A miniscule bright side of natural disaster

It’s beginning to feel like an East Coast apocalypse… To be clear, there isn’t a lot of obvious brightness to serious natural disasters. And okay, this week’s earthquake didn’t quite qualify in that category (although the hurricane currently heading towards my NYC apartment might be a different story). But as someone who was in DC at the time of the tremble, I feel that I have the authority to say it was pretty scary…at least for a few seconds there.

For hours afterward, hypnotized by the short yet unceasing CNN news cycle, I found a bit of bittersweet satisfaction in the fact that all of the repeated stories centered on buildings. The news was not good: cracked limestone in the Washington Monument, statues and pinnacles pitched from the National Cathedral, DC school buildings closed for inspection, at least three structures — including a historic church — facing condemnation in the lovely town of Culpeper. I try to force myself to seek positive in the negative, though, and in this case, I appreciated the recognition that buildings can be casualties that deeply affect communities. From the shaking walls of the earthquake to the hunkering down for the hurricane, my fellow East Coasters have spent the week describing our experience in terms of our buildings. Such situations renew awareness of our interconnectedness with and reliance on the built environment, and that, to me, is a miniscule bright side.

Meanwhile, we can only hope that this weekend’s damage won’t be as drastic as projected. Be safe, New York friends and buildings, and everyone else in Irene’s path…I’m grateful to be sitting in Toronto and sending sunny thoughts your way.

Cracks in the Washington Monument, Charles Dharapak/AP

A statue toppled at the Washington National Cathedral, Courtesy of the National Cathedral, The Washington Post

Graffiti: when preservation’s foe becomes its focus (Part 2)

One of the primary issues at hand is the differentiation that some art critics have drawn between graffiti and street art. Cedar Lewisohn, who wrote for Tate Modern one of the few available scholarly books on “street art,” first separates “graffiti,” by which he means “any form of unofficial, unsanctioned application of a medium onto a surface,” from “graffiti writing,” by which he refers to “the movement most closely associated with hip hop culture…whose central concern is the ‘tag’ or signature of the author.” “Street art,” while a sub-genre of graffiti writing, is more focused on using graffiti imagery, not strictly tags, to “[interact] with the audience on the street.” Graffiti writers and taggers tend not to want their work to be viewed as art; its purpose instead is to serve as a secret language among them, and to “[destroy] or [deface] cities…making ugly places even uglier.” They tend to look down upon “street artists” for their appeal to the masses. Some art theorists do not as readily acknowledge the differentiation between non-artistic “graffiti writing” and “street art.” They believe that graffiti writing, which they identify as “a practiced skill to which the artists or ‘writers’ devote their lives, perfecting a certain style of letter formation,” falls under the definition of art. There are theorists who view that “art should be infinitely impractical” and that “graffiti has no real purpose, other than its own existence,” and therefore qualifies as art. While this particular position seems flawed, as most graffiti writing actually does have significant purpose within the culture of graffiti writers, the implication that a line between graffiti and street art might be less clear than suggested by critics such as Lewisohn is useful. It is a line unacknowledged by many state authorities, including Hackney Council, Transport for London, and the members of SWAAG. Unlike the aforementioned art theorists, however, these authorities choose to regard street art at the same level as graffiti, but regard both as simply illegal vandalism.

http://www.banksy.co.uk

A potential solution to the problem of whether or not councils should remove Banksy’s work might be to formalize the differentiation between graffiti writing, which does not appeal to the public (and indeed, is not intended to), and street art, including works such as Banksy’s that address a wider audience. But again, the divide between writing and street art is not always clear. If the state were to remain firmly against graffiti writing and declare “street art” legal, it would be taking on a significant responsibility as art critic, asserting its authority to decide what is graffiti and what is art. State officials surely lack the art theory and history background to make such a decision in full confidence. At the same time, it is impossible for state authority to escape the role of art critic. Even by denying that they are art critics, denying the responsibility of differentiation between graffiti and street art, like Hackney Council and TfL, they are still making a statement about art, saying that it falls within the confines of the law, even if public opinion supports the art. Islington Council played the art critic by deciding to protect Banksy works, deeming them art because popular opinion said so. By letting the public choose directly whether or not to keep Banksy’s work, Bristol City Council was affirming that art transcends the law. Bristol’s interpretation of its inevitable role as art critic seems to be the most appropriate reaction to the issues of legality raised by the graffiti movement. The Council admitted that it, and not the law, had the authority to judge Banksy’s work, and it invited the public to directly influence its judgment and have a say in the art it gets to see. A lack of public involvement is exactly what Banksy has said is wrong in the Art World: “These galleries are just trophy cabinets for a handful of millionaires. The public never has any real say in what art they see.”

The Art World has not readily accepted graffiti as a legitimate art form, largely due to its intrinsic illegality. Graffiti’s gradual entry into the realm of the art gallery began with the work of a few photographers, most notably Gyula Halász, known as Brassaï. His documentation of Parisian graffiti in the 1930s predated by decades the spread of graffiti as a popular movement, and the success of his photographs paved the way for later photographers like New York’s Henry Chalfant. It can be said that photography of graffiti was accepted by the Art World before graffiti itself was ever recognized as a legitimate art, and photographers’ work contributed to the popularity of graffiti by encouraging the public to look differently at the graffiti on their streets. Photographic documentation is important to many graffiti artists because of the ephemeral nature of their work. Banksy himself has released books containing photographs of his art, and his former art dealer, Steve Lazarides, began as a professional photographer who took pictures of Banksy’s graffiti and gained his confidence. Banksy’s immense popularity, stemming largely from the clever social criticism contained in his work and the media hype surrounding his anonymity, brought graffiti into the limelight. Lazarides began selling Banksy originals and exhibiting the work of other graffiti artists in his own gallery in Soho, an operation which has since expanded.

Soon, it was not only small, Banksy-approved galleries displaying graffiti as art. In May 2008, London’s Tate Modern invited six international graffiti artists to participate in an exhibition called “Street Art” by painting on the museum’s brick façade. Banksy’s work was noticeably absent; it was suggested that he was not interested in participating in the Tate’s official, Nissan-sponsored project. “Street Art” demonstrated that questions remain regarding the extent to which the art establishment has come to understand graffiti. As art critic Ben Lewis pointed out, “Even the location of the exhibition is clever: by putting the artwork on the outside of the Tate, the museum appears to be respecting the street in Street Art. At the same stroke, it’s a cunning way of avoiding the big issue of whether the work really is art in the same sense as the stuff inside.”

Reference to graffiti’s struggle for wider acceptance as an art form should not imply that all graffiti artists are aiming to have their work finally be that “stuff inside” the Tate Modern. On the contrary, Banksy’s popularity is problematic in that it has caused tension between the art industry’s interest in his profitability within the system and his own desire to remain outside of it. He is, in a sense, caught between two worlds—that of the art establishment’s critics, some of whom dismiss his artistic skill as “reasonably competent, not brilliant” and his subject matter as “agitpop…protest art with a smile on its face,” and that of the graffiti artists, some of whom think “his message is naïve” and view him as a sell-out for allowing his art to be sold for great sums of money, including to the “Hollywood glitterati.” Simultaneously, the evident marketability of Banksy’s work can be seen as a benefit to both sides: Marc Schiller of the Wooster Collective credited Banksy with having ‘create[d] a market for an entire category of art that until now has not been recognized at the level that it is now being recognized at.” One irony in this situation is that artworks such as Banksy’s, by means of their location on the street, are intended to belong to everyone. People who buy his work at auctions are essentially paying thousands of pounds for what already belonged to them, and everyone, for free, exhibiting a capitalist desire for individual ownership.

Another irony is that Banksy continues to use his artwork to criticize the very establishment that is now embracing his work. After one of his pieces was sold at auction for £100,000 in 2007, he posted a new drawing on his website. It depicted an auctioneer selling a canvas that bore a message making plain Banksy’s feelings about his own marketability: “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit.” In 2005, he attracted media attention by “infiltrating” four museums and art galleries in New York, surreptitiously hanging his own work on their walls. When he did the same in the British Museum, displaying a “chunk of ‘rock art’ depicting a stone age hunter with a shopping trolley, together with the caption crediting it to “Banksyus Maximus,'” the museum took eight days to notice, and ended up adding the work to its permanent collection. Banksy may not be successfully conveying the criticism of the art establishment he intends if such activities as the 2005 “infiltration” are accepted by museums and lauded by the media as publicity stunts.

Ultimately, his commercial success is dependent on that establishment. It has been pointed out that “history is littered with anti-establishment figures that end up embracing the establishment they rail against, particularly as they grow in popularity.” For example, Banksy’s position is reminiscent of the ironic tension between William Morris’s socialist beliefs and the fact that his hand-crafted art intended for the wider public was expensive to produce and, thus, available only to the wealthy. Banksy’s place in art history is difficult to predict; perhaps one day he will reveal his identity and succumb to the spoils of his fame. But for now, he seems to be entertained by his Art World success while remaining separate from and critical of it, having “[hijacked] the established system of art exhibition… drawing attention to its shortcomings.” In the words of art critic Walter Januszczak, “His chief achievement, and I believe it to be a mammoth one, was finding a way to operate so successfully outside the art world.” In doing so, Banksy has said, he hopes to “show that money hasn’t crushed the humanity out of everything.”

Graffiti: when preservation’s foe becomes its focus (Part 1)

I have an admission to make that might seem paradoxical, coming from a preservationist: I am guilty of liking graffiti. I would never say so without exception or qualification, and I’ll state for the record that I don’t advocate graffiti, and I abhor the reckless use of historic buildings as spray-paint canvases…but in certain rare cases, as I’ve previously mentioned, I just can’t help but find it appealing. From 2007 to 2008, a time when Banksy’s bravado was reaching new heights of popularity, I was living outside of London. While there was plenty else to occupy my eyes in my favorite city, I remember the thrill of turning down a new street and finding another one of his recognizable rats. Equally provocative was the narrative that arose as state authorities and the public were cornered into the role of street art curators, and graffiti, so often the bane of preservationists, became the object of preservation itself.

Banksy, Sweep at Hoxton, Wikimedia Commons

Banksy echoes many other graffiti artists when he explains that much of the thrill of his work stems from its illegality. In his own words, “You could stick all my shit in Tate Modern and have an opening with Tony Blair and Kate Moss on rollerblades handing out vol-au-vents and it wouldn’t be as exciting as when you go out and you paint something big where you shouldn’t do.” He has called himself an “art terrorist,” and some property owners and residents feel accordingly victimized when graffiti appears in their communities. Various state authorities categorize graffiti as a quality of life crime, an environmental crime, and an antisocial behavior. Graffiti is blamed for reducing property values, causing community members, tourists, and retail customers to feel unsafe, reducing the enjoyment of public spaces, and, if not quickly removed from an area, encouraging more graffiti to be added there.

In London, graffiti is linked with rubbish as the target of clean street initiatives. It is frequently described by state authorities as “unsightly,” as it is “a sign of a neglected neighbourhood and is associated with increased levels of crime and the fear of crime.” According to the Council of the London borough of Southwark, “Graffiti is vandalism and it’s become a really expensive problem. Removing graffiti costs the UK over £1 billion a year. We and other agencies have to remove graffiti from walls, street furniture, telephone boxes, bus shelters, monuments and even gravestones.” Countering graffiti is the responsibility of individual boroughs, and each has its own policy regarding graffiti removal. In addition to removing graffiti from public spaces and council-owned property, many boroughs provide free removal from business and residential properties, in some cases only when the graffiti is visible from a street. The amount of time in which a request for graffiti removal will be answered varies for different boroughs, but one commonality is that response time decreases significantly for graffiti that is deemed “racist or offensive.” Some boroughs are particularly severe in setting forth their stances on graffiti. Merton Council, for example, states that “Graffiti is an eyesore that nobody in the borough wants to see. It is also criminal damage and we are determined to stop it.” Merton is a founding member of South West Action Against Graffiti, or SWAAG, which is “a group of southwest London councils who, along with the police, are determined to fight graffiti on all fronts.” The Council of Barking and Dagenham, another member of SWAAG, warns that “graffiti is often the first element in a spiral of decline” and declares that “its artistic merits are irrelevant. It represents one group of people imposing themselves on everyone else and as such is a form of pollution, like people playing loud music.”

The matter of graffiti’s artistic merit is not so straightforward to the many people who view graffiti work such as that of Banksy as more art than eyesore. The rise of Banksy created a dilemma for local authorities, particularly in the London boroughs and other areas of England that were fortunate enough to receive the gift of his artwork, or alternatively, wronged by his “guerilla art.” Many local authorities yielded to the pressure of Banksy’s public support and chose not to remove his work. Council workers in Islington went so far as to restore Banksy works that had been vandalized by the tags of other graffiti writers. According to an Evening Standard article posted by a seemingly bemused Banksy on his own website, Islington Council “defended its policy to clean up and repair the artist’s work. It insisted it was spending taxpayers’ money on the operation in response to residents’ demands.”

In July 2006, the City Council of Bristol was faced with the question of whether or not to order the removal of a Banksy piece near their offices showing a woman in her underwear, a suited man leaning out of a window, and a nude man, presumably the woman’s lover, hanging from the window ledge. The Council decided to ask the public via an internet discussion forum whether or not the piece should be allowed to remain. When ninety-seven percent of responses were in favor of keeping the work, with only six people dissenting, the Council decided that the piece was worthy of being kept, although Councillor Gary Hopkins stressed that “the decision to keep this Banksy image is not a green light for more graffiti in the city.” This incident perfectly illustrates the way in which the rise of graffiti found state officials and the public placed into the role of art critic. Given the nature of Banksy’s work as both illegal and arguably artistic, both state and public were forced to reconsider their definitions of graffiti and decide whether art should transcend the law. In the case of Bristol’s “naked man mural,” the state, disregarding the clear illegality of Banksy’s art, made a judgment of his work based on the deciding factor of public appreciation. Banksy’s response to the incident was, “I think it’s pretty incredible a city council is prepared to make value judgments about preserving illegally painted graffiti. I’m kind of proud of them.” Six months later, after an early Banksy mural was mistakenly removed when contractors were hired by Bristol City Council to “tackle graffiti adjacent to the Banksy work, but wrongly targeted the piece itself,” the Council seemed more sure about its position on Banksy graffiti. It ordered “an investigation into the blunder” and that “all Banksy works in the city…be preserved.”

Other councils, however, offered no apology for their removal of Banksy works. Hackney Council was particularly firm in its anti-graffiti, and therefore anti-Banksy stance, calling for the removal of a number of Banksy works. In February 2008, the Council showed initial signs of yielding to public pressure by allowing a Banksy piece to remain; however, it called for the removal of a portion of the piece, censoring an image of male genitalia that was deemed offensive. Local residents complained that they should have been consulted first, as in the Bristol case. As one resident said, “We’ve been given a work of art. It’s a shame the council have defaced it.” However, a spokesman for the Council argued, “We can’t make a decision on whether something is art or graffiti. The Government judges us on the number of clean walls we have.” Transport for London made a similar argument in response to public outcry when it had a Banksy mural near Old Street Tube station removed. Referring to its “tough line” on graffiti removal, TfL stated, “We have no intention of changing this policy as it makes the transport system safer and more pleasant for passengers. We recognize that there are those who view Banksy’s work as legitimate art, but sadly our graffiti removal teams are staffed by professional cleaners, not professional art critics.”

(To be continued…)

The Packrat Gene: an almost uncanny update

Last month, I speculated that genetics and “packratism” were largely to blame for my becoming a preservationist. Today, I’ve been smiling for hours since I found in my mailbox unexpected and nearly unbelievable proof that I was right.

Since my grandma passed away last year, my aunt has been sifting through the museum of her house in New Braunfels, Texas. It has been a slow job, despite the fact that Grandma left all of her keepsakes sorted in labeled boxes and Ziploc bags—or more accurately, because of it. My aunt and parents have uncovered treasures from Grandma’s past that they didn’t know existed, and might never have found if it hadn’t been for her archival system.

She often mailed notes—always handwritten in cursive—in envelopes thickened with clipped coupons, newspaper articles, and comic strips (a habit my mom has happily since adopted). In the mail this afternoon, I received an envelope from my aunt with a note (handwritten in cursive) explaining that she had found a cartoon, clipped from a newspaper by Grandma, at the bottom of a box, and had immediately remembered my blog post.

I swear that I had never seen this before launching my defense of the archival mindset also known as packrattiness, or even talked to Grandma about the idea. See for yourself; this might look like just a comic strip, but to me, it is part of a continuing confirmation that life is a comedy, and death isn’t much of a separation, after all.

Dear Signage: the brass tacks of bronze plaques

Recently, my mom and aunt introduced me to a remarkable website called Dear Photograph. You may have already seen this microblog, which has gone viral in the less than three months since it was started by Taylor Jones, a 21-year-old from Kitchener, Ontario. Featuring a daily selection from viewers’ submissions, it is a collection based on the premise of revisiting the site of an old photograph and shooting it again, with the picture held up against its now-modern setting. The product—a past moment superimposed on the present—expands the physical limits of the original photo and the temporal limits of experiencing the place.

This concept reminded me of a preservation project I had heard about, one of the winning entries of a 2003 competition called Marking Places that Matter. According to NYC’s Place Matters, the offshoot of City Lore and the Municipal Art Society that sponsored the competition, “The challenge was to create simple, relatively low-cost strategies that would go beyond the traditional bronze plaque for marking and describing places around the city.” In David Provan’s “Historic Overlay” proposal, one of eight winners, he designed viewing stations for significant places where visitors could see an old photograph of a site alongside an empty frame, replicating the borders of the photo to outline their present view. In Provan’s words, “By using archival photographs ‘overlaid’ upon a site, a viewer would have the opportunity to compare and contrast their present moment and location with those of a distant yesterday.”

I will admit to a teary first reaction to Dear Photograph, and although I am known to be a bit of a sap, it seems to have resonated with many people in this way. The site’s popularity suggests that Provan’s comparable signage premise holds a lot of promise, and it supports several generalizations: people love comparisons, they especially love juxtaposition (not just we English majors who obsess over it in papers), and ultimately, they appreciate connection. To me, connections—of people to history via places, and to places via awareness of the past—are the brass tacks of signage. The power of Dear Photograph and “Historic Overlay” lies in their allowing us, in the spirit of the Tralfamadorians, to view the past and present of a place at once.

Literary tidbit: Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut

Today’s bit of insight comes from one of my favorite books of all time, which itself is, in a sense, about all time. Vonnegut tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, who becomes “unstuck in time” during World War II and proceeds to experience his life as a nonlinear narrative. (“He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between.”) The following is Billy’s reflection on one of these events, his trip to the planet of Tralfamadore, which changes his perspective on the relationship between past and present, and has challenged mine, as well.

“The most important thing I have learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.”

Spring Grotto, Summerhouse: my little brick secret

Last week, I mentioned that I have a number of beloved places in Washington, DC. One of them I would place among my favorite buildings in the world, right up there with Florence’s Duomo, albeit on a very different scale. Because much of its charm derives from the subtlety of its location, I would hesitate to advertise the secret without a disclaimer: read no further if you’d rather discover this paragon of hexagons on your own.

I first stumbled upon Summerhouse during a family trip to DC, a decade or so ago. On a path just northwest of the Capitol building, we began to pass a little whirlpool of shrubbery, then found ourselves within it, down through an arch, one of three rising from woven brick. Inside, the red room was symmetrical (I’ll admit to a weakness for six-sided spaces) with the green of a courtyard garden and, encircled by stone benches and scrolled niches, the quiet energy of a Gothic church. Bound by a waving roof of Spanish mission tile, the structure’s center opened to a sky of trees and a round fountain. Above one set of seats was a mossy grotto behind a wrought-iron grille, a window to a spring-fed planet buried in the Capitol grounds.

Since my family moved to the area several years ago, I have often returned to Summerhouse and finally sought out its story. Constructed from 1879 to 1881, the building was a featured folly in Frederick Law Olmsted’s landscaping plan for the Capitol grounds. His Riverside and Central Parks here in New York are spectacular, of course, and I frequent them. Still, I tend to prefer paler glimpses of grandeur; Summerhouse is, to me, his most elegant work. He intended to fold within this busy site a source of respite and water for visitors and their horses; what he created was a tiny sunken cathedral. According to the Architect of the Capitol, an intended twin on the Capitol’s south side was never built, due to inevitable “congressional objections.” Olmsted also planned that the fountain’s overflow would play a chiming carillon, but the device didn’t function and wasn’t installed. Both of these exclusions are just as well, I think. The space’s solitary sense probably wouldn’t survive being doubled, and its unnatural calm is, in fact, natural—in this red brick heart of DC, minutes from the National Mall, you hear only water and the occasional bird.

Through my many visits, I’ve become a bit possessive of the building. I’ve taken to perching beneath the grotto, like a scrawny blonde gargoyle, reading or watching the spring, and always looking to the doorways when I hear anything that is not water. Sometimes runners appear through one arch, drink from the fountain, and disappear through another. Sometimes families trickle in, staring, photographing, paraphrasing my family’s own discovery; I am often asked if I “know what this place is,” and giving an answer feels like folklore. Despite its name, I tend to prefer it in winter, when snow makes the grotto seem all the more unreal. The building was stabilized in 2009, including repair of its historic walls, and I hope that it will continue to receive attention in the years to come—but not too much. In a city known for its monuments, Summerhouse is my little brick favorite.

By Chip Somodovilla, Getty Images, for Life Magazine

Spring Grotto, Summerhouse, me in winter