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.