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To Be Seen

by Alice Arnold, Director
First Run / Icarus Films, Brooklyn NY, 2005
VHS, 30 mins., col.
Sales (Video-DVD), $225; rental (Video-DVD), $75
Distributor’s website: http://www.frif.com.

Reviewed by Roy R. Behrens
Department of Art, University of Northern Iowa


Lots of people will find this documentary both invigorating and inspiring while others will find it a challenge to watch. Admittedly well edited, it is a fast-paced, reasonably interesting look at graffiti, stenciling, and other varieties of Street Art (as distinct from spontaneous "street art"), applied all over city walls, not by the destitute, the homeless or neighborhood gangs, but (judging from examples shown) by smart, (white) aspiring Artists who come from upper middle class backgrounds. The results are faux "expressions" in architectural settings (vernacular or haute couture), in a way that is no less dismaying than the ubiquitous ruin of beautiful skin by ineptly drawn–and dumb–tattoos.

From the film's interviews (ennobled by pronouncements by university professors, whose pristine suburban houses have surely not been targeted by graffiti artists), we learn that Street Art practitioners may consider their work an admirable way to subvert the billboards, posters, stickers, and other branding strategies used by profit hungry commercial advertisers. Never mind that these same Artists most likely financed their schooling with the income that their parents made as executives in those same corporations or that they themselves are exactly "dressed down" in the latest hat backwards tradition, with corporate logos all over their clothes. To the film's credit, it does admit that the filthy Capitalists who inundate current society with "cool" merchandise (like nifty, crack-revealing jeans, mesmerizing disc players, and distracting cell phones) increasingly use Street Art and graffiti (even kid-distributed street stickers) in its advertising campaigns. They also come close to admitting that Art (the myth-based line of commodities sold in art galleries and promoted in Art schools, magazines, and films about sacrosanct individuality, such as this one) is also largely governed by profit making. Unbelievably, when accused of vandalism, these Artists explain that their heartfelt intent is to "take back the streets," to restore public territory to "public" (meaning their own) control. In the process, they accomplish just the opposite, so that We the People are left to endure two pervasive sources of idiocy–one of whom uses the other as its test canary for new marketing strategies.

(Reprinted by permission from Ballast Quarterly Review, Volume 21 Number 2, Winter 2005-2006.)




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