Dispatches: Aesthetics of Impermanence

In a recent article in The New Republic, Rochelle Gurstein argues that those who find formal aesthetic appeal in ‘postmodern art’ are ‘comically’ mistaken, since they are mistakenly looking for beauty in objects whose intent is solely conceptual. Therefore, she writes, an art dealer who admires a smudged Warhol silkscreen for its aesthetic qualities is giving in to the ‘obdurate yearning for beauty.’ He doesn’t get the joke. This argument, derived and oversimplified from the magisterial philosopher of art Arthur Danto, wrongly treats all contemporary art as though it belonged to a specific historical category, that of conceptual art. More significantly, it freezes the category of the aesthetic, as though the associations between it, beauty, and taste made by Matthew Arnold and Walter Pater were still operational. But the aesthetic (and with it, what counts as beautiful) is defined contingently, not transhistorically: today, Warholian silkscreens are used as visual shorthand to advertise fifteen-minute train service to Heathrow airport. The aesthetic field is a recursive phenomenon, one that incorporates its own critiques; the story of culture is one of endless reappropriation and transformation.


To me, the latest such transformation is being made by street art, if I can loosely apply that term toCallie_studio_9_subway_party_119 envelop the work of many artists in many mediums in many parts of the world (thanks to Antlered Girl for introducing me to some of these artists, and for the photo at left of a piece by Os Gemeos). From the subway canvases of the graffiti artists memorably chronicled by Martha Cooper to the paintings and drawings of Jean-Michel Basquiat to Barry McGee’s pieces and installations to the folkloric beauty of Os Gemeos, artwork that begins outside the framing of galleries and museums has begun to refine our sense of where to look for aesthetic objects. Simply walking around New York City, with your eyes open and the right guides, reveals a diverse array of works, painted and drawn, on walls and paper. Not that New York is the only place where such things are happening: check out the London Police. Much of this, like much art since modernism, challenges traditional realist perspectives, substituting for it a more elastic, hieroglyphic, totemic geometry. But it doesn’t stay inside. That these artworks ask no price and sit unprotected by archival storage, reminds one of Pierre Bourdieu’s dictum that the modern aesthetic field refuses or reverses the economic logic that pervades social life.

One of the recognized functions of art is to visualize new possibilities, not only in the aesthetic Swoon_poster_tharena, but for our social arrangements themselves. Perhaps the predominant movement of the last hundred years of art history has been the importation of objects from worlds beyond the salons of high culture: African masks and Duchamp’s urinal being the exemplars. Street art, if I may attempt a spontaneous philosophy of it, does the reverse: what joins together the artists I am grouping is their exportation of the artwork outside the sanctioned space of the gallery. In their embrace of the transience of city life, these artists also challenge an accepted order: our acceptance of the state’s right to sell off our daily visual field, our public space, to advertisers, while expunging the markings of its citizens from view (except for the often patronizing efforts of ‘public art’ initiatives). Thankfully, in all vital cities, the impulse to write back remains healthy, as the dialogues scribbled on any subway platform billboard will tell you. An infinitely more accomplished example would be the artist Swoon, who makes paper cut-outs and detailed, expressionistic drawings. While they make conceptual points about enlarging the sphere of art, the importance of everyday reality, and the dignity of urban life, they are also, to put it simply, radically beautiful.

A few years ago, a space in the Times Square subway station was cleared for the installation of a mural by Roy Lichenstein, the sanctified Pop artist. What his work replaced was an ancient surface, stratified with layers of grime and thousands of scraps of bygone wheatpaste. Though lacking aesthetic intent, perhaps that doomed surface, in its complexity, more faithfully rendered New York experience than the official art that succeeded it. This lingering sense, combined with the drive to mark one’s landscape with signs of individuality, of subjective uniqueness as opposed to the productions of the culture industry, is what drives street art.

Not all public artistic incursions need be imposed by an artist whose power to do so was delegated by a foundation, a state, or a corporate body. The wheat-pasted urban collage recalls Walter Benjamin’s studies of modernist urbanity, in which he focused on the ephemera, the flotsam, of a culture in order to interpret the many ways in which a society’s past, present, and emergent future can be glimpsed in candy wrappers and discarded fliers, street swindles and Parisian arcades.  Today’s street artists have absorbed and expressed Benjamin’s insights by making works that both refer to and are part of the jumbled proscenium of urban modernity. Wheatpasted surfaces like the one I remember have been brilliantly recalled by the artist Jose Parla (also known as Ease), whose recent works recreate the visual density of subway walls and other marked territories. I can think of no better contemporary visualization of ‘porosity,’ the image Benjamin and Asja Lacis developed to name the colliding complexity of urban semiotics, than these works. In its autonomy, in its generosity, in its authentic aesthetic complexity, street art reminds us that we are the social, and we must continue to impinge upon its representations of itself. In this world, in multiple ways, we must remember the utopic truth that: we make it up.