April 30th, 2011

In Defence of Street Art

Ai Wei Wei projection graffiti, Hong Kong. Photo by Cpak Ming

This month, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles opened a new exhibition on the history of street art and graffiti, the first such show at a major American museum. It has been greeted by controversy. One of the curators has been accused of having a commercial conflict of interest and street artists have accused the museum of censoring one of the graffiti murals it commissioned.

The exhibition has also suffered from broad-based attacks on its very subject matter. Last week, City Journal published a lengthy attack by Manhattan Institute fellow Heather MacDonald, whose argument against the show can be summarized as follows: graffiti is a cancer that destroys cities, yet it has been embraced by hypocritical cultural elites who rarely suffer the consequence of is damage. She seems utterly offended that a major art museum would consider mounting a show dedicated to vandalism.

Leaving aside a minute the fact that the Manhattan Institute is a think tank that promotes “greater economic choice and individual responsibility” — a euphemism for the neo-liberal policies that have dismantled social programs and financial regulations and ushered in an era of economic instability and a growing wealth gap — MacDonald’s piece is worth considering because it makes use of so many of the most common arguments against street art. To start, she trots out that tired old workhorse, the broken-windows theory, which suggests that any instance of neglect or disrepair in an urban neighbourhood will lead to higher crime rates and a breakdown of social order. MacDonald uses it to illustrate graffiti’s effect on cities:

Graffiti is the bane of cities. A neighborhood that has succumbed to graffiti telegraphs to the world that social and parental control there has broken down. Potential customers shun graffiti-ridden commercial strips if they can; so do most merchants, fearing shoplifting and robberies. Law-abiding residents avoid graffiti-blighted public parks, driven away by the spirit-killing ugliness of graffiti as much as by its criminality.

There is no clearer example of the power of graffiti to corrode a public space than the fall and rebirth of New York’s subways. Starting in the late 1960s, an epidemic of graffiti vandalism hit the New York transit system, covering every subway with “tags” (runic lettering of the vandal’s nickname) and large, colored murals known as “pieces.” Mayor John Lindsay, an unequivocal champion of the urban poor, detested graffiti with a white-hot passion, but he was unable to stem the cancer. The city’s failure to control graffiti signaled that the thugs had won. Passengers fled the subways and kept going, right out of the city. To the nation, the graffiti onslaught marked New York’s seemingly irreversible descent into anarchy.

This conveniently ignores all of the factors behind New York’s decline in the 1970s and 80s. Graffiti did not corrode the public realm as much as the city’s near-bankruptcy and growing inequality, all of which contributed to the decline of public services and the rise of crime. In fact, social scientists have largely dismissed the broken windows theory as flawed. As urban planner David Thatcher pointed out in 2004, research shows that “the relationship between disorder and serious crime is modest, and even that relationship is largely an artifact of more fundamental social forces.”

But MacDonald presses on, arguing on one hand that graffiti is a product of gang activity and, on the other, that established street artists and their supporters are cynical profiteers with an “amoral sense of entitlement” who damage private property for their own self-glorification. She lambastes the elite of the street art world — Bansky, Shepard Fairey and other household names — for dressing up their acts of criminal damage with the showy frills of anti-establishment politics. “The standard line among graffitists and their fans is that because big, bad corporations advertise, vandals have the right to deface other people’s property,” she writes.

This is another variation of the the dilettante’s old argument that if you profit from art, you’re somehow a sellout. Even the most ardent supporters of street art are not unconditional fans of all street artists; there’s a lot more nuance in the world of street art than MacDonald seems to realize. Dismissing street art because you think Shepard Fairey is an over-hyped, self-aggrandizing exploiter of political and social movements (which, by most accounts, he is) is like brushing aside the entire medium of painting because you thought Andy Warhol was a hack.

When it comes down to it, MacDonald doesn’t understand street art — and she doesn’t care to understand it. She writes that street art is just “a euphemism for graffiti,” yet street art has evolved well beyond the spray-painted tags and murals of the 1970s. Her description of street art’s aesthetic is similarly clueless: “[Street artists’] representational iconography is usually pure adolescent male wish-fulfillment, featuring drug paraphernalia, cartoon characters, T&A, space guns, and alien invaders,” she writes, a notion that is easily dispelled by even a cursory look at contemporary street art from around the world.

As a social phenomenon that has developed over a period of forty years, street art has a depth and breadth that MacDonald doesn’t acknowledge. She has no interest in the global nature of street art, for instance, especially as it manifests itself in authoritarian countries where freedom of speech is repressed — witness the explosion of anti-Qaddafi street art in Libya since the start of the insurrection. Nor does she seem curious about the way street art engages with its specific setting, which gives it a unique emotional force. Would the Berlin Wall graffiti have been as important if it was displayed in a gallery instead of on the wall itself? Or, to use a more recent example, what better way to shed light on the social and economic consequences of the Israel-West Bank security barrier than to use the wall itself as a canvas?

MacDonald doesn’t care about the true nature of street art because she is taking an purely ideological stand against it. Like Margaret Thatcher, who argued that there is “there is no such thing as society,” only individuals, MacDonald appears to believe that there is so such thing as a public sphere, only collections of private property. The only appropriate place for free expression, she would argue, is in officially-sanctioned venues where those who wish to engage in that sort of thing can do so without bothering the rest of us.

I’ll leave you with a recent example of street art in 2011, and not in the scary, dysfunctional 1970s where MacDonald’s understanding of street art seems to have ended. In response to the police pursuit of a young artist who sprayed pro-Ai Wei Wei stencil graffiti around Hong Kong, several other artists took those stencils, printed them on a film and taped them to a light projector, which they shined onto MTR platforms, roadways and the walls of police stations and even the local headquarters of the People’s Liberation Army. It was a manifestly legal street art intervention: nothing was damaged and there was no trace left from the graffiti, except in the minds of passersby.

Incredibly, though, despite the fact that the Hong Kong police have stated that projection graffiti is “not a criminal offence,” the Chinese army has objected to the intervention, arguing that it is illegal to project pictures against a PLA garrison wall. It warns ominously that “the PLA reserves its legal right to act.” Consider it a statement that both confounds MacDonald’s argument and confirms the political, social and cultural relevance of street art.

On the tramway

In the MTR

On a police van

On the Peoples’ Liberation Army’s Hong Kong headquarters

All photos by Cpak Ming. Visit the photo gallery on Facebook to see more.

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  1. C. Szabla says:

    MacDonald’s piece is certainly glib at times and, in many places, devolves into an 80s cliche. But she makes some valid points worth considering, especially given that quite a bit of street art is created in contexts where there are venues for free speech and political expression that aren’t other peoples’ walls (and let’s be frank: the vast majority of street art around the world is neither a courageous act of political dissent nor as sensitively impermanent as projection graffiti).

    In fact, there’s a considerable amount of subpar, crudely imitative stuff that is either vandalism in the purest sense or attempts to follow in the footsteps of the blockbuster “sellout” artists that have been the ones (and not Palestinian or Libyan artists) celebrated by the LA MoCA. MacDonald is wrong about many things, not the least in appearing to apply her blanket denunciations to all of street art, but that doesn’t mean she was wrong to want to (re)open a critical conversation about art that falls into the categories she most clearly discusses.

    April 30th, 2011 at 11:33 am

  2. Christopher DeWolf says:

    It sounds like the MoCA exhibition deserves all the criticism it gets. I also agree that there needs to be a serious discussion about street art and graffiti, both as they manifest themselves on the streets of American and European cities and in the works of high-profile artists.

    But MacDonald is simply rehashing old clichés and stereotypes about graffiti. If there’s going to be a critical discourse of street art and its role in urban society, the calibre of discussion needs to be a lot higher than what I see in MacDonald’s essay. There are so many things to talk about when it comes to street art, good and bad, that it’s frustrating and disappointing to see somebody flailing their arms and shouting, “Graffiti is vandalism! Evil!”

    April 30th, 2011 at 1:00 pm

  3. Sean says:

    Heather’s articles are perfect examples of conservative opinion in the extreme. She does nothing to help the situation, in fact only makes it worse.

    May 9th, 2011 at 9:44 am