The Spectacle of Street Art

Walking on Swanston Walk there was sidewalk stall selling aerosol stencil art on old LPs; along with the people doing pencil portraits or folding palm leaves into little animals. And then further on Burke St. up there was someone else doing some live spraying in front of a large crowd. I’ve seen people doing aerosol art as a form of busking before; I can remember seeing people doing this back in 2000 on the streets of Europe. The combination of suburban rock icons, the tourist craft stall and street art was depressing but not surprising.

The spectacle of street artists have been packaged and the public watching the spectacle. The books on street art have been coffee table picture books. These have made money for the publishers but have little other than pretty pictures to recommend them. Street art in Melbourne is a tourist attraction complete with guided walking tours, a subject for multiple books and documentaries, gallery and boutique shop designer merchandise and more… just wait until “Secret Wars” is broadcast on commercial TV complete with commentators and ad breaks, no need to wait, they are already doing that online.

There almost is no need to discuss the art that was on exhibition at Rtist or Art Boy we know what a Rone, a Dirt Fish or an Urban Cake Lady’s piece looks like (if you don’t look them up online and you will find plenty of examples). Brand recognition is an important aspect of street art, becoming a form of tagging with images. The viral nature of street art can quickly become a commercial infection empty of anything but a repeated image.

The Urban Art Agenda #1 exhibition of international street and stencil art was “an official Pop-Up of the Melbourne Design Festival 07”. Street art is a significant contemporary style. And street artists are often both designers and artists; a mix that can result in a good income and endless signature work, like Ken Done. This kind of art gives me a vision of the artist alienated by his/her own production line of creation, like a virus producing more and more versions of their signature work. And the repetition changes the meaning of work from an odd charm to a repetitious drone.

Designers and decorators have used stencils, paste-ups/wallpaper for centuries; using them on the street was surprising and amusing but rarely has increased their artistic quality. Is street art just guerilla decorators painting feature walls for the urban living room? The basic design core of street art is filled with ego, audacity and enterprise. Apart from the occasional joke or political statement there is little to most of the pieces except for design sensibilities and the endless repetition of the signature style/images large. There are always the odd street artists who can rise above this; there is the hope that better site-specific art will emerge.

I was going to write something histrionic like “the end of street art” or “these are signs of the end of street art”. Instead I’ll try to discuss this without too many disparaging remarks or starting a flame war but I’ll wait to see your comments. (For more on problems with street art see my post on Street Art and Plagiarism and Advertising and Graffiti.)

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About Mark Holsworth

Arts administrator, artist, musician, philosopher and writer. Writes Black Mark - Melbourne Art and Culture Critic. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

3 responses to “The Spectacle of Street Art

  • CDH

    Mark, I always enjoy your blog. But this is one of the more thought provoking articles I’ve read. Is this the death of street art? The epitaph ‘Street Art: 10,000 B.C – 2011′ could be poster bombed throughout Melbourne…
    Anyway, the question at hand: Death of street art? I don’t think so. Ironically, I think the rise of webloggers (like you) are contributing to a revitalisation of street art. Using Urban Cake Lady as an example- her artworks are hand painted and unique. This might prompt the question: why create such time consuming pieces, if they might only last on the street for a few days? Because she has a legion of street art webloggers, willing to create a digital facsimile of the artwork and publicise it all over the internet. This digital publication can expose your artwork to far more street art patrons, than might stumble across it on the street. I think most street artists would be aware of that.
    Webloggers are interested in publishing good content, not prolific, mass-produced content. So that’s what we’re seeing: a new impetus to create good and meaningful content.
    I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

    • Mark Holsworth

      “Death of street art” was over dramatic of me. And street art is a sub-category of graffiti – not all graffiti is artistic or even poetic. So street art doesn’t have a very long history, from the first considerations that some graffiti might be artistic to manifestations that are deliberately artistic, followed by institutionalization in art magazines, art galleries and an increased commercialization. Bring us to where we are now – will this be followed by stagnation and alienation by commercializing? That is what I’m worried about. Maybe by raising these concerns, a dialogue might occur that will improve street art.
      I have thought about the influence of the internet and digital cameras on street art. http://melbourneartcritic.wordpress.com/2010/02/15/street-art-the-internet-digital-cameras/ but that was that is just the start of what could be done if a history of examining street art websites, street art search terms etc. was properly undertaking. But you are suggesting a different content driven dynamic, that a significant number of bloggers and web users are looking for unusual content and that this is changing street art (and society). It is the flip side of what the conservatives have worried about the internet that it allows all those strange people to communicate with other strange people about their strange interest; that along with people being better informed about the strange stuff and people in this world, that new and better street art will emerge to fill the demands of the growing online public. It has obviously already happened but will it keep happening?

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