Rarely does a museum exhibit cause a crime spree. That’s the dubious distinction of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles, where a show on “street art” — aka vandalism — has inspired graffiti “artists” to deface nearby buildings.
The police arrested one of the people featured in the show, a French gentleman by the name of Space Invader, on suspicion of responsibility for some of the local vandalism. Mr. Invader is famous (in certain circles) for depicting the 1980s-era video game from which he takes his name. How appropriate that he takes such a childish subject for his childish acts.
The museum has lent all its cultural power — and the considerable financial might of its backers — to glorifying petty criminality and an urban blight practically synonymous with disorder and mayhem.
The museum’s director, Jeffrey Deitch, has long experience in legitimizing graffiti. When he was in New York, his SoHo gallery specialized in the work of the spray-can and Magic Marker set. When he hosted a show featuring a replica of a graffiti-scarred ghetto street in 2000, the NYPD arrested one of the alleged artists under suspicion for having earlier defaced a Bronx middle school.
For all the self-congratulatory transgressiveness of Deitch and other promoters of graffiti, they tend to blithely accept only damage to other people’s property, as Heather Mac Donald notes in a withering critique in City Journal of the “Art in the Streets” show.
The museum paints over graffiti on its own back wall, and “doesn’t even permit visitors to use a pen for note-taking within its walls,” Mac Donald writes, “an affectation unknown in most of the world’s greatest museums.” MOCA’s implicit attitude is, “Heedless acts of vandalism for thee, but not for me.”
In age-old countercultural style, Deitch has made a very lucrative career from exploiting the acts of people ostentatiously violating bourgeois norms. It’s seemingly the ambition of every graffiti artist to become so famous that he can do well-paid work for the world’s most powerful corporations while spouting juvenile clichés about the oppressiveness of “the system.” Between its corporate sponsors and its foundation backers, the MOCA show itself is the rotten fruit of America’s capitalism and wealth.
At least the idiot ideology of the apologists for graffiti is feasting on itself in contention over the show, providing amusement if not aesthetic value. Per the Associated Press, “The Phantom Street Artist, whose well known Rage Against the Machine album cover isn’t represented, said the museum practiced the equivalent of post-Colonial hegemony in going with more mainstream artists.” The Phantom Street Artist obviously defines “post-Colonial hegemony” as anything that irks him on any given afternoon.
Hegemonic or not, “Art in the Streets” is simply a glorification of the loathsome practice of painting your name or doodles on someone else’s property. As Mac Donald documents, graffiti culture celebrates routine acts of theft and intersects with street gangs. It involves a lifestyle (late-night forays to break the law) and brings consequences (criminal records) that are destructive to young lives.
Then there are the effects for everyone else. Surely, some vandals are gifted artists, just as some drug dealers have keen business minds. But so what? Graffiti is almost invariably hideously ugly. It does damage to private and public property. It costs millions of dollars to fight and remove. It was the cutting edge of the wave of disorder that nearly sank pre-Giuliani New York City. If an aspiring artist is ambitious and talented, there’s an obvious recourse — find a canvas and paint on it. It worked for Rembrandt.
The people who run and back the museum are fortunate enough not to live in neighborhoods beset by graffiti or to own property likely to be targeted for the “art” they celebrate. It’s not their children running around with spray cans or their businesses being vandalized. They can afford to excuse and patronize a public nuisance that is the bane of communities everywhere. They are a disgrace even to the decadent elite.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, email@example.com. © 2011 by King Features Syndicate.