Steal some squirrels, and I’ll chalk it up to sophomoric pranks; urinate on Ben Franklin, and I’ll look the other way. (Seriously, I don’t want to see that.) But if you graffiti the Button … it’s war. That seemed to be the consensus last Monday when students awoke to a spray-painted Button on College Green.
The graffiti featured a giant red sign with the Greek letter pi, with a few black squiggles and ENG (most likely referencing engineering) scrawled across the lower portion of the sculpture. The fact that it was so poorly done made the composition especially offensive, proving exactly why you shouldn’t give engineers art supplies.
Fortunately, the University Department of Facilities and Real Estate Services quickly sprang into action. In fact, I bore witness to the application of the final coat of touch-up paint on my way to the Fisher Fine Arts Library the next morning.
I was relieved to see all traces of the tasteless tagging gone, but watching the curatorial staff working away made me feel a little guilty. While I’ve never dabbled in graffiti myself, I have condoned lesser acts of vandalism. Less than a week before I wrote a column making light of the stolen squirrel statues on Locust Walk.
In light of the recent graffiti, I started questioning my sentiments in that column. Harming art is harming art, and as someone who spends a considerable amount of time touting the importance of public art, why am I so ambivalent about vandalism happening on my very own campus?
College senior and architecture major Christopher DiFeliciantonio saw the graffiti in person that Monday morning. He agreed that Penn students have often blurred the line between celebrating art and damaging it. “The Button vandals went too far, but at the same time people embrace our somewhat unusual relationship with art,” DiFeliciantonio said, citing another glorious Penn tradition: peeing on the Benjamin Franklin statue.
The fact is, Penn students have a penchant for making a mess — chalking on Locust Walk, the Hey Day food fight and throwing toast at football games are all essential elements of Penn’s institutional character that leave a trail of trash.
And while I love these traditions as much as any Quaker, I think we should take a look at what else passes for tradition around here, especially when it comes to the way we treat our sculptures. Because like our beloved traditions, art has it’s own role in Penn’s unique character. This is the year of “Arts in the City” after all; we should be celebrating campus art, not defacing it.
There is no easy equation to determine what is and isn’t acceptable. I’m not sure where to draw the line, but I’m guessing it lies somewhere between engaging with (and thereby celebrating) with the art pieces and destroying them.
With this as our vandalism litmus test, we can frame peeing on Ben Franklin as a harmless (though somewhat disturbing) ritual that makes the statue a memorable part of a night of revelry. The same goes for any naughty nocturnal activities that might take place under our beloved button.
In the case of the missing squirrels, the jury is still out. The Locust larcenists still have the opportunity to define their actions. Will they return the squirrels intact with a memorable stunt? Or have they already laid waste to our furry fiberglass friends?
But what is clear is that the Button vandals have crossed the line. In treating the Button like a canvas for some poorly conceived message, the vandals turned an iconic campus focal point into an eye sore that we must shield from tour groups (if only temporarily).
Ashley Takacs is a College senior from Buffalo, N.Y. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.Comments powered by Disqus
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