A Philosopher's Blog

Is Graffiti Art?

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 14, 2011
I made it, its yours. Dumpster with spray pain...

Not art.

While I thought the matter had been settled by better people than I, a friend just asked me about graffiti, thus obligating me to write up a bit about it.

In regards to the question of whether or not graffiti is art, my stock response is to ask “is painting art?” This response is not intended to be flippant, rather it indicates my actual view on the matter which is a serious philosophical position.

Contemporary graffiti is, by its nature, a form of painting. After all, the person creating the graffiti (typically) uses the methods and material of painting (although the paint is typically spray paint). As such, specific examples of graffiti would be assessed as art or not art by the same standards by which a painting would be assessed. For example, a crude tagging involving a person spray painting his/her name on the hood of your car would no more be art than it would be for a person to sign his/her name on a canvas using a brush. As another example, if the ghost of da Vinci manifested and grabbed spray paint to create a work on par with Mona Lisa masterfully on the side of a business, then that would have the same status as the Mona Lisa, at least in terms of being art or not. Thus, given that graffiti is essentially painting it follows that it is as much art as painting is or is not. In fact, given that graffiti involves the very same techniques and mediums as “conventional” painting, the burden of proof would seem to be on those who would deny that graffiti is (or more accurately, can be) art while maintaining that painting is art.

One common objection is that graffiti is not art because it is vandalism and hence a criminal act. While it is true that it can be vandalism and a criminal act, these facts would not seem to have a bearing on its status of being art. The mere fact that something is illegal or classified as vandalism hardly seems sufficient to make something fall outside of the realm of art. After all, imagine a state in which music was a criminal act and labeled as a vandalism of the public sound space. It would hardly follow that music would thus cease to be art. As such, this objection fails.

Another common objection is that graffiti is crude or simplistic and hence cannot be considered art. The obvious reply, to steal from Aristotle, is that not all graffiti is to be condemned, just that which is crude or simplistic. After all, music would not be considered non-art simply because some musicians create crude or simplistic music. The same should hold for graffiti as well.

Thus, graffiti is as much art as painting is or is not.

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19 Responses

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  1. WTP said, on September 14, 2011 at 11:46 am

    Is calligraphy art? Is the symbol representing the artist formally known a Prince, art? Is my signature on a piece of paper art, simply because I say it’s art? If something is on my property that I do not want, isn’t it garbage? Doesn’t much of this philosophical anlysis cheapen the meaning of the word “art”? Is this definition of art flawed:

    art – n. the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.

    Consider:
    http://articles.latimes.com/2011/may/01/opinion/la-oe-macdonald-graffiti-20110501

    • dhammett said, on September 14, 2011 at 12:39 pm

      The definition is not flawed, except in that is is rife with subjectivity. Whose aesthetic principles? Who decides “what is beautiful, appealing or of more than ordinary significance”? The church? The government?

      What were the first reactions to Impressionism? Was the “art” of Monet and Renoir considered “art”? Did viewers back then think it was “beautiful, appealing or of more than ordinary significance”? If we assume that definition is perfect, how can art evolve? Would “Guernica” ever have been considered a work of art?

      I don’t believe “philosophical analysis cheapen(s) the meaning of the word ‘art’”. I believe it serves as a catalyst (n. “something that causes activity between two or more persons or forces without itself being affected” ), in this case between, on one hand, the public, and the art community and, on the other, the individuals–artists if you will–who might infuse art with new and sometimes controversial concepts or techniques.

  2. T. J. Babson said, on September 14, 2011 at 12:02 pm

    It’s like asking whether Social Security is a Ponzi scheme.

  3. chamblee54 said, on September 14, 2011 at 8:17 pm

    Semantic arguments are not art.

    • dhammett said, on September 14, 2011 at 9:50 pm

      Quite true. Likely.

      But the question “What is art?” often seems to return to semantic arguments, perhaps because it is difficult if not impossible to avoid subjectivity when answering the question. It’s not particularly easy, for example, to distinguish art from craft without making subjective judgments about the location of the fine line between the most creative and inspired craft and the least creative and inspired art. And there are numerous similar lines like that one that exist between terms like “beautiful” and ugly, “appealing” and unappealing. Etc..

      Such arguments do not pretend to be art itself.

      Unless, of course, they’re presented as performance art (see the wiki def. of the term). Then, I assume, there would be questions about whether the arguments contained in the performance are art or not.

  4. Graffiti Studio said, on September 16, 2011 at 3:14 am

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  6. Banksy Art Painting said, on September 16, 2011 at 4:29 am

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  7. ajmacdonaldjr said, on September 17, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    I would agree with you and Aristotle about crude and simplistic graffiti not being art, but the opposite is also true: that some graffiti is art when it is well done and beautiful http://www.graffiti.org/ft_lauderdale/ftlauderdale2003skaone.jpg

    • WTP said, on October 18, 2011 at 8:45 pm

      So tell me something AJ…Is it art when it’s sprayed on a wall in YOUR neighborhood and neither YOU or YOUR neighbors want it there? I need to know before I go rent a sandblaster to take it off our wall. I’d hate to destroy someone’s Mona Lisa.

      How about you Mike? Would you care to come over to my neighborhood and make your critical judgement as to whether or not what is sprayed on our community’s brick fencing should be protected from my censorship efforts?

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 19, 2011 at 11:46 am

        Whether something is art or not is distinct from the matter of property rights. Even if someone paints a great masterpiece on your fence without your permission, you would be well withing your rights to sandblast it off your fence. Its destruction would probably be unfortunate and you would probably be better off selling it, but you would have the right to remove it.

        • WTP said, on October 19, 2011 at 11:57 am

          Let’s suppose it’s a great work of art. The Leonardo da Vinci of our time, somebody even more talented than Banksy, has done it. Do I have the right to make LdV pay for the sandblasting expense? Should he be prosecuted? What if the wall cannot be put back to its original condition, i.e. there’s a shadow of the work that can still be seen. Should LdV pay to replace the sections of the wall that he used as his canvas? Are those who pat LdV on the back for his artistry, while still giving lip service to supporting the rule of law that he has broken, in any way encouraging LdV and/or others who think they are just as good as him? Are they violating any moral responsibility?

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 20, 2011 at 11:11 am

            Yes, I think you would. It is not the quality of the defacement that matters, but the fact that he would have violated your property rights by modifying your property without your permission. To use an analogy, if I come by and reside your house with improved siding you still have the right to insist that I remove the siding and restore your old siding. As far as the extent of the replacement, that would depend on a theory of restitution-must a person do a 100% restore or just do it “good enough.” I’d be inclined to say that he should undo all the damage done-but maybe that would be unreasonable. If they praise him for the quality of his art, that would be acceptable. If they encourage him to paint without permission, then they are encouraging his misdeeds.

            To reverse things a bit, imagine that rather than LDV painting on your wall, you went and nailed some boards to his painting. Even if your carpentry was masterful, that would still seem to be wrong to do. Likewise for LDV to paint on your property.

  8. WTP said, on October 22, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    “If they encourage him to paint without permission, then they are encouraging his misdeeds.” – Calling graffiti “art” is a form of encouragement. It shows approval, to some degree, of the act.

    “After all, imagine a state in which music was a criminal act and labeled as a vandalism of the public sound space. It would hardly follow that music would thus cease to be art. As such, this objection fails.” – Music in your house or in your neighborhood where it disturbs the peace. It ceases to be art. Your objection to the objection fails. The graffiti exists in a space where it is not wanted, much like the music outside your door at 2:00 AM on a week day.

    “While it is true that it can be vandalism and a criminal act, these facts would not seem to have a bearing on its status of being art. ” – Graffiti on a canvas or wall belonging to the artist is art. Otherwise, no matter how beautiful, it is vandalism until the unlikely occasion in which the owner of the property on which it sits decides otherwise.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 22, 2011 at 4:02 pm

      Accepting something as art does not seem to entail an encouragement. If I say “X is art”, that does not seem to entail that I am saying “people should go out and do X,” Naturally, people might be encourage by this to vandalize, but they might also be encouraged to do so in response to calling what they do non-art.

      Something would seem to be capable of being both art and vandalism, unless you are contending that art loses its status as art when it is involved in a crime. But why would it cease to be art? If I club someone with a small statue, it has become a weapon but it would not seem to cease to be art (that is, its aesthetic qualities would remain-provided I did not bust it enough) just because it was used in a crime.

      • WTP said, on October 22, 2011 at 5:00 pm

        Sophistry, impure and convoluted.

  9. WTP said, on September 26, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    Here’s some free speech…


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