Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Norman Mailer: The Faith of Graffiti, Bonus Banksy

Twenty-five years ago, Norman Mailer wrote "The Book" on graffiti: graffiti, he said, was not blight, but art in progression from artists like Picasso, Pollock, Matisse and Miro. Last year, his book, with photographs by Jon Naar (Naar's book with text by Mailer?) was reissued, with more of Naar's photography. The graff photos are unremarkable except for their historical value: the graffiti is almost primitive looking: tags on top of tags that look like plain old handwriting now, compared to the stylized writing that writers use. Even "gang" graffiti on the corners here is more stylized than the simple letters and bubble letters in the pictures. But the writing was everywhere, based on Naar's pictures. All over the insides of subways, the outside of subways, the walls, underpasses. Names over and over and over, on top of each other, next to each other, etc. No throwups, no pieces, just simple tags. The other notable thing is that Naar photographs the writers themselves, proudly grinning at the camera. I don't know if these shots were included in the original book or not, but they're not clearly visible in the shots. If they weren't included in the original, they're obviously un-knowable now, 25 years later, but the pride in the "vandalism"/artwork shows.

In the first paragraph, Mailer dubs himself "A-I", the Aesthetic Investigator, already positioning himself as a journalist investigating art, not blight. The accompanying shot of Michaelangelo's painting on the third page of the book suggests that the author/photographer feel that artists have always painted on walls, even artists considered as all time masters, and Mailer gives examples of other outsider art in his background to the graff discussion. Mailer takes a trip to MOMA and argues that modern life is one influence of graffiti artists, but that art history is all around us, and more traditional artists can't be discarded either, whether or not kids can point at a specific Matisse painting and say: "that's the one that defines my style!" He even visits the mayor (his ex rival in a New York mayoral race) to get a more in depth understanding of why Mayor Lindsay seemed to take such a personal offense at graffiti. Mailer paints Lindsay as an old patriarch, hungover and seriously, venomously, out of proportionally, pissed off at the young writers. In response, Mailer writes
Graffiti is the expression of a ghetto which is near to the plague, for civilization is now inimical to the ghetto. Too huge are the obstacles to any natural development of a civilized man.. In the ghetto it is almost impossible to find some quiet location for your identity. No, in the environment of the slum, the courage to display yourself is your only capital, and crime is the productive process which converts such capital to the modern powers of the world, ego and money.

And now for the bonus round.

If you haven't heard of Banksy, you've been living under a rock. Even if you're not a graffiti fan, you've heard of him, I feel like maybe he's the "street artist" for the bourgeoisie. I mean, his website even has a store on it. Sure, he has a disclaimer, tongue in cheek, about how he doesn't really sell them, and isn't on any social media site, but trust me, Banksy is making money on this stuff. Amazon lists quite a few books by the artist, who knows if he really makes bank on them. And now he has a movie. The question everyone is asking is "is the movie is a prank?"

The question I am asking is WHO CARES? To me, Banksy is a prank on people who claim to care about street art. Recently Banksy, or his crew of assistants, hit San Francisco. San Francisco went crazy with glee, excitement, awe, starstruck-ness, etc. It started in April, just a few days after the premiere of the movie in SF. Flickr was covered in the pieces, the blogs couldn't stop talking about it, and one piece was protected by local business in Chinatown. Another artist worked on some of the pieces, and local commenter were pissed off (read the comments).

I just don't get it. What is special about Banksy? As I've written about here before, people hate graffiti. The city of San Francisco hates graffiti. And yet here are local business owners and photographers of all stripes treating Banksy like a celebrity. He is the same as other graffiti artists as far as I can tell: he paints illegally on walls in a stylish way. Only, business on owners are happy to see him, tourists are interested, and when other artists do what other graff artists do and paint over him, the normally uninterested peanut gallery cares. And there doesn't seem to be any (or much) cynicism over the fact that he maybe, just maybe, is making money over this. He's not doing public art in the sense that he's doing legal murals that are in graffiti style- he's literally doing "graffiti" that vandalizes buildings (I haven't changed my tune, I still don't believe in the horrors of graffiti, I just don't get the sudden turn around in the change of tune of the public response).

The Bansky Boom strikes me as bizarre. What would Mailer Muse?