Its also a helpful advertisement for transgression.
It's also a helpful advertisement for the pleasure of communal transgression, which we're in desperate need of here in Seattle. f11photo /

Children are told not to stick gum beneath their desks. It's one of the first things they're not supposed to do. But when children do break that rule—because the trash can's too far away, because they don't want to get up and disrupt the teacher, because they're human beings—their fingers find the old, tacky gum of their forerunners.

In that moment, a sense of kinship and community blossoms in their belly. They're not alone in their transgression. Others have come before them, others will come after them. They've entered their first transgressive community, one that will hopefully lead to many others.

As with desks, so with walls. The gum wall is an extension of this act of fighting against the powers that be. Sure it's true that putting gum under desks is disgusting, but kids chewing gum isn't the cause of that problem. A better candidate might be those who create and enforce educational environments wherein students are strapped to chairs for eight hours and expected not to fidget. Calling the gum wall childish, then, is no insult from my point of view.

You might say that the gum wall is more "quirky" than it is transgressive, that it's an advertisement of transgression, an architectural Che Guevara t-shirt. That's fair, but not damning. We need more advertisements of transgression to counteract the narratives of submission, consumption, male supremacy, white supremacy, and conformity that we process every time we walk around downtown or watch an advertisement for Axe body wash.

As the Black Lives Matter activists reminded us when they interrupted Bernie Sanders's speech at a rally for Social Security last summer: the denizens of Seattle aren't as progressive or transgressive as they think themselves to be. In its way, the gum wall is a testament to the power of persistent and communal transgression, a monument that invites us to tap in to that first fuck you, that first moment when we fought back against the system (in, granted, a small way) and learned that we wouldn't immediately explode for doing so.

But let's accept for a moment that the wall is nothing more than a "quirky" thing that people like for its quirkiness. Critics of quirkiness describe the aesthetic as a form of creativity that allows creator and viewer to ignore substantive political issues. Additionally, politicians and pro-business interests use quirkiness to neutralize culture for their benefit. Therefore, quirkiness is wrong, harmful.

To borrow Steven Fry's argument about Wagner: no one owns beauty or ugliness or quirkiness. Business people and politicians don't get to have quirkiness just because they use it to their advantage—that is, unless, we let them. Why add the powers of quirkiness to their considerable store?

And quirkiness is a quality worth keeping. Quirkiness is a more accessible, digestible form of absurdity. Our capacity for absurdity is one of the things that defines us as human, one of the real differences between us and our animal and artificial buds. For more on the centrality of absurdity to our humanity, see Robert Frost's "West-running Brook," and check out Richard Wilbur's research on the history of riddles.

Acts of and monuments to quirkiness also subtly fly in the face of optimization, one of the great pistons in the engine of late capitalism. So many of us have drunk from the punch bowl of optimization, innovation, and improvement. (As Frank O'Hara said: "improve them for what, death?") Appreciating and promoting quirkiness is a way of rejecting the narratives of industrial progress that raze our forests, pollute our skies, and reduce our cities to boring blocks of glass.