Is Public Art Open for Discussion?

by Emily Thenhaus

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About a month ago, I awoke to discover in the New York section of The New York Times an article about street art on the corner of my block. Two wheat-pasted rectangles by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh were positioned at Halsey and Thompkins in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn as a new form of PSA. With sketches of women coupled with strong responses to the neighborhood’s common street harassment (ex. “Women are not seeking your validation” or “My name is not Baby”), the artist described the pieces, scattered throughout Brooklyn, as calling out comments that “make you feel your body isn’t yours.”

Two weeks passed and on my next stroll past the portraits, I noticed they were now accompanied by comments themselves, responses from “a guy” written in the white margins of the poster.

On one poster the comments read:

“To Whoever put this up, Please be open for discussion on this, From a guy. 1) Maybe a guy who’s trying to talk isn’t trying to get your #, We could be trying to add a little knowledge to your day. 2) A cocky woman who blows off a guy isn’t that attractive, no matter how good you look. 3) Not every guy is trying to spit G to get in your pants”

On the other poster, whose title phrase read “Stop telling women to smile”:

“1) A guy telling you to smile does it to show the beauty they see in you. 2) If you have a frown on your face all day long that leads to a scorn, bitter attitude. You should smile, be happy J. 3) Relax!!!”

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“It was not his place to write his comments”. This was the opinion of my male roommate. He viewed the posters as sacred pieces of art by a woman standing up to objectification she experienced in her neighborhood. My female roommate and I didn’t find the issue to be so cut and dry.

Should the author or the viewer “be open for discussion on this?” In this form? Do these examples of public art, highlighting social issues highly visible in my community, constitute an invitation for discourse? While painting over graffiti with graffiti is often common practice, does expressing reviews or responses by writing on the work itself violate the artist’s message or intent? And how much is too much?

Update: A few weeks after the first comments were written, the two posters were almost completely covered by comments defending and deconstructing their original message, rips and tears, and graphic drawings of genitalia over the faces of the women in the portraits. Days after I noticed the drawings, the posters were ripped down. 

For more information on the artist’s work visit: http://www.tlynnfaz.com/Stop-Telling-Women-to-Smile

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