American Graffiti.

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

Sic Transit.

One of the functions of art in the classical tradition is to capture the ephemeral, to make it permanent, to capture what’s fleeting and make it permanent. From the moment we’re born we start dying, but art can stop that, freeze what melts away. That’s just one idea of what art is supposed to do, but it’s a widespread idea and one that’s lasted and influenced art for thousands of years. Even as so many works have disappeared that idea has held one. Maybe that’s why, of all the graffiti I’ve collected, of all the graffiti I’ve seen, even of all the art I’ve seen, this is one of my favorite works.

It’s simple but well made, with details added by the artist and details added by the artist and details added by chance, by the wall that served as its canvas. The figures are skeletal but the gold suggests an Egyptian pharaoh’s sarcophagus: a lasting monument to a short life. I don’t know how long it had been there when I found it, when I took this picture, but the paint was starting to peel in some places, a natural underlining that nothing lasts forever.

And that, too, is a function of art: to remind us that nothing lasts forever.


Binging On Art.

These ruins are to the future what the past is to us

–Carolyn Forché, The Angel of History

The following contains spoilers.

For many of us the holidays are a time for binge-watching, and if you didn’t catch it when it was released in September you may have been binging the fourth season of Bojack Horseman. If you’re a Netflix subscriber and if you like that sort of thing–I get that emotionally difficult sarcastic animated comedies about anthropomorphized animals with a lot of inside jokes about celebrity culture aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. It’s for those who like their tea dark and bitter.

I only just started watching Bojack Horseman a few months ago and immediately noticed something. The Warhol-esque horseshoes on his bedroom wall, first seen in the opening sequence, didn’t seem all that striking, since parodies of Warhol were a cliché even when Warhol was still alive.

Then there was the painting in Bojack’s office where he and Diane start on the book about him.

Source: The Sartler

Cute, I thought. Someone’s a fan of David Hockney. I recognized the painting referenced but didn’t get the full significance until I went back and looked up the original–the title is Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures).

And then there was the Matisse in Bojack’s living room.

Source: The Sartler

And the Keith Haring paintings in a ’90’s flashback.

Source: The Movie Goer

And Basquiat paintings in the office of Bojack’s former friend and mentor Herb Kazazz. The ’90’s were a peak time for both Haring and Basquait.

Source: Imgur

In the present day, when Bojack returns to the office after Herb’s funeral, the paintings are still there, although one is damaged and one almost completely destroyed–a comment on how Basquiat’s reputation fell. Perhaps it’s also a comment on how, when their relationship ended, Herb sealed off this part of his life.

Source: Imgur

Other bloggers beat me to this a long time ago, compiling several of the references up through season 3, and not every episode has an art reference, but it’s interesting to me how expansive they are. The references range from classical–I’m guessing Bojack’s tile portrait is a nod to ancient Rome:

Source: The Sartler

To high modernism and contemporary. There’s even a bit of graffiti:

Source: YouTube

Sometimes what’s in the background is clever misdirection. In a season 3 episode Mr. Peanutbutter, voiced by Paul F. Thompkins, waits in a dressing room for news about his brother’s surgery. His brother, by the way, is voiced by Weird Al Yankovic, which is a deep inside reference in itself. On the wall of the dressing room are posters for Old Yeller and Where The Red Fern Grows. These turn out to not be the somber portents they would appear to be.

In the next episode, though, there is very heavy foreshadowing when Bojack’s former co-star turned pop singer Sara Lynn has a painting of Ophelia by John Everett Millais over her bed. A Chagall painting in her living room is subtler but still significant. Chagall’s first wife Bella died suddenly from an untreated infection. The striking thing is, unlike other works that appear in the series, these paintings aren’t parodied but are recreated.

Source: Cultura Colectiva

The show cleverly uses art history to comment on the present, the past, but is the future inevitable? It’s heartbreaking when, following her death, Bojack says, “This didn’t have to happen.” Even though he’s right we see again and again how the past is prologue. Bojack Horseman can be hard to watch because, for a satirical cartoon, it’s shockingly real. Mistakes are cumulative. The characters grow, change, and even die.And for the ones who go on it’s a struggle. As Diane says,

It’s not about being happy, that is the thing. I’m just trying to get through each day. I can’t keep asking myself ‘Am I happy?’ It just makes me more miserable. I don’t know If I believe in it, real lasting happiness, All those perky, well-adjusted people you see in movies and TV shows ? I don’t think they exist.

The nods to art history aren’t just foreshadowing or clever visual puns. Taken together they’re a reminder that we live in a period of cultural confluence. The past doesn’t just inform the present. The past is still very much with us. Why does the Botticelli in the restaurant Bojack bought on a whim have an elephant’s head? The simple answer is it’s because the restaurant is called Elefante; the subtler answer is that, according to legend, elephants never forget.

Source: BuzzFeed

Flashbacks are regular in Bojack Horseman: we get scenes from the ’70’s, ’80’s, ’90’s, and an ultra-specific series of flashbacks to 2007. Each major character has a dark and complicated history, except possibly Mr. Peanutbutter whose cheerful disposition masks, or maybe comes from, a nihilistic outlook on life:

The universe is a cruel, uncaring void. The key to being happy isn’t a search for meaning. It’s to just keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually, you’ll be dead.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to go binge watch season four, and after that take a shower so I won’t know if I’m crying or not.


Make A Wish.

What’s your wish for this holiday season?

I was inspired to ask that question by the mural on the side of a building, one which I really like because it only seems simple. The seeds blowing away mark the passing of time and the end of life that naturally comes with winter, but they also represent renewal and therefore hope. The seeds also become origami cranes. Birds fly south for the winter and will return when the seeds are sprouting. The fact that they’re origami cranes represents, I think, the transformative power of art, and there’s also a Japanese tradition that if one folds one thousand paper cranes one’s wish will come true. This tradition has been popularized by the life of Sadako Sasaki, a Japanese girl who developed leukemia after being exposed to radiation from the Hiroshima bombing and started folding paper cranes while fighting the disease. And, on that same subject please read this over at Rubber Shoes In Hell about a child who transformed lives and how you can help others.

The mural also inspired me to ask, has any work of art ever really changed the world? That’s not an easy question and takes me back to high school when I thought about joining the debate team because some of my friends were on it. The teacher who headed the team gave me this practice question: Is the pen mightier than the sword? And that sent me spinning down a mental rabbit hole. The power of the pen, in the sense of communication, can command, organize, and even inspire swords, in the sense of military weaponry. An army marches on its stomach but the orders have to come in writing. On the other hand if we’re talking about literal pens and swords, well, I still think it depends on whether the person with the pen is small and quick or maybe able to sneak up behind the person with the sword, or maybe if one person has only one sword and the other has a shitload of pens, and finally, flop sweat pouring off of me, I asked, just how abstract is this question supposed to be? And I got sent to the principal’s office for saying “shitload” but that’s another story.

Can a work of art change the world? I guess it depends. One of the most transformative events in human history is the development of written language. It allowed us to store and pass on more information than the memory could hold. It allowed that information to be passed not only from one person to another but across generations. And it’s no accident that the greatest advances in technology and the most significant changes to what we call civilization really began with the invention of the printing press which allowed for the mass production of the written word. Can the mass-produced book, though, the mere written word, be considered a work of art? So my wish is that you’d please tell me just how abstract this question is supposed to be.

And also that all your wishes this year come true.


Lights Out.

Source: Things You Wouldn’t Know If We Didn’t Blog Intermittently.

When I was a kid I begged my parents to get Christmas lights for our house. We’d drive by other houses with Christmas lights and I always thought they looked so fantastic. I thought it must be wonderful for the people who lived in those houses to have those lights right there all the time. I didn’t think about the problems of running electricity outside, storage, or the annual disentangling of the wires. As anyone who’s ever dealt with them knows that strings of Christmas lights get bored sitting in the attic eleven months of the year and amuse themselves by seeing just how tangled they can get. Either that or they’re mating, a prospect I find highly unlikely because I’ve never known Christmas lights to increase in number. Or maybe they’re wrestling, which is why one bulb is always knocked out, but that’s another story.

Anyway, my parents did finally get some outdoor Christmas lights and strung them up around a couple of holly bushes on either side of the house. It was subdued and tasteful, which is probably just as well since we lived on a cul-de-sac. And I realized something about Christmas lights: they’re not that interesting from inside the house. People passing by might see them and smile but if they’re your lights chances are the only times you’ll notice them are when you put them up and take them down. The neighbors, on the other hand, might see your lights all the time.

At about the same time some friends of my parents who lived on another cul-de-sac had a neighbor who put up what was, even for the ’80’s, a garish and extravagant amount of decorations. There were at least nine Santas–three of which were on the roof and threatening to collide, elves, giant candles, light-up snowmen, and lights, lights, lights over everything. It was on the news–and was noted for being one of three such displays around the city–and caused traffic jams as people came from all over to gawk. Did the guy who lived in the house care? Did he even notice? After all he was in the house.

One year I lived in a house next door to someone who set up an elaborate Christmas display. I have to give the neighbor credit: it wasn’t gaudy or tasteless. It was, in fact, a matched set of trains and candy canes and snowmen and a jolly Santa, all made out of blinking LEDs. About seven-hundred million of them, which was the problem. It was so bright I swear I could hear the damn thing–it sounded like The Magic Roundabout theme. I’m pretty sure it used up more electricity than the state of Wyoming. He left it on all night long, and my room faced his house. When I went to bed and closed the curtains the light burned through and looked like flickering flames.

All of which makes me wonder: Was the Grinch born that way or was he made?



A Little Question Goes A Long Way.

A friend posed a striking philosophical question: can something be beautiful if it isn’t seen? Obviously the answer is no which made me think that maybe there was more to the question so I started rambling about whether a tree that falls in the forest with no one to hear it makes a sound. And there obviously the answer is no, although the tree falling does create the potential for sound–that is, it vibrates the air in a way that would be perceived as sound if anyone were around to hear it, unless the tree falls in a vacuum. That’s all a matter of physics, though, whereas the question of beauty is a matter of metaphysics. And it is an interesting question, one that brings to mind the heavy philosophy of Roland Barthes who, in his essay The Death Of The Author, considered the role of the reader, or, in the case of art, the role of the spectator, in creating the work. It’s a cooperative process, and in the case of graffiti it becomes multilayered. The utilitarian object, mass-produced, is repurposed as a canvas and made unique. And what is beauty, anyway? Clearly it’s subjective, neither universal nor measurable, with no specific standard.

That was probably a longer answer than he wanted.



Is This A Joke?


So, as local station WZTV reported, the sticker “poor people: get out” was stuck to a street sign on Nashville’s Charlotte Avenue. It was quickly pulled down but not before it got noticed. I’ve featured that particular area frequently here in part because I know it well but also because it’s been gentrifying rapidly. Changes in the area are threatening to push current residents and businesses out as property prices, and new apartments, go up. So was the sticker meant as social commentary, a joke? Was it meant to be thought-provoking? Or was it serious? It’s impossible to say. A couple of years ago I found a similar sticker on a dumpster in another part of town and wondered the same thing.

Satire—assuming that’s what it was meant to be–is a tricky thing because it’s almost inevitable that someone will take the idea being satirized seriously, even if you add a jk or [/sarc] tag. Look hard enough and you’ll find someone who’ll believe almost anything.

Source: Slate

That seems like a joke until I heard about this guy planning to launch himself into space, and now I wonder if it was meant to be taken seriously.

I only know this Bloom County strip was a joke because, as I so often say, context matters.

Source: The Mond Pages

And in 1729 there might probably was at least one English noble who read Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal and said, “Eat babies? Sounds good to me!” and had to be restrained by his servants.

The thing about satire is that sometimes to make it clear that an idea is being satirized rather than being promoted the piece has to be so completely over the top it’s obvious, and this means satire can usually get lengthy, so I’ll just cut this short.

It’s Only Natural.

There’s a curious contradiction in the classical ideal of art. On the one hand classical artists sought to celebrate the eternal, the unchanging. Their aim was to create works that would live forever. They made sculptures of gods and goddesses and ideal heroes because these individuals were immortal. On the other hand these same artists copied from nature, and nature is always changing. There is nothing fixed or immortal in nature. That’s why you may have heard the joke, “If you don’t like the weather, stick around. It’ll change.” That’s a joke people make in [fill in literally anywhere in the universe except southern California].

Of course the idea may have been to improve on nature, to capture a moment and prevent it from changing, to freeze it, since absolute zero is the one state in which nothing changes.

The desire to copy nature is why Plato, in The Republic, argued that artists have no place in a perfect society, that they are in fact dangerous. Because artists copy nature, he argued, and because the nature they see is merely a shadow of the true nature, they move us farther away from the ideal.

Anyway watching the changing weather got me thinking about that and how much I hated Plato’s view of artists when I first read it when I was young. And now that I’m older, more mature, now that I’ve read more and thought more and have more experience of the world, well, I can honestly say I hate his view of artists even more.


Forgive Them Their Trespasses.

Source: Google Maps

“Or does it explode?”

Langston Hughes, Harlem

There’s a stretch of Nashville’s Charlotte Avenue, near Richland Park, that’s undergone tremendous transformation in the past few years. It’s gone from empty buildings and slightly seedy businesses to more upscale restaurants and apartments. Fortunately some of the older and friendly places—like Bobby’s Dairy Dip and Headquarters Coffee Shop—have stayed around, for now at least, but that’s another story.

At the center of it, though, is the old Madison Mill industrial complex. Officially vacant since 2015 I think it was stripped bare more than a decade ago. Plans to turn it into apartments and businesses have been made then scrapped, and it’s been popular with graffiti artists. I’ve collected quite a bit there, and I wish I’d collected more.

All the graffiti, at least what’s visible from the street, and probably all that’s inside too, has been painted over. The windows have been taken out and in the last week there have been signs of activity. Madison Mill, it seems, is about to be demolished.

The graffiti that was there is gone, but what will happen to the artists that used it? Often when I look at graffiti I imagine the person who created it. I imagine someone so desperate to express something they were willing to take the risk of being arrested, or worse. For some art is a hobby. For some it’s a compulsion.

What happens to them when they have no place to go?

Before it explodes here’s some of the graffiti I collected at the Madison Mill. Some of it shows real skill.



When Art Gives You Lemons…

How do you separate the art from the artist? Should you separate the art from the artist? Should we throw away good art because the artist is or was a terrible person? Those are questions that have been going around in my head long before recent events. Heck, they’re questions that have been with me at least since I read a biography of Picasso in my early teens, and they’re questions people might have been wrestling with at least as long as there have been artists. Even though the celebrity has been magnified by technology there’s a long history of artists behaving badly. Caravaggio literally got away with murder, and if you want to go back even farther Sophocles was accused of immoral behavior. So was Socrates, leading to his famous last words, “I drank what?” but that’s another story, and anyway, he’s a philosopher, not an artist.

In spite of years of discussion, reading, thinking, cogitating, ruminating, and occasional fermenting I don’t feel any closer now to answering those questions than I did when I was a teen. I am absolutely certain that being an artist, even an exceptional one, doesn’t excuse anyone from the same ethics and morals that apply to the rest of us. Beyond that, though, things get murky.

Anonymity in art is double-edged. It spares us any judgments about what kind of person the artist was but it also removes a lot of the context that we use to think about and understand art. The little piece above, which I realize isn’t graffiti but rather a work stuck in a bookshelf at JJ’s coffee shop, is interesting to me for a lot of reasons. The explanation “I am an artist because of my natural exile from normal people,” is part of the work itself, and it raises a lot of questions. Who is this artist? How are they exiled? And is it ethical or moral to turn a public figure into a lemon?

For What It’s Worth…

If you’re not familiar with the show Adam Ruins Everything here’s the pitch: comedian Adam Conover takes big subjects–weddings, pets, prison, death–and challenges common misconceptions about those subjects in entertaining ways. I’m kind of hooked on it and I rarely feel like anything’s really been ruined for me; I just feel slightly better informed, especially after watching several episodes in a row, which is why I dread the inevitable Adam Ruins Binge Watching, but that’s another story.

In a second season episode Adam Ruins Art he breaks down the idea that experts have an objective understanding of what’s good art and what’s bad art, and he explains that the sometimes ridiculous prices on art, especially modern art, mean that wealthy collectors can buy a piece then donate it and get a tax break. So it’s not just gallery owners and artists who have the chutzpah to smack a six-figure price tag on a pile of beer bottles and cigarette butts; it can benefit the collectors too. Anyway for a palette cleanser I switched over to the first season’s Adam Ruins Restaurants in which he talks about, among other things, how wine experts will praise an expensive wine and bash a cheap one even if it’s the same wine.

And that got me thinking about how we value things and how a high price can trick us into thinking something’s inherently more valuable than something with a low price, and, graffiti is pretty cheap. Most people even think graffiti brings down the value of an area, or they think about the cost of removing it. Graffiti might be the only art that’s seen as having a negative value. So consider this piece.

This funny, odd little fish made me smile when I saw it from the second floor of the Belcourt Theater. It was across the street, on a building that was under construction. And because of the way it was placed it could only be seen from inside the theater’s second floor, or if you were one of the construction crew. I only saw it after I’d bought a movie ticket. I wasn’t looking for graffiti but did that make a difference? And whoever put it there took a risk. They took the risk of being caught, of being injured. All that gets into my head and makes me wonder, what’s it worth?


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