The Mona Lisa, Vermeer’s Milkmaid, Fabritius’ Goldfinch. At the time of their creation they were considered exceptional works, no doubt. But only by a limited audience. These works hung in private homes or palaces, exclusively on display for their owners and the occasional visitor. This changed dramatically with the advent of the museum in the eighteenth century and even more so with the museum’s transformation into a fully-fledged public institution two centuries later. At the Louvre, Rijksmuseum, and Mauritshuis these artworks draw huge crowds. Reproductions in the form of posters, coffee mugs, and jigsaw puzzles have made their way into households all over the globe. Merchandising and PR helped them gain unsurpassed notoriety, but at the root of their newfound iconic status are the museums themselves. These cultural temples have put them on a pedestal, transforming them from mere canvases into symbols of beauty and genius. As such museums have effectively become icon machines. Any object, regardless of its inherent qualities, could become an icon simply by being placed in a museum: Duchamp’s urinal proves the point. There are some notable exceptions, though. Graffiti being one of them.
When talking about graffiti I mean the aerosol painting practice that took off in New York City in the 1970s. Graffiti’s history goes way back, to the ancient days of Greeks carving images and text into walls. But while back then it was the prerogative of a small literate and thus privileged part of the population, contemporary graffiti is the expressive outlet of the urban disenfranchised. Adam Mansbach’s 2013 novel Rage Is Back offers a great taste of graffiti’s Golden Age. During those years New York City was a gloomy concrete jungle, deeply affected by a massive urban exodus of the middle class. It was the breeding ground for many subcultures, hip hop being one of the most visible. The protagonists in Mansbach’s book consider their “bombing” of subway trains—rapidly putting up a work in two or three colors—a political act. It was a big middle finger in the face of the authorities trying to hold them under the thumb. During the 1970s and 80s you’d be hard-pressed to find a virginal subway car in the city.
Lee Quiñones, Howard the Duck, 1988. Collection of the Museum of the City of New York. Exhibited in Graffiti, New York Meets the Dam at the Amsterdam Museum, 2015
As such, graffiti is iconic for New York of that time, the banner of an informal urban guerilla waging war on inequality and injustice. Only a few of the individual works would stand out by themselves, though. Most tags and pieces were visually not very interesting. Those serially produced names were rather like territorial markers—one specific technique is tellingly named “pissing.” Their creators—Skeme, ZEPHYR, Dondi, and many others—became legends mostly because of the overwhelming presence of their work.
It didn’t take long for commercial minds to catch on, start selling graffiti-based work in galleries and exporting it to new markets. In 1979 Claudio Bruni of Rome introduced the work by New York stars Lee Quiñones and Fab 5 Freddy in Europe. Soon Yaki Kornblit Gallery followed suit in Amsterdam, selling up to 3,000 pieces a year in its heyday. At that time Amsterdam already had its own graffiti culture, based in the punk and squatting scene, featuring artists such as the young deceased Dr. Rat (1960-1981) and stencil pioneer Hugo Kaagman, who’s still active today. The introduction of American examples inspired a new generation of aerosol painters, adding to what became a genuine graffiti explosion. As in New York, graffiti became an important and instantly recognizable ingredient of the urban make-up.
“Chillin'...” Shoe and Jaz sitting in a freight train in the Netherlands. Exhibited in Graffiti, New York Meets the Dam at the Amsterdam Museum, 2015
At the time graffiti inspired awe, fear, envy, anger and loathing. It was alive and had a bite. At the Amsterdam Museum, currently staging a show about the interaction between the Dutch and the American scenes, none of this is in evidence though. The presentation feels sanitized. And frumpy. Even though attempts have been made to reconstruct unsavory alleys with menacing hip hop playing in the background, the museum context sucks the power right out of works, reducing them to artifacts rather than elevating them to art status. They become domesticated and as harmless as stuffed tigers. The exhibition as such is interesting from a historical point of view but not because of what’s on display.
Most graffiti doesn’t work on canvas or paper. It looks a bit childish at best but mostly misplaced, a bit like wearing a tutu in a heavy metal mosh pit. Still, quite a few graffiti practitioners at some point got off the street and into a studio, applying their motives to commercially viable formats. “You can’t remain fifteen forever,” New Yorker Sharp is quoted saying. Many of the second generation Amsterdam graffitists—Delta (Boris Tellegen), Yann (Jan Rothuizen), Jaz (Jasper Krabbé)—left for art school, found a new visual language and are now having careers as bona fide artists, including regular shows at galleries and museums. The graffiti shown at Amsterdam Museum doesn’t belong at those venues, at least not as art. The term “street art” is an invention of curators eager to usurp anything edgy and exciting, which denies graffiti its original strength. Today “street art” is a real genre, one that perhaps emerged from the graffiti movement and its practitioners, but it should now be seen as a distinct and sanctioned practice.
Keith Haring, Untitled, 1982, Vinyl paint on vinyl tarp. © Keith Haring Foundation, Courtesy of Kunsthal Rotterdam
Among the few whose work survives transplantation to the museum and actually thrives on its tendency to iconize, is Keith Haring. He had a very distinct style, much more diverse than the endless repetition of monikers, which just happened to end up in subway stations or on emergency exit doors. Also on canvas or panel, on display in a museum, its evocative strength remains intact. The concurrent show of his politically inclined work at the Kunsthal Rotterdam once again proves this. But it’s probably more correct to describe Haring’s work not as graffiti but rather as pop art. He displayed the pop art sensibility to create instantly recognizable images and turn them into icons by producing moderately priced reproductions for his Pop Shop. Haring was actively playing into the museum mechanism of objectifying and amplifying art. While the work of A-One, Lee, Futura 2000, or Daze will probably soon be forgotten by everyone except the most avid collectors, Haring’s posters of radiant babies will be sold next to the Mona Lisa for decades to come.
(Image at top: Graffiti, New York Meets the Dam at the Amsterdam Museum, Installation View 2015. Courtesy of the Amsterdam Museum. Photo: Caro Bonink)