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Its been a few weeks since I’ve written a blog and whilst there are plenty of topics to pick from, I never quite got my head round writing about anything in depth. I’ve thought about a lot, I never stop thinking about a lot, some it meaningful and some of it not. I like to think that some of the stuff is quite profound but that’s just in my imagination, I think. Anyway, rather than trying to put together some deep and meaningful narrative about the state of the world I thought I’d provide a few highlights.
When I read Jes’ blog the other week about graffiti, I couldn’t help thinking that we do far too much to try to justify and somehow nullify the effects of criminality. For all our theorising and empathising as criminologists, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that crime results in victims and being a victim of crime is at best an unpleasant experience. So, I have to disagree with Jes on one point, grafitti is not art, its criminal damage, vandalism if you like. Very rarely have I ever gazed upon a graffiti covered bridge, wall, shop front, shutter, railway station siding or railway carriage and thought to myself, wow that’s nice. Let’s call it what it is.
I think it was the same week that I read a post on ‘LinkedIn’ about the silence surrounding the murder of Julia James, a 53-year-old Police Community Support Officer. The silence the author of the post was referring to was the contrast between the public response to Julia James’ death and that of Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive. No vigil, no public outrage, no ‘claim the streets back’. I wondered what dictates the public response to such horrific events. Is it age, occupation, circumstance or just timing?
I watched the news this week somewhat bemused by the response of some industry chiefs and business owners. The airline industry is less than pleased with the government’s approach to relaxing of restrictions around travel and some business owners are apoplectic about the fact that the removal of restrictions might be delayed. It might be a bit simplistic to state this, but it seems that they value business more than lives.
As for those that went on holiday abroad, thinking they wouldn’t need to quarantine when they came back only to find that the rules changed, and they now have to. More fool you, maybe I’ve missed a trick here, but I don’t think the Covid virus and its mutations will wait for you to enjoy the rest of your holiday before spreading a little more. Don’t complain about quarantine nor the cost of testing, you put yourself in that position, now take some responsibility and suck it up instead of blaming someone else.
In a conversation, a friend of mine told me ‘the problem is people don’t like being told what to do’. This was said in the context of Covid and our discussion about the idiots that think any rules or guidance just doesn’t apply to them. The comment did however make me think about a paper I read some time ago by Storch (1975). When the new police were introduced into this country in 1829, there were few who looked upon them favourably. One of the main issues was simply that the populace did not like being restricted in their ‘immoral or illegal’ pastimes. We can have a debate about who makes the rules but it seems to me the most pressing point is that little has changed. Take off the rose-tinted glasses, there never was a golden era of policing, the police have never been liked and never will be. I wonder how the population would act if there were no police though?
I’m a little weary now, all of this thinking and writing has worn me out. Time for a lie down in a darkened room.
A few weeks ago, @paulaabowles shared an article on the Criminology Facebook page which posed the question of whether graffiti is art or crime. My response was art. And like all art, not all variations, interpretations or styles are for everyone. I know I can look at some graffiti and be quite taken aback at the brightness, boldness and creativity which shines through. I can also look at some and go ‘eugh’. However I have the same reactions to various classical and well-known pieces. My unrefined self does not get all the hype about a number of Picasso’s works (possibly all the ones I have seen). Nevertheless this is the beauty of art: it is down to individual taste.
So for me, I was fairly certain on my opinions and convictions towards graffiti as an art form, and as an example of the CJS further stigmatising and criminalisation young people’s behaviours: something I am certain we are all quite familiar with at this stage in our criminological journey. However those beliefs and informed views were put to the test over the Bank Holiday (BH) Weekend, and in all honesty I think I am still trying to get to grips with them. It is different now…. It happened to me.
Some context: as those of you who have read various blog posts from myself will no doubt remember, my partner runs a small kiosk near one of the Royal Parks in London. Often during the weekends and summer months, I provide an extra pair of hands to help clean and serve during the busier periods. And as a result of the pandemic, my partner finds themselves going from a team of 4 down to just them, and me when I am able to support: this was the case for the BH Weekend. Off we popped, down to London for a day of serving hotdogs, drinks and ice creams. However our day was thrown off course by some ‘ugly’ graffiti all over the front of the kiosk.
My partner was angry, and felt personally attacked (not really sure by who- but guess that’s besides the point). It is not the first time the kiosk has had graffiti on it, but it is the first time I have seen it in person and witnessed my partner’s response. Rather than starting our working day and opening up, we had to clean the graffiti off. My partner set to this: just over 3 hours later some of it has been removed, but so has some of the kiosk’s paint. It looks a mess. We are now at midday and we cannot afford to remain closed and keep cleaning. We have lost 3 hours of trading time to try and remove it, only to remove some of it and some of the kiosk’s paint. I am informed that we shall need to go to B&Q to try and find some graffiti remover: Capitalism wins again! But seeing my partner cleaning for 3 hours, losing the trading hours and for this end result: I can’t help but feel angry, frustrated and in want of some kind of justice. It’s different now… it happened to me.
But what realistically would justice be in the scenario? What do I actually want as a result? I have no idea. I asked my partner who said they just wanted them ‘not to do it’. It is private property, will my partner call the police? Nope: just nuisance annoying behaviour, but not much anyone can do about it. I feel less inclined to call it art. I like my partner’s use of ‘nuisance’ behaviour: it feels very accurate. I do not think my partner was targeted, I think it was available as a surface to be used for that individual or individuals to express themselves. But I am shaken in my previously held convictions. Shouldn’t something be done. We lost 3 hours of trading, the kiosk now needs to be repainted and we shall need to purchase some graffiti remover. All for some expression of ‘art’? Shouldn’t there be some kind of repercussion?
I am not too sure. I also know when this has happened before, and I have not been present to witness the impact it has on my partner and the kiosk I have been very nonchalant about it. ‘Oh dear, that’s frustrating’, ‘ah well, never mind’. But being there and seeing it: I view it differently. And this is something many of us come to grips with when considering hypothetical moral situations and larger ethical questions. We think we will act one way, but if it happened to us: it is quite possible our opinions, informed views and beliefs would change. I still think graffiti is art, but I am not so convinced in my previous assertation that it is not a crime…
Some time ago, I wrote ‘A Love Letter: in praise of poetry‘, making the case as to why this literary form is important to understanding the lived experience. This time, I intend to do similar in relation to visual art.
Tomorrow, I’m plan to make my annual visit to the Koestler Arts’ Exhibition on show at London’s Southbank Centre. This year’s exhibition is entitled Another Me and is curated by the musician, Soweto Kinch. Previous exhibitions have been curated by Benjamin Zephaniah, Antony Gormley and prisoners’ families. Each of the exhibitions contain a diverse range of unique pieces, displaying the sheer range of artistic endeavours from sculpture, to pastels and from music to embroidery. This annual exhibition has an obvious link to criminology, all submissions are from incarcerated people. However, art, regardless of medium, has lots of interest to criminologists and many other scholars.
I have never formally studied art, my reactions and interpretations are entirely personal. I reason that the skills inherent in criminological critique and analysis are applicable, whatever the context or medium. The picture above shows 4 of my favourite pieces of art (there are many others). Each of these, in their own unique way, allow me to explore the world in which we all live. For me, each illustrate aspects of social (in)justice, social harms, institutional violence and the fight for human rights. You may dislike my choices. arguing that graffiti (Banksy) and photography (Mona Hatoum) have no place within art proper. You may disagree with my interpretation of these pieces, dismissing them as pure ephemera, forgotten as quickly as they are seen and that is the beauty of discourse.
Nonetheless, for me they capture the quintessential essence of criminology. It is a positive discipline, focused on what “ought” to be, rather than what is. To stand small, in front of Picasso’s (1937) enormous canvas Guernica allows for consideration of the sheer scale of destruction, inherent in mechanised warfare. Likewise, Banksy’s (2005) The Kissing Coppers provides an interesting juxtaposition of the upholders of the law behaving in such a way that their predecessors would have persecuted them. Each of the art pieces I have selected show that over time and space, the behaviours remain the same, the only change, the level of approbation applied from without.
Art galleries and museums can appear terrifying places, open only to a select few. Those that understand the rules of art, those who make the right noises, those that have the language to describe what they see. This is a fallacy, art belongs to all of us. If you don’t believe me, take a trip to the Southbank Centre very soon. It’s not scary, nobody will ask you questions, everyone is just there to see the art. Who knows you might just find something that calls out to you and helps to spark your criminological imagination. You’ll have to hurry though…closes 3 November, don’t miss out!
Gillian is an Academic Librarian at the University of Northampton, supporting the students and staff in the Faculty of Health and Society.
I was inspired to write this blog post by an article from the BBC news website that my friend sent me (BBC, 2019). A reading list was used as a punishment for teenagers who were convicted of daubing graffiti across a historically significant building in the state of Virginia, USA. Normally such an offence would earn a community service order. In this case, due to the nature of the crime – using racially charged symbols and words, the Prosecutor and Deputy Commonwealth Attorney Alejandra Rueda decided education may be the cure. She provided the five teenagers with a reading list that they had to read, and write assignments on, over the course of their 12-month sentence.
“Ignorance is not an excuse” is a principle expressed regularly throughout society, yet are we doing anything to address or dispel this ignorance? Rueda realised that books may help these teenagers to understand the impact of what they’d done and the symbols and language they had used in the graffiti. She chose books that would help educate them about racism, anti-Semitism, apartheid and slavery, to name just a few of the topics covered in the reading list. These were the books that helped her understand the wider world, as she grew up. Rueda’s approach indicated that punishment without an understanding of the impact of their crime, would not help these teenagers to engage with the world around them. These books would take them to worlds far outside their own and introduce them to experiences that were barely covered in their High School history lessons.
It’s not the only time an ignorance of history has been highlighted in the news recently. A premiere league football player was investigated for apparently making a Nazi salute. Although he was found not guilty, the FA investigation found him to be appallingly ignorant of Fascism and Hitler’s impact on millions of people across the globe (Church, 2019). Whilst the FA lamented his ignorance, I’m unsure they have done anything to help him address it. Would he be willing to read about the Holocaust and impact of Fascism in Europe? Would being forced to read about the lives of people over 70 years ago, help him understand how a chance photograph can affect people?
Should reading be a punishment, would it help people understand the impact of their actions? As a Librarian, people often assume that all I do all day is read. For me, reading is a luxury I indulge in daily, when I’m at home. I find a distinct difference between reading by choice, for escapism, and reading because you have to. I remember studying English Literature at school and finding any books I was forced to read, quickly lost their charm and became a chore rather than a pleasure. I’m not sure reading should be a punishment; it could disengage people from the joy and escapism of a good book. However, I understand the value of reading in helping people to explore topics and ideas that may be well outside their own world.
There is a growing body of literature that reflects on bibliotherapy and how reading can help people in varying stages of their life (Hilhorst et al., 2018; Brewster et al., 2013). A recent report by Hilhorst et al., (2018) advocates reading to transform British society, address isolation and improve social mobility. I believe reading can help improve our quality of life, helping us improve literacy, understand complex social issues and offer escapism from the everyday. However, I hesitate to view reading as a magical solution to society’s problems. Some people advocate the literary classics, the numerous lists you can find online that extort the virtues of reading the finest of the literary canon – but how much of it is just to conform to the social snobbery around reading ‘good literature’, a tick list? We should encourage reading, not force it upon people (McCrum, 2003; Penguin Books Ltd, 2019; Sherman, 2019).
Reading can help expand horizons and can have a tremendous impact on your world view, but it shouldn’t be a punishment. What Rueda did in Virginia, is illustrate how an education can help us address the ignorance in our society. We should encourage people to explore beyond their community to understand the world around us. Reading books can offer an insight and allow us to explore these ideas, hopefully helping us to avoid repeating or perpetuating the mistakes of the past.
BBC (2019) Graffiti punished by reading – ‘It worked!’ says prosecutor, BBC News [Online]. Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/stories-47936071 [Accessed 18/04/19].
Brewster, L., Sen, B. and Cox, A. (2013) ‘Mind the Gap: Do Librarians Understand Service User Perspectives on Bibliotherapy?’, Library Trends, 61(3), pp. 569–586. doi: 10.1353/lib.2013.0001.
Church, B. (2019) Wayne Hennessey: EPL player showed ‘lamentable’ ignorance of Fascism, CNN [Online]. Available from: https://edition.cnn.com/2019/04/16/football/wayne-hennessey-fa-nazi-salute-english-premier-league-crystal-palace-spt-intl/index.html [Accessed 18/04/19].
Hilhorst, S., Lockey, A. and Speight, T. (2018) “It’s no exaggeration to say that reading can transform British society…”: A Society of Readers, DEMOS [online] Available from: http://giveabook.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/A_Society_of_Readers_-_Formatted__3_.pdf [Accessed 15/04/19]
McCrum, R. (2003) The 100 greatest novels of all time: The list, The Guardian [Online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/oct/12/features.fiction [Accessed 18/04/19].
Penguin Books Ltd (2019) 100 must-read classic books, as chosen by our readers, Penguin [Online]. Available from: https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/2018/100-must-read-classic-books/ [Accessed 18/04/19].
Sherman, S. (2019) The Greatest Books, The Greatest Books [Online]. Available from: https://thegreatestbooks.org/ [Accessed 18/04/19].