When Art Is Illegal

Illegal Invader mosaic. The street art is the little picture below the folk art.

MOCA’s “Art in the Streets” is generating controversy on the theme of art and crime: Should a museum “glorify” criminal activity? It’s not entirely academic. At least one artist in the show, the French-born Invader, has apparently been placing his trademark video-game mosaics in downtown L.A. For the record, that’s nothing new. Long before the MOCA show, the well-travelled Invader placed mosaics on the Hollywood Sign and Randy’s Donuts.

Practically all of the artists in the MOCA show have tagged or otherwise ignored property rights, and many still do. On the other hand, the only illegally created works in the show would seem to be a few Keith Haring subway drawings—which New Yorkers, who know from graffiti, mostly adored. Many Haring drawings were peeled from subway walls by collectors—illegally?—and preserved as art. That’s probably how they ended up at MOCA.

Legal Invader mosaic at the Geffen Contemporary, a former LAPD warehouse, with workman's graffiti

As far I can tell, the MOCA show doesn’t take a position on the ethics of using someone else’s property for art. That’s what some critics are faulting it for. Heather Mac Donald, in the City Journal, blasts the “conscience-less amorality of Art in the Streets.” She goes on to call everyone in the show a “graffiti vandal” and give “Art in the Streets” a salacious, banned-in-Boston vibe it can’t necessarily live up to:

“…many photos feature vandalized property, as well as the loathsome punks (including the late Dash Snow) who perpetrate such vandalism, caught on camera here in various states of undress, inebriation, sexual availability, and mutilation.”

Art shows aren’t generally in the business of offering legal advice and moral guidance. How many El Greco shows take a “position” on the Spanish Inquisition? That doesn’t mean that the curators are secret Spanish Inquisition sympathizers. It just means that they’re chronicling art history the way it happened, not the way we wish it had happened.

Today’s Los Angeles Times supplies this bit of legal advice from former LAPD Chief William J. Bratton: “If you want to be an artist, buy a canvas.” It also offers upbeat spin from Jeffrey Deitch:

“We want to put out an inspirational message: If you harness your talent you can be in a museum someday, make a contribution and a living from it.”

MOCA San Diego’s Hugh Davies, who did a Shepard Fairey show, is less upbeat but takes a similarly economic perspective:

“There’s an anarchic culture that doesn’t want to go through the chain of going to art school, [then getting into a] gallery and museum. It’s like, ‘I want to do it in my own way, I’m not in it for the market.’ “

Maybe the true crime is not wanting to make money? Americans can forgive anything but that.