Friday, September 12, 2008


Until recently I thought graffiti artists were about as "outsider" as you could get. First of all they literally worked outside! And second, what they did was and is illegal. Vandalism. Defacing public property, such as the outside (and inside) of buildings, bridges, subways, and trains. And this made them more like outlaws than artists. They had to work when people weren't looking (specifically the heat), and they had to work fast because you never knew who was about to come around the corner. So there was an element of Zen to their work, like ink drawing on rice paper. The spontaneity, the here-and-now, the fact that you couldn't linger or go back and correct your mistakes. There was danger. And I imagine no other artist would get the feeling of exhilaration upon completing a work as did the graffiti artist. So it was indeed surprising, when trying to curate a future show at KRONOS of New York City graffiti artists, that they weren't as "outside" as I thought. As the saying goes, "Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all become respectable if they last long enough." I'd like to think that when they were young Turks in the 1980's, dashing around NYC like invisible super heroes, leaving their mark, their tags wherever they went, that they would have looked with derision on the establishment, at the snooty, stuck-up art galleries of Manhattan, for they weren't about that, were they? But now it appears that the mainstream establishment has embraced these one-time renegades, and made "NYC graffiti artist" and "outsider artist" a good thing to list on one's resume. And the sad thing is that these one-time renegades are returning the embrace. If an "outsider artist" (who by definition shuns the mainstream) ends up coveting the mainstream you can call him a hypocrite, but if he ends up cheerfully accepting the mainstream then by definition he is no longer an "outsider artist", and you can rightfully call him a sell-out.

In trying to set up my show I discovered that these five particular one-time outlaws like perks, such as a free place to stay, gas money, having all their expenses paid, and one of them (I'll call him "Prima Donna") said he was even used to having art galleries fly him all over the world in jets so he can attend his own openings. Consequently, this guy didn't even want to come to Virginia because we were so low rent. So I asked another one of the graffiti artists if they might know some young, hungry, up-and-coming graffiti artists in New York. Someone trying to make a name for himself who wouldn't mind loading all the artwork in a van, schlepping it and the other artists down here, and kicking in for gas money. "We don't hang around kids," our 40-something outsider artist replied. I guess if you're 20 it's cool to be a rebel, an anarchist, an iconoclast, a struggling artist, but when you're pushing 50 you gotta get real and re-prioritize. If you're struggling in your 50's you're a loser. And I understand this, the erosion of the artist's soul. I even understand them wanting to tap into that mainstream river of money for a change. I mean, why not? But the thing is, that they are doing so by trading on their having been true outsiders once, back-in-the-day. And as reprehensible as this is (the word "sell-out" comes back to mind) it's the same reason there are Van Gogh calendars, coffee mugs, and mouse pads. If something's dead it can no longer be dangerous. It can no longer rock any boats so therefore it can become a commodity. The selling of their outsider status to the establishment for money and recognition may be justified by a crappy economy and a hard life lived in need of payback, but it's still being a sell-out and a hypocrite. I guess the question comes down to "Is one an 'outsider artist' simply because they can't get accepted by the insiders (as much as they might want to be accepted), or is one an 'ousider artist' because their art is their own, and they truly don't give a shit about what anyone (especially the establishment and its money-making machinery) thinks about them or their art?"