Curses and art in The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), with mention of other films.

Note, September 18 2013

The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a clever late career entry by Vincent Price, in which he plays a German organist come to England, who then takes revenge on the nine doctors who participated in a failed surgery to save the life of his wife. He lives in a classic cult situation, with regard to the wife. He has a shrine to her, in her picture, and also has her entombed, and plans to join her there. But he too is partly art because, having lost his voice, he must speak through a tube in his neck, and had to, much like Price in House of Wax, stop playing organ, and opened an automaton jazz band which then also failed. He kills, but he must kill with class. He does this by, in a style set down by psychos, ordering his murders in a ritualistic way. For him, he chooses the ten blood curses of the Hebrews upon the pharaohs as his guide. They help him with the sequence and content of his murders, all of which are equally mechanically devious and ingenious. All horror movies need to establish their legitimacy by a visit to old books. Phibes has one of the best old books in all of modern horror. The investigator visits Hugh Griffith as a rabbi. He explains that the amulets Phibes has been leaving as his calling card at the murder sites is the blood curse of the Hebrews. He then brings out a manuscript/scroll depicting the curses. It’s a strange object.

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And he points out the curses, including that of blood

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And the death of the first born.

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These are “works of art,” but they illustrate the words, and the words are curses. These are negative works of art, drawings with a negative power. It would seem that the amulets are the same sort of thing, they are marked in Hebrew script, but as if scrawled in blood, they are pretty terrific properties.

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This would be the opposite of a protective amulet, but a destructive amulet. This is
his process. He has two amulets for each victim. He commits the murder, then
leaves on amulet at the site, like a calling card, and, on another level, to
complete the curse. Then, he has the other back in his lair, and there he has,
in a separate rotunda, a circle of wax busts in a circle facing out, and when
one is killed, he hangs the amulet around their neck, as if the mark it as
caught, a check, done with that, then he blowtorches the bust so that the wax
drips down on the amulet, completing the transaction. It’s a very curious
ritual, but, because of its methodicalness, quite thrilling. The really
interesting thing about the movie is how the concept of negative artworks, or
curse works, translates to his victims. Early on, one doctor is eaent by bats in
his bed at night. He first senses the presence of this indeterminable intruder
by shadows on his paintings. This suggests that the pictures represent shadows,
and the threat of evil exerted through them

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Then in another murder, a festive object, a mask, to be worn to disguise the self, to give one license to party, is reversed, so that it crushes the head within, another negation of the artwork

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But by far the most interesting is the death by blood. Terry Thomas plays a doctor
who is given to watching stag films. They are old fashioned, set up on a
screen. In this, he degrades the media of film, uses it for exploitation and
prurient interest, it is therefore a negation of film. He is also guilty in his
watch, as, at one point, real feet appear below the screen, and it is his
housekeeper come to scold him, he thinks, for this, but it is for not eating
his dinner. He explains the screen as a new sort of draught blocker. But she
makes the media real, his worry of what she will think, haunts his viewing. And
then he resumes watching,

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It is old, black and white, but kind of grey, filmy, grainy. In watching it, he
has relinquished his honor, revealed his low down self. And so, at one point,
the screen folds up, and the film breaks, and then Vulnavia appears. She is an
interesting angel of doom. She carries the screen, drooping in her hands, like
a shroud, and she, as if materializing out of film, is all in white fur, an
ethereal thing, that he might for a moment think has in fact stepped out of the
film. As such, she is a variant on Samara, the girl in The Ring novies, the prototype behind the film, which would be a real woman, with real attractions, she steps out to mock and mortify him in his private vice.

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A few things about this image and idea. She wears white fox fur, all over, including on the head. White fox fur was a convention of modern horror films, and what it meant was that women were smooth silky-to-the-touch creatures, who, because the quality of their skin was not conveyed by film, had to be figured out in their softness by something the viewer could imagine more fully.

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Second, white fox fur made women ethereal, somewhat spiritualized, much in the manner of birch trees in woods.

Finally, she stands there with that emblematic robe on her, and a headdress, and an emblem, in her hand, a spent screen (I do not know if I have ever seen this image before, a person holding a drape of spent screen). In this, she reminds me of a functional goddess like Nemesis,

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Only she carries a screen destroyed, not an hour glass (same thing). In so far as Thomas spent himself on it, at least with his prurient eyes, it reminds me of a portrait-on-skin by Michelangelo

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And as such it too, abstracted, acts like sheets draped over furniture in haunted houses, to communicate of ghosts

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Oddly enough, after Patricia Morrison, in the above white fox fur attack, for it was always also associated with the femme fatale, kills Stinky for a music box, in the  1940s Sherlock Holmes picture, Dressed to Kill, a nice shot, she pulls the tail of her stole from under his fallen body, a reminder that, after all, it too is skin (the implication that the skin of the exploited woman is in the spent screen still).

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And then the space of their meeting is also rendered partly unreal by the backdrop of one of his large action paintings. She touches him, realizing his fantasies

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A bit of a detour here: oddly enough, screening this scene, I also watched
another movie from the 70s where in older times the agency of film was
activated to enact an embodiment, in Belting’s sense of the word. In the very
poor remake of The Cat and the Canary (1978), the will of Cyrus West is read by way of a personal appearance on a screen

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I suppose this device was constructed to carry over from the original the fact that an image of West shows his displeasure at the reading. In the silent original, this is communicated by the fact that the great portrait (copied in the 1999 The Haunting, ridiculously), which is already a great apparatus, made worse by his aggressive evil eye

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At one point it tumbles off the wall,

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And then out of its frame

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Radley Metzger, whom I have noted as a considerable fetishist when making use of the
scrollwork and wainscots of mansions to express sexual pleasure (best in The Alley
Cats), decided to activate this idea in modern media, and so the film is stored
in a kind of cryogenic chamber, a retrieval that emphasizes the fact that West
is embodied in the film

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And then not only does he sit at the head of the table, through film, across a span
of 20 years, he has prearranged the menu, the serving of the wine (the wine
being better now), and reads the will this way. All involved think this is very
controlling, and a bit crazy, to be sitting at a table with a ghost. He does
not manifest, but his scripted intrusion is a variant of the aggressive
picture, or the picture that commands attention, and directs action, that reads
will. His faithful house servant elides the difference between film and life by
passing from in and out of frame, to serve the wine, aging 20 years in the step,
but also by touching the screen, as if it was him

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Finally, one aspect of that odd makeshift setup for dinner is that it is lorded over by old fashioned lamps, and one of them is striped, an artifact in British horror which signifies hypnosis, so the purpose of the film is to hypnotize, the reduce the viewers’ ability to tell media from real, to make the two come together, to make a stepping in, and then a stepping out, in the most classic definition of a cult image, but, here, malevolently, possible.

But back to Phibes. Once Vulnavia (and this wonderful name suggests she is a functional goddess) has seduced him to sit, Phibes comes in, Thomas asks, who’s this? And all this happens as if staged before an action painting from the 17th century, which acts like another screen.

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There is a suggestion that Thomas is not quite alive anymore, he is flesh and blood, but not so much as other human beings might be. All one need do is remove his blood, and he will revert into a work of art too. And that is his punishment, the torture of his death. Phibes inserts catheters, and the blood is extracted until he is dead (a device also used in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon). If ancient Egyptians made corpses seem alive by covering them in resin and cloth, and Belting calls this strategy embodiment, this represents a disembodiment—the reduction of a person to an image or work of art, which is the equivalent to death. Then the jars of his blood are placed up by his art décor table sculpture, a work of art (in fact, a very early Kiki Smith; note: see entry on Michael Day Jackson)

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Phibes menaces him, as if a figure in the painting behind

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And then something very odd happens. Phibes steps off camera, but then comes back. He glances with a tsk tsk appraisal at the nudity in the painting, and seems to scold Thomas one last time for reducing even classic 17th century paintings of Leda and the Swan into prurient displays of flesh. It is almost as if he is saying, well your flesh now too is less than paint on canvas, and your blood, like the red of that robe, is an artifact on a table.

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This is a bit odd, as the picture is classic, and in no way prurient. It is, I believe, Leda and the Swan, however, possibly suggesting an interest in rape pictures. Phibes means to imply that it is the sort of thing a dirty old man might collect (and a similar use is made of one’s art in Death at a Funeral, British version, when the son, told his father was gay, looks about at the hunky classic art and gets it).

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In any case, this strange sequence demonstrates that for Thomas media was cursed,
and made evil, and made the instrument of his execution, because he had
degraded it, and given too much of himself to it, and therefore deserved to
die. It is a high brow variant on the old convention of the slasher movie, to
punish victims for sex. There is also a whisper of activist critique of
masturbation or other forms of consumption of sex, when anything less than
full-on intercourse, in the modern era, was viewed almost as a perversion (far
different now in the Age of Onan). Elsewhere, another victim is killed between
a work of sculpture, of a unicorn, and a canvas, with the horn going through
him and then through the canvas, this is a negative, cursing, murdering work of

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And like all the others, it merits another work back at his place, being defaced and vandalized as a kind of voodoo confirmation of his extermination, and the deed being done. All in all, then, Dr. Phibes is distinguished for the interesting nexus it sets up in a man reduced to a state of artfulness between art and life, or, more accurately, art and death. It is no surprise that the screenwriter detected as kind of Egyptian flavor to this voodoo of embodiment, and the sequel therefore was to be set in Egypt. But in that movie, he veers somewhat away from art, to direct torture instruments linked to the lore of the tomb traps of ancient Egypt. So we have a mechanical snake, which is not, strictly speaking, a work of art

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A rigged up phone (also used in Horrors of the Black Museum, only there is was binoculars),

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A triggered coffin

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And a classic torture-device-cum-tomb trap of lowering spiked snake heads

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In addition to a sleeping cot that accordions shut, a golden scorpion that grabs, and, as in the original, a device that sandblasts the person seated in the back street of a car to a skeletal state. But it has to be conceded, none of these explicit instruments of torture are as interesting as devices devised for killing derived from the dictates of a pattern of curses, discovered in the private vices of individuals, often doubly cursed, therefore, through works of art. More to come.



The Horror of Cheesecake: notes from last year.

Two comments from 2013 on cheesecake events over St Valentine’s Day.

Horror of Life byline, transferred from former blog, examines tabloid culture on the premise that life is a horror movie.

413 Sports Illustrated cult February 15 2013 Horror of Life byline.

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If you don’t have a swimsuit on, and you have unhooked the top, it is no longer a swimsuit issue. And yet the photo put out by Sports Illustrated, to be reproduced on the pinup page three of the New York Post, for the delectation of the notgettingany male, is Kate Upton decidedly not in a swimsuit. And, then, too, she is in the Antarctica. I suppose they had to go all the way to the Antarctica to add value to a simple show of skin to outswim the ocean of boobs that all media drowns in today. The only thing that keeps this antiquated endeavor afloat is the ritual and ideology. The ritual: that it has come out in mid-February as a sort of guy’s rebuff to Valentine’s Day, or a plumbing of the true nature of that lupercalia, that it is promoted, every step of the way, that it is an honor to be part of it, a great honor to receive the cover, and the ideology: that it is always only ever the ultimate All American girl icon of the sports fan’s view of womanhood, framed in hoary clichés of body heat hotness melting polar icecaps and icebergs and even, here, the touch of the polar bear punned on her being polar and bare, bare skin by the way being this odd surface display of skin somewhere between nude and naked. But the Sports Illustrated swimsuit nudes are paid well because the issue is a fetish in a ritual in a cult when in reality a woman showing that much here in a world where every girl everywhere seems to want to flash something or other, all the way down to skanky everyday sexting, not to mention the umpteen tumblr rebloggings in between, when, to guys, without the ideology, it just doesn’t make that much difference, is like a high paid lawyer hanging on to his job in an office where all the newcomers are much less well paid or where even maybe overseas counterparts are eating away at profits by greatly underbidding the jobs. And then the second argument is that Kate Upton and other high priced models are prime meat, because they are so beautiful, where most regular everyday girls are less so, even, though, again, I think bottom line is it does not matter, physically, that much to guys. It is the relational power of her distance as the ultimate out of my league girl (even the metaphor is sporty! Sex appeal a valued equivalent of quarterback skill) that keeps her up on this pedestal. She is the girl who has been lifted above everyday life into a realm where you, the everyday schmuck, cannot go, and so as this most beautiful girl in the class, dating the captain of the football team, she is idolized, she exists to—keep you in your place. And as an idol, she plants her flag, she represents Sports Illustrated claiming their territory, defending their position in a rapidly eroding eroto-media landscape. When you strip all this away, what she has under that jacket is just two more boobs, in a world of three billion of them, but it is much harder to strip away what she is dressed in invisibly–the invisible bikini she covers her nudity in–than what she happens to have on, on a cover, covering all her bare skin.

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It’s Perfect! February 16 2013  Horror of Life byline.

The light, the belly, lips, and breath,
He dims, discolors, and destroys;
With those he feeds but fills not death,
Which sometimes were the food of joys.

It’s perfect! For many months now, the New York Post and other tabloids have slowly been reeled back in by the oldest device invented by the tabloids to get a passerby to pick up their newspaper: cheesecake. On Page three of the Post, almost on a daily basis lately, you can predictably find a pinup bikini model, pretending to be news by ‘reporting’ on a spread of more of the same in some other publication such as Vanity Fair. A great deal of the news, then, recently, has been read alongside of the necks, clavicles, underarms, cleavages, boobs, bellies and crotches of almost completely naked women. So, it’s perfect, for the momentum of this way of telling the news, that Blade Runner Oscar Pistorius stands accused of murder this week of his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp because yesterday and again today the Post has been given the dream come true, they get to run a bikini or lingerie pin up on the cover, the actual cover, because its news! February 16, the Headline blared, Blade slays Blonde (nice headline), and, echoing its famous archetype wood, headless body bound in topless bar, subtitle is Legless Olympian arrested.

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And Reeva plays the Price is Right girl to spell it all out for us by being plastered up and down the left side of the page in an extremely skimpy slitsuit (the bottom now just a string and a patch to cover an anatomical slit), and she lifts her cleavage and her underarm to ta-da the headline next to her (very odd, all that underarm at the fold of the page), it’s almost as if the juxtaposition of the two says to the grumbling older male reader she somehow deserved it, or had it coming to her, for being so impossibly beautiful. And then on February 17 dead Reeva reassumed her perch atop the front page of the paper to in more sultry lingerie gloss the headline Crying Shame, as a more modest lay of see through lingerie perhaps subtexts the news that she was shot in a cowardly manner by a courtroom crybaby through a bathroom door.

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But wait a tick……as the everyday male reader who reaches for the paper to give some bounce or figure to his drab page through of a tabloid and make it a kind of proxy remembrance of sex with young things of old, as he grinds his teeth against the affront of her youthful nudity, as he uses her to heat up a morning hour, and as she plays the figure of that hour, minute or second, in the daily clock of female figures that personify the passing hours, this ritual investment of paging touch with sex, a matter of simple ergonomics, a seduction of passerby pick up, as with a tabloid the only thing that matters is that it is picked up off that newsstand, then jars in a recoil, as you realize, this pinup cover girl, that daily bikini babe, heating up the hour, is a dead girl. This Barthesian punctum comes to you in a second thought of shame and shock: she is a dead girl, that girl that I have been projecting my hems and haws all over, she is dead. And it is true: while it is one thing to report the news, and provide visual reference to the story, and run a picture of a personage involved in the story, it is quite another thing to enlist the victim of the story for a pinup purpose designed to do something completely different, and so you are salivating and harrumphing in sexual regret and rejected desire and only if heart eating out at a dead girl. In this sense, Horror of Life acknowledges an apparently completely normal custom of the necrophilia of modern life and the prurience of corpses, where eros is routinely submerged in thanatos.  I offer two examples, to make clear what is going on deep down in the media this week with imagery of Ms. Steenkamp–and may she rest in peace–with images of dead erotic nudes from Beyond the Darkness

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and from Living Doll,

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in both cases, in the cultural subconscious, the psycho involved idolized a distant object whose humanity he never could get close to, and so it was easy to transition to if not killing her, stealing her body and gaining illicit intimacy with it by taxidermy or dress up, all of this going back to Psycho. These dark impulses surprisingly I think do in fact swirl subtextually about the news over the last 48 hours: this Valentine’s Day, we’re having a necrophiliac moment.

Graffiti and agency: some thoughts on graffiti in Egypt since 2011 (July, 2013)

Graffiti and agency, Jul 13 13

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Graffiti art is one of the most fragile of art forms. Graffiti is the art of the receiver, the viewer, the public: it represents public response, and the question is, when is it authentic, and when not? To reiterate, in an art situation, or art life nexus, there are three elements. The prototype or the reality, the agent, or the person making things happen, in art, and the viewer receiver. Graffiti is an art of the viewer. It exists in the viewer’s side of the equation: in that equation, the agent is a blocking mechanism, the government, which silences dissent, the prototype is the life of the times. In this situation, where there should be an agent, there is only silence. Where there should be a work of art, communicating, there is only a wall, not communicating. This means that the people are blocked off from real life, and see real life through the screen of the propaganda of the agent government. They are terrorized by the agents of the government, by its agency aggressively limiting their life and silencing them, divesting them of any personal agency. Graffiti then authentically emerges in a repressive regime. It emerges as an expression in ink of the voice of the people, but more as the grumble or chatter or whisper of dissent of the people. Graffiti is the first voicing of dissent, on the front line of revolution. It is done anonymously, in secret, usually at night; the walls of its support are antagonistic and repellent to it. These walls are the walls of the state, they are not meant to be graffiti’d on. They hold propaganda and distraction, they seek to make the wall between the people and their true potential in life wide and solid. Graffiti then not only violates the status of the wall, but it erodes, it scratches away at, it tears down, it bumps up against, it throws itself against that wall. There are a number of metaphors that can inscribe the act of an anonymous member of the crowd briefly and silently emerging from the crowd and leaving a mark of their silenced voice, on a wall. And then when that is read it gives voice to others who then add to the graffiti scratching away at the wall and finally the voice builds up so that as a whole the recipient crowd for whom these early voices spoke are ready to speak out loud.

At the point at which the opposition speaks out loud in demonstration, graffiti becomes less important, and somewhat marginal. The most important type of communication in political protest is the type of communication that happens in the demonstration. What the crowd comes up with to make their point, to demonstrate their voice, is most important.

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Graffiti can only play a part in this context if transferred to placards and posters. But placards and posters carried by shouting demonstrators is not graffiti silent on the wall of the opposition. The agency is changing. Graffiti can still work behind the scenes, in the tents, in the streets, in the neighborhoods where the demonstrators live, where they go after the demonstration to celebrate or congregate or discuss and plan. It can help to recreate the walls that were formerly the walls of the government and the establishment into the walls of the encampment of opposition. In this capacity, graffiti has scratched away at the walls sufficiently to transform them into the boundaries of the opposition. Scratching away, secretive first level graffiti is replaced by second level graffiti, creating a screen around a heterotopia to regulate and inform, entertain and empower the voice of the community that has emerged in opposition as a kind of counter culture. This kind of graffiti is also important, but it does not have that elemental oppositional rawness which makes first level graffiti so explosive and compelling.

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This kind of graffiti also begins to know who the graffiti artist is. This is because the voice is now speaking to the community in opposition itself and everybody begins to know who the graffitist is. And so in these heterotopic communities, graffiti is replaced by the emergence of graffiti artists. The word, for me, is almost an oxymoron. In this the space of agency formerly blocked by the wall, the void left where the wall has been taken down, is occupied, as it is in culture at large, by an artist, and in this situation it is a graffiti artist. In this capacity, the agencies change again. The viewer now receives art that he or she is likely to approve of in advance. They now look to the artist to give expression to the group. They seek out and look up to the agency of the artist, and assume a regular position vis a vis the artist as a consumer of the message being conveyed by the art. This is the alternative or counter cultural model of artist and because all artists at one time or another went through this phase, even if only because at one time they were unknown, all artists romantically appreciate and support the formation of this kind of community. For the West, as, for example, in exhibitions of Arabic graffiti art in Germany, the image of the spokesperson graffiti artist speaking for an oppressed minority remains one of the most powerful mythic images of artists and for that reason, when involved in an alternative community, this model inspires romantic commitment and idealism. But the graffiti done by a graffiti artist speaking on behalf of an oppressed community is not graffiti by another member of the silenced crowd. Second level graffiti is not first level graffiti. First level graffiti, as an equivalent to the kind of ‘art’ devised on the moment in demonstrations, is fascinating for its spontaneity and impromptu creativity. Second level graffiti begins to take into it some of the bluster of the uncertain agency of the artist devising ways to speak for others. And this is why graffiti artists who excelled as graffiti people in the crowd often vanish when they take on the mantel of graffiti artist. Their anonymity and participation in the crowd in a climate of absolute opposition and repression, against the wall of oppression, is the fuel that gave them life, that made them simply organs of the mass voice, the nomos of the crowd. The minute they emerge as artists who do graffiti for the alternative community that has emerged from the crowd, their individuality begins to come to the fore and their creativity, usually art school taught, begins to pollute the pure expressiveness of their earlier work (which is like waking up from a dream and trying to describe it rationally). Then too it is at this point that as a critic I would begin to be tempted to ‘review’ works of graffiti art for their aesthetic or artistic value, and not for, what graffiti should be measured by, like posts on the internet, the amount of productive response that they elicited by being taken on, memelike, by others, and becoming part of the mindset of the crowd as a whole.

Finally, there is third level graffiti. This is when the graffiti artist begins to build a career for him or herself away from the walls and the streets and the alternative community created and suffering in opposition and finds himself more sitting on panels in Berlin and attending openings in Frankfurt than scribbling dangerous messages on dangerous streets, and, what makes him a careerist most of all is that he is taken up by the art establishment and the art world, and at that point, though he may serve to give the art world a momentary jolt of a return of its romantic image of itself in exhibitions and books of graffiti art, he is on his way now to developing a career in a well-established world, and not even the alternative precincts of this well established, institutionalized world, and becomes part of the institutional opposition to the government or party in opposition, and, in this case, the graffiti usually stops, and turns into something else, we can call this post-graffiti, done by an artist who have given his agency away to the institution and whose unique reality and special agency has as a result been drained away from him as a graffiti, and which he or she must now rebuild on their own their agency as an artist in the Western modern sense in their own right, in the art world (a transition which is very difficult for many graffiti artists).

In my current interest in the demonstrations in Egypt, I am only really interested in the demonstrations. That is, I am only interested in non-artistic moments of inspiration in the usual visuals in the context of demonstration, and the participation of graffiti in that, in terms of posters and etc., and then graffiti adjunct to this, as part of the immediate surrounding context culture of the demonstration. In graffiti, I am interested in the altered agentic relationships that inform the act of graffiti on the street, without artists (as I was in the 1980s). I am less interested in the square one idealism of the alternative arts community developing in Cairo, or the art world developing in Cairo, though will keep track of both to see if, here, the fate of graffiti will be different, but the hip hop scene, the scenesters, the Egyptian kids dressing like global kids, all that, all that is—more of the same, just file it in under the genre of “coming of age” 2013 version, and it is new because it is new, and because the institution of exploitation of the new is in place to coopt it out of existence, and turn these revolutionaries into future consumers of rock, fashion, alcohol, drugs and the whole Western lifestyle—and where, exactly, is the revolution in that?

So, to review, in terms of the equation, prototype, agent and viewer; graffiti from the receiver blocked of agency from a negative prototype reality is interesting; graffiti from an agent artist of a receiver community that has begun to establish its own institutions to make the prototype better, less interesting; graffiti by graffiti artists whose agency is coopted by the established oppositional elements of the art world or whatever apart from the voice of the people, least interesting. It’s odd, like other art forms, graffiti is an art form that disappears with its success. It is to be hoped that the graffiti artists of Cairo avoid being segwayed into the art world and from their rise in reputation and improvement in life mistake this as the success of the revolution.