American Graffiti.

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

Outlaw Art.

Why is graffiti illegal?

Well, I can think of a lot of reasons, and even some really good reasons why it should be, but I also think there should be exceptions, allowances, variations, accommodations, accessions, codicils, deviations, aberrations, and maybe even some digressions allowed.

Most of my thinking about graffiti as art is shaped by the fact that quite a bit of it is art, even if only in the sense that images and/or words painted on a flat surface is a form of art, but I’m also influenced by a short documentary I saw as a kid about graffiti artists in New York. And these truly were artists. There have been a few graffiti artists who’ve become internationally famous—Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat are, I think, the two most prominent examples—but the artists featured in the documentary were still, mostly, working on the streets. And yet the exposure they were getting and their dedication was enough that they were given studio spaces and materials where they could work legally. They were in a catch-22, though: they had to be known on the streets, they had to break the law and risk being arrested, to become well-known enough to be treated as bona fide artists.

And to make it even more complicated there’s another layer: I think some artists want to break the law, they want to be troublemakers and not do what’s expected.

I have trouble fitting those artists into my larger framework because even though I think they deserve to be included in the exceptions at the same time if an exception is made for them then that undermines their outlaw status, doesn’t it?

There are no easy answers here so I’ll just say that it’s really interesting to me that this particular artist has been putting up these metal images of Steve Martin for years now–the bandana is a new variation.

Previously:

And it’s even more interesting that this particular piece is placed just a block away from the historic Exit/In where Steve Martin used to perform before he became famous. He even mentions the place in his autobiography Born Standing Up:

One night at the Exit/In I took the crowd down the street to a McDonald’s and ordered three hundred hamburgers to go, then quickly changed it to one bag of fries.

Is there a law against that?

Art Is Therapy.

A college friend of mine majored in art therapy. Her dream was to be a full-time artist, but, as we all know, that would be an extremely difficult path with almost no chance of success, so she chose art therapy as a viable career option that she hoped would still allow her time to work on her own art. Just once I’d like to hear someone say, “You should take some art or photography classes, just in case that whole corporate accounting thing doesn’t work out,” but that’s another story.

While part of studying art therapy was psychology and even some medical training there were also art classes and critiques of her work. She had a painting of fish in a pond that was really amazing, with the water mostly transparent but just enough of a reflection of trees and sky that you could see it. I’d never before appreciated that while it can be difficult for a painter to capture what we can see it’s even tougher to capture what we can’t see. It’s one thing to capture bright colors and bold textures, but conveying a smooth, transparent surface is a whole other level.

A major art critic came to campus to look at students’ works and before he went in he made a short speech.

“Some mornings I want tomato juice for breakfast,” he said. “Some mornings I want orange juice. If you give me tomato juice on a morning when I want orange juice I won’t like it. It doesn’t matter if it’s good tomato juice. It doesn’t matter if it’s the best tomato juice in the world. I still won’t like it because what I want is orange juice.”

This was a very revealing statement to me. Of course art criticism is personal. It doesn’t matter how much you know about art. A critic who admits that their views are subjective, who is aware of their biases, is, in my admittedly biased opinion, the best kind of critic.

He looked at my friend’s painting and said, “Some people here are giving me tomato juice and some people are giving me orange juice. This is pineapple juice. It never matters how good it is. I hate pineapple juice.”

A critic who admits that their views are subjective and doesn’t care is, in my completely objective opinion, the worst kind of critic.

And even though it wasn’t directed at me I felt angry about what he’d said. I took it personally.

Because I liked the painting his comments were an indirect swipe at my judgment.

Several of us got together later to console my friend, but she didn’t need consoling. She was channeling her frustration into a whole new work, a weird sculpture built out of yarn and strips of copper. She called it Superman On LSD In The Middle of Mardi Gras.

If there hadn’t been a personal connection, if I hadn’t known her or how she was feeling when she made it, I might have seen it as tomato juice—and I hate tomato juice. Instead I looked at it fully aware that I couldn’t be objective but that was okay. I liked it. It made me happy, and that was therapeutic.

How ya like them pineapples?

Hidden In Plain Sight.

Every artist wants their work to be seen, right? Actually if there’s one thing I’ve learned after years of studying art it’s that the one thing that’s true of art is there are no absolutes. There are artists who work in silence, who work only for themselves, creating works that may not be found until after their deaths—obvious examples being Van Gogh who only sold a couple of paintings in his lifetime and for the most part wasn’t trying to please anybody but himself, and Emily Dickinson who, although she tried to publish a handful of poems, did most of her work in private.

And at the other end of the spectrum there are artists who deliberately seek fame and attention; although this is largely a modern phenomenon there have probably always been artists who courted the rich and powerful, even if it meant doing the bidding of the king and his court.

One of the interesting things to me about graffiti is it seems to fall somewhere in between. Artists create works that are publicly visible but they’re usually very personal. Take this, for instance.

Yes, there are a lot of layers to “very personal” art. No artist, no matter how personal their art, is working in a vacuum. They’re influenced by other artists, by history, by the world around them, and by myriad other factors. Why’d you choose that design? It’s sort of what other people do. Why’d you choose that color? Maybe it was all that was available. In fact there have been fads for certain colors because they became available—blue began to appear more in 19th century Japanese prints, for instance, because of the discovery of a new blue pigment, but that’s another story. Every work of art represents a number of choices, but only some of those choices are deliberate on the artist’s part—there are also a lot that are made by circumstances.

To get back to my point about artists wanting their work to be seen, though, here’s a broader view of where that piece is located.

The work is pretty large and the artist deliberately placed it high on a building on Nashville’s Charlotte Avenue, which is a major street with lots of traffic. But it’s placed on the side of the building, facing a side street that most people won’t take unless they live in the neighborhood or take a wrong turn. And even then you really have to be standing in just the right spot to see it. One of the reasons I didn’t get a closer picture, aside from all the NO TRESPASSING signs and fences and some guy looking at me suspiciously, is I couldn’t see a way to get closer and still be able to see the work, aside from climbing up on the building, and maybe I should have asked that guy, “Hey, could you give me a leg up here, and maybe also a ladder?”

There are a lot of reasons the artist probably chose that exact spot—most of them not really choices but rather a matter of circumstances, but I like to think there was some intention there, that the answer to, “Why’d you choose that spot?” would be, “Because I wanted people to make an effort to see it.”

Now here’s an Emily Dickinson poem.

#930

The Poets light but Lamps —

Themselves — go out —

The Wicks they stimulate

If vital Light

Inhere as do the Suns —

Each Age a Lens

Disseminating their

Circumference —

 

Torn.

I’m deeply conflicted about this. On the one hand this is a picture of an advertisement. These ads have started showing up on sidewalks around the city and at first I thought they were an interesting art project, and then I realized, no, they were advertisements. Yes, I believe advertisements can be art, but I also cling to this Romantic notion of ars gratia artis, even though that phrase itself has been coopted by a major movie studio. And I also realize that artists have got to eat and if at least some couldn’t make a living by creating art, even if it often means playing the tune they’re paid to type, there’d be a lot less great art in the world.

On the other hand advertising is supposed to send a single, simple message. It’s supposed to tell you what to think—or rather what to buy—and I believe art should raise questions rather than provide answers. Any art that gives you a simple unvarnished idea is, in my opinion, very bad art.

And on the other hand—I’ve lost count of my hands here—something interesting has happened. This advertisement has been partially torn in a way that subtly changes its meaning. It’s presumably an accident, and that does raise a lot of questions. The tradition of “found art” is one that has a fairly long history—although not nearly as long as Romantic notions like ars gratia artis, but still there’s room for debate about whether art always has to be something that’s made or whether it can just happen. The idea that art is always created with a plan, that artists are in control, can be a source of comfort in a cold and chaotic universe, but even some of the most detailed and crafted works of art started as, or benefited from, accidents. Every artist has more misses than hits, and if every work of art had to start from a deliberately conceived plan there’d be a lot less great art in the world, and the fact that we can sometimes benefit from accidents can also be a source of comfort, especially in a cold and chaotic universe. Creating art, just like living life, means maintaining some semblance of control while at the same time accepting that accidents will happen and adapting to them as best we can. As a friend of mine in high school put it, “When life gives you lemons make orange juice.”

As I was turning all those over in my head and my approximately nine hands I walked past a restaurant where Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner, a song that I remember from high school, was playing. Actually it was the DNA remix that came out after I’d graduated, and which was created without her permission, but Vega liked it. The song sounds simple, even improvised, but is carefully structured. I felt like the universe, cold and chaotic as it is, was pushing me to write this, but on the other hand I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that.

 

Just Keep Looking.

And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.

From Beyond Good & Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche, as translated by R.J. Hollingdale

I’m tempted to say that somewhere along the way art went from being purely decorative to having to mean something. And then I have to take a step back and take a really deep breath because, well, first of all I’d have to clarify which artistic tradition I’m talking about–probably a Western European one, and even then I’d have to really narrow down the definition of “art” because even though there have been works–mostly paintings and sculptures–we could call strictly decorative aesthetic touches are still often added to everything from tables to teapots so even those things could be–and sometimes are–treated as works of art, especially if they’re really old.

And speaking of really old things the book The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists by Gregory Curtis devotes almost all of its space not to analyzing what the cave paintings may have meant but rather how what archaeologists and art historians think the cave paintings meant has changed, and changes, depending on who’s doing the looking.

And to get back to my naïve assumption that at some point art went from being decorative to having “meaning” if I had to pin down when exactly I might have thought that happened I’d say it occurred with the invention of photography and the birth of Impressionism and then Fauvism and really took off after World War I when art–at least in Western Europe–split into a million different isms and people started to need a philosophy degree to understand why a bunch of squares or scribbles should be considered great art.

Except it’s not that simple. Throughout art history, and throughout art traditions around the world, art has often “meant” something, but what it means has been determined by both cultural context and the eye of the beholder, which raises the question, if a work of art can mean anything, does it really mean anything?

And that’s when I start to wonder, am I looking at art or is it looking back at me?

Networking.

Why did someone put the sun symbol of the Zia people that’s used on New Mexico’s state flag on a utility box in Tennessee? Maybe they’re from New Mexico and wanted a little touch of home. Maybe they’re fans of Breaking Bad. Maybe they just like the symbol and wanted to brighten up the box a little. Maybe it’s a symbol of the Quartering of the Universe into Active and Passive Principles. Maybe they did it for the same reason Wallace Stevens put a jar on a hill in Tennessee, although he doesn’t really say why he did it, and he’s simply wrong when he says it was “Like nothing else in Tennessee” because we had jars long before some Yankee came tromping through here on his way to Key West and decided to litter, but that’s another story.

Maybe the answer is, all of the above.

Maybe the reason I like art, or one reason, is it fires off completely unexpected thoughts, like this: One summer I worked for a temp agency and got sent around to various job sites. At one place I put together the display stands you see in grocery stores. They’re also called “end caps”. The supervisor told us the stands we were putting together would be shipped out all over the country, and I thought it was interesting that something I helped make would be used by strangers so far away. I felt a sense of connection that made the mundane job and dealing with the supervisor who was a big jerk a little easier.

The utility box’s purpose is to create connections. It was made by someone in another place. Its placement changed the landscape. And then someone decided to paint the sun symbol on it, to change it from a standard, utilitarian object to something with deeper meaning–and larger connections.

 

Something To Say.

One of the things that intrigues me about graffiti is that there’s a person behind it. Even the small stuff, the messy scribbles that don’t look like much, was done by someone, a living person with something to say. The problem with the small messy scribbles isn’t so much what they say as how they say it. If you have something to say, I think, put some thought and effort into it. Communication works on multiple levels, even if it’s written communication, which is one reason there’s a longstanding internet joke that we need a special font for sarcasm, but that’s another story.

So anyway UH is a local tagger I’m very familiar with even though I have no idea who the person behind the tag is. The thing is most of the time I only see the small stuff–UH printed on a trash can or an iron railing. UH has always seemed to me kind of unambitious, though, limited to small tags, which is a statement in itself–as though the tag is a placeholder. Some people think it’s impolite but when we say “uh” in conversation it can operate as a way of keeping our brain’s verbal motor going and also as a placeholder, a way of indicating to another person, “Uh, I’ve got something to say, but, uh, I’m trying to find the words!” Even the most eloquent speaker must occasionally struggle for, uh, mouth talky sentence things.

And then I saw this:

As I said UH has always seemed unambitious, but I hope the picture gives some idea of the scale here. This is a pretty large work and impressively done too.

It’s a shame they’re already starting to fade. The stark black and white and the marbling, or perhaps “cracks”, give this the look of something sculpted, of letters, the most basic components of words, given solidity and weight. This UH says something.

 

 

 

Work In Progress.

One of the classical ideas about art is that it aims for eternity, that, against the backdrop of ephemeral nature, it remains unchanging, although technically that may be more of a Neoclassical 18th century revision of the classical view of art, especially considering that Plato had a rather low opinion of artists, but that’s another story.

Maybe I should start over.

Once I saw an artist working on a painting in a public space. I sat down and watched him for a while and then asked, “Do you mind me watching?”

“If I minded I wouldn’t be painting out here,” he replied.

It was fascinating watching a painting develop. It’s one of the reasons I think Bob Ross’s painting show was so popular. I’m sure there were plenty of others like me who weren’t really interested in painting ourselves but were just fascinated by how a few dabs of paint could create a vivid picture. Bob Ross’s gentle personality and “happy little clouds” were a bonus.

This background reminds me that any work of art is a work in progress, that however static a picture might seem, even if the artist is decomposing, the picture will change as it too decomposes. Van Gogh’s paintings were even more vivid in his lifetime, Edvard Munch used to put his paintings out in his yard when he was done with them—something that would make art preservationists tear their hair out—and even the classical sculptures that are so loved for their stark beauty and subtlety were once painted with gaudy colors.

What I’m taking the long way around to get to is that a few months ago when I met artist Billy Martinez working on a mural over on Elliston Place I assumed what I was seeing was a more or less finished work, but since then he’s come back and added to it. Here’s an earlier picture of Johnny Cash and Bettie Page:

Here they are now:

At the other end they’ve been joined by Dolly Parton, another iconic Nashville figure. At least a certain, er, feature suggests she’s Dolly Parton. Before she became famous she lived down the street from my parents and they still like to say, “We knew her before she got so big.”

And he’s added some interesting symbols in between. These seem to only be outlines and I plan to go back—especially since it’s just a hop, skip and a jump—maybe with another skip—from where I work to watch its growth.

The one thing that remains constant, even in the supposedly fixed world of a painting, is change.

Tell It To My Heart.

Iconography works on a lot of levels. The stylized picture of a heart, for instance, typically means love.

Except when it doesn’t.

And it still bothers me that the stylized heart symbol doesn’t look like any heart that I’ve ever seen, and I’m speaking as someone who did a lot of dissecting as a kid. Even an unusual heart, like the one that belongs to amazing blogger Ann Koplow, doesn’t in any way resemble the popular symbol. It’s interesting that while hearts are, anatomically speaking, so important they’re not centrally placed nor are they symmetrical, unlike lungs, brains, or kidneys. It even seems strange to me that, given the critical role of the heart, most of us only have one, unless you happen to be a Time Lord.

Hearts are strange things. The Tin Woodman wanted one, Humbert Humbert died of a broken one, and even Shakespeare asked, “Where is fancy bred?” although some scholars think he might have been looking for an artisanal bakery, but that’s another story.

Because iconography works on so many levels it’s easy to manipulate, subvert, twist, fold, spindle, and mutilate an accepted symbol into something completely different—into its exact opposite.

Maybe that’s why I this so much.

And with Valentine’s Day coming up can you think of a better way to express your feelings, at least without resorting to a restraining order?

 

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