Interview: Heather Mac Donald on California in Decline

MR. DRISCOLL:  Heather, one of the chapters you contributed to California: The Beholden State  explores what you call "Radical Graffiti Chic." It's a tour of an art exhibit devoted to the aesthetic "joys," if that's the word, of spray painted graffiti. I’ve always thought of graffiti as vandalism and defacement of private property. How did we reach a point where our intellectual and aesthetics-oriented betters on the left began to take a different view?

MS. MAC DONALD:  Ed, you are so out of it.  I mean, graffiti has been --

MR. DRISCOLL:  I lead a very sheltered life!

MS. MAC DONALD:  Yeah, it's been lionized by the elites for -- for decades, but it really reached its apogee of elite hypocritical veneration with this show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Los Angeles; that was the largest museum show yet dedicated to graffiti.  And the hypocrisy was just utterly sickening because the Board of Trustees at the Museum of Contemporary Art live in Bel Air, they live in Hancock Park, they live in Brentwood and Beverley Hills, they own hedge funds in New York and Los Angeles; they would never for an instant tolerate graffiti on their own premises.  Indeed, the Museum of Contemporary Art itself, if you drive along the back of it, of the Geffen Center on Alameda Drive in downtown Los Angeles, they clean over their own graffiti because they understand that this is a scourge to urban vitality.  Nevertheless, this is one of those radical chic conceits that the elite hold that somehow this is the authentic expression of the ghetto, and therefore we should celebrate it.  And so this show romanticized the era of New York subway defacement when people who entered those subways felt like they had been run over by a truck.  The ugliness was so overwhelming, and it gave the official imprimatur to Los Angeles' Hispanic graffiti vandals.

I talked to a lot of them; you can go to Homeboy Industries in downtown LA where people are coming and trying to get out of the gang life, and, you know, they'll say, I wasted my high school years.  I -- oops -- maybe I should close my door here in New York.

MR. DRISCOLL:  (Laughs)

MS. MAC DONALD:  We'll hope it's not a graffiti vandal has been hit, or maybe that wouldn't be so bad.

[Returning to quoting former gang members she met at Homeboy Industries in LA] You know, I was on meth, I was out there every night, staying up all night, to [graffiti] tag.  I was cutting school, or sleeping through my classes because I was so tired and, you know, people spend time in prison for this, and yet this is the way that the now -- thank heavens former -- head of -- of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Jeffrey Deitch, thought was a way to celebrate minority culture.

There's far better ways.  Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic has started the youth organization -- Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, which brings classical music to inner-city kids.  It's modeled on the fabulous El Sistema program in Venezuela.  If Deitch and his trustees such as Eli Broad, and I know he's a hero to many in the conservative movement for his support of charter schools, but on this he was an ignorant and blind backer of Jeffrey Deitch and if he wants to feel like he's a champion of minority culture, I would urge him to go talk to Gustavo Dudamel and not the graffiti vandals of downtown Los Angeles.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Well if the Museum of Contemporary Art approves of graffiti as an art form, I assume they don't mind if you crack open a can of Krylon spray paint, and add your own additions to their display, right?

MS. MAC DONALD:  No, a good question.  I decided to check them out on that.  I tried to write some -- took my little nice erasable graphite pencil out in -- in the exhibit and was immediately intercepted by a guard; oh, we don't allow writing.  And this was just on the walls, it wasn't as if I was defacing any of this so-called art, but nevertheless, even though they won't allow it in their -- in their halls, they're selling -- the gift shop sold graffiti paint that is manufactured by a -- a company who specializes in spray paint for graffiti vandals, and I asked again, well, can I use this on the outside?  If I buy it here, can I use it on the outside of MOCA, and the woman who was working in the -- in the gift shop said oh, no, you know, you wouldn't believe the amount of guards we've got patrolling this place.

So the hypocrisy is just simply stunning, and it's astounding that it's not so apparent that the -- the trustees didn't see it, but it just shows the desperation of the elites to feel like they are somehow participating in anti-establishment culture even as they are reaping the benefits of a stable society that respects property rights, their own property rights, you know, their -- their hedge funds and their Mercedes Benz and their -- their undoubtedly gated mansions in Bel Air.