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The Art of Rebellion
Ever since prehistoric man first etched a symbol into a rock face or depicted a hunt on the walls of a cave, graffiti has been a part of human culture. Graffiti is the plural form of the italian word Graffito, which refers to “scratching” or leaving one's mark (typically textual), or a message in a public place. Graffiti by this definition was first used to describe the unofficial or informal writings which archeologists found on ancient tombs or monuments(“Graffito”), but within the last fifty or so years, the word as well as the practice have evolved, referring, often pejoratively, to the tagging associated with hip hop culture in 1960s New York, and more recently incorporating an internationally recognized form of self-expression, political subversion and artistic creation which this paper addresses when referring to graffiti or street art. Despite the illegality of the act itself, this writing on the walls seems to have occupied a quickly growing subculture, and with the increasingly prolific number of works and artists, some of whom have gained international recognition and gallery distribution, one must ask, where graffiti finds its place among vandalism, politics and art?
Addressing the issue of vandalism seems fairly simple –– any work created without permission, on property, not owned by the person creating it is a form of vandalism. Even this falls under the realm of qualitative judgement however, as an average spectator is more hesitant to label an image which is aesthetically appealing, or a well-composed verse as an act of defacement than they would be to denounce a vulgar phrase or a crude picture. Indeed, in Barcelona, Spain where images are sprayed and pasted to nearly every available surface at the city's center, some shop owners grant permission to a particular graffiti artist, who in return is protective of their “canvas,” thus ensuring for the storefront a higher quality and more cohesive brand of graffiti and guaranteeing the artist an exhibition space.
An exhibition space is typically thought of within the context of the art gallery, which creates an interesting question in and of itself. A gallery show is presented with a certain level of exclusivity, which is established by what Becker refers to as an art world, or the activities, conventions and people involved with the production of what they define as art. “Art worlds typically devote considerable attention to trying to decide what is and isn't art, what is and isn't their kind of art, and who is and isn't an artist...(Becker, 36)” By doing this, a value system is created and the title of “art” or “artist” becomes one of privilege, accompanied by certain advantages, therefore, as Becker notes, it is in the best interest of the creator to be know as such. Even in graffiti culture, perhaps its own specific art world, some graffiti artists are able to escape the anonymity typical of the medium and gain a public reputation as an Artist. In the case of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the privileged title came when he abandoned his well known graffiti duo SAMO and began showing his work in galleries. A 1982 article about the 22 year-old artist remarks “He's so precocious he's practically old before his time and his sensibility seems very European, also in an old vein. In a word, it turns out that graffiti art can have the hell domesticated out of it (Smith).” Similar is the contemporary success of Banksy, an english graffiti artist who has gained both international fame and a number of high-profile gallery shows with single pieces often selling for upwards of half a million dollars. Banksy even sold a canvas for nearly two million dollars, all while keeping his actual identity secret.
The Street as a Gallery
The success of artists such as Basquiat and Banksy presents an interesting conundrum on both a sociopolitical and a theoretical level. Graffiti is intrinsically linked with subversion and either a subtle, or very blatant rejection of societal conventions –– subtle rejection as the simple subversive act of painting on the streets, as opposed to overtly political or counter-culture pieces. A malcontent with current systems of artistic and societal hierarchy seems a common sentiment echoed in numerous pieces of graffiti literature, and under this presumption, the street becomes a sort of de-privileged gallery, defined by the absence of a controlling establishment denoting the value or importance of a work –– a gallery which offers egalitarian access to spectators while rejecting to an extent, the convention of ownership. Even well-known graffiti artists tend to be identified by their aesthetic style, a symbol, or a pseudonym instead of a recognizable name or face. In addition to this rejection of ownership, is an anti-consumerism sentiment, upon which Banksy himself expounds in the first pages of his book Wall and Piece:
They say graffiti frightens people and is symbolic of the decline in society... The people who truly deface our neighbourhoods are the companies that scrawl giant slogans across buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff. They expect to be able to shout their message in your face from every available surface but you're never allowed to answer back. Well, they started the fight and the wall is the weapon of choice to hit them back.
This denouncement of a consumer society must be called into question when the artist produces work which gains both critical acclaim and a high price tag, thus removing it from the de-privileged realm of the street and placing it into the conventional construct of a more exclusive art world. “...The integration of graffiti into the art market holds a place only in the margins; and overall, this fragile recognition effectuates itself on the price of the passage to the canvas, which constitutes a profound overturning of the very meaning of graffiti (Beuscart).” That being said, it is also possible that the recognition of an artist's work aids the proliferation of their message and that the exorbitant sales to the upper class art collectors is yet another attempt to slight the world of consumerism.
This attraction to a more permanent exhibition space, while at odds with the rebellious nature of graffiti, may not be a point over which the legitimacy of an artist's intentions should be discredited. In his discourse “On Collecting Art and Culture,” Clifford remarks that the act of gathering and collecting objects and creating a hierarchal value system for these objects is, if not an inescapably human characteristic, then most certainly a western one. This combined with the artistic advantages of Becker may justify a departure from anonymity in pursuit of qualitative recognition. Using Fredric Jameson's model of a conceptual semiotic square, Clifford creates a mapped diagram of the “Art-Culture System,” included below, to illustrate the criteria which have been created to classify, contextualize and establish a value system for objects in the realm of art and culture. While he uses this delineate the classification of ethnographic objects and works of art, it is easily applied to graffiti.
Graffiti occupies an unclear space within this diagram, as it is both collectively considered a product of the society in which it is created and as being in disaccord with said society. Additionally, while the first rendering of an image is an original work, the recent popularity of stenciling in street art makes duplication not only simple, but common. Many artists even make patterns of their work available online to increase the proliferation of their images to areas which they would be unable to reach themselves. Clifford notes, however, the importance of temporality in determining the value of a piece, since the possession (or perhaps even viewing) of an object which may not exist in the near future privileges the spectator. It is possible that the replication of a particular piece of street art is simply an effort to escape the faded, chipped, or over-painted fate of the medium. Given these specifications and accompanying contradictory examples, it seems that classifying graffiti as art or not-art is nearly impossible, so one must ask, what is the value in distinguishing between the two? Returning to Becker, the question seems inconsequential. “The ideology posits a perfect correlation between doing the core activity [ which leads to the production of a piece of art] and being an artist. If you do it, you must be an artist. Conversely, if you are an artist, what you do must be art (Becker, 18).”
Banksy. Wall and Piece. London: Century, The Random House Group Limited, 2006
Becker, Howard S. Art Worlds. Berkely: University of California Press,1982
Beuscart, Jean-Samuel & de Grangeneuve, Loïc Lafargue. “Comprendre le Graffiti à New York et Ivry (Note Liminaire aux textes de Richard Lachmann et de Frédéric Vagneron).” Cairn's Terrains & Travaux. (2006): 47-54. 20 April, 2009 <http://www.cairn.info/revue-terrains-et-travaux-2003- 2-page-47.htm#haut>. Translation: My own.
Clifford, James. The Predicament of Culture; Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988
“Graffito.” The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition Copyright© 2004, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Lernout & Hauspie Speech Products N.V. 5 May 2009 <http://www.questia.com/library/encyclopedia/graffito.jsp>.
Irvine, Martin. “Institutional Theory of Art and the Art World.” Georgetown University. 2008. Georgetown University. 27th April, 2009. <http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/ visualarts/ Institutional-theory-artworld.html>.
Smith, Roberta. “Mass Productions; Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Contemporary Art Scene.” The Village Voice. 23 Mar. 1982, republished 18 oct. 2005. 6 May, 2009 <http://www.villagevoice. com /2005-10-18/specials/mass-productions/>.
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