Sandstorms and birthdays

Soon after the fall that would eventually end her life, my grandma thought of sandstorms in Australia. She spoke of this phenomenon and this place that she had never seen in her ninety years with an urgency and fixation that we could not explain. During my days visiting a Texas hospital, though I did not know they would be my last with her, I scribbled down her words — because she so often recorded mine in her journal when we spoke on the phone, and because she had always spoken in truths, and I knew this riddle must be no different: “Are you familiar with the sandstorms in Australia? They come to take the land, infiltrate everything. I’ve been fighting them all my life. Now the sand has filled my house. Go check on it.”

I would see her house once more, staying there to attend her funeral two months later, and all was still. There was no sand. But now that house, with its grey-blue carpet and its ceiling glitter — like stars, I had always thought, or was it silver-coated sand — belongs to someone else, and I think I know what she meant. As I described when I began this blog in her honor, Grandma had archived her own history, and so mine, too, keeping daily records of her travels and phone calls and meals, of the thank-you notes she received after gift-giving, of the origin of every thimble and china dish in her collections. In our last days together, she was telling me why she lived this way, as if by means of that timeless metaphor, the sands of time: it was time that came to take the land, time she had been fighting, time she feared had finally filled her house. Her crewelwork and photos on the walls, the smell of caramel and cherry and buttermilk pies, the files and boxes of clippings, photos, letters, lists, all of it has been deconstructed now, deaccessioned among her family. We couldn’t save her house from the sandstorms, but they haven’t won.

My grandma, Vera B. Stallcup Taylor, and her beloved sister, Beth Stallcup Young. Grandma loved this photograph that hung in a convex oval frame on her bedroom wall.

Today, on what would have been Grandma’s ninety-second birthday, my sister and I will fool the hourglass, share memories of her, play her favorite card games, fight sandstorms. And eat pie; there will always be pie.

 

Many Washingtons: “Unbuilt” monuments on display

I’ve written before about my appreciation for the remarkably interdisciplinary nature of the preservation field, but it took a visit to the National Building Museum yesterday to show me that one of those disciplines is quantum mechanics. Wait, what?

Some physicists believe in Many Worlds, created when the universe splits into branches to accommodate an action’s possible outcomes. (Fuller explanations sail over my head, and often involve Schrödinger’s poor boxed cat; google if you dare.) The National Building Museum’s “Unbuilt Washington” exhibit, which opened this past weekend, provides archival insight into what might be called Many Washingtons, the parallel capital-universes created by the numerous architectural proposals that have gone unrealized in the city’s history.

A palimpsest of sorts: my notes from the exhibition. Another note to self: always take notebook to Building Museum.

Upon entering, I overheard someone who represented the exhibition telling a reporter that its greatest value lies in inspiring “appreciation for what the city looks like.” Indeed, after spending three hours in “Unbuilt Washington,” I felt glad to live in a world where the Lincoln Memorial is not a ziggurat, the Jefferson memorial is not a skinny skyborne spout, and the Old EOB was not replaced with a twin of the Treasury (no offense to ziggurats, fountains, or the Treasury). Moreover, I gained heightened appreciation for the work that went into sculpting the city’s built environment. I hadn’t realized that so many of the capital’s landmarks resulted from design competitions, which were the source of many of the alternative designs featured in the exhibition — not only rejected proposals but also winning entries that never came to fruition. The executed structures resulted from often decades-long efforts to procure funding and finalize designs, including disagreements over which architectural styles would best reflect both the site’s intended symbolic value and the era’s ideals of how to manifest democratic government in the built environment.

James Diamond's Capitol, courtesy of Maryland Historical Society and National Building Museum

Some of the residual designs appear now — and in some cases surely did when first proposed — to be laughably absurd. Interestingly, the easiest laughs perhaps come from much more recent designs: Jim Allegro and Doug Michels’ 1996 “National Sofa” across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, complete with Jumbotron, and their 1989 Dolphin America Hotel, part of an effort to improve dolphin-human relations. Equally entertaining, however, are the otherworldly monuments that could have been. Amateur architect James Diamond appears to have thrown every architectural feature he knew onto the central bay of his Capitol building contest entry — columns, arched entry, Palladian window, round windows, pediment, frieze, balustrade, dome — and the cherry on top is an eagle weather vane that more closely resembles King Kong’s precarious pet pelican (1792). In her entry for completing the Washington Monument, stalled for decades mid-construction, Vinnie Ream Hoxie suggested converting the obelisk stub into a severely distended sculpture base, topping it with a figure of Washington requiring the balance of a pointe dancer (1876-1878). Alexander Esty’s design entry for the Library of Congress took too seriously the suggestion to avoid tall elements that might detract from the Capitol dome; he somehow burdened the Victorian Gothic style with swampy horizontality, picturing an overwrought cathedral sunk neck-deep in quicksand (1880).

Alexander R. Esty's Library of Congress, courtesy of LOC and National Building Museum

Still, other showcased ideas make a lot of sense. For example, the Kennedy Center’s unrealized curvilinear design would have been better integrated with the riverfront than the stark, rectilinear form that replaced it for budgetary reasons. In his review for The Washington Post, Philip Kennicott observes, “Some of the prize pieces in the “Unbuilt Washington” exhibition remind us what could have been if the Mall had been treated as an urban amenity rather than a national symbol.” As he points out, designs for the Mall by Robert Mills and Andrew Jackson Downing would have created pleasure gardens in place of what in recent years has received criticism as a neglected turf of trampled grass.

Vinnie Ream Moxie's Washington Monument, courtesy of LOC and National Building Museum

Kennicott begins his review by predicting that this exhibition is “the National Building Museum’s best chance at drawing blockbuster crowds in years.” I agree. The exhibition’s greatest strengths are its appeal to the imagination and accessibility to anyone who has one. As a preservationist, I especially appreciated it as an example of storytelling through archival material, and I found its stories to be directly related to our field. Preservationists often find ourselves facing multifurcations, standing at the thresholds of diverging options and outcomes. Which alterations and additions would be appropriate? Which structures should be built, kept, razed? Which side of each split will we follow; which world do we prefer? The unbuildings on display at the National Building Museum demonstrate that historical value lies not only in the decisions we convert to reality, but also the alternatives that get left behind, those ideas that slip away to get built in other worlds.

From museum to stage: Alice Austen’s larky life

courtesy of Sundog Theatre

House museums, the root form of the historic preservation movement in the US, seem often to face questions regarding continued relevance in an ever-evolving field. But for me, house museums have always been a favorite way of engaging with history, and played a significant role in my becoming a preservationist. Since moving to New York, one example I’ve become fond of is Clear Comfort, the home and studio of Alice Austen (1866-1952), who has been called “the earliest American woman of importance in photography.” The house on Staten Island (a c.1700 Dutch farmhouse remodeled as a Gothic Revival cottage) is now a museum under the Historic House Trust.

It’s also the setting of a new musical: Sundog Theatre‘s original production, If You Could See: The Alice Austen Story. I was fortunate to sit in the front row for the musical’s Manhattan opening this week, and it was surreal to watch a house and story I’ve researched and written about, transformed to song and stage. The show spans decades and interweaves the stories of young Alice, living what she called the “larky life” with partner Gertrude Tate at Clear Comfort, and Alice in her late 80s, discovered in a poor farm by Oliver Jensen of LIFE Magazine, who sought permission to print her photographs. Alice’s life, love, and work play out against a backdrop of the arrival of immigrants in New York, the rise of industrialization, and the stock market crash, which ultimately tore Alice and Gertrude from Clear Comfort. Provided by the house museum, the show’s physical backdrop is a series of Alice’s photographs projected on a screen. While I tend to resist the use of digital images in theatre productions, in this case it was one of my favorite elements of the show; the archival photographs bring the house to the stage, and are especially poignant when juxtaposed with the actors’ restagings, little tableaux vivants of Alice’s friends alongside her own own visions of them.

Clear Comfort

The house museum has been criticized in the past (including, admittedly, by me) for its arguably outdated interpretation of Alice’s life, but its story has increasingly emerged to light, and If You Could See represents a renewal of much-deserved appreciation for Alice as a groundbreaking woman and artist. After the show, I overheard audience members expressing eagerness to visit or revisit Clear Comfort. The house museum musical seems to me to be a pretty promising new genre!

As Sundog Theatre says, “Alice’s world is remarkably similar to ours, making If You Could See a musical for our time – celebrating a significant artist and true American iconoclast.” Catch the final performances of If You Could See at Manhattan’s Five Angels Theatre this weekend, and visit Clear Comfort on Staten Island, the actual stage set of a remarkable larky life.

Flower bulbs, light bulbs, and wet paint at Dyckman Farmhouse

Yesterday, I sat in a giant bed of ivy behind Manhattan’s only remaining Dutch colonial farmhouse, digging a trowel between the roots, burying daffodil bulbs, and being grateful that preservationists seem often to find ourselves in such unexpected places. The Dyckman Farmhouse was this year’s location for the annual Fall Work Day sponsored by Preservation Alumni, the nonprofit organization and alumni network supporting my graduate program at Columbia. While some of us planted daffodils, others braved bugs to replace light bulbs, raked leaves, cleaned gutters, and painted fences until the site was looking as good as new — well, preferably, as good as two centuries old.

bulbs and ivy behind the Dyckman Farmhouse

fellow Columbia preservationists working on the building

wet paint, courtesy of Preservation Alumni!

In addition to the chance to spend a lovely November day digging around in some history-rich dirt, we had the privilege of exploring the c. 1784 house and grounds with the museum’s director, Susan De Vries. Since my thesis involves the reinterpretation of house museums, I was especially interested to learn that the Dyckman Farmhouse now presents not one period of significance, but two: 1815-1820, the period in the house’s history about which the most documentation has been found, and 1916, when the house was first interpreted and opened as a museum. While some rooms have been used to convey the realities of farmhouse life in the early 1800s, others have been left to show the 1916 version of a New York interior in 1800, which the building’s first preservationists based on oral tradition and their own imaginings. As such, the museum tells an important story not only about early 19th century New York, but also about the history of preservation itself. Now that it’s had a bit of autumnal cleaning, head to Inwood to see the Dyckman Farmhouse for yourself!

the Military Hut amid the formal garden; reconstructed by an amateur archeologist in 1915 using remnants from British and Hessian occupation of this area during Revolutionary War; bottles left by soldiers are included among original stones in the walls

second-floor bedroom as it would have appeared when museum opened; 1916 depiction of an 1800 interior

first-floor bedroom; current understanding of how an 1815-1820 interior would have actually appeared

Ship log: interpreting the Lilac

Preservationist Richard Nickel famously said, “Great architecture has only two natural enemies: water and stupid men.” But for my Interpretation of Architecture workshop this semester, we are focusing on a historic structure that has long depended on water for its — or rather, her — livelihood. The U.S. Lighthouse Tender Lilac dates to 1933 and was built to serve and maintain lighthouses, lightships, and buoys on the Delaware River. In 1939, she became a United States Coast Guard vessel, and she spent World War II as an armed member of port security. She was ultimately decommissioned in 1972, acted as a stationary training facility until 1984, and from 1985 to 1999 was a floating office on the James River in Virginia. Today, Lilac is the oldest lighthouse tender in the United States and the only steam-powered tender to survive with steam engines intact. Lilac received National Register listing in 2005 and is currently berthed at Manhattan’s Pier 25 under the care of the non-profit LILAC Preservation Project.

What are the challenges of preserving and interpreting a waterborne structure? What is a ship if not a floating building?


National Preservation Conference: Wrapping up, not winding down

My first National Preservation Conference experience has come and gone, and I, like the thousands of other preservationist attendees, have left Buffalo with a bundle of new ideas and a renewed sense of appreciation for having found myself in this field. I try to make sense of it all in my latest post; to read it, hop on over to the PreservationNation blog at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Tenement Museum: Telling the many stories of a 5-story building

the Tenement Museum, courtesy of ahistoryofnewyork.com

97 Orchard Street may not have been a model tenement, but its current incarnation as the Tenement Museum serves as a model of responding to challenges in interpretation. First, it has devised a clever solution to the question of encouraging repeat visitors to a historic site, and simultaneously broadening the diversity of that audience. The museum offers eight different guided tours that appeal to a variety of interests, including five tours that explore the building’s physical stories through the lens of historic residents’ life stories, and three walking tours of the neighborhood that set the tenement itself into wider contexts. Using the floors of 97 Orchard as microcosms of the building’s history, and by extension the history of the tenement form in New York City, the five building tours, one hour each, rely largely on visitors’ imagination and sense of empathy to animate the rooms. In one case that is specifically advertised for families, the “Confino Family Living History Program,” a costumed interpreter assists with this animation, demonstrating the museum’s plan of appealing to different audiences through strategic interpretative methods.

As an indecisive person, I was a bit overwhelmed upon first visiting the museum’s website. Which of the tour options would provide me with the best sense of the tenement’s history? After poking around reviews and travel forums to gauge the tours’ popularity, I chose “Getting By.” This tour, which took place on the second floor of the building, visited the restored apartments of the German-Jewish Gumpertz family in the 1870s and the Italian-Catholic Baldizzi family in the 1930s. While I was initially disappointed that my experience of the building would be limited to one level, and a bit skeptical that an hour-long tour could sustain interest while restricted to two small apartments, I was ultimately impressed with the scope of the experience and saw the benefits of offering multiple tours.

The reason that one floor was sufficient material for an hour was that the interpreter used each apartment as the setting for telling the story of a family who actually lived there, and then generating a discussion of the family’s conditions in relation to a modern context. She interwove the historical accounts with questions designed to help the audience observe certain characteristics of the apartments and to connect with the families, not only by occupying the space they once inhabited but also by considering the emotions and thought processes that might have accompanied certain events in the history. These questions ranged from “What does the word ‘tenement’ make you think of?” to “What would you do if you were Natalie Gumpertz and your husband disappeared?,” from “How does the 1930s apartment look different from the 1870s apartment?” to “How did your own ancestors get by in the Depression?”

Throughout the tour, the interpreter was clear about what facts the museum did and did not know, even passing around the documents that were the basis for the museum’s research. She encouraged visitors to fill in the gaps between these facts with their own conjectures and experiences, as opposed to fabricating a narrative undifferentiated from fact. It was unclear whether the furnishings and objects in the apartments were original artifacts (although the guide later clarified that many were), and these objects were often not identified or interpreted. The goal of the tour was not to experience individual elements of the apartments, which again were quite small, but to experience each space as a whole. The few objects with which visitors interacted—turning the light switch to experience the hallway in historically-accurate darkness, passing around a sad iron to feel its weight—were used to produce the effect of simulation and help visitors to better relate, even at a corporeal level, to the families whose stories they were hearing.

the Baldizzi kitchen, courtesy of the Tenement Museum

This sense of connection reached a climax when the interpreter paused before leaving the Baldizzi apartment to play for us a bit of oral history from the Baldizzi daughter Josephine, now an older woman. As we stood in the kitchen, Josephine described concrete memories of how her family used that space, while the interpreter subtly directed our attention to the objects to which Josephine was referring—Linit Starch, a gas heater, a set of Chinese checkers. Through these multiple means of interaction, interweaving documented facts, visitor-driven speculation, object-based simulation, oral history, and personal reflection, the Tenement Museum has addressed the challenges of engaging visitors, appealing to universal themes and to both emotions and intellects, and guiding visitors to discover their own sense of the significance of this historic place. In the end, the visitors from Texas, California, Australia, and the native New Yorkers on the tour with me could all relate to the families who had lived in the tenement. The comments that I heard afterward multiple times were “great research” and “great story;” I think that both were key to the Tenement Museum’s interpretation plan.

Seeking a white night (and avoiding a dark day) in Toronto

I’m back from a slight blogging respite; the last two weeks have been whirlwindy! This time last week, I was on my way back from Canada after Saturday’s nocturnal wanderings at Nuit Blanche, billed as an annual chance to “experience Toronto transformed by artists” from “6:59 pm to sunrise.” For the past three nuits blanches, I’ve awoken to 3am phone calls from my partner, M, narrating street installations of color and light, with strains in the background of electric sound, or opera, and hanging up has felt like letting some little magical portal fall closed. My expectations, then, were high for our first chance to go together; at the same time, they were vague, the imagining of an energetic blur of color, light, sound. And as such, they were absolutely met.

This year, Nuit Blanche included over 130 projects sprouting from corners and squares throughout the city; buildings and streets became both art and museum, actor and stage. It would have been difficult to predict and plot which sites most merited a visit, and impossible to see them all, so our path was a bit more organic; we used Yonge Street as a spine and wandered from King up to Wellesley. While the projects varied in individual potency—for some, the primary source of magic was surely their setting in the cold midnight city—the overall effect of migrating from light source to sound-and-light source was one of profound and somehow invigorating disorientation. Many of the installations were interactive, reintroducing us to the city by altering our interchange with it.

My first true sense of this effect was the “Soon” installation, which artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard explained as “a materialization, a frozen moment between the before and after. Something above Commerce Court is watching us and an inexplicable encounter unfolds.” As spotlights from a building top scanned the courtyard, filling with people and smoke and nervous, toneless music, we stood dazed. But one couple began to run, chased by the light, and then another, and then people stepped to the rim of the central fountain, their arms outstretched as if in some extraterrestrial gesture. It was unclear whether they were hired to take part in the spectacle or simply responding as they saw others respond, and that was part of the intrigue.
“The Way Up is the Way Down,” by Dennis Hale and Mike Sharpe, was described as “an enigmatic, floating, flashing amber beacon” intended to “transform public space and the meaning of civic engagement.” When we dialed a given number from M’s mobile, this glowing pendulum shook and rang like the possessed dial of a rotary phone suspended above Bay Street and King Street West, then shrank back to silence—the call unanswered, no message left.

“Intensity” by John Notten began with a queue outside a tent, and the enigmatic separation of tall people from short as we were directed through openings. Inside, we were submerged beneath low-hanging cloth; we felt our way along this makeshift ceiling until a hole emerged overhead. Coming up for air, M and I found ourselves in a pocket of space, a little dome of translucent fabric; through it we saw, in a communal, laughing realization with everyone else inside, that our heads were housed in miniature tents pitched on a lit stretch of turf. As the project description explained, “while you may think you’re entering the presentation centre for a new, luxury condominium development, you will find yourself in the middle of a seemingly endless tent city. Occupancy is fleeting, for within minutes you will be evicted.” Indeed, as soon as we had regained our bearings in this strange tent world, a disembodied voice instructed us to leave the premises immediately; we ducked back down, and out, to readjust to the open night.

Nearby in the Bay and Adelaide Center Courtyard, we stood in another line for “FLUXe,” the Scotiabank-sponsored “immersive art experience” that would let us “digitally transform the urban landscape.” At our turn, M and I were given a Blackberry tablet and instructed to select from nine artists whose strokes we could use to draw on the screen. We first chose Nanami Cowdroy, and our fingertips released a stream of etched cranes that were projected on the side of the building in front of us. (We were later able to access our chef d’œuvre online; see below!) City and color and light converged, literally beneath our hands.

our masterpiece

On a significant side note…That this flurry of cultural activity could bring hundreds of thousands of people to shun sleep and huddle in the streets, seemed ironic when four days earlier, Toronto’s City Council had considered the closures of several (unidentified) city-run museums based on low attendance—though, thankfully, voted to postpone them. While the potential cuts will soon be reconsidered, this reprieve allows time to rally the cultural troops and reflect on how to safeguard Toronto’s arts and heritage. The city cannot assume from any quantitative data that its cultural sites lack relevance, or that its citizens lack interest; it should take any numerical declines as simply signs that it should express and foster more pride and delight in its own resources. Nuit Blanche showed in no uncertain terms that energy and curiosity abound in Toronto; when people are beckoned to engage directly with the arts and the built environment, they will do so from 6:59pm to sunrise and leave wanting more.

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.”

Tesserae and talking walls

I have a number of favorite places in the Washington, DC, area— the first, naturally, being my family’s home. Not far down on the list is the monumental National Building Museum, where this past weekend I went to see Walls Speak: The Narrative Art of Hildreth Meière. (The exhibit is up through January 2, 2012; see it for yourself!) Meière was a noted figure in the Art Deco movement who collaborated with architects and craftsmen to create painted murals, wool tapestries, marble floors, and especially glass and marble mosaics. From her initial pencil sketches, full-size studies (“cartoons”), and models that were featured in the exhibit arise, as advertised, several narratives: first, that of Meière’s own life. After studying at an Academy of the Sacred Heart (like me!) in New York, and later in San Francisco, Chicago, and Florence, she worked as a mapmaker and architectural drafts-woman for the navy during World War I. She then made a career of integrating art into built spaces and was the first woman elected to the New York City Arts Commission, as well as the first to receive the Fine Arts Medal from the American Institute of Architects. She served on the boards of various organizations, including the Municipal Art Society, as Vice President of the Architectural League of New York, and as President of the National Society of Mural Painters.

Nebraska State Capitol Ceiling, by Dave Parker, Wikimedia Commons

Acclaimed for the almost exclusively narrative nature of her work, Meière combined material innovation with an affinity (one I would like to call “writerly”) for portraying symbol and story. Her first architectural commission, for the National Academy of Sciences in 1924, was to interpret scientific concepts as imagery, painted over Guastavino’s Akoustolith tile to resemble glazed ceramic. Soon afterward, she completed the work that would endure as her personal favorite: scenes inspired by Hartley Burr Alexander’s iconography, ceramic tile surrounded by Akoustolith in the Nebraska State Capitol. She went on to study and illustrate a wide range of subject matter, from a dome’s worth of apostles and six-winged seraphim, drawn with tiny glass tesserae in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, to her painted mural for Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition, with three vignettes celebrating women’s progress from 1833 to 1933. Perhaps most well-known are her iconic roundels on the facade of Radio City Music Hall, which used a new process for exterior mixed metals to depict drama, dance, and song. With paint, metal, and bits of glass, Meière made storytellers of ceilings and walls.

Ultimately, “Walls Speak” refers to, and itself is part of, an overarching preservation narrative, one that pieces together and perpetuates Meière’s life story and the stories contained in her work. The museum walls speak, too—of the need for such history to be valued and maintained. For her last commission, she proposed a series of vignettes for wall niches in the National Cathedral; rejected in favor of a more abstract design, they survive through her saved drawings. Her final commercial commission in 1960, a year before her death, told the legend of Hercules through marble mosaic at Prudential Plaza. The work, irreparably harmed during a 1996 remodeling, now endures through photographs and cartoons. Likewise, Meière’s sculpture on the exterior of the RKO Theater, which showed “talkies” as part of Rockefeller Center, had been destroyed with the building in 1954; her drawings, however, preserve its memory. The exhibit describes her large-scale works for the New York World’s Fair, which now exist only as models: “At the close of the 1939 Fair, all of the art work was destroyed. This did not disturb Meière, who believed that the fun was in creating the objects, whether or not they endured.” (Her attitude sounds rather similar to that of a certain gum-wad painter we know, doesn’t it?) With all due respect to Meière’s beliefs, I will admit to being disturbed, but simultaneously relieved that the narrative art of Hildreth Meière will persist, with some assistance from the narrative art of preservation.