Phi Beta Cons

‘Geek Graffiti’ at Parsons

The elite Parsons New School for Design is offering a graduate course that analyses graffiti and uses cutting-edge, computer-graphic lighting techniques which allow students virtually, not literally, to write graffiti on backdrops such as Mount Rushmore, the George Washington Bridge, and flat brick buildings in SoHo.

One student, for example, projected a giant image of himself, writing his name “Jeff” and “Jesus Saves,” across the face of the Washington Square Park arch.
To these artists, comments the New York Post, “aerosol cans of spray paint and the subway cars they might have once targeted are so 20th century.”
Critics of graffiti are up in arms. Says city Councilman Peter Vallone Jr., “They want to study what the motivation is behind graffiti writers. It’s vandalism, notoriety and gang communication. That is the motivation behind graffiti. No one needs a course to study it.”
However nefarious the motives of graffiti writers, it seems that the driving force behind this course, taught by Professor Evan Roth, is notoriety. In the course’s description, Roth not only urges his students to be (in the Post’s words) “outrageous” in their efforts but also even offers them an automatic “A” if any news organization picks up on their project. The course’s purpose appears less ideological or antinomian (for instance, sympathetic to rebellion against “oppressive” authority) than simply geared to join the no-holds-barred scramble within popular culture for instantaneous public attention.
Underlying such projects are the assumptions, long common in the academy, that all aesthetic experiences are equal and that there are no distinctions between “pop” and high culture. Do courses such as this lend themselves to serious debate on such questions about the meaning of art and artistic standards? Likely not. Crass commercialism trumps such antiquated considerations.
Writing in The New Republic, Jed Perl laments that, minus standards in the world of art, the only vocabulary that remains is “the language of reputations and trends – which is to say, the language of money.” (See “Laissez-Faire Aesthetics: What money is doing to art, or how the art world lost its mind,” February 5, 2007, login needed).
Perl’s criticizes “high-end consumers of art” who have, he says

sloughed off…serious themes [and even] the ironic fascination with incompetence that gave birth to…Pop Art and “Bad” Painting [which] were self-consciously ironic; they depended on the existence of a standard that was being mocked or from which one was registering a dissent…at least the afterglow of a moral viewpoint. This is what has changed. Laissez-faire aesthetics makes a mockery of nothing. Even irony is too much of an idea. It treats everything equally.

The same critique applies to many within the academic art community.
What are the likely lessons of laissez-faire aesthetics for the graffiti geeks? That what counts is getting the attention of the largest audience possible, by whatever “aesthetic” means, so as to take their place at what Perl calls “the same big expensive banquet.”

Candace de Russy — Candace de Russy is a nationally recognized expert on education and cultural issues.

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