How chronicling street art works against a culture of commodification

In 2013, I witnessed a renaissance of street art and graffiti in New York. To preserve this ephemeral art, I initiated a photographic project, resulting in a book, Outdoor Gallery: New York published by Gingko Press. My book included photos of artworks and a unique and invaluable compilation of oral histories of 46 artists who saw themselves as part of a counterculture, a grassroots movement. In their interview, the artist duo Enzo and Nio declare: “The street is the common denominator, the bell curve and the barometer of everything. You go to the street when there is nowhere to go. You take to the streets to shout out to the world.

The author’s book

Outdoor Gallery: New York received wonderful reviews. Steven Heller from Atlantic wrote“Litvin is unwilling to cede art to self-interested upstarts. He created Outdoor gallery to keep his ideal of the medium alive.

And he was alive, until…

Last year, I asked Gingko Press for an inventory audit. I noticed that 746 copies were “pulped” in 2018, just five years into our 10-year contract, without my knowledge or consent. Since my book was not selling enough, Gingko had destroyed the remaining 746 copies in their warehouse, as they claimed they needed space. These 746 books that could have been donated to libraries, schools, community centers, involved artists or art lovers around the world were wiped out without warning.

Is Gingko Press legally allowed to do this? I reread our standard contract and remain skeptical. I believe I should have received the first right to redeem all unsold copies. Regardless, whether you call it “standard contract” or “book burning,” the result is the same: the destruction of valuable books and the commodification of deadly consumerist habits of waste and conspicuous consumption.

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Recently, the McMinn County School Board deleted Maus, the award-winning Holocaust graphic novel, from their 8th grade curriculum. The vote to exclude him is part of an ongoing right-wing assault on the arts as vehicles for education about past and present oppressive realities in the United States, including legal efforts ban books on Racism, slavery and white supremacy, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender content and women’s issues such as miscarriages, hysterectomies and labor pains.

Mural of Enzo and Nio on Wythe Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (2013)

Banning books is one of the signs of a society’s descent into full-scale fascism. However, the reactionary attack directed against Maus is a natural continuation, not an aberration, of an attitude reinforced by corporate capitalism, which reduces art to a commodity in the service of profitability and imposes the interests of ruling class above all. As the German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht remarked: “You can’t write poems about trees when the forest is full of policemen.

German critical theorist Theodor W. Adorno has highlighted art’s ability to raise awareness of the violent inequities that plague our lives in late capitalism in ways beyond written language. In his aesthetic theory Adorno wrote, “Art respects the masses, confronting them as what they might be, rather than conforming to them in their degraded state.

Recently, in Sydney, AustraliaAdorno’s notions were demonstrated with powerful artist voices contributing to the continued success of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement to oppose and end Israel’s apartheid criminality.

The achievements of the BDS movement are particularly impressive in the current climate of corporate greed and commodification. As stated in Max Horkheimer and Adorno”Dialectic of Enlightenmentwe live in a “cultural industry”. This cultural industry perfects the mechanisms of mass destruction of art that is not beholden to establishment narratives. In contrast, non-market art can appeal to those who lack the ability, time, resources, or interest to access auction houses or NFT companies. In the words of the Black Panther Party Minister of Culture Emory Davis:

My art is meant to connect to an audience, to the masses. It appeals to victims of oppression, with a focus on brothers and sisters in black communities, but not exclusively… Headlines, captions, illustrations and photos reflected the bulk of the endless articles and therefore called those who were not able or will read them.

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Graffiti began as a teen-led urban counterculture in Philadelphia and New York in the 1960s. Nowadays, graffiti and its cousin street art are increasingly commodified. What started on the street is now marketed in NFT.

Additionally, some companies seek to cultivate the art forms of graffiti as brand enhancement, in their quest to gentrify neighborhoods. Along with growing corporate control of public spaces and increasing police budgets, art as a counterculture and tool of resistance is continually under attack.

Street art by Alice Mizrachi, Free5 and Cope2 on Boone Avenue in the Bronx

Outdoor Gallery: New York, a project intended to document ephemeral graffiti and street art, has itself become ephemeral, carelessly demolished by Gingko Press, like HLMs soon to be replaced by hipster condos. Do property developers have the legal right to do this? May be. They definitely have a “standard contract” to cover themselves, not to mention police support, to gentrify your neighborhood and make you poor and homeless.

A victim of the “cultural industry” Outdoor gallery was reduced to a pulp. Yet this article now remains a sentinel of resistance, a phoenix rising from the ashes of the bottom line, recording the fleeting existence of my book and the important artists with their powerful words and artistry in its pages. In the words of artist Gaia: “The true street artist does not necessarily give the public what they want, but speaks truthfully and provocatively about the realities of our streets and our culture.”

Christopher S. Washington