The Merits of Art:
Theatre and Graffiti as Beneficial to Society
Our Country's Good, by Timberlake Wertenbaker, is based on the British Penal colonies in Australia in the late 1700s. Based on Thomas Keneally's novel The Playmaker, it is essentially a true story. Within the penal colony, one of the officers decides that having the convicts perform a play may prove productive in their "rehabilitation." The idea is that something constructive and artistic, such as a play, can have many positive benefits when compared to their other forms of control, such as hanging or flogging. There is much resistance within the leadership of the colony, however, since many of the officers feel it is simply a waste of time or perhaps even counterproductive. In one scene, titled "The Authorities Discuss the Merits of Theatre," they lay out their arguments either for or against putting on the play. In the end, they do perform the play, and Our Country's Good ends on a rather optimistic note.
This paper was written for an assignment based upon the work. The assignment asked us to relate "the merits of theatre" to some historical or contemporary art form of controversy. I chose to relate it to graffiti. Comments are indeed welcomed. Mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
"Graffiti writers are out challenging the issues of property ownership, race boundaries, and culture. They are out there making people think about what our society is, and what some of our laws really mean," - Schmoo, graffiti writer of seven years.
But graffiti art has already lasted longer than many art movements, Fauvism and Impressionism, for instance, and who is to say that the impact of graffiti on art may not be as great? (Howorth 550)
Art is controversial. It is in its very nature to be so. Anything so subjective to personal taste and values, extending even to ethical beliefs, will be inherently debatable. Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good forces the controversy into the immediacy of an audience; by discussing, within a play, the very merits of theatre and plays in the context of a British penal colony, she brings the argument out into the open. This argument, of course, can be extended beyond mere theatrical productions. It follows to art of any kind, including paintings, sculpture, and even graffiti. Just as Our Country's Good argues that theatre can change society, graffiti, although an illegal art, can also have a positive influence on today's urban culture.
In Our Country's Good, the basic controversy is the fundamental merits of theatre. They attempt to determine if theatre can "alter the consciousness of human beings and society," or rather, if it is a blatant waste of time and effort (Rubinstein). Some of the authorities, including Governor Arthur Phillip, Lieutenant Ralph Clark, and Judge David Collins, feel that performing a play in the penal colony could be beneficial to the convicts; they argue that "the theatre is an expression of civilisation . .
. . The convicts will be speaking a refined, literate language and expressing sentiments of a delicacy they are not used to. It will remind them that there is more to life than crime, punishment" (29-30). Others, including Major Robbie Ross, Captain Watkin Tench, and Lieutenant William Faddy take the opposing viewpoint, arguing that theatre will be counterproductive. As Tench proclaims, "We are talking about criminals, often hardened criminals. They have a habit of vice and crime. Habits are difficult to break. And it can be more than a habit, an innate tendency. Many criminals seem to have been born that way. It is in their nature" (27). In short, the supporters of the theatre believe that the play can help reform the convicts, helping them to become more civilized, and able to return to society. The other side, however, feels that the criminals cannot be reformed, and therefore the play would be a waste of time or possibly even incite insurrection. This debate can be extended beyond the confines of a debate on theatre; it can be taken to regard any form of art. Indeed, controversy surrounds many types of art, especially illegal ones such as graffiti.
Graffiti (singular: graffito, slang: graf) has existed since prehistoric man scribbled on his cave walls, proclaiming to the world, "I exist" (Wechsler v). Indeed, "Graffiti represent man's desire to communicate" (Wechsler vi). Until recently, graffiti have consisted of political, sexual, social, and other commentary, usually presented in the form of written words. Since the late-1960s, graffiti, especially in urban areas, have taken on an entirely different form. According to Schmoo, a graffiti artist in Los Angeles:
Hip-hop graffiti can be roughly broken up into 3 different types: a tag--someone's name written anywhere. This is what started it all, when Taki 183 started writing his name all over the subways. It is usually done in a single color, many times with pens. throw-ups--also known as outlines or fill-ins. These are simple "pieces" done with 2-3 colors (many times black and white, or silver and black). Pieces-- these are the multi-colored pieces of art that everyone loves to see all over the city. They are the highest evolution of hip-hop graffiti.
In an essay on graffiti in New York, Leonard Kriegel describes "pieces" as filled "with curlicued shapes and exploding slashes, zigzagging to a visual anarchy that testified to a love of color and line" (432). This paper, when referring to graffiti, will not mean the witty scribblings on a bathroom wall or the like. Nor will it mean the territorial tags that are quickly put on the walls of buildings and public transportation vehicles. Graffiti, in this context, are the elaborate, colorful, spectacular paintings seen all over cities--the detailed and provoking "Pieces."
The problem with graffiti, is, of course, in its very nature. Graffiti now resides mainly on the sides of buildings and subway cars, presented for all society to see. "Defacing" public property, in almost all places on this planet, is illegal. In a very real sense, the art form in its original state has been censored by society and government. Graffiti, because it is considered vandalism, is flat-out forbidden. But that just drives home the point. According to Lisa N. Howorth, in her essay on graffiti, "it is the vandalism aesthetic that gives graffiti its validity" (557). Additionally, Schmoo points out that graffiti is an act of defiance, and "sometimes the message of rebellion gets confused as chaos and a blatant case of delinquency, which is unfortunate."
Although graffiti may be illegal, beauty is nevertheless still in the eye of the beholder. Many people enjoy the colorful artwork, and think of it as positive:
"The graffiti 'artist' whose work brightens a drab area and adds color to the mind-dulling blandness of the inner city, whose designs enliven the sterile concrete jungles, is considered by some to be upgrading his environment: . . . the graffiti 'artist,' so the argument goes, is a public benefactor" (Abel 139).
The Encyclopedia of Graffiti presents an interesting view of the graffiti artist, claiming that "Graffitists are people who do not have any other outlet for their thoughts. They are not in the media; they do not express themselves before the public in any way" (vi). In addition, graffiti artists have essentially developed "an underground subculture . . . with an art form, value system, and language all its own" (Howorth 553). Within that subculture, "crews" of graffitists have formed, taking graffiti from individualistic expression to a more prominent group medium, with much larger finished artwork than one person can do on his own (Wechsler xi). But these crews, or gangs, although committing illegal acts, are still non-violent. In that respect, is it not better that these people express themselves through art, rather than through urban violence? The case could even be made that graffiti crews form a positive social group for youth in urban environments--rather than having a destructive aim, such as murder or drug-dealing, they have a creative aim.
Since popular graffiti can easily be deemed an art-form, it has occasionally drifted into the commercial art market. According to Schmoo, "being that we live in a capitalist society it is impossible to think that graf won't be sold in some way." But Schmoo also points out that the "selling of graf becomes its own new expression and form of communication. It needs to be done very sympathetically in regards to the roots and history of graf." Not only have private citizens either purchased or commissioned graffiti works, but government has also tried methods in the same vein to help curb the illegal art. In 1971 Boston set up "graffiti boards"--walls that graffiti artists were welcome to place their work upon. They were painted over by the city every three days. Supposedly the project was successful in reducing criminal graffiti. But to some, being allowed to put up pieces defeats the purpose of graffiti, that of a mysterious, anonymous rebellion. Additionally, there is no "challenge" or element of risk for the artist (Abel 142-143). Another interesting story fits well here:
To persuade the graffiti artists to legitimize their work formally, sociology student Hugo Martinez approached the city's [graffiti] gang leaders. . . . Martinez persuaded them to put their work down on canvas and organized them into a registered corporation, the United Graffiti Artists (UGA). . . . Since then some UGA members have gone on to legitimate art careers or received scholarships to study at formal art schools (Abel 141).
The point is that graffiti provides a form of artistic training, quite possibly leading to a productive art career. Similarly, Schmoo, the aforementioned graffiti writer, has described himself as "a scholar that documents and studies graffiti," adding that he needs to know "what makes [him] tick." Ernest L. Abel and Barbara E. Buckley, in their book The Handwriting on the Wall, raise some important points about the artistic merits of graffiti: Do we stop searching for the inner meaning of a painting or a poem when it appears on a wall merely because we do not happen to acknowledge the wall as a suitable receptacle for art or literature? Do we stop trying to understand what motivated the artist or the writer merely because he chose to express his thought through some unconventional medium?
These questions then bring the argument back to Our Country's Good:
graffiti, illegal in today's urban society, closely parallels the
convict's struggle to perform The Recruiting Officer. The two
arguments surrounding graffiti can be summed up in the following two
statements from Wertenbaker's play: Tench proclaims "A crime is a
crime," and Phillip rebuts that "They can be educated" (27). Phillip
then goes on to argue: "Some of these men will have finished their
sentence in a few years. They will become members of society again,
and help create a new society in this colony. Should we not
encourage them now to think in a free and responsible manner?" (29).
Phillip's statement regarding the theatre and convicts applies
directly to urban youths and graffiti. Graffitists are artists,
struggling against society for whatever reason. Their art is an
expression of rebellion against the very city they live in.
Although, "every [graffiti] writer has a different opinion on the art
aspects of this whole culture" (Schmoo). If they are not allowed to
direct their feelings of unrest and rebellion in a creative way, they
will likely find no other outlet except further criminal acts. Does
this not the mirror the criminals in Our Country's Good? If they
cannot perform theatre, they will remain criminals. As Ralph claims,
theatre and the arts, although possibly not changing the universe,
can definitely "change the nature of our little society" (28). So
Abel, Ernest L. and Barbara E. Buckley. The Handwriting on the Wall: Toward a Sociology and Psychology of Graffiti. Connecticut: Greeenwood, 1977.
"Art Crimes." World-Wide-Web graphic internet site. URL: http://www.gatech.edu/desoto../index.html.
Howorth, Lisa N. "Graffiti," in Handbook of American Popular Culture. M. Thomas Inge, ed. Connecticut: Greenwood, 1989.
Kriegel, Leonard. "Graffiti: Tunnel Notes of a New Yorker," in The American Scholar, Summer, 1993. 431-436.
"Schmoo." Personal interview conducted through electronic mail. Feb. 15, 1995.
Wechsler, Lorraine. Introduction to Encyclopedia of Graffiti. New York: Macmillan, 1974.
Wertenbaker, Timberlake. Our Country's Good. Illinois: Dramatic Publishing Co., revised 1989.
Articles and Interviews
Art Crimes Front Page