Cities have always fascinated artists and have been the subjects of many excellent works of art. Thanks to El Greco, Vermeer, Hogarth, Rembrandt, and Canaletto, we have a pretty good idea of what Toledo, Delft, London, Amsterdam, and Venice looked like several centuries ago. And thanks to the Impressionists, we are quite familiar with the appearance of late 19th-century Paris.
Twentieth-century New York has also had its share of artists. It has, in fact , probably inspired more painters, printmakers, and photographers than any other place on earth except Venice and Paris.
Views of New York predominate in a small but excellent exhibition of urban vistas now at the Metropolitan Museum here. ''Aspects of the City'' consists of 11 paintings, ranging in date from 1919 to 1984, recently acquired by the museum. Included are Samuel Halpert's ''Flatiron Building,'' Jean Helion's ''Roofs, Paris,'' and Martin Wong's ''Attorney Street Handball Court.''
Good as these paintings are, however, they cannot compare with the stars of the show. Robert Birmelin's ''City Crowd, Cop and Ear,'' Rackstraw Downes's ''IRT Elevated Station at Broadway and 125th Street,'' Red Grooms's ''Chance Encounter at 3 a.m.,'' and Philip Guston's ''The Street'' should prove to everyone's satisfaction that urban realities are as much the raw material of excellent art as anything else.
Grooms's huge and extravagant canvas, in particular, is a delight. In it, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko, both of whom have just left their studios for fresh air, meet for the first time on a bench in Washington Square Park. This work is brash and somewhat raucous, in the typical Grooms style, but it is also well and intriguingly painted.
At the Metropolitan Museum through Sept. 29.
Graffiti as art
I haven't addressed the question of graffiti as art before because the issue has never seemed as clear cut to me as it has to others. I couldn't agree with those like Norman Mailer and John Cage who consider it a major, late 20 th-century form of individualized urban expression, and neither could I condemn it outright as pure vandalism. I've been appalled by its excesses, but have also found some merit in individual ''works,'' especially some of the graffiti that have made it into the galleries and museums as portable murals or canvases.
I have recently thought about graffiti a great deal, however, and have found myself less and less in sympathy with it. I am not, of course, referring here to the graffiti-inspired paintings of the sort produced by Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and several others. Nor to the collaborative ''murals'' painted by groups of teen-agers on deserted buildings and playground walls. These may not be of high quality - although Basquiat strikes me as an uncommonly talented young man - but they do at least represent an attempt to take graffiti beyond mere selfish self-assertion and toward a primitive form of social inter-communication. The very fact that these youngsters collaborate with one another, and want to fashion something through which the commmunity can express its feelings and emotions, indicates they have moved beyond infantile ''expression'' and toward some degree of genuine creativity.
I'm primarily concerned here with the kind of graffiti that deface our streets, parks, buildings, and subways, the type that merely represents an individual's ''mark,'' his indication that he has been here, that he exists. That the graffiti artist proclaims his existence to a hostile or indifferent world by scrawling his identifying symbol in a public place underlies every argument for graffiti as art I've ever heard. In a social sense, it has validity. In a world of overpopulation and urban blight, the individual does occasionally need to let off steam, does perhaps at times need to ''prove'' to others that he exists. But what a shortsighted and pointless way of doing it! For proof, I suggest a glance at the graffiti in the interior of almost any New York City subway car. Instead of individual expression, one finds only visual anarchy in the form of a solid, writhing, indecipherable mass of scrawlings in which only two or three names at most are even partially legible.
Even these names will disappear, however, when the next graffiti artist sprays his name over them - and his, in turn, will be obliterated in a few minutes, hours, or days by another's initials. The cycle is endless, and the result is sheer chaos and clutter - the exact opposite of what art is all about.
What is merely ugly and depressing in our subways and streets can come very close to defilement when it moves into our parks. It is one thing to deface walls and windows, quite another to turn the trunks of stately oaks and elms into masses of scrawlings and splotches of paint. Where is the art in this? And where the excuse?
No, I'm afraid the time has run out for this kind of graffiti, and for all the rationalizations that claim it is art. I'm willing to accept some of what has evolved from it, and to view that seriously as an emerging art form. I know of no rule, after all, that states graffiti cannot be or become art, but I also know of no way it can do so without first moving beyond its totally self-centered and self-assertive primitive state. Art, we must remember, is more than grunts and groans, primal shrieks, dead silences, raw expressions of rage and frustration - or one's name scrawled on someone's window. If the last-named defines graffiti, then it is merely antisocial behavior. If, however, graffiti's energy and focus can be channeled into genuinely formulative or mythic directions - and Haring and Basquiat indicate it is possible - it could yet become a viable and lively form of art.