Welcome to the second AFB x JAAC Discussion!
Today, we will be discussing a paper by Tony Chackal (University of Georgia) called “Of Materiality and Meaning: The Illegality Condition in Street Art” from JAAC’s Fall 2016 volume, 74 (4). It’s available online here and in the print version, which members should have received recently.
And big thanks to Christiane Merritt (Washington University in St. Louis) for providing the critical précis. Chackal’s response follows that, and they will both be available to discuss your questions and thoughts in the comments thread! Check it all out below the fold.
Critical Précis by Christiane Merritt:
Tony Chackal makes an important contribution to the burgeoning philosophical literature on street art. He gives an account of how illegality and illicitness come into play when we consider whether a work counts as street art and when we evaluate its aesthetic content and value. While previous accounts of street art have made mention of illegality, Chackal provides a thorough and nuanced discussion of exactly how and why a street artwork’s illegal status matters. He also ably demonstrates why the street — both the physical street and the more abstract space he calls the sociocultural street — is crucial to street art’s meaning. This might seem like an obvious point; it’s called street art, after all. But it turns out not to be so simple, and Chackal offers a sophisticated analysis of how the street figures into the production and appreciation of artworks.
I find myself in agreement with many of Chackal’s conclusions, but ultimately I wonder if illicitness is more central to street art than illegality. I will return to this point after giving a summary of the article.
Chackal notes that he largely agrees with the definition of street art that Riggle (2010) offers. But Chackal disagrees with Riggle on two points, arguing that street art must be in the street and that illegality is a prototypical feature of street art. Further, illegality explains the conditions of intentionality, ephemerality, and anonymity.
Chackal argues that street artworks must be in the street, where “the street” might mean either a material space or a sociocultural space (or both; they often overlap). He further argues, contra Riggle (2010), that being “in and of the street” is a necessary condition for a work to count as a work of street art. A work’s being in the street (public space) means it makes use of the street’s material resources. This is the materiality requirement. A work’s being of the street (a physical and/or sociocultural space) means its use of the street is partially constitutive of its meaning. This is the immateriality requirement.
Chackal presses the importance of a work’s being actually in physical space. For example, he argues that works like Invader’s map books of the locations he has tagged do not count as street art, since they are not in the street (although they have some relationship with the street) and are not committed to conditions like ephemerality. The materiality condition is important because it guarantees the distinctiveness of street art as an art form. Compare mainstream art and public art. Both might appear to be street art in that they might share certain formal features with works of street art. A work of mainstream art, appearing in a gallery, might use a lettering style associated with graffiti. But it fails to be street art; among other things, it is neither illegal nor ephemeral. Similarly, a public artwork might look for all the world like street art, but it fails to meet the immateriality requirement and the ephemerality commitment.
Chackal then introduces illegality as an historically significant aspect of street art. He does not consider illegality a necessary condition for a work to count as a work of street art. Rather, illegality is a prototypical and paradigmatic feature of street art (compare Riggle 2010, who considers it typical). Illegality can be a matter of degree; even where art is de jure illegal, it may be de facto legal and therefore less risky (perhaps the local residents welcome it and the authorities are not interested in prosecuting). Illicitness, which involves the violation of dominant customs or norms, is also a paradigmatic feature of street art and, like illegality, runs the gamut.
Chackal argues that illegality is “the historical and artistic norm of street art — it is the paradigmatic form of making street artworks” (363). It is typically co-constituted with illicitness and it is what makes street artworks authentic. Asking for permission is the exception, not the norm, and sanctioned works that appropriate the markers of street art are typically considered inauthentic.
Chackal further argues that illegality is what explains the intentionality, ephemerality, and anonymity of street art. Illegality means that artists must intentionally choose where and how to break laws in order to place their works. Illegality also explains why ephemerality is a characteristic feature of street art. Artists may expect authorities to remove their artworks if placed illegally; they may also realize that passersby or other artists could (illegally) alter or destroy the work. If the work is sanctioned and the artist is committed to ephemerality, the artist recognizes that someone else may illegally alter or destroy the work. Anonymity can also be accounted for by the illegality of street art; artists obscure their true identities in an effort to avoid detection by the authorities.
Illegality also enables some distinctive features of street art, namely risk, danger, and audacity. Sanctioned street art simply does not carry the same risks as illegal street art, where one can be fined or even jailed. Likewise, the production of street art often entails danger: climbing billboards, dodging oncoming subway trains, etc. Sanction typically removes this kind of danger by allowing artists to work in safe conditions with appropriate assistance. Finally, audacity typically involves illegality or illicitness, which lend boldness to a work. For example, an artist might spray paint a message that violates community norms (illicitness) in a highly exposed public area that is monitored by police or CCTV (illegality). However, not all highly risky works are audacious, and vice versa. Audacity is a matter of cultural boldness.
One might wonder whether, on Chackal’s account, we know illegality when we see it (epistemic transparency). Moreover, do we need epistemic transparency in order to appreciate what illegality contributes to an artwork? First, many examples of street art have features that make their illegality (and therefore their risk, danger, or audacity) quite clear. Aesthetic appreciation then follows from perception of the work’s non-aesthetic features. Otherwise, there are three options: presume illegality; presume sanction; or suspend judgment. The norm is to presume illegality, both because of the history of street art as a form and because the public is aware that it is illegal to mark most public spaces and private property without permission.
Examples like Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s Stop Telling Women to Smile series, which comprises illegal and sanctioned works that are visually very similar, pose an interesting problem for epistemic transparency and the question of illegality. Even though one might presume illegality for one of the sanctioned works, upon learning that it is legal, one might revise aesthetic judgment. Chackal acknowledges, though, that Fazlalizadeh’s sanctioned work is prima facie illicit in virtue of its larger-than-life-size depictions of women asserting their right to public space. Where illegal, the illicit nature of the work follows from its form and not just its content: the artist embraced risk, danger, and audacity. So these three features can be nonaesthetic as well as aesthetic. Moreover, in such cases, the aesthetic features supervene on the nonaesthetic (e.g., the aesthetic property of riskiness supervenes on the non-aesthetic property of the riskiness of the artist’s actions).
Chackal’s argument is thorough and convincing. I do have some questions around the issues of sanction and illicitness. As far as Fazlalizadeh’s sanctioned pieces:yes, they are part of a larger series. But each also has a presence in a specific public site. I think there are two senses of ‘licit’ at play here (which Chackal hints at) and they rest on two senses of ‘the public.’ In one sense, the street artwork’s public is anyone who can, at least in principle, happen upon the artwork (in its site-specific location). In another sense, the street artwork’s public is its intended audience. These are usually the same, but it’s interesting to think about cases where the two publics come apart. In one sense, the public for Stop Telling Women to Smile is anyone who happens to walk by one of the posters. In another sense, the public is actual or potential street harassers. The work is illicit in one sense if it was placed illegally; it is illicit in another sense if it challenges the norms that enable street harassment. Chackal acknowledges all this, but it’s hard for me to see what distinctive aesthetic illicitness is added in this case by any of the pieces’ being illegal. So, I’d like to hear more about what, aesthetically, illegality adds.
This brings me to my larger point: perhaps it’s illicitness rather than illegality that is more basic to, or paradigmatic of, street art. For Chackal, illegality and illicitness often go hand in hand, but illegality seems to be the more basic concept in his account. But consider a piece that went up in Bushwick in 2015, “Moonshine Kingdom” (see here). Three 15-foot-tall crocheted figures — a scout and twins in blue dresses — hold hands in a mash-up of characters from Moonrise Kingdom and The Shining. This work was placed without the permission of the building’s owner but, I would argue, derives no aesthetic illicitness from that illegal placement. The work strikes me as not at all paradigmatic of street art for the very reason that its content is in no way challenging to dominant social norms. Bushwick has rapidly gentrified, and “Moonshine Kingdom” became a kind of symbol of how the influx of wealthy white residents has displaced and marginalized the neighborhood’s longtime black residents. It does appear as if the artist did not realize that the building’s owner had not granted permission for her piece, but the point is that the work would have been more like other obviously paradigmatic pieces of street art had it had some kind of illicit content. What would illegal placement allow us to appreciate aesthetically here? Again, I would like to hear more about the supervenience relation between (non-aesthetic) illegality and (aesthetic) illicitness, because it seems as if illicitness is doing the heavy lifting. I also think that privileging illicitness would allow us to include paradigmatic instances of non-U.S. street art, like murals in Northern Ireland painted on the sides of residences, but I’ll end here for now. I look forward to further discussion of this interesting and important article in the comments!
Riggle, N. A. (2010). Street art: The transfiguration of the commonplaces. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 68(3), 243-257.
Voon, C. (2015, September 23). “Artist Will Remove Bushwick Crochet Mural that Sparked Community Protest.” Hyperallergic. Retrieved from http://hyperallergic.com.
And here is Chackal’s response:
I appreciate Merritt’s critique. As I see it, she is raising two central questions.
1. What is the relationship between illegality and illicitness?
2. Which is primarily paradigmatic in street art?
1) As Merritt acknowledges, I argue that illegality and illicitness are often mutually constituted, entwined, and inextricable. A certain amount of illicitness is gained from illegality just because it is open defiance of external laws. But some kinds of illicitness, such as where a piece goes or what it depicts, could only be achieved through illegality, because certain works would never be sanctioned. Illegality can add a number of things aesthetically — it enables pieces to occur in whichever sites are chosen, despite not having permission. This means that works gain materiality and meaning that they might not have if they were illegal and permission was not granted. This is the case across all billboard and sign alteration. So, the illicitness that comes in the material subverting of advertising— a major theme in street art— could not arise unless done illegally. The illicitness of illegality comes first in the form of the work. As such, it is a non-aesthetic feature of the production process. If the illicitness of the content supervenes on the illicitness of the form, then illicitness can be an aesthetic feature of the work itself in addition to being a non-aesthetic feature of the production process. I do not claim that works will be illicit in content merely from being illegal in form. But in certain work, some illicitness of materiality and meaning arises from illegality, as in the work of Poster Boy, Billboard Liberation Front, and Clet Abraham. In Fazlalizadeh’s case, she assumed greater risk, danger, and audacity in postering works without permission, exposing herself to the perils of street that her work takes aim against.
2) Historically, illegality is more primary. Much of original New York graffiti was not terribly illicit in content— in either depiction or representation. Its central illicitness arose from illegality. So historically, the norm is illegality. However, what has clearly happened in the last decade is that artistic and aesthetic norms in street art have shifted. There are more opportunities to create sanctioned work because an increasing number of cities, neighborhoods, and property owners have begun to value and permit it. As this continues, the norms of street art will continue to alter, in addition to already differing according to place. So, while illegality is the historical norm, it could come to be displaced as primary by illicitness. One reason I lean toward illegality as being more basic is the so far untheorized notion of illicitness. While many street art enthusiasts rightly see it as challenging prevailing social norms and values, I think this may sometimes be overblown. This is because of the tremendous variety of values among artists, spectators, and places. Sometimes a piece being illicit is really a matter of one person seeing a work as contradicting prevailing social norms. Whether works will be seen as illicit will extend from the perspective and understanding of the spectator, revealing the essential relational aspects of aesthetic appreciation and understanding. At the least, illegality’s illicitness is more universal (within a given place) because it contradicts a law that has scope over everyone.
I think “Moonshine Kingdom” is a peculiar case. I agree that it being illegal did not add anything illicit to the form or the content. But, this is because London Kaye was not working on the presumption of illegality—she did not think that she needed to take any precautionary or covert measures to avoid exposure. Perhaps this reveals that risk, danger, and audacity arise from illegality in part because the artist reasonably presumes that to make the work is illegal. But, Kaye was operating under the presumption of sanction, so did not believe she was taking risk of exposure or penalty. Had it been known to her that she did not have permission, then the work would not have been made there at all. The fact that this piece was contested also reflects the plurality and diversity of values at play— some people see artworks as illicit to mainstream values and value them, while others see them as representative of gentrifying neighborhoods advantaging outsiders over insiders.
Looking forward to discussion in the comments!