I was struck with the strangeness of what I was seeing. What was now hanging in a museum had been called criminal activity for countless generations before this one. Perhaps it strikes a chord with our love of rebellion, but could it be considered counter-cultural if it wasn't done in protest? It seems almost a parody of freedom and poverty. This seems to be a prevailing theme in our culture of excess. Rap music is the urban equivalent of bluegrass, where a poverty stricken sub-culture finds solidarity through art. It’s what makes the works of Ralph Stanley and Tupac Shakur, two musicians one would rarely compare, beautiful in their imperfections. This, though, this was only aesthetically appealing and nothing more.
It may be my rural upbringing that robs the works of emotional value. I have nothing to associate them with. I know that greater artists than me have documented graffiti and have garnered an appreciation for it. The famed author-turned-painter, Clive Barker, did such in his wonderful novella, The Forbidden. This was later Americanized and re-titled Candyman. Mr. Barker used this story to describe the ugly beauty of the street art he had seen. Indeed, the most notable scene of the film, when the boogeyman’s lair was discovered by entering the mouth of an elaborate painting of a screaming face, was taken second for second from the story.
As I write this, I think of other street art I've seen. Horrible obscenities standing side-by-side with such beauty as to move the viewer, these are a reflection of urban humanity. For every “thug-nificent” gangsta wanna-be, there are dozens of people struggling just to keep their children fed. Though often viewed as the just being kept under siege by the unjust that roam the streets, the lines between these two classes are often blurred. Many gangs are clans of rogues, led by their pauper princes. Though violent and brutal to outsiders, they are nothing more than the bottom rung of society struggling to survive. Love and hate permeate their struggles for what destitute scraps of power they can steal.
I guess that’s why this art has such an appeal. Life is empty without struggle, for to struggle is to truly live. By looking at these sanitized paintings, we can approach this vagabond life without concern for dirtying our hands with the soot and grime of poverty. Living in our shells, we can only observe images of actual struggle, so that we can tell ourselves that we understand it. We float in our clouds of safety and claim to sympathize with our fellow man, but at the end of the day we go to our air-conditioned homes, feed our children, watch television, and slip into our clean beds. Are we really alive when we only live vicariously?
I stepped away from this simulated poverty and saw the photography exhibit. There were dozens upon dozens of photographs showing dogs and cats and birds, spruced up with the occasional lizard; essentially the closest that the domesticated modern man comes to seeing actual animals. There were a few exceptions, such as the face of an elephant, but these were depressingly few. Animals, scenery, portraiture, we surround ourselves with such lovely things. It seemed almost to compliment the insult to poverty: Look at the lives of poor people, now go back to your real life of pretty things.
But there was one that gave me pause and I hate myself for not remembering the name of the artist. It was a black and white photograph of a middle aged woman, with all of her hanging skin and scars. Time had turned her belly button into an inverted V of wrinkled skin. Her face wasn't pictured, but the folds of her neck were clearly visible, as were the spotty patches of skin that are caused by years of exposure to sunlight. She was topless, but there was no nudity. She was using her arms to cover her one remaining breast. She was a breast cancer survivor, somebody who had endured true pain and suffering. Her scarred and aged body was ugly, but so remarkably beautiful I wanted to cry. There she was, naked and vulnerable, but strong and defiant to the hateful stars above.
Her nude form spoke more of pain and struggle than any sanitized street art ever could.