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 www.obeygiant.com 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 giant.com 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,