It is as though Coca-Cola, as it spread across the globe, turned out to be a great nutritional drink."
—Blake Gopnik, Foreign Policy
The collapse of American graffiti, says Blake Gopnik in Foreign Policy, came when in New York in the early 1980s it was designated art.
The road from countercultural to mainstream is always pockmarked with ironic hypocrisies, but the high art brand and consumption of dissenting disempowerment must be one of the richest. And like many American past-times, it is a medium which is being reinvented and reinvigorated as it travels the face of the globe.
The Arab Spring was spray painted with cans, as have taunts and calls for freedom in Haiti, Syria, and elsewhere. Its art certainly lacks the studied perfection of American work, but its ends are also more deliberately political. "Free doom—Get out of Hamad" reads one in Bahrain, or "Freedom=Aljazeera" in Libya. AK-47s are traced upon barriers in cities that know well their sight, sound, and smell.
Graffiti has been political art since long before America. Etchings in caves and public paintings have long been part of a tradition of public memory and dissent. It was America that made it art and America, it seems, that lost its artful politics in evacuating its substance in favour of a branded form. In a system of celebrated graffiti, where every person is his or her own rebel, nothing is more tired than this atomizing falsity of consciousness. Artistry congeals at the feet of its broken carcass when its political message is bled.
In today's Haiti, Egypt, and Libya graffiti is taking on a form of artfulness and substance lost in the markets of America—a message of revolution and revival, of long waiting and long suffering. Writes Blake Gopnik, "We have to look at societies that are truly in crisis to be reminded that images—even images we have sometimes called art—can be used for much more than game-playing."
Of course, even in the commoditized West, art—and graffiti—is still more than a game. It is in no person's power to call a form art, then empty and commodify it. Sins of scale take community and culture, and no artistic literati or clever marketer is solely to blame. Maybe America lost graffiti when it lost its tradition of dissent and protest, when culture grew soft and compliant, and the demand of politics became those of prudential managers, stewarding a standard of living instead of practicing public justice.
Atrophied American protest may be stretching its legs in the Occupy movement, but its message and meaning—and its art—have a long way to go to shake off the debt-addicted consumer hangover of the post-Cold War. Seduced into mediocrity and silence, global crisis might be what wakes the artistry of graffiti—and of protest—again in the developed world. And if societies in crisis make graffiti with meaning, it may not be long before the globalization of graffiti comes back home from abroad.