Is art ever dangerous? There are plenty of examples throughout history, right up to the present, of those who tried to limit various forms of expression, but only things which threatened their own power. Is their ever a case when we could say a work of art, by itself, actually hurt someone? Well, if a large statue fell on you that could cause some damage. Generally, though, suppressing expression seems to do more harm than allowing it. As John Milton argued in his 1644 Plea for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing,
Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye.
What got me thinking about that is seeing graffiti on the back of interstate signs. It’s surprising and raises all kinds of questions like, how did they get up there? When did they do it? What prompted the artists responsible to pick that particular spot where it’s often kind of hard to see? Chances are if you do see it at all you’ll see it from the other lane or maybe in your rearview mirror. Interestingly they often seem to use block letters. Is that a purely aesthetic choice or is there something restrictive about the signs that makes block letters easier?
The pictures I’ve taken weren’t easy to get, and I wish they were higher quality. They were all taken while my wife was driving–for obvious reasons I’m not taking my hands off the wheel to take a picture. At least I hope the reasons are obvious. There are also a lot of examples I missed just because I don’t have my phone out all the time even when I’m not driving, and at highway speeds some of them tended to surprise me.
And that got me thinking about whether this really is dangerous art. I’ve been to some risky places to get pictures of graffiti, but never any place really dangerous, and I’ve never put anyone else in harm’s way. In a car traveling at high speed, though, any little distraction can throw off a driver. I wonder if the artists who created these works were risking more than just their own lives. Freedom of expression is a wonderful thing but it’s also a powerful thing and power should be used responsibly. Don’t drop a sculpture on someone.