Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Graffiti Debate

The definition of Graffiti is, “Writing or drawings scribbled, scratched, or sprayed illicitly on a wall or other surface in a public place.”  Of course, we put paintings and murals in the same category unless they are commissioned for the space of the proprietor.

The debate started at home.  My wife has a real problem with graffiti and she calls the city every time she sees graffiti in our neighborhood.  Naturally, in the relatively small town like Santa Fe  they are far more responsive to this kind of complaint.  Also, the town is very proud of their “Santa Fe Style”.  We have, however, argued a great deal about it.  I think a little color often improves the look of some spaces such as the New York Subway system which is one of the drabbest places you can be.  If, however, it covers the windows of the subway cars that interferes with my riding experience from the inside.  Penelope has admitted that her biggest problem is with “tagging” when someone puts their symbol or monogram on a wall or a utility box.

"No Loitering" by Banksy (New Orleans)

I would make several distinctions, if the tag is on a building which is in the possession of someone else, then rights are being violated but if it is on a utility box which is an ugly gray square a little color, in my opinion, makes it a bit less of an eyesore. 

Thinking about this subject and looking what might be presented on the web I have found that a great deal has been written already.  Wikipedia alone has about 20 pages!

"Steamroller Warden" by Banksy (London)

Where is the distinction between Graffiti and a work of art?  These days we call scribblings by every child a work of art and the child an artist!  Taking the latter out of the equation I believe that damning art as graffiti is often just a question of whether it was done for a public space.  If the latter is true, was it commissioned or randomly placed on someone else’s wall.   We all want to choose our own works of art and not have them inflicted upon us.  Which brings us to another dilemma, what if the work was commissioned but it is offensive to your public.  If you are the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles you might take it down in order not to offend your constituency or your neighbors.  The Museum Director, Jeffrey Deitch who had promoted protest art in his gallery in New York, commissioned the Italian Street Artist Blu to create a mural for one of the museum’s buildings.  In his gallery he had encouraged provocative work by his artists but it turned out to be a different matter for a public institution.  The artist created a 3 story mural the entire length of the building representing row after row of coffins covered with dollar bills.  What made it truly offensive was that it was being done right next to a war memorial.  Obviously, this was not going to fly with the museum’s viewers and visitors.  So when the director returned from a trip he cut his losses and had it white washed.  I guess he learned his lesson that in the future he had better find out in advance what the artist had in mind when he was not dealing with a simple work on canvas.

LACMA mural by Blu (Los Angeles)

We can’t call it graffiti because it was a commissioned work but why would this be different from the case of Banksy who referred to himself as a street artist as well.  He was born in Bristol, England in 1974 and began his career around 1992 with his illegal, or shall we say illegally placed, images.  Much of his work is anti government and protest art.  What makes his case interesting is that he has slowly come to be considered legitimate even though the police have been after him and often his work is over painted by over zealous government employees in the interest of the law, and I presume, sometimes because the owners of the spaces painted upon have objected.  Personally, I could imagine appreciating a pleasant image, shall we say, on my garage doors?

"Washing Laundry" by Banksy (Timbuktu, Mali)

As he has become better known Banksy has had exhibitions in galleries and even museums and a market has been established through galleries and at auction where in 2007 for an image called “Keep it Spotless”, 8 by 10 feet and with an estimate of $250,000-$350,000 Sotheby’s New York received $1,870,000 from an eager buyer.

Like so much in art everything is not black and white (pun intended) but nuanced and one man’s graffiti may be another man’s art.

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