The art of the matter

Reactions to the recent ‘vandalism’ of Valletta’s City Gate by a graffiti artist suggest that Malta may not be prepared for the subversive revolution that elsewhere gave birth to the school of Bansky. RAPHAEL VASSALLO on the merits or otherwise of street art

Judging only by the reaction of Malta's law enforcement capability, anyone would think an elusive serial killer had stuck again. Within minutes police cars were dispatched to the scene of the crime... and according to witnesses, only missed catching the culprit in flagrante delicto by a matter of seconds.

The ensuing chase ended when the police lost sight of the suspect somewhere in Valletta's busy side streets. But the 'weapon' he used (a discarded paint canister) was recovered from the scene; and fingerprints were taken for further investigations that are being conducted as we speak.

What nefarious crime precipitated such prompt and thorough police action, you might be asking? Answer: an anonymous street artist stencilled a graffito onto the stonework of City Gate... adding an unwelcome touch of spontaneity to the 'official' artistic embellishment of the same site, entrusted to Italian architect Renzo Piano at an estimated cost of €85 million.

All of which raises questions about how 'art' - be it of the officially endorsed variety we associate with exhibitions and museums, or of the more subversive and controversial form that can be described (depending on one's bias) as 'vandalism' or 'street art', respectively - is actually viewed by both the establishment and the general public alike.

Popular reactions to the effrontery displayed by this anonymous artist - a hero to some, but also a wanted criminal in the eyes of the law - were decidedly mixed. Some immediately condemned the graffito as the senseless act of an ignorant delinquent with no respect for history, culture and the environment (still less for the authorities). Others however hailed the work as an act of defiance against the unwanted imposition of an entire aesthetic discipline by an elite establishment.

Lurking in the midst of this controversy is an ongoing political polemic regarding the Renzo Piano project itself: a project which has arguably divided the nation, and which proved to be a factor - however small - in the forces leading to a resounding political earthquake last March.

Art or vandalism?

But for all the wildly conflicting opinions about the incident, the jury is still out over the actual artistic merit (if any) of this non-commissioned addition to Piano's designs for City Gate.

Chris Bianchi, a London-based artist and illustrator whose work has been extensively published in the UK, admits that the graffito itself may be out of place, but argues that it nonetheless served an important function by forcing a much-needed discussion on the nature of art.

"I guess it kind of served its purpose, as you are writing this article about it and a debate is probably what is needed," he said. "As with most subculture in Malta, art needs to rise to the surface and rattle a few cages before something is done about it, or it is even noticed."

Bianchi however stops short of trying to define the work, on the basis that such definitions are subjective by nature and tend to depend largely on context.

"I think it depends on who the person is to decide whether it constitutes 'vandalism' or 'street art'. Maybe it's art but in the wrong place. Does that make it vandalism? Then again, street art doesn't really work in a designated area. It needs to be free, to pop up in unusual places. This is its nature."

Bianchi adds that there is no shortage of places where street artists can indulge in their art; and interestingly he rejects the view that by clamping down of this form of artistic expression, the authorities are creating an overly sanitised environment where only art that has been 'approved' is permitted to exist.

"In Malta we are 'trying' to create a sanitised environment, but it's not really working. People do as they wish anyway, be it dumping trash everywhere to building illegally. So why is a stencil on a wall such a problem?"

'Maltese Bansky'

Part of the answer to that question may be that by 'defacing' a public space - to quote critics of the work - the artist has added a dimension of meaning that was not intended by the official artistic direction of the entire City Gate project.

Marie Gion, a poet who is no stranger to controversy herself (her book of urban poetry, Ghax Id-Drogi Sbieh, elicited its fair share of criticism when published earlier this year) reasons that the graffito constitutes street art "because it effectively communicates with the public - the message being a welcoming heart on the gate of our capital city. And it is also vandalism, because the street artist did not have permission to paint there..."

This dichotomy, she argues, is part of the nature of street art in the first place, as exemplified by its most famous international promulgator, Bansky: the reclusive British street artist whose graffiti have likewise polarised public opinion between those who deplore his art as cheap and trashy, and those who would elevate him onto the same plane as a contemporary Andy Warhol or Jackson Pollock.

"In my opinion, being an act of vandalism against the City Gate project does not diminish the significance of the welcoming heart. On the contrary, it strengthens it. Had the welcoming heart been sprayed onto a canvas or onto another less prominent wall, most of its significance would have been lost..."

Gion also distinguishes between art that enjoys the approval of a self-appointed elite, and art which most emphatically does not.

"There is a reason why this kind of art is found in the streets and not in museums and exhibits. It is defiant art. I think the artist here tried to represent the discontent our democratic society seemed (to some of us) to express in general towards the City Gate project, which was funded from the people's taxes. As far as I know, the people were not consulted on a project that saw the old, nostalgic city gate demolished. The artist reclaimed a public space, if only for a while. But the vandalism will be removed by the relevant authorities to make the new gate once again unwelcoming and heartless."

Like other supporters of the anonymous artist, Gion also singles out an inherent irony in the public's different reactions to different forms of 'vandalism' on the same site.

"The real problem here is the despotic manner in which public space is appropriated... to the point of calling the expression of a small artist 'vandalism', while applauding that of a famous one, in the same public space."

She also believes public attitudes towards such forms of artistic expression may be more sympathetic than many might think, and that the 'Maltese Bansky' (her allusion to the artist) has a loyal following of his own.

"If I had to gauge the sensibility of people towards street art, from the general reaction to the police hunt of the street artist that populated my Facebook newsfeed on the day, I would say most did recognise it as art and stood up for the Maltese Bansky. That said, I probably have a biased sample of the Maltese population on Facebook. However, I should think exhibit- and museum-goers are generally limited to art enthusiasts who are sure to have at least heard of the famous street artist Banksy. I think most people who do not recognise street art for what it is may not, in general, care for art. Some think street art is not real art because the vandal uses a cutout stencil to spray paint the image on a wall. A stencil is used to save time so as not to loiter for long and get caught vandalising property. The stencil itself is prepared by the artist and can be a stencil of their original work of art..."

But there is more to the polemic than a simple disagreement on the definition of art. Gion draws parallels with the recent spate of censorship cases that resulted, inter alia, in cases against Malta in the European Court of Human Rights.

"The element of frowning upon spontaneous artistic expression brings to mind the cases of artistic censorship Malta has seen in recent years. In an effort to create an excessively sanitised environment, to this very day artistic and literary works that have been exhibited or published may be censored under provisions of the Criminal Code for incitement of racial hatred, the condoning of genocide, crimes against the religious sentiment, offences related to pornography, publicly uttering indecent words, defamation and libel. They may also be censored under the Press Act for injury of public morals, libel and under articles related to printed matter. Furthermore, the Code of Police Laws gives the police power to stop exhibitions..."

All this in turn may impact the incidence of street art in Malta, with the result that examples are few and far between.

"Malta has a small population compared to places like the UK... and a small percentage of a population turns out to be artists. Furthermore, to be a street artist you have to be an active citizen, a rebel. From the low turnout at demonstrations, I don't think there are too many rebels in Malta, let alone street artists. There is an element of danger which is intrinsic (if not the attraction) to street art. How many of our artists seek the adrenaline of vandalism? What are the chances of remaining anonymous in a close-knit community like Malta's? If recognised by people in the neighbourhood or caught by the police, there will be repercussions..."

Subversion for its own sake

For all this, reactions by Malta's official arts-related body - the Malta Council for Culture and the Arts - turn out to be more sympathetic than one might expect, given that the MCCA represents the same establishment that came down like a tonne of bricks on the artist in question.

Independently echoing both artists like Chris Bianchi and writers like Marie Gion, the MCCA welcomes the discussion provoked by the incident - if not the actual graffito itself.

"By defacing a brand new public monument which was already at the heart of a national controversy, the graffito at the entrance to Valletta has caught the public's attention and generated a discussion on art and its context," a spokesperson for the council told MaltaToday. "Some of the questions that can be usefully raised include: How important is context to a work of art? Is a work of art in one place not a work of art in another? How does street art fit into contemporary Maltese culture? Have we become so lazy that we fail to recognise and appreciate a work unless it is in a museum? And perhaps, most importantly, is the converse also true? That is, would anyone have bothered to discuss this particular graffito were it not for its defacing of a public monument and clear sense of subversion? And do such works place subversion - rather than artistic work, thought and merit - as their claim to fame?"

The MCCA has funded various graffiti initiatives and therefore supports the idea of street art - but does not agree with the defacing of public monuments. The MCCA seeks to support art that raises questions and pushes boundaries through artistic work, thought and merit, whether in street art or any other art form.

Now I come tattooing what I want on your face when you are sleeping, and then you can't tell me anything because I will tell you that its art.