But is it Art?



As an art minister, naturally enough I support all kinds of creativity. I may not agree with another artist’s ideas, nor care for their subject matter, or even like a certain style. Liking, after all, when it comes to art, is mostly a matter of taste, and I am not about to start defining someone else’s taste for them.

There is always art that doesn’t work, of course – bad composition, poor perspective in representational drawing, wrong anatomy, inappropriate palette – all kinds of things. One cannot not hide crap art behind the excuse that you meant to do it that way; that it’s your “style.”

And then there is always the matter of whom art is for. Especially when it is “public art,” which I define as art you have to see whether you want to or not. Art on buildings, in the street, in public spaces.

And this is where things start to get a bit tricky, because in most cases, public art is presented to the public by the owners of the place where the art is presented. And this usually means the Establishment. The Government. The Churches. The Banks. The Rich.

This is all perfectly fine. After all, if you own a building, you can decorate it anyway you like. And it is good that the civic authorities brighten the streets and the parks and other public spaces with beauty. So, if a certain amount of the art presented by the establishment of the day tends to support the views of that established authority, we shouldn’t be surprised. And sure, you and I aren’t going to get invited into Buckingham Palace, but it’s a damn fine building to look at. And that equestrian statue of William III in the middle of the square? Sure it was put up as a political statement, but that was 200 years ago, so who cares?

However, there is the other kind of public art, the kind made by the public. And fair enough, if the State of Washington gets to make a political statement by building a neoclassical temple as the Capitol  Building in Olympia, other less established artists should have the right of reply on otherwise empty walls in the town. As in graffiti. Unless you are an artist accepted by the establishment, you don’t get to respond, unless you step outside the bonds of traditional venues for art. And there are some graffiti artists who have made public non-establishment art that is so good that the establishment itself sees the quality and accepts the art in the way art is supposed to be accepted: Is it good – not, do I agree with the message, but is it good art?”

The result can be amazing. Banksy, the graffiti master from Bristol, has managed to make his views known with style and artistry and over time, has more or less convinced the city government of Bristol that his work presented a positive image that was good for Bristol. Now the city is home for a number of graffiti artists – or perhaps they should really be called mural painters, who make many of the public spaces of the town very artistic indeed. Seattle, also, has a number of walls decorated with images, installations, and colorful messages that make the town a better place to live.

So for me, an art minister, I can say, good! Official art; unofficial art, it’s all good.

Up to a point.

And I guess it’s what happens beyond that point that I’m thinking about today.

Out driving the other day I saw a new fence had been put up around a neighbor’s yard. It was really rather attractive: reddish brown wood, very likely cedar, strong 4 x 4 uprights, clean capping pieces; it was pretty. It made me happy to see it, and I have no doubt that it cost quite a bit, and that my neighbor was very proud of it. From my point of view, it made the whole neighborhood look nicer. And then, two days later, someone had gone along with a spray paint can defacing the wood with a long black line.

This, I believe, was an act of pure dickery.

Now I understand, though I don’t agree with the idea that ‘tagging’ or spraying an illegible nickname or alias on walls is seen as a kind of graffiti. And I get the idea (though, again, I don’t agree) that tagging someplace easy to see but hard to reach is a kind of point scoring, a proof of masculinity or something. But that’s the point, see? Making art isn’t about scoring points. It isn’t about proving anything. And most importantly it isn’t about doing somebody else down.

The dick who sprayed my neighbor’s fence, if he had any thought in his head at all, probably thought he was showing how cool he was – how he’d made his mark, literally, on the street. As if, somehow, ruining someone’s fence was some kind of distinction. As if he’s scored. As if he’d put one over on the guy with the fence. As if he’d won the local pissing contest.

Tagging sees art as a pissing contest. Worse, it seems to see life as a pissing contest. I can tag higher. I can pee further. Woo-hoo. I can deface this place and get away with it. I can be a total dick and more importantly, a bigger dick than you. Please do not for a moment say that this is art. Or creative. Or political action. Or manly. It isn’t. It’s being a dick.

When I take my two Maltese out for a walk, Gwennie, the female will stop and pee. And then Spike, the male, will cock his leg and pee on top of it. That’s tagging. Dogs don’t have any other way of saying they have been there. Spike, I’m afraid, is a bit of a dick. But he’s a dog! And Maltese can’t pee higher than four inches off the ground anyway.

I find this idea that you can somehow make yourself seem better, cooler, or smarter than somebody else by destroying things or putting other people down the most egregious kind of dickery. It is the starting point of the high level dickery we are seeing more and more of in the world today.

Tagging someone’s fence is the start. It’s the mindset that says, “I’m better than you!” And that mindset leads to rounding people up and putting them in camps.


The image is Judith and Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – 1653) The story is a typical piece of Old Testament mayhem. Judith seduces Holofernes, gets him drunk and murders him, which wins her a place in the Bible for her virtue. Gentileschi turns this horror story into a dramatic Baroque vision carrying the message: don’t be a dick.

One thought on “But is it Art?

  1. I read this and thought about the tradition of metaphorically measuring your dick in public.

    This tradition has breadth in our society. There are mildly benign pissing contests such as enduring the industrial fire of a particular hot sauce or the astringency of the most hopped beer you can find. And there are more caustic examples where we try to measure the validity of our faiths, beliefs and desires against those of another human.

    The sad thing is that in every instance I can think of where we try to measure the scale of a dick, measurement is irrelevant.

    The purpose of hops in brewing is to create balance. Intentionally pursuing the most imbalanced beer you can find always strikes me as missing the point.

    What makes a hero noble isn’t how many hands tall his horse stands or the length of the horse’s johnson.

    There are times when worrying about scale simply doesn’t measure up.


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