Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Faith of Graffiti: a brief exchange

I've been re-reading Norman Mailer's "The Faith of Graffiti" , and it seems astounding Mailer grasped a street aesthetic born of marginalized , nonwhite urban youth. This is an important essay I suspect Eric Michael Dyson or Cornell West would come to admire. Mailer is susceptible to the charges of depicting these artists as noble savages, but he does make the connections between the impulse to transform the environment by adding a bit of one's personality upon it with the shattered reconstructions of Picasso's vision. Nice polemic, this. What impresses me is that he refined the existential-criminal-at-the-margins tact he controversially asserted in his essay "The White Negro", backing away from the idea that violence could direct one to knew kinds of perception and knowledge, and emphasized an aesthetic response to a crushing , systematized oppression. Living long enough ,I suppose, made Mailer aware of strong trend in urban style that added value to circumstances and individual growth that didn't involve a fist, a gun or a knife.

BARRY ALFONSO:Some would argue, of course, that graffiti IS a form of violence against society: specifically, the aggressive territorial pissing of one segment of the population upon the sense of order of another segment. This is less an act of sticking it to The Man than dominating the sensibilities of the meeker, more sedate urban population, a transgressive act akin to screaming into the face of someone who will not (or cannot) raise their voice. It’s hard to see this as heroic, and I suspect that the artistic component – especially when we are talking about that lovely habit called “tagging” – is of less importance here than the sheer thrill of breaking the rules. I think even Mailer would agree that the upholding of SOME kind of rules is the only way to improve American society, particularly in the face of the corporate lawbreaking and governmental malfeasance he so often condemned. It may not be Mailer’s job to iron out the contradiction in this thought. But suppose a team of grafittitistas broke into his home and spray painted their art all over his face? This might prove instructive to his family and friends to see. It might even be a blow against some sort of oppression. But I don’t think Norman would’ve liked it very much.

Mailer would argue that modern architecture and the corporate power it represent is violence againsts them and their right to exist, and that graffiti is an aesthetic response to an economic reality that wants nothing to with individuals or their dreams or their latent talents. It creates an intimate relationship with the surroundings that other wise seem designed to urge one to end their lives anonymously. Mailer, though, was talking about a particular quality of prolific taggers , "writers" as they called themselves, and rather rightly discussed them that they were artists no less than the gallery variety. Without patrons, easels, formal training, their walls of the city became their canvas--in those canyons, in those tunnels, on those billboards, all things that hover over them and diminish them in stature, there is an opportunity to declare "I Exist".
(Barry Alfonso, writer, critic, and storyteller and long time friend, weighs in):

BARRY ALFONSO:If this was indeed Mailer’s position, then it is the sort of elitist pseudo-primitivism that win followers for George Wallace, Glenn Beck and other champions of populist fascism. To say it plain, ordinary working folks think that scribbling your name all over the city they have to live and work in is just a form of childish eye pollution committed by bums who have nothing better to do. Apparently, Mailer would have us think that the proper way to protest urban ugliness is to make things MORE ugly, which is akin to making satirizing executions by chopping people’s heads off. (Any allusions made to Picasso is a red herring, with two eyes on the same side of the fish head.) It further appears that for all his later maturity of outlook Mailer never dropped his sweaty-palmed worship of anarchy that he glorified in “The White Negro.” Mailer the Liberal would cringe at the thought, but the tagger is just an Ayn Rand hero with a spray can and without the discipline, a rampant ego who celebrates nothing more his need to be noticed. Such activities give birth to firing squads.

The irony of it all, I guess, is that Mailer can be said to tread on the Noble Savage sentiment, but what he asserts in both "White Negro" and "The Faith of Graffiti" is there is a need, nay, a requirement for self-definition among those who are denied the means to do so for reasons of race, gender, economics, and that the form these taggers have taken is a way of making something that resonates. What he argues , essentially, is that the impulse, inspiration and discipline of committing yourself to unsullied artistic expression is the same , whether it happens to be in European salons, SoHo Art Galleries, Museum Walls, or on the side of a Brooklyn water tower; he rejects art as the domain of the white culture the final aim of which is a fat commission and corporate sponsorship and college courses and brings it again to something that is human in it's dimension. As it regards black American culture, the likes of Amiri Baraka, Cornell West and Eric Michael Dyson would find quite a bit to agree with about Mailer's treatise. Urban culture is now the stuff of dissertations, has been codified as an aesthetic with it's own critical parlance, and is now a legitimate part of the larger cultural landscape of America, and Graffiti, like it or not, is an essential element of this mid 20th century development. Mailer was the first one to write seriously , on his own terms , about this. One can argue with Mailer's tone, his arch style and his interest in neo-primitivism, but I think his interest in the young men he interviewed and spent weeks with as a writer was honest and his ideas about their work were sincere. In a forward to the book, he reveals that the title was given to him by an artist who was seriously injured from a steep fall that happened when he was tagging a structure from on high. He was talking about having faith in something, an ideal, that motivated you beyond your limits. I can only paraphrase, but it came down to him telling Mailer that the name of the book that would come out of this would be "The Faith of Graffiti".