Street Art & Galleries

Every time street art enters the gallery the question is raised about the definition of street art. The Melbourne galleries most associated with street art doesn’t want to use the term “Street Art” because it is a contradictory term for art in a gallery, But it is the term that we are stuck with. Maybe some future art historian will find a better name for the art movement.

When I want to use a word like ‘movement’ I refer to the “Afterword” in Stewart Home The Assault on Culture (Aporia Press & Unpopular Books, London, 1988) “’Movement’ has military connotations and implies a mass of adherent. For something to merit the title ‘movement’ it would seem to require several thousand participants at the very least.” (p.106) Art movements are very rare; Home lists the Sixties Underground (taken as a whole), Punk and Mail Art as the only post war art movements. The rest, Situationalists, CoBrA  Fluxus, etc. are just groups.

Like other movements, street art is, in part, a reaction to previous art movements with a radical change in artistic paradigms. Instead of art dependent on gallery space to make it art, street art is independent of the gallery setting. Walking through W.E. Kennick’s imaginary warehouse of all the objects in the world and trying to pick out the art you may be confused by Duchamp’s readymades but not by the street art. (Kennick, Journal of Philosophy, v.81) Street art is designed to appear as art without the museum, you would know that it is art anywhere.

If you know that street art is art anywhere why is there any doubt about it still being street art in an art gallery. How can one identical image, for example a stencil, be street art when sprayed in the street and not when shown in a gallery? Unless “street art” is merely a geographic description that would also include any art found on the street, (e.g. public sculpture etc.) Although street art is a rejection of the influence of the anesthetizing environment of the contemporary art gallery that dominated so much of late modernism and contemporary art it does not follow that street art ceases to be street art in an art gallery.

Perhaps the question would be better put is it appropriate to show street art in art galleries? But this does not make sense as it would make art galleries only appropriate for a very limited amount of art. For most of human history art was not made for art galleries – Leonardo da Vinci never thought that his paintings would hang in an art gallery because the idea of art galleries had not been invented. Very little art is therefore appropriate for an art gallery, however, currently a lot of art does end up being exhibited in art galleries from sacred art intended for churches and temples to street art intended for the street. However, the contemporary art gallery is the site for displaying and selling art and design as diverse as Amish quilts to street art.

Street art has become a term for a new graphic arts movement that started in the early 1980s and continuing into the 21st century. It is a calligraphic and figurative art movement that developed on the street. Instead of art that requires no talent, no technique, no skill (aside from theory, publicity and management skills), street art emphasizes illustrative drawing skills and other talents. Instead of art that is dependent on art theory, that was becoming, in Arthur Danto’s terms, philosophy; street art is independent of current art theory (this is not to say that street art is theory free). Street art may be independent of art galleries but that doesn’t mean that they are antithetical.


About Mark Holsworth

Writer and artist Mark Holsworth is the author of two books, The Picasso Ransom and Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

14 responses to “Street Art & Galleries

  • vandalog

    Thanks Mark. This article is really interesting.

    I’ve run into a few people before who just see street art as they would see conceptual art and they completely ignore the painting involved. For these people, street ceases to be any kind of art at all art when it enters a gallery space because the conceptual side of the work being in the public space is gone. While that argument may have some merit for some street art, like a sculpture by Darius & Downey or some pieces by Dad Witz whose outdoor pieces work so well primarily because of their innovative placement, it completely fails to understand that at the core of so much street art is actual painterly talent. As you say, nobody who doesn’t know art history would look at Duchamp’s urinals and know that they are works of art, but anybody looking a piece by Swoon can see that this is a person making a piece of art and doing so skillfully.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Thanks for the comment (lets keep them coming). Many works of art throughout history are site specific, they are created for a specific place and would loose many qualities if moved. This is not unique for street art. You are right to point out that at the core of street art there is a desire to be respected for good painterly talent, from the design to the execution, for people to know that it is art.

    • Mark Holsworth


      Pardon, but I can’t speak any French (Google translate is excellent). So I was able to make sense of the article.

      Cheers, Mark

  • Spoons

    With respect, I would suggest that you’re coming at this from the wrong direction. It’s not just the site-specific nature of street art that’s crucial, it’s the clash of motivations between the artists and the galleries. Galleries are there to sell art, street artists are putting their work out there for free. Sure there are some artists who use the street to work their way into galleries, but frankly they are often the most superficial, they do not engage with passers-by and you can clearly read their lack of interest in anything other than showcasing their work. Stewart Home doesn’t include Hip Hop in his list of movements, I guess because he moves in other worlds (or at least he did back in 1988), but the waves of creativity and the artistic commitment to seize freedom from oppressive social conditions that drives Hip Hop are inherent in street art, and that Hip Hop attitude is core to the motivations of many street artists. As such it is antithetical to gallery culture. Many graffiti artists in particular are trying to find a way OUT of mainstream society, not a way IN.

    Additionally the transience of street art is not just a by-product of location or the constant tidal flows of other artists or buffing crews, it’s a key component. Sure we all love it when our work stays up longer than we expect, and a little bit of you dies every time a piece gets buffed, but it’s in the nature of street art that it doesn’t last forever. It’s illegal, it’s vandalism. Look at those Banksy pieces covered in perspex, it kills them. Street artists have often struggled with finding ways to make a buck without compromising their work, but for those that have succeeded it’s generally after having found a by-product of the original work, rather than reproducing pieces for the entertainment of the “court”. I find few things more tragic than seeing the prolific London vandal TOX selling off limited edition screenprints of his tag.

    From a different direction altogether, try this: street art can be viewed as a process rather than an object, attacking the location, making the production, viewing, weathering, beefing/buffing (and repeat). It’s alive, changing, a story. The gallery is static, a destination, terminal.

    • Mark Holsworth

      This is idealism rather than the pragmatic question of labeling a style of art “street art” whether it is in an art gallery on the street or in an imaginary warehouse. It is not a question of the quality of the art – “superficial”, “dead”, “tragic” but what category it belongs in: bad street art is still street art (likewise, a bad man does not become a monster but remains a man). It is like claiming that there is no religious art in any art gallery because religious art only exists in places of worship, remove an altar piece from a church and it ceases to be part of a religious process and is no longer religious art. It is a valid argument however it doesn’t have any pragmatic application. In your version street art totally disappears, for the same reasons that Duchamp’s readymades, in the warehouse of all the imaginary objects in the world because there is nothing to identify the motivation of the artist or its process of creation.

  • daniel Toke

    nice article! So nice to read other ideas about this subject:-) I would just want to note that i see a problem in calling it street art when it enters the gallery, not that i don’t like the idea of street art artist going commercial, but that the premiss of the creation changes. Good street art interacts with the surround public space and it is made without any permission and therefore i guess you could say that good street art is site-specific. Once that is said i don’t see how you can call street art and public sculptures the same thing. Both of them are site-specific and created to please the public, but created under different circumstances and i find this essential. Once you take street art to the gallery you change all these rules for the creation and i would guess i would call it art by an artist who started out as street artists, but street art can never be found in a gallery.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Thanks, for contributing to the discussion but your suggestion makes street art rather difficult to identify for not only do you have to know the reason why the artist made a particular work and that they didn’t have permission to make it. It could take years to discover all of that. And what about an artist who was working on the street and exhibiting in a gallery with the same stencils would you call the art in the gallery “art by an artist who started out as a street artist and is still a street artist but not in this case”? It is a bit of a mouthful and after saying it a couple of times most people will just shorten it to “street art”.

  • Spoons

    I’m not making a value judgement on the quality of the art, you are right that bad street art is still street art. My point was more that if street art is a process, what you get in a gallery (or behind perspex) is a still taken from a whole reel of film. It’s only part of the story.

    Your original point was not that street art would be identified as “street art” anywhere, but that it would be identified as ART. I don’t have an issue with that. I’m not saying that street art is not ART when it enters the gallery, but that it’s different. Many of the street art shows in London over the past year (D*Face and Cept are good examples) have tried to recreate context by putting the work into semi-derelict buildings or distressing the gallery space as if to bring the street inside. Whilst the artists have understood the need to locate their work in a frame of reference that gives depth and context, for me this failed absolutely because of the fundamental clash between the constant motion of the (fake) street and the freeze-dried stasis of the work on show.

    Here’s another issue: for many people “tagging” in the street is NOT art, although interestingly there have been several exhibitions recently in London and Paris which explicitly identify tags AS art (e.g. or ), which sort of turns everything on its head! However, put those tags in your imaginary warehouse and many people would not identify them as art, although I’m happy to argue with that any day of the week. Presumably, no-one is entering that imaginary warehouse without pre-conceptions or other baggage. Don’t you think that commercial advertising would not also be identified as art in that situation?

    • Mark Holsworth

      If street art “fails absolutely” or is “freeze-dried stasis” in a gallery a claim about the quality and not on its category. The process of creating art over the final exhibited object has been a feature of many art styles, movements and traditions: Abstract Expressionist, some religious art, performance art, etc. And again this is a claim about the quality and not the category. I am interested in the pragmatic problem of what category do you give to the same stencil image or tag by the same artist where ever it appears, is it street art, or is there another word? And although the problem with the imaginary warehouse is that people bring in ideas about what they are looking for you would think that it was very strange if they started separating identical objects into different categories. I have written about the problem of commercial advertising slipping through as street art in this blog http://

  • Spoons

    No one said it was supposed to be easy – otherwise someone would have come up with a handy label years ago. To be blunt, artists are out there making work not inventing categories (that’s the job of critics and experts!). There’s no real reason why it should be easy. When you include artists as diverse as Banksy to Revok or Iz The Wiz to Faile as one “movement” you are essentially ignoring the gigantic differences between their work/culture/history and focusing on method and location. You can’t then dismiss that very same method and location when trying to understand their work!

    In this post-modern age, surely it is not so difficult to imagine one thing with multiple meanings? If I took one of Banksy’s Diana 10 pound notes out of the gallery and tried to spend it, it would pretty soon stop being art. Are you perhaps guilty of mistaking form for content?

  • daniel Toke

    Interesting:-) I get what your saying. The art form, style and technique may be the same whether it is in a gallery or the street, but it is created under different circumstances. Good street art, in my personal opinion, interact with the public space in the sense of geographical environment and surroundings. You just don’t get the same effect in a gallery…

    BTW i really enjoy discussing this…

  • Sweet Streets « Melbourne Art & Culture Critic

    […] There was an obvious need to re-brand and redefine the Melbourne Stencil Festival this year to include more than just stencil art. The festival’s initial focus on stencil art came in 2004 at a time in Melbourne when stencil art was very popular and there were a lot of stencil art on the street. Since then street art in Melbourne has expanded, new techniques and ideas have come along like yarn bombing and street sculpture. So the Melbourne Stencil Festival became Sweet Streets – a festival of urban & street art. The use of the subtitle “urban & street art” was used to sidestep the debate about street art in the gallery (see my entry about this debate). […]

  • What’s in the name – street art? « Black Mark

    […] in 2009 I wrote about Street Art & Galleries and an interesting debate ensured, that I’ve since revisited several times in conversations, […]

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