Art and Vandalism: Are They So Different?

The question of what constitutes art versus vandalism is still a popular topic of debate today. While talking about environments that serve as a defensible space, Gruman, 2017 makes an interesting assertion about the nature of public, visual art and how it is very different from vandalism. For public, visual art, he gives an example of “painting a mural that reflects a social concern” (Gruman, 2017). For vandalism, he creates the picture of people who “scrawl their own names on a subway hall.” While I do not argue with these examples, they are based on a very narrow idea that insinuates little overlap between the two concepts. In his view, “The artist’s goal is to beautify an ugly environment” (Gruman, 2017), and “vandals are destructive and egocentric…” (Gruman, 2017). These statements are flawed because they are based on the belief that art and vandalism are inherently antithetical concepts that never share similar aesthetics or motivations. He also assumes that art has an inherently positive impact, while vandalism has an inherently negative one. 

Rather than attempting to define the subjective concept of what makes something beautiful, it is easier to asset that objective beauty does not exist. Like most other concepts, something that is thought to be beautiful is commonly thought to be so because that label reflects the majority of opinions. Simply, art in general is not always beautiful to most people. Goya’s black paintings, especially “Saturn” (often known as “Saturn Devouring His Son”), were never intended to be viewed as beautiful and have rarely been defined as pleasant to look upon by the general public (Goya, 1820-1823). However, few in the art critics would disagree with the notion that they are important and influential works of art. Even though it is not considered beautiful, it may still be valued and have a positive impact on its environment. Even in instances where the artist was attempting to create beauty, they may not prevail in the majority or even a single viewer’s opinion. Likewise, vandalism is not always aesthetically displeasing, and can even be what most people consider to be beautiful. Some can be humorous, inspire social change or even both (The Meta Picture, 2020). This can have a positive impact on the environment.       

Without asking the artist directly, it may be impossible to known with certainty what the motivation is behind a particular visual piece. Art may not always be a self-less, anonymous offering meant to bring attention to a “social concern” (Gruman, 2017). Many benign murals of landscapes offer no message and proudly display the initials or full names or the artists somewhere in the picture. Likewise, many vandals are completely anonymous and socially conscious. It is important to remember that what many people would consider vandalism is not always created for egocentric reasons and can be intended to evoke awareness about specific social issues. When these messages are in conflict with the prevailing view of the public, anonymity may be necessary to protect the vandal from lawful or unlawful repercussions. For example, Black Lives Matter is a large social justice organization that seeks to conduct peaceful protests of police brutality. However, there are supporters of the group that will use various media to paint the name of the group on public or private buildings. Supporters  have been the victims of harassment just for displaying the words “Black Lives Matter” on their own personal property (Ciechalski, 2020). So, it is logical as to why someone might want to remain anonymous while publicly displaying the phrase, even if it is meant to evoke thought about the social issue of police brutality. I would argue that if vandalism contributes to social reform, it improves the environment.    

Attempting to define art and vandalism as mutually exclusive concepts is folly. Because the experience of beauty is so subjective, it may well be impossible to separate the two ideas in a way where one is beautiful and the other is not. Different people may view the same visual in a multitude of ways that are all influenced by their own experiences, feelings, opinions, motivations, etc. This can have an impact on how they interpret a visual image or message. A viewer may also decide this regardless of the author’s intent. Therefore, whether an image is art of vandalism is different for different people based upon how they receive the message. Whether a visual has a positive or negative impact on the environment is also subjective and influenced by many personal and societal factors.  

Ciechalski, Suzanne, Li, David K., and Abdelkader, Rima. (2020, June 16). Couple Apologizes After Confronting Man Over ‘Black Lives Matter’ Chalk in Front of His Own Home. Retrieved from:

Goya, F. (1820-1823). Saturn. [Mixed method]. Museo Del Prado, Madrid, Spain. n.d. Retrieved from:

Gruman, J. A., Schneider, F. W., and Coutts, L. M. (Eds.) (2017). Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems (3rd ed.), 108-113. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

The Meta Picture. Middle-Class Vandalism. Pinterest. Retrieved September 17, 2020.


  1. I suppose it would be helpful to share with you the article I was reading!

    Zimbardo, P.G. (1970). A social-psychology analysis of vandalism: Making sense of senseless violence. Experimental Social Psychology Laboratory. Retrieved from

  2. This is a veryinteresting and informative piece. I found myself agreeing with Gruman’s dividing line between artistry and vandalism. Obviously an individual could lie about their motivation, but I believe in many cases the art does most of the speaking. I’m not sure about you, but I have noticed that some places go to great lengths to prevent vandalism (artisticly or not), other places let it be (unless it is obscene), and some places have no trouble with it at all. Phillip G. Zimbardo explains that not all vandalism is created equally, so it can’t all be treated the same. My question is, what causes a person to vandalize? We recently talked about informational appeals versus fear appeals. As a quick refresh, informational appeals attempt to provide facts to persuade a behavior to or not to be done. Alternatively, fear appeals can use intimidation (for simplicity’s sake) to scare a person into doing what is asked/not behaving a certain way. Generally informational appeals only work if the receipient is aware and is open to them. This is where fear appeals can sometimes be more effective (Gruman, 2016). Back to the situations I mentioned earlier, what sets them apart? Are they using different appeals, different police measures/enforcement, or are the people different (Social economic status, demographics, etc.)? I don’t expect you to have the answers, but I do appreciate the knowledge you have shared!

Leave a Reply

Skip to toolbar