When Art Comes to Life

This weekend in LA, I went to see Art in the Streets — the exhibit on graffiti and street art at the Museum of Contemporary Art — a brilliant meditation and documentation of graffiti as an art form from the 1960s to the present in the US and around the world and whether or not, as the LA Times , “this erstwhile outlaw culture can or should be folded into the grand narrative of art history.”

I will leave the resolution of that debate to the thinkers and critics in art history and to those on this blog and beyond who consider and define admission into the cannon. I will only offer that the power and dynamism of this exhibit revealed an expression of marginalized and yet empowered voices that is not to be missed. As an organizer and cultural strategist, it brought home to me the importance of visual street art in contemporary conversations about politics. If organizing politics in urban communities is most effective in a barbershop, then graffiti and street art is the visual manifestation of meeting people and talking to them where they are.

An interesting sidebar for me – Fab 5 Freddy, the legendary graffiti artist was one of the curators and consultants on this exhibition and is a very dear friend of mine. It was at his house in the late ’90s that I first began to think seriously about organizing the Hip Hop community around politics and social issues. He was the first person to debate with me whether the Hip Hop Generation could be the next NRA.

One element of controversy surrounded the opening of the show. Famed Italian graffiti artist Blu was commissioned to paint the outside of MOCA for the Art in the Streets exhibit. He chose to do a mural featuring coffins draped in dollar bills – a damning critique of US involvement in war. The director of MOCA, Jeffrey Dietch elected to whitewash the controversial mural prior to opening. A bit ironic given street art is at the same time both exalted and censored in this exhibit.

This video by Blu entitled Big Bang Big Boom came to me from my husband, Rob Johnson, who fell in love with it and set it to John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things.” He showed it to 400 financiers and economists at an Institute for New Economic Thinking conference in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, in April. It was received with vigorous applause and cheers. That’s proof that even the most dismal scientists among us can be inspired by such dynamic art.