How Chronicling Street Art Works Against a Culture of Commodification

In 2013, I witnessed a renaissance of street art and graffiti in New York City. To preserve this ephemeral art, I initiated a photography project, leading to a book, Outdoor Gallery: New York City published by Gingko Press. My book included photos of artworks and a unique, priceless compilation of oral history from 46 artists who viewed themselves as part of a counterculture, a peoples’ movement. In their interview, the artist duo Enzo and Nio say: “The street is the common denominator, the bell curve and the barometer of all things. You go to the streets when there is nowhere else to go. You go to the streets to shout at the world.”

The author’s book

 Outdoor Gallery: New York City received wonderful reviews.  Steven Heller of The Atlantic wrote: “Litvin is not willing to cede the art to self-interested upstarts. He created Outdoor Gallery to keep his ideal of the medium alive.”

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And alive it was, until …

Last year I asked Gingko Press for an inventory audit. I noticed 746 copies were “pulped” in 2018, barely five years into our 10-year contract, without my knowledge or consent. Since my book wasn’t selling sufficiently, Gingko had destroyed the remaining 746 copies in their warehouse, because they claim, they needed the space. Those 746 books which could have been donated to libraries, schools, community centers, the artists involved, or art fans worldwide were annihilated without warning.

Is Gingko Press legally allowed to do this? I reread our standard contract and remain unconvinced. I believe I should have received the first right to buy back any unsold copies. Regardless, whether you call it “standard contract” or “book burning” the result is the same — destruction of precious books and the reification of deadly consumerist habits of waste and conspicuous consumption. 

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Recently, the McMinn County School Board removed Maus, the award-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, from their 8th-grade school curriculum. The vote to exclude it is part of an ongoing right-wing assault on the arts as vehicles for education on past and present oppressive realities in the United States, including legal efforts to ban books on racism, slavery, and white supremacy, lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender content and women’s issues such as miscarriages, hysterectomies, and pain during labor.

Mural by Enzo and Nio on Wythe Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (2013)

The banning of books is one of the signs of a society’s descent into full-scale fascism. However, the reactionary attack leveled at Maus is a natural continuation, not an aberration, of an attitude reinforced by corporate capitalism, which reduces art to a commodity serving the bottom line, and imposes ruling class interests above all else. As the German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht remarked: “One cannot write poems about trees when the forest is full of police.”

German critical theorist Theodor W. Adorno emphasized art’s ability to raise consciousness of the violent iniquities damaging our lives within late capitalism, in ways that escape written language. In his Aesthetic Theory Adorno wrote: “Art respects the masses, by confronting them as that which they could be, rather than conforming to them in their degraded state.”

Recently, in Sydney, Australia, Adorno’s notions were demonstrated with powerful artist voices contributing to the continued success of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement to oppose and end Israel’s apartheid criminality

The BDS movement’s accomplishments are particularly impressive in today’s climate of corporate greed and commodification. As outlined in Max Horkheimer and Adorno’s “Dialectic of Enlightenment”, we live in a “culture industry.” This culture industry perfects the mechanisms for the wholesale destruction of art not beholden to establishment narratives. In contrast, uncommodified art can appeal to those who do not have the ability, time, resources or interest to access auction houses or NFT companies. In the words of the Black Panther Party’s Minister of Culture Emory Davis:

My art is intended to connect to an audience, to the masses. It appeals to victims of oppression, with a focus on brothers and sisters in Black communities, but not exclusively … The headlines, captions, artwork and photos reflected the gist of the drawn-out articles and therefore appealed to those who were not able to or going to read them.

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Graffiti began as a teen-driven urban counterculture in Philadelphia and New York City in the ‘60s. Nowadays, graffiti and its street art cousin are increasingly commodified. What began on the streets is now commercialized into NFTs

Further, some companies seek to cultivate graffiti art forms as brand enhancement, in their quest to gentrify neighborhoods. Together with the growth of corporate control over public spaces and increases in police budgets, art as counterculture and tool of resistance is continuously under attack. 

Street art by Alice Mizrachi, Free5, and Cope2 on Boone Avenue in the Bronx

Outdoor Gallery: New York City, a project meant to document ephemeral graffiti and street art, became ephemeral itself, carelessly demolished by Gingko Press, like the low-rent housing projects soon to be replaced by hipster condos. Do real estate developers have the legal right to do so? Maybe. They definitely have some “standard contract” to cover themselves, not to mention police backing, to gentrify your neighborhood and make you poor and homeless

A casualty of “culture industry” Outdoor Gallery was pulped. Yet now this article remains as a sentinel of resistance, a phoenix rising out of the ashes wreaked by the bottom line, recording my book’s transient existence and the important artists with their powerful words and art within its pages. In the words of the artist Gaia: “The true street artist does not give the public what they necessarily want, but speaks truthfully and provocatively about the realities of our streets and culture.”


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