The Search for True Selflessness in Art Making
Since then, I've come to believe art is more about communication than anything as self-contained as a perfectly selfless expression. I've also realized just how expensive it is to make, and why selling it is not only OK, but actually beneficial to a range of people, including, of course, the artist. Still, there's a part of me that admires the faith of the true believers still striving for that ideal that I championed in my youth. True believers like Poster Boy, whose subway poster collages (we see them mostly at the E/C stop at 23rd Street) range from hysterical to truly inspired at times. New York Magazine's Brian Raftery has more:
It’s a Thursday evening at the 23rd Street C/E station, and Nicolas Cage is undergoing an involuntarily face-lift. As commuters wait for their train, the subway-art manipulator known as Poster Boy stands in front of an ad for Cage’s Bangkok Dangerous, razor in hand, and traces a circle around the actor’s eyes, nose, and mouth. Cage’s face peels away as easily as a trading-card sticker, and Poster Boy carries it down the platform, where he’s been hacking away at a hot-pink poster promoting MTV’s high-school musical The American Mall. He’s been rearranging swatches of color, text, and body parts to alter the movie’s title (now The American Fall) and tagline (“Love and Dreams for Resale”). Poster Boy slices out the Mall moppet’s head, replacing it with Cage’s appropriately stunned expression. The entire process takes less than ten minutes.I was delighted to learn a bit more about the vandal who makes our commute home so entertaining, but I was reminded of an interview with another street artist when I read Poster Boy's thoughts on purity in art making:
Since January, the 25-year-old has manipulated about 200 underground posters, turning MTA stations into his own public galleries. His pieces are conceived on the spot, and while most subway-poster vandals limit themselves to all-caps obscenities, Poster Boy’s improvised mash-ups recall both the cut-and-paste aesthetic of old punk-show fliers and the fake ads that appeared in circa-seventies Mad magazine: In his hands, AT&T skyscrapers are turned into flaming World Trade Center towers and Heath Ledger becomes a ghostly anti-drug pitchman. Most of his work disappears quickly—MTA employees have even ripped down his work before he’s finished—but you can see it on his sporadically updated Flickr account.
Poster Boy—who, for obvious reasons, wishes to remain anonymous (vandalism is, after all, a crime)—has intentions that are surprisingly high-minded. The die-hard Fight Club fan hopes to start a decentralized art movement, one where anyone can claim to be Poster Boy. “No copyright, no authorship,” he says. “A social thing, as opposed to being an artist making things for bored rich people to hang above their couch.” That such a crusade might encourage vandalism doesn’t bother him. “Where I’m from, if you go by the book, it’s a very slow process to get what you want,” he says.On first read that seems very laudable. Seriously, the medium is true to the ideal. Not only do other people come along and tag Poster Boy's work, but, as noted, the MTA frequently destroys it before anyone gets to enjoy it. However, the very last idea there made me wonder: "to get what you want."
In this context, of course, we can project that what Poster Boy wants is a decentralized art movement, but there was a profile of "Andre the Giant" posters-creator Shepard Fairey in the New York Times the other day that made me question what it is Poster Boy would want after he's been at it a few years. Although he's still working to plaster his posters in public, Fairey is also selling work in galleries for as much as $85,000. (Don't get me wrong, I don't think there's anything wrong with that.) But street art purists have taken to calling Fairey a "sell out" and even defacing his work. In discussing such reactions, and defending the income he makes from his work, Fairey noted, “I hated being under anyone’s thumb when I was younger and now I’m not, through my art.”
As any corrupt government in the world can tell you, one of the easiest ways to quell a revolutionary is to orchestrate making him wealthy. With something invested in the system (i.e., something to lose), even the staunchest revolutionary oftentimes comes around to the ruling class's way of thinking.
None of which is designed to impugn Poster Boy's current motives. He may be that rare breed of revolutionary who can't be bought. I don't know. I don't think selling his highly inventive work would make him any less of an artist worth watching (and no, that's not an offer for an exhibition). But I do think knowing what you want, really knowing that is, often takes more than a few decades to sort out.