Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Faith of Graffiti / w/ Words by Norman Mailer & Photographs by Jon Naar

"No, in the environment of the slum, the courage to display yourself is your only capital, and crime is the productive process which converts such capital to the modern powers of the world, ego and money" (p. 31)
New York City in the mid-seventies was an dirty, ugly place. By 1973, financial woes had brought on a full-blown recession and removed any doubt from an already disenchanted population of a well-founded American dream. Plummeting economic stability stagnated employment and skyrocketed the crime rate. The drug trade thrived, vice proliferated and poverty rose all while crooked politics derailed badly needed reforms. Many thought it was the end for the Big Apple, once a harbor of hope for the newly arrived now a cesspool of filth and corruption seemingly gone to pot. Aesthetically, as civically, the city was an eyesore of eyesores. Trash in the streets and crumbling brownstones seemed to spell the atmosphere of moral ruin and decay; largely dilapidated structures attracted garbage, grime and graffiti (more than usual) to accommodate the increasingly more prevalent world of sleaze and pornography. .
Witnessing the then plight of his hometown, author Norman Mailer, rather than look upon the scene with disdain, embraced the spectacle with an artist's eye, noticing the ingenuity of street art as an outlet for creativity rather than misdemeanor vandalism reserved for petty criminals. Accompanied by Jon Naar, a photographer who shot all of the graffito-tagged public property from street scenes to the subways, back alleys to freeway ramps, and aside countless buses and buildings around town, the writer/artist team gave a voice to birth of the street art movement in New York City. Years later their effort stands as an almost idyllic testament to a troubled and changing society which would witness a resurgence and urban renewal only decades later.
Graffiti is seen for what it is (defacement of public property) and what it's not (wanton criminality absent of meaning). Modern culture invariably pins it as the former, as vandalism, and rightly so. But for so many living in the ghettos and slums of the world, graffiti is "a way of gaining status in a society where to own property is to have an identity". (p. 30). How ironic then that legally authorized street art would become prominent in the following years. First printed in 1973, resulting body of work is nothing grandiose, catching only a glimpse glance of what is no doubt one the largest and most universal of artistic mediums. Yet it's a powerful account of an iconic (if controversial) ensemble collection of art now largely forgotten by the culture. (751.73 NAAR)

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