Friday, March 4, 2016

Book of the Day: Norman Mailer's classic essay on a new American art form

mailer graffiti.jpg

Kurlansky, Mervyn, and Naar, Jon, The Faith of Graffiti (Alskog Books/Praeger Publishers, 1st ed., 1st printing, 1974). ISBN 0-275-71610-0. Paperback, folio sized collection of photos of New York’s early 1970s graffiti explosion. Novelist Norman Mailer explains The Meaning of It All in a sixteen-page essay mid-book, first published in Esquire in 1974. Good condition, unpaginated. Rare pop culture record.

A 2014 New York museum show recalled graffiti’s journey from public nuisance to art form:


‘The centerpiece of “The Faith in Graffiti” is a meandering essay by Norman Mailer. Assuming the identity of “A-1,” Mailer the journalist went into the ghetto to get down with artists like JUNIOR 161, who told him: “You want to get your name in a place where people don’t know how you could do it, how you could get up there.” Mailer the art historian compared CAY 161 and TAKI 183 to Giotto and Michelangelo, to de Kooning and Rauschenberg. He portrayed graffiti artists as part noble savages, part urban gardeners who made rain forests of lettering grow over the monotonous iron-gray brick, concrete and asphalt prisons they were forced to inhabit.

‘Mailer the celebrity chronicled his visit to otherwise-liberal Mayor John Lindsay (whose job he coveted) and tried to get him to reveal why he allowed so much ugly architecture that deserved to be painted over to proliferate during his tenure and why he called the graffiti writers “insecure cowards.” Before he showed Mailer the door, Lindsay explained how much money and effort the city spent on clean, new, air-conditioned subway cars, only to see them defaced.

‘A whole industry grew up around fencing train yards and other potential sites, developing graffiti-proof silicon coatings, criminalizing the purchase of spray paint, and arresting the artists and making them scrub off each others’ work. At the same time, the work of artists including Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, was discovered by the media and art magazines, coveted by private collectors, and featured in museum and gallery exhibitions.

‘Flash-forward 40 years. “City as Canvas: Graffiti Art from the Martin Wong Collection,” opened at the Museum of the City of New York on February 4, 2014. In the three weeks since then—even with New York’s worst winter weather in recent history making transportation difficult—thousands of of visitors have come to see (and be photographed with) 150 works of 1970s and ’80s graffiti art, including sketchbooks and mixed-media works on canvas, cardboard, paper and plywood.

‘According to Sean Corcoran, the museum’s curator of prints and photographs, the exhibit is so popular because “people can identity and relate. They feel a bit of ownership. Especially people who grew up with ’80s music, fashion and films like Style Wars.”’

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