The New York Daily News, an otherwise liberal newspaper, offered the following lead editorial on Easter Sunday, entitled "Shameful Display," reading in part, "They're having wine and cheese parties surrounded by framed images of urban blight at Los Angeles' Geffen Contemporary Museum," and then, referring to the graffiti show's move to the Brooklyn Museum next March, "We'll make a deal with Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman. He can welcome this exhibit next year and promote the hell out of it. But he also has to let graffiti 'artists' (sic) have a go at the museum's bright white walls and its landmark facade and its beautiful, expensive new entrance pavilion. And he must not dare clean the painters' 'free expression'. Deal?"
Before I address this idiocy, let me tip my cap to Jeffrey Deitch, who has managed to curate an exhibition in L.A. that has actual lines around the block waiting to get in there for the first time since Ed Kienholz debuted Back Seat Dodge at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art half a century ago, and to Arnold Lehman, who has the eminent good sense to bring this show to the Brooklyn in 2012, for the same reason: he has been hammered all year in the New York Times and elsewhere for failing to increase attendance and now, the Brooklyn Museum, too, shall have its crowds.
Back to the Daily News. Listen up. Urban blight PRECEDES graffiti. Graffiti is the last best hope of creative people in the dark, on the street, in the shadows, against law enforcement and its journalistic enablers, to breathe amidst the soot and hopelessness. I ride Metro North a lot and stare constantly, with love, at the awful tagging efforts that cry out from the abandoned building shells along the tracks (with the exception of "The Car Appearance Maintenance Facility" at Highland Bridge north of Yankee Stadium, whose purpose is the eradication of graffiti). These esthetic tries tend to be balloon names, done in clouds of white for better visibility.
As artworks they are poor, yet every one is a profile in courage. Courage that some poor souls would even dare to patrol these damned, forbidden spaces, much less even attempt to create something. Courage to leave a mark as symbol of absence: the absence of caring, the absence of a job, the absence of themselves moving on, even the absence that is death. Lately, someone has been tagging in ragged purple, just the word "Bones" over and over again near Morris Heights, but everything else you see is pretty ordinary.
If I were to unleash these silent taggers, I'd put 'em in the Foxcon Industrial Center northwest of Hong Kong, where 450,000 Chinese workers make every iPad and iPhone in the world market for an average wage of $110 a month, and, as documented by the gutsy performance artist Mike Daisey in his The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, often leap to their deaths from atop the factory towers. I'd add a couple of NYPD battalions to make sure that our taggers could do their fine work in peace. Then, I'd give them a ticker tape parade across 42nd Street to the editorial offices of the New York Daily News.
The last best hope against the branding of corporatism is graffiti. If a museum wishes to celebrate that once in awhile, that's OK by me.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).