The Writing on the Wall: Brooklyn Museum Graffiti Art Kerfuffle

Barry McGee, Houston Street and Bowery, 2010 (Farzad Owrang/MoCA)

In April, the metaphorical museum boat was rocked by the opening of “Art in the Streets,” the first major historical survey of graffiti and street art, at the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art. Then an oft-cited editorial in the Daily News questioned the appropriateness of glorifying vandalism. And last week, The Brooklyn Museum, which was slated to display the exhibition in March 2012, jumped ship.

Citing economic troubles, Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman said in a statement, “This is an exhibition about which we were tremendously enthusiastic. It is with regret, therefore, that the cancellation became necessary due to the current financial climate.” Blah blah blah.

Nobody’s buying the “financial climate” excuse anymore. The public is tired of hearing about it. And that explanation certainly isn’t as interesting as the cultural censorship angle. Graffiti art, with its socioeconomic associations and transgressive edge, has become the Cinderella of the cultural media and they have swarmed in defense of this art world underdog.

What!? says the cultural correspondent upon hearing Lehman’s announcement. The Big Bad Cultural Temple is trying to keep the good people of this country from experiencing an under-appreciated populist art form!? Warm up the presses!

Here’s just a sampling of how journalists have couched the story as one of elitism–

Kathy Grayson with the Daily News:

How could anyone be upset by an exhibition so life-affirming? Some people can’t get past the fact that many of the artists in the show started making art that was sprayed on other people’s walls.
But imagine graffiti’s beginnings. This movement was about empowering people who had no voice and no visibility to take back public spaces. Imagine being on a subway platform as a festooned carnival of a painted train came charging into the station. Imagine, instead of posters advertising romantic comedies, Haring’s lyrical drawings. Graffiti was born in New York; this exhibition could help paint this exhilarating chapter in the city’s history.

Colleen Stufflebeem with death + taxes:

Graffiti, the good and the bad, ornaments a city’s visage. The process of creating street art is still an underground operation, and while some cities like LA have tapped into its unique beauty and have brought it above ground, other places like Brooklyn would prefer to keep it where it already is.

Kudos to Andrew M. Goldstein for working in the financial considerations in a piece for ARTINFO:

It’s possible — even probable — that prospective donors were turned off by the inflammatory nature of the show, which has led to extensive criticism of Deitch and MOCA after early missteps (starting with the fateful whitewashing of Blu’s antiwar mural) and a media field day over the hypocrisy of embracing street art inside the museum while helping police eradicate it in the surrounding neighborhood. But considering how much the museum has benefited from staging provocative shows in the past — think “@Murakami” in 2008 (which also came from MOCA) — one would imagine that the museum’s supporters fervently would want the show, despite the demagogic indignation of the Daily News and people like city councilmember Peter Vallone over street art’s illegality. This makes the situation doubly sad.

But Walter Robinson at Artnet disagrees:

…the show was killed not by budget worries but by the goon squad. Thuggish city council member Peter Vallone all but threatened to pull the Brooklyn Museum’s $9 million city appropriation if it went ahead with the show, and the dim-witted Daily News was beating the drum of populist resentment against the art before it even came to town.

Was the show’s cancellation financial or political? We may never know. Probably a little bit of both. But one thing is certain, all of this controversy is really good for “Art in the Streets.” I would be surprised if it doesn’t make its way to New York one way or another.


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