A cynic might argue that anything that publicizes art is a good thing. Art, after all, challenges how you think — provokes thoughts, insights, emotions that otherwise might not be stirred. It also can amuse and entertain. Humans, like so many creatures on this not-so-green planet, are hard-wired by nature with the capacity for a certain amount of physical or intellectual play.
There is, however, little amusing or entertaining — except to the smug, the low-brow, and the philistine — about this past week's arrest of street artist Shepard Fairey, in town for a magnificent exhibition of his work at the Institute of Contemporary Art (so magnificent, we think, that this newspaper has signed on as a media sponsor of the exhibit). Fairey's parade through a number of Boston's neighborhood courthouses by the city's fearless anti-graffiti SWAT team played like a performance from a television sitcom — say, The Andy Griffith Show. Imagine good-old deputy Barney Fife busting through the big, double doors of Sheriff Taylor's office, prisoner dully shackled (Barney was a stickler for procedure) shouting, "Sheriff, Sheriff, I arrested me a real-live artist!"
Andy, being a shrewd and worldly wise sort of small-town cop, would grimace. Then his grimace would melt into a grin. Years of contending with the high jinks of Floyd the barber, Otis the town drunk, Gomer and Goober the local auto mechanics, and the always excitable Barney, had forged in the smithy of Andy's soul a decidedly philosophical temperament. "Aaaaaah Barney," Andy would ask, "What'cha gonna do, charge him with committing art?"
Too bad for Fairey that Boston ain't Mayberry. Nope, here in the big city, when we catch our fish we fry 'em. Some of Boston's finest no doubt have been having wet dreams of nabbing Fairey, an arch fiend if every there was one. Waterboard the bastard? Send him to Guantánamo before that lily-livered liberal Obama shuts the air-conditioned gulag down for good?
Fairey, of course, is not a menace to society (although he has been charged with vandalism). He is, for sure, a threat to convention and conventional thinking. Fairey's mission in life is to stir things up. It obviously pains the Barneys of Boston that the ICA's recognition of Fairey's work — already endorsed by the huge popular embrace of his Obama portrait (see above) — represents a gold seal of establishmentarian approval.
The Burghers of the Back Bay Association are not amused by this. In an e-mail to members titled AWESOME DETECTIVE BILLY KELLY ARRESTS SHEPARD FAIREY, one resident of the neighborhood stops just short of proposing Kelly for an honorary Harvard degree. (You can read the e-mails at thePhoenix.com.) The Back Bay Association is firmly against anything new, such as the strikingly handsome Apple building on Boylston Street. The group has little respect for free speech and free expression, regularly campaigning to keep news boxes off even commercial streets. Their group mentality is similar to the one that used to call for books written by the likes of James Joyce and Allen Ginsberg to be banned in Boston. Rooted in a gated-community mentality, they would be better off living in a sun-belt suburb. (Here's a thought: the recently retired George W. Bush might like some new neighbors.) The Back Bay busybodies are even calling for their moneyed members to withdraw support from the ICA. Inconvenient as that may be in these distressed times, we suspect that the ICA will soldier on.