Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Forum Topic: Is street art / graffiti art vandalism or should it be considered a right? How free is free speech?

I want to tackle two issues with this entry and hope to obtain feedback from readers. The first-- is street art / graffiti art vandalism or should it be considered a right? The second-- how free is free speech according to the law?

Forum Topic: Is street art / graffiti art vandalism or should it be considered a right?

There has long been a debate concerning illegally placed art on public property. That said, the debate has reached a boiling point in recent months due to Shepard Fairey. I’ve been following Shepard Fairey’s court problems in Boston. The Boston police claim that Fairey illegally posted his artwork on city property in Boston leading up to his exhibit at the ICA and have also brought an outstanding warrant from years ago to the table. Some of the charges have been dropped-- however, Judge Eleanor Coe Sinnott has ruled that Fairey will face 10 counts of felony vandalism charges. Rumor has it that there may be additional charges as well.

The case has spurred debate about the validity of illegally placed works of art. One side feels that illegally placed art should not be considered vandalism and should be considered free speech while the other feels that support for the illegal activity of famous artists, such as Shepard Fairey, will spur others to create art in illegal spaces. Supporters of illegally placed art feel that charging street/graffiti artists with a crime inhibits freedom of speech . Supporters of the law feel that artists should take more responsibility for how they promote themselves and their visual message while acknowledging that public property is just that, public, not the ‘canvas’ for one individual regardless of emotive or aesthetic reasons.

One interesting aspect about this specific case is that Shepard Fairey’s lawyer has stated that the image in question is readily available on the Internet and that anyone could have put the illegally placed works up after downloading the poster in order to paste it or create stencils with it. In fact, Fairey’s offers posters as downloads-- along with warnings about not placing works illegally. Fairey’s lawyer also claims that anyone can buy Obey stickers and that Fairey has no control over how people use them-- which is understandable. However, I think there is more to the story.

On obey Shepard Fairey states, “Please use common sense and consideration when applying stickers or other propaganda materials. Giant is designed to provoke thought about the mechanics of the system we live in…not to destroy it. Everyone has to live here.”. However, Fairey has also posted video clips of his illegally placed works in progress-- including videos of he and his crew fleeing from police. Apparently those videos are no longer available on the site. Thus, one could say that Shepard Fairey is sending a very mixed message to fans and that his lawyer is trying to pin the illegal activity that occurred in Boston on Obey fans-- rather than Shepard Fairey taking responsibility and standing up for his work.

The issue of responsibility is at the core of this case. One interesting fact is that members of the street art and graffiti community have spoken out against Shepard Fairey’s actions in Boston. For example, Joey Krebs who is known as the LA Phantom and Phantom Street Artist has been very critical of Fairey’s actions-- including the commercialization of street art that has been fueled by Obey Giant Art Inc..

Krebs suggests that if Fairey truly believed in his visual message he would stand up for his work, admit what he has done, and take responsibility for it-- as most street and graffiti artists do in situations like this. In Krebs opinion the fact that Fairey has blamed the public, specifically fans, for his illegally placed works takes away from his street credibility. That said, the Phantom suggests that Shepard Fairey only has respect within the commercial aspect of the street art / graffiti community. He has stated that without risk-- and accepting risk-- street art and graffiti art is without purpose.

As the Phantom Street Artist has pointed out, most street/graffiti artists are not arrested over a dozen times and released so easily. Thus, Krebs feels that Fairey receives ‘get out of jail free cards’ due to his corporate connections and investors. Krebs also suggests that Fairey is speaking the language of corporations and money rather than an authentic message for the masses-- or minority groups that Fairey tends to appropriate images from. In other words, Krebs feels that Fairey is not really a representative of the street art and graffiti art community-- but is instead a representative of the commercialization that has bastardized the movement.

It is evident that many street and graffiti artists understand the law and view that as part of the process-- as a part of their history. In other words, some feel that the commercialization and legalization of all forms of street and graffiti art actually takes away from the movement that so many individuals have taken part in. In a sense, if current illegally places works were to be made legal it would take away from the impact of the works and the message they communicate visually-- in other words it would be a contradiction of the street art and graffiti art movement in general.

With this in mind I would say that most street and graffiti artists do not view their work as vandalism. However, that does not mean they view their work as a right either. In fact, I would say that many would agree that the power of illegally placed work is the fact that the artist is communicating in a way that challenges the law and the limits of free speech. One could suggest that is the very foundation of the movement. In other words, if it becomes lawful for artists to place work anywhere they desire-- if it is considered a right-- doesn’t that mean that both forms of expression would need to be redefined? What are your thoughts? Should all public property be an outlet for creativity? Should it be a right rather than a form of rebellion?

Forum Topic: How free is free speech?

I always find it interesting when the idea of free speech comes up in cases like this. Shepard Fairey is suggesting that he has a right to free speech concerning where he places his art and also for images that he uses without giving credit or compensation to copyright owners-- what he communicates within his art involving those works. That said, how free is free speech in the first place? We all know that there are some things you simply can’t communicate due to laws and other restrictions.

Should all messages, including those that are currently considered to be hate crimes, be free to be spoken verbally or visually in public spaces? My point is that when it comes down to the line there are limitations on freedom of speech no matter how much bravado you display in a court of law or how many sabers you rattle within the art community. Keep in mind that the laws that we have generally reflect the desires of the public. Thus, there will always be limitations and restrictions on free speech even if we don‘t openly admit it. What say you?

The way I see it-- if Shepard Fairey honestly feels that artists should have the right to place works anywhere within the public space and that to restrict artists with laws is an attack on free speech, he should have no problem with street artists placing their work outside his front door-- perhaps on the sidewalk in front of his gallery or in public locations outside of his exhibits at other galleries the same day of his opening. Is that not free speech?

Would he welcome street artists who choose to create works questioning his ethics to place their work on public property near his exhibits or near the Obey Giant Art Inc. HQ? If the Phantom Street Artist and others were to pay those public spaces a visit with visual criticism would Fairey welcome them with a wave and a smile? Would Fairey accept that-- I doubt it. So what is he really asking for? Freedom for his own message? Or freedom for all?

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin
Senior Editor


Anonymous said...

This is off topic but if journalists, authors, scientists, and academics engaged in plagiarism - even as a minimal one time offense - they would immediately be suspended or fired from their positions and hounded out of their respective lines of work. Being ostracized by one's colleagues keeps such unethical practices at a minimum in these professions. In those circles it is understood that plagiarism is detrimental in the extreme, it does not lead to new ideas or discoveries, does nothing to bring verity to light, and is the very antithesis of inspired creativity. It is impossible to imagine leading figures in academia and literature making a case for plagiarism being a non-malicious and playful methodology. Yet in the sphere of visual art, plagiarism has become an acceptable, even heroic practice. The art community wants to be respected but has no respect for ethics or the work of others.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post Brian..

Not sure why street art and graffiti are lumped into the same box here, as if they were fundamentally one and the same; the 'art' implies some degree of aesthetic awareness, critical judgement and purpose beyond mere criminality. Now I think you might agree a lot of graffiti lacks this - its usually opportunistic, myopic and pointless (to be fair, this could be said of 'legal' gallery art too).

I think there is a place for considered street art with its roots firmly grounded in subverting power structures and which incites or provokes thought. Yet I think without an element of risk, of resistance and provocation, as an art form the power of it's trajectory is lessened.

The fact that most street art/graffiti is termed vandalism implies there are legal and social parameters against which an artist can resist and rebel - and I think the guys responsible understand the mechanics of this if they are going to remain true to form. Remove these parameters by affording them the 'right' to graffiti, then you take away resistance, which in my view undermines any purpose and ultimately the point of it all.

E. Beehn said...

Ok, this is too much to write at once, but I will try to keep it short, while editing out some topics.

I dont get it? What Shepard does is appropriate, that is his process of expression. He rides the line, I may agree, but to point him out and say his work is invalid and compare him to blatant plagiarism is a little extreme. I see gallery artists do this all the time, appropriate an image or style and make it their own, but without the attention it is acceptable to do so. To question the level of respect for the work of others in the art world seems a bit backwards to me, I would rather view such action as a form of flattery and if nothing else overwhelming respect, even a negative appropriation implies a level of respect, enough to deem such conversation worthy.

As for illegal vs legal placement of "street art", has nothing to do with graffiti. The term street art seems to refer more to placement, being art placed in public places, than it does with vandalism. Graffiti on the other hand has little to do with either, graffiti is not for the fame in the public eye, if it were people would be writing their own name, so much of graffiti is parallel to that of the existing art world; an elite access base of knowledge that feeds from within. Without any prior understanding, very little makes sense. One comment referred to graffiti as opportunistic or pointless, but there again is a difference between one that may consider to be a graffiti artist, and that of a person with a can of paint or a gang member.

Unknown said...

the streets would look extremely chaotic if every artist decided to use it as a canvas... visual polution would be the best term.

having done so myself (placed art in public), i think that the law and it's restrictions serve as a balance point. not everyone is willing to pay the price on getting caught. the authenticity of placing art in public has to go hand in hand with it's consequences...

K said...

What I find interesting when talking about free speech and the right an artist has to express that freedom on a public or private building is the possibility that he or she is maybe marching on the free speech of the public or private entity.

This was loosely touched on in the article, but I mean...yes, that wall belongs to the public. Or that wall belongs to the corner bar. If those who own that wall choose not to cover it in graffiti, street art, or advertisement.....they are enabling the same freedom that allows them to also NOT speak. For instance, lets say the law stated that companies were required to post the Obama change poster outside their stores (a la dictatorship, Nazi flag, etc.); freedom of speech would be the absence of the poster, the rejection of law. So, yes, I think free speech on the streets is directly dictated by the law...either your choosing to speak the language of the law, or against it.

I think by leaving a wall untouched, you are still speaking though. In the present circumstances, it's just another language than the art community usually of uniformity, simple existence, respectability, acceptance, and 'cleanliness' (from some points of view). A pristine facade says as much as a grafitti ridden one. It's just talking about a different perspective. And as much as that kills an artist because they believe they must make the public or private entity 'aware', the same didactic approach is being taken by the law and large corporations upon graffiti or street art....just different sides of the same coin. And I think that is the crux, different sides of the same coin. You can see all of each side at the same time, they are tied to each other but completely can't side with both, though you know each side has validity.

Balhatain said...

I’ll try to kill two birds with one stone. I did not mean to imply that they are one in the same. I understand that they are different. At the same time they are very much connected-- I‘m sure you would agree.

Also, if you have not noticed the media tends to speak of both when referring to Shepard Fairey-- and Fairey tends to mention both graffiti and street art on equal terms when discussing his work and the rights he feels he should have concerning the use of public space and the marks he makes upon it. I also know from past experience that if I did not mention both someone would have asked why. ;p

Just to be clear, I am in no way saying that art in galleries has more merit than artwork outside of a gallery setting. I’m not sure where you got that idea. I'm personally a fan of the streets works by Mark Jenkins and Anthony Lister if that tells you anything.

Why not talk about Shepard Fairey? I read comments like that ever so often-- people who think I‘m being unfairly hard on him. You could say that Shepard Fairey placed himself, with help, into the spotlight-- so if he can’t hack the criticism-- or if his fans can't hack the criticism-- sorry.

He is a point of discussion because he has been crafted into a figurehead for what street art, in general, represents-- for commercial purposes I might add. It is amazing how much power the media has in writing, or rewriting, history-- especially the history of art and the history of street art for that matter. If anything Fairey has taught me just how much a pr firm can create history where otherwise there would have been none.

One thing that people often forget is that Fairey’s success with the Obama posters was largely due to the help of Yosi Sergant of Evolutionary Media Group-- a pr firm that had worked, with Yosi Sergant as a media consultant, for the Obama campaign.

In fact, Sergant left his position with the campaign in order to work directly with Fairey-- while remaining close to the campaign itself. Keep in mind that Sergant had actively searched for street artists and graffiti artists willing to support the Obama campaign-- though he claims he did not do this while working at campaign offices and that no one in the campaign was aware of his activity.

If you read some of the New York Post articles about Yosi Sergant's involvement, specifically ‘PAINT MISBEHAVIN' IN TEAM O'S 'STREET ART' you will find that Sergant flip-flops on the issue and how official or unofficial it was. There is also clear evidence that the campaign was fully aware of his activity-- and possibly funding it.

In interviews just before the Obama posters really took off Sergant stated that he made sure the posters were seen by media cameras at campaign events and other political rallies. He made sure that shirts and other merchandise was available to help the image take off-- all the while promoting the idea that the street art movement for Obama was ‘purely user-generated‘. Keep in mind that Sergant has connections with a countless number of bloggers and press.

Now you could say that Fairey’s Obama poster is powerful by itself-- but would it have had the same exposure had it not been for the help of Yosi Sergant? Keep in mind that Fairey’s court problems would most likely not be reported by the mainstream media had it not been for the fact that-- with a lot of help from Yosi Sergant-- the poster had been such a success. Maybe Fairey regrets the pr firm driven spotlight now?

Just so you know, Yosi Sergant conveniently stepped out of the spotlight-- and if you look back at articles you will notice that he did the moment people started to question the poster on ethical grounds and the moment people started to question if the Obama art movement was an honest grassroots movement.

Sergant is still around though, if you got to the White House blog you will discover that many of the press photographs are taken by him. He distanced himself from the Obama campaign to work directly with Shepard Fairey. Uh huh.

My point-- one reason I focus on this is because it is obvious that the history the media has projected to the public is not exactly fact nor is it honest. Sadly, we see the same carefully crafted history promoted by speicic gallerists and a major art institute. I think it is wrong to dupe the public-- and future students of art-- in this way.

jafabrit said...

I don't think anyone is OWED the right to deface property with graffiti or otherwise, but nobody is stopping their free speech either. I love graffiti but the free speech argument is a load of rubbish.

jafabrit said...

I also agree with the statement by nagualero "the authenticity of placing art in public has to go hand in hand with it's consequences..."

Art said...

Part of the appeal of street art is it's illicit, guerilla aspect. An aspect that Fairey is losing in my opinion, as he starts to work in large, mainstream channels. Imagine what would happen to Banksy's 'street cred' if he came out...

Donald Frazell said...

As you just pointed out Brian, Fairey is NOt a street artist. He is a graphic designer who put out work for a client. Given a task, and then creating this image, in the way all graphic artists do. taking other images and adapting them to the needs of the client.

Truly good graphic designers change images so much you cant even tell what the originals were, and a truly creative and powerful image is created. My wife knew who Fairey was even before she took classes at UCLA, and that was years ago. He excells at pumping up his #1 client, himself. His work is effective, but hardly powerful in and of itself, take away Obama's victory, and this would not be mentioned anymore.

Most "street" art is really propaganda. Whether you agree with it or not, most are posters placed where it gets the most traffic and affect. Graffitti stretches from taggers to gangbangers, who only piss on the wall to mark their turf like a dog, and then a few who stylize their words and images into an aesthetic. Who attempt to enliven walls, and break up a depressing and dehumanized site. But usually is in with regular graffitti and so loses much impact. Though by itself it really isnt much, simply style without substance. Sorta like art magazines these days, like Art Forum.

Whichis why this is spoken of at all, the depressingly low ceilinged vault of art. When art is everything and anything, it lacks power and purpose. And of course, passion. Self expression is whining, for children, and therapy. Not adults. Adults create a better world, one for all. And seeks our deepest longes and fears, of family, community, humanity. The individual is not important. We come and go, what is it that remains, that continues, that is us?

Graffitti is a mark of ones existence, street art deals with the isolated, the object, the temporal goal. Propaganda attacks on Bush/Chaney, glorifing Obama, or pumping up ones own career. Its not creative art. Its design, which always has an ulterior purpose.

art collegia delenda est

Donald Frazell said...

This topic is on both The Guardian, in London, JJs blog about Banksy, as popular a subject there as Fairey is on here. And Shaka here in LA at the Times on CultureMonster. Banksy, a self styled Robin Hood street artist with a pet store gallery in NYC, weird as that seems. Mildly interesting work, sometimes good as in a painted hole in the West Bank wall opening onto a lush green landscape. And other times silly and self gratifying. As in a wall that has been hit by paint bombs by other so called street vigilantes.

Shaka more what you are looking for, a tagger gone artist. Who has spent time in jail, and now getting a gallery show, with people from both sides commenting Some saying he is a vandal who ruined neighborhoods, some that he expressed feelings of a certain subsect of youth from a certain time and place.

Back in the day Venice had a decrepid center covered in original street art, skaters often gathered in front, and made a seemingly "urban" environment, at the beach. It got torn down, after being on as many postcards as Times Sq used to be in NYC. I was propositioned by hookers and dealers back then, before it became part of Disneyland. And the South Bronx was covered in graffitti looking like a war zone. Soul Numbing.

Its illegal, and of course is not free speach, it is defacing property. Take that away, and it has little if any impact, mostly negative as it is, just silly if not of the streets, and part of the so called "milieu". Its just false frontin taken awy from its original place, and filth where it was born. When everywhere, it steals the last bit of humanity from a person. In a sterile and dehumanizing environment, it blazes that someone else is more important than you. Is more powerful, meaningful, important. And theregular person who has to live in it is but a guinea pig. To be used by the system, and abused by the human cock roaches at the bottom, gangs, taggers and thieves.

Freedom of speech is Speech. Talking about ideas, not physically deforming an environment, screaming in images, one that is not yours, and is about that persons lording it over all others. It is evil, when you see it in that way, when you have to live with it. Fine in a cheery place like Venice, though gets dirty and others without skill do also. Evil when about power, position, shouting at others.

Anyway you look at it, there is no freedom to do so, it is chaos, not betterment. One can think whatever one wants, even killing another. To put it out in the physical world, to act upon it, is another completely. Now you have invaded and taken others space, and not listened in turn.

art collegia delenda est

Anonymous said...

Wow. You really don't like shepard fairey. Why waste your time on hating another artist's work? Why not celebrate the fact that artists act and work in diverse manners. It wouldn't be art if it all if it all conformed to one person's ideal.

By the way, aren't art and media inextricably intertwined? every piece of art is among other things, an advertisement for itself. So if an artist wants to create millions of replicas of his or her art, so be it. The multiplication is possibly, also part of the message.

Fairey's work may not have been as iconic without him creating and distributing the pieces across the country. Part of the message was the ubiquitousness of the image - the fact that it wasn't just in a gallery or museum, but in a diverse body of people's windows, in an attempt by them to use the poster as a vehicle to convey their philosophy and message, and to transform it into political action.

Balhatain said...

Anon, I’m sure Shepard Fairey is a nice guy. What I don’t like are the steady flow of contradictions that spew from his lips. I also don’t care much for the hypocrisy of some of his actions. You know, like suggesting he is a strong supporter of extended interpretations of “fair use” when just a month or so ago he sent a cease-and-desist letter because a graphic artist used the word obey on merchandise. What he has to say about his case involving the AP is totally different than his actions.

Anon said, “Why waste your time on hating another artist's work?”

I’m not “hating” on Shepard Fairey. I’m simply pointing out contradictions and hypocrisy because the media, for the most part, has failed to do that. I’ve done the same with Damien Hirst and other artists who contradict themselves in a similar manner.

Anon said, “Why not celebrate the fact that artists act and work in diverse manners.”

Have you read my interview series? I celebrate artists and diversity in art on a daily basis.

Anon said, “It wouldn't be art if it all if it all conformed to one person's ideal.”

The laws that we have-- be it copyright or laws concerning certain aspects of public art, if you will-- are not decided by one person. They are a reflection of the public. If you want the laws to change you need only gain enough support to do it.

Anon said, “every piece of art is among other things, an advertisement for itself.”

Last time I checked the definition of art that aspect was not mentioned. Maybe it should be?

Anon said, “So if an artist wants to create millions of replicas of his or her art, so be it. The multiplication is possibly, also part of the message.”

The court will find if the work is indeed Fairey’s or not. We already know from the past that Fairey tends to infringe-- look up Rene Mederos.

Now he could try to say that making copies of works that involve infringement is part of his process and that it is itself art, but I don’t think the court would accept that-- the law still applies.If I robbed a bank and called it performance art it may very well be-- but I would still be in trouble for violating laws.

hyokon said...

Great questions and great discussions.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of Sergant. Thought everyone should know that Yosi Sergant has been appointed to the Office of Public Engagement at the White House. I guess it pays off to create a mock grassroots movement. This corporate PR firm pig has stolen history!

Anonymous said...

To me it is not clear.

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