American Graffiti.

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

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?

 

The Threat.

Is graffiti dangerous? Does it pose a threat? Some people seem to think so, which is why it so often gets covered up or is in hidden areas. This particular piece, for instance, is in a largely abandoned industrial area—a place that’s been sitting empty so long it’s become kind of a graffiti gallery, and even getting to it requires slipping through a hole in a fence.

In the United States and many other countries freedom to speak, especially to criticize the government, is a cherished right. It’s not an absolute right—depending on what you say there may be consequences—but generally we don’t have to worry too much about what we say. At various times throughout history and even now in some countries that’s not true, and yet people in those places were, and are, sometimes willing to take the risk of speaking out even when the result is imprisonment, exile, or even execution.

Every artist who shares their work takes some risks, even if the only risks are ridicule or rejection. Having had my own ego bruised on occasion I don’t want to downplay those risks, but there’s something especially powerful about people willing to risk their freedom, maybe even their lives, to create and share a work of art with the world. Even if graffiti isn’t making an overtly political statement, even if it’s not speaking truth to power, it challenges conventions and laws. It’s art that won’t behave by confining itself to a gallery or private collection, and it dares to ask, even in a free society just how free are we?

Yeah, there is something threatening about that.

Anyway that reminds me of a joke: two Romanians are sitting in a bar. One says, “Fifty-four” and they both laugh. The other one says, “Eighteen” and that both laugh. The bartender says, “Okay guys, what’s with the numbers?”

One says, “Under Ceausescu we weren’t allowed to tell political jokes so we gave them all numbers. Then when we wanted to tell a political joke we’d just say one of the numbers.”

The bartender laughs and says, “Oh, I get it. Hey guys…forty-three.”

They stare at him blankly, then one says, “You know, it’s not so much the joke as it is the way you tell it…”

Feelin’ Good Is Good Enough For Me.

This picture is taken from Google Maps and, as you can see, it’s Farrell Parkway in Nashville, Tennessee—specifically the spot where it runs under a railroad and also I-65. It’s not the graffiti on the train car that interests me, though—it’s the lack of graffiti under the tracks.

When I was a student at the nearby John Overton High School this was “The Bridge”. The bus I rode took me and lots of my fellow students down this road way every day. At the time, though, it looked very different. At the time The Bridge was covered with elaborate graffiti. A lot of it, including a huge mural of Grecian columns, stayed there for years—maybe even decades, although it was kind of a rite of passage for Overton students to make their mark on the bridge. Well, it was for most students anyway.

One night when my parents were out of town I had a bunch of friends over. Because I was a geek this wasn’t a party—this was a bunch of guys spending most of the evening playing D&D, maybe watching a movie or two, and eating up pretty much every scrap of food in the house. And then around two a.m., bored and hopped up on sugar and caffeine, my friends decided to explore the basement and dug out half a dozen or so cans of spray paint that dated from the Eisenhower administration.

“Let’s go and paint the bridge!” one of my friends said. Everyone thought this was a great idea. Well, everyone except me. I knew my parents had asked the neighbors to keep an eye on the house and even though I was pretty sure the neighbors would all be asleep at that time I was still wary. So all my friends piled into a car and left me alone. I sulked around the house and listened to the radio, discovering Janis Joplin for the first time.

Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose…

When my friends got back they told me the ancient paint cans had been dry so we put them back where we found them. One of my friends spun an elaborate yarn about how they’d been caught by the cops and arrested, which I knew wasn’t true since they’d only been gone an hour, but it still sounded funny.

Sometimes the saying that as you get older your greatest regrets aren’t the things you did but rather the things you didn’t do is true. Even though the paint cans were dry I wish I’d gone with my friends. I wish I’d at least tried to leave my mark on The Bridge.

Since I still live in Nashville I’ve been over The Bridge regularly and I’ve noticed that for several years there’s been no graffiti at all, something confirmed by Google Maps. I guess painting The Bridge is no longer a rite of passage. I wonder what’s replaced it, and what, in a few years, some lonely kid who’s a student at Overton will look back on and regret not doing.

The Eyes Have It.

Most of the graffiti I look for is big and bold and colorful, the large exciting pieces that really stand out, but there’s something to be said for subtlety, even if it should be said quietly. During the 18th century when neoclassicism became all the rage the monuments and statues of ancient Greece and Rome were admired for their subtlety and restraint. What people didn’t realize at the time was that in their heyday Greek and Roman statues and monuments were painted with gaudy colors, making them a lot less subtle. Downtown Athens and Rome weren’t that different from, say, Times Square, Picadilly Circus, or the Las Vegas strip, but only in the daytime since neon lighting hadn’t been invented yet. The muted quality of classical statuary came from the fact that the paint had faded and flaked off or washed away.
To get back to my point about subtlety, though, I really get a kick out of finding something that was intentionally meant to be discreet, that could easily be overlooked. Sometimes it’s the small things that can make a surprising difference to the way we see the world around us, and when I find something interesting I want to yell, HEY, LOOK AT THIS THING!

Quietly, of course.

Contrast.

Is there honor among thieves? That’s debatable–hey, we’re talking about thieves after all. Is there honor among taggers? It seems like it. Often in areas where I find a lot of graffiti it’s separated. No one paints over anyone else’s work. Well, there are exceptions to every rule.
This particular spot is in a graffiti gallery, a very popular spot where there’s some competition for space and where taggers sometimes even insult each other. That’s not pictured.
One of the frustrating things about not knowing the artists involved is I don’t really know whether they purposely created contrasting works here, and it does seem like it was intentional rather than accidental. One doesn’t completely cover up the other which you’d expect, and also the choice of sharply contrasting yellow and purple seems intentional–they’re complementary colors.
That reminds me of a joke. A guy is sitting at a bar and hears a voice say, “Hey, nice shirt.” He looks around but doesn’t see anyone. Then he hears another voice. “That’s a great tie too.”
He says to the bartender, “Hey, I keep hearing these voices say nice things.”
The bartender says, “Oh, yeah, that’s the peanuts. They’re complimentary.”

Ones That Got Away.

One of the most frustrating things for me as a graffiti collector is that so much of it gets away undocumented. It’s even harder when it’s something really amazing, something truly beautiful, that then disappears before I can get a picture of it. Yes, I have gotten some things. There was this:

This is what it looks like now:

It still annoys me that there are some truly spectacular examples of graffiti that were wiped out before I could capture them. You’ve probably heard the saying that writing about art is like dancing about architecture. There’s a lot of dispute about who first said that, although Quote Investigator has done a pretty good job of tracing it back—maybe—to Martin Mull. Every time I hear that I think I’d really like to see some dancing about architecture, so I’m going to write about art, and to make it even worse I’m going to write about art that no longer exists.

First there’s this spot near Powell and Armory Avenue in Nashville, where the road loops around. For a few months the word LOVE and an enormous heart was painted on the wall. The letters covered the wall which should give you some idea how big it was. In fact the whole thing was so huge you could see it from the I-65 overpass, and while I’m not often out that way every time I saw it I thought, I’ve really got to get a picture of that. The problem is every time either my wife was driving and there was no good angle for me to snap a picture or I was driving and, well, I like to keep at least one hand on the wheel. Last Friday as we were going that way I noticed the entire thing had been painted over with a drab gray.

Source: Google Maps. I don’t have any pictures of my own.

Nearby, on I-65 itself, or on the side really, there was a huge mural of tropical flowers. This is the one I think I will always regret the most. Anthuriums, orchids, hibiscus, and maybe even some that were purely fictional, in vermillion, lavender, aqua, and emerald jostled together on this wall under an on-ramp.

Source: Google Maps. Again no pictures of my own, but you can see where it was and how big it was.

It was beautiful and always made me happy. It brightened up the area, but someone, maybe some petty public worker, decided it needed to be wiped out. You can see where it’s been painted over and that might give you some idea how big it was.

And that’s the interesting thing. They were both large works in areas that are really difficult to get to—even dangerous. Whoever made them put a lot of work and thought into them. They gave these dull spots life and color. Now that they’re gone they remind me how ephemeral some things are.

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