Art or Crime? - The Case for Graffiti

June 2003

Graffiti, coming as it does from the street scene, never successfully took hold in the fine art world. Certain galleries have presented it, especially back in the ‘80’s, but the question as to whether it could really be considered fine art seems to remain like a shadow hanging over it.

On the other side of this divide, as I learned conversing with a group of young ‘writers’, as they refer to themselves, down in Miami recently, graffiti is intended as defacement. As one individual put it:: “I’m in the street. When I hit that wall which shuts me out, its vandalism. Graffiti is vandalism. It doesn’t cross over.”

So the question remains, “Is graffiti art or crime?”

In the "Wild Style" movie, made by Charlie Ahearn in 1982, the answer from New York’s citizenry and political establishment was that graffiti was crime.  That position has not changed and may well have hardened in the interim.  A recent article in the New York Times on the rise of gang homicide in Los Angeles and Chicago carried a picture of young men standing in hand-cuffs surrounded by law enforcement officials.  One expected to learn that these were gang members who were arrested after a particularly brutal shoot-out.  Instead, the by-line read that they had been apprehended for graffiti.  The implication for the reader is inescapable and was clearly intended by the editor.  Street art and murder are inextricably associated.

My answer to the above question is that the dichotomy of art or crime, like that of high or low art, is wrongly posed.  In other words, the question itself is ill-conceived and will inevitably provoke a misleading line of thought about modern and contemporary art.  Perhaps what is required is a shift of approach away from traditional philosophical aesthetics, based on notions of Beauty and Transcendence, harking back to the neo-Platonism of the Renaissance, and a turn towards an anthropological conception of art.  The human animal, this line of thought would argue, is born into a complex system of legal and social obligations to which it can never fully adhere.  Part of the human organism is frustrated by the normative life of the community and yearns to transgress social boundaries.  Such an approach would conceive of art as a human pursuit which is responding to the constraints imposed by life inside a socially regulated community.  In other words, the more social normativity is imposed upon people, the more they need to break out.  Welcome to the ‘Wild Side’, or ‘Wild Style’, as early graffiti is alternatively known.

According to this definition of art, graffiti, in its rawest manifestations, as I encountered it on the trains and subway platforms when visiting New York in the late seventies, and after I moved to the city in 1980 as a resident, must emphatically be categorized as art because it has its origins in the very source of artistic vision.  Viewed from this angle, the original graffiti ‘writers’ can be seen as heirs-apparent to the great innovators of contemporary American art in the 1940’s and ‘50’s.  Jackson Pollock first “broke the ice”, in Willem de Kooning’s legendary words, when he took the canvas off the wall and put it on the floor. Replacing the perpendicular with the horizontal axis appears ever more convincingly with hindsight to have overturned hundreds of years of aesthetic order.  Pollock symbolically cast the creative act back out into the world from where art draws its inspiration.

The early graffiti artists, whether or not they knew about or thought of Pollock, which they probably did not, moved to explore this new terrain by painting directly on the streets of their neighborhoods.  Both acts were a release of excess energy and pent-up frustrations.  The graphic gesture of both was an hermetic statement of a new identity.  This gave the new urban artists a visual subject matter that is recognizable and, therefore, finite and yet open and, therefore, free.  This is the mix that many hands have stirred since the 1960s.  Into this mix, all the dichotomies of high and low, abstract and figurative, academic and self-taught, have dissolved.  Is it too much, at the beginning of this twenty first century, to conjure up a new vision of Baudelaire’s ‘Art of Modern Life’?

Paul Rodgers