In our second installment, we profile a piece of Los Angeles street art.
I was visiting my old stomping grounds in Los Angeles: at Figaro Cafe, to be exact, on Vermont Avenue in Los Feliz. The area is the buffer between the dirty streets of Hollywood and the young creatives stalking the capillaries of Silver Lake and Echo Park.
It had been six months since I’d been in Los Angeles, having left in haste, with clouds of smoke spitting up across the desert after I bowed out of a job in true Jerry Maguire fashion. It was a bittersweet departure and when I was flying back from New York City to Los Angeles, I was well aware that this city at the end of the world (as I like to term L.A., since it’s the terminus of westward migration) was growing bigger and bigger along the horizon, filling me with not a little melancholy. When once again I was able to walk the street and witness the art, I felt at home.
I became aware of the street art in the article’s title when I looked across Vermont at an electrical box, a favorite target of street artists in Los Angeles. Immediately I was struck by the phrase:”The curse of imagination is picturing the world as it should be.”
It seemed to me to be an homage of sorts to something Teddy Kennedy had said of his brother Robert at the latter’s funeral. Teddy was quoting Bobby, who in turn was loosely paraphrasing a line from George Bernard Shaw’s play ”Back to Methuselah.”
Some men see things as they are and say, “Why?” I dream things that never were and say, “Why not?”
Shaw gave the line to a Serpent in “Back to Methuselah,” in which the Serpent is speaking to Eve and commenting on how he always notices she and Adam see things and ask, “Why?” The Serpent goes on to say, “But I dream things that never were; and I say, “Why not?”
Now, right away, any Bible-thumping conservative is going to take opposition to RFK’s appropriation of a line given to the Biblical serpent, always wrongly associated with the Jewish Pentateuch or Christian Bible’s Satan or Lucifer. Connecting the serpent and Satan, however, is a creative endeavor on the part of the faithful, and the serpent in fact allowed humans to feel the full range of human emotion and aspire to great intellectual heights. No longer were they mere automatons. That, however, is another discussion altogether, and I don’t wish to go off on a Biblical discussion.
Whatever the case may have been, RFK appropriated the phrase—whether he read it in Shaw’s play or found it in a collection of quotes—and applied it to a progressive vision of the world. A world in which not just Bobby but humanity saw the world as it should be, and instead of being dismissive as most conservatives are, resolved to do something about it. We might never be perfect, but does that mean we should not aspire to the heights of perfection? Absolutely not.
It was this commentary that played in my mind when I looked at the street art and its phrase, “The curse of imagination is picturing the world as it should be.” We might also apply a supplementary phrase to many religious people, “The curse of the faithful is imagining how heaven might be, instead of picturing the world as it should be.”
Having an imagination is necessarily creative—whether one chooses to express it is another question. But, it is no coincidence that imaginative minds help shape the world. This has always been the case. But, the very same mind that can create something like the novels “Moby Dick” or “Ulysses,” can also imagine a world shaped by unfathomable horrors. That is, a dictator can be said to have an imagination, albeit limited—they choose to exercise their imagination (perhaps since it’s the only imagination they have) in very destructive ways.
The street art thus assumes a bifurcated interpretation: one good and one bad. We are once again back at the doormat of morality, and with George Bernard Shaw’s dialogue, back at the gates of religion.
This is why a good many artists and activists struggle with melancholy and the idea that their imagination of the world as it should be is up against a tidal wave of masses who lack vision. So calcified has their thought become that they cannot conceive of a world in any other way in which it is currently structured. It would involve a complete dismantling of not one but the majority worldview, which people are not quick to abandon.
And so, yes, imagining or picturing the world as it should be is a curse. The visionaries, however, are usually vindicated with the passage of time. Look at all the scientists obstructed by the Catholic Church, or all the visual artists and writers ignored or laughed at in their time: how they shine now as part of a very bright constellation.
And where are those with the static or atrophied imaginations? In the dust bin of history, where they belong.
The visionaries will ultimately triumph.
“Street Art Dispatches” is a series considering the symbolism of art and words as seen in graffiti and street art. If readers find any street art and phrases that they believe deserve consideration for an article, we encourage you to submit the phrase and photograph firstname.lastname@example.org.