Sunday, February 13, 2022

There is Nothing New Under the Sun

There is Nothing New under the Sun but in strange ways life and the arts recycle! My mother used to say, “if I live long enough what wasn’t good for me is now good for me again”.

50-60-70 years ago, Graffiti was literally a dirty word. We considered those who did it were defacing our public spaces. It was considered quite simply vandalism.

At that time, it was primarily writing on walls or tagging, ie just putting your name on an outdoor wall, albeit some of it was done in an artistic manner.  Unauthorized and anonymous the graffiti artists used to work primarily at night where there are few people, and the cops won’t bother them. It was also used to send messages. Here is a 1950’s warning from one New York City gang to another.

There is, however, a long history here. The Italian word “graffiato” or scratched, came originally from the Greek where the word means, “to write”. In ancient times messages scratched on rocks on walls took the form of political statements or declarations of love or even advertising for prostitutes. In the vocabulary of fine arts “sgraffito” is scratching through one layer of pigment to reveal another beneath and in ceramics the sgraffito itself creates the image.

Today graffiti has become a major form of artistic expression with the canvases of young urban spray painters being commercial buildings and the public spaces around them. The first to achieve art world recognition was Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988). In the early 80’s he brought his colorful mural work inside in large format canvas paintings which began to sell in galleries. Today Basquiat paintings go at auction for phenomenal prices but, alas, he is not here to enjoy them as he died of a Heroin overdose at age 27. Here is an image from 1982 Obnoxious Acrylic, crayon on canvas, 172.7 x 259 cm slightly cropped at the top.

In one way or the other, it should not surprise us that now there is a museum home for graffiti art in “The Museum of Graffiti” in Miami, Florida. According to their website it is the first museum exclusively dedicated to the evolution of graffiti as an art form. “The museum was founded in order to preserve graffiti’s history and celebrate its emergence in design, fashion, advertising and galleries. There are eleven exterior murals, a fine art gallery and a world-class gift shop stocked with limited edition merchandise …”

Of course, mural painting goes back 30,000 years to the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave and I wrote about this form of art a few years ago. The main difference between the mural artist and the graffiti artist as pointed out by the Graffiti Museum’s co-founder, Allison Freidin, in an Art Net News interview, is that the latter’s art is based on the formation of the letter. She says that many street artists, some well-known, such as Keithy Haring, Banksy and Shepard Frarey art is inseparable from activism. Graffiti artists intentionally put their work where the greatest number of people will see it such as on buildings, highways and bridges. Here is one example pertinent for today.

The fact that the Graffiti Museum has a gallery of canvas size images seems a contradiction to large scale street art. Ms. Feidlin says, “In black book drawings from the early 1970s, artists were using pens and markers that were not made for creating art-they were more for commercial purposes than anything. Yet these incredible works on paper came out of that time period, showing the sheer talent of the artist, who demonstrates immense technical capabilities in such a small form. Those same artists can then go on and paint the same tiny rendering on an 80 foot train using spray paint, an entirely different medium. I think that’s one of the main things that set graffiti artists apart.”

It is always interesting to see something we have looked at for decades, get looked at in a new way.

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