Art, or NOT ART: That Is the Question

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A few years ago, I began noticing these two words stenciled around Boston. In stark, military-style letters, the words NOT ART appeared on random objects and surfaces throughout the city. At first, there were just a few. Then more popped up. The bold renunciation appeared to be spreading all over the Boston area. I later moved to Baltimore and started seeing them there too. I began to wonder, “Who is this NOT ART and why are they spreading their adversarial message?”

Exhibit A:  NOT ART  at the Middlesex Fells Reservation outside of Boston.

Exhibit A: NOT ART at the Middlesex Fells Reservation outside of Boston.

I recently connected with NOT ART through a mutual friend and asked if I could interview them. Graciously, NOT ART agreed. Below is a brief Q&A I conducted with NOT ART in November 2017:

DSM: When and where did you begin NOT ART? How many cities is NOT ART in? I noticed your work in Boston and then Baltimore. Is there a connection between these two cities?

NA: NOT ART began about 10 years ago, when I was living in Cambridge, MA. I was making assemblages and collages at the time and was working at a restaurant. I made this little box that had random objects in it, like a feather and a stone, and I burnt the outside of the box. I thought I would bring it into work to show my coworkers an example of my art. When I arrived at work, it got busy, so I just left the box in the waiter's station. At the end of the night I said, "I want to show you some of my art." One guy said, "Oh, that's what that is. I thought it was a Native American face painting kit." Another co-worker said she was afraid to open it because she thought something might jump out. These reactions were the most interesting I had ever gotten to my work and it was completely contingent on the fact that they didn't know it was art. I thought about how I could reproduce these sorts of reactions and eventually came up with the idea for NOT ART.

Right now, NOT ART can be found in Boston, New York, and a little bit in Baltimore and Seattle. I just happened to have traveled to these cities. I usually put up some NOT ART wherever I go.

DSM: It seems like you're intentionally posting those words on the very things, the very surfaces, that some photographers would want to capture as art. Are you intentionally mocking that sort of aesthetic?

NA: NOT ART is not supposed to be a mockery, but it is ironic and playful. My favorite places to post are locations where time and the elements have made their mark on a surface. Something that resembles contemporary abstract art, like rusted metal or chipping paint. I also enjoy finding a location where the stencil just seems to fit well. A lot of people ask me why I choose the locations I choose, but for me it seems obvious that a NOT ART belongs in a certain location. I'm really trying to draw attention to subtle beauty I find around the city. These locations would not conventionally be considered beautiful but maybe to a photographer they would be.

Exhibit B:  NOT ART  in Brooklyn.

Exhibit B: NOT ART in Brooklyn.

DSM: Is your project tongue-in-cheek, or are you trying to warn or advise? Is there a deeper philosophical idea you are trying to convey about aesthetics with NOT ART?

NA: There is a playful irony to NOT ART but there is also a deeper philosophy about the nature of art that I'm trying to express. Over the years, as most young artists will, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what art is. After a while, I decided that anything could be art; it's just a matter of your perspective. Actually, the difference between what is art and what is not is completely arbitrary. Many people look at a NOT ART piece and say, "Who is this guy to tell me this is not art? Maybe it is." With this statement the viewer is looking at something, which was not art, and seeing it as art just because I spray painted NOT ART on it. And at that moment they are coming closer to my perspective that anything can be art. It's a bit of reverse psychology. 

DSM: Who is your target audience? I suppose because it's a graffiti project, anyone who might see a NOT ART stencil is your audience. But do you have a specific type of person in mind? Is there a certain mentality you are criticizing?

NA: When I started putting up NOT ART, my roommate at the time really hated the idea (which made me realize it was a good one,) so I wasn't sure how people were going to respond. But over the years, I've discovered that most people like it. I've met old ladies, artists, graffiti writers, hipsters, and families that really enjoy NOT ART, to name a few. I love how so many people enjoy it. It seems that I've reached a much larger audience than your typical tagger. I think that people relate to it in an individual way.

Exhibit C:  NOT ART  in Queens.

Exhibit C: NOT ART in Queens.

DSM: What do you hope to achieve or gain with this project? Or is NOT ART just for fun?

NA: I have a belief that if people question more, the world would be a better place. We need more wonder (in both senses of the word) in our lives. NOT ART makes people ask a question, an individual question. And I'm creating the space for people to do that in our city. That said, I do find NOT ART fun and wouldn't do it if it weren't. 

DSM: Have you ever been busted for putting up your stencils? If so, what was your punishment?

NA: Unfortunately, some of the fun has been lost since the Somerville Police contacted me. I've always been pretty open about the project. But after doing it for about 8 years, and never being caught, I thought the authorities didn't really care so I got cocky. They tracked me down and I received an email from the lieutenant. I sorta freaked out. I decided to hire a lawyer before I met up with him. I found the same lawyer that helped Shepard Fairey when he got busted in Boston and he gave me a good deal. He met with the lieutenant who wanted maps of everywhere in Somerville where there was a NOT ART. Cambridge and Boston were fortunately excluded so it only amounted to about 10 stencils (I probably left out a few). But at first, he [the lieutenant] wanted me to go out and cover up those NOT ARTs. Which I thought would be hilarious because if I'm covering up NOT ART, I guess I'd be making art. This never happened though because my lawyer asked him how I would be able to do this without getting arrested. He didn't have an answer. Now that they know where I live, I've become a bit paranoid. It's not as much fun when I see a spot and then wonder if that's the spot that's gonna piss someone off and I'll get a call from the police. So, I cut down on putting stuff up in Somerville.

Exhibit D:  NOT ART  in Brooklyn.

Exhibit D: NOT ART in Brooklyn.

DSM: Do you do more than stencils? Stickers? Tags? Other words other than NOT ART? I saw CON-TXT around Boston and a few others that look like NOT ART. Are these also yours?

NA: I do a couple other stencils, but nowhere near to the extent of NOT ART. One says BEAUTY. I sometimes put that on abandoned buildings. It's not actually supposed to be ironic but if you think it is, that's cool. I just love abandoned buildings. I have spray painted CON-TXT in certain locations it's supposed to make you pay attention to the context of the stencil but pretty much works the same way NOT ART does. Sometimes I just write ART in places that the NOT ART won't fit. It's just kinda silly. Then for a while I spray-painted the word "Something" around. Those posters that say, “If you see something, say something,” inspired that. I also make little stickers that say NOT ART, but I usually give those away.

DSM: Do you consider yourself an artist? Are you comfortable with that word? Is NOT ART art? If not, was is art? I know that's a big question, which has been asked for centuries, but if you're telling the world what is not art, are you able to say what is? Or do you care?

NA: I do consider myself an artist, but if anything can be art then everyone is an artist. I think this concept is empowering. Anyone can do anything and call it art. There is no action that is too small to become art. I could consider these responses art and that may make me take it more seriously.

Exhibit E:  NOT ART  in Manhattan.

Exhibit E: NOT ART in Manhattan.

DSM: Do you have any formal training in art? If so, from where? What degrees or certifications do you have? Or is the art world and all its institutions (including degrees) total BS to you? Is that what you're going after in declaring things to be not art? Are you calling out the emperor's new clothes so to speak?

NA: I did not go to art school, but I used to draw all the time. In grade school people thought of me as the artistic type and when I got into high school I embraced that idea. When I arrived at college I could draw quite well but I was not really an "artist" yet. I took a studio art class that changed that. The professor was very critical of my work and it was exactly what I needed. I was so used to being praised for my artistic skill that no one ever really pushed me. And that is exactly what that class did. We started by examining Rauschenberg's erased de Kooning. And delved into other conceptual works which were fascinating to me. My work during that class was awful but after I left I started making some interesting collages. The class really freed me up and that was all I really needed to get me going and thinking about what art is or can be.

I don't have strong opinions on the art world in general.  It is what it is, but the prices that some work goes for is ridiculous especially in contrast with most artist's work which doesn't sell at all.  I think amateur work should be taken more seriously but none of my feelings about the art world really influenced NOT ART.  Some people do take it as a commentary on absurd works of art that should not be considered art at all, but this was not my intention.

DSM: Who are your influences? It seems that Dada and Duchamp are potential sources of inspiration for NOT ART? Would you call what you do a part of the so-called "anti-aesthetic" or a form of "anti-art" that has become so prevalent in the art world today?

NA: I'm definitely influenced by Duchamp and Dada. I never would have come up with the idea of NOT ART if it hadn't been for them. In fact, if it were any other time in art history, NOT ART probably would not communicate. It is referential and does not exist independent from the art world. I think I am also subconsciously influenced by Warhol. He changed the art atmosphere in such a way that NOT ART could exist. I don't consider myself to be part of any movement in the art world. I just do what I do. If anyone wants to classify it in any way, that's fine with me.

Exhibit F:  NOT ART  in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Exhibit F: NOT ART in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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It’s hard to classify NOT ART. The project boldly answers–in the negative–the age-old question, “What is art?" If something is labeled not art, then what is? Picasso once said that, “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth...” But what of a truth (or gesture) that tells us what is not art? Perhaps by labeling things so, NOT ART draws our attention to the beauty of everyday things, forcing us to consider them anew. That’s the deeper, more philosophical reading.

But there’s something more playful going on here. NOT ART is also a lively critique of our “disclaimer culture.” Everything, it seems these days, is labeled with some kind of clause, disclaimer, or warning. NOT ART is the tongue-in-cheek fine print of the modernist look. Just as we might begin to think that some crumbling edifice or some discarded junk or urban ruin is aesthetically pleasing, a well-placed NOT ART stencil says, “Don’t even think about it.” Bold and playful, NOT ART urges us to consider the age-old heavy question while bringing a smile to our face. 

But one question remains: is NOT ART, art? Aye, there’s the rub.

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