I’m not trying to disparage graffiti as an art form, only to set it within my larger theory. I personally like graffiti, it’s just, uh…..different.
1st proposition: Graffiti is its own type of art. Graffiti (the prevalent kind at a site like artcrimes.com) is not mural art in the sense of Diego Rivera or Keith Haring. Though Basquiat started off in graffiti, and his later painting shows that influence, the final product could not be classified as graf.
2nd proposition: Graffiti is art. Though it may be of it’s own type, I don’t differentiate between art and non-art. John Cage or a blank canvas is art. So graf is certainly something, it’s just a question of what it is, how it is composed, who writes it, who views it, and for what purpose.
3rd proposition: Graffiti is not simply “shitty” art in the sense that it lacks technical merit or evocative and intelligent uses of color (e.g. no artistic amateur could simply generate something like this: http://artcrimes.com/ireland/disciplinedetail1.jpg).
So if graffiti signifies something that is art, what is it signifying?
My central theory propping up this argument is that there are essentially two methods of viewing a canvas.
1. Perfect proportion. The golden spiral is an example of perfect proportion. Painting, architecture, and figures in nature have been documented to display the property of this ratio. One method by which we view a canvas is via the expectation of perfect proportion. If you were to trace the path of an eye scanning a canvas, you would start at the brightest (or darkest depending on the composition) point of positive space and then trend outwards marking the “lines” of the composition before examining the details of coloring, texture, etc.
2. Violation of perfect proportion. If all art was golden spirals, art would not be very interesting. Art comes from the reversal of expectations that in turn sets a new harmonious relation in motion. One of my favorite examples in differentiating between graffiti and traditional art is the work of David Bomberg. In “The Mud Bath“, the abstract forms at the bath close in on the verge of chaos, yet the image never collapses, allowing the eye to move through the image and assign the proportionalities of shape necessary to successfully “read” the piece.
If “The Mud Bath” is art, what is graffiti?
Our human capability to detect perfect vs. imperfect proportion brings me to my second theoretical point, that of dominance and strata. In our brains, we know when we see perfect proportion and we know when we see imperfect proportion. That does not imply that we necessarily prefer one over the other. The brain actually is stratified in its taste and knowledge. For example, if someone was to play for you a major scale, say something like “Doe a Deer” from “The Sound of Music” (e.g. Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do), a blues scale would sound perverse by comparison. Yet some people might prefer the sounds of B.B. King to a march by Brahms. We can appreciate either, and yet something about one might move us more that the other simply on the basis of blues vs. major scales. This analogy holds for viewing a canvas. If one was able to see his/her way into a canvas such as http://artcrimes.com/ireland/disciplinedetail1.jpg, one might be able to appreciate it as beautiful art. The problem is that for most people, that degree of intersecting and moving lines, essentially that many “violations” of proportion, expectation, and harmony, leaves the average viewer with a sense of incongruity. It is a minority of the viewing public that can essentially “see” or “read” his/her way into the piece.
My favorite example of proportionalities and violations working at the same time in art is via the work of Kadinsky. Look at how Kadinsky in “Composition VIII” sets perfect geometric forms into motion: http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/kandinsky/kandinsky.comp-8.jpg. There is no traditional “line” of sight here, despite the large arrow in the middle. On the top level, the painting is incongruous, but the geometric shapes in complementary colors allows the painting to breath life. Take a look at this famous Mondrian for comparison: http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/mondrian/broadway.jpg. Again, geometric shapes and patterns, but the total package (essentially the distribution of shape and space) allows the eye to move throughout the piece without effort, resulting in a much different effect on the viewer compared to the Kadinsky.
So graffiti is what I would call a “perfected imperfection”. It takes the basic principles of point, line, and plane, and pushes them into their most perverse state. It is not random, nor is it children’s art, nor is it obscene or destructive. It is a modality of viewing all its own, allowed to remain in the margins for the minority that have the eye to appreciate it.