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On the dangers of “Art”

Originally published at Quantum Matrix Scribe. Please leave any comments there.

Art is a funny thing. Many people chase after it, unhappy with their works because it is not truly “art,” and they are not yet “artists.” But what is art? Quite frankly, I find a lot of art to be crap. And now its starting to get dangerous.

In the literary and dramatic world, I’m sure a lot of people–or at least a lot of literary critics–would label novels like Ethan Frome and plays such as “Waiting for Godot” to be art. But what are they? Godot is nothing–I mean, literally, nothing. Some snobbish twits talk about how its about existentialism and how nothing matters and how life is meaningless. What it is is a couple of guys sitting around doing nothing and waiting for nothing. There’s no big philosophical discovery there, which you could only extract if you’re a believer in extracting blood from a boulder. And Ethan Frome–well, I’m sorry to use indecorous, unparliamentary language here, but its the only way to explain it properly–is one of the most boring piece of shit novels ever written, and I go further to add it is certainly the most boring piece of shit novel I’ve ever read. There is absolutely nothing of value in it.*

This is why I hate literary fiction so much, because in the pursuit of “art” and literary excellence, they kill any story that could possibly be written.

But at least that meant that “art” was only boring. I’ll take boring over this new tripe that’s coming in any day.

First off, we have a museum that has dedicated an exhibit to graffiti. Now, I wouldn’t be, prima facie, opposed to such an exhibit. Graffiti exists, its out there, you can study it if you want to. The problem with this exhibit is that it completely ignores the vandalism, property violation, and coercion inherent in graffiti, and just treats it as harmless “art”:

But the core of Art in the Streets is a timeline of graffiti history that snakes around the discontinuous walls of the Geffen Contemporary. In a show devoid of explanatory wall essays, the timeline provides the best insight into how Deitch and his guest curators Roger Gastman and Aaron Rose conceive of graffiti and its social and civil context. In sum: vacuously. The timeline picks out such allegedly memorable moments in graffiti history as the emergence of bubble lettering on the New York subways (1972), the contributions of subway vandals Blade and the Crazy Five in 1974, who did “more damage than any other crew in the 1970s” (way to go!), the first defacement of freeway signs in Los Angeles (1988), and the start of the sticker phenomenon (1989) that allows greater speed and thus wider geographical coverage. All of these developments are presented with utter seriousness and, more importantly, without the slightest hint that they are crimes, that they appropriate and damage property without permission, and that they destroy urban vitality.

Over the last three decades an uncontested body of knowledge has evolved regarding the poisonous effect of graffiti on neighborhood cohesion and safety. You cannot responsibly present a show on graffiti without engaging with this body of knowledge, if only to reject it. Even Banksy mentioned the Broken Windows theory of public disorder in his book Wall and Piece (he predictably mocked the theory). And his publisher, Random House, at least wanly tried to distance itself from crime, with the ineffectual disclaimer: “This book contains the creative/artistic element of graffiti art and is not meant to encourage or induce graffiti where it is illegal or inappropriate.”

But Art in the Streets has no response to the argument that graffiti is a scourge on cities, because it simply chooses to ignore any idea that contravenes its simplistic celebration of property defacement. I found only three highly oblique acknowledgments in the show of graffiti’s illegal and destructive nature. The timeline notes that in 1972 the Philadelphia transit system began the country’s first anti-graffiti initiative. The timeline also ruefully acknowledges that in 1989, the New York transit system declared victory over graffiti (though, in an effort to keep hope alive, the timeline adds that the system failed to “stop writers such as Ghost”). That these transportation agencies would even try to eradicate graffiti comes as a complete surprise, since nothing in the show has hinted that graffiti is anything other than a productive pastime and delightful urban amenity.


You call this "art?" (David McNew/Getty Images)

This is ridiculous. Are we going to start classifying dirty phrases written on bathroom stall doors as poetry? Really, now. Let’s completely forget the fact that a graffiti “artist” is nothing more than a vandal that forcibly imposes his or her “artistic vision” onto another person’s property, whether that property belongs to an individual, a family, or a company (just because a company owns a property doesn’t make the graffiti permissible, either, else you’ll open a huge can of worms that essentially makes anybody you don’t like lose all of their rights, which can just as easily turned back upon you.) It’s like if I chose to write a novel upon your roll of toilet paper. Now, I could certainly write a novel upon a roll of toilet paper no problem, but that’s your toilet paper, which you’ve bought with your hard-earned money, and, well, you’d kinda like to use it now, wouldn’t you? But I’m afraid you can’t, now, because it’s “art.” (Or I may end up letting you use it, with the, ahem, indescribable activities destroying my writing and calling that art. Which is still some kind of insanity, but doesn’t justify taking your toilet paper without your permission.)

And this is before we get to the very subjective opinion I hold that graffiti is ugly. I have seen only two or three instances of graffiti in my life that were anything other than “grody,” and those are questionable, as they were likely commissioned by the city on abandoned buildings that stood out right next to a big boulevard. (I don’t have concrete proof, mind you, but that was the most likely outcome.) Those obese, gaudy letters, shaking and quaking all over their anointed real estate, bursting at the seems to get your attention, more like being puked up there by a very sick individual. This part is, of course, entirely my opinion, but I don’t see graffiti as being anything other than that word I used: “grody.”

But at the very least, graffiti harms property, not individuals. Some forms of art do.

Take the instance of a young man stabbing himself to death at open mic night.

An Oregon teenager shocked a crowd at a coffee shop last week when he stabbed himself to death on stage after singing at an open mic night.

Kipp Rusty Walker, 19, took the stage at Strictly Organic Coffee in the town of Bend, Or. on Thursday to perform a song he called “Sorry for the Mess.”

When he finished playing, he pulled out a knife with a double-edged 6 inch blade and stabbed himself multiple times in the chest in front of a confused crowd of roughly 15 people.

“It was really unclear at first what was even happening. Because, you know, it is an open mic and it’s a performance,” the shop’s co-owner Rhonda Ealy told local television station KTVZ. “People at first thought it was some sort of theatre.”

Some sort of theatre.


And yet, this is where we are now, to where “art” or “theatre” is now a form of “death.” Now, I can’t say whether or not the boy in question killed himself in order to make a work of “art,” but the idea of death or killing being art is not unprecedented. I read a comic once, where the artist took over a spaceship that is effectively an art museum, and for her latest artwork decided to blow it up and everyone else inside. I laughed at that, thought it was funny, thought no one would do that in real life, hence it was funny…not so funny now.

If this is what art is being turned into, I want no part of it. Rather, I would like to just tell cool stories and make a lot of money. That seems the more reasonable, the more sane, the more ethical way of doing things.

*Unless you want to use it as toilet paper.