This Is Modern Art: Synchronicity of the Week

3cr-TIMA_CoverCarl Jung might call it synchronicity because this is a meaningful coincidence, albeit also accidental. Wednesday night at a live lit event I told the story of the play This Is Modern Art and the storm of criticism it generated last year. And it happens that the book version of that very play is being released tonight at Young Chicago Authors. Obviously I need to buy an autographed copy of the play I’ve thought about so much. This is an adaptation of the story I told Wednesday night at Kill Your Darlings.

I started by asking, Who gets to be a critic? Trained and experienced theater critics review plays for print media and websites. And there are the commenters who voice their opinions on theater and everything else in comment columns and on social media. Does everyone get to be a theater critic?

The second question is: Who gets to tell our stories? Can the stories about your group—whether it’s feminists, African-Americans, transgender people, old white guys—be told by writers who are not members of the group? Can an African American writer tell a Hispanic story? Can a privileged white person tell a story about families in poverty?

The event that made me think about these questions was Steppenwolf Theatre’s production last year of a play called This is Modern Art – it was part of the Steppenwolf for Young Adults series.

This Is Modern Art (based on true events) is a play about a crew of young graffiti artists who paint their art on a wall of the new Modern Wing of the Art Institute. In the play, they are protesting the elitism of mainstream art and museums and their inability to view and participate in that art world. The play, representing graffiti and hiphop culture, was intended for audiences of mostly high school students. The playwrights were Kevin Coval, Chicago poet and founder of Louder Than a Bomb, the teen poetry slam, and hiphop artist Idris Goodwin.

The play drew a storm of criticism—and then the criticism drew a storm of criticism. Critics of two major media criticized it harshly as promoting illegal acts, while other critics praised the production and its intent. A twitterstorm began over two very negative reviews – there were accusations of racism and elitism.

My 17-year-old grandson James saw the play with me and we wrote the review together. We both liked the play and thought it had important messages.

These are some quotes from the review James and I wrote. This appeared in the late great Gapers Block, the website where many of the Third Coast Review writers and editors worked before.

“This Is Modern Art (based on true events) is a provocative play intended for a “young adult” audience that raises questions that are already generating heated discussions among theatergoers of all ages. Steppenwolf’s new production … tells the story of a crew of graffiti writers who create a 50-foot mural on the east wall of the new Modern Wing of the Art Institute…. The important message is that the graffiti writers are artists shouting to be seen and heard. They demand visibility in a society that decrees them invisible–as artists and as individuals….

“JC is the spiritual, introspective member of the crew. He delivers a poetic monologue about his love for the city and for the graffers that glorify it with their art.

“I climb steps to the roof and take in the skyline, Hancock to Sears, the city’s lit crooked smile. It is so quiet. I come here to compose my self and when there are no stars, I am comforted by the stars man made. [Beat.] I think I need to hang a star of my own.”

The play and the production make clear that the graffers know they are committing an illegal act, but they are intent on doing it to make their point clear. In the end, their actions mean the end of their relationships.

During a talkback after the opening performance, one person questioned whether the play sends the wrong message to young people about the illegal act of graffiti writing. Several young audience members disagreed heatedly. The Steppenwolf playbill asks a similar question: Was what happened an act of vandalism or artistic commentary?

But the important message the play articulates is that art shouldn’t be confined to elite galleries and museums with $18 admission tickets. As my review said, the graffiti artists demand visibility in a society that decrees them invisible—as artists and as individuals.

Chicago has a long history of street art in public places, both the illegal variety and that done on “permission walls.” From expressways and railroad underpasses to abandoned buildings, graffiti writing is a colorful, vibrant part of urban life.

People who write for the web often despair about not getting any comments. But my review of This Is Modern Art received two.

Sharon posted this comment: “Finally, someone who reviewed the play and GOT IT!”

Manuel questioned the playwright’s right to tell the story. The following is an excerpt of his comment.

“I have a difficult time taking Kevin Coval’s viewpoint on the position of graffiti seriously. Mr. Coval grew up in a predominantly Jewish area of Northbrook. He attended private colleges without taking out student loans. And once his parents die, he will inherit their estate, which is, valued to be at least 1.2 million dollars just based on their North Shore home. He will know nothing of the lasting effects of graffiti in Chicago’s communities.

“He chooses to live in Ukrainian Village for now because it’s convenient, hip, and because he does not have school aged children. When he does I am sure he’ll pack it up for the suburbs.”

And then there were the critics’ reviews. Two of them were very negative. One had this headline:

“Steppenwolf’s deeply misguided ‘This Is Modern Art’ spray paints all the wrong messages.”

That reviewer said:

“To start, a hypothetical question addressed to the powers that be at Steppenwolf Theatre: How would you react were you to arrive at work one morning to discover that the entire facade of your theater had been spray-painted with graffiti, and that the message left behind went like this: ‘All the world is OUR stage.’

“I pose the question after having just seen “This Is Modern Art,” the wildly misguided new Steppenwolf for Young Adults production ……”

Another critic wrote this.

Some earlier reviews of the show have approached it from a hard moralistic point of view about graffiti and street art, and whether the play glamorizes this subculture too much. To my mind, the fact that defacing the property of others is against the law doesn’t need to be spelled out to Chicago teenagers, though I’d say the play makes that quite clear.

“This is a piece about the overwhelming urge not just to create art, but to get it seen—if only by a scant few before the sandblasters come along. The crew’s ultimate objective is recognition, even though they remain anonymous and their personal relationships suffer for it. That’s a powerful message to deliver to crowds of kids who might feel like they’re not being heard.”

I certainly agree with that perspective. The play is about the aspirations of kids who feel they will never find their way into the elite, mainstream art world to get noticed.

One more critic had this to say:

“The scene most people have the biggest problem with is when Seven, Dose, and JC directly address the audience to give detailed instructions on how to covertly paint graffiti, including what sort of gloves to use, how to arrange your cans for easy access, how to use your look-out, and what supplies you’ll need if you get arrested. This scene serves no dramatic purpose and blatantly tells the teenagers in the audience to emulate the characters in how they express themselves.”

James thought this was silly. If you want to do graffiti, he says, it’s easy enough for anyone to find out how to do it.

This Is Modern Art brings together these questions.

Do teenagers need to be protected from knowing about illegal acts?

Does a playwright who comes from a privileged background have the right to tell this story?

Do theater critics represent racist or elitist views? Do they have the right to review a play like this?

The remainder of the Kill Your Darlings evening featured stories on critics, criticism and performance. Kerry Reid, freelance theater critic and arts journalist, read an essay that touched on the lack of diversity in the critic community and in theater itself. The debate on diversity in casting continues today with local examples such as Porchlight Theatre’s In the Heights and the casting approach taken for the Chicago production of Hamilton. Clearly the theater world is in the midst of the current tumult on social issues and the This Is Modern Art controversies highlighted them dramatically.

Nancy S Bishop
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.

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