Much art is a rejection of the art or societal values that preceded it. However Graffiti/Street Art does something different. The terminology can be vague, so let me define what I mean by the all-encompassing term “graffiti”: Unauthorized writing/drawing/painting on a public or private surface. It doesn't matter what medium is used. I'm using the word 'graffiti’ to include all forms and aspects of unsanctioned work. The key word to me in this definition, is Unauthorized. It falls into the realm of mostly illegal.
The work could be broken down into two very broad categories with porous borders: artists who are part of group, maybe a gang, where the marks and images on the walls have a territorial meaning. This is less about art, more about self-assertion as identity. The other consists of mostly individuals driven to create. They both follow patterns that have specific street credibility. Street cred almost requires the act to be illegal. Graffiti artists are attuned to each other far more than societal standards.
On the plus side of the Graffiti art medium, it engages people directly, unfiltered, unedited, pure. It puts art front and center, directly into the public realm. On the negative, it defaces private or public property. It's a fundamental rejection of a societal value that has nothing to do with art: property rights. It elevates individual freedom of expression above other rights.
As an artist, I respect the "screw you, I do whatever I want" independent attitude; on the other hand is the urge to backhand such disrespectful, juvenile and petulant behavior...
Some incredible work has been produced. Work I’d like to see much more of, by artists lacking broad recognition. But underlying it all is a tendency towards a desired anarchy. The whole genre is predicated on a dismissal of foundational aspects of civilization and society, aspects like permanence, tradition, institutions, laws, private property rights...
The medium also occupies an ever-shifting curve. It’s partly the nose of the camel; tolerating a little bit of Graffiti opens the door ever wider, till there is push-back. Conversely, having draconian zero-tolerance policies may encourage tagging as protest.
The irony, of course, is when society adopts (co-opts? castrates? nullifies?) the attitude and puts it on a museum or collector's wall.
The US (and I imagine most developed countries) tries to balance private property rights with community rights. That's why we have zoning laws. You can't build an industrial plant next to grandma's house. (Generally). As a society, we've accepted billboards as a commercial form of protected speech, though I'm not sure any of us could find a passionate argument for their aesthetic appeal. Most communities have strict zoning laws that dictate parameters fairly tightly regarding billboards, signage or murals. But it would be hard to argue against an individual right to put up a sign on your own property that said "Bob's Art Gallery!”. And if your corner watering-hole neighbor with the larger building likes the Friday night traffic you're generating, you may work out a lease arrangement with a sign on the bar building that you both benefit from. Or vice versa. All OK within the framework of local ordinances.
In the US we are fairly confused about freedom of speech and freedom of expression. To my knowledge, no courts have suspended in any meaningfully permanent way, property rights laws in favor of free expression. Interestingly, this exploration becomes very political. Consider the suspension of property rights during the height of the Occupy movement. That also was freedom of expression. So when does the free expression rights of one group or individual, trump the rights of collective society?
Freedom of expression is one of the USA's founding principles. But it also has limitations, like yelling 'fire' in the theater. Freedom of expression stops where infringement on the rights of others begin.
Without societal agreed upon parameters, unfettered free expression becomes instant anarchy. So what we're really trying to find are that boundaries between property rights, community impact, and freedom of expression. Artists are free to be as outrageous in both art and behavior as they wish. There is a quantifiable difference however, between outrageousness and illegality. The question is, at what point do we indulge the art or the artist too far into the realm of behavior illegal for everybody else? How far does a society loosen or modify it's laws to accommodate a select group?
I'd suggest, to a great degree, this is relative. What may be more or less acceptable in an urban setting may be outrageous in small town America. Each community has to find it's own boundary.
A further consideration is the disconnect between the art community and the general public. The art community - especially the contemporary art community - exists in a bubble-world of it's own creation. Elite insularity. Despite support from the broader populace through public funding, the contemporary realm remains an exclusive club. Yes it reaches out to the great unwashed masses, but so much content is esoteric, even to those of us deeply immersed in it, that the general public has no clue. It’s left out of the conversation. This breeds both Graffiti, as well as rejection of Graffiti:
* It breeds Graffiti, because so many artists either ‘real’ or wanna-bes, reject the art-world establishment and hierarchy. They hate the authoritative powers that would judge, edit, package, commercialize, or act as filter between their art and their audience.
* It breeds rejection of Graffiti because for most non-artists, it’s pure vandalism. Basquiat and Haring may be household names in the contemporary art community, acknowledged and respected Graffiti artists represented in museums, but much of main-street America is still getting used to Impressionism.
Ironically, it may be Graffiti artists that are changing this. By engaging the public directly, by saying "screw you" to authority, they are resonating with youth all over the world. Kids, who may not know a Michelangelo from a Monet, are familiar with Banksy.
As I argue for property rights, the artist in me occasionally cringes when considering some cool work created by street artists. What is the compromise that would allow creativity to flourish yet respect societal legal values? How can anarchy and law find a Detente-like co-existence? Or is the fundamental strength of street art it's illegal anarchy, and fundamentally subversive nature? I'm expressing a frustration and fundamental conflict between accepting the art and rejecting the crime.
Maybe this is only in my own limited perception, but it seems to me "legitimate" street art has to be "illegitimate". That means for street cred, it has to be illegally made. Rebellion isn't rebellion if it's approved. So if street art is done in a legal/authorized/approved/allowed framework, do the words "Street Art" simply replace the word "mural"? Or "public art"? It would seem so.
Speculatively, Graffiti has served it’s purpose: it’s highlighted artists in the broader community whose urge to make their mark supersedes societal constructs.
Productive engagement seems the win-win both artists and communities are slowly benefiting from. As a historical revolution in the art-world going back to the 70’s, it’s time for the medium to grow up, to evolve.
Many communities internationally have embraced artists and created opportunities for them to create. Each community is free to design their own policy; the immediate individuals’ in that community are the best to involve themselves in the needs and policies of that community. Many of our cities would greatly benefit from some aesthetic contributions. Localities need to modify ordinances to accommodate commercial activity that is visually inoffensive, as well as give opportunities for the creatives to make their contributions as well. A win-win.
There is growing movement of new ideas and projects that have sponsors, willing supporters, or active community engagement or support. From curatorial/gallery-based undertakings, to grass-roots civic engagements, the opportunities are beginning to germinate and flower. They are exactly the kind of productive direction for street art to move towards, the next step in it’s evolution. Partnerships between municipalities, developers, galleries and artists may be the collaborative solution that most would find acceptable, stimulating and elevating for the community. Another aspect of acceptability may be the acknowledgment of impermanence. Something borderline offensive becomes less so if you know it will be gone next year.
The historical nature of graffiti from 35 years ago has evolved into a tremendous variety of myriad forms; I think this is good. The rebellion has been acknowledged and embraced enthusiastically by the art community, reluctantly, slowly and conditionally by the general public. I do wonder however, whether hard-core street artists may not feel their medium has been co-opted/castrated/bought-out. There is an inherent irony; provocative cutting-edge ideas that eventually gain acceptance, are no longer provocative or cutting edge.