Think of it as the Mt. Everest of curatorial challenges: To equally engage professionals and aficionados, in addition to their visiting relatives who wouldn’t normally go to a museum, plus the kids. It’s a tall order to interest “all” of the people and (even part of the time) to ensure there’s something for everyone. Whether or not such a thing is a) possible, and b) desirable, is one of the great modernist debates.
The surest route to popular success hinges on the social relevancy of art and its cross-pollination with mass visual culture—the latter, our common denominator, our market-driven universal, our global glue. What better topic than “Graffiti,” to explore a frontier of visual expression whose topology includes fugitive acts, unauthorized marks, artists as outlaws, and an urge to disturb that stretches back to antiquity? What better institution, with its populist intentions, to take it on? Imagine examining graffiti as a continuum reaching from the initiative of local young artists and ad hoc collaborative groups to schools of practitioners who invent stylish visual languages to the branded aesthetics that animate the multibillion-dollar hip-hop industry. That would be a blockbuster!
The scope of “Graffiti” is much more narrowly drawn. It consists of 18 spray-painted canvases (and one subway door panel) produced between 1983 and 1986, selected primarily from a 1999 donation of almost 50 works from the estate of Sidney Janis. The artists in “Graffiti” aren’t often celebrated; many haven’t shown on a regular basis since the mid ’80s. Yet they are the core of a movement that orchestrated a radical collision between painting in the street and painting on canvas. They borrowed freely from advertising and sign painting, comics and cartoons, street murals and vernacular art. They shared a wet fluid look packed with flashy talk, sparkling points of light, personal logos, crude portraits that resembled prison tattoos, and little snatches of landscape reminiscent of alien terrains.
Spray-paint artists who traded brick walls for stretched canvases in the ’80s had the advantage of impeccable timing. On the one hand, they were embraced by an audience with a newly insatiable appetite for self-consciously “bad painting”; on the other, they benefited from an unprecedented institutional interest in multiculturalism. Graffiti art was really its own thing: It had none of the irony of European “bad painting,” and none of the anger channeled by disenfranchised artists of color whose voices were beginning to be heard for the first time inside the museum. By contrast, graffiti art of the period was a full-tilt celebration: high, happy, and popping to beat the band.
In retrospect, just when the party got going it came to a screeching halt. Inadvertently, the exhibition reminds us that the high-low hybrid of grafitti didn’t produce particularly memorable art. Oh, there’s a sense of awkwardness that’s endearing, and bravura as the artists show off their chops, but the paintings testify to what emerged as a kind of “truth”—spray paint on canvas was never as good as the real thing happening in the street. Graffiti had to be tamed in order to function as proper art, and that was the beginning of the end.
Despite their efforts, the Brooklyn Museum contributes to the “dumbing down” of graffiti art by couching it as harmless child’s play. An immense wall, constructed dead center in the middle of the exhibition and accessorized with felt-tip pens, invites children to scribble and become little graffiti artists in their own right.
In recent years, the Brooklyn Museum has sought to deliver crowd-pleasing, entertainment-oriented programming. In the latest round of changes, the museum has announced its intention to abolish traditional curatorial channels and to produce more shows presumably like “Star Wars” (2002) and “Hip-Hop Nation” (2000). Many argue that “all accessibility, all the time” diminishes the role of scholarship. This “Graffiti” exhibition may well prove to be the proverbial handwriting on the wall, showing what we have to fear if exhibition development is taken out of the hands of scholar-curators and turned over to the education department. At any rate, the show reveals the museum’s profound state of confusion and does not augur well for the social experiment it proposes.