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The controversial subject of street art reared its head yet again recently in the most unlikely of places and due to the most unlikely of reasons. The place was Milton Keynes, the reason the ‘world famous’ concrete cows that inhabit the town. The cows, which have stood since 1978, were repainted overnight to look like skeletons. The general public consensus seems to be that this is an improvement over the originals, and one of the few interesting things to happen in Milton Keynes since their creation. However, Milton Keynes Council don’t agree and are planning on spending £2000 on repainting it, and are only delaying in doing so until after Halloween because of public support of these skeletal bovines.
So, how have society’s attitudes to graffiti like this changed over time? I admit I’m no expert (my only knowledge of the graffiti art movement comes from watching ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ one time) but it seems to me that currently graffiti is in a weird limbo between criminal activity and genuine art form. Moreover, the way in which we decide which category a specific piece of graffiti falls into solely depends on how “good” or “artistic” it is.
But isn’t that fairly illogical, when you really think about it? In literally every other form of art the prevailing view is that art is art no matter how good or bad it is. There is no logical reason why Banksy gets critical acclaim and a metric ton of money when he spray paints a wall, when a random hoodie would get an ASBO (or whatever they’re called nowadays) for his or her troubles. Sure, the Banksy piece would probably be a powerful and insightful piece of art that captures the cultural zeitgeist and acts as a searing indictment of the current capitalist system, whereas the hoodie’s might just say ‘JADE HAZ A SMELY MINGE’ or something equally edifying, but as far as I know a lack of creative talent isn’t yet a criminal offence.
It seems that general attitudes towards graffiti are inconsistent at best and hypocritical at worst. And if these attitudes are leading to inconsistent enforcement of the law, then I can’t help finding that unjust and unfair. It seems that if the graffiti in question is deemed acceptable by the middle classes, it’s art. Otherwise it’s vandalism caused by feral youths, a product of Broken Britain who should be locked up (and they should bring back military service while they’re at it!). Graffiti at its core is a form of self expression traditionally used by the poor and disadvantaged in society. By demonizing and criminalizing graffiti, society is carrying on its fine tradition of trying to silence and invalidate working class culture.
That being said, it is pretty difficult to appreciate someone tagging their name in white spray paint as “Art”. There doesn’t seem to be any obvious solutions to this tricky situation. One thing that could help is more designated communal areas in communities where people are free to express themselves via street art however they wish. Another idea is specific projects where local artists (street artists or otherwise) can create something together which could have the added benefit getting previously disenfranchised youths more involved in the community. But before we find a solution to the problem, we as a society should realize we can’t have our cake and eat it too. Either graffiti is art or it is a criminal activity – it cannot be both, as much as we would like it to be.