… his right to inconvenience a bourgeois audience in his search for authenticity — those beliefs, taken up without irony or cynicism …
… In December, 1979, a graffiti writer put up one night, as a “window-down, whole-car” [a category of subway graffiti], a carefully rendered image of the central icon of Western art — Michelangelo’s God the Father reaching out to touch the hand of Adam. Beside it he wrote, WHAT IS ART? ~ WHY IS ART?
[line break added] The questions provide a quiet chorus to any attempt to answer the more peevish and ordinary question that we ask about subway graffiti: Is it (was it) art? For if by art we mean something that extends an accepted tradition of icons and images, and restates the inherited beliefs of our culture, then no, of course it wasn’t art.
[line break added] But if by art we mean, as we have for more than a century, a self-propelled and self-generating competition in style; a serious game that begins as an in-group game that gives meaning to the life of the maker and to his enthralled small audience, and ends by producing a new and widely shared style — well, the, of course it was art. A minor, decorative art, perhaps, no greater than that of an ordinary medieval illuminator or a Bauhaus typographic designer. But no smaller, either.
The problem, of course, is that by now we really want the concept of “art” to mean both things. We want art to remain a private, uncompromised competition in style and at the same time to become the core of an ideal of civic life. We want art to belong both to its makers and to a common culture — to be marginal and central at the same time. We want the King of Style also to be the King of our particular line. The graffiti writers could not achieve this easily, or at all, but then who could?
In the end, subway graffiti mattered less for what it “contributed” to high art than for what it said about it. Graffiti at the beginning of the century had been seen as a series of scrawls that nobody (aside from a handful of archeologists) thought had any meaningful structure at all. It required the then disruptive new vision of modernist art to make these outsider wall markings seem significant.
[line break added] As the end of the century approached, that once disruptive vision had become so deeply entrenched that it could imprint its own peculiar shape even on the way people drew marks on walls, or on the sides of subway cars. The insistence on the artist’s privileged place, on his self-definition through his participation in a restless competitive struggle for innovation, and on his right to inconvenience a bourgeois audience in his search for authenticity — those beliefs, taken up without irony or cynicism, were what made subway art different from all the other graffiti that had preceded it.
[line break added] When the subway writer A-One once explained why his work was art, not vandalism, he memorialized, perhaps for the last time, an uncritical faith in this uniquely modernist idea of achievement. “A vandal is someone who throws a brick through a window,” he said. “An artist is someone who paints a picture on the window. A great artist is someone who paints a picture on the window and then throws a brick through it.”
My most recent previous post from this book is here.