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


About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

6 responses to “Anti-Modern

  • urbanmonk

    no pure art… I like that

  • Lorraine Ellis

    Hi Mark-it’s not Miso! It’s I & the Other(s).In fact,Miso has not been active on our streets for some time.She did a stunning wall in Perth last year but that’s all I can recall. I wonder what she’s up to?

  • mylochick

    A very interesting post! I agree that, whereas you can define “traditional art forms” through the style of the output, street art is defined by the canvas on which it is created (i.e. the street, buildings etc). What do you think, then, of street artists who do (eventually) display in galleries and commercialise their work through the galleries (e.g. Banksy, Ein, Stik…)? Are works that are created specifically for galleries no longer considered street art?

  • Mark Holsworth

    Hi Lorraine, thanks for the correction. It’s been made. Phoenix was the first to email me about my misattribution to Miso.

  • Mark Holsworth

    Hi mylochick, I wrote a post about that issue a few years and started a really good debate in the comments. and I’m working on a new post on the subject. Basically I’m using “street art” as a short hand for “artists with a street based art practice”. I’m not that hung up on the location of the art because that can change and the art will remain the same. This is why I focused on other stylistic and structural differences between street art and modern art. (There is lots of contemporary art in the street that has nothing to do with a street based art practice and nobody calls it street art.)

  • CDH

    This was a really interesting post.
    I wish you’d expanded your thoughts on the issue of street art existing outside a normal patronage system paragraph. Contemporary art seems to be dominated by people who know how to manipulate the mechanisms around art, rather than the really great artists of the day (Koons, Hirst, Emin etc). Successful contemporary artists are usually there on the opinion of a few gate keepers: collectors like Saatchi, galleries like White Cube and super star dealers. The opinions of the general public or informed critics seem to make absolutely no difference to their careers.
    One of the great things about street art was it went completely outside these systems and gallery hierarchies and just brought art to the people. So many people would know be able to name a few street artists (like Banksy or Obey) but might not be able to name any yBAs.

    I think that’s the ideal; to be able to make art in this free way, without the interference of these hierarchical mechanisms or dealers trying to manufacture a more sellable commodity. I’d like to see a post about this question: Has street art achieved the ideal of existing outside a hierarchical system (as contemporary art exists within)? Patrons aren’t at the top of street art, but perhaps there are other people who take their place. For example the admin of a big street art page can choose to share an image online with 100,000 people. Street artists whose stimulus might be fame, might make art akin to an internet meme, to appeal to a blogger to have an image shared online. Have the traditional filters, just been replaced with new ones?

What are your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: