There’s a Ray Bradbury short story called In A Season Of Calm Weather about a man who dreams of owning an original work by Picasso. I won’t say any more—go look it up and read it—except that it might make you consider the idea of art as something intended to last. The truth is we leave our little marks upon the world and sometimes may intend them to be bulwarks against the ravages of time, but everything is ephemeral.
When I was a kid I drew a lot of strange things. At least adults found them strange. I have a very clear memory of one of my preschool teachers telling my mother, “He draws such unusual things.” What I’d drawn was a bunch of stone faces rolling down a mountain. What’s funny is I drew that after seeing a picture of Mount Rushmore. It was just my way of reimagining what I’d seen, because I had no clue what it was or what it meant. I doubt my teacher would have found it that unusual if I’d just drawn Mount Rushmore. About that same time I drew a picture of a bunch of people in a boat in a cave. They were all holding candles. A woman looked at it and told me, “You’re so creative. When I was a little girl I never knew what to draw. You draw such original things.” And I felt guilty. The picture was inspired by my first trip to Disneyworld and the Pirates Of The Caribbean ride. I’d just stripped away all the pirates because I couldn’t draw them and made the cave dark and given everybody candles because, well, it was dark in the cave.
I felt guilty because it wasn’t really original. And I’d spend literally most of my life studying art and art history before I’d realize that there really is no such thing as originality. Everything is a blend of everything else.
The breakthrough would come when I read Milan Kundera’s novel Immortality. In one part he describes art history as a clock. The clock strikes midnight when Jackson Pollock creates action painting, removing the direct contact between brush and canvas that’s been the basis of art since the first cave paintings. It’s the end of originality, the end of art as a progression. It bothered me to think we were living in a post-midnight world, that anything that came after the early 1950’s was merely a repeat of what had come before. Art history was finished, defunct, washed up, in the red, kaput.
Then I realized that’s kind of like saying history itself ended with World War II. History, and art, march on.
If you’re wondering what any of this has to do with the graffiti above it’s this: most graffiti I see is abstract. It’s usually a name or a word. This particular work sticks out because it’s a picture of something. And it cracks me up because it’s a narwhal cyclops with, um, wings on its head—a mashup of a few different things.
It’s unusual but it’s not original. And that doesn’t matter. It’s art and that makes it part of art history.
Oscar Wilde said, “All art is quite useless.” And I say, Ozzie, baby, what is “useful”? Art may not mine coal or prevent trouble down t’mill but doesn’t it have a use? Yes, I know, Wilde was responding to Kant’s ideas about the judgment of aesthetics and would say,
Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way…A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower.
He cut himself off there, adding, “All this is I fear very obscure. But the subject is a long one.” I’d say it’s an infinite one but let’s just let it rest. The usefulness of art is what came to mind when I saw a tiny little graffiti tag on a water meter cover on a sidewalk. The artist, whose name I think is CONS or maybe COMS, has some larger tags on other things–tagging seems to be a real compulsion for this one since I found almost a dozen separate tags within two blocks. What’s interesting to me about these tags is the bare simplicity which really draws attention to the things that have been tagged. Most of the time when I look at a painting I don’t think about the canvas underneath, and unless it’s really elaborate I usually don’t even notice the frame. Canvases are utilitarian; they merely serve as the background for a work of art and while frames are often custom-made they’re, well, just frames. They’re just there to hold a painting up. Right? But when the paint is added to the canvas and placed within the frame the canvas and frame you could say all elements combine: frame, paint, and canvas are all a unit that we call a work of art.
Andy Warhol famously made a mint by reproducing his own paintings. He wasn’t the first to sell reproductions, but he treated mass production as an art in itself, turning everyday objects into art–and turning art into an everyday object. What graffiti sometimes does, when it’s applied to mass produced objects, is make them unique works of art–even if the tags themselves look alike. It can draw our attention to things we might ignore because we think we’ve seen them before.
Seen any graffiti? Email your pictures to email@example.com.
What is a work of art worth? How is its value determined? That’s a question that intrigued me as a kid when my friends and I played a board game called “Masterpiece“. You acquired works by bidding against other players. A separate set of cards would give the “actual” value of each work. Since the decks were shuffled the prices for each work would change from one game to the next. The idea was to buy as much art as you could. The player whose collection was worth the most at the end of the game won. Go figure. That bugged me because it was really the art that I liked: reproductions of famous works on little cards. There was a Picasso, a Thomas Hart Benton, a van Gogh. The first time I saw Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks was on one of those cards.
Hidden in the amounts deck were a few cards that said “FORGERY”. This made whatever work you’d purchased worthless. That bugged me too. If it looked exactly like the original why did it make such a huge difference? It was my first exposure to the economics of art, that a Monet is big money while a copy, no matter how accurate, might as well be Monopoly Monet.
Is there value just in the name? There are stories of Dali and Picasso paying for meals with doodles, and Basquiat–who started as a graffiti artist–did occasionally buy cigarettes or make other small purchases with scribbles, only to see them pop up in galleries selling for hundreds of dollars a few days later. If a work of art speaks to us, though, does it matter who painted it?
Is there even any real value in art? That’s a big question and one I’m not prepared to even begin to answer, mainly because I only understand economics just well enough to know that value is arbitrary, but I believe that a work of art, no matter who the artist is or where it’s located, any work that makes us feel something, makes us think, has value.
There’s a particular spot near Elliston Place where I’ve collected quite a bit of graffiti. It’s so popular with artists in fact that in the picture above, pulled from Google Maps, you can see some graffiti. In fact the extremely astute may recognize this piece in the lower right hand corner from a previous post:
I’m not sure why the area is so popular. It’s also a spot with quite a bit of history. Right across the street from the picture above is the famous Exit/In where almost everybody who’s anybody in music has played and it’s even been a spot for some other performers. An older friend tells the story of the night he was walking down Elliston and met a huge crowd of people being led out of Exit/In by a man dressed in a white suit. The man was Steve Martin, and it might have been the night he took the entire audience to McDonald’s, but that’s another story.
Pictured above, though, is another music venue, The End, but what really interests me is the courtyard next to it and behind Obie’s Pizza. The walls are covered with regularly changing murals. Here’s a picture of a recent design:
It looks a lot like graffiti, doesn’t it? The colors may be brighter and the designs more elaborate but it still has a distinctly graffiti style. Now here’s another view:
The ATM sign–which to me also looks like it’s copying a hip graffiti-style look–is on the bars that separate the courtyard from the alley, keeping out the riffraff. I contacted The End to ask who did their murals. I didn’t get an answer, but what matters is I’ve still drawn this conclusion: in an area with lots of graffiti the owners wanted something that looked like graffiti that isn’t actually graffiti.
It’s easy to think of graffiti as something bad, as defacing private or public property, but what does it say when people intentionally copy–and even pay for–something that looks like graffiti?
Here’s a bit of “real” graffiti from behind The End. I don’t see that much difference.
Seen any graffiti? Email your pictures to firstname.lastname@example.org. All pictures will be credited to you unless you’d rather remain anonymous. I’m easy like that.
In the spirit of the season here’s some Christmas graffiti.
Here’s a reindeer.
Here’s a tree. O Tannenbaum! If this tree looks familiar it’s because it greatly resembles another work I’ve written about previously that’s just a few blocks away from this one. I’d really love to know who the artist is.
The very nature of graffiti is that it’s ephemeral. Technically that’s true of all art, some works more than others. Gericault’s Raft Of The Medusa for instance looks like a well-preserved painting but the artist’s heavy use of bitumen, which gave it a nice sheen but is chemically unstable, mean the whole thing is a preservation nightmare and gradually breaking down. Maybe it’s fitting that Gericault said, “No sooner do we come into this world than bits of us start to fall off.” And that’s true of all art. In the classical view art was supposed to be a stab at immortality, something that would survive long after the artist was dust. The reality is nothing lasts forever, and most graffiti gets painted over a short time after it goes up.
And that’s what I thought of when I saw these two tags. Neither one’s all that great and the placement was probably purely accidental, but look at how the shadow of the tree falls across them. The shadow is visibly ephemeral—when it’s visible. On a cloudy day it’s gone but even on a sunny day it moves and changes. The tree changes too. It’s grown and spread, but with the cold weather its leaves have changed color and are falling off.
The tree itself has been there for years, maybe even decades, but even if gentrification or just somebody’s whim don’t take it down it’ll eventually die. All of it reminds me that nothing lasts forever.
Seen any graffiti you want to share? Send your pictures to email@example.com and be credited here.
Following recent events in Paris security for the United Nations summit on climate change is even tighter than it would be for most gatherings of world leaders. That’s meant a clampdown on protests of any kind…or almost any kind. The protests done by Brandalism, an “anti-advertising” group that started replacing real advertisements with more challenging ones during the London Olympics, has continued in Paris. Is it graffiti? Is it art? I tend to use pretty broad definitions for both. And even if I didn’t I have to say given the recent revelations about Volvo this one just makes me laugh.
If it were a genuine Volvo ad it would be a case of honest advertising.
Edit: As Gilly Madison and Ann Koplow have pointed out the ad punctures Volkswagen. Volvo is just one of Volkswagen’s brands caught up in the diesel emissions scandal. I’m sorry for the error and really appreciate their catch.
There’s a lot of terrible graffiti out there. Here I am trying to make a case that at least some graffiti really is art and deserves recognition but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that most of it just seems to undermine that case by being something hastily scribbled without any kind of thought. I could spend a lot of time talking about challenging aesthetics and intellectualizing the social and philosophical ramifications of even the simplest tag but on a gut level most of it just makes me say, “Really? Why’d you even bother?”
And then I see something that just takes my breath away. And sometimes it’s something I probably would have missed if I hadn’t been looking for it. Two partial gold skeletons embrace on a wall. It looks partially stenciled and partially painted. Someone put some serious thought and work into this. Who? And why?
The work is eerily reminiscent of the Hiroshima Lovers from Alan Moore’s Watchmen, although the figures are incomplete and the use of color instead of just black is striking. As is the pose. They could be embracing or they could be dancing the tango.
What’s also striking is the placement. The artist put this work right in the middle a window that’s long since been covered up. The outline of the window is still there and provides a kind of frame.
I don’t know if the BP above the figures is the artist’s signature, although that seems kind of coarse for such a thoughtful work and one with such thoughtful placement. It’s also in an alley behind a building.
You can see some other graffiti there. It’s a very popular area and just doing a casual count I found at least a dozen more distinct tags, some by artists I recognize from other part of town, although mostly on the other side of the building. Maybe I’m being overly optimistic but I like to think the lovers haven’t been covered up out of respect for such an amazing piece of work.
A long time ago I learned an important lesson. I can’t change how other people think or act. I can only change how I respond to others. It’s a revelation that led me to try and always think about things from other people’s perspectives. Stopping to think about other people’s motives has made me, I think, a happier person and, I hope, a better person.
That’s what I thought about when I saw the giant DOWNER scrawled on a building. Graffiti makes some people angry, and I get that, but think about it from the perspective of the artist here. Maybe this was someone expressing frustration, asking for help. And they’re doing in purple, a color that, in literary symbolism, is traditionally associated with royalty and wealth but also spirituality and transformation.
Or maybe purple was all they could get their hands on and DOWNER was just something they thought would be fun to write.
Either way I’m not going to let it change how I feel about it.