Graffiti has been around for millennia; it has been recorded as far back as the Sumerians (1500 and 1800 BC). But in the last few decades of the last century it suddenly changed. One of the reasons for this change was developments in technology but spray paint cans and marker pens doesn’t explain all the changes and rapid growth of graffiti/street art. Lee Newman invented the felt-tipped marking pen in 1910 but it was not until the early 1960s that they were refined or common. Aerosol spray paint was invented in 1949 Edward Seymour in Sycamore, Illinois. Other reasons for the change in graffiti are best explained by a re-examination of folk art in an urban world.
In trying to position street art in art history, it is not useful to understand it as the feral younger brother of pop art, as it is a kind of urban folk art. Folk art is often ignored in art history except when folk traditions and outsider artists influence modern and contemporary art.
Is it realistic for folk art in the urban context have to remain un-influenced by academic or fine art? Is it realistic for all folk art to remain the activity of amateurs? Is it realistic to expect that all folk art will be cosy, apolitical and conservative? Or is more realistic that urban folk art to attempt to actively engage in trying to change their world. Urban folk art is not outsider art; the artists are as well informed about art as they want to be. They have access to the same technology and materials as professionally trained artists. Due to this crossover of fine art ideas, materials and technology, urban folk art can be artistically progressive and even avant-garde.
Consider the single most important development in the visual arts in the last century – collage. Decoupage was a popular activity for upper and middle-class women in the late 19th Century. Commercially produced images for decoupage were available in the late 19th Century and these were cut and pasted on dressing and fire screens. It is a short step from decoupage to collage or photomontage. It should not be surprising that a young woman would make progressive artistic collages. That woman was the Berlin Dadaist artist Hannah Höch (1889 – 1978) whose photomontage and collage art used images from magazines.
Perhaps Dada should be considered, in part, as a radical urban folk art movement. Dada emerged from the home printing press movement of the 1890s (L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz, was an early home printing press enthusiast). Although there were trained artists in the Dadaists there many of Dadaists were neither trained as artists nor went on to a career as a professional artists like Richard Hulsenbeck was a medical student at the time he joined the Zurich Dadaists, he went on to practice psychiatry.
Other urban folk art movements followed including Mail Art and punk. Mail Art movement worked with a folk art tradition of decorating envelopes, examples of which can be seen from throughout postal history. To this tradition the Mail Art added an artistic and a utopian intention that the future of art would not be high-end art objects but multiple edition art mailed to insiders. Punk took to the streets with bands using stencils and spray paint for publicity.
There are many folk art/craft elements in street art and graffiti from automotive spray painting to yarn bombing. The interior decorating craze for stencils in the 1990s lead into Melbourne’s street art stencils in 2000, it was a familiar craft technique. Street art and graffiti emerged as an urban folk art movement and due to the internet became the most international and visible urban folk art movement so far.
I’ll say it again – I thought that debate was over high culture and popular culture was over. I don’t know why I thought this, maybe it was the way that I was educated steeped in English liberal philosophy that I thought that education and culture to have replaced class. It was Matthew Arnold’s idea that culture can replace class and Arnold was the philosopher who described the various English classes as barbarians (upper), philistines (middle) and populus. Now consider Jean Michael Basquiat’s mother taking him to the public museums and art galleries in New York when he was a child.
Bang bang shooting down the high art cannon has become such a sport of class warfare. To avoid the issue people have been using phrases like ‘highbrow’ or ‘serious culture’? Really? Serious stuff? ‘Serious culture’ as a description is obviously absurd; seriously, are you going to call Dada, Duchamp and Warhol serious? What about R U Sirius? Is he serious? The swap between ‘high’ and ‘serious culture’ is just repackaging ‘creationism’ as ‘intelligent design’.
Consider Juxtapoz – Art & Culture Magazine edited by self-described “lowbrow” artist Robert Williams. The articles range a wide cultural field from skateboard, graffiti and other “lowbrow” art, to Australian aboriginal art, Balinese art, Egon Schiele, and the in between, like John Waters, David Lynch and Pixar animation.
But I’m just raving now, off in a mad tangent.
The first thing to get straight in this discussion is that class is not a culture. There is no ‘working class culture’ as a cultural is the set of all the activities involving the participation of all the people. Currently and historically artists (the cultural producers) often belong to a different class to their patron (the cultural consumers).
Instead of thinking about ways to divide a culture along class lines consider the influence of class on culture. For reasons of court protocol royalty needs art be defined so that the performances are repeatable. Consider the refined and defined actions of the royal drummers of Burundi or classical ballet that developed in the French royal court. Religious courts will also similarly want to define their culture for ritual repetition. Rural folk, although just as inherently conservative as royals, do not require the same degree of repeatability. There is consequently less of a need for the developing the codification necessary for repeatable performances.
Nor should we ignore the street subcultures, the cultural influence from what Marx called “the lumpen proletariat”. Marx despised the lumpen proletariat as parasites but consider how many bohemian and avant-garde artists would fall into that class.
What is called “popular culture” is distinctly different from what is known as “folk culture”. Popular culture is more ephemeral than folk culture because changes in fashion make money. Popular culture is a recent development and at its most popular classless; it transcends class for it is after all it is after a commercial venture. And old popular culture can end up in the literary, musical or artistic cannon of today; Shakespeare, Mozart and John Everett Millet were all popular artists marketing their art to a mass audience.
But back to the topic at hand – why I thought this high art and pop art thing is so last century? Do I have to remind the reader of breakdown of class and racial divides are a major part of the history of the last two centuries. And that this was increasing expressed in avant-garde art in the 19th and 20th centuries with the breakdown between high art and popular art materials, techniques and themes. And that by the late 20th Century the previously excluded or marginalized ‘others’ were increasingly being recognized in participating in the creation of avant-garde art. And we are back to Jean Michael Basquiat.
Pentridge Prison operated in Coburg between 1850 and 1997 and as in all prisons some prisoners were also artists (not just escape artists and bareknuckle bash artists). In 1886 professional photographer, Joseph H. Soden was convicted of forging pound notes and served time in Pentridge in the same year his photographs were exhibited at the Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition.
In 1960 (or 1962 or1964) aboriginal artist Elliot Ronald Bull (1942-1979) painted the mural in “F” Division. Painted with ordinary house paint the mural depicts an aboriginal camp scene. Part of the stolen generation Elliot Ronald Bull had already studied painting with Melbourne painter, Ernest Buckmaster. After his release Elliot Ronald Bull participated in a number of solo and group exhibitions. Some of his mural at Pentridge has been preserved.
Having lived in Coburg for decades I can remember the prison in operation, closed the location being slowly rehabilitated. I can still remember hearing the howls that came from Pentridge at midnight on New Year’s Eve in 1991 when I was living a block from the prison walls. I also saw and photographed parts of the prison shortly after it closed.
Carving from officers club rooms Pentridge Prison.
There was some prisoner art on the site in the maximum security Jika Jika Unit and in the officers’ club rooms. On a wall in the officers’ club rooms were a series of folk art style carved and painted round base reliefs. I’m don’t know what has happened to them.
The escape proof Jika Jika Unit has been demolished along with the art on its walls. Prisoners had painted some of the yard walls of the Jika Jika unit. On the ceiling and walls of one cell an unknown, probably aboriginal artist had painted goanna with tracks leading up the wall and onto the ceiling. The simple elegance of this design helped humanized a dehumanising cell.
Towards the end of its long life Pentridge Prison did have various art programs for prisoners run by art educator, Dr Max Darby and painter, Margaret Miles. (See Dr Max Darby’s “My Days In Prison”.)There was also at least one prisoner art exhibition in a CBD bank – so if anyone knows anymore details about prisoner art in Pentridge Prison please comment before the details are lost to history and redevelopment.
P.S. I was sent the above photographs by a man whose father had been a warden at Pentridge in the 1960s. The painting was done in February 1961 by an inmate who signed his name J. G. Cust. We know nothing else but hope to find out more. (May 2022)