Art critics, art historians, and even artists have a lot of terms for art—terms for types of art, for techniques, and so on—so it’s funny to me whenever I think of the line attributed to various people “Writing about art is like dancing about architecture.” Actually I would like to see dancing about architecture; it would be more interesting than most of what I’ve read about architecture, but that’s another story. And I get it. If I use the term “landscape” it’s probably going to conjure up a very different image, or set of images, in your mind than what I’m thinking of, but that’s the beauty of language, and art, and the language we use to talk about art. It’s not a failing of language that it doesn’t capture “the real thing”; it’s what gives language its flexibility, and the flexibility makes it useful. Art is a form of language, and vice versa, and everything exists in and is shaped by context. Artists are inspired by each other and do similar things, but those inspirations are also a jumping-off point for doing their own thing, just as we all use the same words in conversation but with our own individual perspective.
What powered this particular train of thought was the term “graffiti” and how it’s evolved over time—from a term that referred to messages ancient Greek tourists scratched into monuments that said things like, “cool pyramids, would recommend” to painted works, and from there the terminology starts to get really fuzzy. For some people “graffiti” is illegal, a form of vandalism, no matter how well done it is. And then there are commissioned and approved works of art that look like graffiti—murals that use bubble or jagged letters, for instance. And I know some people call that “street art”. Or they use the term “street art” to refer to the illegal stuff and “graffiti” to refer to the approved works. It all gets really confusing and I’m not gonna tell anyone how they should or shouldn’t use the terms because I’m still wondering why there’s no graffiti in American Graffiti.
And I didn’t just randomly start thinking about the term “graffiti”. What started me on that was the car that graffiti artist Kyle Bryce Monteiro painted to look like a cartoon car. It’s really cool and obviously thought-provoking.
Just don’t get me started on the etymology of the term cartoon.