My art lesson wasn’t supposed to be until the weekend. My mother had planned to take me into Manhattan on Saturday to show me, for the first time, the famous Metropolitan Museum of Art. Situated right on Central Park’s eastern border, the enormous building was something that I had seen during countless trips into the city from my nearby suburb. Although I had never been inside the structure – or inside any “adult” museum for that matter – I felt I could envision how it would look. Pristine marble floors of perfect white, towering ceilings appearing higher than the sky, glass-enclosed paintings situated on the otherwise-blank walls, elaborate sculptures surrounded by cold metal poles connecting lines of rope, security guards scattered across the floor in every room, preventing kids like me from getting too close.
This is how art had always seemed to me, encased in glass, distant and untouchable-just too expensive for me. And that was, really, how I viewed art when I was six: worth a lot of money for members of the faceless adult world, for reasons I would never understand. Berger touches on this in his essay: “The majority take it as axiomatic that the museums are full of holy relics which refer to a mystery that excludes them.” This mystery to me, just as Berger argues, was why the artwork was so valuable. This was most likely based on cultural factors, with me feeling that my family and I were not in the same social class as many of those who truly appreciated art; art was something reserved for them, something inexplicable to me only because I was convinced that I wouldn’t be able to understand it if I tried.
But my first exposure to beautiful art did not come that Saturday in the cold, glass-encased museum; it happened earlier in the week, walking in Harlem with my father, a memorable experience with artwork the absolute last thing on my mind. Walking down the filthy, cracked sidewalk, we both stopped next to a long, chain-linked fence that bordered a huge asphalt basketball court. There were a few games going on, and we watched for a while as the players tossed the ball into netless baskets under the glare of the bright early-afternoon sun. One of the long cement walls behind a set of baskets caught my eye immediately; sprawled across it, in tons of overlapping vibrant colors, was a beautiful work of art. It was graffiti.
I had seen graffiti many times before this, designs ranging from simple tags of a few letters to mammoth portraits of musicians or religious figures. But I had looked at those pieces with different eyes; after thinking about the trip to the museum all day, I think I had somehow mentally placed myself in an environment where I could view art. Before this, I never would have thought that vandalism from a struggling, economically depressed section of Harlem could be considered formal art and appreciated by the rich and sophisticated, who, in my mind, were the ones determining what art was. After all, this was at the height of the broken-window theory in New York City, when Mayor Guilliani had even assembled a special task force to specifically address graffiti vandalism.
The knowledge that the masterpiece could be destroyed at any time with some paint thinner made me appreciate it even more. Nothing I would see at the museum had that kind of vulnerability; I knew, in fact, that concerted efforts were made at museums to keep the pieces in the best possible condition. The worst that could happen to artwork in a museum would be to take it off display; even then, there were a myriad of books that would have reproductions of the piece for me to see. I failed to see the value of this kind of artwork. Just as Berger pointed out, the immediate availability of so many substitutes to the original work of art took away almost all of the uniqueness of its message.
Many people would have been happy to see the graffiti removed and, surely, no one was taking pictures of it to preserve in a museum collection-this contrast to my preconceived notions about the permanence of artwork featured in museums was probably what primarily attracted me to the graffiti art. My reasoning at this time was strongly affected by a mistake that Berger mentions in his article, when art is “defined as an object whose value depends upon its rarity.” I could easily attach substantial value to what I saw because I knew that the next time I walked by the basketball court, there was a good chance the object would no longer be there-this meant I would never be able to see it again, no matter where I looked, making the picture, if not its message, unique to me.