Tom Sutcliffe: The word on the street art

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There's a proposal coming up before Bristol City Council shortly that local citizens should be allowed to vote on whether graffiti – or street art – should be power-hosed or preserved. It isn't a done deal yet, although it was widely reported the other day as if it is. But for the moment it's just an idea – outlined in one BBC report by Councillor Gary Hopkins, who explained: "We think in the case where there is genuine artistic quality that we actually ought to ask people." It's apparently a response to the fact that Bristol has become something of a magnet for street artists – and a feeling that the council's cleaning operations aren't entirely in line with changing public sentiment about gable-end daubings. So, candidate art works will be posted online to allow people to give the thumbs up or the thumbs down before the cleaning squads move in. The council has actually tried this before – retaining a Banksy painting after 93 per cent of respondents said that they thought it added to the gaity of urban life.

As Mr Hopkin's interview made plain, this isn't going to turn into a free-for-all, even if it does actually get voted in. The people of Bristol aren't going to have a vote on every racist scrawl or gaudy bit of tagging, someone on the council having already made a decision about "genuine artistic quality" before the graffiti is submitted to the public vote. Which rather begs a question really, since opponents of graffiti would presumably argue that nothing at all should qualify, while dedicated taggers would rhapsodise about the innovative shading and letter formation of somebody's signature. Who exactly decides about "genuine artistic quality"? And shouldn't this be turned over to the plain people of Bristol as well?

I think it's a bad idea myself; an open invitation to turn Bristol into a three-dimensional scribble pad, which – given the ratio of mediocrity to talent in every human endeavour in history – will result in a lot of expensive scrubbing and not many worthwhile tourist attractions. Besides, how long can this project continue before the wannabe Banksys have run out of space on garage sidings and moved on to the kind of façade that English Heritage might prefer without a giant manga gorilla on it, however deftly it has been aerosoled? Perhaps, though, the online voters will prove themselves to be so demanding that there's never a shortage of raw canvas.

If the proposal has any merit at all, in fact, it lies there – in the empowerment of the consuming public to do away with works of art they dislike rather than simply being asked to ignore them. There's something bracingly brutal about the fact that public disregard will actually result in the destruction of a piece rather than the mere indifference that is usually the fate of unsuccessful art. In fact, I was briefly tempted to suggest that the principle ought to be more widely applied – seduced by the idea that the silt of mediocre creations, accumulating in copyright libraries and DVD stores, might be hosed away entirely. The idea that you might declutter the culture – in the way that you can declutter your own music collection or bookshelves – is rather appealing after all. Let's not be passive and wait for posterity to sink The Da Vinci Code. Let's get the council book-catchers in to take every copy out of circulation. I'll vote for that.

The obvious catch being that the public have already voted in huge numbers to keep this non-book in existence – and that any appeal to public mandate would almost certainly preserve it, while turning A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu into ecologically responsible lavatory paper. Sadly, the record of the general public in identifying the durably worthwhile is pretty poor – it generally taking at least 50 years, and more often a century or two, to bring them round to cherish what is truly cherishable. And I can't see why that wouldn't be as true of graffiti as it is of any other art form. I suppose it would be a modest step forward for civic democracy if Bristol passes this resolution, but I suspect it might actually turn out to be a big step back for street art.

Here's one for you Rufus...

I don't know whether Rufus Wainwright is planning a follow-up to his first excursion into opera but the current tribulations of Annie Leibovitz would surely provide a good subject – a fine parable of the corrupting power of certain kinds of glamour.

First act introduces us to a talented young photographer who makes a name for herself by demanding more of celebrities than they conventionally expect to give. There's a mischief and irreverence about her images that is startling enough to establish her as the portrait photographer of her generation. The second act charts the process by which her fame begins to equal that of her subjects, giving her greater and greater access to money and power, but also seducing her into a dangerous sense of identity and shared entitlement.

Third act is the fall, with predatory businessman taking advantage of her over-reaching ambition to make real life as glamorous and immaculate as an Annie Leibovitz double-spread. What's more, all this unfolds at a magazine called Vanity Fair – a title borrowed from a Christian allegory about the snares of worldly fame and riches. And if they need an epigraph then William Thackeray – who also borrowed the title – will happily supply one: "If success is rare and slow everybody knows how quick and easy ruin is".

* A friend once tried to impress on me the saintliness of T S Eliot's character by pointing out that he'd fretted in print about committing the sin of usury by proxy, through his share holdings. But this might be taken as evidence of Eliot's spiritual vanity, since he was effectively saying, "My conscience is so rarefied that I don't bother with ordinary failings, only the arcane medieval ones." There is a point when self-deprecation stops being modesty and starts to become a kind of boast about your honesty. It's hard not to feel that J M Coetzee has sailed past that borderline in the third of his fictionalised memoirs, Summertime, which has reached the shortlist for the Booker. Coetzee describes his alter ego as "socially inept", and he has a female character note that "he had no sexual presence whatever". If he's like this after only two Bookers and a Nobel Prize, what will he be like if he becomes the first writer to win a third Booker?

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