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Graffiti, Art and war crimes

April 10, 2012

This morning MLive posted a story about some new graffiti on the wall of the S-curve in Grand Rapids near the Gerald Ford Museum.

The article is interesting on many levels. The MLive reporter begins by asking the readers if this is graffiti or art, which in some ways is a legitimate question. The problem, however, is that this would not be a question that an MLive reporter asked if the painted images on the side of highway walls were an anti-war or anti-gentrification message.

Not content to end the charade there, the MLive reporter then talks to an employee of the Ford Museum to get his take on the “unsanctioned art.” The Museum spokesperson tries to remain neutral, but in no way does he condemn the graffiti. Imagine if there was a US Out of Afghanistan slogan spray painted at the same location. Do you think that anyone from the Ford Museum would remain neutral if asked about that?

The MLive article continues with the reporter citing the Grand Rapids City policy on graffiti and then followed up with commentary from a Kendall College professor who also considers the stencil of Ford to be art.

There are two issues here to consider on the art v. graffiti issue. First, as we have already pointed out there are clearly double standards about how MLive would report on graffiti that could be considered art, particularly if it affirms the dominant narratives………in this case celebrating Grand Rapids’ own Gerald Ford.

Second, for those who want to condemn graffiti no matter what the message is, you automatically demonize those who often do not have the means to communicate with a mass audience…….ie, those that use graffiti to make a statement. Much of the graffiti created in this community isn’t unlike the kind one would find in most urban centers, which is graffiti that is overtly political in nature (anti-war, anti-capitalist) or the graffiti of those who are economically and socially marginalized……..those we often lump into the “gang” category.

This second point underscores clear class differences, since it reflects how we think about negative social behavior. If a young person of color tags a building with a message we are all supposed to condemn it and say it is criminal behavior. However, if Bank of America puts up a billboard ad in the city, that is generally considered legal free speech. However, who does more harm to people, a street gang or a bank that engaged in massive fraud and then got bailout out by taxpayers who had no say in the matter?

War Crimes and Criminals

One last point worth making about the contradictory nature of the MLive story has to do with Ford himself. The MLive reporter cites the quote that accompanies the graffiti and then provides a hyperlink to the context of this statement. However, a serious look at the historical record would show that while Ford was President and Vice President, he presided over the torture and murder of thousands of people in countries like Vietnam and Indonesia. We produced a short video that gives an overview of Ford’s foreign policy, but an additionally good source is 895 Days that Changed the World: The Presidency of Gerald R. Ford, by Graeme S. Mount.

Again, the contradictions are quite apparent. It’s not ok to have anti-war graffiti, but it’s ok to have graffiti of a war criminal.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Randy Marsh permalink
    April 11, 2012 10:07 pm

    Just curious, but has there EVER been an MLive story you couldn’t nitpick and find bizarre angle to use as a hollow attempt as criticism? We get it. You hate MLive. Good for you, Jeff.

  2. April 12, 2012 1:03 am

    Randy, there are plenty of stories posted on MLive that I have not deconstructed, because they were either decent stories or a topic I could not speak to. How is it that questioning the motives of how the MLive reporter framed this story nit picking? I don’t hate MLive, I am merely engaging in critical analysis of one of the most influential daily news sources in West Michigan, something I have been doing for roughly 20 years. IF you don’t like what I do, that is fine by me, but if you are going to criticize my media work then you ought might want to present an argument instead of just dismissive comments.

  3. Randy Marsh permalink
    April 20, 2012 1:23 am

    Critical analysis? That’s a laugh. What you do, Jeff, is pitch stones.

    I read GRIID because you have an excellent track record of supporting gay rights and occasionally you feature a cool event through the activist calendar link. But it’s nothing but a big eye roll on your GR Press criticism, which can be so transparent.

    This story is a perfect example. You love to dribble in these petty little “MLive failed to report” or “MLive did not ask (blank) question)” digs, like that’s some kind of legitimate learned criticism from a media scholar or academic. What I assume you really mean to say is that if you were the reporter, that’s how you would approach the story. And since MLive cant read your mind, they must be falling down on the job, because God forbid they forget to mention that Gerald Ford was president during turbulent times, or tie the occupy movement into the story somehow.

    I’ve read a lot of actual media criticism and what you do is just lazy. It’s the TV dinner approach to media criticism. If you have an issue with ArtPrize or Amway by all means write a story about them. Pick up the phone or do some research. If you want to be an alternative news outlet, more power to you. Sites like GRIID and The Rapidian are valuable to a community. But constantly criticizing MLive because they didn’t take the same approach you would have is just a cheap attempt to sling mud on a side issue that distracts from your overall thesis.

    My read on MLIve is not that they are perfect, but at least you can tell they are trying to do a quality job. There’s a big difference between a news outlet constrained by objective reporting and ethical standards and an activist blog that has a clear leftist agenda. Criticizing them because they aren’t you is just, well, silly.

    And if you’re going to critically review something, occasionally you have to dole out some praise in order to be balanced yourself.

    On a side note, I want to point out that you appear to exist in an echo chamber. Your feedback on Facebook and this site simply parrots your own views back to you like a bunch of bizarro-world Rush dittoheads. As a “media critic,” I think it should be glaringly obvious to you why that’s troubling.

    If you want to be the antithesis to that which you rail against, great, but if you desire to be taken seriously on a wider scale and have some persuasion on those who don’t automatically share your opinions, you might consider moving toward the center a little and doing your own research, rather than lazily carving up another news outlet’s work and crapping on it because you would have done it differently.

  4. Joshua Sadowski permalink
    April 26, 2012 2:48 am

    Randy, I think you’re missing a very big point here. As far as I can tell (and I welcome any evidence to the contrary) GRIID is the only site that’s critiqued the, well, echo chamber on the Ford graffiti. No one, even in the comments section of MLive, is saying “The city should cover up that graffiti because I don’t want to see the image of a war criminal on my daily commute.” Everyone that I’ve heard seems to think Ford was a pretty swell guy (at least) and his likeness transcends the typical unauthorized scrawl of spray paint (which, of course, is never art).

    You say Ford was president during “turbulent times” but do not address the research Jeff did present on the subject, where it’s laid out quite plainly that Ford oversaw and authorized the killing and torture of thousands in East Timor and elsewhere (the link for that is provided in this article). That’s an action he took and bares responsibility for, not something that just happened to take place while he happened to be president.

    Pointing out this contradiction is not “dribbling” in “petty little digs”, it’s a legitimate critique that falls into the roll of media to point out. In essence you’re saying that the media holding a monolithic dialog on a powerful figure that does not include any of that figure’s less favorable facts (such as their committing genocide) is acceptable.

    You say “MLive is not … perfect, but at least you can tell they are trying to do a quality job”. I (and probably Jeff and many others) would definitely disagree, and independent outlets are required in order to point out the constant wave of negligence and propaganda on their part. I’m sure Jeff does not want MLive, the GR Press or anyone else to take his exact stance on any given story; we (and now I’m including myself on this) just want the local press to take a critical analysis on issues of power, which is the primary roll of the free press in a democracy. This, as illustrated, is not happening, and that’s a problem.

    The press is supposed to be a watchdog, and those of us who follow the current state of the media can say unconditionally that all the major outlets are doing a terrible job at this. This is why GRIID exists and I personally only wish there were more local outlets like it to do a better job. You don’t have to like Jeff’s critiques, but to suggest that MLive does a “quality job” or that this particular point on Ford is “dribbling” or “petty” is just uninformed.


  1. Jerry Ford Graffiti has a new look « Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy

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