October 19, 2010

The Semiotics of Chalk

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Art is, maybe, to some people sometimes, a way of thinking about the world and our experience with it. Art is not just found in a theater or gallery, and, contrary to a view that has been taken several times in this newspaper, it is not necessarily better in a book than on a screen. It can be frightening for the budding artist/critic (there is no difference between them) to accept this; if we begin to expand our scope of inquiry, how do we know where to stop? What, besides ticket prices and “the artist’s intent,” differentiates between an object and a signification? When, as Freud might ask, is a cigar just a cigar?

I have no sure answer to this question. But I do feel that among the great accomplishments of art and art theory over the past century has been the realization that “universal human nature,” in all its iterations, is a pipe-dream that would be scary if it were real. Perhaps, then, one approach among many is to begin with those things which are close to oneself, untranslatable, adamantly non-universal

About a week ago, a chalking appeared on the side-entrance stairs to Goldwin Smith Hall. Written in white chalk are about 10 repetitions of the phrase, “I will not leave the country,” all stacked on top of one another. Below these, in descending order, are the phrases “I will not drive a car, I will not drive a car,” “I will not vote, I will not vote,” “I will not work, I will not work,” and finally, “I will not serve in the military,” all in stacked groups of 10 or so. What does this mean, or, if we don’t know, what does it mean that we don’t know?

At work here seems to be a powerful question of agency. Is the chalking a statement of obedience or defiance? From every angle, the question has no clear answer. The repeated “I will not” construction and stacked layout call to mind Bart Simpson, scrawling his apologies in detention in the title segment of The Simpsons. (Of course, in Bart’s case, the acts of defiance have already been committed, and obedience is only given after the fact). Yet the chalking could just as easily be a refusal to leave the country, to serve in the military, etc. It is, after all, defiant in its very existence, or more specifically its location. Chalk is the medium of choice for outdoor ads for a capella groups and such, but those ads, unlike the Goldwin Smith chalking, are to be stepped over, not confronted.

Indeed, Goldwin Smith Hall, the “canvas” itself, complicates the problem of agency in the unsigned chalking. It houses the College of Arts and Sciences admissions office, thus acting as a sort of gatekeeper to Cornell and, in the case of international students dependent on student visas, to the entire United States. The power represented by Goldwin Smith could thus very well be the object of submission, in whose shadow the scrawler is forced into a litany of thou-shalt-nots. Yet Goldwin Smith is also campus’s main example of the bourgeois humanist ethos; history and literature professor A.D. White’s seated likeness is a marked contrast to Ezra Cornell’s hardened demeanor. Goldwin Smith is where one studies to defer submission to the real world (or so one tells oneself); it is where one suburban Sun writer, then a hapless sophomore, took an independent study on the literary theory of hip-hop. The chalking, then, might be a political statement of non-participation, not shackled by its canvas but emboldened by it.

This uncertainty seems linked to the fact that we do not know the chalker’s identity. The “I” which either asserts or submits itself is just that, a symbol with no face behind it. What should anonymity do to our understanding of graffiti, chalked or otherwise, and of art more generally?

This: Art criticism, from unreadable academic journals to student dailies, must stop being a referendum on a perceived author’s perceived intent. Just as the Goldwin Smith chalking hovers between obedience and defiance, so agency must ever be uncertain in the general study of culture. But this does not mean that there can no longer be space for irony, for tragedy. As calculated as the chalking’s placement and medium may have been, they can be read as a testament to their own powerlessness, and to that of human expression more generally. Empowering or impeding, Goldwin Smith Hall will be there for generations to come. But after a few spells of Ithacation, this chalking, like all others, will wash away.

Original Author: Jake Friedman