Off the wall

GRAFFITI are on the verge of becoming respectable. They are shown in some of the best galleries, have made it into a few museums, and have acquired a number of serious collectors.

This, of course, is not quite the same kind of graffiti we find scrawled on walls, buildings, and subway trains, but a somewhat more sophisticated version that is generally spray-painted onto canvas and then exhibited as art.

The ''names'' of those who produce such work have not changed much, however, from those of the original group of graffiti writers who began to decorate or deface (depending on one's point of view) our cities roughly 15 years ago. ''Taki 183,'' ''Flowers,'' ''Super Hog,'' and ''Dice'' have been replaced by ''A-One,'' ''Noc,'' ''Toxic,'' ''Daze,'' ''Crash,'' ''The Arbitrator Koor,'' and ''Fab 5 Fred.''

A recent exhibition of some of the latter group at New York's prestigious Sidney Janis Gallery caused both consternation and enthusiasm among art professionals, curators, and collectors. On the other hand, a major show of American graffiti artists mounted in Europe shortly afterward drew a great deal of unqualified praise and relatively little negative criticism.

Graffiti received the support of important members of the arts community right from the start. As early as 1974, Norman Mailer wrote that the phenomenon was ''the beginning of another millennium of vision.'' And John Cage made it clear that our society should cherish every mark left behind by graffiti artists. More recently, Diego Cortex, a curator of shows devoted to such work, wrote that ''graffiti should be looked at as a highly sophisticated art form which is the image of New York, and is definitely the soul of the underground scene at the moment.''

Critical reaction has generally not been so enthusiastic, although a number of critics have written respectfully of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Both graduated from working in subways - Basquiat began his career as ''Samo'' - to exhibiting in major museums and galleries, and have established significant reputations for themselves as serious young artists.

But while Basquiat and Haring may have departed from a purely graffito methodology in their art, most of the other figures identified with the movement have not. They take pride, in fact, in staying close to their roots, in evolving a style that would look as at home on the side of a subway car as in a commercial art gallery. Some do depart from the traditional writing of names and numbers, however, and include images of specific objects, events, or people, but never to the extent of fashioning ''museum type'' art.

As a result, most exhibited graffiti art still has an unplanned and somewhat unfocused look to it, and it is only minimally more sophisticated than similar work found on playground walls or the exteriors of subway cars parked long enough in a yard for graffiti writers to give them their full attention. Such exhibited work may be on canvas and be expensively framed. It may go into an important art collection or travel around the world as a significant example of recent American art. In actuality, however, it remains a piece of graffiti, a pictorial/calligraphic statement predicated on the notion that an individual has the right to leave his or her mark wherever he or she pleases, and on the belief that society has no right to interfere with or suppress this basic and in some ways ultimate act of individual expression.

This, of course, disturbs those who feel not only that individual expression is not an absolute right guaranteed even if it violates the rights of others, but also that creating art is a social and cultural act at least as much as it is a private one.

How, these people ask, can images existing merely or primarily to verify or to celebrate an individual's existence - especially if they deface public and private property - be considered art? Isn't it bad enough that graffiti must now be accepted as a fact of life without also glorifying it and making it culturally important?

Their point is well taken, particularly in regard to the indecipherable scrawlings found on the walls of public places and on our trees and buildings. It is less relevant, however, when the discussion turns to the works on canvas produced and exhibited by such recent and more art-oriented graffiti writers as ''Noc,'' ''Daze,'' and ''Toxic.'' What these young men paint may rank rather low as art, but I have seen enough of it to accept the fact that some of it at least is art.

I personally dislike most of it. It is too crass and blatant for my taste. But I must admit that its best examples have a vitality and a formal cohesiveness - to say nothing of a delightfully exuberant sense of fun - that lifts them above mere self-assertiveness. These paintings have a primitive expressive quality that both communicates the artist's interests and passions and strikes a note of enthusiasm and joy that convinces me the world is a little better off for their existence. That may still not be very much, and it certainly is not enough to qualify them as art in any significant sense, but it does mean that something potentially important may be bubbling away in these gaily colored and enthusiastically painted works. And that if we give them time, we may all benefit.

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