Philosophy and Ethics

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Sunday, 17 May 2020

Is this art? Or simply a revaluation?

Some years ago, I came across this wreck on a Spanish beach.  It was an area where graffiti thrived and colonised almost every available chunk of concrete, but this, I thought, was something special – an exuberant celebration of the spraycan. But does it count as art?

I won’t get into the general question of what constitutes art. If you’re looking for that, try Nigel Warburton’s The Art Question. No; what interests me is the vision and value that the artist gives to something whose conventional value appears to have degraded to nothing. After all, there was a time when this was someone’s expensive dream in a boatyard; a status symbol, perhaps. But, like everything else, its day eventually passes and it get scrapped, or – in this case – washed up. And yet this load of scrap metal has been taken by the artist and turned into something else; an opportunity to say something, to celebrate something, to go creatively mad. It rusts and rots magnificently.

It sometimes takes art to perceive value in the neglected, potential in the discarded. And it’s not just the urinal or unmade bed, suddenly given art status, that interests me, but more generally the way that the artistic, poetic or novelistic intuition finds value in the commonplace. As we discover at car boot sales, there is almost nothing that someone wants to get rid of that someone else will not find of value, however minimal, or of interest. So too, the mundane is captured and enhanced through art.

I'm not sure this counts as art. If the boat had been more seaworthy, its treatment could as easily have been described as vandalism.  But either way, it is a seized opportunity for the graffiti artist to set his or her own stamp of what is found, neglected and public. Rust alone could not have attracted my attention, nor challenged my sense of what is of value.

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