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Public by Definition

“Art is always public by definition because it is an act of communication….”

-Lunarnewyear, street artist

I’ve worked in libraries for almost thirty years. In that time, thousands of books have passed through my hands. In addition, I’ve read a fair number of them. I’ve seen books in every condition: tattered and torn, old and new, soft cover and hard back, gold-edged and leather bound. In such a job, certain books demand one’s attention. Maybe it is a book that is exceptionally heavy, maybe it has a clever title, or maybe it is just so strikingly attractive, even the most jaded library worker has to at least take a peek. Yoav Litvin’s recently published book Outdoor Gallery is one such book. Essentially a look at various graffiti and street artists in New York City, Litvin’s book is much, much more.

Like any art book worth reading, the formatting of Outdoor Gallery is vital to its success as a book. In other words, the formatting of the artworks and text in the book is crucial to its appeal and allure. This means that the text must enhance the photographed works of art while simultaneously providing a context useful to the reader. Outdoor Gallery does all this and more. Indeed, it is a work of art in and of itself. The glossy paper allows the art to leap from the book’s pages, bringing the spray-painted works into the very cerebrum of the reader.http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1584235535/counterpunchmaga

The art works covered in Outdoor Gallery range from the overtly political to celebrations of popular culture; from Lillian Lorraine’s art inspired by the movie pinups of the mid-twentieth century to Toofly’s inviting and flamboyant portraits of modern city women; from Jilly Ballistic’s text heavy social commentary pasted in subways to Army of One’s “Give Peace a Chance” scrawls. The message inside these pages is that graffiti is the truest expression of the freedom and experimentalism intrinsic to art being expressed today. No pressure from the moneychangers, no crap from the academy. Just exquisite art and the freest expression. The only boundaries are the size of the wall, the column in the subway station, the dimensions of the mailbox or trash can and the police.

I ride the Amtrak train from Burlington, Vermont to BWI Airport a few times a year. One of my favorite sections of the twelve hour trip (besides the wooded mountains of Vermont and western Massachusetts) are the miles of track from Springfield, MA. to a little south of Trenton, NJ. The train travels through primarily industrial areas of the megalopolis in this part of the trip, exposing walls, elevated train tracks, and water towers covered in graffiti. Some of it is nothing more than amateur tags marking turf or celebrating someone’s ego while some of it is absolutely incredible art which, in today’s capitalist art business would attract interest in the hundreds of thousands of dollars if it resided in a Soho gallery. Fortunately, it doesn’t. For those who don’t ride this track or live in the city, Yoav Litvin and his publisher have done a huge favor by creating this book and putting it out there.

Besides the impact and sheer beauty of the art on these pages, there is an accompanying text. Primarily commentary from some of the artists given in response to a set of prompts composed by Litvin, the words reveal a group of artists who are quite conscious of their reasons for painting on the public spaces of the city. The differences between illegal and legal street art are discussed by many of the artists, as is the history of each form. The role of gentrification and the defunding of public agencies supporting art are also mentioned. Some of the artists featured in Outdoor Gallery are obviously quite political while others reside in a more subdued space. Given that it is art, the politics are of a cultural sort. The artists discuss their opinion of the future of their art, their feelings about New York City, their personal history and philosophy, and their artistic process.

Art has always been an ultimately human endeavor. From the cave painters of prehistoric times to the girl or guy tagging or wheatpasting as I write, it is a fundamental expression of who we are as a species. Attempts to corral its power for the ruling elites–whether that elite is the church, the government or the corporation–have created some worthy works of art, yet art’s true power remains in the public domain. It is that art spray-painted, wheat-pasted, stenciled and drawn in and on our public spaces which reaches the widest audience. There is no museum fee, no gallery cover or pressure to purchase; there isn’t even an internet or cable fee. It is truly for the public and always will be as long as there are artists looking for such a canvas. Yoav Litwin’s marvelously conceived book is testament to this and the artists included therein.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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