Reprinted from City Journal.
Drive behind the Geffen Contemporary, an art museum in downtown Los Angeles, and you will notice that it has painted over the graffiti scrawled on its back wall. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t be surprising; the Geffen’s neighbors also maintain constant vigilance against graffiti vandalism. But beginning in April, the Geffen—a satellite of L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art—will host what MOCA proudly bills as America’s first major museum survey of “street art,” a euphemism for graffiti. Graffiti, it turns out, is something that MOCA celebrates only on other people’s property, not on its own.
MOCA’s exhibit, Art in the Streets (reviewed here), is the inaugural show of its new director, Jeffrey Deitch, a former New York gallery owner and art agent. Deitch’s now-shuttered Soho gallery showcased vandal-anarchist wannabes whose performance pieces and installations purported to strike a blow against establishment values and capitalism, even as Deitch himself made millions serving art collectors whose fortunes rested on capitalism and its underpinning in bourgeois values. MOCA’s show (which will also survey skateboard culture) raises such inconsistencies to a new level of shamelessness. Not only would MOCA never tolerate uninvited graffiti on its walls (indeed, it doesn’t even permit visitors to use a pen for note-taking within its walls, an affectation unknown in most of the world’s greatest museums); none of its trustees would allow their Westside mansions or offices to be adorned with graffiti, either.
Even this two-facedness pales beside 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. Lost in this antibourgeois posturing is the likely result of the museum’s graffiti glorification: a renewed commitment to graffiti by Los Angeles’s ghetto youth, who will learn that the city’s power class views graffiti not as a crime but as art worthy of curation. The victims will be the law-abiding residents of the city’s most graffiti-afflicted neighborhoods and, for those who care, the vandals themselves.
MOCA’s practice of removing graffiti from its premises represents cutting-edge urban policy; too bad its curatorial philosophy isn’t equally up-to-date. Graffiti is the bane of cities. A neighborhood that has succumbed to graffiti telegraphs to the world that social and parental control there has broken down. Potential customers shun graffiti-ridden commercial strips if they can; so do most merchants, fearing shoplifting and robberies. Law-abiding residents avoid graffiti-blighted public parks, driven away by the spirit-killing ugliness of graffiti as much as by its criminality.
There is no clearer example of the power of graffiti to corrode a public space than the fall and rebirth of New York’s subways. Starting in the late 1960s, an epidemic of graffiti vandalism hit the New York transit system, covering every subway with “tags” (runic lettering of the vandal’s nickname) and large, colored murals known as “pieces.” Mayor John Lindsay, an unequivocal champion of the urban poor, detested graffiti with a white-hot passion, but he was unable to stem the cancer. The city’s failure to control graffiti signaled that the thugs had won. Passengers fled the subways and kept going, right out of the city. To the nation, the graffiti onslaught marked New York’s seemingly irreversible descent into anarchy.
Yet in the late 1980s, the city vanquished the subterranean blight by refusing to allow scarred cars onto the tracks. That victory was a necessary precondition for the Big Apple’s renewal in the following decade; it was the first sign in years that New York could govern itself. Riders flooded back—by 2006, 2 million more passengers each day than in the eighties. The subway’s rising ridership was a barometer of the city’s rising fortunes.
Not everyone welcomed the conquest of subway graffiti. From its inception, New York’s tagging epidemic spawned a coterie of elite propagandists, who typically embraced graffiti not despite but because of its criminal nature. “You hit your name and maybe something in the whole scheme of the system gives a death rattle,” hopefully wrote Norman Mailer, graffiti’s most flamboyant publicist, in 1973. A glossy book of subway photographs by Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper, published in 1984, became known as the graffiti movement’s “Bible” for having inspired youth and adults the world over to deface property. (MOCA’s show will honor Chalfant and Cooper.) Such propaganda could reach absurd levels of pomposity. Mailer suggested that Puerto Rican graffitists were criticizing modern architecture (why they attacked Beaux Arts structures with equal zeal was not explained); journalist Richard Goldstein imagined Parisian vandals as budding deconstructionists, hip to the “decenteredness” of the “floating signifier.” By the time Chalfant and Cooper’s Subway Art was reissued in a fancy 25th anniversary edition, complete with a glowing blurb from Jeffrey Deitch, the graffiti-glorification industry was in high gear, counting thousands of books, magazines, documentaries, gallery shows, and websites dedicated to giving taggers the facile notoriety that they craved.
The two guest curators of Art in the Streets, Roger Gastman and Aaron Rose, are longtime members of this graffiti-glorification industry; both have produced documentaries on “street art.” Gastman’s film, Infamy, profiles (among several other taggers) what it calls “an industry-standard classic” of the graffiti subculture: a gangly, fast-talking young hustler named Earsnot. Understand Earsnot, and you understand everything you need to know about the world that MOCA deems worthy of celebration.
Earsnot is a member of Irak, an infamous New York City tagging crew. Only a graffiti ignoramus would think that “Irak” is a political reference; rather, it is a play on “I rack,” that is, I steal. (Stealing is so entrenched a practice among graffiti vandals that a line of spray paint designed exclusively for graffiti, Montana Colors, is sold only by mail order. The company is underwriting Art in the Streets.) Earsnot, who sports flashy platinum mouth bling, justifies his crew’s name every day. The camera follows him as he shoplifts a silver Magic Marker from a New York hardware store (“You need to be fucking David Copperfield to get a couple of Magic Markers out of this store,” he grouses), calmly tries it out on three mailboxes, and then petulantly complains about the quality of the merchandise: “This marker is such shit.” Earsnot has a strict code of what he will not deign to purchase. “I will not pay for Gore-Tex, chicken cutlets, steaks, or meat,” he announces self-righteously. “If I pay for something, I feel really stupid about it—I could’ve racked that shit.” As the camera lovingly chronicles his tagging spree across Manhattan, he shares his personal philosophy: “I like it especially when I can see the cops and I’m catching my tag and I’m like, ‘I can see where you are so I’m not getting caught.’ You want to fucking break the law and there’s nothing you can fucking do. I’m going to be fucking bad. You can make the laws; it doesn’t mean everyone will follow them.”
Far from being appalled by Earsnot, Infamy’s creators are clearly charmed by him. The documentary’s publicity materials highlight his mockery of his hardworking victims and revel in his crew’s lawbreaking. Irak’s “motto is ‘Every night is New Year’s Eve,’ and their days and nights are a sea of graffiti, drugs, theft, and rolling like kings into the best nightclubs and parties,” reports the film’s advertising copy. “Each day as the crew wakes up, they’re all broke again, so they head to the shops and boutiques of New York—where Black kids such as Earsnot are usually followed by watchful staff—and still manage to commit grand larceny without a problem.” Cool! Of course, Infamy’s producers would deem those watchful staffers racist, though the documentary provides solid justification for their concern, in Earsnot’s case.
Earsnot’s amoral sense of entitlement is at the core of graffiti culture. One of Deitch’s favorite graffiti vandals, Saber, defiantly tells the camera in Infamy: “I write graffiti, and you gotta deal with it.” (Saber’s fame comes from having painted on the Los Angeles river channel the largest graffiti moniker ever recorded.)
Though infantile solipsism drives the graffiti phenomenon, its perpetrators often dress up their disregard for others as grand political gesture. Naturally, they turn to that tired trope of privileged Western leftists: the evil of business. The standard line among graffitists and their fans is that because big, bad corporations advertise, vandals have the right to deface other people’s property. British cult hero Banksy writes in his glossy coffee-table book Wall and Piece ($23 on Amazon): “The people who truly deface our neighborhoods are the companies that scrawl giant slogans across buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff. They expect to be able to shout their message in your face from every available surface but you’re never allowed to answer back. Well, they started the fight and the wall is the weapon of choice to hit them back.”
Leave aside the fact that corporations buy advertising space in a fair exchange, whereas the graffiti vandal commandeers others’ rights. Leave aside, too, that graffiti is scrawled as often on public as on private property. The real puzzle of Banksy’s left-wing platitudes is how defacing a civic monument, say (Banksy has tagged the base of an already cruelly assaulted Mercury in Barcelona, as Wall and Piece proudly documents), hurts Def Jam Recordings when it advertises the latest Kanye West album on the Sunset Strip. Banksy apparently feels that his name and his stencils are so compelling that they weaken corporate power wherever they are found.
Barry McGee, long in the Deitch orbit, is another political philosopher manqué. Beautiful Losers, the documentary made by MOCA’s second guest curator, Aaron Rose, shows the 40-something McGee adding his tag, TWIST, to severely scarred walls and stairwells. The film then settles down to an interview with the pensive master. As McGee pushes a stick and pebbles around on a patch of bare dirt, his eyes averted from the camera and covered with a loose shock of hair, he disburdens himself of the following gem: “I think the basic tag, and tagging, and tagging on private, like, you know, on private property, I like to think of it as something that’s, like, really political and, you know, as antagonistic, but it’s not really that antagonistic. If it’s antagonistic, you know, get rid of it, like, with a roller, but I think the act in itself is antagonistic.”
The late graffiti vandal Dash Snow, a pathetic, self-destructive heir to the de Menil fortune and a colleague of Earsnot’s in the Irak crew, was asked in a Web video what he believed in. “I don’t believe in the laws or the system by any means. I try not to obey them at any time,” the strikingly beautiful faker mumbled in response, unable to make eye contact with the interviewer. Snow won notoriety for his “Hamster Nest” extravaganzas, wherein he and a collaborator would trash a hotel room by opening all the taps, pulling the curtains off their rods, and shredding dozens of phone books while ingesting industrial quantities of drugs. Snow also showed his disregard for “the laws” and “the system” by dribbling newspaper photographs of police officers with his own semen. Jeffrey Deitch managed to commission this visionary to re-create a Hamster Nest in his gallery before Snow died, at age 27, of a drug overdose.
Shepard Fairey, who became widely known for the ubiquitous HOPE poster that he designed to support Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, was already famous in the graffiti world for slapping stickers with an image of an old World Wrestling Federation character and the command OBEY over various city surfaces. Fairey, who will be contributing what he calls “graphic re-illustrations of my outdoor work” to the MOCA show, also invokes commercial advertising to justify the defacement of public and private property. In a rambling 1990 manifesto, he noted that some people had tried to peel his OBEY stickers off mailboxes and lampposts, viewing them as an “eyesore and an act of petty vandalism.” Such unenlightened actions were “ironic,” he wrote, “considering the number of commercial graphic images everyone in American society is assaulted with daily.”
As for Jeffrey Deitch himself, the petite, tightly wound “gallerist” is a far more cautious speaker than the graffiti vandals he patronizes, affecting an almost Warhol-like blankness. His chic suits and self-designed round glasses contrast sharply with the jeans, T-shirts, and baseball caps favored by his downtown poseurs. Yet beneath that Zegna blazer beats the heart of a Deadhead, he wants us to know. Art Forum interviewed him in 2010 in anticipation of his move to Los Angeles. “I’m a child of 1960s idealism, where we really believed that art and a progressive attitude toward life could change consciousness,” he told the magazine. He particularly valued the late Keith Haring, a graffitist and poster artist, for “warning us about subversive forces in the military, government, business—entities we needed to keep fighting against.”
So what happens when these critics of corporate power and bourgeois values see an opportunity for profit? They turn into grasping capitalists. Earsnot’s Irak crew “now offers its services as fashion and lifestyle consultants, along with their IRAK NY clothing line,” report the Infamy producers. Banksy’s stencils have pulled in hundreds of thousands of pounds at Sotheby’s auctions. Saber, who declares in an interview with the graffiti journal Arrested Motion that “there is no room for empathy when there is a motive for profit,” has sold his designs to Levi’s, Hyundai, and Harley-Davidson. Other graffiti thugs featured in Infamy have contracts with Nike, Guinness, Foot Locker, and Calvin Klein, all of which have been wont to “scrawl giant slogans across buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff.” Snow managed to choke down his contempt for “the system” long enough to suck up the proceeds from the sales of his works to the Greek investor Dakis Joannou, an important Deitch client, and the art dealer Charles Saatchi, among others.
Fairey had already been busily leveraging his obey-sticker notoriety into lines of clothing and collectibles (as well as continuing to vandalize property) when he struck it rich with the Obama poster. The Associated Press sued him for appropriating its Obama photograph without permission. So unwilling was Fairey to share any of his wealth with the AP that he knowingly perjured himself in court and submitted false images to cover up his use of the photo. He finally settled for an undisclosed sum in January 2011, stating primly, “I respect the work of photographers”—but only, it seems, when a lawsuit forces him to.
Art in the Streets cocurator Gastman also runs a publicity agency, R. Rock Enterprises (RRE), whose website boasts in fawning marketing-speak: “Our artists can design cutting-edge graphics and logos for brands seeking to communicate with a progressive, art-savvy audience. [RRE] has a wide range of clients, from major corporations to independent small businesses.” Could Gastman be producing—gasp!—corporate advertising? The same Gastman who approvingly quotes a Philadelphia vandal: “Graffiti to me was war with the establishment—bombing corporate and government, big-money stuff”?
Deitch outdoes all these rebels in his savvy exploitation of property rights. Early in his career, he “shamelessly” ingratiated himself with the superrich, he informed The New Yorker in 2007. By 1988, he was making as much as Citibank’s CEO. Today, as he yachts around the Greek isles with his industrialist clients and generates fat commission fees for procuring the identical stable of big-name hucksters (Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Takashi Murakami) for billionaires’ art collections, his income undoubtedly makes those early returns look puny.
Deitch intends to turn MOCA’s museum store into a corporate showcase, notwithstanding the antibusiness play-acting of his “street art” retinue: “We are looking at a rapidly changing landscape where many advertisers don’t want conventional print or television ads,” he told Art Forum. “They want to connect with the community in a more interesting way, and there is subsequently great potential for museums to work with sponsors, for partnerships with luxury and consumer brands.”
Not to fear: “transgressive” is still one of the highest compliments that Deitch can bestow. For one of his New York dinner parties, he commissioned a performance piece in which unclothed gay Austrians urinated into one another’s hats while standing on a scaffold above the dinner guests. The work was “spectacular, perverse, uplifting, beautifully horrifying, and deeply transgressive,” Deitch told The New Yorker. The desperation of the art impresario to find anything that can still “transgress” in the endless post-Duchamp era is a piteous thing.
If you’d like further proof of the hunger for status and wealth that lies beneath the antiestablishment pose of graffiti vandals, look no further than their toadying to powerful patrons. In December 2010, Jeffrey Deitch ordered that a mural on the outside of the Geffen Contemporary that he had commissioned for Art in the Streets be painted over. (This mural, by the Italian “street artist” Blu, was separate from the nondescript graffiti tags that are regularly erased from the Geffen’s back wall.) The mural’s dollar-bill-draped soldiers’ coffins were inappropriate, Deitch said, given the Geffen’s proximity to a Veterans Affairs hospital and to a memorial to Japanese-American soldiers.
The graffiti blogosphere angrily accused Deitch of “censorship.” Shepard Fairey, however, sprang to Deitch’s defense with an obsequiousness that would make a courtier at Versailles look like a paragon of principle. “I’m not a fan of censorship but that is why I, and many of the other artists of the show, chose to engage in street art for its democracy and lack of bureaucracy,” Fairey oozed in a prepared statement. “However, a museum is a different context with different concerns. . . . Street art or graffiti purists are welcome to pursue their art on the streets as they always have without censorship. I think that though MOCA wants to honor the cultural impact of the graffiti/street art movement, it only exists in its purist form in the streets from which it arose.”
Fairey has strung one non sequitur after another here. The fact that “street artists” can continue vandalizing their usual haunts does not make Deitch’s alleged “censorship” acceptable. Presumably, Fairey would not have accepted the argument that George W. Bush could have thrown Cindy Sheehan in prison because other war protesters were still at large. Further, “street artists” take up graffiti not to defy “censorship” heroically, as Fairey implies (graffiti, after all, is painted over far more frequently than commissioned artwork), but because they want the thrill of breaking the law.
Of course, Deitch could be legitimately defended on the ground that he was not, in fact, censoring anything. Censorship is what happens when the government exercises monopolistic coercion over citizen expression. Private patrons, by contrast, have no obligation to preserve the work that they have commissioned. But that argument would put Fairey at odds with the contemporary art establishment, which claims free-speech martyrdom every time a private institution rejects its work.
The most hilarious aspect of Fairey’s statement, however, is the noblesse oblige with which he “welcomes” graffitists to continue defacing other people’s property. Who is Fairey to issue such an invitation? As for his pretentious claim that graffiti is “democratic,” he has obviously never asked a property owner whether his vote was taken in the matter of being vandalized. For Fairey, “democracy” means being able to take what you want from someone else, without consequences.
Other prominent “street artists” under Deitch’s wing simply went mute after the mural effacement. “They’re being silent because they don’t want to jeopardize the opportunity to be in the exhibit,” street muralist and gallery owner Alex Poli, Jr. told the Los Angeles Times. So much for courage in standing up to the Man.
Even before Deitch arrived in Los Angeles, the “street art” community was bowing and scraping. “Jeffrey is a phenomenal businessman,” cocurator Aaron Rose said to the magazine Fast Company in January 2010. This may be the first time that a member of the graffiti establishment has used the term “businessman” as an honorific.
How much serious thought had Deitch given to graffiti before bestowing MOCA’s imprimatur upon it? Available evidence suggests: zero. Deitch’s understanding of the impact of graffiti on civic life is as superficial as that of the perpetual adolescents whose posturing he bankrolls. I spoke with him in January, after a screening at MOCA of a documentary about a kitschy underground cartoonist, Robert Williams. Middle-aged art-world groupies in tight miniskirts, black boots, and bright red lipstick buzzed around Deitch, taking pictures, while Deitch, in a tan suit and open collar, projected cool impassivity. “What is the message you hope to send with the graffiti show?” I asked. “To take this really seriously,” he replied. “What about the fact that graffiti appropriates someone’s property?” “I’m not going to be moralistic about it.” Deitch means “moralistic” as a put-down; one wonders whether, if his luxury car were stolen, he would consider it “moralistic” to call the police.
Property owners bring graffiti on themselves, according to Deitch. “You’ll be blasted if you use roll-down gates or if you don’t keep your property up and be welcoming,” he asserted. Nonsense. Graffitists don’t distinguish among “welcoming” and “unwelcoming” proprietors; they hit the most eye-catching, status-producing target, or simply whatever is at hand, such as the Geffen Contemporary. Moreover, that Deitch would fault a struggling store owner in a crime-plagued area for using roll-down gates suggests just how clueless he is about the world beyond Spring Street in Soho and Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles.
The assertion that graffiti is retribution for irresponsible proprietor behavior is inconsistent with Deitch’s decision to celebrate graffiti with a museum exhibit. If graffiti were a positive urban art form, it would not allegedly be inflicted as punishment for poor community relations; it would be conferred like a Good Housekeeping seal of approval. Deitch’s ascription of fault to graffiti’s victims at least suggests a slight pricking of conscience about his glorification of graffiti—unfortunately, not one strong enough to stop the exhibit.
Certain inescapable implications follow from the decision to mount a graffiti show in a museum. Deitch has clearly confronted none of them. The city and county of Los Angeles annually spend over $30 million on graffiti abatement, a sum that does not include law enforcement and court time, private outlays, or the hidden costs of fear and lost neighborhood vitality. The city could save a lot of money by suspending its graffiti-eradication efforts. “Should it?” I asked Deitch. “I don’t know,” he responded. This will not do. If graffiti is a boon, the city should not waste its money trying to paint it over. If the city is right to paint over graffiti, why is Deitch promoting it?
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