American Graffiti.

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

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.

 

No Information Here.

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.

 

Accidents Happen.

I have mixed feelings about the concept of “found art”, which probably undermines my ability to be a critic since criticism should, by its very nature, stake out a strong position. At least that’s what I think although I have mixed feelings about that too, though, since art appreciation is subjective. Basically the only thing I feel really strongly about is ambiguity, but only if that’s okay with you.

Maybe I should start over.

I once talked to an artist whose works were pieces of tree trunks placed on concrete pedestals outside. He described it as a unification of the natural and artificial, and added that he always placed them outside to allow people to consider the contrast between what had been grown and what had been made in a natural space. Like a lot of conceptual art what it lacked in aesthetics it tried to make up for with philosophy.

I got what he was going for but I still couldn’t get past the fact that they were blocks of wood on concrete and I really just didn’t like them. It’s fine for a work of art to be philosophically challenging but if the audience doesn’t like it they’re probably not going to bother to try and understand the ideas it’s trying to express.

“Found art” is also almost always ephemeral. Take, for instance, Damien Hirst’s 2001 installation at London’s Eyestorm gallery that consisted of wadded papers, half-full ashtrays, half-full coffee cups, and empty beer bottles. It wasn’t meant to be a lasting work of art and fittingly the gallery’s janitor swept it up and threw it away, although I guess it’s not that ephemeral if people are still talking about it, even if the person talking about it is just me. Although that’s not the only time a janitor has “cleaned up” a work of “art”. Not by a long shot. It happens all the time.

Anyway I don’t really like “found art”, especially when it’s not even a case where someone was really trying to create art. The plastic sheet holder stuck to a lamppost that developed unusual colors or the sticker that somebody dropped in a parking lot weren’t meant to be art but I feel like they became art. Sometimes accidents change the world in ways that make it a little more interesting, a little more philosophically challenging, and I like it.

Halfway There.

In my first college philosophy class I learned what I thought was Zeno’s Arrow Paradox. At least this is the way the professor put it: the distance between a fired arrow and its target can be divided in half, and that distance can be divided in half, and so on, and if you can keep dividing the distance by half it becomes infinite so the arrow never reaches the target. I pointed out that this distance that was allegedly infinite could only be divided because it as a whole, empirically measurable distance, which I thought was kinda stupidly obvious and something that, in 2500 hundred years of philosophy must have already been addressed, but the professor ignored me and went on to Plato. This left me confused and deeply resentful of philosophy even though I came out of the class with a B-, even though on my final exam I defined a paradox as a couple of Ph.D.s, but that’s another story.

And now according to Wikipedia the professor had it completely muddled and the arrow paradox really refers to time and what he was describing was Zeno’s Dichotomy Paradox which is illustrated with this:

Suppose Homer wishes to walk to the end of a path. Before he can get there, he must get halfway there. Before he can get halfway there, he must get a quarter of the way there. Before traveling a quarter, he must travel one-eighth; before an eighth, one-sixteenth; and so on.

However I’ve already addressed that point which, philosophically speaking, is an example of putting Descartes before the horse.

Needless to say if the purpose of art—or even one purpose of art—is to make you think what the tag ZENO lacks in aesthetic appeal it more than makes up for in concept, especially since my thinking also took a flying leap in a completely different direction about the outsider nature of graffiti and how “Zeno” sounds like the prefix xeno- which comes from the Greek for “foreigner” or “stranger”, although anyone who’s seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding knows that Greeks pronounce the word “ekseno”.

And most English speakers seem to know the prefix xeno- from the word xenophobia, which is unfortunate because the Greek ξένος can also be translated “guest”, which I think is a good point to stop because I’m not even halfway to any kind of conclusion here.

Tunnel Vision.

The line between public art and graffiti would seem to be solid—after all, one is sanctioned and generally approved and the other is illegal and generally considered a violation. But I think there are some holes in that line. Both are art and both are, mostly, public. And it’s my blog and if I wanna talk about public art in my weekly post on the subject of graffiti who’s gonna stop me?

Anyway in Chicago’s Millenium Park there’s the statue Cloud Gate, also appropriately nicknamed “the bean”, although it looks much less bean-like once you get into it and even in it, which can be fun and disorienting, unless you don’t like crowds.

And if you’re okay with crowds it’s fun to get up close to it and see yourself reflected in it, the distortion of the landscape becoming less intense the closer you get because the closer you get the more you see yourself–which would seem to be the idea. It’s all about the surface.

And that schmuck in the middle.

What really intrigued me, though, was the approach to the bean. I was walking along North Michigan Avenue toward it and then noticed stairs leading down under the street, which of course I had to take because, hey, who was gonna stop me? A short pedestrian tunnel leads under the street and at the entrance is decorated with a mural.

In shadow, only reflecting hints of light, it’s only there for those adventurous enough to stay away from the crowds, to go underneath the main road. Meaning, if there is any, is not obvious. You bring yourself to it but what it gives back is not clear.

Or, as John Ashbery said in Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror,

Tomorrow is easy, but today is uncharted,

Desolate, reluctant as any landscape

To yield what are laws of perspective

After all only to the painter’s deep

Mistrust, a weak instrument though

Necessary.

For Your Eyes Only.

When I was five I went through a phase of drawing one particular kind of picture over and over again: a long line that curved all around the page, punctuated with blobs. Don’t ask me what I was trying to represent or what I thought it meant because I have no clue. It was just an idea I had in my head that I had to get down. Another kid saw me making one of these drawings at school and said it was ugly. The teacher overheard this and told me I shouldn’t care what anyone else thought, that I should draw what made me happy.

And that’s a nice idea but it’s not really that simple, is it? Unless you’re making something that you’re never planning to show to anyone the idea is going to be in your head that you hope other people like it. You may even make compromises, or at least decisions based on what you think other people will like, what you think they want. The romantic notion of the misunderstood artist who is only truly appreciated after laboring in obscurity for a long time is a popular one but it very rarely works that way. Most artists who eventually become successful get a lucky break. They get someone who likes what they’re doing and who has enough sway to convince a lot more people to like what they’re doing, or they get enough exposure that they find an audience.

Or sometimes they change what they’re doing.

When Picasso showed his painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon to a bunch of his friends they laughed and said it was ugly. He put it away for twenty years. I guess he liked it too much to destroy it, but it took a really long time for it to be considered a landmark of modern art.

Source: Wikipedia

And while the are a lot of Picasso’s works I do like I think his friends were right about Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. It’s really ugly.

I didn’t stop drawing those kinds of pictures because that kid said one was ugly. I stopped drawing those kinds of pictures because I got bored with drawing the same kind of picture over and over. But I’d never had any interest in showing them to anyone else, they weren’t for anyone else, so it didn’t matter. His criticism still stuck with me, though. I didn’t like being told my picture was ugly. Maybe I quit drawing those kinds of pictures because being happy was making me bitter and resentful.

Have you ever made something that no one else liked but that made you happy?

 

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