THE HOT TAKE: Pelham Council is wrong

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Sentenced to death by the pope, Michelangelo had to go into hiding for three months in 1530. Squirrelled away inside a tiny secret room beneath the Medici Chapel of the Basilica di San Lorenzo, he whiled away the hours by covering the walls in magnificent graffiti.

The graffiti remained hidden, completely unbeknownst to anyone for 446 years, until it was discovered by accident in 1976. This amazing graffiti is now celebrated for what it truly is: a masterful piece of artwork by one of the greatest creative geniuses to ever live.

But imagine if this masterpiece never survived because the Florence town council deemed it “not art” and had it scrubbed from existence. A tragedy, surely.

And a tragedy is what we have on our hands now with the latest close-minded decision by Pelham Town Council. At their May 1 meeting, council adopted a new policy which specifically defines “art” as something that does not include graffiti. This, despite the fact that graffiti is, literally, art.

Before we get into that, let’s acknowledge the obvious, which is to say that deciding what does not qualify as art has always been, and always will be, a tricky business. The one consistency over time is that things generally defined as “not art” almost always eventually get redefined as “art” once the stodgy old gatekeepers of art are out of the way and the next generation takes the reins.

Jackson Pollock’s abstract paintings and Andy Warhol’s pop culture drawings were considered “not art” when first created—now they are regarded as the apex of their respective art forms. Ballet was long considered “not art” because people thought the short skirts and tight costumes were vulgar, and now ballet is generally seen as the highest form of artistic dance.

Comic books and video games have gone through their own “not art” debates, and only recently did the consensus swing the other way and both are now, rightfully so, respected as works of art. Today we are in the midst of the single trickiest “art or not art debate” as we try to decide whether A.I.-generated images count as art.

To confidently declare that graffiti is not art is to plant yourself firmly on the wrong side of history

The point here is that the “Is it art?” debate is one that doesn’t always have a clear answer. Except with graffiti, which is obviously art. It’s hard to look at graffiti — beautifully hand drawn, colourful murals — and declare it “not art” and it’s downright ludicrous for a couple of stodgy Pelham councillors to think they are the ones who get final say on the issue. I’m more inclined to trust the folks at Encyclopedia Britannica, who note that, “Graffiti can be understood as an expressive art form,” or even Wikipedia, whose entry on graffiti begins with three words, “Graffiti is art.”

To confidently declare that graffiti is not art is to plant yourself firmly on the wrong side of history. Just look at the kind of subversive, transformative graffiti done by famed artist Banksy, and tell me that isn’t art.

And yes, while graffiti is inarguably art, graffiti as a form of vandalism is a crime. But by declaring all forms of graffiti to be not art, and excluding it from your official “Public Art Policy” document, they’re taking an entire art form and throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Places that have embraced graffiti, rather than go to war with it, have enjoyed the benefits of having their public spaces look more real.

One of the coolest things I saw in Japan was along the Dotonbori River, which bisects Osaka, where the walls of the waterway are painted end-to-end with incredible graffiti. It gives the place such an authentic feel. If it was up to Pelham Town Council, this would all be scrubbed away, replaced with boring grey paint.

These councillors also seem to forget that graffiti is one of the oldest forms of art, dating back thousands of years. In fact one of the oldest bits of graffiti ever discovered was on the walls of a building from Pompeii, some 2,000 years ago, which reads, roughly translated, “Apollinaris, the doctor of the emperor Titus, pooped well here.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: On publication of this commentary, the Town of Pelham reached out to inform PelhamToday that in fact Town policy does permit graffiti in public spaces, but only when specifically approved and permitted by the Town. The policy prohibits “images, text and/or markings that are painted, drawn, scribbled or scratched, without permission, on a wall or other surface within public view.” Informed of this distinction, James Culic offers the following clarification:

As Town Hall has helpfully pointed out, they define “graffiti” as anything being created “without permission” and they would like everyone to know that “graffiti-style art” apparently would be allowed in public spaces, while “graffiti” as defined by their own policy, would not. That’s an important distinction that warrants a bit of a deeper dive.

A couple thoughts then. First and foremost, don’t vandalize things. Don’t break the law, don’t draw graffiti where it doesn’t belong, don’t do bad things.

My intention was not to condone illegal graffiti in public spaces, but more to take exception with the idea that Town Hall has defined graffiti in such a way that it is explicitly deemed “not art.” Their policy clearly states that “Public Art does not include… graffiti in public spaces.”

In my opinion, graffiti found in public spaces (under a bridge, in an alleyway), whether or not it was done with the express consent of the Town, is still art. 

Controversial, I know. But art is often controversial. At times, art does not follow the rules. Art is subversive by nature. Art pushes boundaries.

Under the Town’s own rules, if a Banksy drawing were to appear somewhere in Pelham, they would be obligated to destroy it. If Michelangelo’s paintings, like the ones found in the Medici Chapel of the Basilica di San Lorenzo, were suddenly discovered in Pelham, the Town’s policy would force them to erase that art.

I think we can all agree that would be silly. I think we can all also agree that graffiti spray painted across the front window of a downtown business is also a very silly thing to do.

There’s nuance here that requires a bit of common sense. But there’s also no sense in pretending that art will always follow the rules. Nor should it. 

Rules can be broken for the good of society. The students protesting for an end to the war in Gaza on campus right now are breaking the rules. The government worker who leaks documents to the press to expose corruption is breaking the rules. And the graffiti artist who expresses himself by putting his art in a public space, is breaking the rules.

Expect art to always follow the rules at your own folly.

For further reading on this debate, check out this Boston University article, Is Graffiti Art, which includes discussion from Hugh O’Donnell, a College of Fine Arts professor of painting, who teaches CFA’s Site-Specific Art course at the university. It includes a fascinating dive into the case of Shepard Fairey, who was arrested and charged with graffiti-related crimes for creating the iconic Obama ‘Hope’ artwork.

James Culic appreciates a good Ancient Roman poop joke. Find out how to yell at him at the bottom of this page, or create a fabulously illustrated letter to the editor.

This post was originally published on this site