A few years back I took part in a volunteer graffiti cleanup program. They issued us cans of gray paint and rollers and turned us loose on the neighborhood. Since actually removing graffiti is hard work, we were simply instructed to wander around until we happened upon a scrawled “Fuck you” and then slap some paint over it. It was a fun way to meet your neighbors, but it was also a linguistically fascinating activity. A wall with a gray square in the middle of it is arguably no less defaced than one decorated by unauthorized text or images, but it is defaced in a way that has no communicative payload. The goal of this activity–which had no official standing but did receive funding from the city–was not to beautify the neighborhood, but rather to deincentivize graffiti artists. It was a fundamentally illocutionary act that only made sense if you imagined some nearby living breathing graffito frustrated by your efforts. (In this way it is the mirror image of the act of writing graffiti, for which the annoyance is the message.) I guess you could argue that this was a form of censorship (and the coverups we applied did end up looking like redaction bars), but I didn’t feel bad about it because we had license to spare anything we thought actually clever, and I figured if it was on the street it was fair game.
That was my thinking, anyway. But while I was down on my knees obscuring a shapeless knot spray-painted onto the side of a trash can a guy came up and said to me, “You know, I think graffiti is art.” There was something about the way he said it that struck me as breathtakingly stupid, but I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, so I just stared at him blankly until he went away. But with time to reflect I figured out what it was that bugged me, and it gets at a particular bit of specious rhetoric that drives me up a wall.
“I think graffiti is art,” was the guy’s passive-aggressive way of saying, “I don’t think you should be doing that.” Furthermore the reason why not is that writing graffiti falls into an exalted category called artistic creation that merits respect even when its product is an ugly scrawl on the side of a garbage can. I think all of that is wrongheaded, but I respect the opinion. It doesn’t rankle. What rankles is the weasel-word “art”. In this context (and you’ll just have to take my word for it here) the guy wasn’t calling graffiti “art” for some formal reason (because, say, it’s a design made with paint) but as a specific rhetorical move. He says “art” is some vague and lofty way, prompting me to sputter something along the lines of “But they have no right to do that to someone else’s property!” thereby steering us into a art/commerce dichotomy where he is the partisan of Romantic creativity and I am the pinched bourgeoise. Don’t laugh! This may sound trite, but in the moment, in an in upper-middle class Seattle neighborhood, it can work.
What’s rankles is not so much the cliché itself as the way it forecloses on so many more interesting responses. The whole what’s-on-the-street-is-fair-game angle, for instance. Or what about advertising–that can be as ugly as graffiti, so does it count as art too? All things considered, my blank stare was a pretty good response. If I really wanted to shut the guy up, though, here’s what I should have said:
“Yeah, but I think my painting over graffiti is a kind of art, too.”
Maybe it’s a kind of performance art. Take that, buddy! This response would have goofy-footed him. I could have walked away smug and beatific and left him the sputtering narrow-minded one, but at the price of buying into a whole raft of bogus presuppositions. Specifically, the rhetorical move “X is art” is a surreptitious way of saying “I approve of X and to question my approval is to somehow question the goodness of art itself, which is something only a crazy person would do.” The trick is to leave the whole unquestionable goodness part unspoken while still retaining its coercive power. The blue-collar version of this move is to say “God loves X”.