Graffiti With a Purpose
Scrolling through Colby’s art course webpage I realized I wasn’t going to find it—anything to do with graffiti art. So I made my own course. It’s called Graffiti Stenciling, and each week I turn my ideas into a design, cut stencil after stencil, and spray them into reality. Sound neat? It is. The sound of the metal ball rattling in the spray can, the feel of the nozzle on my fingertip, the smell of a freshly sprayed piece. Pure bliss.
No, I’m not in a gang. And I’m not writing my name on mailboxes, newspaper stands, or your garage door. There’s a difference between graffiti and graffiti art, and I’m concerned with the latter. Vandals don’t spray to make art, they spray to vandalize. But just because the medium is a spray can and the canvas is in a public space doesn’t mean it’s not art.
Take for example Shepard Fairey. Remember him? He’s the guy who designed the Obama “Hope” posters that marked the trail of Obama’s campaign. His “Hope” poster is now in the National Portrait Gallery and his prints sell for thousands of dollars, but he’s still on the street putting up artwork (and he’s still getting arrested, too—for vandalism).
Now, who am I to decide what is and is not art? Better yet, who is anyone to be the sole decider? Heck, some people don’t even think graffiti can be art. I’m a philosophy and anthropology major, not an art historian or a museum curator. But that’s the beauty of it.
I’m talking about a new way to envision art. It’s called an art democracy. It means the ability to define the public visual space falls back into the hands of the people, and it makes art part of the visual experience for everyone. Gone are the days when the parking garage is just a place to park your car. In an art democracy, it’s your duty to create, promote, and enjoy art in everyday places.
As it stands, art gets pushed into corners. It only exists where our art “professionals” want it to exist: on pedestals, behind glass, on particular walls, or in large, well-lit museums. We know right where to find it. “True art” goes in a museum while graffiti artists get power-washed off. Someone has control over our visual environment.
That someone is big business. Commercial advertising dominates subway cars, the sides of buildings, even urinal cakes. When you step out onto a city block, you don’t see art, but advertisements. Some might consider ads art, but for the most part ads are not created as art. Billboards go up because there is money to be made. In this way, money defines what we see on a day-to-day basis. The price tag on this space puts it well out of reach of most artists. And, if art isn’t entering our public visual space, then a whole lot of people are missing out.
Art should be available. “Fine” art has its place, but it’s not art for the masses. Simply put, it’s a luxury. I envision art with no admission fees. Art that interacts with its surroundings in an unofficial way. Art not holed up in someone’s collection but available to the public eye. Art where you least expect it. Art that just hits you. Shepard Fairey’s art could easily be solely in galleries, and yet it’s still available without an admission fee. The same art that sells for thousands in a gallery becomes a crime when placed in public.
The ability to define the public visual space should lie in the hands of the people, not just corporations with large sums of money. We need to expand our notions of what constitutes art. We need to think of art beyond museums. That suggestive, obnoxious billboard outside your window is just as much a part of your visual space as the sculpture on the corner. I’m not suggesting we do away with advertising, but we’re a long way away from a balance. With an art democracy we can bring art back to a balance and reclaim some agency in the visual sphere.
Graffiti art is one way to achieve this new reality. It challenges a culture where money does the talking. It challenges the idea that those with a degree decide what goes on display and what doesn’t. It challenges the notion that advertisers get the monopoly on public visual space. And the very moment the spray hits the wall, a statement has been made.
Can you hear it?