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Jewish World Review
March 15, 2007
/ 25 Adar, 5767
Deface the Nation
From a marketing standpoint, the best move ever made by the folks who enjoy defacing public property was to rebrand themselves as "graffiti artists." Generally speaking, it's often a tough sell persuading people that your fondness for wanton criminal activity is merely a creative outlet that everyone else should embrace. It's hard to imagine, for example, a compulsive car thief trying to pass himself off as a performance artist who just happens to work in the medium of "unauthorized vehicle relocation." Although I do like to imagine this guy being hauled off to jail, muttering to himself, "No one understands art anymore."
I think part of the reason we're willing to cut some slack to these spray-can-wielding Picassos is because we all understand the fundamental human impulse to vandalize. What were the original cave paintings, after all, if not a very primitive form of graffiti?
In fact, scholars now believe that many of these depictions represented an early attempt at written language. Researchers working in the caves outside Lascaux, France, recently achieved a breakthrough by identifying a series of these paintings as an ongoing dialogue between competing tribes. Even the scholars admit to being surprised when the pictures were translated as a series of lines that read, roughly, "Cro-Magnon Man sucks," followed by "No, Neanderthals suck," followed by "No, you suck," and so on. The final line in the sequence remains shrouded in mystery, but many experts assume that it probably reads, simply, "Zeppelin Rules."
The "artist" label seems all the more valid when you consider that some of the world's most memorable poetry originally appeared in graffiti form. I mean, let's face it, if you stopped the average joe on the street and asked him to quote a few lines of any poem by Yeats or Whitman, you'll likely receive little more than a blank stare in return. Frankly, you'll be lucky not to get punched in the nose.
By contrast, most of us have at least a passing familiarity with the work of that anonymous master of meter who first etched into a bathroom stall wall the epic poem of despair that begins, "Here I sit, broken hearted."
Of course, this urge to deface is strongest in the teen years, when kids, in a form of youthful rebellion, look to etch their name in every nearby schoolroom desk, gym locker, patch of wet pavement or, if no other open spaces are readily available, their forearms. Thankfully, most of us outgrow this juvenile obsession with plastering our own names everywhere, albeit with a few pitiable exceptions (see Trump, Donald).
School administrators are, of course, all too familiar with this behavior pattern. That's why back when I was in junior high, the first few days of the school year in each class were always dedicated to the important educational exercise of re-covering our schoolbooks with brown grocery bag paper. The hope was that if they could keep kids from defacing their books, the school could make it through another year with, for example, yellowing history texts that referred to war in Europe as "one of the looming problems of 1939."
This all changed when I went to a private high school where we had to buy all our books. Freed from any controls on our defacing impulses, my classmates and I set upon our purchases with gusto. One of the more popular in-class activities involved altering book titles to comic effect. I still recall with admiration how one of the more inspired students in my sophomore English class refashioned the cover of his copy of "The Grapes Of Wrath" so it looked like he was reading a book titled, "He Rapes Rats."
Of course, there were also academic benefits to being able to write in your schoolbooks. Since most of my books were handed down to me by my older sister, who was one grade ahead of me, I benefited from the voluminous notes she diligently scribbled in the margins of all her textbooks. Particularly helpful was her chemistry textbook, nearly every page of which were chock-full of insightful Chemistry-related comments like, "This class is sooooo boring," "Oh my god, I think I'm going to die of boredom," "Important science question: Could chemistry be any more boring?", as well as, of course, her observations on which of her classmates appeared to be habitual nose-pickers.
My sister's notes notwithstanding, I don't think I believed in an ingrained human urge to deface until I got to college and studied anthropology. Then one day in class, while thumbing through the pages of my used textbook, I got to the section on prehistoric man. There, as if to demonstrate incontrovertible evidence showing just how little has changed about human nature in thousands of years, was the proof, written in the margin by the previous owner:
"Cro-Magnon Man sucks."
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© 2006, Malcolm Fleschner
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