There’s a highway overpass at 28th Street connecting Reservoir Hill with other Baltimore neighborhoods like Remington, Hampden and Charles Village. A couple months ago I saw an older gentleman laboriously painting the cracking concrete walls of that overpass, covering with pearly white paint the weather-worn graffiti and rust-orange chain link run-off. I remember thinking as I watched him work: “What a thankless job! — earning a day’s wage toiling in the heat of the day to make Baltimore just a little nicer.” A couple weeks later, I was driving on the same overpass when I saw fresh black graffiti scrawled across the white surface. It read: “THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS.” My heart sank.
I don’t know who sprayed the graffiti. My immediate thought was it must be some MICAstudent, someone who thinks they’re being clever or ironical. Indeed, I later discovered local artist Adam Kurtz’s website where he now sells postcards with the graffiti from the overpass. Click here to see the image. Someone once told me that contemporary art must be judged, above all else, by how it makes us feel. That display, if it was art at all, made me feel awful — for the poor man who worked so hard to paint the wall, for the cars driving by and, perhaps most of all, for the misguided “artist.”
Seeing those spray painted words made me think of the scene from Schindler’s List when Helen, a young Jewish captive, is describing her abuse at the hands of the Nazi commandant, Amon Goeth. “‘Why are you beating me? [I asked him].’ He said, ‘The reason I beat you now is because you ask why I beat you.'” The abuse becomes, invidiously, self-fulfilling. The comparison is imperfect to be sure, but both have in common a blatant violation of the principal of Bal Tashchit. To create (life, beauty and, yes, art) is a great Jewish virtue. God is, after all, the Creator. The undoing of creation, then, the wanton destruction or abuse of things and people is an affront to God. To spray paint something like “THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS” and through that destructive process to actually ruin something which was, in it’s own small way, a nice thing, is to go against everything that healthy (let alone sacred) communities stand for.
Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.” I dated a girl in college who didn’t like the word “nice,” she thought it too banal or simplistic. But I am often struck by society’s dearth of simply positive qualities like “nice.” That day in my car I could only think, “but we can have nice things, we just need a few more nice people.”
It’s months later now and the graffiti has since been covered over, perhaps by the same man who worked so hard to paint it in the first place. I wonder what he was thinking as he repainted. I know what I would be thinking: “Some people might see this as art. Perhaps it is. But perhaps it’s just mean.”