American Graffiti.

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

Building Up.

When I saw this graffiti decorating the wall along a stairwell I thought, wow, sometimes art and architecture really go hand-in-hand. And then I thought that was a pretty stupid thought because architecture is an art form–even the dullest, plainest building is thoughtfully designed. Any aesthetic enhancement is just icing on the cake. And what is cake without icing? Well, it’s still cake, but really wouldn’t you rather have cake with icing? Or you can have icing without cake, if that’s your thing, although I find that eating just icing gets old really fast. And don’t get me started on the question of whether it’s icing or frosting and what the difference is between the two. Whatever you put on your cake it’s usually served at room temperature so associating it with either ice or frost is kind of ridiculous, but that’s another story.

Anyway considering the confluence of art and architecture reminded me of the saying, “Writing about painting is like dancing about architecture.” There are a lot of variations on that saying which can be traced back at least as far as 1918, although more recently Elvis Costello said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture—it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.” With all due respect to Mr. Costello I’d really like to see some dancing about architecture.

Sometimes, though, I think it’s best to just step back and let a work of art speak for itself. A picture may be worth a thousand words but a thousand words don’t necessarily add up to a picture. That’s frustrating to me as a critic, even an amateur one, but sometimes all I can really do is just say, hey, that’s pretty amazing, ain’t it?

Risky Business.

Several years ago my wife and I went to see Penn & Teller. At one point in the show Penn came out juggling flaming batons and everyone cheered. Then he put on safety glasses, made a wisecrack about OSHA regulations, cracked the bottoms off a couple of glass bottles, and started juggling those. I think a few people applauded politely and Penn explained that we should all be a lot more impressed. The batons, he explained, were made to be juggled–they were balanced–and if he grabbed the wrong end by mistake he could drop it quickly enough to only get a slight burn. Glass bottles, on the other hand, were never made to be thrown around and if he grabbed the wrong end, well, the first three rows would probably be sprayed with blood.

In short for those who didn’t know the physics of juggling the flaming batons really looked more impressive than they were and the broken bottles were more impressive than they looked. It’s something that can be true in other art forms too: knowledge of technique can make something that appears impressive seem a lot less so, and something that at first glance doesn’t seem all that great can actually demonstrate a surprising amount of skill. So should artists always take risks? All I can say is we all would have been really impressed if he’d come out juggling flaming broken bottles.

After the show both Penn and Teller came out to the lobby and stood around talking to people and signing autographs. I joined the big crowd around Penn and looked over and noticed there were only a couple of people around Teller. I wanted to go over to him but at the same time I didn’t. I think Teller’s a fascinating character–they both are, but I’m especially intrigued by Teller, especially after hearing him talk about how he developed a floating ball routine on an episode of This American Life–the podcast, so I was really just hearing a voice. He talks about how a trick has to be perfect, that any flaw is a risk no magician can take:

 I mean, magic is a fantastically meticulous form. You forgive other forms. A musician misses a note, moves on, fine. He’ll come to the conclusion of the piece. Magic is an on/off switch. Either it looks like a miracle or it’s stupid.

That night that we saw Penn & Teller perform I worried that speaking to him would have spoiled part of his illusion, but I wish I’d been willing to take that risk.

No Regrets.

Several years ago on a water tower that stands over downtown Nashville someone spray painted the words “DEFY MEDEOCRITY”. It wasn’t the most impressive graffiti I’ve ever seen. It was large and obviously someone had put a lot of work into it, but the letters were made with simple white lines so aesthetically it wasn’t that impressive. And then there was the obvious misspelling. And it always bothers me that some word processing programs insist that misspelling is spelled with one ‘s’, although the Oxford English Dictionary insists that it’s spelled with two and I’ll take that as the authoritative source even I refuse to accept the editors of the OED getting rid of the Oxford comma, but that’s another story.

I always wondered if the person who spray-painted that message realized they’d made a mistake and regretted it. Or maybe it was intentional. Maybe their way of defying mediocrity was challenging the arbitrary standards of spelling.

Anyway I look at the graffiti above and wonder the same thing. It’s in a cramped stairwell so it’s really hard to get a good picture, but here’s the door where the ‘T’ would have gone:

Clearly there was a lot of work and thought put into this—it really is some seriously impressive graffiti—so I wonder, was this intentional? Maybe the artist purposely left this unfinished to make a statement of really being unrepentant about making something great.

Don’t Believe Everything You Ink.

An interesting thing about a word used as visual art is how it can prompt new ideas about that word. Even changing the font or highlighting a word on a page or a computer screen in some way can emphasize or even change what it means.

And then there’s China Mieville’s novel Kraken about London’s supernatural criminal underworld, populated with a whole array of weird characters, including an animated talking tattoo, and a plot that revolves around a giant squid. Except it isn’t the squid itself that’s as important as what it contains. Whoever controls the ink controls the world—the ink can rewrite the world.

This isn’t a new idea. The notion that words have power is older than abracadabra, and that the way a word is written can make it even more powerful dates from the Kabbalah, if not earlier. It’s an interesting thing to consider that sometimes the medium is the message.


There’s a Plaza Art Store in downtown Nashville, near Third Man Records. I like to browse there and look at all the unusual art supplies and think about what I might create if I had any talent. They have spray paint in a dizzying array of colors and used to have a sign up that said they’d need the ID of anyone who bought spray paint and would keep the information on file. It’s gone now—I guess they don’t need to anymore, but I wonder why it was ever a policy. Yes, I know, spray paint is the tagger’s medium of choice, but would the store really be liable? I get that vandalism is a crime but no one ever died from graffiti, and really the original Vandals weren’t all that bad, but that’s another story.

That sign also made me think about the legendary explosion of graffiti in New York in the ’80’s and how many of the artists, including Lee Quiñones and Keith Haring, earned respect and became well-known and collected artists, something that might not have happened if they hadn’t risked being arrested for graffiti.

The graffiti above is near that art store in Nashville and I like it because it’s really well done and also because the way its colors and lines overlap makes me think about how, in my own head, questions about the value of graffiti and public versus private space and the impulse to create art overlap and change.

It’s No Accident.

There’s a funny story about Jackson Pollock and a critic who called his paintings “accidental”. Pollock picked up a paintbrush, flicked a blob of paint across the room where it hit the doorknob, and said, “There’s the door. Don’t let it accidentally hit you in the ass on your way out.”

It’s probably not true, or at least embellished, but I like it because it speaks to how Pollock’s paintings really aren’t as accidental as they seem. For the 2000 film Pollock starring Ed Harris art students were able to faithfully recreate several of Pollock’s paintings, and Pollock himself was very careful about detail. He didn’t just throw paint at a canvas. Well, he did, but with a pretty good idea of where it would land. There’s also a funny line from an episode of Frasier where Niles explains that he was at an art opening and accidentally flicked a canape onto a painting and now has to pay to have it restored, adding, “How he could notice a fleck of foie gras on a Jackson Pollock is beyond me,” but that’s another story.

One of the things that fascinates me about what look like scribbled tags, stuff that somebody just dashed off without any thought, is how, when I look closely, I see a lot of detail that appears to be anything but accidental, and when I see the same tag multiple times–usually in different places–I’m sometimes surprised by how a seemingly random scribble can be repeated.

There are a few subtle differences but it’s pretty cool how similar these two are.

It Comes And Goes.

Source: Google Maps

If you were traveling west along I-440 through Nashville, approaching the West End exit, you might notice this colorful mural on the side of a gas station and mini-mart. In fact the exit ramp that will take you east on West End runs right by it. It’s difficult to get a picture from a moving car, which is why I turned to Google for this particular view. You might stop here if you were on your way to the Parthenon, or anywhere in the midtown area, although you wouldn’t see the mural from the front of the building.

And now it’s difficult to see anyway. The gas station has closed, after competing for years with another one on the same block, that’s a little farther down and not quite as colorful. Large honeysuckle bushes have grown up in front of it, obscuring the view from the road.

The plans for the spot are immaterial. What matters is it’s a piece of public art that, for a few years, tried to attract customers and provided a bright spot for people just passing by. Places like this will appear, be noticed, and then be forgotten once they’re gone, like the travelers who pass by.




In Depth.

Illuminated manuscripts, especially Medieval works that were written by hand, are always noted for their illustrations and especially the marginalia, those little pictures and abstract designs that form a border around the main text. In a class on medieval literature one of my professors pointed out that the marginalia often illustrate or even supplement the writing, even when the pictures are completely abstract, like the interwoven Celtic designs that appear in some texts. A line that disappears behind a line of a different color, for instance, suggests the movement of the story as well as a transition: just because one line disappears out of sight doesn’t mean it’s out of mind. Parallel or interwoven lines, on the other hand, may suggest similar stories, such as that of Tristan and Isolde which mirrors and foreshadows the tragedy of Launcelot, Guinevere, and King Arthur in Mallory’s Morte D’Arthur.
Or at least that’s what a lot of modern scholars believe. Since the original illustrators of works like Mallory’s or the Book Of Kells are long gone–or if they’re still around they’re really, really, really old–no one’s able to ask them, and most of the artists who did the work of copying and illuminating manuscripts are anonymous. In the case of works like Beowulf or Sir Gawain & The Green Knight, for that matter, even the authors are anonymous. But there are cases where the correlation between the border designs and the stories seems pretty closely tied.
Anyway I thought about all that when I found this particular work which is really interesting because of its contrast between abstraction and depth, placing different parts in front of each other, and those striking red triangles at either end suggest looking to both the past and future. It doesn’t represent anything recognizable and yet still seems to tell a story–at least that’s what I believe. I assume and hope the artist is still around–this is a pretty recent work, but I have no idea who the artist is or anything about them–whether they’re young or really, really, really old.

I Hate Myself For Lovin’ You.

Source: YouTube, Badya by Palm Hills Developments commercial.

I have a love-hate relationship with advertising. I hate feeling like I’m being pressured to buy something I don’t really need but then I’ll see a commercial that is so incredibly brilliant I love it and I feel pressured then to buy something I don’t even want and I really hate that. I also think everybody’s gotta make a living and if an artist can’t make it selling their own art then a job in advertising can provide them with both a paycheck and an outlet. There was a time when a lot of artists thought of selling out as a bad thing, and some still do, but there’s a long history of artists being supported by patrons, and advertising reaches the masses. That’s better than a commissioned painting that would be locked away in some duke’s castle or a minuet that, at the time it was composed, would only be heard by a handful of people in a drawing room. Neither Mozart nor his masters imagined the Victrola, let alone MP3s, but that’s another story.

Some ad campaigns even evolve beyond just selling and become part of our culture and I love when that happens. Those who paid the piper may have called the tune but they can’t stop the tune from taking on a life of its own.

And sometimes art itself gets turned into advertising and scholars and critics may wring their hands over that, but I think it’s groovy that art can be pulled out of its ivory tower, even if it’s being used to sell us Ivory soap.

All this swirled around in my head when I was sitting in a Greek restaurant watching a soap opera in Farsi—it goes without saying that the convergence of cultures is a whole other rabbit hole—and a commercial for Discover Badya came on. Badya is a planned community—a little too planned for my tastes, and I hated that the commercial kind of made me want to live there, but I also loved its clever nods to various artists.

Source: YouTube, Badya by Palm Hills Developments commercial.

Source: YouTube, Badya by Palm Hills Developments commercial.

I especially like the appearance by Frida Kahlo whose self-portraits are as strong and uncompromising as the artist herself. Some may call this Fridolatry, but, again, there’s nothing wrong with mass appeal. If it inspires just a few to find out who Kahlo was and study her art more deeply that’s a good thing. Art isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a walled garden that’s only available to the rarefied few.

And now here’s something not intended to sell you anything.

Stuck To It.

Something that usually only gets a passing mention in art history is that advances in art and technology are pretty closely linked. One of the most obvious examples is how the invention of the camera led to Impressionism although the invention of the field easel which made it easier for artists to work outside instead of in a studio also helped. It’s something I’ve always had in mind since I heard an art historian mention in passing that a lot of new inventions are first adopted by avant garde artists and then the work of avant garde artists is adopted by advertising. Although we can thank Pop Art, and especially Andy Warhol, for turning advertising into art and he made a mint doing it, causing counterfeiters around the world to slap their foreheads and say, “We were making copies of the wrong thing!” but that’s another story.

Anyway I’ve noticed an interesting thing: decals as graffiti. Most graffiti is painted–well, technically graffiti was scratched into a surface since the term comes from the Italian graffiato, meaning “scratched”, but the term has take on new layers of meaning. As far as I know no one has ever really studied how the development of spray paint led to graffiti as an urban art form which is another case of a technological innovation being adopted by artists. The decals, I think, are becoming prevalent because decal makers have gotten cheap and easy to use and it’s not hard to see the appeal: an artist can produce dozens of identical tags that can be stuck anywhere. Most are small but add a nice detail to lampposts that used to hold photocopied fliers for local bands, but I guess those bands are now mostly using social media platforms to promote themselves, another evolution that’s all part of the state of the art.

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