(Note: Google has maliciously reanimated a long-dead email address and password to lock me out of Blogger – another example of our “nonexistent” Internet censorship. Hence, unless I can figure out how to resolve the problem, I will no longer be able to post there. Hence too my most profound apologies to my overseas readers who for whatever reason have difficulty accessing TypePad.)
EVER SINCE CHILDHOOD a few of my detractors have claimed I don't look sufficiently “American,” though what this has to do with photography will be clear in a moment. After my parents moved from New York City to Jacksonville, Florida midway through my third year, I was repeatedly jeered (and once almost killed) by so-called “playmates” merely because I “talked funny” – whatever wartime cover I might have had immediately blown by my native accent, an obviously Northeastern combination of my father's Back Bay Bostonian and my mother's Michigander college-speak, the resultant linguistic hybrid slightly modified by my own happy hours in my father's Manhattan office and on Queens playgrounds and the beaches of Far Rockaway. With most white southerners still infinitely bitter after their defeat in 1865, I was therefore the enemy from my first day in the former Confederacy. But until a couple of my fellow students in a private Roanoke, Virginia kindergarten c. 1945 convinced themselves I was a “half-breed,” part Indian, “or maybe a secret Jap,” I had remained blissfully unaware my physical appearance also made me a target. Though I was not so harassed either at East Grand Rapids Elementary School nor at parochial Holy Ghost School in Knoxville, the unpleasantness resumed with a vengeance at both Knox County, Tennessee public high schools I attended, where some students (and maybe even a few teachers) claimed I “looked like a Commie,” sometimes “a four-eyed Commie queer,” and one student in particular was sure my father with his bald head and military bearing “looked just like a Russian officer...or maybe a Commie spy.” When during my senior year at Holston I was required to wear a fake Red Army uniform in some long-forgotten sociology class presentation, I leapt at the opportunity, imagining it a lifetime chance to give my detractors a defiant finger, but it predictably backfired; the nickname I had already acquired via my efforts in journalism – “Scoop” (what else?) – was afterward sometimes replaced by “Comrade” – though depending on the speaker, occasionally with more respect than derision. The 1956-57 schoolyear previous, this at South High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I had discovered I was far more attractive to women of diverse ethnicities – particularly Eastern European – than to the determinedly WASPish Barbie-doll/prom-queen types, a condition that seems to prevail even unto old age, in large measure no doubt because so many Eastern Europeans are so much more instinctively comfortable with intellectuals and intellectuality. Hence after I survived the uniquely devastating psychological and sometimes physical horrors of being an unpopular teen subject to the vicious zero-tolerance conformity of the South, I generally found the entire matter vaguely amusing. And as I discovered during the 1960s in the ethnic melting pot of the Northeast, that sort of mistaken identity distinctly broadened my sex appeal. When a dear friend remarked that a 1973 license photo “looks like it belongs on a KGB identity card,” I snickered. When the young white woman who cut my hair in Manhattan c. 1983-1984 guessed I was “part something Asian: maybe half Korean or Japanese,” I laughed aloud. And when an African-American friend recently said that to her I look “distinctly Mongolian,” I merely smiled and nodded: by then, familial genetic research had already traced Blissian ancestry beyond Britain to the People of the Steppe.
Such ethnic non-specificity undoubtedly enhanced my ability to do the street photography I did nearly anywhere in the City, just as I cannot doubt it has now – given the increasing post 9/11 neo-Nazification of the U.S. population – made it difficult if not impossible (and unquestionably dangerous) for me (or anyone else who does not look perfectly Ken-and-Barbie “American”) to safely photograph in any public place anywhere in the United States. Witness again the hysterical woman's behavior last week in Wright Park. Meanwhile authorities nationwide are waging such a relentless war against photographers – even against those of us with credentials the police themselves have issued – it is increasingly obvious a clandestine directive to commit these atrocities has come from on high. Cops follow orders; isolated incidents of police brutality are therefore typically nothing more than individual acts of bad-cop disobedience and are most often punished accordingly. But the nationwide epidemic of assaults on the working press as reported by the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), and the website Photography Is Not a Crime (linked above), suggests a carefully orchestrated, relentlessly aggressive campaign against the public right to monitor (ever more oppressive) local, state and federal government. Indeed a preponderance of closely related parallel actions by the Obama Regime – its malicious surveillance of journalists, its persecution of peace activists as terrorists and whistle-blowers as spies, its failed attempt to use the Internal Revenue Service to persecute Right Wing dissidents – indicate an intense, carefully coordinated effort to nullify the First Amendment that has no precedent in U.S. history. Meanwhile the public either remains sullenly indifferent or – like the provocateur in Wright Park and those compulsively faithful Democrats who regard the president as a secular saint above any wrongdoing no matter how much wrong he actually does – is openly supportive of the ongoing curtailment of our liberty. As I have said many times on various Internet comment threads, the great irony is how the rabid Right's formerly odious characterization of Obama as a new Hitler is coming true. What I have not before pointed out is the even greater irony it is the self-proclaimed “change-we-can-believe-in” pseudo-Left that is facilitating the transformation. Thus the anti-photographer malice I encountered last week in Wright Park metastasizes directly from the malevolence of the One Party of Two Names that has ruled us not just since the Reichstag Fire of 9/11 but the murder of the American Experiment in Constitutional Governance that occurred on 22/11/1963. I see now I was rather lucky; just as James Baldwin said, Manhattan truly was Another Country.
The half-century I've spent photographing graffiti that ranges from artfully positioned bullet holes in road signs (East Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina) to political slogans and street art (New York City, New Jersey, Washington state) provides a teachable sequence in our national rejection of political consciousness, a trend that – not coincidentally I suspect – accompanies our national embrace of anti-intellectuality. Though the examples of graffiti featured in the attached portfolio (see the left-hand column) are the few survivors of the 1983 fire, these remnants are nevertheless sufficient to give a sense of long-term conceptual drift: whether within the rural framework of defiant bullet holes or its urban equivalent of rebellious splashes of color, a steady transformation from the metaphorical shouting of slogans to the absolutely non-metaphorical silence of ambiguity. The slogans – even the ones I despised (like the “kill niggers” scrawled in black crayon on a Knoxville restroom wall in 1963) – were linear progressions. The best of these – cynical protest (“George Metesky is alive and well in the White House”); epiphany (“King Kong Died for Our Sins”); anti-homophobic slap (“My mother made me a faggot, if you get her the sticks she'll make you one too”) – were proverbs or even koan. But by the 1980s, such graffiti was a vanishing genre; its last examples – “Kill a Developer save a Tree” (Bellingham, 1990) and “Kill Capitalists” (Tacoma, 2011) – were merely Leftist variants of the Rightist rage I had seen expressed in Jim Crow Tennessee. Meanwhile, as the methodical downsizing of public literacy shrank the United States to Moron Nation, thereby sending anti-intellectuality and its associated ills of ignorance, xenophobia and bigotry soaring to Third Reich highs, non-verbal (or at least verbally ambiguous) symbolism has become by far the dominant graffiti form. It is a transformation that further substantiates Henry Giroux's disclosures of capitalism's self-protective effort to reduce the USian 99 Percent to the lowest possible mental denominator. As I said in the left-hand column piece, graffiti is “a semiotic indicator without peer.”
Remembering from Occupy Tacoma the breathtaking fury of newly homeless youth – formerly middle-class teens hurled onto the streets when the sneering Ayn Rand aristocrats abolished parental jobs, then imposed foreclosure and eviction – I first took such graffiti merely as inarticulate exclamations of rage and defiance. Thus when I began this piece it was prompted by the post-American-Dream, post-American-Experiment sense of despair that has become my default emotional state, and I intended to cite the above image as nothing more than a poignant example of the illiteracy that – despite both taggers' obvious (and obviously doomed) artistic acumen – now guarantees our subjugation precisely because of its implicit inability to express explicit grievances. But on second thought (or rather second viewing), my growing awareness of the visual geometry it shares with so much of the newer graffiti – the dynamic that makes the above “fuck-you-I'm-still-here” signature (or whatever else it may be) and the comment beneath it work as a design that declares its independence from the constraints of rhetoric and the linearity of language itself – this suggests a dawning new aesthetic consciousness the light of which shines deeply even into (or perhaps, paradoxically, originates directly from) the darkness of impoverishment, subjugation and hopelessness that is now the definitive characteristic of the USian 99 Percent. Does it portend a new awakening? Can a functional politics of resistance arise from the aesthetics of defeat and disempowerment? Am I merely a crazy old man indulging in wishful thinking by imagining a metaphysical similarity between certain happenstantial works of street art and the disciplined output of, say, a Mark Rothko or a Clyfford Still? Quoth the former: “without monsters and gods, art cannot enact a drama.” Or as Robert Graves put it, “there is one story and one story only.”
LB/16 May 2013.