Does Street Art belong in a Gallery?
Do artworks that act as site specific political statements and social commentary lose their essence when they are placed in an institutional setting?
By Faye Hamblett-Jones
The Origins of Street Art
Although humans have been leaving inscriptions, images and messages on walls since ancient times, street art has its origins in the 1960s and 70s U.S graffiti scene of New York and Philadelphia.
With the advent of aerosolised spray paint, it became quick and easy for anyone, not just artists, to create large designs, slogans or images on a variety of spaces. Blank walls became the new canvas and graffiti began as a form of clandestine activism and individual expression in the public space.
However, the use of graffiti was adopted by gangs as a means of defining territory and soon also became a symbol associated with gang culture, vandalism and crime. Young artists looked past the new mediums obstructive associations and endeavoured to use it in a positive way.
Inspired by its visceral power, they looked to bring it back to its humble beginnings and give it greater purpose - to reflect society back on itself. Their 'street art' differed from traditional graffiti in that it aimed to expresses a social commentary using images, as apposed to stylised typography.
Jean Micheal-Basquiat 'SAMO'
Jean Micheal-Basquiat 'SAMO'
Street Art meets the Institution
During the 80s, Keith Haring and Jean Micheal Basquiat were two artists who were intimately involved in the street culture scene of Lower East Side in New York. They were artists who felt that art belonged to the people and instead of canvas or paper they started to use public spaces to express their ideas creatively.
Jean Micheal Basquiat became known for his iconic tag 'SAMO', an acronym for 'Same Old Shit'. The tag was usually coupled with anti establishment, anti religion or anti political statements and gained attention in counter culture media as SAMO insignias popped up around the Lower East Side in Manhattan.
Similarly Keith Haring first gained attention through his chalk drawings on unused black adverting panels in subway stations. Transfixed with the energy of New York and with belief that art belonged to the public, Haring started to produce large scale street murals. Subway stations and public walls became Haring's studio, in which he experimented with simple lines, developing his distinctive style.
Despite their roots in anti-establishmentarianism, it wasn't long until these young artists caught the attention of the mainstream art world, and were welcomed into it - quickly becoming celebrated and instrumental figures in the New York scene and soon internationally.
The absorption of street artists into the mainstream led to the movement becoming accepted as a valid form of high art and street art became a highly desirable art form to own.
Basquiat, after being nurtured by galleriest Annina Nosei - who gave him his first solo show - developed his raw street style into more polished forms of neo-impressionist painting and became the young prodigy of superstar Andy Warhol. Whilst Haring opened his successful 'Pop Shop' in New York in 1986 - a fun boutique where his art could be accessible to everyone through t-shirts, prints and novelty items emblazoned with his characteristic motifs.
Recently both artists have been the subject of major retrospectives in the UK, with Boom for Real (2018) at the Barbican Centre and Keith Haring set to open at Tate Liverpool this June (2019). Both exhibitions trace each artists careers from their humble beginnings in public spaces, highlighting the transition of street art into high culture.
Keith Haring 'Bowery Wall' 1982
But does Street Art belong in a Gallery?
It's obvious to see why the work of these two artists became highly desirable, but do artworks that act as site specific political statements and social commentary lose their essence when they are placed in an institutional setting? When artwork is transferred from walls to canvas, can it have the same impact?
A struggle against power
Street art is reflective of a struggle against a culture of dominant power - created against authority and challenging concepts of public space and private property.
Street art is uncommissioned, unprompted and illegal. Its ability to pop up in unexpected public spaces and interrupt the general public from their otherwise ordinary routine, allowing them to reflect on broader social dilemmas, is a crucial element of its effect and power as a statement and an action.
Most street artists claim that they make art on the street to avoid the market-driven, institutionalized, mainstream economy of the gallery system. They are meant to be less artists, more activists, challenging public accessibility to not just artworks, but political and social ideas which resist dominant ideologies.
Many would suggest that young street artists who enter the commercial or institutionalised art world are selling out to the very ideologies they opposed in the first place. The gallery setting restricts the artworks political, social message to a privileged minority, taking it away from the general public who it is meant to empower.
Morley - Make some noise (2017)
A Site Specific Statement
A unique part of the identity of a piece of street art is the place in which it is found. Take the example of Banksy's murals on the Palestinian Border.
The border, built in 2002, cuts through the heart of Bethlehem. Three times as high as the Berlin wall it separates Palestine territories from Israel - dubbed as the 'largest open air prison in the world'.
Acting as a peaceful yet political statement of his empathy and support for the Palestinian people and their struggle against Israelian government, Banksy's murals provide a stark contrast to these dull, heavy concrete walls.
The very fact that these murals are placed on the wall that separate these two communities, is a huge part of its power. The fact that it was done illegally and unprompted, a further declaration of defiance. The same work simply placed on a canvas would lose its connection to the site which created its context - its reason for being.
Banksy Mural - Palestine (2005)
Banksy Mural - Palestine (2005)
The Argument for Preservation
But should we be so quick to prevent these artworks from being preserved, protected and promoted by the institution as important items of historical art culture?
Art created in public spaces without permission runs the risk of being white washed over, tagged by vandals or jet washed away by the local authorities. Although street artists are aware of the fleeting nature of their work, is it so bad that individuals who see the value of such work want to protect it from harm?
Although it could be argued that arts professionals are attempting to harness street art for their own financial gain, it could also be argued that some collectors and dealers are trying to preserve street art because they see its importance and placement in history's cannon.
Perhaps, an example of this would be the recent purchase of another Banksy artwork by gallerist John Brandler. The artwork, situated on a garage corner in Port Talbot 'would not have stood the passage of time' in its current location and was bought by Mr Brandler for a six figure sum, with the purpose of moving it to a new street art gallery, housed within a disused police station, set to be opened in the centre of Port Talbot.
In this case, the artwork will be preserved for the people of Port Talbot through its purchase, rather than being taken away for financial gain. The museums past as a police station also lends some site specific relevance to the artworks soon to be shown within it, as street artists have often found themselves opposed to laws relating to private property and public space.
Banksy - Seasons Greeting (2018)
Making a Living from Public Art
Whilst the purchase of Banksy's Seasons Greetings was a welcome windfall for the owner of a Port Talbot shed, it raises the question whether Banksy should have been the beneficiary of that money rather than the owner of the property.
Whilst more traditional artists enjoy the financial gains of selling their work in a private setting, street artists are often disadvantaged in this sense. (Or, as we can see, other individuals take the rewards!)
Perhaps we should not begrudge street artists who create commercial threads of their artwork to earn a living. It shouldn't be a case of 'selling out' to make money from one's artwork. In fact, most artists would agree that this is what they strive for!
Even though street art started as a non institutional movement, the acceptance of street art as a valid form of high art and the maturing of it's original innovators into professional artists has opened up opportunities for contemporary street artists such as Dee Dee, Sara Erenthal and Libby Schoettle to produce street art which is celebrated rather than removed - commissioned rather than white washed.
We should welcome the fact that street artists are being recognised by the institution and being given a platform to share their ideas. After all commercial projects and commercial work enables artists to reach millions of people whom would not have had access to artworks otherwise.
Blek le Rat - Ignorance is Bliss exhibition at Jonathan Vine Gallery (2013)
Some Opinions from the Street Artists Themselves
Whilst we can pontificate on the pros and cons, what do the creators of street art say themselves? Is trading the street for galleries selling out or part of maturing as an artistic professional?
Blek le Rat: "I don’t want to paint illegally anymore because I don’t want to have problems with the police anymore for graffiti. If I had the opportunity to paint legally in every city of the world I will make it without any problem. Street art is made for the people who don’t have an access to art in galleries or museums. I have always wanted to touch these people. I think it is important to show my work also in galleries because this art is ephemeral and doesn’t stay in the street forever so it is very important to keep a trace and a memory of this art." (Street Art News Interview: Mar 2017)
Keith Haring: "“The use of commercial projects has enabled me to reach millions of people whom I would not have reached by remaining an unknown artist. I assumed, after all, that the point of making art was to communicate and contribute to culture.”
Shepard Fairy: "Everything that has happened for me as an artist has been a result of my willingness to take risks and put art on the streets in accessible places. It is important for me to make sure people understand that my do-it-yourself mentality is the same as it has always been, I just have more resources and more opportunities now." (Shepard Fairy, Huffpost Interview: Feb 2017)
These extracts clearly demonstrate a belief that the 'commercialisation' of their work is simply an extension of their original street art - created in the same vein and with the original spirit.
An opportunity for their messages to reach a wider public, and to be remembered and preserved as important parts of arts rich history.
Shepard Fairey - Hope (date unknown)
The Problem of Profit
But is this belief an over-simpification, a way to ease one's mind? One artist who seems to be actively fighting against the capitalist interest in his work is Banksy.
During an auction at Sotherbys in October 2018, Banksy's iconic image Girl and Ballon automatically started to self destruct after the hammer dropped marking it's sale. A shredder built into the paintings' frame started to slice the image into thin strips as it was sold for £1,042,000.
The activation of the shredder seems to mock the placement of street art in the commercial art market. Banksy later posted a video of the artwork being shredded on his Instagram, stating he had created the artwork with the intent of having it self destruct in case it was ever put up for auction.
One might reasonably assume that he believed that the placement of the work in this setting reduced the artworks sense of validity, replacing semiotic value for a monetary value. Perhaps most poignantly demonstrating the tipping point between accepting street art as a valid form of high art and simply treating it as a commodity to be sold.
Ironically however, the half destroyed artwork actually doubled in value after the stunt on account of its confirmed authenticity and unique history.
This quite aptly shows us the dichotomy that exists between the intentions of the work and the commercial nature of the fine art market. And whilst it is unlikely that we'll come to a conclusion on the topic in the near future; I thought the following statement from the founders of 'Pictures on Walls (POW)' (a printshop and website that produced affordable prints by street artists and sold them online) following their closure, really spoke to the crux of the issue...
"Inevitably disaster struck—and many of our artists became successful. Street Art was welcomed into mainstream culture with a benign shrug and the art we produced became another tradeable commodity. Despite attempts at price fixing regrettably some POW prints have become worth tens of thousands of pounds. Either unable or unwilling to become part of the art market we once so self-righteously denounced—we called it quits."
Banksy - Girl with a Ballon (2018)
If you've enjoyed reading this article, here are some more discursive articles on the subject of street art's place in galleries: