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Political Graffiti as a Form of Art

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“Art inspires, produces an unwillingness to settle for what we have and a desire for something better” – Russell L. Ackoff. This quote serves as the best way of defining what art should achieve to be considered an art. Graffiti, as defined by the Cambridge Dictionary (2019), is, “words or drawings, especially humorous, rude or political, on walls, door, etc. in public places.’ Graffiti, as defined by many government officials doesn’t constitute as an art, due to its connotations of crime and urban crime and its association with vandalism. I will be looking at directly political graffiti and see if graffiti composed for a political purpose, whether that be criticizing Government policy, economic situations or international affairs, can be considered art. All things considered, I think political graffiti should be considered art as its aims of trying to invoke political change, allows us to desire change. Although this may not always be the case, as governments have tried suppressing it and tried to label it as illegal and some aspects of it have led to higher levels of decline in urban areas. However, overall, I think political graffiti has been more influential in supporting social change for minority groups and has successfully presented itself as an art form, even if influence has reduced to a certain extent due to it being deemed ‘illegal’.

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Political graffiti can serve as a means of protest against unjust aspects in urban society. For example, the post-industrial economy in the USA during the 1960s, which mainly catering for the middle class and upper-class citizens, left many working-class citizens discriminated against and impoverished. Social, economic and cultural changes left many working-class citizens behind causing an ‘urban crisis’, especially in states such as New York. Social criticism, against this regime of injustice, engulfed in the form of graffiti began to arise. For example, New York during the 1960s graffiti artists started writing political messages graffiti on subway trains and later in the 1980s Hip Hop artists began to use graffiti as a protest against the police. One could state that this is art and the contextual meaning of it means it is expressing the motion of urban decline and injustice. Political graffiti thus can encapsulate current social thoughts and can allow minority voices in society, such as the working class, to gain a voice within society. Because of this, graffiti should be considered an art as it enables people to express their desire for a more benevolent society.

However, the political message and meaning of graffiti can patently be changed and removed by governments, to fit their political motives. Higher authorities – especially in New York, as stated by Austin (2002), ultimately have the power to label graffiti as a ‘crime’ and may do so if a piece of graffiti goes against their political opinion or heavily criticizes them. The state has substantial authority and coercion tactics to subjugate a mass number of people to believe that political graffiti has no cultural significance and can easily dismiss it as ‘vandalism’. This is further reinforced by Iversan (2010) who states that New York officials, in the 2000s, are still using propaganda and censorship to shut down graffiti and trying to deter people from doing graffiti. Such measures include publicly shaming people – getting “convicted graffiti writers are forced to clean up graffiti while wearing pink vests, in the hope that the associated ‘terror of humiliation’ will stop others from writing graffiti. As well as these governments are allocating large sums of money towards reducing graffiti, for example, $13.1 million spent in Brisbane from 2012 –2016. These motions from the State are trying to deplete people from using graffiti as a motion of political protest, which limits its worth as art, especially its value within a street or public context. If effective, as seen in New York, then the graffiti purpose and message cannot be explored, thus detracting its worth as art. Therefore, the state has incredible power in dictating whether political graffiti within a street and urban context should be considered art.

Contrarily, it can be responded that the Government are trying to reduce political graffiti, as it can paradoxically lead to more crime instead of inspiring people to achieve better. Graffiti done on public and private property can be considered vandalism, and the glorification of it as an ‘art form’ and having ‘purpose’ allows graffiti artists to exploit that and needlessly vandalize property. Graffiti can cause more prominent signs of decay in urban environments, which may deplete the message the graffiti artist is trying to convey and may even lead to more action to get rid of it. To combat it, many governments have adopted zero-tolerance policies to combat graffiti. This is inspired by the broken window theory, first coined by Kelling and Wilson (1982), which states that visible signs of decay create a criminal environment and crime must be stopped at the start, so it doesn’t manifest into a bigger crime. In terms of graffiti, an overabundance of it can attract more crime, and it may make an area look more derelict. This notion ultimately states that political graffiti causes more damage than good, and its use of being an effective source of political protest is therefore limited.

In contrast to the previous statement, Libertarian Socialists such as Noam Chomsky would state that graffiti is not vandalism, nor does it enforce more crime. Instead, it makes authority scared and that’s why it’s made illegal. The higher authority, according to Chomsky, do not want people to engage in revolutionary art as it can ultimately scrutinize the status quo and can ultimately bring communities together. By stating political messages, in the form of graffiti, as ‘criminal’ instead of art then the main people in power can direct the minds of people away from the crimes of the rich and powerful, and in a sense cause a ‘moral panic’ that distracts people from these issues. Furthermore, Powers (1996) follows a similar suit and argues that the novelty of graffiti was not it’s not merely it’s artistic value but the context and prospect in which it was produced. Graffiti art offered insight into the lives of an inner-city subculture, such as the Hip-Hop scene in the 1970s. However, it can be said that this aspect has been suppressed by a “dominant subculture” in which they have imposed sanctions and tried to suppress the graffiti art movement to conform to mainstream norms and values. Therefore, it can be said that graffiti should not be considered a crime and the state definition of what graffiti is should not deviant it away from being an art form.

The context to which graffiti is presented in is a major issue into how people perceive art and as we have seen recently, political graffiti pieces have made their way into museums (Jacobson, 2017). This modernization and popularization of the political graffiti movement in the 21st century may have allowed the political meaning of graffiti to be considered more seriously and become more accessible by people. Graffiti as a form of political protest and scrutiny has gained considerable attention in today modern age, as the internet has allowed graffiti artists to post pieces that are not defined or interpreted by government officials. With the likes of Banksy – who currently has 6.7 million, who has conducted many forms of political graffiti in the UK. Although Banksy’s graffiti profile on social media has influenced the popularization of political graffiti within the 21st century, it has also led to the commodification of political graffiti art. As stated by BBC news in 2007, Banksy’s graffiti art painting of ‘Pensioners with bombs’ sold for ‘£102,000’. This commodification of popular graffiti art may deplete the overall meaning of his art, as the context of his art is reformatted – for example by criticizing capitalism, he is, therefore, profiting off it if he sells one of his works for a high price, which becomes the main focus of the piece. The focus then becomes its economic value, not its message. Because of this, it can be said that if the true meaning of one’s artwork has been depleted by its economic worth then should it still be considered art. Banksy’s and other popular forms of art are being placed out of context. Although this is the case, for the most part, the modernization of how political graffiti is displayed has allowed political issues to become more emphasized within society, despite these issues being ignored by the elite.

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“The political clout of graffiti… — its ability to comment on or act as a critique on existing structures of power — is largely a measure of its illegality”. Overall, I believe that graffiti can be considered Art as most graffiti drawings evoke and express a social and or political meaning. However, I think Government officials, mostly neoconservatives, have effectively detached and reinterpreted the social and political meanings behind some graffiti, to advance their political agenda, enforce some elements of social control and to avoid being scrutinised. At face value, this may make it seem that it isn’t art but just because it’s deemed ‘illegal’ and ‘immoral’ by state law does not mean it cannot be considered art. Political graffiti continues to inspire the political environment and should be considered an art, no matter what label is given to it.

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