We’re not sure whether to file this under “No good deed goes unpunished,” “Legal follies,” or “Art-world nonsense.”

Jerry Wolkoff is a New York developer. In the early 1970s, he bought the Neptune Meter factory building, a sprawling nineteenth-century industrial structure, in a run-down part of Long Island City. That was back in the “Ford-to-City-Drop-Dead” days, a time when real estate in much of Manhattan, let alone the outer boroughs, was depressed, and the city itself was reeling from the assaults of the 1960s and the misguided urban policies that followed in the wake of that hideous decade.

Mr. Wolkoff had always intended to develop the space, but timing is a developer’s greatest asset. He bided his time, renting out office space in the building. A generous, public-spirited chap, he started renting studio space to artists in the 1990s. Also in the 1990s, he was asked by artists if the exterior walls of the building could be used as a canvas for urban self-expression. Those overseeing the display insisted that the word “graffiti” not be used to describe the resulting patterns. But, as Juliet argued, “a rose by any other word would smell as . . . ”—well, you know. Some more recent descriptions of the result speak of “aerosol art.” If you remember what the sides of New York subway cars looked liked in the late 1970s, you’ll have a good idea of what happened to the Neptune Meter building after some eleven thousand murals had been added to its walls.

Except by this point, the site had been unofficially rebaptized variously as “5 Pointz: The Institute of Higher Burnin’, ” “5Pointz Aerosol Art Center,” or just “5Pointz.” The numeral was a reference to the five boroughs of New York, the “z” a concession to the orthography and insouciance of the wielders of the aerosol cans. Nostalgie de la boue is a powerful force in decadent societies, especially among affluent members of the middle class wishing to proclaim their emancipation from and disdain for middle-class values. So it is no surprise that 5Pointz gradually became a tourist attraction and mecca for school tours. It was both “art” and an affront, an irresistible combination.

5Pointz was both “art” and an affront, an irresistible combination.

But time’s wingèd chariot pursues all, even aerosol artists and property developers. So in the fullness of time, which in this case was 2013, Mr. Wolkoff applied for and received permission to demolish the now-rotting edifice and replace it with an upscale residential condominium complex replete with a public park. In a gesture to the building’s recent adventures, the plans called for ten thousand square feet of wall space and panels to be used exclusively for art, including a ground-level façade reserved for “curated graffiti.”

It was in late 2013 that Mr. Wolkoff made his blunder. Everyone knew he was about to demolish the building (this was accomplished in 2014). But suddenly, and apparently without warning, he had the building whitewashed, thus effacing the effacements. The “arts community” was outraged. Certain lawyers were ecstatic.

Naturally, a lawsuit was brought against Mr. Wolkoff. His tort was violating the 1990 Visual Artists Rights Act, which affords artists certain rights in their work even if they do not own it. The act deals exclusively with formal rights, not aesthetic value, which is lucky for the beneficiaries of this decision. A jury found for the plaintiffs, and last month the U.S. District Court Judge Frederic Block awarded $6.7 million in damages—the maximum allowable—to twenty-one graffiti grandees, $150,000 for each of the forty-five works that met the criteria. Eric Baum, a lawyer for the artists, said that the decision is “a triumph for artists all around the country.” He did not, so far as we know, comment on the decision’s implications for the integrity of private property.

He was, however, chuffed about its “cultural significance”: “The cultural significance of 5Pointz and the value of the aerosol art created by the twenty-one plaintiffs has been recognized as fine art. It is now clear that the federal law protects the dignity of the artist and ensures that their artwork is treated respectfully.”

So, the perpetrators of the graffiti are richer by $75,000 to $1.3 million. Who knows what the attorney’s take was? And Judge Block got to preen and moralize about the “insolence” of the developer and the great cultural loss he forced upon a grieving public. “The shame of it all is that since 5Pointz was a prominent tourist attraction, the public would undoubtedly have thronged to say its goodbyes . . . and gaze at the formidable works of aerosol art for the last time.”

Chew on the adjective “formidable” for a moment. Doubtless it would have been like stout Cortez and his men gazing with “wild surmise” upon the Pacific.

Mr. Wolkoff’s action was described as “gratuitous, willful, and malicious.” It is worth noting, however, that he apparently whitewashed the murals out of consideration, not malice. He did not want the artists’ work publicly dismantled piecemeal in the lengthy demolition process. Better, he thought, to draw a veil over an arrangement that had always been meant to be temporary.

As Justin Davidson pointed out in New York magazine, “The 5Pointz case produced a strange role reversal.” Indeed, the irony is delicious. “Graffiti artists, who started out as apostles of irreverence and improvisation, were now arguing for preservation and permanence. And a real-estate developer had reason to regret his former friendliness to art.” Should he have held off whitewashing the graffiti until the artists had a chance to document their scrawls and—if Judge Block is to be believed—the public had had a chance to throng to the site to pay its last respects? Maybe. But in this instance, Mr. Wolkoff acted with some of the spontaneity and “insolence” we like to see in artists—but not real estate developers.

Mr. Wolkoff’s error lay in not being insolent towards the right people.

Readers with long memories will know that in some ways the controversy over the fate of 5Pointz is reminiscent of the controversy over Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc back in the 1980s. The work in question—a huge, minatory, bullying curve of rusted Cor-Ten steel—was fiercely disliked by the people who had to pass by it outside the Javits building in New York. They wanted it moved. Serra wanted it to stay. Nearly everyone in the art world was on Serra’s side, partly—as Hilton Kramer noted in these pages at the time—because of the presumption of “the artist’s divine dispensation.” Who cares about the public’s rights when we have uppercase Art on the line? But beyond that repulsive philistinism of the elites was the grubby old business of shocking, or at least irritating, bourgeois taste. That was part—a very large part—of what fueled the evanescent popularity of so-called “graffiti art,” at 5Pointz as elsewhere. Aesthetic quality was never an issue. On the contrary, it was always about transgression, about the “transvaluation of values,” about thumbing one’s nose at convention, propriety, artistic merit. To use Judge Block’s term, it was all about “insolence.” Mr. Wolkoff’s error lay in not being insolent towards the right people.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 7, on page 1
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