Just a few months out of college I got a job working in a library mailroom. It wasn’t in the library itself but an office building so we had a messenger who dropped off and picked up intra-library stuff twice a day. I’d help him carry it down to the basement and load it onto the van. There was a construction company that had its office in the same building and we would sometimes meet construction crew guys in the hallways or the basement.
We nicknamed one of them The Joker. He didn’t resemble Jack Nicholson or any other incarnation of the infamous Batman villain, and he dressed like most of the other guys: a t-shirt and a flannel shirt that thankfully covered enough of his baggy jeans that his crack was never exposed. He was, I think, the oldest member of the crew and he wore glasses with such thick lenses I never got a clear view of his eyes. It was the teeth that earned him the name Joker. His discount dentures were a little too white and a little too straight. They were like a miniature version of the fence Tom Sawyer tricked his friends into whitewashing. In his mouth. And they were poorly fitted so The Joker had a permanent leer.
One day The Joker said to me, “Why don’t you get a real job?”
I asked, “What’s a real job?” He just grunted and walked away.
That question has stuck with me. What’s a real job? I’m pretty sure he meant construction, but how is that any more of a real job than working in a library, or, for that matter, making corrective lenses or cheap dentures? Isn’t anything that pays the bills a real job?
That brings me, in a very roundabout way, to this particular graffiti. The picture is an advertisement that’s been slapped down on sidewalks around town since advertising’s goal is to cover every available surface and to that end somebody’s put a couple of stickers advertising something completely different on the ad, but someone—I think it’s local artist CONS—has scribbled their own signature on it too. Two of these things are intended to make money and were designed and paid for. One isn’t.
In the era before the ascendance of Pop Art it was considered vulgar for artists to talk about money. There was a very romantic notion that while artists didn’t necessarily need to starve they should eschew gross materialism. They could have wealthy patrons but weren’t supposed to be wealthy themselves. Andy Warhol especially changed that, openly talking about how much his works commanded and making the making of money kind of a performance art. And that raised some questions that are still valid and still, perhaps, unanswerable: is art more or less authentic if the artist is being paid? If the piper only pipes what the highest bidder wants to hear does that make the music better or worse?
Or, to tie it back to this particular piece, is advertising more or less art than an elaborate scribble? The romantic in me wants to say the graffiti artist is doing something more creative, more interesting, more real—even more noble, but then I think, hey, advertising can be art. And that means making art can be a real job.
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