CAN ART BRING BACK THE DEAD?
By Joseph Boudreau
Marilyn is not dead! Marilyn is not dead!
You’ll proclaim this at the Harvard Art Museum as you stand nose-distance away from six of her. The acid pink face of one, the pale custard of another, hypnotic and exciting, are powerful reminders of the star status of this icon. Yet, despite the vibrancy of The Marilyn Portfolio, there’s something off-putting, a feeling best articulated by Warhol himself: “The more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away, and emptier you feel.” Warhol’s unique perspective on repetition and his use of it in most of his artwork is at the heart of an ongoing conversation, which Warhol planted himself directly in: Are artists—or anybody for that matter—allowed to use someone dead as their muse?
There is no debate when the art is praising the dead. If you were to write a song which eulogizes Marilyn, fans will come, and fans will reproduce. But that’s not Warhol was doing. In many ways, his art was vain, bold, and sometimes without clear intention. Is that type of art allowed to resurrect?
Graffiti, in a sense, does just that; it resurrects without permission. Graffiti artists often use abandoned spaces as their medium. They take old, unnoticed areas and bring life back to them; they draw attention to the forgotten corners of our neighborhood. In many ways, they personalize these otherwise vacant locations. Meaning, we see a sense of community that emerges from graffiti. For instance, in Boston, the unsupervised Graffiti Alley in Central Square has become a safe haven for many graffiti artists to do their work publicly, and without fear. It turned a desolate alleyway into a highly visited one.
This transformative quality of graffiti is undeniable. All over Boston, from the “Swimming Cities” mural to the “Roxbury Love” (Mandela) one, we can see the unique power that graffiti has to renovate a location. Even if these projects—and many others like them in Boston—were planned and payed for, it shows a resonance that graffiti that has with modern-day viewers: they enjoy the personal, democratized public art form.
In Paris, plenty of young communities, like Belleville, embrace graffiti. Shops don’t get their exteriors repainted when strangers vandalize their property. The same is true in Medellin, Colombia, where the graffiti scene is political and progressive. This wide acceptance of graffiti as an affordable and public way to improve a section of the community should be implemented or encouraged by politicians and artists alike. There are plenty of places in Boston that are just calling for something new. Neighborhoods, old and uninspired; cities and towns yet to be swallowed by gentrification; and undeveloped locations are all fertile ground for graffiti artists to personalize and revolutionize space.
This is not a clean argument, however. Graffiti can be offensive, hateful, and worthy of censorship. In 2012, a bucket of yellow paint was thrown across the Shaw Memorial, a sculpture depicting the 54th Regiment, the first all-black military troop serving in the Civil War. Plenty of sculptures and buildings have been defaced by graffiti. It has vandalized houses, cars, all forms of property. Yet, no matter the intention of graffiti, it elicits a response.
Graffiti not only highlights unused space but it also asks for change. By the location chosen from the graffiti artist, we can learn the needs of a city. Does this location require better infrastructure, more surveillance, economic development, etc.? Therefore, to just call graffiti vandalism is to silence its opportunity for being a device capable of social change, and in many ways, social justice.
Graffiti is just like Warhol; it takes something old and prominent, subverts it, and brings it to life anew again. We are of course the United States of Amnesia and we will forget that the same judgement which attacked Warhol at first, attacked graffiti. We will also forget the gradual public acceptance of Warhol’s art as a tool to resurrect, and in doing so sometimes deface the old. Therefore, we will, undeniably, continue on our trajectory of criminalizing graffiti and not accepting it as a legitimate tool to resurrect and personalize a location.