Book Review: “A Philosophy Guide to Street Art and the Law” (2018)
Last updated: October 2020
By Lucy Siegel
In his recent publication, A Philosophy Guide to Street Art and the Law (Brill Research Perspectives, 2018), philosophy and art theory professor Andrea Baldini questions the dynamic between street art and law, explores questions of illegality, discusses the distinction between art and vandalism, and proposes his ideal for how the law and street art should relate. To start, Baldini sets as the goal to investigate the impact the law has on the illegal nature of street art, specifically intellectual property rights, copyright, and moral rights. Throughout the work, Baldini critiques other legal and philosophical scholars while suggesting alternative theories with logical explanations, and theorizes how illegality impacts society’s understanding and purpose for street art. He mainly draws on American law and examples of street art from the United States while intertwining international examples, laws, and cases.
In his introduction, Baldini aquaints readers with the idea of street art as a subcultural art form. Here, he explores how street art differs from conventional art, and defines street art and its fundamental elements. Baldini denotes street art as subversive, claiming “subversive value is what street artworks share, and is what makes street art the art kind that it is.” Baldini also emphasizes the role street art plays in deconstructing what is appropriate in public spaces, claiming this makes street art inherently anti-capitalist, as public space norms comply with capitalist economies. He goes on to claim this implicit anti-capitalist nature gives street art “aesthetic-political” value. This definition hinges on street art being illegal and does not include public art and murals commissioned by public programs.
Throughout the book, Baldini contemplates the subversiveness of street art and what it means for the legal understanding of street art. In the first chapter, Baldini examines metaphysical issues with the relationship between street art and the law, primarily if illegality is a necessary or sufficient condition of street art. He argues illegality is simply a “salient” property of street art instead of a condition. In the next chapter, Baldini explores the debate over street art as vandalism or art. Baldini determines the binary choices of vandalism or art do not apply to street art, instead suggesting vandalism is an artistic tool used by street artists to give their work meaning. In the final chapter, Baldini questions if legal artistic rights should be afforded to street artists, concluding that extending property rights to street artists is antithetical to the subversiveness of street art and would erase the existence of street art as we know it today.
In his conclusion, Baldini reasserts that copyright laws and moral rights as they stand right now are not the answer to solving the complicated legal relationship between street art and the law. He claims extending property rights to street artists would destroy the subversiveness of street art, one of its already established fundamental properties. Street art is outlaw art according to Baldini, and anything that compromises this undermines the concept of street art. Thus, Baldini instead suggests an alternative approach to redefining the relationship between street art and the law.
Baldini on the 5Pointz Case
Within the discussion about street art and the law in his final chapter, Baldini comments on the ongoing 5Pointz case. This case, Castillo v. G&M Realty L.P., resulted in 21 street artists receiving millions of dollars in statutory damages after the property owners of a Long Island City warehouse known as 5Pointz destroyed their works without prior notice, after allowing the artists to use the building as a canvas for a decade. The artists used the Visual Artists’ Rights Act of 1990, better known as “VARA” to argue that the whitewashing was an infringement on their moral rights, which the E.D.N.Y and the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit agreed with and awarded them with $6.75 million in damages.
Baldini claims “5Pointz bears little relevance for a discussion of street art and the right of integrity.” In his opinion, as the site became a graffiti destination for tourists, it was commercialized in a way that is antithetical to the subversive nature of street art. Since the warehouse transitioned into a spot of authorized and marketed graffiti, the works lost their legitimacy as street art. Thus, Baldini does not see the legal battle between 5Pointz street artists and the property owners as related to his philosophical conversation about the relationship between street art and the law.
A Philosophy Guide to Street Art and the Law is a fascinating exploration of the qualifying elements of street art such as illegality, vandalism, and subversiveness. Baldini effectively argues about the nature of street art in relation to these components, and the impact these aspects have on street art’s relationship with the law. Baldini suggests controversial positions while incorporating scholarship, legal arguments, and philosophical and logical equations to support his claims. This book is a great read for anyone looking to better understand the world of street art or the legal rights afforded to street artists. Baldini’s amicable and conversational tone, coupled with humorous section titles and definitions of all philosophy terms, makes this publication accessible to readers of any background.
While A Philosophy Guide to Street Art and the Law is appealing to any reader, the book is a must read for those interested in art law. Baldini grapples with difficult ideas pertinent to the field, such as how judges have a major say in what is considered art and how ideas of freedom of speech and expression can intersect with property rights. He compares how courts outside of the United States regulate art, and then analyzes why American courts place so much emphasis on the concept of property. In his discussion of the 5Poinz case, he applies his philosophical arguments about illegality and street art. Baldini explores legal precedents related to not just street art, but public commissioned art and copyright law. He studies the field of art law by focusing on the niche subsect of the law and its impact on street art.
A Philosophy Guide to Street Art and the Law also engages many philosophical ideas. Street art is arguably the oldest form of art, dating back parietal art, or “cave art,” from prehistoric times. The legal regulation of such human expression is complicated and requires Baldini’s philosophical approach. The discussion of moral rights, “special rights that authors possess over their respective creations as a consequence of the special relationship connecting creators and their own creations,” demands a philosophical understanding about the innate relationship between art and its creator.
Finally, throughout the book, Baldini includes photographs. Some he collected while doing research for the book, and others include the note: “for ethical reasons, I intentionally withhold sensitive information about photographs.” The photographs depict the stages of street art. Some are artists in the act of painting the side of a building or train car. Others are wide-shots of street art within city landscapes. The photographs help humanize street art and remind the reader how essential the artist is in creating urban visual landscapes.
Street art is not going away. As the law modifies to keep up with street art, the art will evolve to fit with the law. Illegality is a fundamental part of the nature of street art. The relationship between property and street art helps drive the creation of street art laws, and Baldini’s analysis of the philosophical arguments involved is an essential consideration when making these new laws.
About the Book’s Author:
Andrea Baldini, PhD is an associate professor of aesthetics and art theory at the School of Arts of Nanjing University, and director of the NJU Center for Sino-Italian Cultural Studies. He is also the Young Ambassador of the Jiangsu Province, a board member of the Association of Italian Scholars in China (AAIIC), and board and founding member of the Association of Tuscans in China. Baldini was recently elected delegate-at-large of the International Association of Aesthetics (IAA). Baldini has published extensively on street art and its relationship with the law, and is a scholar of philosophical questions surrounding “urban creativity.”
About the Book:
Andrea Baldini, A Philosophy Guide to Street Art and the Law (Brill Research Perspectives: Art and Law, 2018) ISBN: 9004394036. Available here.
Andrea Baldini, A Philosophy Guide to Street Art and the Law (BRILL, 2018), p. 5. ↑
Castillo v. G&M Realty L.P., No. 18‐498‐cv (2nd Cir. 2020), aff’ing Cohen v. G&M Realty L.P., No. 13-CV-05612 (E.D.N.Y. Feb. 12, 2018); L. Carron, Case Review of the 5Pointz Appeal: Castillo et al. v. G&M Realty L.P. (2020), Center for Art Law (Mar. 2, 2020). ↑
About the Author:
Lucy Siegel is a Summer 2020 Intern at the Center for Art Law and a rising junior at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. She is studying art history and government with a concentration in international relations. Lucy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.