Theft or Art?

The current show at the Headlands Coffeehouse, as I learned when I popped in the other day when I saw Brendan sitting in the window, is a collection of photographs taken of graffiti. The photographs were taken primarily in the Bay Area, with a few examples from elsewhere, and Brendan raised an important point when we started talking about the show: it’s basically theft.

The thing about graffiti is that it’s already art, and it’s attributable art: graffiti usually indicates the identity of the creator, for people who take the time to get to know the community. It’s a constantly changing and evolving art form, of course, and some people might argue about the questionable legality of graffiti, considering it vandalism rather than art. But there’s certainly a lot of evidence to support the idea that graffiti is art.

Photography, of course, is also an art form. But photography of art?

As Brendan put it, if I walked into the MOMA and took a bunch of pictures of the art and tried to sell them, people would be upset. Taking photographs of work of art and reselling them as your own art would be considered theft, and it’s most certainly not fair use. Yes, reproductions of works of art are sold all over the world, but these are sold explicitly as reproductions, with the artist and provenance clearly identified. I can buy a print of the Mona Lisa and I accept that the print itself is not art, but it is a reproduction of a piece of art.

This “artist” isn’t the first person to take photographs of graffiti and sell them. In fact, it’s a very common practice. So, the question is, why is it acceptable to steal someone else’s art when it’s graffiti, and not when it’s on the wall of a gallery? One could argue that because graffiti is so mutable, it should be documented, and I’m actually really supportive of efforts to document graffiti. But those efforts include explicit identifications of the artist, along with things like interviews, and they are collaborative efforts in which the rights of the artist are not infringed. There’s a huge difference between producing a coffee table book documenting graffiti culture and selling inkjet prints of someone else’s art for $250.

One might argue that graffiti is viewed as more nebulous because of its nature. But I also can’t help but wonder if the devaluation of graffiti has something to do with the fact that it is often executed by people of colour. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that white people (I’ve met the “artist”) have stolen the work of people of colour and gotten credit and even acclaim for it. The decision to photograph graffiti and argue that you have produced a work of art by photographing it shows a woeful lack of knowledge of the culture behind graffiti, and of the respect which artists deserve.

Yes, photographs of works of art, primarily architecture, are sold as intrinsic works of art. For example, images of the Parthenon and the Eiffel Tower. But these images involve what I would consider fair use, with the original artwork forming only part of the piece; anyone with the ability to get to Paris can take a picture of the Eiffel Tower, but it takes an artist to create an arresting photograph which is truly artistic in nature by adding something to the image. It takes an artist to compose the piece properly, to find the right light, to work in the darkroom to develop the piece, and this effort constitutes a reworking and addition. My vacation snaps of the Eiffel Tower aren’t art, because they’re vacation snaps with a documentary aspect: look, I saw the Eiffel Tower! These photographs of graffiti are equivalent to vacation snaps, with no substantial contribution from the photographer. He just happened to be there.

I jokingly proposed to Brendan that I should sign up for a show at Headlands, which involves about a two year wait, and spend the next two years taking photographs of the art on display in the Coffeehouse so that I can sell inkjet prints of it for $250 in my own show. He retorted that he should photograph the graffiti pictures and sell prints for $5 on the sidewalk outside Headlands. After all, in the view of the photographer, both of these actions are evidently perfectly reasonable!

I don’t think that the folks at Headlands are necessarily in the wrong here. This is an issue which they probably hadn’t thought about; I know that when I was discussing the show with my friend F recently, I initially argued in support of the photographer, because I hadn’t really considered the ramifications of the issue. But after my discussion with Brendan and some thinking of my own, I realized that Brendan was right, and that the photographs really do constitute theft. For me, it was a classic example of a situation in which lack of awareness about something leads one to a state of denial, rather than neutrality, and once I actually started exploring the issue, I realized that if graffiti is art, and taking photographs of art and reselling them is theft, then selling photographs of graffiti is theft. (Unless, of course, it’s your own graffiti, in which case you are selling reproductions of your own work. Or, if you’re working with a graffiti artist and collaborating on a project which involves fair attribution, then it’s also not theft.) Headlands wouldn’t accept a show which consisted of photographs of other people’s art from galleries and museums, and so they shouldn’t have accepted this one. They probably just didn’t think about graffiti as an art form in its own right, and of the marginalization of graffiti artists. Hopefully they will in the future.

The real problem, of course, lies with the person who thinks that this behavior was acceptable. I imagine that if galleries started rejecting shows like this, “artists” would stop doing shows of this kind, or they might radically rework them, turning them into actual collaborative documentations of graffiti art and graffiti culture in which the real artists got credit for their work, and a share of the profits from the show.

11 Comments on Theft or Art?

  1. I don’t know about this. As much as I appreciate the artistry behind some of these works, I think the best case one can make is that the artist “donated” their work to the owner of the “defaced” property. Perhaps the photographer did have the permission of the owner? Seems to me that the photographer was every bit within their rights with respect to the original artist.

    Also, since, as you say, the graffiti artist leaves a personal tag identifying the art, then a photographer would have to work fairly hard to take a picture of the art that wasn’t already attributed to the artist. In other words the photo would include the tag, no?

  2. I really don’t think it’s a race thing so much as a class thing (random gut feeling*), and definitely influenced by graffiti’s history as vandalism (observation).

    *I mean, maybe it’s just me and my idiosyncratic head, but my mental image of a graffiti…st is a teenaged white dude.

  3. meloukhia // 27 August, 2009 at 12:29 pm //

    Scott, why assume that the graffiti artist doesn’t have the permission of the owner of the property? Especially in the case of some of the large/complex murals in the Mission (some of which were featured in the show), the owner of the property certainly consented and in some cases actively asked for the art to be created.

    That aside, even if the art is illegal in the technical sense, why should a second illegal act (stealing/selling that art) be acceptable? There’s a reason I can’t walk into a gallery, photograph an Annie Leibovitz exhibition, and sell my photos, even if they do include the gallery tag with her name on it. Taking and selling photographs of someone else’s art is theft.

    As I distinguished in this piece, there’s a big difference between selling prints/reproductions and what was done in this photography show. Prints and reproductions are made with the permission of the artist or the artist’s estate, and funds from their sale go, in part, to the artist. In this case, someone took photographs of someone else’s art and is profiting from them. That’s definitely wrong.

    Aoede, you bring up a great point when you discuss the fact that this is also a class issue. Graffiti is often regarded as a lower class art form, and the theft of the creative works of the lower classes is by no means new. And, of course, you’re right; white dudes (teenaged and otherwise) do produce graffiti.

    Not knowing a lot about graffiti culture, I can’t speak too knowledgeably in this area, but I believe that artists of color are often the people responsible for larger and more complex works, though. Works that could be considered art, rather than simple vandalism. And, historically, more respectable (i.e. legal) venues were not as open to artists of color, and the tools for making art were not affordable/accessible. By creating public art, artists shared art with their communities, created a venue for themselves, and were able to afford to produce art. I think that’s pretty revolutionary. Again, I don’t know much, so I am readily open to correction on this one.

  4. Not to mention that the images are neither really compelling graffiti nor really good photographs.

  5. meloukhia // 27 August, 2009 at 6:20 pm //

    Ah, haddock, you always cut to the heart of the matter! Is it still theft if you steal crappy art? Because, if not, I have some excellent photographs of Thomas Kinkade paintings I’d like to sell you.

  6. I used to love Thomas Kinkade. In middle school.

  7. Wow, your initial question threw me! My gut reaction is to say that “graffiti” by definition is non-consentual. Thus the primary difference between graffiti and, say, a mural is the aspect of consent. That said, I cannot find any such reference to consent in any of the online lexicons I’ve checked! The closest I’ve come is to find “graffiti” synonomous with “defacement”. Still, I think you can’t define the photography of graffiti as a theft of the artist’s work because it has been freely given. If one expands the meaning of graffiti to any wall art then, yes, I’d agree with you, but if you limit the definition to original concept of defacement, I think it no worse than any other crime scene photograph (cheap shot?).

    As for making a profit on it, that’s a much larger question. As you mention there’re distictions to be made. Photographing the Eiffel Tower and selling those prints seems to be acceptable. Selling photo’s of someone’s building could be acceptable with their permission. It seems to me an argument could be made that selling photo’s of someone’s personal property, defaced or not, with the owner’s permission could easily be made.

    My final point was that taking a picture of anything non-natural is, in fact, photographing someone else’s art. Where shall we draw the line?

    As a funny aside my first wife and I were married on a hilltop overlooking the ocean in front of a sculpture nicknamed “The Flying IUD”. When reviewing the wedding photos we noticed a graffito of a hand giving us the bird! There we are preserved forever solemnly giving our vows and, if one looks closely at the background between us, there is the one finger salute! We should have known what was in store for us…

  8. meloukhia // 28 August, 2009 at 9:25 am //

    So, any time an artist produces a piece of work without being paid for it, or makes work and decides to present it to someone as a gift, ou surrenders control to that work? Wow. I’ll be sure to tell all of my artist/artisan friends who have given me works of their art that I am now allowed to do whatever I want with it without consulting them or considering their intent.

    I think you’re confusing two important points here: I am not objecting to photographing art and architecture. At all. I have numerous photographs of art and architecture which I have personally taken because I found the work interesting/wanted a memento/etc. I am objecting to photographing other people’s art and selling it. There’s a huge difference here. One is creating a record, one is making a profit. Profiting off the work of others? Not ok.

    You draw an interesting point with your comment about photographs of non-natural objects, but I am going to respectfully disagree. If I take a photograph of my Volkswagon in the driveway and sell it, I’m not photographing a work of art produced by someone else and making a profit from it. (I do love my car, but it’s not a work of art: it’s a work of engineering.) Likewise, a photograph of something like a sewage works. The sewage works is not a work of art, it’s an engineered object which is filling a specific function. However, the photograph of the sewage works might be a work of art. Tricky, eh?

    Architecture, to me, can be an art form (although isn’t always). The Transamerica Pyramid is a work of art. My bank is not. A non-natural object is not inherently a work of art, in other words.

  9. Yeah, I was purposely avoiding the whole ‘when does the artist give up their interest in their art’ subject. I won’t try to predict where the line is, but I would think any art that the public is willing to spend thousands of tax-payer dollars obliterating is easily on the “forfeited” side of the line.

    While I agree on the aspects of photography as an art form, we’ll just have to agree to disagree about your distinction between artistry and engineering. I personally believe there is no higher art form than engineering (your VW notwithstanding), but that’s me. A sewage works could very well be regarded as art. So could a piece of well written code, a meal, a widget, a hole in the ground. I guess it just depends on one’s perspective and love of what one does.

  10. meloukhia // 28 August, 2009 at 4:18 pm //

    Don’t get me wrong, I love engineering and am a huge fan of marvels of engineering. I also think that something which is brilliantly engineered can have artistic elements. But…I don’t think that engineering is necessarily art, even though art can be involved in it. I might sometimes call engineering “functional art,” but for me, art is about creating something to be appreciated on aesthetic grounds, whereas engineering is about creating something to solve a problem, which may incorporate aesthetic concerns.

    And I really do firmly believe that it’s ludicrous to say that anything man-made is “art.”

  11. I guess the other question is whether what has been photographed is meant as art. Graffiti certainly could be seen that way and is sometimes meant that way. Tagging usually is not.

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