Daily Archives: February 13, 2012

What’s in the name – street art?

On the street or hanging framed on a wall I still call it “street art”.

Back in 2009 I wrote about Street Art & Galleries and an interesting debate ensured, that I’ve since revisited several times in conversations, comments on this blog and at Melbourne Stencil Festival meetings. I know that some artists distinguish between their art in galleries and art on the street and even use different names depending on if it is on the street or in a gallery (this is not uncommon in the past, some artists used different names if they were doing Surrealist or non-Surrealist art, and Van Doesberg used a different names when doing Dada art).

Various artists, McCullach Lane

In the past discussions I think that I was getting too caught up in a type and token distinction about art in the street and in the gallery. Rather than addressing the need to have a name for this movement that I refer to as street art, not just when it appears in the street but when it is elsewhere, in art galleries and people’s homes. To further complicate type and token discussion consider that most “street art” exists as digital photos on a computer screen. (I love to confute discussions, to add further complexities to confuse anyone who thinks that it is a simple matter.)

The discussion about where a piece of art is located aside, back to what to what to call the art movement. A phrase like “artists with a street based practice” could be used but I would only recommend using in technical academic or bureaucratic texts. Try saying “artists with a street based practice” a hundred times to random people on the street and see what a wanker you sound like.

First lets examine how art movements are named. Art movements get their names in a variety of ways; newspapers name some (Impressionists), some name themselves (Dada) and others are named after they are over by art historians (Baroque, Classical). Street art is too large a movement for all the participants to agree on a single name – for one, they don’t all speak the same language. Nor can street art police a definition of street as Breton tried to police the use of “surrealism”. “Street art” is a name that it is common use – try entering it in Google, there is little ambiguity, apart from “street art wheels” for custom cars.

The philosophical complexity of what is a name is a lifetime’s study and so would how classifications are made. There is no necessary connection between a signifier (the name) and the signified (the object) but it is necessary to have a name in order to talk about a subject without confusion. The name needs to have a broad appeal – try selling “rape seed oil” even though it is the same as “canola oil”. There is a need to name art movements (for exhibitions, festivals, webpages and books) in an appealing way rather than an absolutely accurate way and to use a name that is commonly understood.

So I don’t think about ‘street art’ too literally or narrowly, names are in part poetry. The metaphorical significance of ‘the street’ is akin to the real world. ‘Street art’ is, for the finicky pedant, essentially a contraction of the phrase “artists with a street based art practice.”


Anti-Modern

Street art is anti-modernist – consider it from this angle.

I & the Other(s), paper cut, Flinders Lane, 2012

Street art is a significant post-modern art movement. It rejects the art gallery defined art object, exemplified by Duchamp’s readymades, for art that is identifiable amongst the bins in a back alley. It is site-specific. It is follows other post-modern, contemporary art trends but often take this further than the gallery art.

Modernism rejected humanizing decorative elements in architecture and street art decorates those bare concrete walls. In architectural terms (not that street art should be reduced to an architectural art form regardless of the number of walls involved) street art cannot be reduced to eclecticism, kitsch or “featurism”. These terms are meaningless outside of a modernist context, where theoretically a style can be debased. There was no kitsch in the Renaissance and, likewise, the term “kitsch” is meaningless in street art. Tattoo style and comic book art are part of the street art mix not in appropriation or when converted to art but as an equal part. Other contemporary post-modern artist have also rejected the modernist high culture and popular art distinctions and tried to create synthesis.

Melina M., Hosier Lane, 2012

Street art rejects the modernist (fascist) hierarchy of styles; the hierarchy is based on the same faulty reasoning that lead to the fascist hierarchy of races. There is no pure art, no more than racial purity. For street art is practiced without economic or political stimulus that places the patrons at the top of any hierarchy; it is often practiced in defiance of the plutocrats.

In rejecting the traditional system of patronage, street art subverted the modernist aesthetically sterile gallery and the creation high-end commodity art objects in favour of free art often in multiple editions. Instant fame on the street subverted the traditional media filters.

Street art rejects the modern art education system, many street artists are self-taught coming from various backgrounds. If they do have an arts eduction a street artist is more likely to have studied design rather than fine art. On the street artists have created a master and apprentice system and crews operate a quasi-guild system.

Detail of Napier Faces, various artists, 2009

Many street artists collaborate on large projects and this is a change to the modern artist’s identity as a unique creative genius. Collaborative work has a significant presence in post-modern art with artists like Gilbert and George, Brown and Green, Warhol and Basquiat. Collaborative art uses the merging of ideas and identity rather the modernist unique creator, the heroic artist. Street art has a different kind of hero artist, the trickster and prankster, who defies the authorities with a spray of his can.

Street art is a rebellion and not another modern revolution. Rebels seek to alter something in the present; a revolution wants to change everything in the future.

Unknown paste-up, Geelong, 2012


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