Bags of Bran

A very helpful conversation about art
December 21, 2013, 7:07 pm
Filed under: Destined to get me in trouble

Timothy is a curator at a small art gallery, fresh from taking his masters in art history. He was trudging across the street outside the gallery to his car, his ears still hot from a scathing email he received from the board of directors of the museum. Evidently, he DID have to clear some space to run the graffiti exhibit.

“Graffiti…” he mumbled to himself. “What is this, the Armory Show of 1913 come back to haunt us?”

Timothy was never a great artist himself, but he loves art for its power to represent important things. He recognizes that great art has power to ennoble man, even, on rare occasions, against man’s wishes. He has clear notions in his head and heart about what art is, what art does, and what art is for. And those notions, he wryly noted, went out of style long before Norman Rockwell began cheapening Americana.

He trudged heavily, the sky leaden above and the earth leaden beneath, eyes on the pavement. He recalled the thrill of his recent three-day visit to the Prado, basking in the light of the Flemish masters and Renaissance wonders, lovingly curated and elegantly displayed. Then he reflected on how the directors of the small museum he worked for had initially been impressed with his zeal and desire to honor good art in all its manifestations. But that was three years ago now, and as he drove home, he shuddered at the future prospects of art galleries everywhere.

When a local graffiti artist named Vertago made the local newspaper for an outdoor mural he had collaborated in, suddenly the board of directors wanted large exhibit featuring full-sized reprints of Vertago’s work–in Timothy’s museum. Bridges, boxcars, elementary school walls… even the note of protest on the statue of the president of the college from which Vertago had been unceremoniously ejected. The board was insistent. In fact, they had arranged a conference between the frustrated curator and the graffiti virtuoso at the next board meeting.

When he arrived at the meeting, Timothy got his first glimpse of Vertago.

“Hello, Mr. K____, my name is Collin H_____,” said the apparition, in clear English, extending a hand.

He looked to be mid-forties, certainly not the glassy-eyed twentysomething Timothy had expected from the grainy, stylized pictures on his website. No gas mask, no hoodie, no duffel bag: Vertago could have been a real estate agent in his polo shirt and corduroy pants. His website made him look like a Central Park mugger.

“Timothy K_____, good to meet you, Collin,” said Timothy, overcoming his bewilderment just sufficiently to take the hand and shake it.

“I understand you have some objections to displaying my graffiti art in the museum,” said Collin, coolly. “Why is that?”

Timothy, caught by the directness of the inquiry, replied, “It’s not art,” with a shrug.

At this, more than half of the board members leaped out of their chairs and started shouting all at once. One could discern little from the cacophony of objection beyond the words “elitist,” “snob,” and “bigot.” Although a few of the board members were trying to make reasonable arguments for the inclusion of graffiti in a museum dedicated to art, their arguments fell along the lines of “it looks like art to me.” The other members of the board sat idly upon their comfortable chairs, texting wry comments about their zealous comrades to the folks back home, or exchanging knowing glances among themselves.

When the din died down, Collin, who knew he had the backing of several noteworthies at The Art Coalition as well as many well-connected celebrity artists, resumed: “Look, it’s paint on a flat surface. I think we can agree on that. Think of it as ‘impromptu murals of dubious legality.'” A well-earned snicker reverberates through the members of the board. “Look, let’s not play culture against culture here. It takes a lot of talent and a lot of instinct to be able to get graffiti right. This is art, and it belongs in a museum! You should feel honored that I’m willing to do this.”

Timothy, not sure how to respond, unfurled a lengthy monologue about how graffiti is associated with crime, urban decay, and squalor. He started off haltingly, then warmed to his work. “So you see, you can’t communicate anything noble with graffiti. The medium kills the message,” he concluded.

At this, the rancorous majority of the board erupted again, though a few of Timothy’s supporters on the board began talking among themselves about the superfluity of the arguments being tossed around. The vocal members, however, silenced the supporters with icy glares.

Timothy, not quite done yet, pulled out one of Collin’s Vertago books, opened it to a pre-marked page, and displayed a picture of a landscape, rendered with reasonable skill. “You painted this, didn’t you, Collin?” Timothy asked his interlocutor. “It’s actually very well done.” Timothy proceeded to show the members of the board Collin’s work. “I would show this in the museum if you want. We could use some new local art in the regional exhibit.” He turned back to Collin: “This painting means something to you, doesn’t it?”

Soberly, Collin replied, “Absolutely. That is a piece of graffiti that is very dear to me, because it represents the field where my ancestors fought for their freedom. I’ve been to that field. I get the chills just thinking of it. But that’s a piece of graffiti that I don’t display much, because, you know, it’s not on a boxcar or a bridge. It’s not the type of graffiti that people normally expect it from me. That’s not why they would come to the exhibit.”

Graffiti?!” Timothy said with some vehemence. “That is not graffiti! Look at it: it’s in a frame! It’s done in the style of the Hudson River School! It looks like you took lessons directly from Thomas Cole! How do you call that graffiti?”

Collin sighed loudly. Angry murmurs rumbled from both sides of the now-divided board. Collin’s face softened a bit, and he adopted a fatherly, remonstrative tone.

“Now, brother K_____, I see what you’ve done. You’ve gone and educated yourself into obscurantism. I’ve been tagging boxcars and bridges since I was seven years old. For the past eight, I’ve only been doing it legally in events and on sponsored walls. You are probably aware that I’ve published six books of my work, including the one you have in your hands, and I’ve been on TV several times. I’ve been in most every major city in the United States teaching kids to use graffiti to spread positive change. You’ve been holed up in museums studying dead art, I’ve been on the streets making live art.”

Smirks of triumph adorned  the faces of the board’s vocal majority.

Vertago leaned in closer, took the book from Timothy’s hands, and held up the landscape before the board. “That is absolutely graffiti,” he concluded indignantly. “If anyone would know what graffiti is, I would.”


3 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Is this a real conversation? I ask because it plays out like someone who is trying to make the point that the medium inherently alters the message. Timothy argues that “you can’t communicate anything noble with graffiti. The medium kills the message.”

The artist in this conversation is someone who believes that his art is “paint on a flat surface” that should be thought of as “impromptu murals of dubious legality.”

Let’s tie this to the recent Christian Rap discussion. To be fair, you would have to make some changes. For example, you would have to take the smugness from the artist, dial it back some. Then you would have to remove the “dubious legality” part because there is nothing illegal about making music. In order to make this a fair comparison, you would have to make the artist Christian who believes and lives out his faith.

In the end, I believe, as a few other do, that there could be a fruitful discussion and a quality display of art for the museum that expresses the Christian worldview.


Comment by Lotus

Lotus (er whoever):

No. I mean yes, but no. Yes: I believe that a medium alters a message at levels that may or may not be equally perceptible to all participants in culture. Kind of like when there’s a gas leak: “Grandpa, do you smell gas?” “Huh? I have no sense of smell since ‘Nam.”

If you watch a lot of TV and movies, you’re just not going to be offended by a medium that demeans its subject. Try taking a year off of movies and TV and then watching something wholesome like A Christmas Story or Forrest Gump.

You could ask yourself the question whether I intended an accurate depiction with a pledge to fairness, or a caricature. If I intended a caricature, you could ask yourself, what did he exaggerate, and why?

And no, graffiti does not belong in a museum: it belongs in the ghetto.


Comment by christopheram

Thanks for taking the time to respond.


Comment by Lotus

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