Academics Don't Write: A Few Brief Scribblings and Some Questions

Joe Austin
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

[1] I ride the subways in New York City. I am looking out of the window of the rear exit door in the last car of the subway train, looking back over the tracks where we have (collectively) traveled. Writing has (so far) racked up more than four decades of productive and innovative art making on trains and walls across our planet, creating radical art forms that have called into question implicit but inhumane "common sense" notions of urban social order, shared public space, and their enforced, inscripted legibilities and grammars. If I were to change my perspective, move up to the first car in the train, and look out the window of the forward exit door that faces future trajectories, I would see more (new) trains, more (new) walls, more (new) writing, more (new) art-making on the horizon. The bit of scribble that I offer here, these brief reflective observations, are an "interim report" on writing and its scholarly observers and publications, offered at some unknown middle point in the train ride. We seem to be a long way away from the last station, if there really is to be a 'last station" for this art movement. But we have traveled a long way from the first station as well.

[2] The first thing I would note in observing what it behind us is the inexplicable gap between the fantastic accomplishments and powerful impact of writing's complex art worlds on urban social reality, compared with the amount of academic print that attempts to narrate its movements across time or understand its significance in contemporary life. When I began research in 1987, only Herbert Kohl's Golden Boy as Anthony Cool (1972), and Craig Castleman'sGetting Up (1982) were on the university library shelves. Jack Stewart's unpublished dissertation in art history from NYU (1989) was an outstanding contribution, but did not see major print until very recently (2009) as Graffiti Kings. Jeff Ferrell's excellent Crimes of Style was added in 1993: that made four books by academic observers after a quarter century of writing's history. Around 2000, several new books were published: Nancy McDonald's The Graffiti Subculture (2003); Ivor Miller's Aerosol Kingdom (2001), and my Taking the Train (2001). Although all three of these works dealt with the iconic New York City scene (McDonald's also included London), I thought that perhaps writing would finally get it's academic due, and more, detailed work would now pour out of the ivory towers. But it didn't happen that way. Lisa Gottlieb Graffiti Art Styles (2008), and Greg Snyder's Graffiti Lives (2011) have been the only major academic books in English in the last decade. Alison Young has a new book scheduled to appear in the summer 2013. Composing these reflections on a moving train, I have likely and inadvertently overlooked a couple of other important book-length works. These few books join about 150 articles and chapters in other academic publishing venues. Compared with writers' collective output on any typical night, it's a very small stash of publications indeed. Compared with the barrels of ink spilled in consideration of the individual "fine" artists and art movements now occupying gallery and museum walls, I am at a loss to explain why my colleagues have not found writing more worthy of their research time. So I conclude this first observation with gratitude for this special issue of Rhizomes, and a call out for more like it.

[3] Despite the small scholarly output, there has been no lack of excellent publications from photographers, journalists, "insiders" of the writing art worlds, and writers themselves. A roll call is worthwhile. Mervyn Kurlansky and Jon Narr'sThe Faith of Graffiti (1974), Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper's Subway Art (1984), Chalfant and Tony Silver's film documentary Style Wars (1983), and Chalfant and James Prigoff'sSpraycan Art (1987) deserve first mentions. I'd also put Gusmano Cesaretti'sStreet Writers (1975), Steven Hagar's Hip Hop (1984), Nelson George, Sally Banes, Susan Flinker, and Patty Romanowski'sFresh (1985), William Upski Wimsatt'sBomb the Suburbs (1994), and Martha Cooper and Joseph Sciorra's R.I.P.: Memorial Wall Art (1994) in this stack of early works. Nicholas Ganz (1999) and Roger Gastman (2001) put together early works in the next 'wave" within writing's art world. Even the cops that attempted to police the writers' work have since decided to get in on the documentary action (Rivera, 2008).

[4] David Schmidlapp and a substantial group of writers (including Phase 2) began to publish The International Graffiti Times (later, The I.G. Times), the first writers' "zine," in New York City in 1984, and by the early 1990s, there were several other writers' zines in circulation in locations across the planet. Schmidlapp and Phase 2 published Writing from the Underground in 1996, Stephen Powers came out with The Art of Getting Over in 1999, Futura 2000 wrote Futura in 2000, and Zephyr and Michael White published Dondi White, a biography, in 2001. These were important early entries from writers and set high standards (not always observed) for the flood of work that has followed. Since 2000, a deep visual and document archive has accumulated on websites, in photography and popular press books, and in private and public archival collections. Oral histories, interviews, autobiographies, memoirs, observations, histories, and commentaries by writers are readily available in ways that I could not have imagined in 1987.

[5] This second observation, on the relatively plentiful publications and sources by writers and their art worlds, is juxtaposed to the first observation, on the few existing academic publications on writing, to bring up a third reflection. At this "interim report," authoritative knowledge on writing is still overwhelmingly centered within the collective community of writers and their immediate art worlds. This places academics and the writers' art worlds ("an-other academy"?) in an interesting relationship that deserves (our) further consideration. What is it that we (academics) have to offer writers and their art worlds that might be useful to them? For the most part, we (academics) have responded (intentionally or not) to this sort of question by focusing on our 'insider" status as disciplined investigators of influential institutions and the power elite, particularly those institutions and elites that have attempted to thwart writing in various ways (government, police enforcement, property owners and their ideologists, etc.). These institutions and elites (for this ride, let's call them "antis") have themselves produced a substantial body of authoritative works, including widely adopted public policing policies ("broken windows") and political ideologies and regimes (urban neo-liberalism). In the antis' works, writing is often given a nod in their pantheon of "disorders" that rob the Truly Worthy of their "quality of life," even as the antis and other neoliberals themselves toil to implement a catastrophic new urban social darwinism on the rest of our species. Investigation of the antis' works has produced some important insights, particularly on the relationships between elite perceptions of visual culture, social threat, and the government of 'democratic" societies. The "common sense of elite order" is an important dialectical backdrop to the writers' art, but it does not answer the question I posed above. If we (academics) are to produce work in dialogue with writing's art worlds, we have to take the art itself as serious, disciplined intellectual production. Synder (2011) and Ferrell and Weide (2010) are among the most innovative recent studies in this regard. I conclude this third observation with a call for more engagement with writing as an artistic project of intellectual production and a place-making practice of disciplined knowledge, and what this sort of engagement might mean for knowledge production more generally in the neoliberal 21st century.

[6] I arrive at the end of these brief notes and leave the subway train. I see now what I saw in 1987, in every moment since then, and probably, will see every moment hereafter: the twisted, spectacular writing in shared public space, the beautiful, transitory script that re-imagines urban reading, the studied re-arrangement of urban aesthetic-spatial grammar that opens up alternatives to the neoliberal present. My question is not "can the writers speak," nor even "can academics listen," but "what kind of city do people want to live in?"

Works Cited

Austin, J. (2001). Taking the Train: How Graffiti Art Became an Urban Crisis in New York City. New York: Columbia University Press.

Castleman, C. (1982). Getting Up Subway Graffiti in New York. USA: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Cesaretti, G. (1975). Street Writers A Guided Tour of Chicano Graffiti. Los Angeles: Acrobat Books.

Chalfant, H. and Martha Cooper. (1984). Subway Art. USA: Thames and Hudson.

Chalfant, H. and James Pigroff (1987). Spraycan Art. USA: Thames and Hudson.

Cooper, M. and Joseph Sciorra (1994). R.I.P. Memorial Wall Art. USA: Thames & Hudson.

Futura. (2000). Futura. London: Booth-Clibborn.

Ferrell, J. (1996). Crimes of Style. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Ferrell, J., and Robert Weide. (2010). 'Spot Theory," City 14:1-2, p.48-62.

Ganz, N. (1999). Graffiti World: Street Art from Five Continents. New-York: Abrams.

Gastman, R. (2001). Free Agents: A History of Washington D.C. Graffiti. Bethesda, MD: R. Rock Enterprises.

George, N., Sally Banes, Susan Flinker, and Patty Romanowski. (1985). Fresh, hip hop don't stop. USA: Random House.

Hager, S. (1984). Hip Hop: The Illustrated History of Break Dancing, Rap Music, and Graffiti. NYC: St. Martin's Press.

Kohl, H. (1972). Golden Boy as Anthony Cool. New York: The Dial Press.

Miller, I. (2002). Aerosol Kingdom: Subway Painters of New York City. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press.

Phase 2 and David Schmidlapp (1996). Style: Writing From the Underground. Terni, IT: Umbriagraf.

Powers, S. (1999). The Art of Getting Over. NYC: St. Martin's Press.

Rivera, J. (2008). Vandal Squad: Inside the New York City Transit Police Department, 1984-2004. Brooklyn: powerHouse Books.

Stewart, Jack (2009). Graffiti Kings: New York City Mass Transit Art of the 1970s. New York: Abrams.

Stewart, J. (1989). Subway Graffiti: An aesthetic Study of Graffiti on the Subway System of New-York City, 1970-1978. Ann Arbor: UMI.

"Zephyr" Witten A. and Micheal White.(2001). Dondi White: Style Master General: the life of graffiti artist Dondi White. USA: ReganBooks.