American Graffiti.

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

In Depth.

The artistic tradition of trompe l’oeill—fooling the eye—goes back at least as far as ancient Greece, which had stories of competing painters who tried to paint the most realistic pictures. The painter Zeuxis produced a picture of grapes that was so realistic birds flew down to peck at it, which isn’t a big deal because birds are idiots, andhe was outdone by his rival Parrhasius whose painting of curtains was so realistic Zeuxis tried to pull them back, hence the expression “it’s curtains for you”. It also may be why Plato wanted to kick artists out of his ideal society. He saw artists imitating reality as a threat to understanding what was really real, which makes me wonder if Plato knew what was really going on.

The Greeks understood perspective but much of what they’d learned was lost during the Dark Ages, then recovered in the Renaissance which saw the rise of increasingly detailed paintings. Many Dutch artists, including Vermeer, are known for their highly realistic paintings, although there’s some controversy over whether Vermeer and other artists used a camera obscura, essentially copying images projected onto the canvas. It’s an interesting question but one I think is ultimately unanswerable until we develop time travel. And whether artists from the 17th century or other periods used a camera obscura or other means of reproducing images their technique is still pretty impressive. And it reminds me that in the 19th century some French sculptors were accused of surmoulage, the practice of simply using casts from bodies–a charge that haunted Rodin and that he tried to avoid by making statues larger than life, but that’s another story.

Anyway I realize the graffiti above isn’t really an example of trompe l’oeill art, but it is very cleverly done and appears to have depth. It even looks like it might move right out of the wall.

Behind Every Answer Is Another Question.

GUILDENSTERN: What’s the first thing you remember?
ROSENCRANTZ: Ah. (Pause.) No, it’s no good, it’s gone. It was a long time ago.
GUILDENSTERN (patient but edged): You don’t get my meaning. What is the first thing after all the things you’ve forgotten?
ROSENCRANTZ: Oh I see. (Pause.) I’ve forgotten the question.

-from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard

One of the problems with collecting graffiti and trying to talk about it like any other art form–because it really is like any other art form, or at least any form of painting or visual art; it just happens to be placed in places where it’s not always wanted–is that usually I don’t know anything about the artists who produce it. I used to think that every work of art should be judged individually, which I know is a pretty extreme position, but think about it this way: if somebody tells you a musical composition is by Mozart you’re probably going to think it’s better than you would if they told you it was by Salieri, especially if you’ve seen Amadeus. And maybe that’s true even if you know music pretty well. Why does Mozart deserve a leg up just because of name recognition? He was kind of a genius, and even if not everything he did was great most of it was at least pretty darned good.
And there’s also the fact that every artist’s work changes and evolves over time. They’re influenced by where they’ve been, what they’ve done before, and what they’ve encountered. And the same is true for us, the audiences, viewers, spectators–whatever we are. We don’t see, hear, read, or experience anything in a vacuum. Everything we experience is judged by and compared to everything we’ve experienced before.
These are things I keep in mind in case I do meet a graffiti artist because there are so many things I’d like to ask: what are your influences, what made you choose that particular tag, how much did you have to practice, did you have help or did you learn on your own, what do you want to accomplish with your work? Knowing me of course I’ll probably forget all these questions.

The Art Of Looking.

It’s been four years now since I started documenting graffiti. Most of what I took pictures of is now gone, which is sad, but also a lesson in the nature of art. In the classical view a thing of beauty is a joy forever. Since nothing can really last forever a thing of beauty can only be a joy as long as it’s still around—even the classicists have to accept that all things must eventually come to an end.

I’ve really had an almost lifelong interest in graffiti. As I’ve said before it really started when I was a teenager and saw a documentary about the New York subway art movement of the ‘70’s and ‘80’s. There were the taggers who just scribbled, but there were also those who created big multi-colored murals. Some of these artists went to jail for what they did. Some also got noticed by art dealers and collectors and were given studio space and materials.

In the four years that I’ve been taking and sharing these pictures, though, I feel I’ve become even more conscious not just of graffiti but how the neighborhoods where I find it are changing, as well as the purposes served by any kind of creative expression. I feel like it’s made me look at the world differently, and I hope I’ve passed that on.

Time Moves On.

Almost a year ago I took some pictures of this turtle sculpture at the Dauphin Island Estuarium. It’s made of around twelve-hundred cigarette butts picked up off the beach by volunteers. I’ve thought a lot about how this sculpture turned art into trash, how it’s a form of recycling. A lot of works of art break down over time. Some are meant to, but others are meant to last. Preservation and renovation are important jobs in the art world.

Then the fire at Notre Dame cathedral happened.

Fortunately the damage wasn’t as bad as it was first feared, but it’s not good either. The fire devastated a building that is itself a work of art and that was being renovated, and that was originally built to last. It’s undergone some changes over time. Figures representing the twelve apostles and symbols of the four evangelists around the spire had been removed just days before the fire. They, and the current spire which collapsed in the fire, were added by the architect Viollet-le-Duc in the mid-19th century. The original spire, neglected and damaged by wind, was removed some time between 1786 and 1791. Whether, after all the changes it’s been through, it’s still the same Notre Dame it was when it started gets into the territory of the ship of Theseus, and for now let’s just say that ship has sailed.

Both the turtle sculpture and Notre Dame came together in my mind when I realized that the sculpture represents something living and breathing that must be preserved, and Notre Dame, having been built, changed, added to, passed through, or simply seen for more than eight hundred years, is a living, breathing work of art. One represents the nature that sustains us, the other represents how we are sustained.

I don’t know if the turtle sculpture is still there, but, in spite of the damage, I want to see Notre Dame restored and preserved. The future may be uncertain but it’s shaped by the past.

Book ‘Em.

Years ago I worked in a library with a guy who’d get strangely annoyed by the books that were coming in. This was a university library and you could say some of the titles that passed through our hands on their way to the shelves were a little obscure or specialized. Or you couldn’t say that. I mean, you don’t have to. Anyway, he’d bring me something like So, You Want To Learn Coptic? and he’d almost yell, “Who reads this stuff?”

Somebody, hopefully, I always thought. And libraries make a lot of purchasing decisions based on patron requests, so even if he didn’t want to learn Coptic chances are somebody did. I never could figure out why it annoyed him so much that other people read books that didn’t interest him. I even kind of wanted to follow him around to see if it wasn’t just books. I imagined him in the grocery store pointing at random vegetables and yelling, “Who eats this stuff?” Or in a department store pointing at paisley shirts yelling, “Who wears this stuff?” Or at home channel-surfing and lingering over some show he didn’t like just so he could yell, “Who watches this stuff?”

I thought about that guy when I saw my first Little Free Library, pictured above, on a trip to St. Louis a few years ago. And I remembered it again just a few days ago when I found a Little Free Library in a neighborhood near where I live.

It’s funny to me to find two copies of The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin–an author who inspired another post last summer.

In fact it turns out there are a lot of Little Free Libraries near me, in addition to the regular libraries.

And, thinking about it, I realize I do wonder, who reads this stuff? Somebody, hopefully. I’d only really be annoyed if no one did.

Not Everybody’s A Blogger.

Recently the Orang-utan Librarian wrote a post titled Bloggers Are Underrated. Are bloggers underrated? That’s something I haven’t considered in a very long time. The question took me all the way back to May 2007 when I first read an op-ed titled “Not Everybody’s A Critic”, a blast at what was then called “the blogosphere” by the film and literary critic Richard Schickel. This is what Schickel had to say about the rise of book-review blogs:

Let me put this bluntly, in language even a busy blogger can understand: Criticism — and its humble cousin, reviewing — is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author’s (or filmmaker’s or painter’s) entire body of work, among other qualities.

Putting aside the opening sarcasm, where does he get the idea that criticism isn’t a democratic activity? He goes on to say that criticism is much more than having an opinion, that a review should “initiate intelligent dialogue about the work in question, beginning a discussion that, in some cases, will persist down the years, even down the centuries”, which is a fine idea, but why should the job of initiating such dialogue be limited to a (mostly self-selected) few? A few paragraphs later on he says, “I don’t think it’s impossible for bloggers to write intelligent reviews. I do think, however, that a simple ‘love’ of reading (or movie-going or whatever) is an insufficient qualification for the job.” A love of reading, I believe, is what prompts most people to share their responses to a book, but it’s a mistake to assume that it’s all that bloggers have to offer. In considering what criticism should be he brings up “French critic Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, a name not much bruited in the blogosphere, I’ll warrant”—and here he reveals that he’s criticizing blogs without bothering to read any. This is the equivalent of a film critic dismissing a film without ever seeing it.

In keeping with his own lofty ideals of what criticism should be I think it’s fair to say it should be well-informed and thoughtful rather than lazily dismissive, ignorant, and sarcastic. But then toward the end it’s clear that Schickel’s real target isn’t bloggers but any writing published electronically.

The act of writing for print, with its implication of permanence, concentrates the mind most wonderfully. It imposes on writer and reader a sense of responsibility that mere yammering does not. It is the difference between cocktail-party chat and logically reasoned discourse that sits still on a page, inviting serious engagement.

Note that he’s paraphrasing Samuel Johnson who said, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Johnson also said, “A man will turn over half a library to make one book,” and now I’m not allowed back in the library until I pay for the damage, but that’s another story. The argument that no good writing is published online is even more ridiculous now than it was almost twelve years ago when Schickel’s op-ed was first published, and, by the way, I probably never would have seen it if it hadn’t been published online as well as in a print newspaper. And, by the way, newspapers were pretty ephemeral even before there were computers to be networked so I’m not sure it follows that everyone who writes, or wrote, for print had their minds most wonderfully concentrated. Also I hope it’s clear that I’ve put a lot of thought into what I’m writing here. I even wrote a few drafts on paper, but it’s the message and not the medium that matters.

That last point brings me back to the question of whether bloggers are underrated. And the only honest answer I can give is: it depends. Blogs are varied and individual. They’re empty vessels and, just as with a book or even a newspaper, the writing they offer is just as good or bad as the author makes it. Although, to paraphrase a more recent sage, that’s just, like my opinion, man.

For What It’s Worth…

Source: Pinterest

When I was a kid my friends and I had a board game called Masterpiece. The main thing I remember about it was that I was fascinated by the cards of various famous works of art—mostly Twentieth Century works like Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, Wood’s American Gothic, a Thomas Hart Benton, a Picasso. There might have been a few Renaissance paintings in there, or maybe the game makers thought it would be too ridiculous that, say, the Mona Lisa would ever be on the market even though I think it was supposed to be an educational game. And it was educational in a way. The idea was to bid on and win the various works of art. The winner was the one who collected the most valuable paintings and the amounts were completely random—in other words it was almost exactly like the real art world.
In each game one or two paintings would turn out to be a forgery. This made them completely worthless and if you were the sucker who’d bid on and won one chances were you lost. That was funny to me because I always thought, well, you’ve still got the painting, so why does it matter if it’s a forgery?
I was reminded of when I listened to a Studio 360 interview with director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck about his film Never Look Away, based on the life of the German painter Gerhard Richter, although the artist in the film is named Kurt Barnet. There’s a scene early in the film where the young Barnet is taken to the Nazi’s infamous exhibition of “degenerate art”, modern paintings and sculptures pulled from German museums and held up for mockery. Some of the works in that exhibition were sold, but most were destroyed. Talking about the scene in Never Look Away Donnersmark explained that many of the paintings and other works of art shown at that exhibition were painstakingly recreated. The recreations then had to be destroyed. The recreations were so perfect there was a risk, even though it was small, that the recreations would be mistaken for the originals. Donnersmark admits that it was hard and I get it: destroying the recreations was a tragic historical reenactment. And, really, were the recreations any less valuable than the originals?

Maybe they were.

Source: Ernst Barlach Haus

Ernst Barlach was a sculptor whose works were in the “degenerate art” exhibit. Born in 1870 he was struggling as a sculptor when World War I broke out. Believing the war would usher in a new artistic age he volunteered as an infantry soldier on the front but was discharged after just three months because of a heart condition. The experience would profoundly change him, though, and he became a pacifist. His highly stylized figures with protruding, but often closed, eyes reflect, I think, a deep sadness. Or maybe I’m just imposing what I know about Barlach onto his works.

If you like a painting or other work of art just because it speaks to you, without knowing anything about the artist, that’s okay, but the artist’s history, the context, the background can add value. The connection to an artist who lived and suffered, whose work came out of deep personal experience, can make the difference between a forgery and a masterpiece.


Repetition, Repetition.

One of the repeated stories of art history is that Impressionism began with the invention of the camera. Artists, seeing that there was a technological device that could capture an image of the world as it really is, stopped painting in studios and went outside to capture the effects of light with rapid brushstrokes. Like everything else it’s more complicated than that when you start to look closely—the two major artists of the Impressionist movement are Manet and Monet, and there’s a lot more than just a vowel that separates them.

Still in an overarching way it’s true that’s true—the invention of the camera did coincide with a major change in  art, and it makes me think about repetition in art—how artists went from trying to copy nature to creating more and more individualistic works. Before the camera there was less emphasis on individuality and more emphasis on making something that could easily be copied. And maybe—I’m taking a really big leap here, but it’s an educated leap—something similar happened earlier with the printing press. Poetry, with its emphasis on repetition and rhyme and regular meter, was easy to memorize—in a sense easy to copy, because before the printing press literature had to be copied by hand. After the printing press more writers were free to write in prose, free of the restraints of poetry because they weren’t as concerned about creating works that could be easily memorized and therefore more easily copied.


Naming Names.

Several months ago I took a picture of this graffiti and spent a lot of time thinking about what I’d like to say about it. Where should I even begin? Should I say that it’s interesting because animal iconography seems to be pretty rare in graffiti? Well, I just did. That’s all, folks!

But wait–there really is more. Some, particularly fans of the literary movement known as New Criticism would say the work can only be judged in itself without any reference to outside influences or the artist’s background or intent. And that’s pretty much all I can do since I don’t know anything about the artist. But what if I found something that shed a little light on it and meant I didn’t have to wrap up quite so soon? That’s where this helps.

From this I think the camel is the artist’s tag–essentially their name. What’s a name, after all, than a symbol? Sure, most names are symbols made up of letters–there are some exceptions, such as that thing Prince used as his name for a while–and letters themselves are symbols that we’ve mostly agreed all make the same sounds, although I did have an uncle who wouldn’t spell anything with the letter Y because he was convinced it would sneak onto his farm at night and tell dirty stories to his cows, but that’s another stor.
Anyway that reminded me of the Dutch aristocrat, art historian, and dealer Jan Six–who is actually the descendant of ten previous aristocrats with the same name, making him the eleventh Six. The first Jan Six (born (January 14, 1618, died May 28, 1700) was painted by Rembrandt and amassed a considerable art collection. The current Jan Six continues to collect with a particular emphasis on Rembrandt and in the past few years discovered what he and some scholars think are two previously unknown Rembrandt paintings at auctions. And keep in mind that a painting by a lesser known Dutch master–say, one of the guys from the cigar box–can sell for thousands but a Rembrandt can be worth millions, and if they are legit he got them at bargain rates because the auction houses didn’t know what they had. Even with a decline in the study and even collecting of older paintings–the prices on modern works are rising while the old ones aren’t–there’s enough interest in them generally to make them, especially the ones done by well-known artists, valuable. Although further complicating all this is the fact that, with his many pupils and large studio, it’s almost impossible to know whether Rembrandt himself painted a painting alone or whether he had help, or whether it was just one of his students copying his techniques.
That difference can also seriously affect the value of a painting, but shouldn’t it be the work itself and not just the name that matters?

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