Artwatch UK

From Annigoni to Banksy: restorers’ crimes against art and graffitist’s crimes against architecture

17 August 2011

In cyber-space, a thousand people a day ask: “Is graffiti an art form or a crime?” Edgar Degas, distraught at the handiwork of picture restorers at the Louvre, once threatened to write a pamphlet of protest that would be “a bomb”. Nearly a century later in Britain, a royal portraitist similarly distraught at the actions of restorers, painted a protest on the doors of the National Gallery. Here, the painter Gareth Hawker, taking graffiti as an art form, examines both the motives and the proclaimed “ethical codes” of those who deface/defile buildings and public spaces, and, the sometimes morally ambivalent responses of the public to such actions.

Gareth Hawker writes:

Colin Martindale developed a theory about the way in which art forms evolve. If he is going to get a place in the history books, each artist must outdo his predecessor. He must produce something more exciting; he must strike the imagination more forcibly. Martindale traced this line of development in many areas, not only in painting and in poetry, where one might expect it, but in the development of gravestones in New England and even in the writing of scientific papers. People seem to crave novelty and thrills. So it should come as no surprise to see a similar pressure at work in yet another art-form, that of criminal damage.

When the form was new, it was easy to outdo predecessors, who had been limited to paint-brushes, chalk and charcoal. The spray-can revolutionised graffiti. Simple slogans could be written with great speed. A tradition emerged. This tradition developed rapidly and soon came to what may be termed its academic stage, where rules were formulated which became widely recognised and accepted amongst practitioners.

I learnt from a television programme that the rules were as follows: 1) The paint cans must be stolen (‘nicked’). 2) The paint must be applied freehand (i.e. without stencils). 3) The surface must be hard to get to – the work must demonstrate that a logistical challenge has been overcome. The artist must show that he is a daring sort of character. 4) The artist should break the law. He should not have permission to spray the surface, whether a wall or the side of an underground train. 5) The work should not incorporate another artist’s work. 6) Painting over another artist’s work may be acceptable, but is generally considered to show “disrespect” and is likely to be frowned on. (The fact that the graffiti artist is himself showing disrespect to the wider community does not seem to figure in these considerations.)

The main purpose initially was to mark out and lay claim to a territory. (“Like a dog pissing on a lamp-post”). The placing of an elaborate signature (tag) could demonstrate that an area was now controlled by the graffiti writer and his pals, not by the police or by the local community. The cleaning off of graffiti was a vital element in the “zero tolerance” approach which police adopted in New York, and which ultimately proved successful in reducing the number of murders in that city. This aggressive cleaning made it clear that the police and the local community now controlled the area, not the graffiti writers and other hoodlums.

However the art form did continue to develop elsewhere. Artists had to find ways in which to make their productions more arousing. In Paris one man [“Blek le Rat“] started to use stencils. This meant he could prepare relatively complicated images at home, in the safety of his own studio, and then use his stencils on site in order to apply complicated images with extreme rapidity. This meant his images were far more interesting to look at than the simple lines and colours which had been used previously.

When Banksy copied this approach in the UK it incensed traditionalists. He was cheating. This is similar to the outcry when Caravaggio started to use big contrasts of light and dark – chiaroscuro. His pictures were more eye-catching than anything before, but the big contrasts of tone made it impossible for the viewer to see the construction of the figures as easily as in previous work. In art there is rarely a gain in one aspect of style without a loss in another. In the case of graffiti art, the gain in recognisability, complexity, humour and wit was matched by an equivalent loss in rhythm, clarity and spontaneity.

Banksy seems to have broken all the rules: 1 His paint is not always stolen (‘nicked’). 2 He uses stencils (cheating). 3 Although he does paint illegally, his work is worth so much that some councils protect it with perspex. As a quasi-acceptable part of the local community, he becomes unacceptable amongst the traditional graffiti writers. In practice, his work is hardly illegal at all. 4 By using stencils he reduced the amount of time he would have had to spend on site if he were to produce an equally complicated image. He was playing safe, not taking as much risk as his predecessors. 5 His work is collected by hedge-fund managers and celebrities who pay high prices. These new clients are the very people whom graffiti was originally meant to scare. Pleasing them represents a complete failure according to the old standards. 6 He partially painted over the work of a predecessor, a classic work of the genre. This shows total disrespect and is extremely offensive to traditionalists. (They seem to see no irony in their position. They are vandals who are furious to see their work vandalised by another vandal. They feel proud to break rules, but hate someone who breaks even more rules than they do. It is an example of very strict honour amongst thieves.)

Graffiti artists are prosecuted from time to time: some of their greatest works are destroyed. Why should Banksy be allowed to get away with it? The man in Camden whose task it is to decide what should be removed and what should be allowed to remain, said he has to make a judgement about how far the graffiti “adds value”. In other words, if the work was by Banksy it might be worth thousands of pounds, but if by another artist, it might be worth less than nothing. It may be worth spending money to get rid of it.

The arbiter in Camden wisely kept away from a discussion about whether graffiti was art. As Gombrich pointed out, many unproductive discussions about the definition of art may be avoided if one substitutes for “art” the word, “skill” – which is the original meaning of the word “art”. The man in Camden has to think about money, not philosophy.

Banksy seems to get away with it because his works are like newspaper cartoons, they raise a brief smile. People seem to be able to accept a great deal as long as there is some humour involved. How far will the public allow this sort of thing to go? Witty old criminals appear on chat shows on the radio, as if they are lovable old rogues, even though they have been convicted of torture and murder. Presumably the same spirit applies to graffiti. People will forgive a rich man many things, particularly if he makes them laugh and is not too close to home. He can get away with a lot more than a poor man who is boring and lives next door.

What would you do if Banksy sprayed your wall? Naturally you would want to cash in, just as if someone stole your expensive paintings you would be prepared to pay a ransom to get them back. But this would only encourage other graffiti artists to paint other people’s walls, and other thieves to steal yet more paintings. Is it reasonable to let a criminal off just because he makes you smile and because you might profit from his crime?

Not all of us find the jokes very funny anyway. I myself like plain old walls undistorted by graffiti. The brick walls seen from the train on the way into Liverpool Street Station used to have a lovely colour and patina – a sombre grandeur. Their intact surface was ruined by graffiti. This was eventually painted over in one solid dense colour. This is better than graffiti, but its surface is dull and unresponsive to the light compared to that of the old brickwork. Cleaning off graffiti can never bring back the original surface. “Something is always lost,” as Nicholas Penny once said of cleaning paintings at the National Gallery (where he is currently in charge).

If the issues are serious, it could be argued that breaking the law can be morally justifiable. When, in 1970, Annigoni wrote MURDERERS on the front of the National Gallery, he was not laying claim to territory, nor was he making a joke. He was trying to draw attention to the destruction wrought inside that building. His protests, and those of other eminent artists, had been ignored and he was desperate. And again his protest met with silence. Annigoni’s graffito had failed. The destruction continued, as the gallery’s own before and after restoration photographs demonstrate.

(For the artist’s earlier, entirely law-abiding but unavailing protest – Letter from Pietro Annigoni published in The Times, 14 July 1956 – see the “Appendix” of our 20 April post.)

Gareth Hawker

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Fig. 1, above: A “Banksy” sold in 2008 for £228,000.
Fig. 2, above: Pietro Annigoni, “Queen Elizabth II”, 1956
Fig. 3, above: Guard by Banksy.
Fig. 4, above: Classic subway spray-can work. Rome 2006.
Fig. 5, above: One of dozens which appear in London.
Fig. 6, above: Brickwork, before cleaning.
Fig. 7, above: Brick work, after cleaning.
Fig. 8, above: Gold Face graffiti faile paste up in Leake Street.
Click on the images above for larger versions. NOTE: zooming requires the Adobe Flash Plug-in.

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