Detroit has something of a Wild West romance about it. There is just enough lawlessness to make things interesting. Anyone who drives down Woodward Avenue past 8 mile on a regular basis knows that this threshold is where (among other things) driving laws take on a spirit of their own – people wander across busy lanes as if it’s the sidewalk. Red lights are treated as suggestions.
Apparently, so too, are property rights.
Bansky was here…[and] has tagged Detroit — most prominently a crumbling wall at the derelict Packard plant.
Discovered last weekend, the stenciled work shows a forlorn boy holding a can of red paint next to the words “I remember when all this was trees.” But by Tuesday, artists from the 555 Nonprofit Gallery and Studios, a feisty grassroots group, had excavated the 7-by-8-foot, 1,500-pound cinder block wall with a masonry saw and forklift and moved the piece to their grounds near the foot of the Ambassador Bridge in southwest Detroit.
The move — a guerilla act on top of Banksy’s initial guerilla act — has sparked an intense debate about the nature of graffiti art, including complicated questions of meaning, legality, value and ownership. Some say the work should be protected and preserved at all costs. Others say that no one had a right to move it — and that the power and meaning of graffiti art is so intrinsic to its location that to relocate it is to kill it.
Detroit’s unique profile as a kind of laboratory of extreme urban dilapidation and nascent revitalization adds yet another layer of complexity. “This may be unprecedented, because in most other cities, you wouldn’t be able to take a wall home,” said Luis Croquer, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, which specializes in cutting-edge art.
While reading about this I was reminded of the libertarian theorist, Murray N. Rothbard’s discussion of art and private property rights in The Libertarian Manifesto.
Let us take, as our first example, a sculptor fashioning a work of art out of clay and other materials; and let us waive, for the moment, the question of original property rights in the clay and the sculptor’s tools. The question then becomes: Who owns the work of art as it emerges from the sculptor’s fashioning? It is, in fact, the sculptor’s “creation,” not in the sense that he has created matter, but in the sense that he has transformed nature-given matter—the clay—into another form dictated by his own ideas and fashioned by his own hands and energy. Surely, it is a rare person who, with the case put thus, would say that the sculptor does not have the property right in his own product.
We could therefore say this art “belongs” to Bansky – as he utilized the raw materials and turned them into something more than mere paint and cement. He made art. Now, the sticky issue of ownership of the materials which comprise the wall itself is not entirely clear. From the Free Press,
There is also the complicated question of ownership. The Packard plant, a massive haven for squatters and scrappers — 3.5 million square feet of almost total urban destruction and decay — has been at the center of an epic legal dispute between the City of Detroit and a land speculator dating back more than a decade. News reports have identified Romel Casab as the owner. He could not be reached for comment Friday.
So, it appears that, from its history of unregulated scrapping and barring further details, it is in fact Mr. Casab who owns this wall and thus, owns the artwork. However, the whole point of private property rights is that the owner gets to decide what to do, or not do with them. If Mr. Casab has no interest in retaining his ownership of the wall and takes no action, and the ephemeral Banksy feels similarly, I am led to believe the wall is effectively “up for grabs” strictly from the sense of property rights.
What remains then, is settling the philosophical question of whether removing Bansky’s art from its chosen location necessarily destroys the art, since location is intrinsic to the art itself.