Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Graffiti Cops as Barney Fife


As Barney Fife, the literal and simple-minded cop on The Andy Griffith Show so often said, "Nip it in the bud." In this case, it's been BPD detectives as Barney and they are coming in with a scythe to cut down dandelions.

They are spilling their coffee and sputtering epithets over pop artist Shepard Fairey. Their drama queen antics included arresting him on the way to a reception for his current show at Boston's ICA. Then they tried to manufacture another 30 or so charges of vandalism because some of his poster-style art appeared at various area locations. Despite a total lack of evidence that he had anything to do with it, they try to shift him from his self-declared street artist to a major threat to our way of life.

All you really need to see to understand our defenders of public order appears in his arrest affidavit on the first week of February.

Somebody please make them stop being so foolish.
Art Note: The accompanying art is a chunk from one of his posters visible on his site. I claim fair use to give a little sense of what he does.
Yeah, yeah, he disobeyed some civil regulations and laws. Yet he is by far one of the least frequent and harmful offenders. Politicians, local bands, lost-pet searchers, yard-sale holders and many more deface public and private property more often and to greater degrees than he. They are also very easy to trace, with the names, numbers or websites on the glued or taped postings and markings.

They just leave them and walk away, defacing lamp posts, street signs, fences, buildings and more. Yet, our noble detectives seem baffled at how to confront and arrest these serial vandals. Pity they haven't noticed the tens of thousands of cases or arrested any of them or even ordered them to retrieve and clean up their vandalism.

No, according to their affidavit, they went after the hard core, the true career criminal, that Fairey. According to our protectors:
  • He is a "known graffiti vandal"
  • At various arrests, he gave more than one variation on his name
  • Posting his art has led "victims and community activists " to call the police on him (victims?)
  • He "has become an idol to members of the gram subculture based on the popularity of his 'OBEY' tag and his constant defiance of placing the tag on others' property without there (sic) consent."
  • He has said he intends to keep his street art creation up
The cops are seeking prosecution under commonwealth law 266:126A. That carries a $1,500 or year in jail, although it is really designed for graveyard desecration and wanton destruction of property, not the dubious conceptual art.

Let's grant that Fairey is arrogant and wealthy. He admits having 14 arrests in various places. According to his taped interview shown at the ICA show, he considers that a cost of doing business. He wants to maintain his rebel facade. Hell, that sells posters and shirt and lockets and whatever.

He even uses his own melodramatic term for sudden art, bombing. As close as he gets to philosophical is discussing his arrests as, "It's just going to happen when you bomb as much as I've bombed." What a tough guy, eh?

Because of my leg injury, I had not seen his show. I lived in the Manhattan during the Andy Warhol era and worked at MOMA for a bit. I'm not all that hot on pop art like this, but I do know the difference between spray painting a subway or store window and putting a high-concept mural on a blank brick wall. Each may literally fit various graffiti laws, but one is possibly defensible and demands some professional prosecution, not Fife bluster.

We did the ICA today. Their wheelchairs are vastly more maneuverable than Brigham & Women's. Our cost center two was on a break from U Rochester and he wanted to see it. He had not been aware of the arrests and certainly not of the hyperventilating affidavit.

I carried my subtext and my questions into the exhibit silently, plus that baggage of indifference to pop art. Plainly the Boston cops have to play Barney Fife in making as extreme an example of Fairey as they can. They are fairly constipated in hearing him say in effect, "Come get me, coppers. I do graffiti!"

Literal cops don't do ambiguity


Beyond that, what's under the surface here? It didn't take long to see it. Moreover, one wall has a discussion of Fairey's art and meaning. It makes a high-minded allusion to phenomenology. "The process of letting things manifest themselves...they might be right before the eyes, obscured...taken for granted, muted by abstract observation."

In another room, a Fairey quote on the wall puts it more simply. "I use figures in my work who I feel are used and abused as symbols, but without telling the viewer how to feel about them."

That flatness and wishy-washy presentation is essential to Fairey. Much of his work has obvious no-war and help-the-helpless messages, but he's no towering activist leader. He gives some classes of profits to various charities, but he is a canny businessman artist. Moreover, his videos and interviews in the exhibit indicate that he's no driving intellect or philosopher.

He is a draftsman and craftsman. He's spectacularly good at what he does. He works like a coon hound on the hunt. He has a great time at it. He has a full family life with wife and two daughters. He is teen-immature in wanting to play the rebel with his street art.

We seem headed to a dénouement here in Boston. He appears guilty of a couple of illegal murals or posters. The cops' skirt-flapping pretense that he's a monster who must be stopped, stopped now and stopped for good won't help any prosecutions though. They'll be hard pressed to find a judge as simple-minded as they have been.

After analyzing multiple rooms of Fairey's work as well as hearing him on video, I see the real issue here is one I have returned to a few times on this blog. The cops are trying to be Barney Fife literal; in fact, they seem to be incapable of doing otherwise. Fairey on the other hand has a high tolerance for ambiguity, which is what he asks of his patrons, the public and likely in this case, a municipal judge. The too, too literal cops don't do ambiguity, sorry.

It's likely that a city judge won't buy into the art for its own sake defense any more than the screaming fantasy that Fairey is a menace to the vulnerable residents here.

It seems like the top police guys would have cut down the volume on this case, if they couldn't find a brighter officer to handle it. They didn't and it's Mooninites all over again.

It's embarrassing to be in a fairly large city with hick cops. We've been at policing longer than any other U.S. city. We haven't gotten it right yet. Surely we have officers who can handle abstracts, don't we?

This is headed for Fairey getting a fine and maybe probation. The trumped up charges with no evidence will go away. Again, our cops play Barney Fife. That's what they should have nipped in the bud.

Fine the clown, come to terms that gets him to take his act elsewhere, and get him to pay for cleanup. Then go solve some crime that will keep me safe.

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