In the Museum Education Program at George Washington University, a bedrock idea was to “advocate for accountability and accessibility.” (Or was it “advocate for accessibility and accountability”?) Accessibility, accountability, and advocacy comprised our shared core values as students and emerging professionals in the museum world.
But what happens when accountability and accessibility are in conflict? In my very informal unscientific poll, three out of three respondents said that accountability trumps accessibility, while hundreds of non-respondents may have found the question itself inaccessible, or perhaps uninteresting.
The phenomenon of graffiti strikes me as a case of such a conflict between accessibility and accountability. A street artist or vandal (whichever you call it) has access to the ability to show his/her art widely and prominently. It’s a way for anyone to be able to make a statement, sidestepping the barriers that might arise between fame in other art forms and the average person. And it can be seen by anyone; no museum admission is required. (There are exceptions, when museums put on shows of street art.) As Banksy put it: “Graffiti is one of the few tools you have if you have almost nothing. And even if you don’t come up with a picture to cure world poverty you can make someone smile while they’re having a piss.”
As high as graffiti is in accessibility, it’s low in accountability. It is, after all, a crime. Its anonymous nature often separates the street artist from being held accountable to society for breaking the law or sullying the streetscape. The website nograffiti.com quotes vandalism victims who lament this aspect. A man in Australia writes:
“Is it any wonder that I get angry when I see Graffiti. I get very angry. I am angry because of the disrespect the vandals show for our property, and I get angry at the thought of using my valuable time to clean up the mess. I also get angry because I have to use valuable community resources to pay for the cleanup materials. I get angry also because my neighbors are afraid of these vandals that no-one sees. Are they phantoms, creatures of the night? Why do they do it to my property?”
Catlanta, not to be confused with the animal rescue organization of the same name, is a street artist who leaves adorable little cat magnets throughout Atlanta, GA for enthusiastic seekers to find, take, and keep for their own. My friend sent me the Catlanta article with the message “I think you might like this”, knowing that of course I would like something involving cats, art, and exploring a city in search of something to find or collect.
The case of Catlanta’s magnets alone seems to be a win-win. Fans delight in finding the magnets (clues are posted in advance on social media websites) and end up with a little piece of art to take home. The artist, who remains anonymous, shares his work and enjoys what he considers giving back to the community. As magnets, the works are not permanent acts of graffiti.
Catlanta does have his naysayers. A comment left by a reader states, “He also spray paints these cats on walls that I don’t want to see ‘tagged’ up. He’s a graffiti artist, whether he admits it or not.” And what about the magnets themselves? Sure, the cats are cute. What if an artist were decorating/desecrating the city with magnets of a more objectionable shape?
And there are, of course, naysayers to the general idea of graffiti as art. Heather MacDonald wrote a scathing article about a graffiti exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. The exhibit, she says, “has no response to the argument that graffiti is a scourge on cities, because it simply chooses to ignore any idea that contravenes its simplistic celebration of property defacement.” In other words, MacDonald sees a lack of discussion of accountability here.
I have personally witnessed the way graffiti has heightened accessibility but lowered accountability. A decade ago, in the women’s restroom stalls at Wesleyan University‘s campus center, you could read (and write) things that you might not want to speak aloud. Even among this student body that prided itself on being liberal, forward-thinking, and sexually liberated, there were plenty of people who took their queries for advice about sex or mental health issues to the bathroom wall. Whole conversations in pen ink took place there over time. Some people drew art; others asked for recommendations about which courses to take. Individuals scrawled inspiring quotes. The bathroom wall provided access to seeking, finding, and providing information.
Accountability was wanting, however. Some of the topics were mean-spirited (lists of “Boring people” and “People you wouldn’t date if they were the last one left on earth” and “Hung like a mouse”). At 18 to 21 years of age, we were too old to be making such lists for a wide audience to read, anonymously or otherwise. In the restroom, you could write something unkind and rest assured you wouldn’t be held accountable for it.
Was it morally wrong for us students to deface the wall? I think the wall of conversations met a need for us. (We did have anonymous hotlines, but the advantage of the wall was that hundreds of people would read what you wrote and multiple people could offer their opinion on your question.) But at the same time, we were defacing property that wasn’t ours and giving the cleaning crew more work to do. All things considered, I am inclined to say that our restroom wall was morally all right, aside from the Mean Girls-esque lists and comments.
(Full disclosure: I wrote plenty on those walls back in my college days. I’m pretty sure I never added names to the mean lists, though.)
Graffiti raises a number of ethical questions for museum professionals to consider:
- Does it have any place in an art museum? If so, what moral responsibility does the museum have for addressing the legal aspects of graffiti?
- Is there “good graffiti” and “bad graffiti”? What kind are the Catlanta cats?
- Can, and should, museums ever serve as a forum for anonymous artistic expression?
- Does graffiti meet a need of vandals and/or viewers that could be fulfilled in a better way? Could museums do anything to help meet these needs in their communities?