Tag Archives: art movements

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.”

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.

Neo Pop

“From afar, these things, these Movements take on a kind of appeal they don’t have close up. I can assure you. But, after all, I’m beginning to get used to the –isms.” 6 July, 1921 Marcel Duchamp


Art movements may be a kind of fiction, an attempt by art critics and historians to tell a story by creating categories that do not exist in reality, e.g. the baroque. Some clever post-Hegelian artists and poets consciously create their own art movements, e.g. Surrealism. Furthering a fiction by consciously creating ‘real’ examples is playful and creative but not a proof that the original fictional is true. Just as speaking Elvish or Klingon is not a proof of elves or Klingons.

Critics want an art movement to have a start and finish date, presenting a distinct section in the archeological dig through old art. The idea that the contemporary art world might simply be continuing past movements is anathema to the idea of progressive art. Pop art is an art movement started in the second half of last century and it seems to be continuing.

Neo-Pop at the John Buckley Gallery could be seen as demonstrating this continuing movement or a curatorial band to tie the work of disparate artists. The exhibition features art by Howard Arkley,
Rae Bolotin,
Marcel Cousins,
Janenne Eaton,
Kate Just,
Christopher Langton,
Nick Mangan,
Scott Redford,
Stuart Ringholt,
Carl Scrase (see my review: Only Rock’n’Roll)
, David Wadelton (see my review: Spin, Persephone, Homepage & Emu Feathers), 
Glenn Walls
and others. Some of these artists create works of capitalist realism like, others are jokers, and others are creating sculptures with pop rhythms and colors.  Or sculptures out of contemporary readymade materials, like Carl Scrase.

The artists in Neo-Pop are clearly influenced with the art of the 1960s but the art of the 1960s was not a unified, homogeneous whole but diverse variety. Pop is a difficult concept to define; just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? Even though it is difficult to define and may not exist, Pop Art is something that I like. It is a term that refers to art that is fun and appealing, even apparently superficial, but also a mirror on consumer culture. I knew what to expect from the Neo-Pop exhibition because of the term ‘pop’ and it exceeded these expectations. 

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