Five years ago, anonymous graffiti artists caused quite the hubub at the Modern Wing of the Chicago Art Institute when they "bombed" a major wall of the wing. Their message was clear: THIS is modern art. While a clever, powerful statement, and seemingly jabbing at the art that resides within the walls of the modern art wing, it presents a paradox: Isn't graffiti, by definition, a rebellious art? Would graffiti still be as powerful and compelling if it were inside the museum rather than outside?
This Is Modern Art, written by Kevin Coval, attempts to answer these and hundreds of other questions regarding high art versus common art versus street art and so on. The play, while neither a knuckle-whitening drama nor a belly-clenching comedy, merely seeks to educate the viewer on this commonplace, yet mysterious, art form. You'll learn the differences between "tags," "stickers," "throw-ups," and "pieces," short for "masterpieces." You'll learn the names of dozens of Chicago graffiti artists, or "writers" as they're called. You'll see what goes into "bombing" -- spray painting an urban canvas as much as possible without getting caught -- a city location, the preparation that needs to be done, the items to have, the backup plan, the lookout, the logistics... it practically gives you a how-to guide.
We pass by graffiti every day in this city. Some of us may see it as an eye sore that should be scrubbed away, as vandalism, as criminal activity. Conversely, some of us may see it as art that makes the city more vibrant and beautiful, as spontaneous creativity, as colorful accents on a gray urban backdrop.
But what does this art say? What does it do? It wants to be respected and appreciated, surely. It wants recognition from those who decide what belongs in a museum and snub it as low art. But does graffiti even want to be in a museum? In and of itself, graffiti is rebellion. It's anti-establishment. It's instant social/political commentary. And it's fleeting, temporary. If the Art Institute commissioned a graffiti writer to fill a wall inside the museum, could this still be considered graffiti? Or would it lose the essential qualities that make it graffiti art?
Maybe the point isn't to be in a museum; maybe graffiti seeks to dismantle these labels and present the notion that art should be free and accessible to everyone. Maybe, and most likely, it just wants to get us talking, and if we are, then it has done its job.
This Is Modern Art (based on true events) is playing at Steppenwolf's Downstairs Theatre through March 14th. Tickets may be purchased at the box office or by calling 312-335-1650.