Essays in Philosophy

Volume 17, Issue 1, February 2016

The Beautiful and the Good

Mary Beth Willard
Pages 95-124

Vandals or Visionaries?
The Ethical Criticism of Street Art

To the person unfamiliar with the wide variety of street art, the term “street artist” conjures a young man furtively sneaking around a decaying city block at night, spray paint in hand, defacing concrete structures, ears pricked for police sirens. The possibility of the ethical criticism of street art on such a conception seems hardly worth the time. This has to be an easy question. Street art is vandalism; vandalism is causing the intentional damage or destruction of someone else’s property; causing destruction or damage is wrong. The only remaining question is which of two coarse-grained models of ethical criticism we choose. The ethicist model holds that a work of art that exhibits ethically bad properties is a work that is thereby aesthetically flawed. That is, the work is flawed as a work of art just because of its ethical flaws. Bad ethics make art worse than it otherwise would have been, although it may be aesthetically successful otherwise. The autonomist model, by contrast, holds that the ethical properties of a work of art have no bearing at all on its aesthetic success. One might suppose, therefore, that on either model, a criticism of street art would be relatively easy to undertake. In defacing public property, some street art exhibits and endorses ethically bad attitudes. On the ethicist model, such a work is thereby pro tanto aesthetically flawed because in the process of creating such works, they violate ethical norms concerning the use of public spaces; on the autonomous model, any ethical criticism of the aesthetics of street art would need to be set aside entirely in favor of criticism that focused purely on the aesthetic properties of street art. I will argue in this paper that neither the ethicist nor the autonomist model adequately captures the moral landscape of street art. Street art may indeed be criticized productively on aesthetic grounds for the destruction it does to public spaces, but the existing models of ethical criticism overlook the complex ethical landscape of street art that results from its use of public spaces. In the interplay of various forms of street art we can see the emergence of an ethical criticism of art that is accomplished by the material properties of related artwork, and consists in the creation of a dialogue over the proper use of contested public spaces.