Yep, It's Art
Written by matt robinson
Friday, 10 October 2008 07:39
So the legendary guerilla artist Banksy rolled through town this past summer, and left a mark -- actually several marks -- on the bare walls and vacant storefronts of the city. You've probably seen some of his work, the young girl standing beneath an umbrella that's raining on her, the National Guardsmen looting electronics, a homeless Abraham Lincoln pushing a shopping cart. Technically all but flawless, these stencil works (simple graffiti vandalism to those whose idea of art is only that found on museum walls, preferably painted by some long-dead Italian), these works of unsanctioned art, communicate to us here and now in ways that no Botticelli or Van Gogh could ever do. Not that the classics, the "old masters," as they say, are irrelevant, but they tend to speak a language that few of us (the non-trained art appreciationists, at least) can fully relate to.
Enter Banksy. Who in New Orleans can't relate to the pathos of the man in a rocking chair, waving a tiny American flag in front of imposing "No Loitering" signs? Or the incredulity of knowing that the National Guard, sent here to preserve order, in some instances actually took advantage of the situation to enrich themselves? It may be anecdotal that 19 troops were actually looting homes they were here to protect (and court martialed as a result), but the resonance of Banksy's work is hard to miss.
These pieces of public art are relevant here and now, a fact that makes it all the harder to understand why they're being destroyed. One, a second line band wearing respirators, was painted over before it was seen by many. Another, a simple silhouette of a child flying a refrigerator-kite, recently graced a bare wall near St. Claude and St. Bernard. It, too, has been painted over, and now that wall is a boring shade of white. And just recently, the two looting Guardsmen have been painted over – only the men, not the whole work – by some self-appointed guardian of the public space.
I suppose it's understandable that someone might not want their property defaced, if you can call it that. But in a town where the visual landscape is polluted with billboards and gruesome hand-painted signs advertising cheap hot plates, it's hard to see just how offensive Banksy's works could possibly be.
It's sad, but no surprise, that these works will, over time, become an endangered species. One piece – the rainy umbrella girl – has been protected in situ. She has a large piece of plexiglass covering her. The soldiers were apparently treated with some kind of fixative to preserve them, but that thin coating did them little good.
Others are in such derelict places that it would be ridiculous to paint over them; abandoned stores and what not, where the additional artwork threatens no one's proprietary interest. These pieces too will go some day into the fading file of memory when the dilapidated buildings are torn down or renovated, and maybe that's a proper fate. These works express a reality of poverty and hard times, and if an abandoned building is restored to use, creating life and activity, economic and otherwise, then the importance of the work will diminish. When legacies of poverty and disempowerment which the art reflects are no more, there will be no need to point them out. It will be a great day in New Orleans when these guerilla pieces fall into irrelevance.
Until then, though, these works of art will enjoy an tenuous existence, largely on the edge of a narrow-minded oblivion fostered by the likes of Mr. Radtke, aka the vigilante Grey Ghost, and by shopkeepers incensed that their property has been appropriated as an impromptu canvas.
In his own words, Banksy admits on his website some measure of doubt about his New Orleans work. He writes: "Three years after Katrina I wanted to highlight the state of the clean-up operation. Only later did it dawn on me that if you choose to do this by drawing all over their stuff, you're actually only slowing down that clean-up operation."
Fair enough. But I think the value of the pieces outweighs the cost of any "slowing down" that they could have caused. Don't worry too much, Mr. Banksy. We've got the feds and city hall to slow us down. Trust me, nothing you do or could do can compete with them.
Some live to make art, others apparently live to destroy it. Like the Napoleon's troops blasting the nose off the Egyptian Sphinx, or the psychopaths who periodically take knives to master works of art in museums, so have the forces of boring, disturbed mediocrity struck here in New Orleans.
Good thing Mr. Radtke and his dull ilk weren't around 15,000 years ago, when early humans (that's “cavemen” to you censors with a limited grasp) drew bison and other animals on the walls of caves in Europe and elsewhere. Who knows why they did this, but those simple works tell us things about the past, and allow us a glimpse of where we came from. Were some “cavemen” as vapid as our modern day grey ghosts, we'd have no idea that the earliest people – the ones from whom we all eventually arose – were creative, thoughtful, and capable of interpreting the world around them through art. Instead, we would probably have found smeared shit on these walls, and the precious clues to our distant past wouldn't have stood a chance.
The larger question at hand, though, is not “what constitutes art,” but rather, “why are some public visual works tolerated and others not?” Why can some corporation erect a billboard, deface it with commercial slogans, and we, the people, must endure it's presence, must be constantly exposed to a message we were never asked about? Why do casinos have the right to line I-10 with ridiculous advertisements for their dubious goods and services? Why should cheap liquor and car insurance messages be venerated on massive public canvasses? And why are there dozens of clownish streetcars, garishly painted and exceptionally annoying, scattered like unearthed coffins across our fair city?
“Because they were paid for,” so the probable response from my straw man with a grey paint roller in his hand will likely be.
Really? Is that your best response? Some jerk with money is allowed to pollute the visual landscape for the sake of making more money, or some docile permissible theme project is fostered in the name of “art,” and that's ok, but just let some dude put up an unsolicited image on a wall, calling for nothing more than simple consideration or appreciation by the viewer, and that's a threat to the community?
If that's what passes for thinking in this bold new century, then it's no wonder over 4,000 of our country's most committed young men and women have died in a war based on lies. No wonder our economy is falling apart, taking our parents' and grandparents' retirements with it.
And no wonder that acceptable “public art” is confined to boring sculptures and stale monuments dropped like clumsy metal turds in front of office complexes and government buildings. Observers such as the Critical Arts Ensemble have noted that so-called public art, such as the streetcars and the abstract sculptures found throughout the CBD, are affronts to the spirit of art, itself a dangerous, challenging force with the ability to formulate new thinking and present a world rich in meaning.
Such art frees the human spirit, something our legion of undead grey ghosts can understand about as much as they can understand particle physics or the law of relativity.
On second thought, maybe they can understand quantum mechanics and E=mc2, since someone much more brilliant than themselves (someone who doesn't waste their time arrogating the role of guardian of community values) took the time to write about these subjects, explaining these ideas to the least of us as best they could. But still, our well-read grey ghosts obviously can't allow some concepts to exist.
For the record, Mr. Radtke himself would have loved the now-dead Soviet Union. Having spent the summer of 1991 there, right before the collapse, I saw first-hand how deplorable life was, and how the walls, the parks, the very air you breathed, was a dull, pathetic grey. Our constipated hero would have been quite at home; it's a shame he couldn't have taken his crusade of mediocrity to a place where it would have been universally appreciated.
The Grey Ghost's efforts to Soviet-ize New Orleans' unsanctioned art should be rewarded by giving him more work to do. Let every blank wall, every derelict building, become a gallery for new expression. And I'm not talking about graffiti taggers and simplistic anarchist slogans, I mean thought-provoking, quality expression. I mean works lampooning what's wrong in our town, as well as pieces that celebrate what's right. Things that will make a child wonder, and an adult reconsider an opinion or belief.
True artists – rise up and accept the challenge posed by kommissar Radtke. Paint everywhere, launch a mission to carry on the good works of Banksy, and give whats-his-face a run for the money. Who knows, maybe yours will be the one to cause our art-destroying comrade to keel over from a heart attack, falling face-down in a bucket of cheap grey paint. He and his cadre have proven their dedication to soul-lessness, let us prove our dedication to being the flowers that grow between the cracks of their steadfast concrete mediocrity.
Besides, if Mr. Radtke stops painting over street art, he'll probably start trying to ban Catcher in the Rye or Judy Blume books from the city's public libraries. For the good of our city, for the enrichment of our souls, break out the spray paint, stencils, wheat paste, and posters. Be clever, be creative, and do it well.
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