- On the sad spectacle of graffiti in the musuem.
Of all spurious forms of contemporary art, perhaps the most ostentatiously disagreeable is so-called “graffiti art.” What it represents is the elevation of a public nuisance into a protected and adulated form of creative endeavor. Because it has its origin in an activity that involves a contempt for private property, its rebirth as art—a specially venerated species of property—involves all manner of contradictions, not to say hypocritical evasions, on the part of those who practice and those who hawk and display the stuff. In the Spring issue of City Journal, Heather Mac Donald, taking off from an exhibition of such “street art” at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, provides a long and patient demolition of this form of urban squalor masquerading as art.
What’s particularly irritating about graffiti art is the way it enshrines something that is both hideous to look at and offensive to contemplate. Épater la bourgeois: shocking the middle class has been a cherished goal of the avant garde since the birth of the movement in the nineteenth century. The fact that the middle class long ago enlisted themselves as co-collaborators in this project of rote titillation transformed the avant garde into a reactionary force in everything but posture and rhetoric. The amazing thing has been the longevity of this new incarnation of Salon art: year after year, decade after decade, “artists” and their eager if jaded public rehearse the tired old pantomime: the party of the first part recycles some bit of Dada while the party of the second pretends to be shocked or at least interested. How can they keep it up? The energizing lubrication, we suspect, is not surprise, novelty, or shock; it certainly isn’t aesthetic interest. Perhaps it is the large supply of cash that seems still, even now, to circulate around these performances—cash and that other enlivening if illiquid currency, celebrity. The thing that makes graffiti or (a perhaps more accurate term) defacement art so viscerally unappealing is the element of effrontery it involves. You cannot see the stencil-like scrawls without thinking of the perfectly innocent public structure that was marred by some spray-paint-wielding hooligan.
Ms. Mac Donald provides an expert anatomy of this species of psychopathology. She guys the wretched (if lavishly compensated) dealers who traffic in this form of defacement and dissects “the hypocrisy of the graffiti vandals themselves, who wage war on property rights until presented with the opportunity to sell their work or license it to a corporation. At that point, they grab all the profits they can stuff into their bank accounts.” That little dialectic—rail against capitalism, “greed,” and corporate interests while assiduously lining your bank account with the lucre such disquisitions elicit—is by now a hoary old standby in the metabolism of left-liberal dissimulation. [...] Read more