Monday, August 27, 2012

Graffiti, Marcel Duchamp, and the eternal question

Graffiti has been around for as long as humans have been able to hold a bit of burnt stick and leave a mark on something.

Now while it might not be pretty, or indeed as 'acceptable' in comparison with the likes of the Great Masters, it's still a form of human expression. And as a form of human expression, it's valid. But is it art?

Over the past century, we have been presented with found objects which were given another name, and were told - TOLD!! - this is art because the guy who found it and decided it was art was an artist. The most notorious example of this was Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, which was basically a urinal, or a pot for a man to piss in. He was adopted by the Americans who were mad keen to develop something that future generations would refer to as a culture - sorry, but we are just going to have to take rock music to be the Great American art form of the 20th century, because, well, they jumped on the notion of taking a pot for a man to piss in and calling it art .... hello?

Me, I'm convinced that Duchamp was having a laugh, and, if you'll pardon my use of the expression here, taking the piss in a major way. Because he WAS a highly prolific painter and printmaker, and involved in many other art movements, including Surrealism. But he is most remembered for taking a urinal and calling it art.

And because he has gone down in Art History as having challenged the preconceived notions of what is art, those of us who have gone any way down the academic route of studying art have to take him seriously.


And then there's the other end of the spectrum. There's graffiti. It's living people, using materials to make an image. Some of it is hideous, it has to be said, but there are also beautiful works around. I think that the main objection is because this is on streets and on buildings and therefore considered to be a form of vandalism. That's all very well, if you consider vandalism to be taking a grey and rather boring building and adding colour, life, lines, thoughts - human expression, if you will - to it. And isn't that what art is about, human expression? Colour? Life? Thoughts? Dreams? Making a mark?

Academia tells us we have to accept a urinal renamed a fountain as art - eh, no we don't. Like said, it boils down to taking the piss (and no, as long as people persist in that kind of bullshit, I will persist in flogging that particular dead horse). Yet graffiti, the ultimately urban form of human expression, is not art, but vandalism?

It's a flawed argument. If you take Marcel Duchamp and his Fountain, and how it confronts the accepted notion of What Is Art, then how can you turn around and say 'Oh yeah, and those kids with their spraycans and colour and thoughts and ideas and youth and life and questions and search for answers, what they do is vandalism, defacement of public property, and NOT ART'?

You're barking up the wrong tree. The thing is, calling art 'a form of human expression' is only scratching the surface, there are many, many definitions. One of the functions of art has been to teach, another to confront. Both Duchamp's works and the Graffitists do this. Usually not in that order, however. Think about it.

This leads me to this particular question: Not even artists who have studied for years can definitively say what 'art' is; therefore how and why do officials of municipal councils, who do NOT have any artistic qualification whatsoever, think that THEY are in a position to define what 'art' is, and to state categorically that Graffiti is not art?

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