A Graffiti Polemic
A Graffiti Polemic
A Graffiti Polemic
By Steve Grody December 11, 2007

Contemporary graffiti pieces of the full-blown, Wild Style variety straddle the aesthetic fence between the vernacular and fine art, with the best work deserving the analysis of an educated eye, the kind usually reserved for galleries and museums. Graphically, graffiti “writers” work with letter-based forms and are concerned with personally derived font styles and execution; however, functional readability often takes a back seat to artistic expression, placing it firmly in the fine art camp.   

Graffiti lettering by Atlas demonstrates a formalist approach

Snobbery puts blinders on even the most erudite art appreciators who fail to recognize the merits of work from a can of spray paint, no matter how technically sophisticated it might be. Aesthetic sensitivity is in the eye of the beholder. Having an eye for one area of visual art does not necessarily translate broadly, so that, for example, even those familiar with modernist, abstract artists such as Robert Motherwell or Franz Kline, often regard graffiti pieces with condescension, begrudgingly acknowledging the craft as contemporary urban folk practice at best.

Because graffiti has developed outside of the academy (and, importantly, outside of its control), outsiders rarely see it as a practice that goes beyond a stylish skill. But in fact, works produced by graffiti writers demonstrate a broad spectrum of expressions, from the obvious formal issues of design, to a fully formed poetic—crossing the dividing line between “high” and “low” art. Interestingly, most veteran graffiti writers recall the emotional impact that they felt—and felt was expressed by—the first example of powerful graffiti they encountered. The difference between snobbery and simply having individual preference for one aesthetic mode or another is the moral presumption people associate with their opinion. That is, those doing gallery or career-oriented art might presume, albeit unconsciously, that a gallery or museum based endeavor is intrinsically more worthy and of greater social value than graffiti. It is that judgmental stance that keeps one from engaging with less familiar modes of expression.

Snobbery, of course, cuts in any direction: graffiti writers tend to have blinders on, too, preventing them from appreciating or deeply understanding much of the classic art throughout history. While some would recognize a Matisse, would they also understand the radical aspects of his art, the line it treads between representation and abstraction, as well as his exquisite color formalism? (Then again, most artists and art history scholars miss Matisse's formalism as well.)

Critic Christopher Knight, speaking this year at the Painting's Edge program in Idyllwild, made the argument that Clement Greenberg, the prominent art critic from the 1950s and '60s, did a great disservice to further generations of artists and critics by proposing a cultural dividing line between high art and popular art. Knight proposed that since there are examples of supposedly high art that are sterile and ineffectual and examples of popular art that are emotionally compelling, should we not throw out those rigid, black-and-white categories and simply look at a given work and judge it for how it succeeds on its own terms?

As in any artform, authority of creative expression develops through committed practice and thought. Graffiti writers may not have common art terms such as “warm/cool split” or “figure and ground” in mind as they work, but they use these ideas intuitively. For instance, writers may not use the term “formalism,” but they often obsessively make sure the visual weight in pieces balance out, a central concern of visual formalism.

The general visual style of modern graffiti evolved from the confluence of sociological and material elements. The sociological element is that of young people, originally of under-class demographics but now extending beyond class barriers, who want to leave a public signature (a tag), but quickly, so as not to get caught. The material element is the spray can. The reason that writers use spray cans for anything beyond a small tag (markers work well for those), is that the spray can, easily concealable and portable, can cover a large area quickly yet with control. And even though now there are legal forums for public art, where spray painting may be done in a relaxed manner, the stylish and often spontaneous look of the finished product comes from the roots of this movement. Something that stands out in the best work is the authority of technique and “pulp” energy that results from often having time limits and the knowledge that the work being done is illegal and will probably be gone in short order.

A central goal in graffiti is the development of a distinctive visual style, same as it is for most any artist. The development of this individual style is the single determining factor in how a writer is judged among his peers, the ultimate audience to impress. Various writers may be known for other attributes such as can control or color palette, but without an inspired creative letter style, a writer will never be considered in the top tier. Just look up at the billboards and buildings around you to appreciate this other kind of high art.

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