No Art In These Streets: Brooklyn Museum Cancels Graffiti Exhibition
Thursday, June 23, 2011 - 01:01 PM
Citing budget cutbacks, the Brooklyn Museum announced this week that it was canceling its upcoming exhibition of “Art in the Streets,” a popular and controversial retrospective of street art currently showing at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. “Art in the Streets” has brought in droves of visitors to LA MOCA, while reigniting that very old culture war over whether a tag on the side of a building or a subway — an act of vandalism — can also be classified as a work of art.
The Brooklyn Museum’s plan to bring the exhibit to one of the birthplaces of graffiti art began drawing the ire of local politicians after The New York Daily News ran an editorial accusing the museum of “giving the destruction of other people's property a hallowed place in high-art halls.” City council member Peter Vallone wrote a letter in May discouraging the museum from hosting the exhibition, saying taxpayer money should not be used to clean up vandalism, according to The New York Times.
The Brooklyn Museum contends that the cancellation was due to financial constraints, not political pressures.
The Daily News’ sarcastic slap-down of “Art in the Streets” was inspired by The Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald, who wrote an essay in City Journal that was not just a critique of the MOCA show, but also an indictment of street art, MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch, and more broadly, the layers of ambiguity that connect what she sees as an anti-capitalist art world with its bourgeois benefactors.
“Graffiti is the bane of cities,” MacDonald wrote. Linking what she calls “the spirit-killing ugliness of graffiti” to virtually all forms of urban blight, MacDonald asserts a “neighborhood that has succumbed to graffiti telegraphs to the world that social and parental control there has broken down.”
Critics of “Art in the Streets” have claimed that the exhibit encouraged an uptick in graffiti, and subsequent crime, in the neighborhood surrounding MOCA—something clearly on the minds of New York City Council members opposed to the plan. The Los Angeles Police Department held the MOCA show responsible for a rash of new graffiti around downtown L.A.
But the reality on the ground is harder to gauge. Arts writer Carolina Miranda, speaking with Kurt Andersen on Studio 360, acknowledged that “certainly, there are pieces that could be tied to the show — artists in the show who have installed works illegally in the streets,” but said that claims of a surge have “been a little exaggerated.”
Miranda points out that as downtown Los Angeles has become increasingly gentrified, graffiti in the area is at an all-time low. “Areas of Alameda Street that were once the province of taggers and street artists are now pretty bare, or they’re trendy cafes or apartment buildings,” Miranda said.
Some of the street art may even surprise its detractors who dismiss it as graffiti. “There are artists doing wood sculpture, playing with elements of the urban environment, doing abstract work,” Miranda said.
MOCA’s Jeffrey Deitch still hopes to bring the show to New York, and MOCA intends “Art in the Streets” to travel to other cities. None have been confirmed yet, though, and the Brooklyn Museum’s cancellation is not a good sign for graffiti artists and those who love them.