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Intellectualizing Graffiti, Or Not

October 15, 2011

This past summer, MOCA in Los Angeles broke attendance records with a street art show. Featuring international artists like Bansky, as well as prominent Los Angeles artists, the show incorporated street art inside and outside the museum walls. At Banksy’s insistence, there were free days, and photography was completely open. As a result of this, documentation has become quite present on the internet throughout various virtual communities. The show was a part of a bit of controversy, but was ultimately lauded for bringing art to thousands of people (millions by internet extension) who otherwise may not have seen it.

RETNA's mural on the side of the library. Photo credit: Joshua Barash

With these recent events in mind, and with freshly commissioned graffiti murals painted on the brand-new West Hollywood Public Library, the West Hollywood Lecture Series kicked off last night with a panel discussion on street art. The panel consisted of Jeffery Deitch, the director of MOCA; RETNA, a Los Angeles Graffiti artist; and Sam Durant, an artist who moderated the event. At its most interesting, the lecture revealed the historical development of street art in the Los Angeles area with stories from RETNA about asking the permission of local business owners to paint murals, about negotiating with neighborhood gangs, about using graffiti to bridge gaps between classes, generations, and artists. At its least interesting, the lecture became an interview in which starry-eyed questions gave platforms to both Deitch and RETNA on which they could extol the virtues of what they had accomplished with the recent MOCA show.

To be clear, it certainly seems that they accomplished something quite significant. Bringing graffiti into the museum in such a successful way speaks to a continuation of the breakdown between “high” and “low” class art. It speaks to the deserved attention that graffiti artists are now receiving, and to a powerful access point for many non-arts patrons to engage with art in new ways.

That there are virtues to the recent efforts of Mr. Deitch and MOCA seems undeniable. But when pressed by the audience multiple times in multiple ways about the potential hazards of this process, no one had anything meaningful to say. The question of whether or not street art ‘s power to unleash an unavoidable, previously repressed message into the public’s eye is mitigated by hiding that message within museum walls is a valid and important one. Mr. Deitch himself relayed a story about painting over, “within the same day” non-commissioned graffiti that had sprung up around the “Art In The Streets” show in a seemingly contradictory effort to preserve the graffiti that was a part of the show. Understandable as this may be, it raises questions that neither panelist seemed prepared to answer about the relationship of graffiti to art. Instead of acknowledging this strange relationship, Mr. Deitch continued to detail the achievements of the program, and RETNA rambled ceaselessly from the top of his head on the general subject of graffiti.

The grey space that street art occupies when it enters the context of a museum is certainly the most fascinating issue raised by the subject of this lecture, yet it was almost entirely avoided by the panelists. Is the commissioning of a mural the act that legitimizes it, or is that simply a commodification of a process that was naturally occurring already? Can street art even exist as itself inside the museum, or does it become something other? Directly addressing these issues is not only necessary, but avoiding them fosters an air of suspicion around why, at a lecture series, with eager audience members and the ideal setting for critical debate, these issues are uncomfortably shelved.  If the time has come to intellectualize graffiti, let us do so to the greatest extent that we are able. As it is now, we have only halfway engaged these topics.

The theater that the lecture took place in is a gorgeous space. The Aesthetics and Politics program at CalArts helped to put together this lecture series, and as a result the audience was engaged and attentive. There were several illuminating moments at the lecture, most of which emerged as a result of thoughtful and borderline inspiring words from the panelists. This ambitious lecture series is off to a good start, and I’m certainly looking forward to more. I just hope that in November when new panelists will discuss “Democracy In America,” they will be more prepared to tackle the critical issues that need addressing.

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