the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

Archive for June, 2007

Graffiti Art and the Law

Posted by gninja on June 30, 2007


I caught this item in The ArtsJournal recently.

Graffiti artist Alan Ket, whose real name is Alain Mariduena, has been criminally charged in Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan with various counts including criminal mischief, making graffiti, and possession of graffiti tools. Mr Mariduena, whose work has been displayed in galleries, has pleaded not guilty to all charges and says that he was nowhere near the damaged subway cars or stations at the time of the alleged crimes, and that the graffiti was done by copycat artists. He is due back in court this month.

Mr Mariduena’s lawyer, Daniel Perez, of Kuby & Perez, New York, told The Art Newspaper: “For the first time, prosecutors are trying to imprison someone for a graffiti offence who has not been caught in the act. There are no witnesses, no videotapes, no direct evidence of any kind linking Mr Mariduena to these alleged crimes.”

Although the legal ramifications of this case– i.e. charging a graffiti artist based on forensics–are significant, my interests don’t really lie there. For one, I’m no legal expert. I should say, however, from the get-go, that I think criminal prosecution of graffiti artists is preposterous. So my conversation needs to begin with the premise that the treatment of graf artists as criminals is unacceptable. At worst, vandalism (if one considers graffiti vandalism) could be classified as a misdemeanor.

There are also the social matters that accompany the politics of graffiti art, which, again, aren’t really of interest here. Plenty of ink has been spilled over it. Suffice to say, I think Permission Walls are only a trifle less insidious and stifling of expression as Free-Speech Zones, the distinction being that the legality of creating art on other people’s property is questionable, whereas that of exercising free-speech is total.

My two cents, then, are being deposited on the aesthetic side of the issue. Which is slippery as hell. Just as slippery as asking what art is: ask Heidegger. In short, there’s a distinction between good graf and bad graf. It’s not so much like porn in that I know it when I see it — because I’m no Supreme Court Justice imposing subjective standards upon everyone else. And yet… I do know bad graf when I see it. Bad graf is that for which I don’t have any images because nobody bothers to take a photo of a crappy tag that looks like a five-year-old got hold of some Krylon. Bad graf is what ends up on the facades of apartment buildings, where there was little inspiration in placement, arrangement, or form. Bad graf looks like vandalism.

Good graf, on the other hand, is not just beautiful. Good graf shows a thoughtful mind behind its placement. Good graf is in public spaces. Good graf has a social conscience. Good graf is not necessarily about beauty. Goof graf is about good custodianship. It’s about un-automatizing our motions through urban space, from filtering out ads and movement and lights and sounds to focusing on words and images that want nothing more from us than our attention.

Look, there’s no way to mandate what good and bad graf are. Even trying to do so would take the strictures that already exist within the walls of museums and extend them beyond that barrier which graf artists have been struggling to co-opt as their own (and share with others) since spray can hit cement. Urban spaces are filled with enough frontiers, barriers, and thresholds as it is. I doubt many graf artists would even want to lay claim to a stretch of Park Avenue, anyway. But outside of such rarefied zones where art is not relegated to walls and behind frames, there are those who want their exterior spaces un-blank (yes, un-blank). At the end of the day, graf artists are a self selecting community. If they want their work to be seen, they don’t create garbage.

Getting back to the original news item though. What strikes me as amusing is that the cops are using forensic evidence (i.e. the tags) to prosecute Ket. It sounds an awful lot like connoisseurship, no?

Posted in art, graffiti | Leave a Comment »

Well Come (on in)

Posted by gninja on June 29, 2007

To the arrivees via Welcome.


I love NY’s (not so newly installed) LED traffic lights. They’re so much more of a pleasure to obey (or not, depending on whether traffic’s in my way) than those terribly bossy injunctions of yore.


Posted in art, new york | Leave a Comment »

Apocalypse Then: Medieval Illuminations from the Morgan

Posted by gninja on June 27, 2007


A month ago, I went to see the exhibition of the Las Huelgas Apocalypse manuscript at the Morgan Library and Museum (I think that’s their new name– they underwent some kind of re-branding after their major renovation). In short:

The Las Huelgas Apocalypse is the largest and latest (1220) of a five-hundred-year series of medieval illuminated commentaries on the Apocalypse by the monk Beatus of Liébana. The series is considered Spain’s most important contribution to medieval manuscript illumination. Visitors to the exhibition have the rare opportunity to view fifty of the Las Huelgas miniatures because the manuscript was disbound for the preparation of the facsimile; the leaves will be displayed in their original order.

Unfortunately, no photography was allowed (goodness, I hate that policy), so I can’t show any of my own images of the gallery.

The exhibition was laid out quite simply, in one room, with pages from the Las Huelgas manuscript behind glass frames mounted on the walls around the room. In the center of the room was a facsimile of the manuscript (a rather good idea, I thought), along with some cases filled with other Apocalypse manuscripts for comparison purposes. Simple enough.

I spent about 45 minutes in the gallery, maybe a bit less, and– as someone who studies manuscripts– I felt a bit disappointed in myself for not lingering. It took some reflection to figure out why I wasn’t all that impressed or intrigued.

(By the way, if you want more information on the exhibition, there are two reviews here and here. )

With the exception of the small selection of other manuscripts on display, it was pretty much a one-man show. The manuscript was displayed with virtually no supporting actors (to carry out the analogy), so all our attention was of necessity focused on it alone. True, it’s a spectacular manuscript, filled with eye candy. But– and I think this is a problem in the study of medieval art in general– there was no attempt made whatsoever to create an argument, to get the viewers to think. Which leads me to believe that the aim of such an exhibition can only be two things: 1) to put up an aesthetically impressive objet d’art and have audiences ooh and ah; and 2) to appeal to an audience already familiar with the art on display and equipped with the knowledge to make his own comparisons, or to draw her own conclusions about the work.

I understand that I’ve been fostered in the still strong Wolfflinian tradition of art history that encourages comparison (if you have access to JSTOR, I recommend this article), so I’m predisposed to wanting the images I look at placed up against other images. Still, though. These are Apocalypse manuscripts. There are so many ways to go with this– it could’ve been a great, great exhibition. And not necessarily in the (supposedly sensational) way that the Royal Academy dealt with the topic in 2000.

First, and perhaps this is a bit of a quibble, if the title of your exhibition is a play on words, that play on words should be justified. Otherwise–as I think it is in this case–the title is just cutesy and irrelevant to the content of the show. But if you’ve got a title like “Apocalypse Then”, why not include contemporary images (or imaginings / allusions) of the Book of Revelation? It would have made it a more far-ranging show (though by no means as far-ranging as one that would use contemporary apocalyptic images), but keeping things within limits is what curators are meant to do anyway.

But if something like that is too gauche for the “stately” Morgan, then why not draw better comparisons between the other Apocalypse manuscripts on display? There is a longstanding tradition of Apocalypse manuscripts, and we learn a lot about visual communication from the different ways in which these manuscripts are laid out and illuminated. Just one example demonstrates what I mean: the decision to include St John (the author of Revelation) as a witness to the scenes, outside of the miniatures’ frames, or to keep him as an active figure within the frames of the miniatures determines how the reader-viewer will conceive of the text– as a form of prophecy or vision, or a mystical experience felt viscerally by St John.

So while it was enjoyable to see the folios of this manuscript and digest the images, I could also have gotten the same experience from a facsimile soon (I assume) to be purchased by the arts library at Columbia. When I go to a gallery or museum I want more than just to look– I want also to be challenged to think about what’s before me, and it’s the duty of the curator to spark that process.

Posted in apocalypse, art, exhibitions, exhibits, illuminated manuscripts, manuscripts | Leave a Comment »

Rant: Neither Medieval Nor All That Artful

Posted by gninja on June 24, 2007

My alternate subtitle, by the by, was “Take This Art and Shove It!”

I’m not really supposed to be bloggerizing– I’m supposed to be Latinizing–but I just get so mad sometimes…

The venerable Frick Collection of NYC, admittedly one of my favorite galleries in the city. Small, beautifully appointed, and possessing a pretty spectacular range for its size– is now on my shit list, though I doubt they care. They should’ve been relegated there earlier, but I’m coming to this information late, it seems.

They don’t allow children under 10 to visit the gallery. Period. No children.



The Collection attempts to preserve the ambience of Mr. Frick’s private house, and visitors are therefore asked to observe regulations necessary for protecting the works of art and their domestic setting. Because few ropes or cases are used to guard fragile objects, children under ten are not admitted to the Collection, and those under sixteen must be accompanied by an adult. For more information, see Children or download our Policy on the Admission of Children (Adobe Acrobat required).

Sure, a day at the Frick may not be the most exciting way for a ten-year-old to spend her day, but what the hell? There seems little reason to their policy aside from their simply being stuffy assholes. I love, by the by, how there’s a section devoted to this policy, too.


Allow me to relate a brief anecdote. Last October, a seminar I attended went to the Frick one day for class. This seminar was taught by university professor Richard Brilliant, yes, Richard Brilliant. He was continually hassled by the guards there because of the Frick’s policy on lecturing.


Policy on lecturing?

Group Visits

Group visits are by appointment only. Lecturing in the galleries is prohibited. For more information, see Group Visits.

Oh, that, policy on lecturing. It seems disseminating knowledge and discussing art in an art freaking gallery is somehow offensive to the legacy of Mr. Frick. I get it. Brilliant, like the gentleman he is, agreed pleasantly to comply and then resumed lecturing us each time a guard came by to harrass him. After the trip, he wrote a pretty harsh letter to the gallery and then read it to us for our approval before sending it off. I really love that man.

Anyway, people have to pay insane admission charges to get in to the gallery. I guess the assumption is that they’re all wealthy and of employable age enough to pay someone from The Frick staff to tell them exactly what each work of art means and why it’s important. No questions!



Posted in art, exhibitions, exhibits, galleries, museums | Leave a Comment »

How to make saving ancient buildings pay

Posted by gninja on June 8, 2007

The Medieaval Art Historian is busy, these days. Tour-guiding around New York city and learning Latin. Her Economic Objectorvist husband (aren’t I clever?) is not so busy. Just finished his own thesis and not teaching anything (in fact without legal rights to work at all until our visa is sorted. Or leave the country without permission to re-enter. Which in my case was a positive freedom, not a negative one, making it smart all the more). So I can fill in for the missus every now and then. Like now.

The recent news about the yellowing Tower of London and the similarly declining stature of the Taj Mahal brought this issue to mind. Michigan, too.

We should view these as the phenomena of interest. Not pollution, but the yellowing of the buildings. These are the ‘bads’ (as opposed to the ‘goods’ usually discussed in economics). They exist because there’s no market for them. We don’t actively pollute – polluting isn’t the good or service we buy, or in which we engage. Driving stinky cars and burning up our pre-history at a million years an hour is. Pollution is the negative externality of those activities. The trouble is, we don’t buy-and-sell the externality.

Pollution represents a cost to society, but when we drive we don’t pay that cost (I should say ‘they’ – I don’t drive). This is why we drive too much. Consider the example of electricity:

Electricity production causes acid rain. If we paid for the social cost of that acid rain along with the ordinary cost of electricity we would only consume Q2 units at price P2. Instead we consume Q1 units at price P1 – i.e. we consume too much electricity, for which we pay too low a price. As a result we get more acid rain than society wants (the equilibrium Q2, P2 is called allocatively efficient, by the by – meaning price equals marginal cost to society, and resources are allocated according to society’s preferences).

So – back to historical buildings. Why do they yellow with pollution? Because we pollute too much. We pollute too much because the prices of the polluting activities (road taxes, electricity prices, petrol prices) are all too low. That is, they don’t include the social cost of the negative externality. This is among the reasons why governments go around imposing taxes on things: so that consumers are forced to include the cost to society of their externalities (or producers – one can tax consumption or production, it makes no difference in the marketplace). By doing this, the government can make sure that Q2 gets consumed, rather than Q1 (for example).

This, by the by, is called a Pigovian tax. Pigovian taxes are taxes that are implemented to alter consumer behaviour to bring a market equilibrium in line with social welfare, rather than just raise money.

Now, we have options. The government/city council/etc. can impose taxes. Look at Ken Livingstone’s congestion charge, for example (and ignoring for the moment the ulterior motiveNew Yorkers beware!). That is used to keep the number of cars in certain parts of london down, for purposes of reduced congestion and pollution. Not by banning cars but by implementing a price for entering London. Hey, presto! A market solution appears where once there was no market at all.

The same principle applies to the damage caused to buildings. Make a ‘pollution tax’ in London, equal to the cost of cleaning up these buildings, divided by the polluters (cars, aeroplanes flying in and out of Heathrow and Stansted, the underground, GNER, ordinary industry). At the end of the day, the cost to society of pollution affecting our historical buildings will become a part of the prices we pay for the activities that cause the damage in the first place. Then we will be allowed to make our own trade-offs.

This is the principle behind the slightly different Coase theorem. The classic example is a manufacturer polluting the river that runs out back. Why do they do it? Because it’s cheaper to pump their shit in the river than it is to dispose of it properly. Since nobody owns clean air or clean water, nobody can sue the manufacturer for the loss – making it free. Coase’s original paper is all over the place.

The Coasean solution (Ronald Coase won the Nobel prize in 1991, incidentally) says, give ownership rights to people living downstream, or ‘sell’ pollution rights to manufacturer, where those rights cost around about the cost to clean up the river. Then the polluter and society interact in a market where therer was none before:

At one end of the extreme is no pollution reduction. Society doesn’t want that, because society doesn’t like pollution. At the other end there is zero pollution. Society, frankly, doesn’t want that either. We cant cars, and middle-class holidays overseas. The Coasean solution manufactures a market for pollution reduction, allowing us to decide how much driving and flying we want, and how much non-polluting we want.

A quick hat-tip to a colleague, Dave, who describes the Coase theorem as ‘my right to own a gun vs. your right to listen to Megadeth at 2 in the morning.‘ Let’s see the snots at Chicago law come up with that one.

There’s a problem or two, though, with the Coase theorem. First: it only works with zero (or nearly zero) transaction costs. What’s a transaction cost? How about figuring out how much the damage-due-to-pollution costs? We can figure out the cost of cleaning the Tower of London or the Taj Mahal – what about the cost of lost tourism? Cost to the ‘brand’ of London? That is harder – and more expensive – to figure out. And that’s just for the government side. That firm pumping their shit into the river. They then have to decide how much it’s worth to buy the permits to keep doing so. Then there’s the cost of getting everyone together to negotiate. A Coasean solution requires efficient bargaining.

Look out for more of this sort of thing as this carbon trading deal starts gaining more ground.

So will a Coasean solution work for historical buildings? Can we sell Ryanair and the motorists of Rome the rights to dump gypsum and acid rain on the Colosseum? Short answer = no, frankly. Remember those transaction costs? Suppose you advertised that you were going to sell pollution rights to motorists, trucking companies and Air Italia, and you were convening a big…convention…for all sides to come together and negotiate the optimal P (price/compensation) and Q (pollution reduction). Just think for a minute about all the people that would come, all the activist groups, architects, historians, industry lobbyists, CEOs, CFOs, etc. You’d be there all year. No efficient bargaining on the horizon at all.

What is more likely for historical clean-up is punitive/Pigovian taxation – imposing a tax on the polluters, and using the money to clean and maintain the buildings. That cost of production is then passed along to consumers. Whether we like it or not, our activities keep all of these Aspidistrae flying, and we should pay for it. If we want to keep the Tower of London.

This is all fairly hypothetical. We’ll need to see a lot more historical buildings suffer from acid rain before this becomes a discussion. In the meantime, there is always the new debate about carbon taxes vs. carbon trading. In the meantime, there is one interesting paper by a fellow by the name of David Throsby, called Paying for the Past: Economics, Cultural Heritage and Public Policy. It’s quite interesting.

Finally: there’s no doubt some disconnect here. A lot of my wife’s audience will not be at all amenable to my discussion – how can we place a price on culture and heritage? Our knees jerk us into insisting we can’t. But in fact we must. Because as long as these things remain ‘priceless’, they remain costless. Most industries and firms don’t care if the North Sea runs out of fish. They sure as hell don’t stop to worry about a few old churches. So ask yourselves this: who do our governments really really consider their constituents? Somehow I don’t think we contribute enough to their campaigns to count all that highly. Not highly enough for the government to go completely command and control about pollution. Nor are they efficient.

And lastly, we want unsullied churches, sure – but we also want Duane Reade, American Airlines and Interflora, and I dare you to say otherwise. A trade-off needs to be made, and economics is historically the lingua franca when it comes to this sort of thing. The sooner our side masters that tongue, the sooner we might stop getting trampled in parliaments, congresses and city halls.

Posted in economics | 2 Comments »