Art as Protest

What is art? A manifestation of emotion, a form of culture, an outpouring of work, passion, and technique? A canvas, an easel, and a paintbrush?  Is art only that which is contained in a museum, or sold for thousands of dollars? Must artwork exist legally, or on a canvas to be considered art? In the most simple definition, artwork is  a mirror echoing something of the artist, and of the viewer. In the summer of 2011, the sculptures in the Plaza Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain, bore tattoos across their ivory skins; the barricades before them exhibited slogans of defiance and scathing wit. The bright trees in the center of the square were littered with a network of tree houses; suspended walkways and tattered tents clung to branches. “Vuestros golpes alimentan nuestro espiritu,” (“your blows feed our spirit”) was scrawled across concrete, demanding that all of Barcelona, that all of Spain, witness injustice and the beginning of Movimiento 15M, an ongoing movement demanding social and political change in the country.

Such vandalism, such art, reflects a glimpse of history, a flash of unity within discontent. Why are some cities more prone to such illegal painting? When is graffiti considered street art?

“Graffiti counts as art,” said Allie Chuma ’18. “As long as it’s on a public building, I see no problem with it.”

For example, Richmond, Virginia celebrates street art, the sides of buildings awash in color and sculptures suspended from beneath bridges. Trips through back alleys may be rewarded with mysterious graffiti messages such as, “Don’t let the angels tell you lies. Be sinful. Be seductive. Be satisfied.” Yet while some of this urban artwork is sanctioned by the city and created during a yearly street art festival, some of it remains illegal. The skill of the artist or the subject is so impressive however, that the work is called street art, not graffiti.

This is part of the intrigue of illegal street art: the mystery of the purpose, the artist, the meaning. Some meanings are clear – revolutionary-minded displays have a direct message, such as art demanding justice for Mike Brown or art found on Newbury Street calling for surveillance of the police - but others are enigmas, scrawled in corners and hidden walls where they are rarely found. Their meanings are never quite clear, like love letters secreted away for whomever is fortunate enough to find them. In Florence for example, a wrong turn into a certain alley may reveal a wall simply stained by crimson lipstick kisses within a single square. Or perhaps wandering through a narrow side street by an old church one may find the walls plastered with sheets of poetry.

This is art for the sake of art. So when formerly underground artists such as Banksy, a British graffiti artist whose designs and stunts have become recognizable and marketable or Shepard Fairey, an American graphic street artist who now enjoys great commercial success begin to profit from notoriety, there grew a divide between those who see such artists as sell-outs and those who still view their work as genuine.

“Artists like Shepard Fairey, who I respected when they were small-time graffiti artists, now cause me to have conflicting feelings about them as artists since they’ve gone corporate,” said Walker Stettinius ’18 on the commercial success of such artists.

So does profit destroy the meaning of art?

It is the intention of the artist, the reflection of the viewer, and the dialogue between the city and the paint that adorns its alleys and sidewalks that allows art to be born before us. Art is political. Art is a weapon. And graffiti, street art, is a love letter to a city, a cry of despair, a demand for change, an outpouring of passion. It is everything and nothing. One must simply look, and hope to understand.