Thursday, May 1, 2008

Redefining Art

“You are Just, if there is a Just, trying to be an artist. You are Just trying to show the beautiful soul of your people.”- Nikki Giovanni

A few days ago I was riding back from DC to College Park on the metro. As the train was pulling into the Fort Totten Station, I noticed a cement wall covered in graffiti outside my window. Placed in a very prominent position in huge burgundy and gold letters was the name Sean Taylor and the number twenty-one. Surrounding it were various other tags and phrases such as “Go Hilary”. Until then I had never given much thought to graffiti. In school we were always told that graffiti was vandalism and wholly dishonorable. I never really stopped to think that graffiti could be a tool for self expression, a way to honor a local hero, or a voice on political viewpoint.

As I continued to contemplate, I was reminded of an exhibit I had recently seen at the National Portrait Gallery titled Recognize: Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture. As its title suggests, this exhibit is a display of portraits of prominent individuals in popular music and sports: LL Cool J, Ice T, and Big Daddy Kane to name a few. The exhibit obviously focused on the portraits of these figures, mostly paintings by the artist Kehinde Wiley. Unlike most monotonous portraits painted against plain backgrounds, these were puns on famous historical portraits and images of legendary figures. For example, one painting placed three pop-culture celebrities together under the title Three Graces. In another titled Ice T Channels Napoleon, Ice T adopts the regal pose of the Napoleon. To me, however, one of the most interesting things was the gallery hallway in which the walls were covered with graffiti designed especially for this show. It was this memory which encouraged me to think about the graffiti outside the Fort Totten Station.

In the music world, some types of music are much more highly regarded than others. Some people may not even think of rap or hip hop as music. The same is true in the art world in which some works are thought of as high art and others as low. Graffiti, if it is art (and I do think it is,) is certainly on the low side. The National Portrait Gallery, however, challenges these ideas by bringing pop culture icons and graffiti into the high art realm known as the museum. Portraits such as Ice T Channels Napoleon suggest that a rap star is just as worthy of lasting recognition as Napoleon. Similarly, the graffiti panels in the hallway suggest that graffiti can be as aesthetically pleasing and thought provoking as other highly praised art forms.

Museums definitely play a role in shaping the way the public views art. At times, a museum can even alter a viewer’s perception of culture. In this particular exhibit, The National Portrait Gallery shows the significance of popular culture and questions the current understanding of art. If the goal of this exhibit is to make people think about graffiti and its role in modern culture, then it certainly succeeds. I myself am proof of this. But does simply placing something in a museum make it art? Should museums have the sole authority to label something as art? If graffiti in the National Portrait Gallery is art, then the name Sean Taylor on a cement wall is also art. Right? So who decides?

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