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Graffiti won’t be coming to the Brooklyn Museum after all. June 23, 2011

The Brooklyn Museum has canceled its participation in Art in the Streets, a recklessly irresponsible exhibition glorifying graffiti that was scheduled to open in Brooklyn next year. Director Arnold Lehman says that the cost of mounting the show, which was organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in downtown Los Angeles, was too great in the “current financial climate.” It’s difficult to believe that the cost of mounting a graffiti exhibit is any higher than the cost, say, of insuring the sublime John Singer Sargent watercolors that the Brooklyn Museum will be exhibiting in 2013 in conjunction with Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Let’s hope, rather, that the Brooklyn Museum canceled the graffiti show because its trustees wisely spotted a public-relations disaster—if not a betrayal of their civic obligations—in the making.

Following an editorial in the New York Daily News criticizing the show, City Council member Peter F. Vallone, Jr. wrote to Lehman, warning him that taxpayer money shouldn’t be used to encourage the destruction of public property. Had the museum proceeded with this self-indulgent wallow in anti-bourgeois values, its standing as a responsible institution deserving taxpayer support would have suffered incalculable damage. New Yorkers who lived through the epidemic of subway vandalism in the 1970s and 1980s understand graffiti’s poisonous effect on urban life. That epidemic, which overran Central Park and other precious public and private spaces as well, led many residents to flee the city and convinced the rest of the country that New York was ungovernable. Yet Art in the Streets actually celebrates the assault on the New York subway system, indifferent both to graffiti’s illegality and to its corrosive effect on civic vitality.

When gallery owner Jeffrey Deitch decamped from New York to Los Angeles in 2010 to become MOCA’s director, New Yorkers could have been forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief. At his SoHo gallery, Deitch Projects, Deitch had already inflicted his obsession with graffiti on the city by glamorizing a circle of graffiti vandals, each more adolescent and narcissistic than the last. Art in the Streets features several of those vandals, who have mounted an installation in which animatronic dummies endlessly spray graffiti on unprotected walls. But Deitch’s regrettable influence in the city lives on: he is threatening to bring the show to New York by hook or by crook, according to the New York Times—“if not in a museum, we’ll just do it on our own,” he says. He is reportedly in talks with an unnamed organization about supporting the exhibition.

Any New York institution that participates in this travesty should be roundly denounced. Art in the Streets is a classic exercise of the elites’ juvenile dalliance with countercultural norms that they have no intention of adopting in their own protected lives. MOCA has never tolerated graffiti on its own premises; none of its wealthy Hollywood and real-estate-mogul trustees would ever allow tagging on their homes or businesses, either. So opposed is MOCA to unauthorized graffiti on its walls that it stationed additional security guards around its premises before the show opened, to guard against the inevitable upsurge in graffiti that the show would (and did) trigger. Yet there is no sign that Deitch or his trustees grasp the contradiction. Indeed, in a breathtaking display of stunted moral development, Art in the Streets never even addresses the seminal fact that behind every act of graffiti is an invisible property owner whose rights have been appropriated against his will.

Whatever its reasons, the Brooklyn Museum is to be congratulated for withdrawing from this exercise in hypocrisy—and for its upcoming Sargent show, precisely the display of supreme artistic accomplishment that the museum was created to provide.

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