Last month, Farhad Manjoo reported in Slate that online retailer Amazon has a new plan: “to get stuff to you immediately—as soon as a few hours after you hit Buy.” Manjoo suggests that, if it succeeds, this plan “will destroy local retail.” Imagine what your town might look like if Amazon becomes the primary fulfiller of most people’s material wants and needs.
The picturesque local bistros would probably survive as would service providers such as salons and yoga studios but they would be flanked on either side by rows and rows of abandoned shops both large and small. Reasonably attractive outdoor malls with their pleasant fountains and inoffensive sculptures would become wastelands, their function usurped by a single, box-like distribution center lording it over acres of employee parking. My first thought, perhaps even a hope, when I envisioned such a landscape was that the people would rise up and cover it with art. In some places, this uprising has already begun.
Some may consider “street art” to be just a pretty name for vandalism and it is hard to deny that most taggers and graffiti “artists” seem to be interested in nothing more than marking territory but all over the world there are examples of spray painted masterpieces. Whether commissioned or illicit, street art can represent an effort to bring beauty, whimsy and meaning to places that were designed without these qualities in mind or to places where these qualities have disappeared through neglect.
In the chapter “Journey to the Crossroads,” Tolkien’s hobbits Sam and Frodo stumble on and on, as they have in the chapters before, on what seems to be a hopeless journey in a hopeless, wasted land. As Gollum points out in an earlier chapter, they are no longer “in decent places.” As the sun sinks, the hobbits happen upon what seems at first to be a monstrosity, an enormous statue of a once noble king but, in place of its head, there is now “a round, rough-hewn stone, rudely painted by savage hands in the likeness of a grinning face with one large red eye in the midst of its forehead.” Further polluting the statue and its pedestal is hideous graffiti,“idle scrawls mixed with the foul symbols that the maggot-folk of Mordor used.” Then, unexpectedly, the light falls in just the right way so that Frodo’s eyes come to rest on the statue’s abandoned head.
“’Look, Sam!’ he cried, startled into speech. ‘Look! The king has got a crown again!’” The king is indeed crowned with the leaves and vine of a trailing plant and with flowers of white and yellow that gleam in the fading light. “They cannot conquer forever,” Frodo proclaims and he is right. Beauty is indomitable.
When the ugliness of the world is not caused by malicious, deliberate vandalism but by the vandalism of indifference, when industry with its “mind of metal and wheels” blots out beauty, can human nature accomplish what, in Tolkien’s story, wilder nature accomplished with the statue? If Sharky’s industrialization of the Shire had been allowed to proceed, would the hobbits have had the right to cover his featureless buildings with brightly colored paint? Do people have the right to plant their own seeds of hope and loveliness in places where hope and loveliness seem to have been strangled by weeds or buried in the rubble? What might Tolkien have thought? What do you think?