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Art or Vandalism?

Bonne Année!. Here is my 2012 New Year Quiz! (I haven’t pulled any crackers this year, so you’ll have to indulge me…)


Q: From the images included in this article, choose which is
a)   Art
b)   Vandalism

Did you guess right?! Check out the answers below!
A few years ago, there was a new manager at the art school where I worked. A new broom was intent on stamping out perceived vandalism: the writing and image-making on studio walls. ‘Messy’ studios needed to be clean and tidy. The new directive was that students should draw on paper and affix this to their studio spaces, rather than draw directly onto the white studio boards.
In the meeting, I tried to explain to the new manager a rationale for allowing art students to express their ideas in their personal studio space by whatever means appropriate to them, including drawing or writing on the boards that made up their ‘walls’. Image-making, and the generation of ideas, is the essence of educational art and design practice, I argued. Burgeoning creative practice needs to be given a supportive context for the expression of ideas, particularly during the initial and formative stages.   Drawing ideas directly onto studio walls promotes an immediacy and engagement which facilitates further development.

This was my argument, or something very similar. My manager took the opposite view. Writing and drawing on walls was vandalism. It would not be allowed. If I was unclear or confused as to the distinction between what was Art and what was Vandalism, my new manager would be able to advise me. It was a little like 1984, Orwell-style.
Crikey. Did I know the difference between Art and Vandalism? In my position of authority I rather hoped I did, but this made me question my own judgement and working methods, of course. After ten years of lecturing, developing and practicing a Gestalt-driven approach to art & design education, I could only hit my metaphorical head against the metaphorical table. I tried again to make my point: I listed outstanding former students, leaders in their field, who had, at one point, drawn or written on their studio walls. The list was great and extensive: Fine Artists, Designers, Textile practitioners, Typographers, Film makers, Jewellers …

I looked again at the means and methods I was using to teach art & design to learners. Over time, I had evolved a creative process  based on principles guiding students through the generation, evolution, gestation and manifestation of visual ideas, with outstanding results.This process actively encouraged learners of all ages to express themselves without prejudice, without censorship and within a strong supportive and critical context. An important aspect of the process was involved with actively making a ‘mess’ in the origination of visual work, with a wide range of materials and processes. Experimentation was key. Communication was key.
My stance regarding vandalism was not one concerned with ‘tidiness’ or a lack of mess, but that as long as the work did not set out to intentionally hurt, plus providing the work could be justified conceptually, then work was valid. This was a very simple tenet, which coupled with a bit of common sense, seemed to work. It had come about over many years of navigating a wide breadth  of sometimes controversial student work. Controversy usually arose over issues of sexuality or religion – students using typography in the rendering of graphic words, for example.
My thinking was that stifling expression would only send it underground, where it could not be made apparent, explored and discussed. Some of the most interesting ideas were often those which were most uncomfortable and difficult to talk about, and one way of being able to get them out into the open is to draw them, on walls if need be. ‘Outsider Art’ and the work of Banksy seemed to be good references and advocates for bringing the ‘Outside, In’.
But what was gratuitous vandalism and what was justified artistic experimentation? How do cultural and social factors influence our decision-making regarding this? Sometimes there was a fine line, a delicate balance, between what was ‘acceptable’ and what was not.  So it was a greater issue, a wider, more interesting area for debate that the black and white stance over ‘art’ and ‘vandalism’ had not fully explored.
Some time later the manager was no longer in post. Down in the studio, as a student’s animated drawing spread up the studio walls, across the ceiling and over the floor, I reflected on the concepts that had been raised. That year there was, once again a host of excellent student work at exhibition. As was traditional, the students had painted the walls a pristine white, as a backdrop to their multidisciplinary work. The drawings that had snaked up the studio walls had been developed into animated film, coolly presented on-screen and warranting Distinction. The exhibition was a celebrated success.
So the process of sometimes messy origins, development and critique is key in the creative process and can produce results of outstanding quality. Perhaps this is worth remembering now, as artists return back to their creative spaces after the holiday period. Sometimes ‘making a mess’ can spark a new idea, a fresh process. Sometimes concerns – such as being ‘tidy’ – are at odds with the creative making process .‘Being messy’ and ‘making a mess’ can create a catalyst for new ways of working.  You can prepare the ground, and be mindful of safety of course, that’s part of the practice, but a dose of creative chaos can go a long way. ‘Accidental’ mark-making can become a source of inspiration, insight, new techniques and working methods.
The creative process brings about the manifestation of visual ideas and images, and expressing initial ideas unrestrainedly is part of this. it can be a delicate process, seeking to establish confidence in your own abilities in order to make your mark. It is a questioning process. A reflective, evaluatve, self-critical process, Sometimes it is an intuitive, un-thinking process.
There can be occasionally a wider danger of sanitizing and sterilising the creative process, particularly  in the initial, formative stages. In order to pull ideas out we need to un-censor ourselves, rather than being concerned with the  mundane and practical concern of whether we’ve splashed some paint on the wall. To produce new images we have to welcome and recognise the unexpected, the unconventional and sometimes this is what the visual part of ‘vandalism’ exemplifies. The beauty of art and design is that most things are changeable, mutable, evolving. Marks can be painted over, the important thing is that you have made them.
Did you guess which was which? Can you tell the difference between Art and Vandalism? Here are the Answers to the above!

1) Red Chapel – Art
2) Burnt Shop – Accidental, but beautiful
3) Signpost – Vandalism, but interesting typographically, no?

Happy new Year everyone!


Posted by author: Jane Parry
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7 thoughts on “Art or Vandalism?

  • He, he, I remember those days, what about the plaster on the sculpture area floor?
    But seriously though, I totally agree with your train of thought; making order out of chaos could be the artistic process, in the mind of the viewer of not in the physical work.

  • an interesting and thought provoking post. am on the mixed media course and have just spent the afternoon sorting through photos of graffiti and various ‘found images’with a view to providing imspiration for other works. Surely the creative process is a very personal thing however it manifests itself. It also made me think about Cy Twombly who created his own visual language sometimes refered to as like graffiti,then would paint over with other layers to produce intriguing multilayer images. and you get the impression that his studio was probabally pretty messy!!!

  • Your second paragraph suggests there were others students who shared the studio? I for one like a blank space to stare at, it also can give inspiration. Banksy, like other graffiti, can be awe inspiring but so can the architecture they use as a canvas.

  • I try to follow a simple rule that i got from ‘Ways of seeing’by John Berger.
    ART IS EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING IS ART.

  • And ‘wild’ consciousness flowing conversation as well! Wonderful to surround yourself with myriad paths through the forest. Which one to follow? Meander, take your lines for a walk, a dance, have a battle with them, embrace them, have a sleep perchance to dream, take yourself for a walk and jog out some ideas – you don’t know where they come from. Play! I make art on the beach, in the trees,the wind and tide will take it away. The thinking is in the making, the messing, the mingling. It’s tingling! and what you see suprises!

  • ‘Notes, sketches and plans for the work were drawn on Duchamp’s studio walls as early as 1913. In order to concentrate on the work free from material obligations’
    Just came across this quote whilst reading about Marcel Duchamp on Wikipaedia. I quite like the idea of playing with your ideas without initially committing them to a certain medium.

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