Graffiti: Street Art or Vandalism?
The Brooklyn Museum has cancelled the showing of a controversial graffiti and street art exhibition, Art in the Streets for (according to the official word) financial reasons. The exhibition is currently being hosted at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art where it has drawn equal amounts of crowds and criticism. According to the LA Times, when the exhibit opened in MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary space in Little Tokyo,
…the L.A. Police Department said that the show had become a magnet for illegal taggers who wanted to leave their marks in the surrounding neighborhood.
The Brooklyn Museum’s director, Arnold Lehman, has insisted that finances are behind the cancellation, saying that “With no major funding in place, we cannot move ahead.”
As the New York Times says, the show has been criticized in Los Angeles for glorifying vandalism and also because one its curators, Roger Gastman, has a “commercial interest in street art.” The New York Daily News proclaimed the exhibition a “celebration of vandalism” underwritten with taxpayer dollars and predicted that the following happening:
…museum mavens will be sticking their thumbs in the eyes of every bodega owner and restaurant manager who struggles to keep his or her property graffiti-free, not to mention the eyes of all New Yorkers who cringe recalling the days of graffiti-covered subway cars.
The cancellation of the graffiti exhibition raises huge questions about: What is art? what belongs in a museum? what is freedom of expression? do we really need to pay for an exhibit of “art”/”vandalism” the likes of which we see plenty on highway overpasses, sides of buildings abandoned and occupied, trucks, utility boxes, garbage dumpsters, etc.?
One thing to keep in mind. A recent NPR report on tomb graffiti in Israel should remind us that one culture’s trash could be a future era’s gold for clues about what was life back then.
[Karen]Stern, 35, is an archaeologist and an assistant professor in the history department at Brooklyn College. Her passion is the tomb graffiti of the ancient Jews in what was then Roman Palestine. Graffiti has been “published, but sort of disregarded,” she says. “Whereas I think it is intimate, vocal and spontaneous, and adds to the historical record.”
In this, Stern seems to be supported by scholars: She is completing a yearlong fellowship at the W.F. Albright Institute for Archaeological Research in Jerusalem.
In the Cave of Coffins in Beit She’arim, one of the richest burial sites in Israel, Stern describes two inscriptions in ancient Greek:
One says, “Take courage, Holy Parents of Pharcitae, udes adonitas — no one is immortal.” Stern explains that the dead who are being brought into the catacombs shouldn’t feel that they are weak just because they’ve passed on.
She reads aloud the other inscription: “Good luck on your resurrection.”
Jonathan Price, head of the classics department at Tel Aviv University, says that ancient Jews of the 1st and 2nd centuries were “grapho-maniacal.”
Equally intriguing are the Latin graffiti found in Pompeii, preserved after Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD and engulfed the town in volcanic ash. “Atimetus got me pregnant,” says a scrawl in the House of the Vibii;.”The man I am having dinner with is a barbarian” reads another in a basilica. Many more are about those enduring subjects, lust and sex, written in vernacular language quite different from what you find in Virgil’s poetry.
A little graffiti is not a bad thing.
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Photo of graffiti in ancient Pompeii by Gastev.