Thursday, March 1, 2012

Take the Old Grey Mare Out and Shoot It

Tropics of Meta has decided to move to a shiny new site.

It has been a great two and a half years since we first hatched the idea of a semi-scholarly site that could serve as an outlet for our extracurricular writings, photography, and other projects.  Most of our contributors were in various stages of grad school or had recently departed from an MA or PhD program, and we all felt a need for a space to discuss and share our ideas that we otherwise lacked in the often isolating world of academia.  We also loved to write and felt like the dry, laborious style of most academic writing in journals and monographs was too limited; there had to be another voice or register in which we could talk about our research.  (A more extended discussion of the relationship between blogging, writing, and scholarship can be found here.)

Over time we have accumulated a pretty substantial body of work centering on urban history, technology, pop culture, diplomatic history and more.  These areas of concentration reflect the interests of our editors and writers, and the new site features sections devoted specifically to topics such as Cities and Media.  We hope that you will check out the new and improved Tropics and continue reading our work.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Civil Society and Mass Incarceration

From 1980 to 2007, the number of prisoners held in the United States quadrupled to 2.3 million, with an additional 5 million on probation or parole. What Ayn Rand once called the “freest, noblest country in the history of the world” is now the most incarcerated, and the second-most incarcerated country in history, just barely edged out by Stalin’s Soviet Union. We’re used to hearing about the widening chasm between the haves and have-nots; we’re less accustomed to contemplating a more fundamental gap: the abyss that separates the fortunate majority, who control their own bodies, from the luckless minority, whose bodies are controlled, and defiled, by the state.

Christopher Glazek[1]

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduced the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

W.E.B. Du Bois[2]

Although largely a non-existing issue in dominant political discourse, opposition to mass incarceration has long been a cause of the radical left and the Black Power movement. Thanks to recent liberal efforts, most notably Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow[3], and the rise of libertarian politics, concern over the massive expansion of our criminal justice system is slowly becoming a part of the discussion amongst the liberal intelligentsia.

I write mainly to make note of a somewhat remarkable article by Christopher Glazek recently published by N+1 magazine and an important historiographical essay by historian Heather Thompson. Glazek first surveys the landscape of American mass incarceration and then proceeds to make the case for the abolition of prisons. This radical call for prison abolition is a rare gesture to the Black Radical Tradition that is undoubtedly foreign to most of N+1’s largely white and overeducated readership.[4]

Although the article is for the most part a familiar summary of the brutality of the American prison system, Glazek seeks to shake readers out of their moral complacency by highlighting a few stunning facts. For example, he cites a Justice Department report stating that there are 216,000 victims of rape within America’s prison system. “That’s 216,000 victims,” Glazek explains, “not instances.” (his emphasis) Rape is so widespread throughout US prisons that men now account for the majority of rape victims in this country.

Heather Thompson’s analytical synthesis of mass incarceration provides us a scholarly antecedent to Glazek’s call to action. While recounting many of the same facts, Thompson goes a step further to make the case—convincingly, in my view—that mass incarceration has had profound repercussions largely ignored in popular and scholarly literature. She argues that rather than being symptomatic of deindustrialization and cultural politics, mass incarceration itself altered postwar US politics and urban political economy. From the militarization of police departments to the deterioration of public health, Thompson illustrates how there are few areas of private and public life that haven’t been affected by mass incarceration.

Like Glazek, Thompson makes clear that the consequences of mass incarceration are unevenly spread out amongst the population. Of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the US, about 40 percent are Black. A large portion of this mass incarceration of Black people can be attributed to drug arrests. Yet Thompson cites studies conducted by National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse which show that, in fact, “white students use cocaine at seven times the rate of black students, use crack cocaine at eight times the rate of black students, and use heroin at seven times the rate of black students…[Whites] between the ages of twelve and seventeen were also ‘more than a third more likely to have sold illegal drugs than African American youth.’” Lastly, according to these same studies, there is an inverse relationship between the aforementioned facts and conviction outcomes: Blacks “of every age ‘were more likely than whites to be committed to prison instead of jail, and they were more likely to receive longer sentences.’”[5]

Thompson’s article is refreshingly well written and deserves to be read in full for its many insights but one paradigmatic example gives us a glimpse into her general argument. Consider what Thompson calls the “criminalization of urban space,” defined as “a process by which increasing numbers of urban dwellers—overwhelmingly men and women of color—became subject to a growing number of laws that not only regulated bodies and communities in thoroughly new ways but also subjected violators to unprecedented time behind bars.”[6] This process of criminalizing Black and Brown space not only results in political and economic injury to those communities, but it intensifies the cultivation of white privilege as well. These convicts are often relocated to large prisons located in virtually all white rural areas, thereby inflating the census figures of conservative white rural districts populated by disenfranchised black bodies.[7] This of course results in overrepresentation of conservative white districts and underrepresentation of Black urban areas, which in turn plays an important role in depriving these spaces of state resources and political representation. Glazek augments this argument by pointing out that of 500,000 correctional officers employed by the criminal justice system, a majority live in white rural areas, further inflating local populations.

The array of problems resulting from mass incarceration as described by Thompson and Glazek naturally leaves one searching for solutions. Rather than invoking the need for prison reform, Glazek calls for its abolishment. His advocacy, however, is not to be confused with utopianism. Glazek does not claim that legalizing drugs will virtually eliminate crime or that there is a simple moral calculus that clearly favors prison abolition. Instead, Glazek demands that progressives make sacrifices. Among these sacrifices are accepting a higher crime rate, relaxing or eliminating gun control statutes, and, most critically, a “massive expansion of death penalty.” (his emphasis) These “sacrifices” provokes two fundamental levels of critique—one empirical and the other ontological.

At the most base, empirical level, Glazek’s demands on the death penalty and gun control rely on faulty premises. Although Glazek makes a cogent argument demonstrating that gun control laws disproportionately and unfairly affect Black gun owners, his argument against gun control measures is grounded in pragmatic and existential claims: “you’ll have a hard time convincing anybody that we should abolish prisons and take away the community’s ability to defend itself.” One would expect Glazek to cite some of the literature on gun ownership—however contested or polemical it may be—to demonstrate that a proliferation of gun ownership increases safety in communities, but his unsubstantiated claim is stated as fact.
On the issue of the death penalty, it is alarming to see someone who is so cognizant of the rampant racism on which the criminal justice system is predicated on so readily drop his critical approach when it comes to the matter of state sanctioned murder. In fact, racism’s rendezvous with the criminal justice system does not suddenly end at the death chamber: for example, in Philadelphia, black people are four times more likely to receive the death penalty than white people for committing similar crimes. From 1976 to 2010, The Economist notes that of the 1,226 executions, 1,010 of them have been in the south and a majority of “these executed have been black.” The south is of particular importance to this story. The Baldus Report on the state of Georgia highlights the moral scandal of the death penalty. Alexander sums up the report’s findings: “Georgia prosecutors…sought the death penalty in 70 percent of cases involving black defendants and white victims, but only 19 percent of cases involving white defendants and black victims…[Even] after accounting for thirty-five nonracial variables, the researchers found that defendants charged with killing white victims were 4.3 times more likely to receive a death sentence than defendants charged with killing blacks.”[8] How will a “massive” expansion of the death penalty do anything to improve the lot of those communities most adversely affected by mass incarceration to begin with? This is the wrong question to ask, for this is not Glazek’s main concern, which leads us to the question of political ontology.

The ontological critique requires us to turn to Antonio Gramsci and his foremost critics in the Afro-pessimist movement. As a self-identified progressive, Glazek situates himself amongst radicals in proposing a fundamental transformation of how society is ordered. Similarly, although much more implicitly, Thompson’s trenchant critique of mass incarceration is in effect an indictment of the constitution of justice in the US. These critiques go deeper than liberal calls for “reform” or an end to racial profiling. Utilizing Gramsci’s lexicon, Glazek and Thompson are engaged in a war of position—a protracted struggle to create an oppositional “common sense” across cultural (N+1) and pedagogical (academia) institutions within civil society in order to develop an effective counter-hegemonic discourse.

Although Gramsci’s political theory produces many insights, particularly in the realm of cultural critique, and has (somewhat) reduced Marxism’s affinity for economic determinism, his key analytical contribution—the concept of hegemony—relies on tenuous presuppositions. As Frank Wilderson indicates, the three pillars of Gramsci’s hegemony are influence, leadership, and consent. In other words, hegemony “is the influence of a ruling social group, the leadership of ideas, of an ensemble of questions such as ‘meritocracy’ and ‘individualism’; and it is the subalterns’ spontaneous consent to be lead by the ruling group’s ensemble of questions.”[9] Wilderson argues that the moral architecture of the hegemonic/counter-hegemonic discourse dialectic presupposes inclusion within civil society. Wilderson categorical rejects the dialectical framework and instead understands white-Black antagonisms as structural and grounded in negation. Wilderson asks, if even the subaltern has consented to be led and influenced by ruling class ideas, what does one make of the black subject[10] that is not only systematically excluded from civil society through mass incarceration and disenfranchisement but also subject to gratuitous state violence? The black subject never consents to civil society’s justification for a rabidly exclusionary justice system. In other words, Wilderson posits that the political ontology of the black subject is that which sits outside of civil society and, furthermore, its continued exclusion is the very basis for civil society’s existence; the white suburbs sleep peacefully knowing that ‘criminal elements’ are locked up and stripped of their ability to exist just as the south found comfort in vagrancy laws which put newly freed (“dangerous”) former-slaves back under white control.

Wilderson’s larger argument about Black political ontology is problematic in its own right (to say the least), but he raises important questions about Black people’s relationship to civil society and the constitutive elements of liberal order.[11] While Glazek and Thompson’s essays are in many ways steps in the right direction, there remains a need to develop systematic critiques of both political and civil society that can lay the groundwork for a truly emancipatory movement. Glazek’s article in particular is flawed in its limited conception of liberty. Implicit in his call for abolition is an understanding of freedom as non-domination or, to use Isaiah Berlin’s phrase, negative liberty. Glazek assumes that by abolishing a state system that “controls and defiles” bodies and by removing regulations on citizens’ ownership of lethal weapons imposed by the state, one can increase liberty and thereby help fulfill the promise of the US polity. This, however, is an impoverished conception of liberty. What Glazek reveals in his advocacy for a mass expansion of the death penalty is an unwillingness to confront the underlying structural racial antagonisms of the state and civil society. Until these antagonisms are acknowledged, advocacy for prison abolition will merely be another liberal call for circumscribed liberty.

Joel Suarez

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Joy and Pain: What Jeremy Lin Tells Us about 21st Century American Race Relations

What would Kobe say?
Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he's Asian. Black players do what he does every night and don't get the same praise.

It is precisely the unfixed liminality of the Asian immigrant – geographically, linguistically, and racially at odds with the context of the “national” – that has given rise to the necessity of endlessly fixing and repeating such stereotypes.
-- Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts, 19

Floyd Mayweather is not a brain surgeon. The man punches for a living and he punches very well. However, all that head trauma must have knocked more than few synapses loose, why would Mayweather begrudge the new Asian American icon Jeremy Lin of his place in American sports lore? Mayweather has a long history of this from his choice to wear a sombrero when fighting Oscar De La Hoya to his numerous comments regarding Manny Pacquiao (who Mayweather once confusingly mocked for eating “sushi” which of course is Japanese not Filipino). Certainly, he’s not the only African American to begrudge an Asian athlete success. Shaquille O’Neal famously dismissed Yao Ming with the comment, "Tell Yao Ming, 'ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-soh." So what’s this all about and what does it tell us about 21st century America?

To be fair, Mayweather has a point. While Yao Ming and a handful of other Chinese basketball stars have successfully navigated the league, the league has NEVER seen an Asian American basketball talent perform at this level on this stage. That Lin plays for New York no doubt helps - the Knicks remain one of the league’s franchise teams. Even when they suck, and the Knicks have sucked mightily in recent years, the team has always turned a profit. So yes, the combination of Lin’s ethnicity/race and his location, the Big Apple, and his team, the New York Knickerbockers serve to highlight his success in ways that a player in Minnesota simply can’t. With that said, seven straight wins for a team without one of its key players matters, no matter the race or ethnicity of the player dragging the Knicks to a possible playoff spot.

Yet, Mayweather also points to a reality of American race relations: as the nation’s diversity increases over the 21st century, we will need to figure out how to discuss and think about race in America. The black white binary that dominated American racial thought – popularly and academically - seems to have little relevance in a nation where Asian American and Latino American residents seem to increase their numbers every year. Racism affects each of these groups, but in different manners and through different pathways. No one doubts the long established prejudice against Black citizens in America. The historical legacy of slavery and Jim Crow remain central aspects of our nation’s history. Yet, Asian Americans and Latinos, notably Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans, have their own histories of struggle.

The transnational nature of Asian American and Latino identity adds confusion for many observers. It goes without saying that media outlets like ESPN have noted how the Chinese government remains wary of Lin as a figure: 1) for his Taiwanese background and 2) for his devout religiosity. While ESPN and other outlets note this relevant fact, writers like Lisa Lowe and Charlotte Brooks have noted the stereotype of the “perpetual foreigner” attached to Asian American citizens has often served to undermine their status. With the internet, twitter, and the countless forms of social media out there, undoubtedly, Chinese citizens will be drawn to the Jeremy Lin narrative and ESPN should discuss this. However, it also reinforces the idea that Asian Americans maybe citizens but they belong to different shores. Overall, the media’s behavior has been mostly positive, though there have been several hiccups along the way as USA today documented Thursday (2/16/2012).

In Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends, Brooks charts the intense discrimination and segregation endured by West Coast Japanese and Chinese American populations in the first half of the 20th century. Even when finally accepted by white homeowners, this acceptance hinged on the international connections of Asian American populations rather than their place as American citizens. Brooks points out that this “transnational identity” undermined Chinese claims to national membership as they were seen as permanent foreigners, albeit welcome ones. Also, as with the Japanese American example, the arrival of larger numbers of African American residents recast white homeowner concerns that now Chinese Americans came to be seen, along with other Asian Americans, as the “model minority,” to be contrasted with more “troublesome” racial/ethnic groups. Accordingly, Brooks suggests that American interventionism in Asia along with pervasive domestic fears of communist infiltration and agitation “spurred white Californians to reconsider the impact of their segregationist decisions. In the end, the deepening Cold War short circuited the emerging pattern and replaced it with a far different one.” (193) Really, considering that the nation interned its Japanese American population during WWII, these shifts in attitudes are notable.

White homeowners continued to exhibit a desire to live apart from nonwhites; even when they accepted Chinese or Japanese American neighbors, they did so out of a sense of anti-communism rather than any nod toward racial equality. One white resident, who supported Nisei WWII veteran Sam Yoshira’s attempt to buy a home in Southwood (South San Francisco), commented, “My property values aren’t as important as my principles.” (Brooks, 206) Such admissions reveal not only latent racial attitudes but also the effect of FHA/HOLC housing policies that dismissed communities with nonwhites as eligible for home loans and the like. 

Even before these developments, as writers like Nayan Shah and others have pointed out, Asians were denied the right to own land in many western states (look up the Alien Land Act in CA 1913) and later prevented from achieving naturalized citizenship (they were labeled unable to assimilate). US policymakers depicted America's violent occupation of the Philippines much like Rudyard Kipling's "White Man's Burden": bringing the torch of civilization and democracy to savages. To make matters worse, as Paul Kramer points out in The Blood of Government, despite living under US imperial rule for several decades of the 20th century where US imposed education systems stressed American ideals of equality, Filipinos encountered violent racism on the nation's western shores when they migrated in the early decades of the century. Filipinos of the 1930s and 1940s had been raised under “benevolent assimilation” which cast America in idealistic and unrealistic terms. The history of struggle against American forces no longer existed (erasure through education) such that Filipino immigrants to the US articulated a sanitized version of US-Philippines history, while remaining shocked at the overt racism that few American educators bothered to mention.

The Warriors didn't play him much but they pimped him for AHN

Ironically, considering how Asian men and women are sexualized in modern America, white observers feared Filipinos, with their flashy clothes and sensual nature would seduce white women while Chinese men would ply innocent white ladies with gifts and opium. As for Asian women, one need only look at the Page Act of 1875 (it basically prevented Chinese women from migrating to the US using morality and their lack of male attachment as factors contributing to their rejection), to know that American officials viewed most Chinese women as sexually licentious and disease ridden. I won’t even get into the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), the Gentlemen’s Agreement or the numerous “driving out” campaigns along the West Coast in which Chinese and Japanese populations were forcibly and violently driven from towns. Needless to say, these campaigns resulted in economic distress, emotional strain, and often numerous deaths. In this environment, like Blacks in the South, Asian populations provided elites with a scapegoat for the larger economic ramifications of expanding capitalism and corporate development that largely punished local working class white communities. Collectively, the Page and Chinese Exclusion Acts served as foundational texts for immigration laws (often restrictions based on race, class, gender, and ethnicity) of the 1920s to today (see Erika Lee).

Rudyard Kipling would be proud

When addressing Mayweather’s comments, it helps to consider these facts. Though Asian Americans endured stark racism in the first half of the 20th century, the arrival of large numbers of African Americans on the West Coast via the Great Migration (and the Second Great Migration) drove whites to accept Asian Americans as the lesser of two evils. While I doubt Mayweather had such historical constructs in mind, one can see parallels in today’s American culture that might drive some African Americans to resent Lin’s success. After all, as recently as the mid-1990s, Douglass Massey and Nancy Denton noted that though housing segregation persists, Black Americans continue to endure its most pernicious forms while Asian and Latino Americans have been able to suburbanize at higher levels including integration into white communities. Moreover, plenty of East Asian and South Asian Americans have expressed racism towards Black Americans as well. To paraphrase Toni Morrison, the first thing every immigrant has done once reaching America was illustrate how he or she wasn’t black. So some African Americans surely see themselves as more “American” than recent Asian or Latino American arrivals yet economically, they have yet to enjoy the same level of success. Granted Obama’s presidency and the rise of a significant Black American middle class blunts this somewhat, yet still for some people, these issues bring up negative feelings.

Lin himself acknowledges that even when playing for Harvard, it was not unusual to hear racial slights – comments regarding “sweet and sour pork” – or the slur, “chink”. Such obvious outbursts of racism don’t really deserve our attention, whatever place they come from, nearly everyone condemns them. No, it’s the subtle institutional form that plays a factor here. ESPN analyst and former NBA player Tim Legler suggested that Lin’s lack of opportunity may have also played a factor in his late bloom. Legler, who is white, noted that while Black players in the NBA believed he was a capable shooter, front office executives and some coaches, most of whom were white, viewed him as a liability largely because of his race. As Legler pointed out recently, Lin probably endured similar doubts. Granted, being from Harvard didn't help, most people don't recognize the Ivies for their basketball talent.

If Asians were denied citizenship, land ownership, and decent housing because of fears about disease, morals, and sexuality in the first half of the century, Lin’s ascent had been mitigated by nearly opposite racial concerns: Asian Americans' rise to “model minority” status meant they were great college students, lawyers, and IT specialists, not athletes. Of course, this model minority status probably rubbed some minorities the wrong way. Numerous writers have argued that the “model minority” construct, promoted by White American and sections of the Asian American community arose in the 1960s and 1970s as rebuke to other minority groups protesting for equal rights, notably the Chicano and Black Power movements. Grantland editor Jay Caspian Kang, who is Asian American himself and frequently writes about race for the site pointed out that though white Americans promoted this construct, segments of the Asian American community held some culpability:
It has become standard issue for successful Asian Americans to just sort of avoid talking about race. This, I guess, makes sense along the spectrum of assimilation, but it's an inherently elitist stance that plays a bit too coy, especially in a country that has largely decided to turn a blind eye toward racism against Asian Americans. I have no doubt, given his comments in the past, that Lin thinks about his peculiar role in America's blackest network TV show. But for now, he and the Knicks have not said much about anything, really.

The larger point here is that Lin remains a symbol of 21st century America, positively and negatively.  He embodies the kind of social and political changes that we need to acknowledge. Discussions of race in America must incorporate these complex dynamics to fully understand, how we got here. White America does not own a monopoly on racism or racial antipathy. It exerts its own prejudices and biases, but so do other communities.

Floyd Mayweather may be an ass, but his comments at least open up space for discussion.   Hopefully, we can fill these spaces with a useful dialogue that helps us understand each other and our nation more completely. To be honest, the aforementioned King may have articulated the awkward role that race continues to play in this story best. Speaking to fellow Grantland editor Bill Simmons, Kang summed up the past two weeks neatly:
There's always going to be some shit kicked up by haters, but the outpouring of excitement and love has overwhelmed the usual racist clatter. That doesn't mean I haven't rolled my eyes a couple times or even gotten angry. But there's a difference between someone who says something a bit insensitive out of genuine enthusiasm and someone who is just trying to get off his bitter rocks. It's important to not hawk over Linsanity with that much vigilance; it's basketball and it's a bunch of dudes typing reactions on Twitter. There's just no reason to let a few racist assholes ruin the best party of the year. Yes, some of these comments have highlighted that we, as a society, don't treat all racism equally, but if you didn't know that already, you've been living in a hole somewhere. More important, if you can't look at Jeremy Lin and see why America is the greatest country in the world, well, then you don't understand America.

Who knows what the “greatest country in the world” is, but “Linsanity” makes me feel better about this one.

[Editors Note - To its credit, Grantland addressed the racial aspects of Lin's rise early and often.  In addition to those articles mentioned above, Rembert Browne's recent essay only adds to the mix]
Ryan Reft

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Subculture Rub: Tracing the Winding Path of Street Art

From our perch in the early 21st century, when multinational corporations hoover anything remotely hip, it is easy to forget how hostile the climate for hip once was. The church, the law, capital and mass opinion all lined up against hip, as against a disease.

-- John Leland, Hip: The History, 2009

When the image of scarf wearing, bespectacled black man in the vein of the famous 2008 Obama campaign poster began popping up around D.C., Prince of Petworth blogger Lydia DePillis wondered just who was responsible.  After a circuitous route than took DePillis to DC “wheatpaste” artists DIABETIK and DECOY, the local writer concluded the prints belonged to one Steven Cummings.  Of course, Cummings seemed to take no real interest in reveling his identity.  DePillis and the Prince of Petworth  agreed that the portrait deserved recognition awarding it the 2011 best wheatepaste for D.C.   Yet DePiIlis admitted the art itself seemed almost secondary:
One of the most widely disseminated images appears to be a portrait framing a somber man of indeterminate age, who stares directly ahead through large circular glasses; a bowler hat and high collar complete the vaguely Victorian ensemble. The impressive part is the distribution: The artist has deployed the image all around the city, on telephone booths and boarded-up windows, as well as via small stickers attached to free newspapers.
While some blog commentators suggested the images reminded them suspiciously of the iconic 2008 Obama posters produced by Shepard Fairey, others recognized that Cummings’s efforts were both an emulation and extension of the kind of street art popularized by Fairey and Banksy.  Cummings’s prints served simultaneously as subliminal adverts for his own art exhibit at the Smithsonian affiliated Anacostia Community Museum and a means to reshape abandoned D.C. buildings into something more the urban detritus.   

Fairey Fairey Everywhere

Inspired in part by the work of Andy Warhol and built on earlier movements like graffiti and punk/hardcore, the rise of street art over the past few decades helped to reorganize conceptions of public space and people’s relation to it.  However, though it shares obvious similarities with graffiti and is often miscategorized as such, its aesthetic and ideological impulses stem from different sources. Much like punk and hardcore before it, debates about street art encompass several important issues.  How do we debate art’s value? How much does the process or act count in the creation of this art? To what extent, does the trajectory of street art reflect broader trends of commidization of subcultural movements?

Punk Rock Redux

The Clash

[T]he tensions between dominant and subordinate groups can be found reflected in the surfaces of subculture – in the styles made up of mundane objects which have double meaning. On the one hand, they warn the ‘straight’ world in advance of a sinister presence – the presence of difference – and draw down upon themselves vague suspicions, uneasy laughter, ‘white and dumb rages.’ On the other hand for those who erect them into icons, who use them as words or as curses, these objects become signs of forbidden identity, sources of value.”

-- Dick Hebdige, Subculture the Meaning of Style, 1979, 2-3

Writing in 1979, Birmingham School icon Dick Hebdige set out to examine the meaning of style and subculture and its connection to race and class.  Hebdige juxtaposed the development of various subcultures including Mods, Teds, Punks, Skins, and others, illustrating how the style from each transmitted messages internally and externally.   Though he highlighted the political aspects of style, Hebdige also cautioned that “the meaning of subculture is … always in dispute, and style is the area in which the opposing definitions clash with the most dramatic force.” (3)

Context meant something as well. Punks took a post-modern bricolage of items ranging from safety pins to rape masks to swastikas (ugh), all meant to separate the objects from their original meanings.   The rearrangement and transmuation of objects, in use and meaning, set punk apart making it “kinetic [and] transitive … concentrat[ing] attention on the act of transformation performed upon the object…” (123).  Yet, as Hebdige also noted media, society, and business recuperate subcultures through commodization, making it less threatening but also freezing their importance. “Once removed from their private contexts by the small entrepreneurs and big fashion interests who produce them on a mass scale,” argued Hebdige, ”they become codified, made comprehensible, rendered at once public property and profitable.” (96)

Thirty years later, New York Times reporter, John Leland placed the punks, mods, and other subcultures seen as “hip” in a longer historical context, noting that what once threatened the status quo was now marketed as a consumer necessity by corporations and multinationals. As Edward Morgan noted in his recent book on mass media portrayals of the 1960s, political meanings of important historical epochs have been overwhelmed by profit driven media and culture.  Figures like Che Guevera, silk screened onto countless t-shirts, no longer represent rebellion (or at least not real revolution) but rather have been transformed into “a mass produced commodity itself or the seductive hook to draw one into consumption.” (Morgan, 264)  With these warnings acknowledged, one can argue that even in this more ambiguous environment, movements and subcultures emerge that at least momentarily challenge dominant ideas and ideologies. 

Punk did this.  In Britain appropriating the language of crisis, punks mocked the “alienation and emptiness which [had] caused sociologists so much concern, realizing in a deliberate and willful fashion the direst predictions of the most scathing social critics,” writes Hebdige.  They celebrated in “mock heroic” language the decline of community and the “collapse of traditional forms of meaning.” (79) The spectacle of punk’s commodification aside, today, street artists like punk style and graffiti art before them, use fairly blunt instruments to populate public spaces created by neoliberal economics with distorted visions of consumerism. 

McLaren at work

Yet if Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols manager and widely acknowledged cultural conman, used the Sex Pistols to promote himself and punk more widely while cashing in on the controversy, what are we to think of street art practitioners like Banksy, Shepard Fairey, Space Invader and others?    McLaren’s antics with the Sex Pistols drew inspiration from the Situationist movement, which promoted public acts of absurdity or provocation to force social change.  Yet, looking back at his experience with Johnny Rotten et al., McLaren argued it really wasn’t about what the band created: “I never thought the Sex Pistols would be any good … But it didn’t matter if they were bad.” With this in mind, how do we think about street art? What do Cummings' above provocations mean in 2011?

Exit through the Gift Shop

I am quite willing to agree that graffiti is Art, but I don't believe the act of painting them is an art form, if you see what I mean. Or maybe you don't. You may be too old to understand my argument.

It probably sounds rather obvious to note how much the process of making art, and the background story behind the artist have come to reflect artistic worth in the eyes of critics, collectors, and to a certain extent, the broader public.   In many ways, the Banksy directed Exit through the Gift Shop cleverly interrogated this idea. 

Though meant to be about the brief history of street art it came to be defined by Thierry Guetta, a street art enthusiast and amateur documentarian who spends nearly a decade serving as roadie to some of street art’s greatest practitioners (for what it’s worth Guetta, like McLaren, ran a clothing shop).   For years, Guetta filmed and aided Bansky and others’ in their artistic endeavors. Though Guetta filmed hundreds of tapes, his lack of organization and poor filmmaking skills never resulted in any real documentary.  When asked by Bansky to produce one,  Guetta’s finished product left the mysterious street artist shaking his head. Yet, Guetta didn’t spend all those years at essentially apprenticing for naught.  Instead, with the encouragement of Banksy, the entrepreneurial spirited Guetta developed his own moniker, Dr. Brainwash, and proceeded to knock off derivations of those artists for whom he had apprenticed. He managed to get an article in the June 12, 2008 of the L.A. Weekly - more or less hyping his upcoming show – which ultimately resulted in Guetta selling millions of dollars of street art.  

more Banksy

While some have called the documentary a brilliant distillation of all that is wrong with the art world, others have applauded the documentary as a film but questioned the veracity of its story.  “As a documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop is as about as reliable and structurally sound as that house-front with the strategically placed window that falls on top of Buster Keaton,” admitted the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw.  Ebert acknowledged the same in the opening line of his review but argued this “only adds to its fascination.”  The movie’s inclusion in the best documentary category at the 2011 Oscar’s only ratcheted up the controversy; after all, This is Spinal Tap (1984) might be the greatest doc about rock music ever, I mean providing it wasn’t fictional, which uh, it was.   

Certainly, many critics noticed the movie’s arc seemed suspiciously perfect. On-line magazine and “cultural aggregator” perceptively broke down ETTGS, pointing to numerous scenes that suggested Banksy and Fairey collaborated to pull the wool over the audience’s eyes.    Others pointed out that the movie’s authenticity remained beside the point:  the capriciousness of the art world and the increasing importance of hype served as Bansky’s message, the truth behind Guetta didn’t matter. “The fact that the art world was unable to see through the hype is not in dispute, and that’s the important part of this story,” noted one observer.  Besides, the same critic noted, if process matters, didn’t Banksy deserve credit for basically proving that not only could he counterfeit money (the movie features a scene in which Bansky reveals thousands of fake 10 pound notes with Princess Diana’s face on them) but also an entire movie.    

Still, as superslice argued, Bansky’s “hoax” accomplishes several goals.  It widely publicized street art, documenting a phenomenan that seems perfect for the post X Games extreme age. Remember, the street art skill set revolves as much around selecting the most spectacularly difficult spaces for appropriation.  Gymnastics and a keen disregard for personal safety might be as important as aesthetics.   

Yet, much like the celebrated skateboard doc Dogtown and ZBoys in which director Stacy Peralta documented the very Zephyr skating team he helped pioneer, ETTGS serves as a vehicle for Banksy and Fairey to secure their place as street art icons (a dubious term considering the anonymity of most street artists).  Peralta raised the Zephyr team to godlike status. As numerous critics noted, he never adequately addressed this obvious conflict of interest.  Superslice alleges a similar occurrence with ETTGS:

It’s A Banksy Film that’s deifying Banksy as the greatest living street artist and will soon make the case for him as the greatest living artist by trashing both the opinion makers (those duped by MBW and the so-called greatest living artists, Hirst & Koons et. al.)...
Again, like punk and street art, context mattered for Team Zephyr.  Whether one considers skateboarding akin to ballet or vandalism, the Zephyr team’s appropriation of local schools for honing their craft re-imagined these spaces into places of creativity and opportunity. Style proved as important as content not only to the teams’ coaches but too all its key members. 

Using schools

It must be noted, in many ways, the kind of vertical skating style Zephyr created, through appropriation of public and private spaces (empty swimming pools that didn’t belong to them), had never been seen before.  As numerous skaters admitted, Tony Alva, Peralta, and others drew on surfing for their style but there were no antecedents for the ramp based maneuvers that show up on today’s ESPN X Game highlights.  Individuals like Banksy do not emerge out of the artistic ether without drawing upon earlier inspiration. For observers like superslice, Banksy exhibits a love hate relationship with Andy Warhol.  One moment Bansky emulates Warhol’s sense of self and manipulation of media, while a second later, he is using his art to promote an anti-capitalist critique of the world. Warhol seemed to have fewer problems with capitalism, art and commerce or at the very least he never displayed the same kind of political discomfort that Banksy exudes.  Of course, while Banksy should be applauded for voicing reservations about capitalist hunger, it also remains a truism that as a recent Economist article pointed out, some of history’s greatest artistic epochs depended on rich patrons and nefarious moneylenders. “Great financial centres have often been great artistic centres – from Florence in the Renaissance to Amsterdam in the 17th to London and New York today,” the British magazine opined.  “where would New York’s SoHo be without Wall Street.”  (Economist, The Dangers of Demonology, January 7, 2012)   Would Banksy’s images mean as much had the West not witnessed over 20 years of neoliberal economic development often hollowing out public spaces for corporate logos and adverstisement? In this way, the old debate rages on regarding the balance between art and commerce.  How much was Cummings “wheatpaste” explosion about reshaping vacant D.C. buildings into a medium art and how much was just about Cummings?

Street Art 2012 

I was fearless /wanted all of it/high on pcp/I could do anything /we were rubberheaded /we got tranquilizers from a leather motorbag/Peace in Hermosa, Wings over Inglewood/I surfed the walls on angel dust/four finger baggies across those ruling hills /my reckless driving , I’m in your living room/I crashed my face and broke my tooth /exposed a nerve was spitting blood/chorus/check under the wood forgot his pills/he’s kind of in a riptide/try not to see/Peace in Hermosa, wings over Inglewood.

When Southern California hardcore OFF! put out their First Four EPs album in 2011, writers noted it sounded like music for the current age. “It's an economic shithole out there right now-- the same conditions that led to hardcore in the first place,” grumbled Paul Thompson. “This music is built for a climate of frustration and powerlessness, and its bare-knuckled punch-in-the-face is a long-needed wake-up call to nostalgic escapism.”  The album’s final song, “Peace in Hermosa,” both lyrically and sonically sounded like a night spent on uppers gone awry.  Clocking in at 1:32, Keith Morris’ vocals fade out in a slow dirge as the pills wear off and dark reality comes seeping back into the narrator’s life. 

Unlike hardcore’s heyday, the early 1980s where Ronald Reagan’s optimistic credo of “It’s morning in America” contrasted with the threat of nuclear annihilation, today Americans struggle through much worse economic times and live under the hazy unknown of terrorist attack.  OFF! doesn’t so much challenge the status quo as document it.  Punk rock and hardcore simply meant more in their original contexts: deindustrializing crisis ridden Britain and  falsely optimistic Reaganite America. The Dead Kennedy’s “Kill the Poor” sounds a lot funnier in this context.  One should not forget that punk and hardcore pushed back against a bloated music scene, filled with progressive virtuosity (King Crimson, Yes, Styx, REO Speedwagon) but devoid of passion. Process – or the lack thereof – meant everything.  Knowing how to play your instrument paled in comparison to the act of playing it.  On OFF!’s new album not a single song lasts more than 1:45 and like a Banksy piece it’s gone before you know what happened. It’s not hard to see the symmetry between bloated 1970s arena rock and a twee art world invested in ivory tower video installations of the 1990s.  Street artists embraced a more visceral take on creativity, one that like punk and hardcore, provided a big tent for anyone with the right instincts.

In many ways, street art represents a snarky update on the graffiti and hip-hop of 1980s, but it also demonstrates an ideological symmetry with punk and hardcore . Good street art both documents and challenges the staus quo, yet as with rap, the tag or print used operates as an alter ego.  As Hebdige noted at the outset, for both those who place such work on a pedestal and others who denigrate its existence, Banksy’s simpering apes and menacing rats and Fairey’s Andre the Giant mean something.  How’s it’s positioned, where it’s placed, the art itself, all matter.  Though the act of graffiti can certainly be considered political (tagging NYC public transit subway cars must say something right?), much of its direct message wasn’t.  If graffiti grew to international popularity, it did so through individuals applying their craft in specific locales.  Street art like Fairey’s Andre the Giant/OBEY image multiplied through a transnational network of like-minded people.  Though Fairey argues the message one draws from it remains idiosyncratic, the whole idea of placing it in these settings is to force people to reconsider their environment. Graffiti may have promoted this subconsciously but fewer artists wrote manifestos like Fairey’s 1991 take on Phenomenology (and no William Upski Wimsatt's Bomb the Suburbs probably doesn't count since half of it is about hitchhiking.)

The process by which street art comes into being shares more than a little in common with punk and hardcore: the strict DIY ethic.  Populating public spaces with guerilla art characterized by irony or sarcastic critiques of foreign policy, consumerism, race, and countless other political positions, heightens the very importance of its placement and the space it occupies. If English punks employed the language of crisis to mock the very authorities so worried about Britain and its youth, so too do street artists use the very marks of consumerism and coporatism as a means of critiquing those very systems.  Unsurprisingly, characteristic of such a diffuse movement, there exists a diversity of street art styles.  For example, aesthetically, the brutal Andre the Giant/OBEY images of Fairely send one message, while the tongue in cheek work of mysterious street art collective (well it could be an individual but the anonymity of the movement makes these distinctions tough) Trustocorp blend in colorfully with the wider environment.  In recent months, Charlene Weisler's urban montage blog, much like superslice, has documented "yarn bombings" across NYC. More organic and craft-oriented than Trustocorp, artists like Jessie Hemmons cover familiar objects in brightly colored "yarn bombs", perhaps most famously the Wall Street Bull.


"I am you demon cleaner"

I'd like your finest fake tabloid please

Delancy St. (Lower East Side)

Wall Street

While, Trustocorp’s work questions consumerism, race, and foreign policy cleverly, one could argue the context and clandestine process mean as much as the image.  The work draws attention for its placement as much as its aesthetics.  Many reviewers called Dr. Brainwash’s work derivative, but to uncultured viewers like myself, Guetta created some clever images.  Besides, couldn’t one argue that Fairey’s OBEY campaign was built on a derivative image reproduced and rearranged in public spaces countless numbers of times?  As noted by DePillis at the outset, the ubiquity and pervasiveness of the image might be just as important as the print itself.

Street Art + BK Adams + Steven Cummings = 

Was there ever any doubt?
My idea was to make BK be known and recognized. I really enjoyed BK’s art and the things he created, I just felt nobody knew who he was. The quickest way to get recognized is to be seen as someone who is hip or cool. In our conversation BK told me a story how he liked to sleep outside, that he had gathered some trees and he was going to build a bed where he could sleep outside. I went to his studio on Maple View Place to photograph him as he built this bed.

-- Text from Steven Cummings photography exhibit “Call and Response: Community and Creativity" at the Anacostia Community Museum

When people try to get to pure about it, hip leaves the building.

-- John Leland, Hip, 11

The 2012 photography exhibit “Call and Response: Community and Creativity” by Steven Cummings illustrates the influence that street art has had on more conventional artists but also demonstrates the ways in which it has become (and perhaps always was) as much a tool for self promotion.  Local photographer  Cummings spent the last couple years collaborating with D.C.’s “eccentric” BK Adams (or Art Man as he calls himself) whose work had been featured in 2010 at the Anacostia Community Museum.  Local media depicts Adams as an elusive eccentric working near the now hip H street corridor, an area that features run down store fronts next to fast food joints next to homeless shelters next to boutique “new American creative” restaurants.  Throughout Cumming’s retrospective, Adams appears like the lost member of TV on the Radio, nearly always maintaining perpetual motion, like an artistic inspector gadget (or as a 2010 Washington Post article described him “a walking matisse” who lived in a “Never Never Land of art” obsessed with making found objects “beautiful”).  

Who put this fucking chair here?

Adams drew attention in 2010 for his numerous public art works that apparently were independently installed.  In an attempt to “beautify the city,” Adams clandestinely planted pieces throughout the city, perhaps most famously, a blue chair atop a poll that led the local Hill Rag to ask “Who put up that mystery chair?”  However, in the vein of Banksy and others, Adams splashed photos of himself with the words “I AM ART” all over the city.  One Columbia Heights blogger complimented the prints but asked, “I’m not an art expert so I’m not sure who is depicted …”  Adams’s “self-portrait” prints bear more than a passing resemblance to Dr. Brainwash and others.

Dr. Brainwash

The collaboration between the two men appears to be mutually influential. Working and occasionally residing in, appropriately enough, a Victorian home perched on the hills of SE Washington D.C., one can see Cummings’ interest in working with Adams.  Adams’ backstory makes for an intriguing narrative. A former truck company owner turned public artist working in a home that overlooks the largely African American community of Anacostia.

Cummings’s collaboration with Adams reveals two artists playing with ideas about race, history, and identity (one could toss in street art here as well). Steven Cummings photos of himself, others, and Adams playfully ask questions about Black identity without stridency or even any direct racial implications. Cummings’s text provides a straightforward narrative that admits to wanting a larger audience and professes to be following in the footsteps of Andy Warhol and Basquiat.  If African American style and culture seemed trapped in doo rags and hardcore rap in the 1990s, Cummings suggests a myriad number of ways out of this sartorial corner in the 21st century.  Others have noted the shift in style among prominent Black Americans.  With Kanye’s Bipster fashion, Odd Future’s skatepunk aesthetic, and the “rise of the nerd-look” among NBA players from Kevin Durant’s press conference backpack to Lebron James’s hipster glasses, Black style seems far less limited and more diverse today than 20 years ago.  Granted, one could argue this has as much to do with who the media decided to highlight, but Allen Iverson – incredible talent that he was – was never going to rock a backpack to a press conference. Cummings’s photo of Adams, replacing Huey Newton in the iconic photo of the Black Panther leader only enhances this aspect of his work.   

Does it matter that the way in to Cummings’s work depended in part on street art origins that amounted to self promotion?   Sure Cummings remained silent about bombing the city with his "wheatpastes," but since they effectively served to advertise his work across the city- they stretch as far as Takoma Park near the D.C.-Maryland border - one can't discount this point. To their credit, Adams and Cummings appear completely aware of street arts' radiating meanings. One could even argue that Cummings and Adams purposely appropriate and gently mock the very street art discussed here. Obviously, street art’s credo can’t be summed up by one person, but whatever definition one ascribes to, Banksy and others clearly intended to engage their audiences politically.   Adams and Cummings do this, but also don’t hide their hope that others will see their work and be inspired.   

In the end, who even cares anymore how an artist gets our attention? Forest rockers like Grizzly Bear sell their songs to car manufactures and in the process expose themselves to thousands of new fans who never would have known about them.   Street art like skateboarding and punk  has probably crested as a underground political movement, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. OFF!’s new album reimagines hardcore in its most stripped down form, making something very old sound very new.  It won’t sell any copies and but it remains a stark take on 21st century existence and probably one of the greatest hardcore albums of the last 30 years.   Twenty years from now, someone will revisit street art’s early days, remapping it in old ways that seem new. In fact, maybe Steven Cummings, BK Adams, and others already have.

Ryan Reft