Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Street Art

Artists like Banksy, Shepard Fairey or even Mr. Brain Wash push the envelope on what art is. It brings the artistic sensibility to every day graffiti. It’s an attitude that is revolutionary because it challenges the public’s conception of art. It’s like a guerrilla campaign in the sense that it has to be done under cover from the authorities. The reason is that graffiti is considered thrash, made by juveniles who are defaming clean public walls. It’s not artistic expression by an act of denigration. But street artists like Banksy or Fairey raise graffiti to another level. For example, Fairey with his Hope poster has become mainstream and a symbol of the outsider and change. No one expected this type of art to become an icon in the sense that it’s also used by people like Glenn Beck but with the founding fathers as the subject of the art.

The fact that most graffiti art, even by these famed artists, are covered up or erased by the authorities gives a feeling of illicit excitement. One has to be efficient and extremely clever to make these painting at a short time in the night with possible threats of arrest by police officers. But in fact it’s a harmless activity and the resulting art is often very enlightening and insightful which is what art is supposed to do. The subject of these artists is usually anti-establishment which gives the authorities the motivation to erase these ‘graffiti’. It reminds me of the wall in Beijing where people can post anything even topics that are against the ruling class. In a way, these artists are equivalent to underground fighters like Che Guevara or Fidel Castro’s Cuban guerrillas or Mao’ communist army whose goal is to subvert the existing government.

But street artists only have humor, sarcasm and biting commentary as their weapons and have mass appeal to ordinary folks. Their viewpoints smacks of a people-based sensibility equivalent to Google’s ‘Do No Evil’ world view where their products are usually free to use. In fact the movie ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ is a mocking commentary on the art world. It places a mirror on a consumer based society who pays outrageous sums on painting while there are mass starvation and famine in other parts of the world. It’s a sensibility that requires change and has driven an “outsider” like Barack Obama to a position of power. There is no outcome in street art but to change the current perception of art as investment. Street art or graffiti is just erased no matter how good or valuable.

This viewpoint is expressed by Banksy in his film. The fact that so called works of art by Mr. Brain Wash is bought at auction in large sums is a joke turned inside out. But works by Banksy and Fairey are also bought at auction in large sums. They can become extremely wealthy with their work. So the joke goes back to them but in fact street art is often gone after the a few months so their artwork sold in auction are pieces made to be sold not painted on a wall. Their efforts to bring art to the masses is perhaps like Raphael painting in a street corner rather than painting for the rich and powerful who keep their art inside their salons or museums. But the fact that street art is ephemeral is mind changing because it teaches us not to value art the way society wants to.

Mainstream society believes that art is an investment, bought by millionaires to display in museums and enjoyed by art lovers who have pretensions towards high culture and refinement. Street art is disposable and supposedly without value except for momentary enjoyment by the passersby. But it is also a rare event as not all people can be there in those places where the art is painted. Instead one enjoys them in pictures or in documentaries. But it’s clearly the people’s art because it’s not commissioned by millionaires or sold at high prices in auctions. The motivation is not money but enlightenment. This people based motivation did not exist in the renaissance where only the privilege elite enjoyed art. Or, placed in a church to sustain an organized religion. Hence, it’s a revolution similarly to the guerrilla movement as it aspires to usurp the powers that be. Perhaps it’s like Google destroying the boundaries of old media by letting information be free. I guess street art is a reflection of the Google age.


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