Last Sunday, I went to the graffiti exhibit, Art in the Street, at MoCA. If you’ve been to my blog before, you’ll know how much I love graffiti (click here for older posts). Much to my delight, it seemed that others were appreciating graffiti as much as I was. My initial euphoria of seeing a museum space covered in graffiti grew as I went from room to room. What a radical departure from typical exhibitions. No frames. No paint that is neatly confined to a prefabricated canvas. Art had taken over the gallery, the walls – even the bathrooms.
Everywhere I looked, I could see people having a graffiti-educed epiphany: art as we know it has changed shape, yet again. Art and fashion have a funny way of changing on us. Since both are modes of self-expression, they change frequently to adapt to the flux of our physical and emotional landscapes.
Photo of graffiti-educed epiphany
A large part of why graffiti is becoming accepted as art is our obsession with “the new“. Being modern – attaining the new – has become the the sole value of many cultures. Because of this focus, we are attracted to that which is fleeting. Beauty lies in the transient experience. Graffiti is here today, only to be whitewashed tomorrow. We are grateful to experience its message and beauty, and sad to see it go.
There are still those that resist the change. Graffiti just doesn’t seem to fit into their definition of art. It just goes against tradition too much. This resistance is amusing to me. It reminds me so much of the early Impressionist artists. Now worth millions, Impressionist art battled against the establishment. They were tired of replicating the ideals of beauty recognized by the great art schools in Paris. Charles Baudelaire commented about this shift in aesthetics:
It is true that the great tradition is lost, and that the new one is not yet established. But what was the great tradition, if not the habitiual idealization of ancient life . . . Since all centuries and all peoples have their own forms of beauty, so inevitably we have ours . . .
It’s funny to think that Baudelaire said this in the 1860s . . .
And then I wonder: is graffiti a way of reclaiming our cultural rights to the arts? Public funding for the arts has decreased dramatically across the globe. The recession, the “new economy”- call it what you will – but when times are tough and budget cuts are in order, the arts are usually the first on the chopping block. Schools are focused on making students cubical workers, not entrepreneurs or problem-solvers. Curricula are focused measuring learning outcomes that are outdated and praise regurgitation of information. Creativity, innovation, and critical thinking are lost somewhere between the glossy brochures and graduation for most schools. I believe this is attributed to a fixation on measuring learning. Most schools measure learning by tests. This creates droves of students that become good test-takers, not lifelong learners.
The architect Viollet-le-Duc gave an appraisale of the 19th century school system, that churned out replica-makers instead of free-thinking artists. It could be just as applicable today:
The young artist enters the Ecole, he gets medals . . . but at what price? Upon condition of keeping precisely and without any deviation within the limits imposed by the corporation of professors, of following the beaten track submissively, of having only exactly the ideas permitted by the corporation and above all of not indicating the presumption of having any of his own . . . We observe besides that the student body naturally includes more mediocrities than talented people, that, the majority always itself on the side of routine, there is no ridicule sufficient for the person who shows some inclination towards originality. [E. Viollet-le-Duc. “L’Enseignement des arts.” Gazette des beaux-arts (June, 1862). Cited in Diane Kelder’s The Great Book of French Impressionism.]
Obsession with the new, reclaiming our rights to art, a statement against traditional education . . . graffiti can be all of those and more. Add to the discussion by posingt a comment.