No Room for Casual Creativity at London 2012

No Room for Casual Creativity at London 2012

Arts July 27, 2012 / By Mark Sheerin
No Room for Casual Creativity at London 2012

Brand police are out in force as the UK gears up for the Olympics. But would it really hurt to turn a blind eye to small businesses and graffiti writers who each have messages which deserve a place in the public realm?

No one it seems would claim that our democratic systems in the west are perfect. It is well known that the media have a range of biases and equally fair to say that the politicians with the most spend behind them tend to get their messages across the best.

Add to that the isolation of hot words in speeches and debates and you have a grim scenario in which genuine debate goes out the window. Hear a well schooled man in shirtsleeves say the word "change" enough times and most of us will wind up excited. Just what kind of change becomes immaterial.

This is old news, but news surely reactivated in London this month as the city gears up for the 2012 Olympic Games. Organisers LOCOG have banned companies from using a list of words to include: “games”, “2012”, “Twenty twelve” along with “gold”, “silver”, “medals”, “sponsor” or even “summer".

As as anyone can see, this runs contrary to democratic ideals. If you have a 96-sheet billboard and enough cash you can, it seems, say anything. If you run a small cafe in East London, your lexicon will be severely restricted. This is not just anti-democratic, it is anti-creativity.

However it gets worse. Cornershops, cafes and pubs are much easier to regulate than graffiti artists, or so you would think. But British Transport Police have powers to ban street artists from public transport, prohibit them from owning paint, and confiscate assets like phones and laptops.

This is just what has happened to Darren Cullen and three other street artists all of whom it was said were conspiring to commit criminal damage. Two were later arrested on suspicion of incitement to commit criminal damage. So clearly we should choose non-hot words with care here.

Let me just say as a UK citizen that given the choice between reading adverts and looking at street art, my preference is for the latter. And given the choice between riding a clean tube train and riding a train with a bright wildstyle piece on the side, many would also rather the latter. Let's hope we have enough democracy for me to get away with saying as much.

Fortunately, some more influential voices have been raised against the Olympic-driven crackdown on street art. Jonathan Jones used his column in the Guardian to ask whether the fame of London as a centre of culture will even survive this summer. He may be stretching a point when he says London-loving Banksy is our best known artist, but he is certainly well known.

It may be unrelated, but earlier this month filmmaker Tom Oswald took to the pages of the same paper to bemoan the decommissioning of the city's most prized canvas for graffiti, in other words the rolling stock for the Metropolitan tube line. His comment piece described the increasing challenges which graffiti writers face.

What is most ironic about the present situation is the fact that a good many blue-chip brands have been known to covet the grit and the edge which a spray can can bring to a marketing campaign. The above mentioned Darren Cullen even ran a company offering graffiti-based services to clients who have included Olympic sponsor Adidas.

To my mind the democracy we claim to fight for all around the world is inseperable from a prinicple of free speech. To silence dissenting voices looks totalitarian. Equally so to privatise words and spaces. The term criminal damage must be pretty wide, if it runs from smashing the windows of a bank to subverting the same institution's marketing campaign.

The latter is also damage, but why should it be criminal? Brecht's dictum comes to mind: what is robbing a bank compared with founding one?

Photo shows street artist Malarky brightening up a corner of East London.

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