Monday, May 7, 2012

Parsnips like white elephants

New York is made out of tunnels, bridges and roads, boxy skyscrapers, green patches of park, a couple of rivers, three big islands and many smaller ones, a few bays, air thick with wireless signals and blaring horns, ringing phones, profanity, the aroma of pizza. Everything is falling apart, in an entropic sense—the brand-new floors being added to One World Trade Center are already past their prime, even as their last rivets are set. The green shoots springing up in Central Park and Flushing Meadows and even my humble Clement Moore Homestead Park have nothing in their future but autumnal amputation.

Luckily, there is an urban renewal team bent on keeping the parts of New York whole and attached. Their tools are stickers, spray cans and masticated gum. Blank surfaces are smoothed over with painted banners, hiding piecework brick behind graffiti. Plastic adhesives reinforce street signs and light poles. The city doesn’t condone these repairs, but it should be grateful for them—they distract from the ugly sameness, the brilliant glare from a billion spotless panes of glass.

The incongruity of urban vandalism makes it a relief—finally, here is something unplanned, unstudied, unfunded. Its presence is predictable enough, but its manifestations are not—to balance that tagger handle uninspiringly splattered onto a convenient wall, there’s a complex and beautiful work of art on the next block. (Drawn, moreover, without grants, pricy tools or name recognition. Odd how we only tend to endorse works of public art that pass our litmus test of respectability, rather than creativity or spontaneity. The muses have a lot of paperwork to get through these days.)

Thank goodness we still have the wrong side of the tracks. The 7 train runs aboveground through Queens, burrowing into the earth to pass underneath the East River into the city. As the train approaches its point of descent, the spiny skyline of southern Manhattan looms off to the left. Much more interesting is the decrepit building squatting next to the tracks on the other side. Its uniform fa├žade is buried under layers of spray-painted words. It’s a roster—a list of artists who will never have gallery exhibitions, who will never call their work pastiche or parody, who don’t care to label their art a bourgeois fetishization of anything or demand that you view their scribbles through this or that lens.

Art interpretation seems to have become an entirely internal act, completely independent of the art itself. What matters is that you were challenged (soul-deep, please) by the white-canvas-with-blue-stripe. What matters is that you were surprised, startled, shaken by whatever internal monologue you fabricate on your imaginary Olivetti. (Write it feelingly enough and you could end up in the New York Times. This also applies to food criticism, so start crafting your parsnips-like-white-elephants similes.)

I’ll take tags and stickers and withered advertisements, thanks. I’d rather see an artless political plea—Ban Fracking Now—or be stopped short by a Nazi swastika. (Then taken aback when I realize that it’s not a swastika at all.)

The pieces of this city jigsaw are often ugly, blunt, offensive, absurd, but they’re current and free, elements too often lacking in New York. And they’re unsponsored, too. Which is the bigger eyesore—a few cents’ worth of removable paint, or a $172 million corporate billboard?

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