Judging graffiti: reference to moral, prudential, economic and aesthetic values Fragment from "Stop and Search" by Banksy

Judging graffiti: reference to moral, prudential, economic and aesthetic values

In many (local) communities in the Netherlands and abroad, creating graffiti is considered to be vandalism. What kind of value judgments are of importance in this process of criminalization?

Last month, April 11th, a work by street artist Banksy Do Not Punish Yourself, made by spray paint on wood, was sold at an auction for £80,450. This was well above its presale estimate (see Artnet). Banksy’s work in general has brought about a lot of discussion about whether street art, including graffiti, is indeed art or a crime.

In 2010, Keep Britain Tidy suggested that the popularity of Banksy’s work indicates that the majority of people differentiate between different types of graffiti. But ‘nice’ graffiti is not the only graffiti that is being created, according to Keep Britain Tidy. Our extensive empirical research on perceptions of graffiti underlines the conclusion that (Dutch) people distinguish between different types of graffiti, and the location on which the graffiti is situated. Yet, the findings also show that people vary enormously in their ideas and attitudes.

In his article on processes of criminalization, Millie elaborates on the role of value judgments behind these processes. The same behavior (e.g. creating graffiti) can be celebrated, tolerated or censored. These differential interpretations depend on context and power or perspective and Millie explores the value judgments behind these interpretations. He distinguishes four different judgments: moral, prudential, economic and aesthetic judgments, though Millie points out that these four are not mutually exclusive or discrete. Moral judgments involve decisions about the good and the bad, right and wrong. Prudential judgments concern one’s personal quality of life, e.g. is something enjoyable. Economic judgments refer to economic contributions; judgments whether the behavior, person or object, “makes an acceptable economic contribution to society”. The last category Millie distinguishes is aesthetic judgment, what’s considered (or accepted as) beautiful or ugly.

In a diverse, pluriform democratic society such as the Netherlands, value consensus can be lacking and/or values can be conflicting. This is the situation in the case of graffiti and the making thereof. Findings from our representative sample clearly show that many people are indifferent or neutral in their judgment of graffiti. But people who do describe their image of graffiti in terms of value judgments, are sometimes positive, sometimes negative. In these descriptions, reference is made to moral, prudential, economic and aesthetic values.

So, value consensus is lacking indeed: graffiti is viewed by some as a crime, an act of vandalism. Others regard graffiti as form of art, of personal expression. Millie problematises the political capital required to dictate values. When graffiti, disorder, offensiveness is that subjective, then who decides what graffiti should be criminalized? Who decides what kind of graffiti is ‘nice’? What should local policy makers do? Is it the majority, the people who shout the loudest, the people with the most (political) influence? As Millie points out, power and the value judgments of people having the most political capital are central in the process of criminalization. In a democratic society these (possibly conflicting) value judgments and their role in processes of criminalization should be discussed explicitly.


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