• On CBC radio’s Q with Jian Ghomeshi, I find that the host’s brand of cheerful, introspective inquisition usually succeeds in bringing out the non-pretentious side of his guests; however, in a recent Q leading up to the London Olympics, Jian interviewed the billboard brandal, Scottish poet, Robert Montgomery, who fought through the host’s friendliness and managed an impressive level of condescension.

    Montgomery’s “brandalism” project, that of superimposing his poetry, along with other art, over billboards (including recent Olympic advertising) is interesting; as he says, cities decorated on all sides by commercial imagery could be exhausting to the psyches of the inhabitants, and so many city dwellers may prefer a quiet poetry break. Nevertheless, I was intrigued to hear how the poet would tackle the notion that the places on which he places his wares have already been paid for by law-abiding citizens. Montgomery’s personal preference for his ideas over corporate products sounds lovely in theory, but what gives him the right to overrule the message of the legal tenants of the space?

    I mean the question sincerely. As anyone who’s ever taken a philosophy of law course knows, Martin Luther King argued, while in jail, that some laws are in such violation of human dignity that they should not be considered valid. That’s compelling to me, so I was ready to be persuaded that Montgomery’s brandalism is confronting an oppression that the corporations have no right to inflict upon us.

    Yet, instead of making any attempt to suggest the intrinsic immorality of the original billboards, Ghomeshi’s guest simply explained that most people seem to enjoy the respite from the noise of commercialism. Is that really all the argument that is required to overrule the law? That people would prefer it? I’m sure most people would also rather go without parking tickets, so should we tear them up if we get them?

    Presumably the proceeds from billboards go the city (or at least the economy), which can then pay for infrastructure for the citizens. I’m happy to hear an argument that the billboards are nevertheless immoral and so must be fought, but Montgomery’s follow-up defence that he is providing his fellow humans with a kind of therapy is wholly insufficient, and incredibly paternalistic. Despite his poetic pedigree, I’m not convinced that he’s necessarily equipped to provide such collective psychological treatment.

    All of this I would have forgiven were it not for his hubris-riddled anecdote in which he described being caught in the act of brandalism by a police officer, who, happily enough, enjoyed the poetry and told our hero to carry on. “Not all police officers are stupid,” the poet concluded. So, along with providing therapy, Montgomery’s poetry has the ability to test the intelligence of its readers? If you “get it”, you’re smart; if not, sorry, you’re not too bright. (Moreover, whether or not the officer was smart, since when are individual members of the police supposed to ignore the law because they happen to like the sentiments expressed by the criminal?)

    I am more than happy to be persuaded that brandalism is a worthwhile enterprise, but I think Q should consider bringing on a defender who can see far enough past their own ego to be capable of taking on the genuine question at stake here: when is it okay to forsake the law for what you perceive to be the greater good?

    Posted by SethBlog @ 7:27 PM

  • 5 Responses

    • TomD Says:

      You raise a number of interesting questions here, sir. For example, what about graffiti “artists,” some of whom have become famous and whose work is now shown in art galleries? Didn’t they start by defacing public or private property? Regarding defacing advertising billboards or posters, what about painting the mustache on the starlet’s face, or adding provocative commentary? I once saw a promo for the Canadian military that said “There’s no life like it!.” Someone had crossed out “life” and written “death” above it–certainly a pointed commentary. Surely there are times when the persistent lies of advertisers might arouse outrage and, indeed, a desire to deface. Just because someone, usually a corporation or government, pays to deliver its message to the public are we compelled to respect it and refrain from throwing brickbats (or poetry) at it. I’m sure Hitler would have said “ja, you vill listen!”

    • TomM Says:

      In response to Tom’s comments about the artistic value of graffiti, I think that the unartistic creations out there which are very unpleasant to look at, negatively counter the artistic ones. There is also a lot of hate literature that goes on the side of buildings and other structures which are hardly a social positive. I would suggest we uphold the laws against graffiti and create more opportunities for genuine artists to paint on walls that have been sanctioned for the purpose.


    • SethBlog Says:

      Thank you, Toms. Already, the poet narcissist, Montgomery, would be confused by this discussion since it now takes the question of justification beyond his personal belief in the power of his particular poetry. TomD (Tom1), your question “what about the graffiti artists whose work is now shown in art galleries?” seems to imply that, beyond my assumption that overruling billboard messages requires that the advertising be morally repugnant enough to justify its defacing, you believe that the fact that the overriding work is art is sufficient cause. I disagree with that. As TomM (Tom2) says, not all art was created equal; moreover, I do not see why the art in itself, even if it is brilliant, has the right to overrule the public discourse of advertising and architecture (both of which are art in themselves, are they not?). I agree with TomM that artists should seek out spaces reserved for new art.

      You mention (TomD) specific instances of billboards, as well as the general case of lying in advertising, which may justify taking over public space. Again, you have provided an answer beyond the artist’s ego so I’m pleased to have an actual argument now. However, in the case of your particular examples, I’m not compelled by the fact that an artist dislikes a starlit, is outraged by the advertising, or is trying to be provocative. Again, I think their basis must be a moral one in order to justify overruling the law. Lies in advertising, to me, could be that justification. If one feels that the advertiser is, say claiming that cigarettes, or as you discuss, joining the military, is good for one’s health, then I think the artist now at least has a basis in morality for why they’re attacking that particular advertising. But Montgomery himself (at least in the interview I heard) seems to require no such distinction; instead, his enemy appears to be all advertising. To my mind, though, while he may be perfectly right to dislike the prevalence of advertising in the city, in order for him to overrule others’ legally paid-for messages, he needs more than his (and others’) preference to justify his artistic vandalism.

    • Tarrin Says:

      I think there is unquestionable value in civil disobedience, but agree with Seth that Montgomery has a responsibility to make a compelling case.

      He seems to be trying to pick up sexiness points in his illegal manoeuvrings. I hope he doesn’t fancy himself akin to people who have placed themselves in real danger to protest injustices. I think he doesn’t bother to justify his actions because he assumes we’re all automatically ‘on board’ with this sort of rebel populist movement.

      Off topic, but I only just recently read the full story of the ‘human rights salute’ by two black American athletes at the 1968 Olympics:


      Given the Australian’s role, it seems somewhat offensive that his spot is empty in the statue that San Jose erected of the scene:


    • SethBlog Says:

      Thanks Tarrin. I think that’s perfectly put. Civil disobedience (as in the case you link us to from the 1968 Olympics) is crucial to society, but, where that disobedience is illegal, justification is required. I think you’re right that some resisters are given a free pass simply because aesthetically they seem, to the supporters, to be on the correct side. In Montgomery’s defence, my bet is that he spends so little time around people who openly disagree with him that it never occurred to him that anyone would. 🙂

      Thanks for the link to the 1968 Olympic protest for human rights. I don’t think that’s off topic at all; it seems to be an example of legitimate and courageous civl expression. (It’s too bad, both for the reasons you give, and aesthetically, that the Australian isn’t included in the statue. Given the other two attended his funeral as pall bearers, I suspect they would have supported his inclusion.)

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