Tuesday, May 27, 2008


This was the view out my back window in New York City for more than ten years. That time (1979-1990) was the heyday of Wild Style, when graffiti truly became an artform, as is documented most vividly in Henry Chalfant's photographs. These tags, though, are primal. You can imagine them--in chalk--festooning an alley a century ago, or even earlier. Gang tags probably go back to antiquity. Today, owing to a couple of decades of outsized police response to graffiti, much urban tagging, accomplished under great pressure, is even cruder than this primal sort.

Wild Style graffiti is a late, studied, self-conscious phenomenon, a sterling example of postmodernism in action. This sort of zero-degree tagging, by contrast, seldom if ever even gestures in the direction of art (although photographs by Helen Levitt, Cartier-Bresson, and John Guttmann show examples of it that qualify as poetry). Both are unauthorized sets of marks made by urban youth, generally, on surfaces that do not belong to them. Graffiti of both sorts aims to broadcast and publicize the existence and identity of the tagger.

You might say that graffiti is, at base, a form of advertising. In the places where graffiti is found there is frequently also advertising of the authorized sort. Space rented from the owner of the surface in question is given over to printed tags that publicize goods and services for sale. You might say that the one form of advertising is intransitive--no action is required on the part of the beholder other than perhaps to steer clear if one is of a rival crew--while the other is transitive: it intends to prompt expenditure.

So the form of graffiti that inveigles the passerby into surrendering cash is viewed as legitimate by society, while the kind that is strictly gratuitous, or nearly so, is considered vandalism. The financial aspect has further ramifications, of course: the first sort pays rent while the second squats. But squatters never displace other tenants; they merely occupy otherwise vacant spaces. Likewise, graffiti roosts on unemployed surfaces. And as ugly as it sometimes is, it's indisputably human, which cannot be said about the post-industrial walls and sidings it occupies.

Yes, this is an argument I've been carrying in my pocket for thirty years. The passage of time may have made it less pressing, but hardly obsolete, I think.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Vile Smut

Reminiscing about my early days in the used-paper trade, I find that I can become tender if not actually moist-eyed at the thought of the publications that were both produced and purchased by the raincoat brigade. You young people today, saturated in smut, are so jaded and jaundiced and all that you may not immediately appreciate the pathos of the many approaches to porn in the time before the soi-disant sexual revolution. Consider the many shadings of the word "art," especially as applied to privately printed portfolios and editions of "exquisite" and "piquant" and sometimes "frank" character, intended exclusively for an audience of "discerning connoisseurs." Think of slim paperback novels, published in Hollywood in awkwardly boxy typefaces and dirt-colored wrappers, armed with introductions by persons able to append a Ph.D. to their names. Imagine a bookstore of the bygone sort, as discreet as a boudoir, with a curtained doorway in the rear leading to locked glass-fronted bookcases housing a category known as "curiosa."

These musings were occasioned by the rediscovery on my shelves of Sadism in the Movies, by one George [sic] de Coulteray, published in 1965, in a translation worthy of Babelfish, by the important-sounding Medical Press of New York City. "The book that shocked a nation," screams the dust jacket, an unlikely encomium coming from a starchy scientific publishing house. To read the book I find that I have to reverse-translate in my head, since many sentences make no sense whatever in English but are convincing in the presumed original as St.-Germain des Prés table talk:

"But one must admit that since the end of the 19th century one is in the presence of a rise so brutal that in our times the spanking has become the privileged form of what may be called minor sadism, a harmonious mixture of pain, slight in itself, and a ceremony which by making ridiculous, emphasizes its humiliating character, followed by the double arousal, active and passive."

But nobody ever read it, anyway. They bought the book for the pictures, half of which derive from the original and look as though they were photocopied with a machine of the era--they're so murky you can barely make them out. All the pictures are stills, all are unidentified, some show garden-variety brawls and others get into skulls-and-chains territory. Nearly all are so smudgy and hasty and low-rent they seem much smuttier than the movies themselves (or even a decent print of any given still) ever could. The one shown above is in its own right a terrific example of the power of film stills--you just can't imagine that the rest of the movie, whatever it is, could possibly measure up to the sheer sordidness of the image.

But to go back to the French, the adjacent book on the shelf is Lo Duca's L'Érotisme au Cinéma (J.-J. Pauvert, 1957) which is both serious and sumptuous in exactly the ways its neighbor isn't. Just flipping through it is guaranteed to inspire indulgent fondness for the French at their most nominally insufferable. Take this chart, for example, which is worthy of Edward Tufte's books:

The movies are (1) The Blue Angel, (2) Ecstasy, (3) Tabu, (4) The Lady from Shanghai, (5) Notorious, (6) Bitter Rice, (7) Manon, (8) Los Olvidados, (9) Miss Julie, and (10) One Summer of Happiness. No, I'd never heard of that last one, either. Don't you wish you could nonchalantly illustrate your humid reveries with charts so rigorously white-smocked? I certainly do.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Dunt Esk

This is the problem with blogs: You start blogging in an idle moment, and one thing leads to another and you wake up one day to find that you have readers. And readers, no matter how coolly disinterested they are nor how they are getting the deal free gratis for nothing, eventually become something like customers: they begin to have expectations. They expect frequent deliveries of new material. For the blogger--excepting, I guess, the fanatically driven or the logorrheic--the situation is like being a columnist, like one of our heroes at the great gray New York Bugle, with all the problems and responsibilities inherent, only you're not being paid. You're still bagging groceries to pay the rent, and that profession like all others has its seasons and its crises.
Maybe the association of ideas is why today we're featuring the work of the great Milt Gross, who knew from daily deadlines in his decades of newspaper employment. These are from his (criminally) out-of-print Nize Baby (1926), a work in prose and drawings that is one of the funniest books ever, and is especially recommended to children of immigrants, even if your home language wasn't Yiddish. But to reduce its matter merely to the comedy of ESL is to do it an injustice--imagine it as an episode of E. C. Segar's Thimble Theater with Finnegans Wake performed by the Marx Brothers. Even Smokey Stover fans will have to give it up to Milt, who as far as I'm aware actually coined the immortal password "banana oil."
So anyway, postings have become scarcer around here, and they may well become scarcer still, as our unpaid author contends with a mountain of past-due obligations, each of them with a promissory note attached to its curly little tail.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Amoenitates Belgicae

Early yesterday a friend across the Atlantic emailed me: "Tonight in Parliament the fuse was lit for the implosion of Belgium in sixty days." I've heard much doomsaying of this kind over the years, but this was a trifle more specific. The crux seems to be that the Flemish will claim a certain number of the ring towns around Brussels and make them Flemish by fiat, which means that residents (who may, depending on the town, be largely or even overwhelmingly francophone) will get electoral ballots naming only Flemish candidates, have access only to Flemish schools, face public officials who will refuse to speak or reply to French, etc. This in a roundabout way addresses the issue that has prevented Belgium from splitting into two parts thus far: that Brussels is both overwhelmingly francophone and at same same time the capital of Flanders. The Flemish militants appear to be on their way to making Brussels a Flemish city whether it likes it or not, a task which may also involve the purging of the--largely francophone--immigrant populations.

If Belgium splits into two, Flanders will vie with Norway for the top of the European Union food chain, while Wallonia will scramble with Portugal for the bottom. How is all this possible, you ask, in a stable, prosperous First World nation? The matter may or may not go back to the Battle of the Golden Spurs in 1302, as Flemish mythology would claim. It definitely goes back to the nineteenth century, when the country's post-independence ruling class spoke French and marginalized the Flemish, who could, for example, be arrested, tried, and sentenced without understanding the charges against them. My worker and peasant ancestors didn't speak French, either, and were marginalized themselves, but as Walloon speakers they could at least catch the rudiments of another Romance language.

The matter heated up after World War I, when the fact that Flemish militants had sided with the Germans occasioned public rancor. A similar set of issues caused unrest after the second World War, but it wasn't until the 1960s that the subject came to dominate the daily life of the nation. The heavy industries of Wallonia--steel, textiles, coal, glass--were dead or moribund, and Flanders, once largely rural and backward, had taken the economic lead. The Flemish separatists achieved a new credibility by stressing their unwillingness to carry the ailing South financially. I happened to be in Belgium in 1969, when the formerly state-mandated and universal bilingualism ended under pressure, with the other language being painted out on road signs, disappearing from menus and train schedules, the University of Louvain/Leuven splitting into two parts, and so on. Ever since, it has been a slow motion dissolve.

You can compare the situation to that of the former Yugoslavia: minor differences between neighboring populations with much interbreeding are exacerbated after the formerly overrun, colonized, and exploited area--as the future Belgium was for centuries before 1830--recovers its autonomy. Even so, I don't expect the situation to make much sense to outsiders. It hardly makes much sense to me, but then even though I carry a Belgian passport I've spent most of my life abroad. Belgium is a sick country. Flanders--in which I have quite a few friends--is disturbingly under the sway of far-right elements, while Wallonia--home to whatever remains of my family--is a swamp of corruption and institutionalized incompetence. I still carry a Belgian passport because, ironically enough, I have no belief in nations and no sense of any kind of national identity. (I am, ethnically, nearly one hundred percent Walloon, for whatever that's worth.) Will my ancestral home plunge to Second World status? Will it be propped up like a corpse in a chair by the European Union? Will it be adopted by France if it wags its tail hard enough? Will anyone not immediately affected even notice?