Thanks to the many people who left comments on our post Wallyhood Endorses Vandalism this past Saturday. Hearing your points of view helped us clarify our own thinking. Jonah, this constitutes our “official response” (and the last we’ll post on this for some time, we promise):
We stand by our original position that while “tagging”-type graffiti is nasty and should be a punished crime, the artfully altered signs by Bagley and 39th were not nasty and should have been left for the neighbors to enjoy.
Yes, those signs belonged to the city and no, the artist did not have the permission of the city to alter them. Yes, that makes it illegal. However, we don’t base our view of right and wrong simply on what’s legal.
The psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg once laid out a six stage theory of moral development. The First Level, “Pre-Conventional” included two stages, “Obedience and punishment orientation” (How can I avoid punishment?) and “Self-interest orientation” (What’s in it for me?). The second Level, “Conventional“, included “Interpersonal accord and conformity” (Social norms) and “Authority and social-order maintaining orientation” (Law and order morality). Finally, the third level included what he termed “social contract orientation” and, finally the third, “Post-Conventional“, level included “Social contract orientation” and finally, the sixth and highest stage, “Universal ethical principles”.
Those who declare “it’s illegal, thus it must be wrong” espouse a “Conventional” level of morality. However, at the Post-Conventional stage of morality:
Laws are valid only insofar as they are grounded in justice, and a commitment to justice carries with it an obligation to disobey unjust laws. [...] action is never a means but always an end in itself; the individual acts because it is right, and not because it is instrumental, expected, legal, or previously agreed upon.
We have the freedom to choose what is right and wrong through consideration. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, and so says we.
The community’s consensus should determine what is allowable. There’s an obvious precedent: what types of nudity and sexuality may be displayed publicly varies depending on where you are . As we’ve previously noted, this type of purely subjective-based assessment was enshrined by the Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who said “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.”
That’s it. That’s good enough. While Jonah rejects the notion that “good graffiti is OK while bad graffiti is not” as “painfully subjective”, we do not. Subjectivity is OK. The people of Wallingford appreciated that art. They wanted it and now they miss it. What foolishness that it was removed!
So, while we tend to agree with Gleep’s comment: “Art, whether it’s good or bad, is about the viewer. Tagging is about the tagger, which makes it narcissistic piddling,” we’re not even sure we need to formalize the rules of judgment that much. We, Wallingford, get to decide what goes in our neighborhood. Some douchebag’s name in spraypaint script? No! Stop for me, it’s the Claw? Yes!
Finally, in our first exchange with SeattleCrime.com, we stated that if a talented artist asked for a wall to paint on, we believed someone would provide it. Jonah challenged us, suggesting no such walls would be forthcoming.
In closing, then, we point you at the walls of Tubs, the now defunct hot tub lounge in the University District. In March 2009, the Free Sheep Foundation asked if they could paint the walls of the building, which was scheduled for demolition. Behold the results:
(Thanks @shawnhenning for the link!)