Saturday, April 23, 2011

Tag, You're Art

There's some interesting news from the art world this week. Apparently the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art has just opened the first exhibition of graffiti art at a major museum.

Naturally, this has sparked a certain measure of controversy, with some people viewing it as glorification of petty vandalism. But I think that's nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction from people who haven't given graffiti a fair and objective hearing as an art form.

As with much art and most media, there is tons upon tons of terrible, hack-quality graffiti. But anybody who's seen the works of some of the really accomplished graffiti artists and who is able to divorce his judgment of artistic merit from his personal pique at bad experiences with private property being tagged cannot possibly deny good graffiti's status as art.

It generally angers me when I see the tags that show up all around Buffalo. On one level, it's irritating to observe wanton disregard for other people's property, but that concern is secondary to my annoyance at the absolutely awful quality of the tags that most culprits cover the city with. If you're going to tag something, it ought to be public property, but more than that, if you're going to tag anything at all that's publicly observable, it ought to contribute a positive aesthetic to the landscape.

I've always said that I wish there were public officials whose job it was to not just wash clean every instance of graffiti from public buildings and underpasses, as happens on a regular basis, but rather to judge the aesthetic quality of everything slated for destruction and to only get rid of what lowers the standards for how we engage with our surroundings. It doesn't seem fair to place every tag and every unsolicited mural in the same terrifically broad category. Some of it has the potential to actually improve the artist's neighborhood, or to express something of public interest, and to sandblast everything that's drawn in spray paint all at once doesn't just discourage graffiti, it discourages the improvement of outsider art.

This museum exhibition is a definite step in the direction of what I've been advocating. It separates the artistically meritorious works from the childish scrawls, because the old impulse to just call graffiti graffiti and wash your hands of all of it is simply untenable when you've seen what some of the true artists can do.

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