Monday, July 30, 2007

Public Art = Decades in Prison

KET, an acclaimed graffiti artist, is facing decades in prison. Decades. For spray paint. Seems the semi-retired 80s graff writer's tag has been appearing on subway cars again recently. The police have no evidence that this is not the work of a copycat, but when has circumstantiality ever stopped cops? A legal defense benefit is happening here.

This brings to mind the recent NYC ordinance that allows anyone under 18 to be arrested for carrying a wide-tipped magic marker. I guess this is what we need to keep New York safe for all the sex-in-the-city/Maxim magazine little shits that are moving here. And this (in addition to its being middlebrow twaddle) is why I hate Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point: he gave legitimacy to the theory that you can keep a city safe by arresting artists. I, for one, would rather see pretty colors and bubble letters all over my city than ads for liquor and jeans and slasher movies. But corporations get to force me to look at their offensive nonsense every damn day, while a painter gets ripped away from his family.

This country stinks.


Mel said...

I don't care to endorse the nonsensical prosecution of KET or the police harassment of artists or of minorities. That said, I have difficulty excepting the generous bounty you grant to terms like art and artists in this post and feel that you ought to be a bit more vigourous in your presentation and prosecution of these terms.

Four years ago in the NB, on Thanksgiving, some brat tagged every car that was parked on my street. Including my old, dear shiny blue cavalier (I had owned it but 3 months). I had to tutor many a child at plangere to afford to have the disputed expression removed. Was is public art or public expression? Or was it puerile vandalism?
Is "vandalism" "art" because he who sprays says it is art? Because intellectuals interpret it as art to support greater political agendas ? Because a neighborhood responds to it as art?
Is it art if the erstwhile vandal is the urban citizen expressing himself against corporate capitalism or government oppression via spray paint on commercial or public buildings? Does this change if it is private property which is specifically target, such as Justin Timberlake's house?

If I own something and it is aesthetically altered without my consent by a self-proclaimed or intellectual-proclaimed or discontent-proclaimed or even publicly-proclaimed artist, is it art or is it vandalism? Does freedom of expression extend to other people's property? (Legally or in spirit?)

If Du Champ had painted a mustache on the authentic mona lisa instead of his reproduction, would that still be art? Or have we entered into the realm of vandalism.

I don't think any of these have clear answers.
Art, society, and the capitalist paradigms enjoy a vexed relationship at best, certainly; yet, think of some 'thing' you own, enjoy, or appreciate and how pissed you would be if I took a sharpie to it in a mad rush of self-expression.

I don't support the ill-founded circumstantial prosecution of this individual, but the greater tension of the artist/vandal and private or protected property is not nearly as simple as you here suggest by aligning it with the specious racist/elitist hijinx of the NYPD.

Neither do I agree with the copious girth of your term Public Art. While you are certainly entitled to rant about companies assaulting the common man with Ads in public space, do you really see this as absolutely commensurate with uninvited private expression in public space? This strikes me as an argument which suggests if there is corruption then we might as well have anarchy; I don't personally agree with that type of leveling. But then I've always been close to Hobbes at heart.

Saladin said...

Dear Mel -

Thanks for your post. I agree that many of the questions you raise don't have clear answers.

I would make a pretty sharp distinction between hastily scrawled gang (or wannabe gang) tags made on an individual person's small shop or car and the kind of painstaking, craft-oriented aesthetic aodrnment that graf artists like KET have always been about. The ride from New Brunswick to New York on NJTransit, for instance, would be (other than the ghetto herons and cranes) aesthetically unbearable if not for the shifting, multicolored compositions that local artists have sprayed along that corridor.

Part of the problem, I think, is that we as a culture need to better distinguish between the 'rights' accorded to various entities -- I stand up for your right not to have some kid tag your car. But how does this balance the 'rights' of coporations to take up every bit of public space? The right of the city of NY to put American flag stickers on subway cars as soon as we start bombing another country? The rights of some junior high kid in Newark with no art classes and no real hope of ever having more than 5 people take notice of his creative aspirations?

As to what constitutes public art , I don't know. But I do know that as long as governments and corporations have all of the money, the only art that will have much of a chance of really being publicly visible will be assimilated to pretty hideous priorities. Or it will be illegal.