Flame, Remember My Name

I was going to comment that this year in street art had a bit dull… the same old same old stuff on the streets, no innovations or developments like yarn bombing or street sculpture. But then along came Doyle with his Empty Nursery Blue in Rutledge Lane. And the division between the technical and the conceptual elements in street art was brought into even sharper contrast with CDH’s article “The Commodification of Street Art” in the September issue of Art Monthly Australia and E.L.K.’s reply “The mouse that sunk the boat” on Invurt.

Mask sticker, 2009

Mask sticker, 2009

I am used the word “technical” in the last paragraph to describe the work of artists with the technical skill of stencil cutting, aerosol spray skills, etc. in contrast to the conceptual, thinking of and executing an idea. I am using ‘conceptual’ in the way that Galenson uses it, to refer to conceptual break through from collage to video art, and not to exclusively refer to works of conceptual art; David W. Galenson contrasts modern and contemporary conceptual and experimental artists in his book Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art (Cambridge University Press, 2009, New York). I’ve used the word ‘technical’, rather than ‘experimental’ because there aren’t that many experimental artists, in Galenson’s terms, on Melbourne’s streets, most are content to become technically proficient, although Slicer, Reka, Conrad Bizjak and others might count as experimental.

Aside from the conceptual versus the technical there is a contrast in the ideological purity of CDH’s position opposed to the pragmatic concerns of E.L.K. The utopian ambitions of the politics of conceptual artists have often caused them to cry: “sell out” (in various ways, like all the “expulsions” from the official Surrealist movement). This usually been countered with accusations of lack of talent or technique but this doesn’t address the real differences between the two radically different approaches to art. The conceptual artist is not interested in the technique but the politics or philosophy of artistic progress and likewise the technical artist pragmatic has little time or interest in philosophy or politics.

Specifically in reply to CDH’s article I would argue that street art is not held back or corrupted by its commodification because that was happening since the beginning of street art; Fab 5 Freddy was exhibiting in galleries in 1979, it is part of the street art system. Nor is being distorted when graffiti goes mainstream that was also happening since the beginning, appearing in pop music videos like Blondie’s “Rapture” (1981) and the 1983 PBS documentary, Style Wars, for example.

In Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt’s introductory essay “Postmodernism: Style and Subversion” the authors examine Alvin Toffler’s mainstream absorption model where “the potential disruptive energies of the subculture are controlled, and the hegemony of mass culture is continually reasserted” and provide a counter example, hip hop, where “the process of mediation and commoditization were factored in all along”. (Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, ed. Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt, V&A Publisher, 2011, p.53) To put it bluntly not all subcultures have the same relationship to mass culture as hippies or punks.

Finally, I have no aesthetic or political opinion on the matter for without conceptual artists there will be little or no innovations or developments in street art but without the technical artists there wouldn’t be as large an audience or the interest. What I think is holding Melbourne’s street art back is the conservative traditionalists in street art and graffiti that believe that they can enforce their various definitions; in this respect they have a similar attitude to their traditional opponents, the police, railway security and city councillors.

Adnate & Slicer "Nothing Lasts Forever" Brunswick Station, 2012

Adnate & Slicer “Nothing Lasts Forever” Brunswick Station, 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

4 responses to “Flame, Remember My Name

  • CDH

    When it comes to the art market in street art, I think the proof is ultimately in the pudding. The art market created and venerated people like Mr Brainwash. Banksy brought a new audience with him to street art. These people started buying up art, but they’re dilettantes; they don’t know anything about the history of art and don’t really care. They bought things they thought were cool, rather than good art. They gravitated towards familiar mass-media motifs like big eyed girls and dudes with guns in gas masks. So it’s not that commodification is inherently bad because it’s “selling out”; in the specific case of street art we observationally find it’s been a dysfunctional mechanism for selecting culture.
    I think the artists who speak to this audience are like the Dan Brown and E.L Grey of art. Yes, it’s good that they’re encouraging new people to read but I’m not going to say that I think it’s good literature or that it advances cultural production.
    On a personal level, I find this audience really draining. They’re philistines who don’t understand the function of cultural commentators like you or I. They think we have the power to transform art into good or bad with language, rather than that we’re just trying to find the truth of the art. So they immediately resort to ad hominen argument if you challenge their position. It’s so much more liberating to just side step the whole issue by retaining an amateur practice.
    Also I fundamentally believe that art is about more than just aesthetic. Art needs aesthetic but without some concept or central truth it’s just design or craft. It seems like your definition of a ‘technical’ artist might equally apply to a carpenter or electrician.

    • Mark Holsworth

      The art market has always works that way but that is only in the short term and with the mass market. I doubt if any institutions have bought any of Mr Brainwash’s stuff for their collections and in the long term most of this kind of art will end up in garage sales and flea markets. Technical artists in a way does apply to carpenters and other craftsmen due to the history of the word art, as in “to make”. However, what I wanted to cover in my definition of technical was the range from the competent and proficient through to the virtuoso. And in the face of virtuoso carpentry or even stone flaking I might well call it art; I have been reading about neolithic stone axe making as an art, given that the fine axe heads show no sign of use and show keen interest in the selection of stone, and I regularly see exhibition quality furniture in art galleries. And it is these technical artists who may develop into experimental artists. For example, HaHa is now really experimenting with what can be done with stencils as art with his fusion portraits but only after he became a technical master of stencil technique. Slicer has become an experimental artist but only after years of doing technical aerosol work. And to further dabble in philology (as in historical linguistics) virtuoso is derived from the Latin for ‘good’, a central truth in the Socratic sense of the form of the truth. But this is not just word play when you see/hear a virtuoso musician, dancer or other artist you know it is good.

  • CDH

    It seems like we’re in agreement that the art market selects bad street art, but in disagreement over the consequences. I don’t think it’s benign because venerating bad art now has a real effect on the movement. Other artists really look to it as a template for success. It really stagnates development.
    I’ve been reading Stewart Home recently after Assault on Culture and he would argue the notion of the ‘virtuoso’ is a myth. I basically agree. It’s also a really limiting construction because it seeks to place some artists beyond critique. It’s especially bad in a low brow culture like street art because many artists think they deserve a status beyond criticism. Any critique is seen as an assault on their claim to the virtuoso and a personally motivated attack on their art practice.

    • Mark Holsworth

      I think that the evidence for a negligible an effect (as opposed to benign) of bad art on the street art market can be found in the pop music market. The 1990 Grammy Award Best New Artist with a six time platinum album with 3 #1 chart singles, 1 #2 single and 1 #5 single in the US charts. In the March 1990 issue of Time Magazine, vocalist Rob Pilatus was quoted proclaiming himself to be “the new Elvis”, reasoning that by the duo’s success they were musically more talented than Dylan, McCartney or Jagger. But Milli Vanilli had no effect on pop music. On the other hand, Brian Eno made the often repeated statement that while the first Velvet Underground album may have sold only 30,000 copies in its early years, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”[2] I think that this is because the fickle and stupid aspects of the pop music is already factored in and artists don’t look at contemporary work as the template for success, often it appears that the template for success that they are using is decades to centuries old (another issue in itself). Attack on virtuosity as a myth, is about the same the as the technical and experimental artists call the conceptual “talentless”, it simply fails to take into account the different scale being used in the other process. Virtuosity certainly doesn’t remove those artists from criticism and with pop music there are a lot of peddling of false claims to virtuosity, for example Lou Reed once promoted himself as “the fastest guitarist in America”.

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