Accountability Versus Accessibility, Applied to the Case of Graffiti


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?
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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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3 Responses to Accountability Versus Accessibility, Applied to the Case of Graffiti

  1. Diana says:

    I definitely think that there is good graffiti and bad graffiti. Just yesterday, for example, I saw “Happiness is a warm butt” haphazardly spray painted under a bridge near my house. I consider this bad graffiti because it was lacking in any obvious artistic quality, and it was spray painted on a public area so it will cost us precious tax dollars to remove. I don’t think that public areas should be a forum for airing out the personal details of our lives… that includes graffiti under bridges, writing on bathroom stalls, etc. If someone really wants anonymous advice on an issue, go post in a specialized online forum or something.

    I do think that there is good graffiti, however. There is a certain wall in Seattle along a bus route that I used to take, and on this wall was a huge and tastefully done graffiti mural. I don’t remember what exactly the theme was, but I do seem to remember being told that someone was (legally) hired to create this mural. I have no problem with graffiti as long as it’s done legally and tastefully.

    I would also consider the Catlanta cats to also be good graffiti. The main reason is because they are not permanently etched anywhere; they are magnets that could easily be removed by anyone. Also, I don’t really think very many people would find those cute, artistically drawn cats to be very objectionable, so I don’t think that much, if any, of their community resources would be used to remove the Catlanta cats from the city.

    • disciullo says:

      Thanks for your response!

      I really enjoy the places in the DC area where walls of graffiti have been turned into community mural projects. But I think that these legal murals aren’t the graffiti that graffiti opponents are complaining about. The No Graffiti website notes that some towns have created walls specifically for people to be allowed to spray paint, but they don’t work in curbing the stealthy and sometimes gang-related illegal tagging on other property.

      As far as “tastefully,” that is so subjective, but I think most people wouldn’t object to cute cats in particular. :-p

      Your point about online forums got me thinking about taking this approach to reducing graffiti: determining the need or want being met by vandalizing and determining if there’s a legal/less objectionable way to meet that need. For graffiti out on the streets, solving the problem may be as big as solving the problems of poverty and disenfranchisement. For students conversing on a bathroom wall, they may want the anonymity but still have the context of their particular community – but some sort of anonymous conversation book or website for students could be set up easily enough, it seems. I also wonder how much social media has changed things and whether that wall is as covered today as it was years ago. (It wouldn’t even be the same exact wall; a new campus center was built after I graduated.) Facebook was first available to Wesleyan students the summer after I finished college, and that can be (at least in its format now) used as a source for quickly getting several answers to a question like “Which professor’s class should I take?”

  2. disciullo says:

    A bit of follow-up:

    My mother commented on this post, only she put her comment on my blog’s About page (https://informedhumane.wordpress.com/about/).

    My father emailed me a link about the Lennon Wall (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lennon_Wall), which reminded me of the piece of the Berlin Wall on display in the Newseum (http://www.newseum.org/berlinwall/).

    This article describes one museum’s efforts to put legal street art in the community: http://www.seacoastonline.com/articles/20110516-OPINION-105160312

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