The Street Art of the Pandemic

On Wooster Street, an “unplanned collaboration” of artists with names as enigmatic as the images they create.

I like the premise of Seph Rodney’s article about comparing the street art of New York to the cave paintings at Lascaux (“New York’s Sidewalk Prophets Are Heirs of the Artisans of France’s Lascaux Caves”). I wonder, though, about how far we can draw the parallels.

Rodney has noticed that the pandemic city has become a different space. Boarded up shops and restaurants are a medium. Narrowly commercial signification has opened up to more collective forms of writing and painting. Rodney distinguishes the images that have appeared throughout the city from graffiti, which Rodney describes as “egocentric and monotone,” just a will inscribing itself over and over again. Like the paintings at Lascaux, which “constituted a public square where a community shared critical knowledge,” the street art of the pandemic “tell[s] us about our shared political realities, the people we coexist with in social space and the ways in which our stories and fates are tied together.”

And yet, the communities are vastly different. The Paleolithic peoples who inhabited southwestern France were a society without writing, without history. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have differences, but those are lost to us. All we have are the 15,000 images of humans chasing game over an infinite landscape. The cave images, we can guess, both reflected and solidified the community that gazed upon them. Power played a role in their society, for sure, but politics as we understand it almost certainly did not. Contemporary American cities consist of a number of different communities, each with a set of values and ways of interpreting culture.

Take, for example, this image on Canal Street.

Who is the alien here?

This triptych is anguished and witty in a way that makes perfect sense in 2020. Rodney places the images in the image stream of the Black Lives Matter campaign. That interpretation seems a little pat to me. The anonymous artist has created something slipperier and more expansive than the usual sloganeering associated with BLM. The space alien imagery is not common in the discourse about race in America. If this is a communal image–and I think it is–then the community is more like the dreaming collective, the term Walter Benjamin coined to describe a collective and unconscious wish for a better and more just life. Benjamin said that urban phenomena could be read as signs of unconscious desires just as dream images could be interpreted as expressions of an individual’s suppressed desires. The juxtaposition of race and sci-fi movie imagery is fully intelligible to a community that doesn’t quite exist yet.

The art of the pandemic isn’t just a New York thing. The village government in my hometown on the North Shore suburbs of Chicago has converted the public space in front of the village hall into a picnic grounds. People can bring their carryout meals from restaurants in the center of town and eat them at picnic tables spaced far enough apart to maintain social distancing. (Bringing the inside into the outside is another demand of the dreaming collective.) Interestingly, the newly intimate space has given license to a sidewalk art one would never have seen in my largely white town.

Suburban girls’ sidewalk drawing as agitprop

There’s no Seph Rodney to interpret these drawings as a newspaper art critic. Among the casualties of the pandemic, including the 217 fellow townspeople who have perished from Covid-19, is the local newspaper. From what I’ve observed these drawings are made by white teenaged girls. Other people may be involved as well. The drawings–writings, really–are confined to the sidewalks in front of the village hall. They carry a variety of messages around a common theme of racial inequality. “Black Lives Matter” is present, of course, but so is “Justice for Breonna Taylor” and, striking for an affluent town, “Defund the police.”

The drawings are not self-consciously artful like the New York street art, which, oddly enough, I think adds to their impact. But like the New York artworks, the drawings are ephemeral. A few days after the chalk drawings appear the village scrubs the sidewalks clean.

One day indoor dining will resume and the picnic tables will be packed away. One wonders what will happen to the public space in front of the village hall. Will it become, once again, well-landscaped and empty?

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