First off, I’m a little afraid of the Wellesley Farms commuter rail station depot. It’s dark and scary in there. There are cobwebs in the rafters, and dead leaves fill the corners. When the wind kicks up the leaves swirl, tornado-like, lending an even spookier atmosphere to a place that already has a Scooby-Doo air of decay and abandonment.
Still, when I’m in that area curiosity gets the better of me, and I always peek inside the depot. This time, emboldened by the sunshine and warmth of summer, I took it a step farther and dared to enter. Not to brag, but it was a matter of minutes before I emerged. It wasn’t bravery that kept me there, exactly, it was the interior walls which, unsurprisingly, have been used as a graffiti canvas. There was one wall in particular that got me, serving as it did as part art gallery, part art critic’s platform.
The artist had a simple message, perhaps Nirvana inspired. The words “Come as you are,” captioned a smiley face with the eyes x-ed out. To the side of the art, carefully written, was the art critic’s assessment: “This is stupid.”
Sure, it wasn’t nice to say the work was stupid, but critics don’t have a reputation for being nice, and are beholden to no one. What struck me was not so much the assessment but the way in which the critic visually presented the message. The critic, opinion notwithstanding, took pains to avoid marring the art. Instead, in an act of respect for the work itself, the review was wrapped around a concrete corner, clearly separate from the image.
So which was shallow, unimaginative, and banal? The graffiti or the critic’s response to it?
That depends on how you think of graffiti. Some say it’s vandalism, pure and simple. Others elevate its status to art in its own right. The more politically minded see graffiti as a weapon used by the front lines of neighborhood foot soldiers pushing back against gentrification. The locals want to keep an area gritty and so grit it up even more, but often to no avail. Once the area attracts the attention of rich colonizers looking to snap up real estate bargains, it’s goodbye bohemia, hello “utopia.”
If you think of graffiti as vandalism, then both the critic and spray-painter are guilty of nothing less than crimes against private property. In this view, there is no “artist” or “critic” here. There are only perpetrators bent on destruction. Find them, give them some cleaning solvent and a paint scraper, and make them remove the damage.
If you think of graffiti as art, congratulations, you’re a liberal. Perhaps with the comment “This is stupid,” the critic is suggesting that graffiti is a waste of bother in Wellesley, a place that’s been proudly gentrified since 1881 when we split off from Needham, a gritty place if ever there was one. With that act of secession, Wellesley forevermore gave up all rights to urban swagger and delusions of street smarts. I think it’s in the original charter. There are no neighborhood foot soldiers here, pushing back against anything. The rich colonizers are welcomed with open arms. Real estate bargains? Hah. “This is stupid,” indeed.
Or maybe the critic was literal-minded, offended by the obvious haste with which the artist worked. Time always works against spray-painters, jumpy types who hear sirens in their minds and are always scouting for the quickest exit. Tough working conditions. But those problems are not the critic’s, who likely wrote, “This is stupid,” under similar circumstances. If the critic had only that one comment and meant it plainly, then there’s the superficial player in this drama. It matters not if we suspect the critic wanted to say more but was interrupted. We must judge based only on what we are presented with — image, and comment.
The artist and critic are long gone, these itinerant communicators of provenance unknown, one off to the next project, the other on a continued quest for that which pleases. Meanwhile, Wellesley is left with nothing but their makeshift gallery, and a creepy one at that. One that could use a Caffe Nero, like that nice one up at Wellesley Hills. One that could use some colonization.