I heard a great presentation this morning by Brett Cook Dizney, a muralist/activist/hip-hop artist/teacher. He tells wonderful stories about his own “non-permissional” art works, like the time he erected big (illegal) murals of the police officers who beat Rodney King on a California street, or the time he painted an anti-violence mural on a wall that had been claimed by street gangs. This kind of work is free for anyone to see; in fact, it is often appropriated by anonymous strangers. In one case, a set of his huge murals mysteriously disappeared from a San Francisco street and then reappeared five days later. High-quality graffiti art, typical of the early hip-hop scene, contributed to a kind of “creative commons.”
I’ve written critically about the New York Art World. I’ve argued that art leaders are subversive or radical, but in a way that doesn’t take alternative perspectives seriously and that doesn’t persuade anyone. They create works that are intended to shock bourgeois Middle Americans, but they only reach their fellow bohemians. And when elected leaders resist funding them, they take immediate resort in the First Amendment.
I stand by that argument, but it’s good for me to be exposed to someone like Cook-Dizney. Sometimes, his work reflects the kind of radical politics that I think is over-supplied in the current art world. (For example, he erected a mural of Fidel Castro in Miami–shocking, brave, but offensive and unlikely to generate thought or dialogue in the audience that it reached.) However, he says that he has moved from merely saying what’s wrong with society to helping to create a better world.
A lot of his current work is intensely collaborative, involving (for example) street parties where everyone helps design and make a multimedia project. These projects make city blocks immediately more beautiful; they also create social networks and political capital. The fact that Dizney-Cook’s work is now constructive does not mean that he has abandoned his independence or radicalism.
In any case, a lot of his subversive statements on behalf of marginalized people are valid and thoughtful. (Example: he erected big panel portaits of Harlem residents inside the Harlem Studio Museum when it was not welcoming to people in the neighborhood.) I think if you are going to do political art, you should be judged on your politics as well as your formal technique. On those grounds, I would criticize an image of Fidel in Miami, but I think most of Cook-Dizney’s work is wise and thoughtful.