Modern art deserves modern critics

By Opinions Editor

In Steppenwolf Theatre’s recent production of “This is Modern Art”—a musing on the role of graffiti and the voice it can give to the voiceless—the character Seven, a young Chicagoan graffiti artist, says of his craft: “This is a chance to show people that there are real artists in this city. Right now. Living and grinding every day to make their art. They can’t wait until we’re dead and gone to give us our recognition.”

Steppenwolf curates impressive and illuminating productions every year for its Steppenwolf for Young Adults programs. However, “This is Modern Art” may have finally crossed a line for the more “mature” audience member—more specifically, the old white theater critic.

Notorious Sun-Times theater and dance critic Hedy Weiss did not like “This is Modern Art,” and it was not the production value or the acting that she mercilessly criticized, but the subject matter: graffiti. 

She came in with guns blazing, but not for the sake of criticizing a production—she was criticizing a specific art and specific people. 

Weiss railed against graffiti and graffiti artists in her review with the focus shifting from an analysis of the show to the exhausted controversy that surrounds graffiti. Weiss wasted words arguing the finer points of the dangers that graffiti poses and how it is not art, referring to it instead as “vandalism” and “desecration.” 

The ignorance that seethes through Weiss’ review of “This is Modern Art”—a show that was produced for an audience that spans the many neighborhoods and communities of Chicago—only further proves the need for broader perspectives to be included in the art communities. 

The role of the critic is crucial to the arts. Critics help audiences and consumers discern whether or not they want to attend this show or that gallery. The critic can offer history, background and insight while giving perspective to work, but the critics working at major news outlets are not representative of modern audiences. They are representative of the old, out-of-touch and decidedly white perspective that has become a scourge on the ever-evolving and intensely diverse art communities of Chicago. This perspective is most apparent in Weiss’ review.

Weiss spews asinine vitriol throughout her “review”—prefacing the entire piece with her extreme distaste for the “visual virus” she thinks graffiti is. From calling graffers “urban terrorists” to condemning Steppenwolf for putting up a “wildly misguided” show, Weiss’ decision to remain narrow-minded and spit bigotry is evident throughout the review.

She goes as far as saying that “no politically correct review to rationalize it will appear here,” which proves from the start her skewed, irrational perspective on the play’s subject matter. “This is Modern Art”—its playwrights, its message and its young audience members—didn’t stand a chance with Weiss.

The prolific graffiti writer and one of the producers of Banksy’s graffiti documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” Roger Gastman, once said in an interview that “Graffiti at its purest, at its rawest, at its best, the true definition of graffiti is illegal.”

There is no arguing the legality of graffiti. Unless it is scrawled across permission walls, graffiti is, by definition, an illegal art. Graffiti—not the territorial tagging used by gangs, but the art form of spreading a name, a message, an idea—has been used across the world to give a voice to the voiceless, but in Weiss’ review graffiti is a blight on society, and the people who engage in it are criminals and criminals alone. 

To this old white woman who has never had to worry about her voice not being heard—as she has been gainfully employed by the Sun-Times for more than 30 years—graffiti remains a disrespectful and ugly symbol of danger and revolt—not the respected art form it has become. 

Weiss never offers the production an opportunity to prove her wrong or sway her stalwart, unimaginative views of what graffiti is and means—which is the point of the play. Weiss is too concerned about young hoodlums spray-painting her own home to even bother considering the artistic value of graffiti writers and their work. 

Why Weiss was so concerned about the message being delivered to the young audiences who saw this play is beyond understanding, as one who is so against graffiti should know that the city of Chicago spent $3.17 million in 2014 blasting graffiti off city property, according to the city’s 2014 Budget Overview. 

Weiss should have no reason to worry that young audience members were going to go out and tag after seeing “This is Modern Art” because the city would have it blasted off with water and baking soda within days. 

Older, “wiser” critics have histories and years of experience that many new, green writers do not have, but keeping these old critics on the payroll does not give up-and-coming critics the opportunities to hone their voice and discover and explore the art communities they will be critiquing for years to come.