Saturday, July 08, 2006


Can't fight in here! This is the War Room...

The Brooklyn Museum of Art is running an exhibit through Labor Day extolling the heyday of New York's graffiti artists.

Since the really famous ones like
Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat have had their own exhibitions in recent years, this particular show focuses on lesser known lights such as John "Crash" Matos and Sandra "Lady Pink" Fabara. There is even an old subway car door fully painted by a neighborhood artist.

The show places graffiti in context with the other rising cultural breakthrough of the time -- hip-hop -- while showing the influence of '60s "Pop Art" and comic books. Graffiti is, of course, controversial because it is somewhat rightly seen as emblematic symbols of the New York of the '70s and '80s, a city that was teetering on bankruptcy, crime-ridden and dirty. As much as the graffiti artists might have been adopted by various parts of the cultural elite, they certainly did not endear themselves to the political and law-enforcement leadership. One book (for sale at the museum),
Taking The Train, explores the tension between the emerging art form and the need for municipal "order." (Even before the rise of the Giuliani administration, "order" started winning out -- and artists started getting jailed.) "Eckos" of that period continue to resonate as even the hint that graffiti might be making a full-scale comeback has caused a couple of recent controversies.

Now, as the adjacent photos (thank you, Treo) show, the exhibit includes a paper mache-constructed "hallway" where patrons are invited to contribute their own "graffiti." Magic markers are provided -- and there is a disclaimer notifying that contributors waive any legal claims on the "art" they produce.

The irony, of course, is that one can't help but notice all the pristine white space on the walls between the official exhibits. The space almost screams to have some yet undiscovered graffit-ist make his or her "mark." Yet, of course, that wouldn't be allowed! An official-looking museum "guide" stands by to make sure that the patron-contributed graffiti appears only in the "appropriate" place!

But, of course, if the graffiti can only go in authorized spots, it is, by definition no longer "graffiti" (in its broadly-understood cultural context)!

You kind of want to have some enterprising young soul take out a can of spray paint and start to adorn the walls (not the exhibits themselves -- that would clearly be vandalism), but be told by an official, "You can't paint in here! This is the Graffiti Exhibit!"

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