Tuesday, 1 September 2009

You know, I don't think I want to even touch the part where he suggests that Banksy should have been murdered at birth.

I've posted here before (and at some length) about graffiti and its artistic potential. Indeed, I was reminded of it just the other day as I was heading back to London on the train, going past a rather fine mural of a shark beside the track (can't find a photo of it online, sadly). London has a fantastic supply of awesome graffiti — this and this are just beautiful, for example, and I love the South Bank combination skate park and graffiti wall.

Now, I can fully appreciate that even though I really like some graffiti work, it isn't to everyone's taste, and some people would rather it be removed. That's an occupational hazard for street artists, and if the people who live in the areas where it's particularly prevalent really don't want to look at it every day, it's hardly my place to tell them that their opinions shouldn't count.

All of which brings us to a news story that caught my eye today, about Bristol City Council planning to let members of the public vote on whether specific bits of street art should be kept or removed. This seems like a great idea, if they can make sure the voting's fair (apparently they're using an online poll, which isn't exactly immune from interference and will naturally skew the vote towards the younger end of the population). And if the public decide that a particular piece isn't worth keeping, more power to them.

Some people aren't happy with this development, though. To quote from the article (with emphasis added by me):

"The two words 'graffiti' and 'art' should never be put together," said the art critic Brian Sewell. He added the council were "bonkers". "The public doesn't know good from bad."

"For this city to be guided by the opinion of people who don't know anything about art is lunacy. It doesn't matter if they [the public] like it. It will result in a proliferation of entirely random decoration, for want of a better word," he said.
Oh dear. Who let Brian Sewell out of his crypt? I'm sure he knows a lot about art — at least I hope he does, given that that's his job — but he's committing the cardinal sin of a critic, that of thinking that only certain people are permitted to be critics.

That isn't to say that everyone's viewpoint is equally correct, or even equally worth listening to. If you can't back up an opinion with at least some kind of reasoning, no-one's very likely to listen to it. But that's a very long way from suggesting that only those who offer these opinions professionally should ever be heard, or indeed that people without the "proper" education are necessarily incapable of forming a reasoned judgement. I know practically nothing about art or its history, for example, and yet when I look at any particular bit of artwork I can generally come up with something specific that I like or dislike about it.

Sewell may have a grain of truth in his objections — after all, this is the country that has repeatedly voted on Big Brother enough to keep it on our screens (although not any more), so there isn't any guarantee that the people involved in the vote will choose a course of action that will improve Bristol. However, the main reason he's wrong in this case (quite apart from a breathtaking degree of arrogance &mdash and I know arrogance, given that I apparently think enough of myself that I write a bunch of stuff on a semi-regular basis and assume that a lot of strangers on the Internet might care about it at some point) is that this particular bit of artwork doesn't exist in a vacuum. Because it's street art, it's very much part of the city — and it's a city which enjoys a general lack of Brian Sewell, given that he lives in London.

That means that although Sewell may be perfectly within his rights to criticise street art in the context of art, his opinions as to its place in the city have no weight at all. And, more to the point, the people who do live in Bristol automatically have something of a right to decide what goes on there. Sewell's thesis, that the public shouldn't be allowed to decide what their city looks like because they don't necessarily know what a city "should" look like, is therefore flawed on two fronts. Not only does being part of a city give you at least some rights in shaping it, opinions are not necessarily exclusive to those who can back them up most effectively.

Now, given that I live in London, I wonder if I can vote to paint over Brian Sewell...

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