Monday, May 01, 2006


there's clearly a line - not an absolute line, something more akin to a floating border, a more or less wide, and fluctuating gradation - that distinguishes the values associated with conservatism and the defence of the status quo from those associated with the more radical politics of embracing change. it's a line that gets externalised in a number of ways that correspond to the degree of our personal engagement with the issues that emerge out of this - some would say - defining tension in any social organisation.

nowhere is this line experienced more deeply than in the matter of ownership. the my-ness of what I perceive to be mine and the your-ness of what is yours - and our being able to agree on this - is fundamental to our ability to get along.

essentially, there's nothing to distinguish the graffiti that cover every square inch of a New York subway carriage from the advertising posters that peep out from beneath it all. they're both - for the most part - superfluous to the original designer's intentions, they're both - for the most part - ugly and meaningless, and they're both - for the most part - conveying messages from opposite sides of that line that, really, none of us wants to hear. the advertisements are displayed in organised rows, paid for by the square metre; the graffiti is sprayed in random sweeps, and stolen. one set is safe - the silent icons of material consumption; the other is dangerous - the warcry of the gap-toothed dispossessed, the illiterate manifesto of the new barbarians at the gates.

there's a foolish romanticisation of urban graffiti that extolls the substitution of one arbitrary set of aesthetic principals with another. whereas it's defensible to maintain that tagging the blank wall of a building or object that symbolises political and economic oppression in one form or another is a subversive action - a way of reclaiming something - it's clearly flying in the face of the mass of evidence to presume some kind of underground political movement linking the global authorship behind the graffiti we encounter on a daily basis. by far the greater part of it is no more considered than gobbing out your gum onto the pavement - at best, it's the human equivalent of a territorial animal's spraying his patch.

every so often, a cat strays into our garden and has a sniff around. if it's unlucky enough to find itself impelled to raise its trembling tail and start squirting one of my bushes whilst I'm around, it will, more than likely, find itself the target of a well-aimed (I pride myself) missile - stone, clod of clay, half-brick - nothing lethal, but I do take great satisfaction in hearing the surprised howl and witnessing the undignified scuttle for the fence, and feel no remorse whatsoever for such summary disposition of what I consider to be justice: cat tries to spray my bush, cat receives painful lesson that will hopefully deter future sallies.

the crucial pronouns are 'my' and 'our'. no-one's going to deny me the right to defend my own territory from invasion or defacement. the interesting dialogue begins when we extend the meaning of 'our' to stuff that, whereas not actually belonging to us, we nevertheless feel an attachment to as if it did.

few tears are shed, for example, when a corporate HQ is defaced - except by the security guards who lose their jobs for failing to defend company property. most corporate architecture is indefensibly repellent - either that or, Richard Rogers style, jauntily monumental. with the notable exception of the Bauhaus, few schools of public art and design have taken the marriage of form and function to mean much more than maintaining the classical proportions in the toilet cubicles. architecture is one of those fringe art forms that rests solidly on a foundation of simple wealth. at least it doesn't pretend otherwise. any conversation that begins 'our architect suggested..' does not come with a secondhand camper van parked outside on the street, and so-called 'visionary architects' have a poor record of providing effective social housing.

on the other hand, if anyone were to be discovered interfering in any way with the Diana memorial fountain in Green Park, they'd most likely be lynched.

it can be of small wonder to anyone who has ever visited - or has the misfortune to have to inhabit - any of the architect-designed New Towns, or those clusters of high-rise accommodations that blight the outskirts of every city, that respect for their environment is low on its inhabitants' agenda. if, time and time again, the architects behind these mass social housing schemes get it so wrong (with one or two magnificent exceptions) as to drive their residents to the kinds of behaviours consistent with lab rats in a maze, who can possibly be surprised that, time and time again, the basic taboos against shitting in your own backyard get broken. once the fundamental constituents of what's been described as 'social capital' - ie citizenship, neighbourliness, trust and shared values, community involvement, volunteering, social networks and civic participation - have become so eroded as to have lost their structural integrity completely, nothing short of wholesale transportation or quarantine containment is going to prevent the leakage of the resultant socially degraded behaviour into society at large.

mediaeval piles are riddled with graffiti. one of the indispensable items in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century gentleman-traveller's travelling trunk was a stonemason's chisel and mallet, which he would employ to carve his initials into the stone wherever he could find a space to do so. no abbey, bridge, milestone, or monument - from Wells Cathedral to Stonehenge - was exempt from his tag. some of these initials are carved with remarkable skill - it would seem that the art of stone-engraving - at least the art of engraving a decent Gothic font, complete with serifs - was considered on a par with all the others at one time.

such graffiti, however, are allocated a particular status in the public affection not so much for the skill of their execution - Banksy's work is more skillful - but for their historic association. a carving dated 1806 is automatically allocated a heritage rating that will never apply to a spray-painted 2006 simply on the basis of its age and its social provenance. a two-hundred-year-old defacement has acquired a patina no less valuable than if it were gold-leafed, not only because it's old, but because it was done, most likely, by a gentleman - a nobleman, even, with luck.

the automatic authority that formerly accrued to the ruling classes by dint of nothing more than tradition backed by overwhelming force has long since been passed on to the corporate vandals whose tags - they call them logos - stare down from every hoarding. nevertheless, the indiscriminate spraying of any blank surface just because it's blank isn't automatically to be applauded as an act of anarchic reclamation. for every graffiti artist whose stencilled works are replete with wit and wisdom there are a thousand amateurs whose daubs represent nothing more artful than the droolings of a dyspeptic hamster, and even though I might have had no say in the design and execution of most of the public stuff that I encounter on the street, I would prefer, for the most part, the unembellished blankness to the talentless tagging that usually stains it.

forced to side, though, I'd have to choose the spray-canning vandals against the ones with the forces of so-called law and order on their side. but woe betide them if they come spraying in my back garden.

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