Folks, we need your help. Some time ago, we left some strong words over at the SeattleCrime blog expressing an opinion that we think most of our readers share: graffiti vandalism sucks.
Fast forward to earlier this week, when Patrick wrote a story for Wallyhood expressing appreciation for a bit of whimsical art here in Wallingford: Wallingford’s Best Traffic Circle.
The problem is, that artfully decorated traffic sign belonged to the city, and the anonymous artist who did the decorating didn’t have their permission. That would seem to make it vandalism. And Jonah over at the SeattleCrime blog has called us out on our hypocrisy:
So, Wallyhood, where’s the outrage? Why is tagging an offense worthy of corporal punishment. Why aren’t you all out in the streets with pitchforks and torches looking for the fiend who defaced this piece of publicly-owned property?
So, we turn to you, readers, for help in framing our response (if, in fact, you agree with us). This is what we’re thinking:
There is a difference between someone spraypainting their name on a wall and someone creating a bit of art, we’re just not sure we can express why.
Maybe it rests on the distinction between defacing and enhancing. We realize, though, that that implies the aesthetic equivalent of moral relativism (aesthetic relativism, our neighbor Christen called it); somehow it’s OK for us to approve one act of unauthorized alteration and disapprove of another simply because one appeals to us our artistic taste and the other does not.
The argument isn’t without precedent: no less than Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart declared “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.” In other words, a subjective judgment is sufficient to judge the worthiness and legality of a piece of art.
Why should we have to come up with some purely objective rule that could be applied dispassionately? We’re a community, with community standards. Shouldn’t the community get to decide what constitutes art within its confines?
Jonah has “pre-responded” to this argument by declaring “I don’t hate graffiti. I hate bad graffiti” as “painfully subjective”. But is subjectivity bad? Does it threaten a “tyranny of the majority”, in which “subversive art” could be suppressed?
We’re going to respond to Jonah on his blog, but we’ve got a jumble of thoughts and could use your help in formulating our response.
On a separate note, we’d like to extend our apologies to the artist: following Wallyhood’s article on Thursday, several news crews showed up, followed not long after by a city crew that removed the signs, which had remained, appreciated and unmolested, since last Fourth of July. RIP Art.