Drawing Lines Between Graffiti And Cultural Treasures

From time to time, when I’m feeling all deep and mystical, I read random passages out of religious texts other than the one I was brought up with (the protestant Bible). The following are a couple of lines that jumped out at me recently. They’re from the Tao te Ching:

“When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. When people see some things as good, other things become bad.”

Where’s The Line?

We almost can’t help but cast judgements like this, can we?

Not long ago, in fact, I posted on the topic of desert varnish and why it was so awful for Greenpeace activists to walk all over it when they embellished the Nazca Lines. I’ve also written about bumping into petroglyphs around my hometown and about how we shouldn’t touch them if we see them.

What I’ve yet to address, however, is the question of exactly how we adjudicate between cases of wall art of historical value that should be protected, on the one hand, and odious graffiti, on the other. Frankly, the reason I’ve dawdled over tackling this is that I don’t think there’s a cut-and-dry way to make the demarcation. I’ll do my best to explain why.

Grey Areas

As Wittgenstein showed us in the early 20th century — and lots of Taoist and Buddhist thinkers long before that — the more you look at concepts/categories, the more they seem to blur and dovetail into one another. The continuum we can identify between graffiti and petroglyphs illustrates this perfectly.

At Timpanogos Cave National Monument, for example, we had the full range. There was Fremont wall art from pre-Columbian days, purple blobs of India ink from some of the first (known) people to enter the cave in the late 1800s, and tacky little crucifixes some zealot decided to Sharpie marker onto our tintic quartzite last summer.

Before we start to apply labels like “good” or “bad” or “beautiful” or “vandalism,” consider all the attributes shared by this spread of embellishments to the environment. They’re all made by humans. They’re all the produce of line and stone. They’re all forms of self-expression.

Arguments Both Ways

Question is: Why do we catalog and protect the Fremont glyphs and 19th century inscriptions, but scrub the 2014 tags? One could easily argue all-of-the-above are unsightly additions to American Fork Canyon. One could also contrive an argument that they’re all amazing.

The answer seems to be that we as a society have decided to imbue older artifacts of human culture with a sort of aura — an aura that confers greater value. Does this differential conferral of worth hold up to logical dissection? As I suggested at the beginning, I don’t really think so.

But perhaps there’s a way out, squishy as it may be. Perhaps there’s something we can appeal to besides the tracing out of rigid categories.

Democracy And Debate

When I lived in Spain during college, I would peer down into construction sites and see the remains of ancient Roman habitations and infrastructure. These relics of bygone days are everywhere on the Iberian Peninsula.

But awesome as this stuff was to me, there was really no way for all of it protected short of never building anything new ever. Some of the old had to be sacrificed for the new. (Surely the Romans had built atop ruins from civilizations predating theirs.) As a society, we have scarce resources. We can’t always have our cake and it it too. So we, as a collective, end up making decisions about what to preserve and what to sacrifice.

What I’m getting at is maybe the best we can do is have debates, get as much information on the table as we can, and then decide what’s worth going out of our way to protect. Consensus, no doubt, is rare, but what other recourse do we have?

Stoicism And Salvation

Referring back to the above quote, we shouldn’t forget that there’s more being conveyed than the simple observation that people make judgements. No, this is an expression of what the author, Lao-Tze, believed was the source of human suffering — namely, the making of any kind of distinction at all.

If we were able to be in the universe without slicing it up into a million pieces — without building good and bad containers to put these pieces into — would we not be much happier? What if we were able to see every feature of our surroundings as mysterious and beautiful? What if, like the stoics, we wished for what is?

Ultimately, maybe nothing we humans create matters all that much in the long run. Won’t be too long by geological standards before everything we’ve ever drawn on the world’s walls is obliterated by the forces of weathering and seismic vibration. Won’t be too long by cosmic standards before the sun swells up and engulfs the Earth entire in swift currents of red plasma.

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(Today’s photo is courtesy of Paul William’s Flickr. Thanks for posting your work under a Creative Commons License!)

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