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Tag Archives: Names

Poetry of Proper Nouns

The act of naming is an on going process where we are all poets in a communal enterprise that stretches back thousands of years. The act of naming is the secular baptisms of the everyday. The declaration of a new name is a form of poetry – the reduction of poetry to a proper noun – the Dadaists and the Lettristes wanted to take the reduction of poetry further to single letters and phonemes.

It is a type of poetry consisting of only a few letters, a couple of words yet so much can be generated with a proper noun – sounds, mystical observations, wit, evocation, even satire. A name can refer to other names to evoke historic or metaphoric meaning or simply be a pleasing play of sounds. There is the religious mystery of names, or the philosophical problem of how a referent connects to the referred; a proper noun a name generates an image in the mind.

Lench’s blockbuster since buffed

“Language is a virus from outer space and saying your name is better than seeing your face.” – Wm Burroughs

The act of self-naming by a person, a group, a band, a crew  –creating on a new name as a new identity the nom de plume, nom de guerre, a tag (nom de rue) is different from the poetry of the common names given to plants and animals or to the nicknames given to people. It is an autonomous self-conscious action consequently often far more artistic because it is not bound by official titles or the dictates of the masses.

Self-naming entered art at that the moment of modern magic when the word “Dada” was selected at random from an encyclopaedia. And the Dadaists were equally busy reinventing themselves making an art of creating new identities: Jan Hertzfeld became John Hartfield, Marcel Duchamp became Richard Mutt and then Rrose Selavy and Arthur Craven was an invented identity by Fabian Lloyd. There was another point in the 1960s when there was a change of band names from straight names to poetic names. And then a point in the late 1970s when musicians adopted names that no-one could mistake for their real names: Johnny Rotten and the rest.

The story of how the name developed is a standard question for reporters. Endless articles have been written about band names – Blah Blog, a Melbourne blogger comments on the poetry of band names in Arthouse line-ups. It appears to be such a trivial issue but it raises a profound philosophical question of names and identity – the new name subverts the authority of the state or the mass to name things.

From the names of the gangs of New York City, to avant-garde art groups, bands, punks, street artists and taggers the poetry self-naming exists in defiance of the paternal right to name. Auto-baptism is the poetry of ontological anarchy.

“They say of God, ‘Names name thee not’. That holds good of me: no concept expresses me nothing that is designate as my essence exhausts me; they are only names.” – Max Stirner The Ego and His Own

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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.”


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