Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Subconscious Modernism of Graffiti Removal

I was aware of the existence and thesis of this film, The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal, since it was screened at my alma mater but I hadn't actually seen it until now. In some ways this is actually a good thing as my opinions on art and the-state-of-the-world have only progressed since I was an undergrad art school student. That being said, while the film, like most contemporary art, contains a certain tongue-in-cheek element which unfortunately runs the risk of undermining the legitimacy of what is being said, I agree wholeheartedly with the thesis of the film. In addition to this, I will take it a step further and argue that the unintentional abstract art being produced by graffiti removal workers is far better than the intentional art of hipster taggers.

For one, the removal pieces are very much within the tradition of abstract modernist painting, far more so than contemporary 'street art' which is far more indebted to advertising and guerrilla marketing. In addition to the comparisons McCormick makes between the geometric style of buffing and the works of Mark Rothko, I would say that the ghosting style has much in common with the works of Clyfford Still while the radical style mimics the works of Hans Hoffmann, particularly the appropriately titled Golden Wall.

Secondly, the removal pieces blend organically with their urban environment producing a holistic approach to modern living. Here the blotches of color on the walls match the geometricity of city buildings which hint at an integral approach to urban society: one where all the puzzle pieces fit together and each service and job is linked inextricably to the principle of enjoyment for all of the city's inhabitants.

Tagging, on the other hand, is purposely disjointed and unassimilable. It often commits the visual faux pas of trying to walk the line between text and abstraction, leaving the viewer in limbo trying to either appreciate the line work or decipher the meaning of the tag itself. Given the difficulty with and outright hostility to the english language which seems to afflict the tagger community, one would do better to find meaning and intention in the crude scrawlings found in public lavatories.

It is no wonder that urbania (my personal term for the scene encompassing tagging, stenciling, and hipster fashions which often feature the previously mentioned styles printed on clothes) has become the It aesthetic of the cultural classes, just consider the current fame being bestowed on Shepard Fairey and Banksy, when one considers the ideology behind such works. Despite the apparent celebration of the urban environment, this aesthetic actually reinforces the most negative views concerning urban living and the modern cityscape. Looking at a wall covered with tags or an electrical box swarmed with stickers and stencils, the lack of a focal point, something present in all great artworks, is the first thing the viewer notices. As such, the conclusion one is to make from this is a celebration of the visual schizophrenia cited by detractors of city dwelling. The onslaught of various floating signifiers which reign down on the isolated individual producing only confusion and despair. Here the connection with advertising becomes apparent.

The ideology inherent in urbania views the modern city not as a potential Athenian city-state but as a concrete jungle inhabited with modern primitives who compete with eachother over resources for survival, this constant struggle being the only common factor uniting each individual. Nowhere is this more obvious than with tagging. While visual advertising seeks to stand out from the environment in which it is placed so as to impress upon the viewer it's message endorsing a certain service or product, tagging uses the same technique to simply advertise a cool personality or individual, someone to come to your loft parties and drink all your beer and smoke all your weed. As such, tagging and the culture of underground celebrity it perpetuates is no different from the mainstream media's cult of reality TV 'stars', people being famous simply for having their face or name disseminated into pop discourse.

One can't but also note the class difference between the graffiti removal worker and the contemporary hipster. While the former works humbly works with his hands for a paycheck in what is often a public sector job, the latter can't help but impose his personality on everyone under the guise of art in what is nothing more than the aesthetic equivalent of, "Hey, look at me! I'm fucking cool." Perhaps the tagger thinks that he can use such works on his resume when he applies for a graphic design job making corporate logos. So while the abstract buffs of graffiti removal incorporate the general aesthetic of the surrounding environment, aiming for a cohesive and enjoyable visual experience while being produced anonymously, tagging has no respect for it's context and is wrapped up in bourgeois notions of authorship.

As such, the art of urbania, despite it's occasional bogus radicalism (see my previous post on Shepard Fairey), openly celebrates the barbarity of present day capitalism and the accompanying culture of childish individualism and insincerity. This being said, I do not intend to make a blanket statement which seeks to paint all street scrawlings with the same brush.

The face pictured below (featuring two views of the same work) is to be found under a bridge in the center of my hometown. The minimal line work is reminiscent of some of the single cell cartoons featured in mid century magazines and also reflects the linear cuts of the concrete on which it is painted. The face itself contains an element of humor which puts a smile on the face of the passing viewer. This simplicity and humor also seeks to humanize the urban environment in which it is found.

Another street artist whose work I have reviewed in the past, is Oneiric Imperium. Of course, to simply call him a street artist is to deny him some much deserved credit. Bood Samel's gestamkunstwerk includes stickers, drawings, power electronics recordings and performances, photography and experimental film. What ties all these diverse mediums together is a world view based in a mystical individualism which find fragments of transcendence and otherworldliness among the grime and vacated spaces of his native Philadelphia. Rather than imposing an inauthentic personality on everyone and everything, Samel's street pieces provide an area where the irrational and symbolic elements of one's subjectivity can be linked with the external environment. As such, it constitutes a form of psychogeography whereby one can manipulate the urban environment in accordance with one's own dreams. The map is not the territory, indeed!

In closing, the urban environment is not necessarily the concrete jungle which it's detractors make it out to be. In fact, the city could be the nucleus for a decentralized, communal democracy in which the unchecked potential of creative individuals thrives alongside a sense of collective responsibility. For this to occur, however, urban art forms which encourage and glorify competition for it's own sake as well as a crass and puerile individualism need to be recognized for what they are and scrapped.


rmangum said...

Fascinating post! Does this make Rothko and co. social prophets a la Warhol?

I just had a moment of synchronicity. While reading your post with my ipod on shuffle, the song "City Jungle pt. 1" by obscure 60's psych band Beautiful Daze (from Pebbles Vol 3: the Acid Gallery" came up.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you. Our language, our art, our social structures all serve to alienate the person rather then to unite in community. However, every now and then a little humanity shines through as with the humble graffiti removal worker.

James O'Meara said...

Oddly enough, Fairey's in the Onion this week - I mean, in the supposedly serious "arts" section. His Motorhead t-shirt and Zeppelin cover make me want to like him, but then he says this and reminds me why "street art" sucks:

I actually saw editorials in Boston saying, “Next thing you know, if Shepard Fairey gets away with having his show at the museum and doing his street art, every house in Boston’s going to be spray-painted.”

AVC: You’re the gateway drug.

SF: Exactly.

Actually, "street art" was my anti-gateway drug, as it were, where I finally realized that 'liberals' are bat-shit crazy. The idea that perfectly good public property could be spraypainted by random vandals and be not only "beautiful" but "revolutionary" was so self-evidently absurd ['drinking the Kool-Aid" as we would say today] that I could never take them seriously again. I believe it was Hakim Bey writing about the 'visionary miracle" of a subway train at dawn, covered in graffiti.
This was at a time when the city was full of terrified ordinary workers who just wanted to ride in a car that didn't look like it came from the set of The Equalizer.

As for Fairey, you'll note he doesn't really walk way from the idea, just the obvious exaggeration. I'm sure he'd be just delighted by hordes of self-appointed 'artist' defacing every home in Boston. Revolution, man!

Revolutionary praxis my ass. Try 'street art in the service of the man.' Those "visionary" trains were a large reason for Guiliani's election, and 16 years later Bloomberg still lists "quality of life enforcement" as a reason to give him an unprecedented 3rd term -- even 911 couldn't get Guiliani that!

Stacy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stacy said...

The graffiti are part of the urban landscape of many of our cities ... Only this has a dark side as they are used to demarcate territories between gangs and criminal groups...this causes great stress among the population .. This stress I could avoid using generic viagra and forget the social problems

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