A very interesting play recently premiered in Chicago. The Steppenwolf Theatre’s youth-adult program presented “This is Modern Art”. The play is based on a group of individuals who “wrote” on the new Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2010. The play presented the “writing” (some would call it street art, others graffiti) as the latest development in the art world.
The critics were not impressed and made their opinions of the play clear in their reviews. They felt that “This is Modern Art” glamorized vandalism, and that it encouraged young people to destroy the property of others. Clearly, the they believed that street art was nothing more than vandalism.
When the reviews were published, a war of words began. The theatre accused the critics of attempting to censor them, and that they were merely “privileged, white old men” who did not understand emerging art trends. The critics shot back that their age and social status had nothing to do with their review–in their minds, destroying another person’s property was vandalism, and the play should not have made it seem that vandalism was somehow okay in the name of art. You can read the entire story here.
The most disturbing aspect of this war of words is the theatre’s claim that the critics were trying to censor it–by implication, the theatre was stating that the critics were trying to violate the theatre’s First Amendment rights. This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the First Amendment. First off, only government actors can violate an individual’s First Amendment rights. Private individuals expressing an opinion, even publicly, cannot violate another’s First Amendment rights. Will some people avoid the play because of what the critics said? Certainly. It also might encourage others to see the play. But writing a negative review that results in people not going to a play (or anything else for that matter) does not constitute censorship. Second, commentary and criticism have long been seen as an important aspect of a free society. The whole purpose of the First Amendment was to encourage the free debate of ideas without fear of governmental reprisal. This means that while you have the right to express yourself, others have the right to disagree.
As to graffiti itself? Unfortunately one’s rights end where another’s begin. While it may very well be the newest trend in art, it does not mean that it is legal.