Sometimes it seems everything is painted out here, spray painted. Los Angeles seems to be the capital of street art – but this exists at many levels. There are the taggers – they spray their acrylic initials, or sometimes their gang affiliation, on doors and windows and freeway underpasses and whatnot, like a dog lifting its leg and marking its territory. But sometimes those get all complex and multicolored with a sort of 3-D effects, and they can be kind of cool. They edge towards street art. And then there’s rudimentary street art – a sort of line-drawing face or hand, crude but sometimes evocative. And then there are actual murals – the RIP gang murals, a well-done face or a scene, with key symbols, sometimes ironically and defiantly cartoonish, a tribute to the young dead and an in-your-face statement from the dispossessed to the rest of us. Those are everywhere – often hidden, but everywhere.
And then there are the mural crews – CBS (Can’t Be Stopped) and the others – who produce elaborate murals of social and political commentary. Walk the alleys behind Melrose Avenue – that’s every wall. This is spontaneous street art, or at least done for no commercial gain, although the businesses down on Melrose give them leave to paint these things, as these are cool and good for obscurely trendy businesses in a neighborhood that used to be cutting-edge hip but is now just dying. A surreal mural out back of your store or salon or restaurant says you are far beyond cool, and must be into whatever is beyond cool. But the purist form of these murals can be found down in Venice Beach at the Graffiti Wall – an area where these guys can just have at it, floating free of the world of commerce.
And then there is official street art – commissioned murals. There is the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) – these are the folks who support and sometimes commission murals that are narrative or historic or otherwise significant – along Ocean Front Walk in Venice Beach there is a curious tribute to Chagall at the Jewish Community Center, and a riff on Van Gogh’s Starry Night just down the way. But most of these celebrate the local community, whichever it is. And every elementary or junior high school seems to have its student mural – Earth Memories at Belmont High is stunning. And the city itself has been known to commission murals – Diego Rivera in the thirties and all that. Here’s a more recent example of that sort of thing.
And add to this all the odd stickers – mostly for new post-post-punk bands – and the mysteriously surreal posters and large graphics (Shepard Fairey got his start out here) – and this place is awash in street art, or we’re drowning in it. At the sister site, Just Above Sunset Photography, you can browse several hundred pages of high-resolution photographs of all this. This is an odd place.
And of course this raises an interesting question. When does spray-painting something that’s not yours move from vandalism to somewhat justifiable self-expression to unauthorized but perhaps legitimate editorial commentary to acceptable self-expression and then to actual art? There are no fixed lines separating those categories. One man’s street art is another man’s sabotage of the way things should be, and an assault on his stuff, or at least on his back wall. In expressing yourself, how much collateral damage is acceptable?
That is an essentially American question. It’s a free country. Anyone can say what they want and proclaim to the world what they think and who they are. You can crank up the sound and blast rock or country or Mahler or whatever, until the neighbors call the police. But you can take a position on an issue and you can scream about it from the rooftops. But the issue of something like vandalism is sure to arise.
Consider an Andrew Sullivan comment on the current Republican Party:
The ghastly truth is that we have one political party that is as close to organized vandalism as one can imagine. START, the debt ceiling, civil rights, real spending cuts and tax reform: all these will be subject to the pure nihilism of the will to power. Their goal is the destruction of Obama. That is all.
Paul Krugman at the New York Times has been saying the same sort of thing – and demonstrating that the Republican Party “isn’t interested in helping the economy as long as a Democrat is in the White House.”
The fact is that one of our two great political parties has made it clear that it has no interest in making America governable, unless it’s doing the governing. And that party now controls one house of Congress, which means that the country will not, in fact, be governable without that party’s cooperation – cooperation that won’t be forthcoming.
Oddly, at Open Left, Paul Rosenberg argues that those who think all this talk about deliberate sabotage and national political vandalism is absurd, don’t understand the dynamic at play:
Your grandfather’s GOP had been twice humbled: first by the Great Depression, and second by being wrong about Hitler (both the isolationist and those who openly sympathized with him). Today’s GOP is in deep denial about both, and the mean old men who run it just can’t wait to destroy everything that FDR and his heirs have accomplished since 1932.
That seems a bit farfetched, but much of this was discussed previously here in The Sabotage Issue. That covered Matthew Yglesias saying that the Obama White House should be prepared for “deliberate economic sabotage” by the Republicans, now in control of the House.
But of course those Republicans would argue that they are doing no more than expressing their legitimate outrage at Obama’s policies. Out here expressing legitimate outrage has produced some fine street art, of course, but also a lot of just plain vandalism. It’s in the eye of the beholder. Yes, Steve Benen in Washington Monthly carefully documents that Republicans are now rejecting ideas they used to support – “We’ve gone from Republicans rooting for failure to Republicans trying to guarantee failure.”
Could that be? Adam Sewer suggests looking at just one example:
The obstruction of Obama’s judicial nominees is unprecedented, creating a number of “judicial emergencies” around the country. Only 47 percent of Obama’s nominees have been confirmed, compared to 59 percent for George W. Bush around the same time in his administration. Combined with the administration’s sluggishness at putting forth nominees, this has produced some really desperate circumstances in the federal court system.
And he recommends an item that Jamelle Bouie wrote outlining just how bad things are getting:
This isn’t an isolated problem. Lower courts in the United States have more than 100 vacancies, with 20 empty seats on the U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals and 84 on the District Courts. According to the Alliance for Justice, 22 state courts have openings that are classified as “judicial emergencies.” These are seats that have been vacant for more than 18 months, with each remaining judge responsible for hundreds more filings. Moreover, since President Barack Obama entered office last year, the number of emergencies has more than doubled – with disastrous consequences for the legal system. On the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois, for example, three vacancies have left just one remaining judge responsible for an additional 1,170 filings. With fewer judges available to hear a growing number of cases, justice is delayed – and often denied – for thousands of Americans.
And Sewer points out that it’s gotten so bad that, as Ian Millhiser reports, a number of Republican judges are now begging their fellow Republicans in Congress to stop obstructing Obama’s nominees:
In order to do our work, and serve the public as Congress expects us to serve it, we need the resources to carry out our mission. While there are many areas of serious need, we write today to emphasize our desperate need for judges. Our need in that regard has been amply documented (See attached March 2009 Judicial Conference Recommendations for Additional Judgeships). Courts cannot do their work if authorized judicial positions remain vacant.
While we could certainly use more judges, and hope that Congress will soon approve the additional judgeships requested by the Judicial Conference, we would be greatly assisted if our judicial vacancies – some of which have been open for several years and declared “judicial emergencies” – were to be filled promptly. We respectfully request that the Senate act on judicial nominees without delay.
That was an open letter – Republican judges to Republican legislators. Sewer agrees with Sullivan. This is “organized vandalism” at work:
Even the most benign, Republican-friendly elements of Obama’s agenda, like the new START treaty, are subject to total opposition from the GOP. They use what power they have to prevent government from performing basic duties at any level of efficiency, and then turn around and argue that this reflects a failure of leadership on the part of the president. The pursuit of political power is more important to the party than civic responsibility. It’s a testament to the power of low expectations that this hasn’t produced more of an outrage, especially since they aren’t even pretending otherwise.
Yeah, but out here we call artfully and carefully organized vandalism art, and it seems the Republicans are making the same sort of argument. But Steve Benen persists in calling it sabotage, as it is fairly obvious, and offers this:
It’s interesting, in and of itself, that this sentiment has become fairly common. We are, after all, talking about prominent observers wondering aloud whether a major political party is putting its partisan hatred for an elected president ahead of the public good. There was a time such a suggestion was scandalous; now it’s widespread enough to appear in a Nobel Laureate’s print column in the paper of record.
But Benen does concede that Greg Sargent has a point:
I happen to think the “economic sabotage” argument is not going to work. Dems tried variations of this case for two years, and there’s no evidence they bore any fruit. I just don’t think voters will buy it, or if they do, they won’t particularly care about it.
Also: At a certain point there’s little percentage in making variations of the same old lament again and again that Republicans are out to defeat Obama politically at all costs and that it’s folly for Obama to keep seeking bipartisan compromise. It seems like the better argument to be having at this point is over what Obama specifically should do to adjust to this new reality.
That seems fair, although I’d add that it’s worth having the “sabotage” conversation, if for no other reason, than to make clear to the White House what it should expect from the president’s partisan rivals.
Still, what Sargent says is interesting. Call it sabotage, call it vandalism, voters won’t buy it, or if they do, they won’t particularly care about it. It’s like that new cool mural down the street – that’s not vandalism. It’s startling, and amazing, and provocative, and pleasantly disturbing – and that isn’t your wall anyway.
But of course the analogy doesn’t hold. In this case – the judicial system that’s locking up for a lack of judges, national security in peril over a treaty that everyone agrees is essential but is being blocked, the economy stuck in the mud because it’s cool to do everything to restrict demand and keep people, and businesses hurting, so you can blame the administration – that’s our wall, damn it. One man’s art is another’s vandalism – and damn it, that’s our wall.