The Arcade Fire: indie-rock saviors or small-time corporate-minded vandals? Ian Dille, an Austin journalist whose wife's picture- framing shop recently served as a canvas for the Montreal band's mysterious street art campaign, is leaning towards the latter. Writing for Slate, Dille today shares a new perspective on the cryptic marketing behind Reflektor—that of the unsuspecting urbanite who unsuspectingly found her property (or workplace, in this case) co-opted by the marketing apparatus of a massively acclaimed rock band:
A few weeks ago, my wife noticed a logo spray-painted on the long gray wall of the custom picture framing shop where she works in Austin, Texas’s gallery district. Along the wall, there is already a large, colorful mural, a few “no parking” stencils, and some street art of a stork dropping bombs from its satchel. (I’d call the stork graffiti, but it’s beloved by my wife and me, and the shop’s owner. Thus: art.)
That logo, it turned out, wasn't any routine nugget of anonymous street art—it was part of a worldwide street art campaign cryptically dropping hints about the Arcade Fire's new album, like such:
Reflektor, street art pic.twitter.com/nAhYsUzRIL— Jerry Weirdo ☮ (@Wolf_Tron) August 5, 2013
Registering this connection on Monday, when fliers for the album materialized, Dille and his wife were rather peeved. They're fans of the band. But still, he writes, "when I found out the logo was nothing but a commercial promotion, I felt ... used." Alas, an innocuous public art display had been corporatized in seconds flat. Dille's distinction:
If you’ve got a radical social agenda and you think spray-painting property is the best way to convey your message? Go ahead. If you’re a gangbanger and you want to mark your territory, I can learn to live with that.
But if you’re an internationally renowned band that’s defacing public and private property for promotional purposes, maybe go back to the drawing board, and think some more about how you want to let people know about your music.
Here's the thing: graffiti, by definition, is illegal. And, by most accounts, invasive. That it's intended to promote a product (okay, an album) doesn't make it more so. That it's conveying a "radical social agenda" doesn't make it less so, certainly to those to whom that radical agenda is odious. The law doesn't distinguish. Your own aesthetic tastes can, sure. But such is the nature of
public art—morally ambiguous, often mysterious, blurring boundaries between public and private, creative expression and political statement.
Dille seems to realize his double standard is just that—but does it hold? As one mouthy commenter captures it:
This graffiti is a nuisance. Graffiti I like is not a nuisance. I think that sums things up?
Alright, we get it. This graffiti was promotional. That's bad—right? But then, most street art is promoting something: a political agenda, a gang, the artist behind the work. And the Arcade Fire's wordless logo can't quite be likened to a corporate billboard: there wasn't a commercial message to be read, unless you happened to be in the indie-rock loop. (Think everyone knows who the Arcade Fire is? You've already forgotten the world's best Grammy-inspired Tumblr.) And that, too, is just the nature of so many street art messages: baffling to most city residents, understood by those in the know.
Finally, it seems all too easy to confuse critical acclaim with material wealth in calling the Arcade Fire a "multimillion-dollar Grammy-winning band." Sure, they're tremendously successful. But, as New York's Nitsuh Abebe chronicled last year, indie-rock royalty does not a millionaire make. ("People probably have an inflated idea of what we make," Grizzly Bear's Ed Droste told the magazine.)
Dille frames it as a struggle for the Arcade Fire to retain integrity in the face of its own success. But that's a distraction. Win Butler and co. have done just that by not compromising the integrity of their art since Funeral, a trend that seems to be continuing this time around. It seems specious to suggest the street art campaign is much of a money-making scheme—it's all too impractical and cryptic for that, and it's unlikely to boost sales the way, say, a buzzy video for a single featuring David Bowie will. They could have just gone the Justin Timberlake route and scored a corporate sponsorship or two. But they didn't.
So sure, be annoyed your building was vandalized. But don't complain just because the band is popular or sell-outs. And anyway, they didn't intend to damage. As Win Butler explains in an apology note that's just been appended to the Slate piece, the logos were only supposed to be done in chalk or water-soluble paint. At least he's a gentleman about it.
All photos courtesy AP.