To get a bit of a better idea on the origins of American property law, I read John Locke’s 2nd Essay Concerning Civil Government–the bit “On Property” and was surprised to learn that Locke is cool with graffiti. Well, at least I think he can be interpreted (remixed?) that way.
To explain, in his essay, Locke argues that people have a natural right to property, first and foremost the ownership over their own person, but also, very importantly, ownership over their own work: “The ‘labor’ of his body and the ‘work’ of his hands, we may say, are properly his” (30).
Work becomes a key concept in Locke’s philosophy here because he references first origins–what makes something someone’s if nobody owns it to begin with? Some previous philosophies might have said God, or the king who is acting in the place of God, owns everything to begin with and you have to get permission to own anything yourself, which is a philosophy underlying feudalism. But Locke says if you find a tree nobody owns, and you gather its berries yourself, then those are your berries–eat them. Your gathering, your work, makes those berries yours.
Not only can the berries be yours, but the whole tree. If you take care of the tree, put work into its maintenance, you can own it: “enclose it from the common” and others “ought not meddle” with it (31-32). That enclosing isn’t taking something illegally, and you don’t need everyone’s consent to do it–just take it, grow it, and keep the berries for your family.
However, Locke has one really important caveat to this “finders-keepers” rule, and this is where the graffiti comes in. If you don’t take care of the tree, if you let it die, or if you take so many trees that you can’t take care of them all, then it shouldn’t belong to you anymore and should return to the common: “if fruits rotted or the venison putrefied before he could spend it, he offended against the common law of Nature, and was liable to be punished: he had no right farther than his use called for any of them, and they might serve to afford him conveniences of life” (33).
To update the tree metaphor, what if a company or private individual has an old ugly building with a wall no one uses, or a building in construction or a billboard with nothing up on it?–these are spaces gone to waste. In Locke’s terms, because of the lack of labor to maintain this property, this is more property than the owner has a right to: “it was useless, as well as dishonest, to carve himself too much, or to take more than he needed” (36).
It occurred to me while watching Exit Through The Gift Shop, that much of the statement graffiti makes has to do with appropriating waste. And, looking through some graffiti online, particularly Banksy’s work, this work is (generally) on walls that are invisible, or eyesores that are improved with the content graffiti provides. Now, one could argue that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and certainly some might find the content objectionable, but the point is that the owners of the wall, at least according to Locke’s theory, relinquished their property and reduced it to little to no value, by not putting their labor into it. The graffiti artists, on the other hand, transformed the waste, now in the commons through neglect, with their labor.
It was a poorly painted wall in an alley-way, next to a trash can–did this wall have any value as unused space? Through his work, Banksy, arguably added something meaningful where there was nothing before.
Now, that’s not to say Locke’s philosophy would condone all graffiti– if it encroached on space others owned and maintained it would certainly violate his principles.
And, that’s not to say that Locke is against people owning lots of stuff, big fancy corporations, getting rich, or that owning more stuff than others is inherently wrong–people have a right to the product of their labors and as much as they can enjoy out of it, but just not at the cost of waste. Locke talks about Nature being in mankind’s care, and space that is not labored upon is wasted space: “land that is left wholly to nature…is called, as indeed it is, waste” (34). This might be a problematic passage for environmentalists, but Locke is big into “improving” upon nature.
Finally, to tie this all into “intellectual property” now, I find Locke’s philosophy and the hypothetical implementation of it in some types of graffiti, applicable to what some believe about how intellectual property should be treated. There are many who believe that the extension of copyright 70 years after the author’s death is gratuitous waste. What use and what benefit can a work have to an author (“the laborer” to extend Locke’s theory to this area of philosophy) after he/she is dead? He/she is not capable of upkeeping the work, and nothing is done with it particularly if the copyright holder (possibly a publisher or the family of the author) just sits on the work and does not republish it, but reaps the benefits without labor. In this case, graffiti is the physical expression of remix art, and particularly the argument for sampling old songs which are not popular and/or the author no longer can benefit from (an argument in the Copyright Criminals documentary). In both graffiti and sampling, this is an infringement of property rights justified through neglect.
Of course, there are many conflicting ideas here–Locke’s is one of MANY at play, and does have some downsides in a broad application (how does the remix artist necessarily know the author’s intention to labor on a work? and when does a work which is already created begin to lie fallow?) but let’s file this one under “interesting” and “highly applicable”; at least it gives me a possible framework to understanding street art as respectful, and possibly even responsible appropriation.