People are saying altogether too much about graffiti. About six months ago, graffiti burst onto the mainstream art scene with a bevy of exhibitions touting the rise of erstwhile taggers to the level of masters. One lovely exhibit was the Calligraffiti exhibit at Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena. It consisted of works by graffiti artists from diverse backgrounds who integrated elements of Asian calligraphy into their works. On the whole, the exhibit was very nice, and the art was thought-provoking, but one could not escape the feeling that a great lion of expression had finally been de-fanged, de-clawed and thoroughly domesticated.
Graffiti was an expression of rebellion, much like punk rock. Its appeal was precisely in the way it which exposed, defied and counteracted the accepted order. It was a means for creative souls to circumvent commercial censorship boldly, loudly, crassly, beautifully and arrogantly. That was the point. And, it had to be done in grand style: graffiti’s impact came from the way it transformed and mutated the giant edifices of the corporate, commercial culture. Consequently, lacking any expression of defiance and confined to the small walls of a museum, the medium has no soul, it lacks impact, and it neither impresses nor inspires. The strict enforcement of criminal laws have quashed this wonderful voice. Only oddball geniuses like Banksy manage to provoke despite his ability to garner outrageous sums for his work.
So, as beautiful as these works of art may be, these are not loud avant-garde voices. Jean-Michel Besquiat’s genius and its context in the New York underground art scene in Downtown 81 puts all of this in perspective. Graffiti was the vanguard of underground art, itself the last bastion of creativity in a culture dominated by commercial enforcement of subordination, acceptance, mediocrity and complacency.
And, alas, with the acceptance of graffiti into the mainstream museums, this great vanguard of creativity may finally have been silenced, accepted into submission, swallowed by the capital juggernaut.
Graffiti, rest in peace. You had a great run.