Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Groovy and Graffiti

The nearest I’ve ever been to a spray paint canister was kneeling in the basement beside my brother’s disassembled motorcycle to spray my notebook for school. I needed a certain color and I had no cash. Yes, we had spray cans back in the sixties but I can’t recall any graffiti “art,” let alone anything "classic"; all I can remember is words like “Q. E. grad 19xx” or the phrase “Vietnam is pigs” that met commuters taking the Georgia viaduct into downtown.

Sure, I knew the groovy 1960’s. Recently a fellow commenter on a blog (Roger Ebert’s) replied to me to defend graffiti. He said not all graffiti is vandalism, some is art. He said you don’t need formal training, just creativity, and furthermore, creativity for art in general (not just graffiti) would be squashed by training. I replied he might be right, but he had missed my key term: “man-hours…” What I didn’t tell him was I remembered similar attitudes from back in the 1960’s. Instead I merely wrote grand things about hours of devotion to excellence, hoping to catch his spirit that way. Some day I’ll do an essay about art; today I wish to remember the youth of the 60’s.

To me the 60’s were captured by a scene in a comic book where comedian Jerry Lewis is responsible for some kids. (None of his kids will have long hair!) He looks in on them in a garage, to make sure they are being productive with schoolwork. All is well, he thinks, as one of them is reciting to the others: “Yea, didst the sword of Damocles hang above his head, suspended by a hair.” Jerry doesn’t look up; he doesn’t notice the suspended electric guitars and wigs… The kids shared a widespread belief of those days that anyone could have a good band, if they ramped up the volume and had long hair. And likewise, if you were merely creative enough then you could be a good artist at anything.

We had slogans like Question Authority and Power to the People, along with meetings in mass circle, with everyone being equal. (like the free school in the movie Billy Jack) It was as if along with our spoken aloud feeling that hierarchy was wrong for groups, there was also a silent feeling that hierarchy was wrong for art. For example: Instead of a hierarchy of a few master filmmakers like Hitchcock and Kubrick, along with many journeymen and beginners, everyone would be equal. No youth would see themselves as being only an apprentice. A documentary made at the time, by the National Film Board, shows young filmmakers running through the grass and filming car taillights in slow motion to create red streaks. In the 60’s there was a lot of experimenting, streaks and so forth, justified by the label “new!” but surely the experiments were semi-consciously to avoid hierarchy, avoid comparisons.

Whether we wielded a camera or a paintbrush or a spray can, we of the 60's were the same youths who grimaced when our teacher told us that Hemmingway could break the rules of grammar because first he had learned the rules. And we responded to our grammar lesson like kids: “Aww, do we have to?” Youth was ever thus. Three thousand years ago the complaining pharaoh’s son, struggling with geometry, asked his tutor for an easier path, a special royal short cut. The tutor replied, “There is no royal road to geometry.”

But we all sought short cuts, wanting to be spared the long and narrow road. For my part, a sane part of me knew I was wrong one day as I told a guy my own age about my philosophy for martial arts sword fighting: “You should be real creative, improvising from moment to moment what you will do.” And he replied: “Yah, but you only get that creative freedom by long tedious repetition of certain moves.” And I grimaced and knew he was right, and shamefully filed the moment away under “lessons learned.” Since then I’ve learned to be suspicious of anything that appeals to my laziness… or to my superiority towards another race, religion or creed (Don’t trust the older generation!) or to my self-indulgence in strong emotions like hatred. (Make the rich pay!)

If learning fencing takes a long time, so does boxing. I read once that a boxer’s manager is careful to match him with successively harder opponents, but only with people close to his own ability, lest he have all his self-confidence clobbered out of him. I suppose it’s a question of balance: seeing the world-class boxers on TV but focusing on your own ring craft. Or knowing, say, what the master poets are doing but still being joyfully tempted to recite one’s own poems, uninvited, in public. (Incidentally: either ask for an invitation, or do without.) It’s like not being scared of one’s towering epic novel, pushing aside writer’s block to instead write just one page at a time.

For how one’s art can be not hierarchical but territorial see the life changing (for me) work The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.

In my youth the year 2001 seemed so far away; now it has come and gone, but I still remember. I think we all have moments of youthful insanity. The 60's was a time when youth encouraged each other to sustain and draw out such moments for a few years. Call it mass insanity. I was there but—As a Kubrick character would say, “Dave, I’m feeling better now.”

Sean Crawford
While the snow flies
January 2012
Surely the demographic for graffiti so-called "artists" is like the demographic for the humour magazine Cracked where this scathing article appeared, "Six harsh truths that will make you a better person."

~The Frisbee was a 60's way to avoid hierarchy in sports. No one grimaced as they fumbled, no derisions, for it was a new relaxed “sport” you didn’t have to be “good at.”

~The 60's was when Zen Buddhism caught on. “Words build your world,” a Buddhist told me. They say the president has never uttered the words “war on terror.” In his world it’s no wonder he genuinely thought an attack that killed four Americans, smack dab on the anniversary of 9/11, was merely a protest that got out of hand.

~I guess the “older generation” in Arabia is still up to their tricks against youth. I can’t think of a single old bomb maker or old clergyman being a suicide bomber. The oldsters continue to encourage insanity. (Like the Stacy Keach character in American History X) And if the youth madness, this time around, is being sustained for more than just a few years, then it is partly because the clergy are embedded in a public that either believes in violence… or believes in silence. …Perhaps change will start over here with baby boomers, with the same Arab Americans who spoke up in the 60's to educate the South Africans about apartheid. I can envision the T-shirts, in Arabic and English: Silence equals death.

~While I really like my epilogue, the artist in me wishes I could have stopped my essay, nice and tidy, with just my name, without footnotes... But every artist is also a citizen, and war is never nice and tidy.

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