As often as not that question is asked in a context where the implied answer is, “no, it’s vandalism”. While that IS and important issue, and one that DOES interest me, that’s not what I’m thinking about now.
I’m thinking more about a version of the question that implies that ART has some essence, so identifiable mark, that proclaims it to be art. In that version, one proceeds by explaining what that essence is and how you identify it. This is a difficult question and, in fact, some aestheticians and critics have simply given up on it. There seem to be so many very different things that people call (legitimately) art that it’s too difficult specify what it is.
I’m sympathetic to that problem, so sympathetic that I’m not going to attempt to identify an essence and then pin it, or not, on graffiti.
I’ve got something else in mind: variety. Variety in style, variety in quality.
One post I did in connection with Green Villain’s recent Pep Boys project, Some Styles in the Demolition Exhibition, identified four different styles. Describing the differences is tricky, but seeing them is not. How many distinctly different styles were on display in that project, as I made no attempt at a complete survey in that post? Ten, twenty, but certainly not 50 – there were only about 100 artists involved. And of course we didn’t even come close to sampling the whole space of graffiti.
If you examined that whole space, how many different styles would you find? I might well be able to find 100 in the work I’ve photographed in Jersey City, and that’s just one relatively small region. World-wide would it be 1000, less, more? I don’t know. Are those significant numbers? What’s the comparison? I don’t know.
My point is simply that there is significant stylistic variety. We’re not dealing with a hodge-podge of more or less opportunistic and unschooled variety. There’s systematic variety, driven in part by the competitive need to differentiate yourself from others and, in part, by a desire for visual exploration.
Whatever it is that people mean by “art”, surely it implies systematic variety. We can identify that without having to identify a recognizable essence of art.
And we can do the same with respect to quality. Off hand I’d say that the Demolition Exhibition had three, maybe four, ‘quantum’ levels of quality. Buy that I mean that all the pieces within the same level are of roughly the same quality and all are better than those in the level below and not so good as those in the level above. Would others recognize the same levels? I don’t really know, but I’d like to find out. I think there’s a good chance that knowledgeable observers would – and I stress “knowledgeable.”
If you aren’t familiar with graffiti, you can’t really see what’s there in any deep way. It’s just a bunch of complex lines and patterns, or not so complex, depending. You can’t discriminate among styles or levels of excellence.
Off hand, without thinking about it, I’d say there are at least two quantum levels of quality below what’s in the Demolition Exhibition and one, maybe two, levels above. That’s five, maybe six, quantum levels of quality. How significant is that? I don’t know.
How many different quality levels are on display in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC? And, in each genre on display there, how many levels below museum quality? Again, I don’t know. But that’s the kind of question you need to ask if you want to know: Is it Art?