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Passing a two year sentence on Joseph Binney, an itinerant graffiti artist who had displayed his art on railway carriages up and down the UK without the consent of the companies that owned them, Judge Paul Dogson described graffiti as the "the selfish activities of those that think this is art". Graffiti "disfigured the landscape", the judge said.
Before we rush to defend a meaning for ‘art’ beyond that implied by Judge Dogson, doubtless for whom ‘art’ is what hangs in art galleries, and especially given that a philosophical discussion about ‘art’ would not be uppermost in the mind of the reader were s/he to return home from work to find one of his creations emblazoned across the roof of the house – there remain still some interesting issues raised by this case.
The judge characterised Binney’s activities as ‘selfish’. On one level, they may have been. A burning desire to achieve recognition for his work may have driven him down the route of anti-social notoriety which, for some, is preferable to taking one’s chances in a jungle where some of the animals are far better connected than others. It seems to have worked for Oasis in the music industry. Yet, from another perspective, like most artists, what he created was clearly intended to be seen by the world whether to amuse, inspire, or provoke and, as such, he has given to the world rather than taken from it. Compared to preparing a meal for he alone to eat, this was hardly selfish, otherwise one would be driven to regard Mozart as a musical onanist.
Of course, the accusation is really a red herring. Binney’s crime concerns expressing himself on someone else’s property without their consent and, as we should recognise, the protection of property is central to what the criminal justice does every day of the week, even if the mass media focus on the juicier crimes that get the adrenalin going.
Here the judge tells us that he has ‘disfigured the landscape’. Looking at his work, one may or may not agree (a straw poll of my classes in school today did not). What can certainly be said is that if the crime has anything to do with disfigurement, I can think of many examples where the degree of disagreement about ‘disfigurement’ would be predictably much less amongst people who have direct experience of living in it or beside it. For example, the housing conditions of the urban working class spring to mind, whether we think of the cramped back-to-backs nestling around the satanic mills of Victorian Britain or the high-rise rabbit hutches of the 1960s. These are disfigurements, I suspect, the good judge has but seen in the work of some of the artists he admires (LS Lowrey), or else knows from the reminiscences of the retired architect with whom he shares a quiet drink in the local pub overlooking the village green. If the judge wants to know about disfigurement, he need only try living the lives of millions of others lacking the economic, social and cultural advantages that fast-tracked him and most of his peer group to a position where he could, without fear of contradiction, pronounce not merely on the law but on ‘art’, too.
As always, it is tempting to locate Binney’s activities within the discourse of political rebellion maybe to find that he only wanted his fifteen minutes of media celebrity, even if exchanged for two years of imprisonment. He could, for all I know, be the sort that is prepared to nail himself to a cross just to say ‘I was on the Jeremy Kyle Show’. On the other hand, let’s not get dazzled by the formal liberal freedoms that provide some sort of framework within which I, for example, can write as I am doing now without fear of arrest – or worse. Yet whilst we do have these freedoms, for most people, their experience, their views, their ideas, their creativity, their chances of performing, being heard, being seen are in reality severely curtailed by the fact that the opportunities to do so are not distributed equally. Was his vision one of a travelling rail show featuring his art running from John O’Groats to Lands End?
Had he obtained consent from any of the railway companies – and thus avoided the criminalisation of his art - would he have gone ahead with it? Perhaps doing it in the absence of their consent was intrinsic to his ‘art’. Neo-Marxists would certainly be drawn to such an interpretation, viewing it as the dispossessed re-claiming what the law tells them belongs to others, his actions symbolic of the denial of the right to private property without which capitalism becomes impotent. Certainly, it was not enough to merely condemn Binney for criminal damage. His motives for doing it as well as the resulting ‘art’ had to be condemned, too. In this light, the fear of disorder evoked by the nomadic graffiti artist comes into sharper relief.
As far as the authorities are concerned, graffiti symbolises unlicensed, unregulated voices appearing outside a slick, predictable, stage-managed and highly lucrative public discourse that constructs ideological realities essential to class-based, capitalist society. Provided they have been programmed into TV ‘shows’ or tagged on at the end of News at Ten, quirkiness, oddity, even the downright bizarre make valuable contributions to the normalisation of common-sense understandings of social reality. Springing up outside that discourse - irrespective of personal motives or meanings (we don't need ethnographers on Binney's case) - they pose a de facto threat to established systems of social control, the guarding of which is always more important than the 'freedoms' they guard. Thus it is that they must therefore be suppressed with the full weight of the criminal law, as Binney's case illustrates so well.
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