Photography by John Lienhard
By John Lienhard
Today, it all began with graffiti.
Graffiti is not a nice word. It calls up nasty vandalism. But graffiti has now given birth to lovely wall murals. That reminds us of another disruptive activity: namely invention. The ancient Greeks saw invention as a kind of trickery. The idea that we use machinery to fool nature. Sure, any invention brings revenge effects along with it. But its fruits can be wonderful.
Invention and art are both built into our bones — part of who we are. And remember: radically new inventions don’t emerge from corporations, but from the garage. No big company gave us airplanes, automobiles, radios, computers, or ... hula hoops. Same with any new art form: Art begins with expressive rebellion. And, we’re back to graffiti:
People have spilled their anger out on walls since before Pompeii. But anger and protest alone can’t make art — any more than necessity alone can produce invention. Something more has to be there. Both rise from our deep desire to create beauty.
Wonderful things emerge when that aesthetic impulse takes over. So: back to graffiti: People — usually people living on the fringes — have begun with protest. But as they wield their cans of spray paint, they create increasing beauty. Protest might remain, but protest mutates into part of the solution. Street Art has become a new way to make a plain world, beautiful.
Photography by John Lienhard
Workplaces have become public art museums. Here in Houston, the walls of an XL Auto Parts store display astonishing murals. The walls of the St. Arnold Brewery warehouse offer lovely images. Serious art now lights up walls in scores of local workplaces.
And, as I open my eyes to this urban art, I realize we’re seeing its evolution in midstream. Look at graffiti on railway cars. People paint it furtively, and in haste. Only now and then does it reach a level we’d call beautiful.
Or look inside the gun turrets on Peaks Island: They once held huge 16-inch guns in the Portland, Maine, harbor during WWII. Artists have since gone to work in limited light and made art in those concrete caverns. But now ... vandals have scribbled over that art — come full circle and reclaimed the nasty original sense of the word graffiti.
Maybe that’s what it means to have made it in the art world: Maybe having your murals defaced with graffiti marks you as having arrived. And we’re back to invention: We create new media — radio, TV, Internet. Then others come along and use those media to spread hate and lies. We build, then we sully what we’ve made. Then we build again.
So urban murals, born in graffiti, now recognized as art, reach fine levels of both beauty and intensity. Go out and look at these uncelebrated open air museums in your city or mine. Wondrous and unexpected, they leave us moved by what we see.