William Poundstone
William Poundstone on Art and Chaos

William Poundstone’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire

When Art Is Illegal

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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.

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  1. Tagging is one thing, street art another. The above photo looks like a sticker that blends into the background, is just a Kilroy was Here mentality. But not a dog taking a piss marking its turf. That is irritating and truly a direct threat to those trying to make a living feed a family and keeping a tranquil environment to raise them in.

    Having certain areas for street art is fine. If not gang related. As one who has had both sons had guns drawn on them and one shot at, I can state unequivicably tagging must be destroyed even before art academies. It wont happen, but all life is seeking balance. We never have it completely, but it is our responsibility to others that defines “good and evil”.

    Exhibitionism is not art. However, some of what has been shown is quite good,though again really graphic design as Fairey is. It aint creative art, and thats fine. Just dont confuse the two, though as creative art has been defecated upon by the Academies as the true threat to the status quo it is, this will have to do for now.

    Save the colorful and spiritual Watts Towers(Nuestro Pueblo), tear down the drab and souless Ivories.

  2. Art should be illegal when dishonesty wins. Thankfully, Watts Towers will always remain on the other side.

  3. This research paper on Graffiti Art in schools includes interesting background on the origin of illegal graffiti art and the more modern prevalence as a counter attack to the establishment messaging forced into the ghetto. For example, if Colt 45 can advertise malt liquor in a busy playground, then why should a colorful mural on a public handball court there be prohibited?


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