Tom Sutcliffe: The word on the street art

Related Topics

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?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nigel Farage has urged supporters to buy Mike Read's Ukip Calypso song and push it up to the No 1 spot  

Mike Read’s Ukip calypso is mesmerisingly atrocious — but it's not racist

Matthew Norman
Shirley Shackleton, wife of late journalist Gregory Shackleton, sits next to the grave of the 'Balibo Five' in Jakarta, in 2010  

Letter from Asia: The battle for the truth behind five journalists’ deaths in Indonesia

Andrew Buncombe
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London