The myriad forms and mediums of art beg the question – what defines art? If it is not produced by an established ‘artist’ in an established studio space with an established medium, is it art? The nature of art has been described by Richard Wollheim as “one of the most elusive of the traditional problems of human culture”. Different viewpoints have been proposed to tackle this difficult question – realists will say art is not art unless it has aesthetic quality that has value independent of subjective opinion, while relativists will say there is no absolute value to art, and it depends on and varies with the human experience by different humans.
There is no better example to illustrate this divide than graffiti (fun fact: did you know that the singular form of graffiti is graffito?). Graffiti has existed since ancient times, with examples dating back to Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. The earliest forms date back to 30,000 BCE in the form of prehistoric cave paintings using tools such as animal bones and pigments. The ancient Romans carved graffiti on walls and monuments. More recent forms of graffiti have been used to convey political or social commentary – in 1970s, the hostility of American youth culture was conveyed through popular graffiti stating “Dick Nixon Before He Dicks You”. The Israeli West Bank barrier has become a site for graffiti, as was the Berlin wall decades before. In Vancouver, graffiti has been used to beautify aesthetically unappealing concrete buildings through the East Vancouver Mural Project.
If the point of art is to express oneself, and the value of “art” is subjectively defined, who are we to say whether these expressions are considered art? One reason, which you’ve probably all thought of my now, is if this ‘art’ was done on property without the owner’s consent – this, my friends, is what you’d call vandalism.
Now. One could stop there and renounce vandalism as a criminal act and call it a day. And certainly, situations like this do exist – take the group of teenagers I saw defacing the building across the street from my apartment the other day, who had no other purpose but to destroy property. But what about those artists out there who do not have the luxury of a studio, a canvas, or a camera? Who resort to doing their art on city walls and streets because they have an artists’ compulsion to express oneself but not the means?