A sophisticated awareness of graffiti is now part of the essential intellectual armoury of any East London resident or visitor with pretentions to hipness or gentility. Tourists take guided tours of the street art of Shoreditch, Islington home-owners trying to sell their £1 million houses proudly point out the Banksy at the end of the road to their potential buyers and no art bookshop is complete without a table of expensive glossy books on street art (some, rubbing in the irony, with names like ‘The Art of Rebellion’). There is even an iphone app called ‘Street Art London’, celebrating the work of the likes of (pseudonymous yet would-be famous) Phlegm and ROA.
Conferring this formal status as ‘art’ onto something that used to be regarded (by society at large) as nuisance and vandalism and (by a minority of intellectuals) as a transgressive form of Art Brut creates troubling contradictions both at the aesthetic and the social level.
At the aesthetic level, the self-conscious artistry of a Banksy or Phlegm deprives us as viewers of our ability, in the tradition of Marcel Duchamp or Jean Dubuffet or Kurt Schwitters, to become an artist ourselves by being the person who ‘sees’ the art in our environment. Their graffiti are defiantly presented to us as ‘already’ art and we are put immediately onto the back foot, with the choice of passively enjoying it, thus constituting ourselves as fans of the artist, thereby conferring status on him or her, or of being cast as killjoy philistines. Either way we lose that intellectual superiority that comes from asserting the dominance of our own vision that goes along with the identity of artist.
At the social level, the public authorities or property owners who are keepers of the urban landscape are faced with the practical dilemma of defining what is, or is not, public art in their daily decisions about what to leave untouched and what to paint over. This gives them an unacknowledged role as arbiters of taste.
The results of their paintings over have become a great source of visual pleasure to me. there is a cream-painted wall opposite my house that is frequently graffitied on and, just as frequently painted over by Council workmen. Each time they do so, another rectangle of slightly differently coloured cream paint is layered over what already exists creating a subtle patchwork of cream-on-cream that I love. It reminds me of early 20th century experiments in abstraction.
Also near my house is a derelict pub one of whose walls is overlaid with similarly overlapping layers of shades of red and pink. I think of it as a wall of Rothko paintings, though the other side of the building is more reminiscent of Jasper Johns or Frank Stella.
I am of course seeing them through modernist-trained 20th century eyes. But no eye is innocent. Sometimes I wonder about the vision of those Council workmen whose job it is to go round implementing the zero-tolerance-of-antisocial-behaviour-including-graffiti policy. For all I know, some of them could themselves have spent teenage evenings with a spray can leaving their personal mark on the drab neighbourhoods they grew up in. Or some might be spare-time artists in a more socially recognised sense. Or might some even be doing the work as Community Service, enforced punishment for past crimes, perhaps even seeing what they have to do as a brutal desecration of forms of cultural expression that they identify with and cherish? Or could this repeated repainting be work done, not under the Council’s jurisdiction at all but by some artist-squatter?
Most jobs, of course, involve some sort of pride in the craft being exercised (I have written about this here) and I am sure that any conscientious worker with a paint roller in hand must be exercising some sort of judgement about how the paint is applied, perhaps even with some sense of leaving an individual stamp on the finished work. I wish I knew more about the labour process of these workers. Is the defiant patch of grey on my local Rothko wall (pictured here) the result of a conscious aesthetic decision, perhaps? Or had they simply run out of reddish paint that day and abandoned the attempt at a colour match?
Whatever the intention, my pleasure as a viewer is tempered with a certain unease. Haunting each such wall is its complex history: the pristine wall, the graffitied wall, and the overpainted wall, with perhaps many intevening layers of deterioriation, repair, alteration and restoration. Each of these might provoke a different aesthetic response: admiration, regret, celebration, aversion. In taking a picture of such a wall, am I responding to it as intended art (like a tourist taking a photo of the Taj Mahal) or as unintended art (like someone ‘finding’ unexpected beauty in nature)? Or might I be ‘discovering’ some form of ‘naive art’, like a Cubist coming across an African mask, or a feminist historian a patchwork quilt? And if so, am I perhaps patronising the people who made it, imputing to them an ignorance of their own creativity or even appropriating and commodifying the results of their aesthetic labour? Am I entitled to see my representation of it as an original artistic work?
I first became aware of the beauty of the overpainting of graffiti when I took this picture from a train window in Brighton, some time in the 1990s. When I took it, I was most conscious of the pattern of black verticals and horizontals against the different reds and oranges on the station platform. It was only when I looked at it afterwards that I realised that the lovely subtle colour patterns, whose irregularities had puzzled me, must be the result of such overpainting. Despite the streaks (caused by the hairy plate on an old scanner on which a cat used to sit) I still like it as an image, especially the serendipitous way it has captioned itself with the word ‘private’.
There is something both moving and optimistic in this continuous human effort of renovating and remaking our urban landscapes. It gives us a visual representation of the dialectical relationship between originality and inherited aesthetic values, between individual transgression and collective social control, between the private and the public and between the past and the present. Unfortunately, the conditions that sustain this delicate dynamic balance are now under threat. It could easily be lost: if public spending cuts continue; if the anger of unemployed youth spills out of control; if more of our common public space is privatised and placed behind locked gates; or if ‘development’ is allowed to bulldoze our communities. Cherish it while you can.
Postscript: All this was triggered by the fact that I was burgled last week and my handbag stolen, leaving me temporarily not only without any formal means of identification or of conducting any financial transactions but also without my bus pass. As a result, I was obliged to walk along a route I usually travel by bus, giving me a chance to take photographs of the ever-evolving ‘Rothko wall’ I so often enjoy through its windows.
* click on these images to see them in greater detail.