For hist latest project, the infamous British street artist known only as Banksy has set his sights on New York City.
Every day this month, the man responsible for hundreds of guerrilla graffiti portraits and stencils, some of which have fetched as much as $1 million at auction, has quietly put up a new piece of artwork across the five boroughs. Banksy’s so-called “artist’s residency on the streets of New York” has drawn the awe of local art fans, but the ire of local law enforcement.
That includes Mayor Michael Bloomberg. According to the mayor, Banksy’s work doesn’t constitute his definition of art, (read more on Bloomberg, “broken window” theory and the autocratic elimination of blight courtesy Ben Davis at Slate.) While Bloomberg’s not alone in that characterization–is the definition of what constitutes art, and specifically public art, decided by the mayor of a city? If not, who gets to decide?
In many American cities, public art is defined an “expression of the community,” but instead manifests itself as city-sanctioned pieces installed in the public domain. As a consequence, notes the New York-based Project for Public Spaces, “the public has been convinced to leave the creative function solely in the hands of the specially trained,” architects, established artists and designers.
In this context, the “public” in public art seems incongruous–is art merely a pretty product installed on sidewalks and on buildings, for the solemn enjoyment of the people? If desirable for its ability to sustain the creative culture of a community, is a city-sanctioned selection process to essentially decorate downtown really the most “public” process for fostering vibrancy? When platemaking is not collaborative, according to PPS, public art damages rather than enhances the public realm.
Contrast this with guerrilla art–“graffiti” to critics, “street art,” among practitioners. It’s a form of public art derided by residents, and punishable by felony and imprisonment in many American cities.
But not in one small section of New York. In Long Island City, Queens, spray can toting artists have for years made use of a unique, outdoor canvas to craft public art. Graffiti may be illegal in much of the Big Apple, but not at 5 Pointz, a cluster of abandoned warehouses and industrial buildings adjacent to an ailing rail yard. Since 1993, a an agreement with landowner Jerry Wolkoff has provided street artists from across the country, and the globe, a chance to paint huge murals at what’s called a legal “graffiti mecca,” one of few places in NYC to practice the art free from fear of retribution.
However in recent years, the fate of 5 Pointz has been thrown into question. This fall, the city and borough president Helen Marshall gave G&M Realty approval to raze the site to make way for a new development project. Artists balked at plans to not only demolish the modest, paint-splattered structures, but replace them with a $400 million project comprised of two 40-foot residential towers.
Just this month, the issue became a bit cloudier. Street artists anxious to protect 5 Pointz have invoked the Visual Artists Rights Act–a law which protects the painters’ intellectual property, and which may grant artwork protection from unwanted destruction. In short, the battle of 5 Pointz may come down to definitions about what is and isn’t art.
“People who create visual works of art, murals, these graffiti paintings at 5 Pointz,” attorney Roland Acevedo explained to CBS News in New York, “have the right to have their pieces protected and preserved under the law. The landlord can’t come in and just decide to destroy 20 years of art.”
Demolition has been halted, for now, notes the Queens Gazette.
Some argue that graffiti is a unique form of expression, and perhaps more importantly, a means of conversation in the urban environment at large. Additionally, it’s an art form with little investment required to make an impact. Cans of spray paint are exceedingly cheap. “Canvas” is readily available. In some cities with disinvested buildings or districts, graffiti may serve as a repurposing process. Practitioners are provided a place to interact with their environments. Finding a place for street art may be a way for the “public” to take on a larger role in public art.
In the ensuing legal battle over 5 Pointz, a federal judge may be left with the difficult task of defining art–is graffiti included, or isn’t it? While the results of the case will have ramifications for street art in New York, in the end, defining what constitutes art–and public art–may be in the eye of the beholder.