Abstract: This paper seeks to explore the subject of Street Art as rebellious and subversive in nature by considering the visual text above. It attempts to answer the question: “In what way is Street Art different? How does it distance itself from other forms of art? Will it continue to be Avant-garde?”. The paper shall draw from the arguments of previous research in order to answer these questions effectively.
Street Art is used to refer to visual art that is created in public spaces and is, for the most part illegal or unsanctioned. We can attempt a broad understanding of Street Art through the statement of Howard Smith: Slogans of protest and political or social commentary graffitied onto public walls are the precursor to modern graffiti and street art, and continue as one aspect of the genre. Street art in the form of text or simple iconic graphics in the vein of corporate icons become well-known yet enigmatic symbols of an area or an era. (38)
In the image above, we can clearly see a graffiti artist atop a ladder putting on the finishing touches on his artwork. We see electrical lines and buildings in the background, thereby establishing that the artist is clearly working on public property which forms our basic understanding of Street Art as illegal and rebellious.
In delving into the features of Street Art, Riddle gives us a basic parameter to differentiate this form of art from the others. He is of the opinion that Street Art as a form, is rebellious in nature. It stands in opposition to traditional, classical notions of art, and by going one step further than bridging the gap between high and low art through “allowing art to join the living” (256).
Street art is deeply antithetical to the artworld. That is, for each part of the artworld, street art resists to some appreciable extent playing a role in it. (252)
In his paper, Riggle draws a connection between the art and its relationship with the street. He says: “Street art constitutes only those artworks whose use of the street is essential to their meaning” (246). It is interesting to see that the artist has chosen this particular location for his artwork. The art in question comprises of a figure – probably of a political leader. We not only see the rebellious nature of Street Art in terms of the content but also in form. The artist is seen combining realism and abstract forms of art to create a whole new experience akin to surrealism. The photograph in question brings out interesting juxtapositions – The artist is wearing a t shirt that is blue in colour, the background is largely blue which stands in stark contrast to the colour of his graffiti which is a warm peach, thus succeeding in highlighting the graffitti by default.
Powers provides for us, a very important feature of Street Art that sets it apart from the rest – that it caters not only to our sense of touch, it also caters to the elements in the way that museums and galleries try to overcome. He says: “Thanks to a dedicated sun, most graffiti fades over time” (6). As observed in this particular image, the art is not encased inside a glass case nor is it behind a fence destined to keep the audience at an arm’s length. Once the artist has finished his work, it is open for the public to inspect it, touch it and even modify it as they deem fit.
In a traditional gallery, the audience only gets to see the finished product i.e the art itself. Here, on the other hand, anybody who is interested, can observe and learn. The artist and his art invite the audience to bridge the gap. Reflecting on the subversive nature of Street Art, Schalk talks about the degree of involvement of the audience in Street Art as being higher than that concerning traditional art in galleries. He argues that the audience, in the former is “actively invested” owing to the possibility of greater physical proximity, whereas, galleries do not allow for such intimacy to develop. He says:
Deploying art in unexpected or forbidden places to stimulate reflection and social action, street artists and active dwellers create an aesthetic commons that invites belonging and participation. (157)
The attire of the artist speaks of his background as a normal middle-class person (if not lower). This leads us to inspect the economic aspects of Street Art. Terrance Lindall brings in an economic reason for the popularity of Street Art and opines: Graffiti is revolutionary and any revolution might be considered a crime. People who are oppressed or suppressed need an outlet, so they write on walls—it’s free. (Ciuraru)
The graffiti in the image seems to enliven the wall through its bright turquoise hues in contrast to its grey environment. It “re-personalises” (Smith, 17) the public space. The relevance of this form of Art is best expressed by Irvine who is of the opinion that Street Art today forms an undeniable part of our visual culture. He says: With its ability to embrace multiple urban subcultures and visual styles in a globally distributed practice, street art provides a new dialogic configuration, a post-postmodern hybridity that will continue to generate many new kinds of works and genres. (29)
Upon reflection, the image calls to question the present position of Street Art as “Avant-garde”(Vaughan, 289). Vaughan draws from Bürger the theory that it will develop into an institution eventually and will develop criticism that will become the new order. He predicts a dim end to the “freshness” of Street Art – that it is subsumed into the Artworld. This can be observed in today’s world through the auction of various graffiti art, Banksy’s “Kissing Coppers” sold for $477,000 in 2014 (Randall) questioning the popular notion of Street Art as a movement against the commercialization of art. It is a movement from the artist being autonomous and anonymous to being named and commercialized that Vaughan calls the death of the rebellious nature of street art. He goes as far as to say that the change of name from “Graffiti” to “Street Art” itself is an indication of the changes that this genre is experiencing today.
“Art” is used for and because of institutional validation. “Street” is used for validation within the graffiti and avant-garde communities. The privatization and corporate invasion of public space presents us with the paradoxical scenario where museums are a potential refuge for the graffiti artist. That this has become the case is proof that graffiti is now embedded within the institutional narrative of art history. (291).
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