This last Sunday, March 30, on the CBS Sunday Morning TV program there was a segment featuring a current art exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York. The exhibit presents the work of three contemporary artists who started their artistic activities as taggers on the inner city streets of New York in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
The reporter was questioning if graffiti is legitimate art or simply vandalism. Representatives from the museum predictably insisted that it was most certainly art and a representative from the Manhattan Institute was passionately insisting that it was vandalism and should not be glorified.
It seems to me that the reporter was proposing a false dichotomy. I don’t think that graffiti is either art OR vandalism. I think it is both art AND vandalism. Additionally, the vandalism is an essential aspect of graffiti as an art form. The vandalism is part of the expression. Let me explain what I mean.
Graffiti as Art:
My favorite definition for “art” is
“an expression of truth or beauty through a creative form.”
Let’s start at the end of that definition and work backward. It is obvious that graffiti is a creative form: It uses paint to capture and manipulate the visual elements in an innovative way. It is also clear that it is expressive. So the only thing we still need to determine is, “Does it express truth or beauty.” Certainly it does not express beauty, but what about “truth.” It seems apparent to me that the urban taggers were most assuredly expressing the very real anger, disappointment, and frustration of the inner city. Their message represented the very real, true emotional climate of their community. In spite of the 1963-69 promises of politicians to create a “great society,” a decade and two later things hadn’t changed all that much in the communities that were of greatest need.
Graffiti as Vandalism: Vandalism was an important and inherent aspect of graffiti. Graffiti was about lashing out in anger and expressing the outrage of being ignored by society and of being without opportunity and hope. One of the artists being featured in the CBS, Sunday Morning segment said that they very much saw themselves as outlaws and that being outlaws was part of the attraction.
Throughout the centuries, art has been a bellwether of the soul of a society—especially the visual arts and the poetry. Graffiti certainly fulfills that function, but regrettably, as so often happens. People, who could hear the call for help and intervene, just don’t get it:
- Never wanting to let a crises go unexploited, politicians use the conditions to justify increasing their own power.
- Well-meaning progressives simper and fawn over the artistic merits of the work.
- Equally well-meaning and equally clueless, law and order types want to use strong arm tactics to punish the expressions of rage.
And no one deals with the problem. And our cities get sicker. And the hopelessness spreads.
My on-going prayer for myself and my nation is that we might have eyes that see and that we might see as God sees.
Please show us how to be part of the solution,
Lord, and not part of the problem.