen, as well as the whole collection of your own experiences, your own perspectives.

You Gotta See This.

What defines a place, a city, a region? Nashville has a long history as a home of country music, something I first realized when I was a kid and at some family gathering up north and a man asked me where I was from. When I told him he said, “You got a lot of country music down there, doncha?” and I imagined my typical suburban neighborhood, completely devoid of banjo pickers and fiddlers, and yelled “No!” and he and I were both equally confused. Not long after that we took one of our summer trips to Opryland and my parents dragged me away from the rides and made me sit through one of the shows. It started with a woman who came out and said, “When folks think of Nashville they think of country music” and I felt like a schmuck.

Nashville has also become a food destination with innovative restaurants like The Catbird Seat where a chef will create food right in front of you and twenty-one other diners creating a custom meal based on your personal tastes, although I can create a custom meal based on my personal tastes at home for a lot cheaper.

Globalization and global communication mean that foods that were once strictly regional can be found far from their original destinations. Nashville now has three Ethiopian restaurants which I think is a really cool thing. It means we can get a taste of Ethiopia for much less than the cost of the trip, not the mention all the associated risks. And yet what is it that makes it Ethiopian food? It may have originated halfway around the world but now it’s part of the mosaic of this community, which makes it a little more beautiful. Also while KFC has stopped serving “Nashville hot chicken” now Red Lobster is advertising “Nashville hot shrimp” which makes me yell “THAT’S NOT A THING!” every time the commercial comes on, but that’s another story.

There’s also the time, shortly after my parents were first married, that my mother cooked okra for the first time. She’d made broccoli with cheese sauce and my father said, “This would be good on okra” and she took him seriously and the result was a slimy, cheesy mess. I told that story to an African American co-worker who laughed and said, “Your mother must be white!” Yeah, although there were other clues to that.

Anyway another thing that defines a place is public art, and while you won’t necessarily taste the food in a place you might see the art as you’re passing through, and that can be pretty sweet.

 

In Passing.

All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.

–Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), Blade Runner

A recurring theme with graffiti for me is that it’s transient. It seems like most artists want their work to be seen, even if it’s only for a short time but also an expectation that it won’t last, which is probably one reason they use the same tag over and over again. It’s a personal identifier—and graffiti is a very personal art form—and it’s the artist’s way of asserting their existence even when their work is destroyed. It’s all something I thought about when I was looking through some pictures of graffiti I’d collected and this picture I took in early July came up:

Not a real exciting piece, but the building, which had been a restaurant, is now gone. Here’s a picture of the same spot taken just yesterday, in the rain:

There’s a special poignancy to this. Once a week the owner of the restaurant that was there would serve a free meal to the homeless.

The reason this idea of transience keeps coming up with me is the idea of art that’s not supposed to last goes against something I’ve spent most of my life believing about art, specifically that it’s supposed to last. Art is supposed to outlive the artist, rather than the other way around, a message passed on to future generations. And yet there are plenty of known and respected artists who put works in galleries that are only meant to be there a short time. Whether you consider, say, an unmade bed strewn with trash a work of art is a whole other discussion, but there are literally dozens of stories of art gallery janitors who’ve accidentally “cleaned up” various art exhibits, usually consisting of beer bottles, cigarette butts, and other detritus. And the fact that art gallery janitors mistakenly assume these collections of trash are just trash says something about the kind of people who attend art gallery galas, but that’s another story.

Anyway art that breaks the rule that art is meant to last also jives perfectly with something else I’ve spent most of my life believing about art, specifically that the very nature of art is that it breaks the rules. There are no absolutes in art. Everything’s ambiguous and subject to personal view.

Interpret that how you will.

Stop Making Sense.

When is graffiti not graffiti? When it’s authorized and approved, obviously, but it’s funny to me that sometimes completely authorized murals adopt the graphic styles—usually either blocky or balloonish letters—of a lot of graffiti. In fact some artists first get noticed by legitimate dealers through their graffiti and then they get paid to do the same thing they previously would have been arrested for doing and if it made sense it wouldn’t be art, but that’s another story.

This is a really roundabout way of getting to a very straight stretch of Nashville’s Charlotte Avenue where a storage building takes up an entire city block and Off The Wall Nashville Charlotte, a project of the Arts & Business Council of Greater Nashville, has turned it into a canvas.

And I really wish I could reproduce the whole thing here, but my camera doesn’t work that way and if anyone from the ABCGN happens to be reading here do y’all think maybe you could get a photographer or two to, you know, document this?

There are currently four sections, all subject to change—one of their rules is “It’s not forever” and this one of a train is the final section.

The cars are appropriately tagged. Why train cars attract graffiti is always an interesting question to me. Obviously they’re large and stand still long enough for artists to create some really amazing works and then they move on, giving those artists greater exposure, although it’s also hard for legitimate dealers to track down an artist whose work could be from anywhere, but making sense is not a priority here. The streamers trailing after the final car is also a cool touch.

What’s even more interesting is there are some local tags hidden in the mural itself. Or maybe not so hidden, if you recognize them.

Cartooning.

Because I’m a bit of a wordy guy I get a kick out of etymology and the whole history of words, especially common words that we use without thinking about their backgrounds. Sometimes when I use a word I start thinking about where it might have come from and then I go and look it up and I feel a little disappointed, like when I thought “awful” and “offal” must have a common ancestor so I went to the internet to look it up and found they didn’t and then I had to pay to get my laptop fixed because it’s one thing when you throw a book and another thing when you throw the internet, but that’s another story.

Anyway I’d never really thought about the origins of the word “cartoon” until I was reading a book about art and I ran across something about Caravaggio drawing cartoons and I had a funny mental image of his painting The Sacrifice Of Isaac with the angel saying, “He’s a little young to start shaving, isn’t he?” and yes, I am a horrible person.

“Have you tried one of those new electric razors?”

Now we use the word “cartoon” to refer to an animated film, usually a short one, although it’s also used for one-panel funny drawings, like Goya’s painting of Saturn devouring his son that appeared in The New Yorker with the caption “Tastes like chicken,” and I’ve really got to stop doing that.

I like the kitty.

The word “cartoon”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was first used to mean

A drawing on stout paper, made as a design for a painting of the same size to be executed in fresco or oil, or for a work in tapestry, mosaic, stained glass, or the like.

It was a preparatory drawing often used by Renaissance painters and has the same origin as the word “carton”, which is interesting because both words contain so much history, and they’re also flexible and can be applied to very different things.

A Thing Of Beauty.

Some time when I was a kid I heard that Michelangelo’s David was slowly crumbling because of rising air pollution and I thought, oh great, I hope I at least get to see it before it’s gone. And it also had a profound impact on me because it was the first time I realized that great monuments and works of art, even if they’re built to last, will eventually disappear. John Keats said “a thing of beauty is a joy forever,” but then he died at the age of twenty-five. Only one of the original seven wonders of the ancient world, at least on the generally accepted list, still stands, and even the pyramids will eventually be dust. Going back even farther, to a story told before the pyramids, the epic hero Gilgamesh goes on a quest for immortality, but is told—ironically by an immortal man—that everything is ephemeral. The mighty walls he’s built around his city, and the city itself, have disappeared.

So naturally I was intrigued when I saw this on a lamppost:

 As you can see in the closeup it’s an ouroboros, a symbol of neverending recurrence, and instead of being circular it’s cleverly twisted into an infinity symbol.

It’s just a piece of paper stuck to a metal post, not really made to last and already showing signs of wear, but the interesting thing is I took the pictures a couple of weeks ago and it’s still there, although watching it gradually disappear is oddly beautiful.

You Say You Want A Revolution.

There are two things I remember about the French Revolution. Well, more than two things, actually; even though I wasn’t there I’ve studied history quite a bit and the French Revolution is one of those big events that comes up regularly. Anyway there are two things I remember that my high school World History textbook said about the French Revolution, statements that apply well beyond France. The first is that revolutions tend not to happen when things are at their absolute worst but rather when they’ve started to improve. I suppose this is human nature. When people are at rock bottom they tend to creep along sideways; it’s only when they get lifted up a little that they start to look up and get impatient for what they only now see they’ve been missing. The second statement I remember was that revolutions tend to become the very thing they set out to overthrow. This was certainly true of the French Revolution which not only paved the way for Napoleon’s rampage across Europe but even before that had the Reign of Terror. Here I need to hand the reigns over to Mark Twain and his more eloquent comments on the same idea:

There were two “Reigns of Terror,” if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror—that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.

Again I think this is human nature. The intent of every revolution is to overturn the status quo, but the only way to do that is to replace it with another status quo, or “Windows echo your reflection when I look in their direction now,” as was said by Status Quo, but that’s another story. People tend to fall back on the patterns they’re comfortable with, even if those are the wrong patterns.

It’s the tragedy of history that revolutions don’t learn from their mistakes or even the mistakes of previous revolutions, but then maybe that’s human nature too. Maybe it’s why, as Yevgeny Zamyatin said in his book WE, “Then how can there be a final revolution? There is no final one; revolutions are infinite.”

Don’t Stop Believing.

What’s the difference between graffiti and vandalism? Some would say there isn’t any, but I think that’s unfair and the distinctions are much more subtle. Granted I also think the word “vandalism” is unfair to the Vandals who were a complex and interesting Germanic people, but that’s another story. Even though graffiti may be a criminal act I still think it’s creative. It usually aspires to be artistic, to make a statement, whereas vandalism is nihilistic. Vandalism is wanton destruction that only tries to silence. This is a very fuzzy distinction and we could spend a lot of time on Nietzsche, who I’m pretty sure was a Vandal, and his idea of schöpferische Zerstörung, but bear with me.

I notice there’s a certain respect among most graffiti artists. Even the most basic taggers don’t write over each other. Maybe this is partly practical, but take, for instance, the mural by Billy Martinez which I’ve written about before. It’s in an area popular with taggers, but they leave it alone. Look at this:

On the right is part of Martinez’s mural which is still a work in progress, but that’s for another time. On the left are several local tags. They’ve left the mural alone. This is even a really good example of graffiti artists showing respect for an approved work.

What got me thinking about that is the recent alteration Adrien Saporiti’s “I Believe In Nashville” mural. It’s not a bad motto for the city. I do like Austin, Texas’s “Keep Austin Weird” and Portland, Oregon’s “Keep Portland Weird”–which was weird first is a matter of some debate–and residents of Asheville, North Carolina, take a wonderful pride in their city being called a “cesspool of sin” While the slogan “We Are Nashville” was popular in the aftermath of the 2010 flood “I Believe In Nashville” seems pretty good. Hey, I believe in it too, strongly enough that I bet that if I look out the window Nashville will still be there, although at the rate things are changing I expect it to look different, but that’s another story.

Anyway, five months ago Saporiti’s mural was vandalized with roofing tar. This time, though, it was altered with paint. By my own definition it’s not vandalism–it was, in fact, making what I think is an important and timely statement–but one that didn’t have to cover up Saporiti’s mural. It could have gone alongside it.

Source. The Tennessean

Interestingly the mural started as graffiti–it was put up without permission–but the building owners liked it and have made it clear they want to keep it.

That deserves some respect.

You’re Baroque When You’re Out Of Monet.

VIOLA: Save thee, friend, and thy music: dost thou live by thy labour?

Feste: No, sir, I live by the church.

VIOLA: Art thou a churchman?

Feste: No such matter, sir: I do live by the church; for I do live at my house, and my house doth stand by the church.

Twelfth Night, Act III sc.1

Once when I was touring a European cathedral—I can’t remember which one because, well, even though I was a student and supposed to be studious they kind of tended to run together for me—the guide took the group to a collection of carved figures in one of the transepts. They were mostly demonic creatures—not technically gargoyles since gargoyles are outside and designed to sluice water—but one was a man frowning. The guide told us that this might have been a self-portrait or it may have been the artist’s caricature of someone he knew. It made me realize something that should have been obvious: behind every carving, behind every piece, was at least one person. The building of cathedrals employed hundreds and even thousands of people, most of them highly skilled artisans—so many that there wasn’t always a lot of oversight and artists could get pretty creative. In a different cathedral the guide gleefully pointed us to a nearly hidden carving of a couple in a 69 position, but that’s another story.

Baroque and Rococo design didn’t just add a lot of flair and frippery to cathedrals and other monuments. They provided work to artists, and an outlet for creative impulses. And I don’t mean to make flair and frippery sound like a bad thing either. Taking an ordinary object and giving it its own unique aesthetics makes it more interesting, maybe even more valuable. At the very least it gives artists something to do, which just goes to show that even if it ain’t Baroque it can still be fixed.

Uncontained.

Some people associate graffiti with crime and economically depressed areas which is why it’s funny to me that a lot of the graffiti I find—I’d even say some of the best graffiti—tends to pop up in Nashville’s nicer neighborhoods. Take, for instance, the Hillsboro Village area which puts the “hip” in “hipster”. Or maybe the “ster”, whatever that means. It’s got fancy boutiques, a funky local coffee shop, an indie movie theater, a used bookstore, and a nice park nearby. It’s adjacent to Vanderbilt University, and it’s home to many university staff and faculty. And it’s got Friedman’s Army Navy Store, a place that specializes in camping and other outdoor equipment and where I’m pretty sure my high school chums got the weathered army jackets they wore in all kinds of weather. You can’t get much hipper, or maybe more hipster, than that. And then there’s this storage container currently taking up multiple spaces in Friedman’s parking lot.

That’s some impressive work. Not the container itself, I mean, although that is pretty good engineering. I’m talking about the graffiti. Here’s a closer look.Someone, possibly several people—this identifies it as the work of Fish Club, a tag I’ve seen in other places—put some real effort into this.

What does graffiti really say about a neighborhood? I’m tempted to compare Hillsboro Village to London’s Soho, New York’s Greenwich Village, or even Florida’s Key West, places that, because of low rent, attracted starving artists whose presence made the places a destination, a locus for hip and hipster alike, making them desirable and driving up prices. I’m not sure if that’s an apt comparison, although the area has seen worse days. The Villager Tavern used to be home to a rough crowd whose only weakness was sunlight. Its conversion to a friendly neighborhood bar that’s even been known to host poetry readings could be a metaphor for the changes wrought on the area itself. The appearance of graffiti, though, suggests there’s still a dangerous edge, something wild, something about the area that’s still hip.

 

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