Graffiti: when preservation’s foe becomes its focus (Part 2)

One of the primary issues at hand is the differentiation that some art critics have drawn between graffiti and street art. Cedar Lewisohn, who wrote for Tate Modern one of the few available scholarly books on “street art,” first separates “graffiti,” by which he means “any form of unofficial, unsanctioned application of a medium onto a surface,” from “graffiti writing,” by which he refers to “the movement most closely associated with hip hop culture…whose central concern is the ‘tag’ or signature of the author.” “Street art,” while a sub-genre of graffiti writing, is more focused on using graffiti imagery, not strictly tags, to “[interact] with the audience on the street.” Graffiti writers and taggers tend not to want their work to be viewed as art; its purpose instead is to serve as a secret language among them, and to “[destroy] or [deface] cities…making ugly places even uglier.” They tend to look down upon “street artists” for their appeal to the masses. Some art theorists do not as readily acknowledge the differentiation between non-artistic “graffiti writing” and “street art.” They believe that graffiti writing, which they identify as “a practiced skill to which the artists or ‘writers’ devote their lives, perfecting a certain style of letter formation,” falls under the definition of art. There are theorists who view that “art should be infinitely impractical” and that “graffiti has no real purpose, other than its own existence,” and therefore qualifies as art. While this particular position seems flawed, as most graffiti writing actually does have significant purpose within the culture of graffiti writers, the implication that a line between graffiti and street art might be less clear than suggested by critics such as Lewisohn is useful. It is a line unacknowledged by many state authorities, including Hackney Council, Transport for London, and the members of SWAAG. Unlike the aforementioned art theorists, however, these authorities choose to regard street art at the same level as graffiti, but regard both as simply illegal vandalism.

http://www.banksy.co.uk

A potential solution to the problem of whether or not councils should remove Banksy’s work might be to formalize the differentiation between graffiti writing, which does not appeal to the public (and indeed, is not intended to), and street art, including works such as Banksy’s that address a wider audience. But again, the divide between writing and street art is not always clear. If the state were to remain firmly against graffiti writing and declare “street art” legal, it would be taking on a significant responsibility as art critic, asserting its authority to decide what is graffiti and what is art. State officials surely lack the art theory and history background to make such a decision in full confidence. At the same time, it is impossible for state authority to escape the role of art critic. Even by denying that they are art critics, denying the responsibility of differentiation between graffiti and street art, like Hackney Council and TfL, they are still making a statement about art, saying that it falls within the confines of the law, even if public opinion supports the art. Islington Council played the art critic by deciding to protect Banksy works, deeming them art because popular opinion said so. By letting the public choose directly whether or not to keep Banksy’s work, Bristol City Council was affirming that art transcends the law. Bristol’s interpretation of its inevitable role as art critic seems to be the most appropriate reaction to the issues of legality raised by the graffiti movement. The Council admitted that it, and not the law, had the authority to judge Banksy’s work, and it invited the public to directly influence its judgment and have a say in the art it gets to see. A lack of public involvement is exactly what Banksy has said is wrong in the Art World: “These galleries are just trophy cabinets for a handful of millionaires. The public never has any real say in what art they see.”

The Art World has not readily accepted graffiti as a legitimate art form, largely due to its intrinsic illegality. Graffiti’s gradual entry into the realm of the art gallery began with the work of a few photographers, most notably Gyula Halász, known as Brassaï. His documentation of Parisian graffiti in the 1930s predated by decades the spread of graffiti as a popular movement, and the success of his photographs paved the way for later photographers like New York’s Henry Chalfant. It can be said that photography of graffiti was accepted by the Art World before graffiti itself was ever recognized as a legitimate art, and photographers’ work contributed to the popularity of graffiti by encouraging the public to look differently at the graffiti on their streets. Photographic documentation is important to many graffiti artists because of the ephemeral nature of their work. Banksy himself has released books containing photographs of his art, and his former art dealer, Steve Lazarides, began as a professional photographer who took pictures of Banksy’s graffiti and gained his confidence. Banksy’s immense popularity, stemming largely from the clever social criticism contained in his work and the media hype surrounding his anonymity, brought graffiti into the limelight. Lazarides began selling Banksy originals and exhibiting the work of other graffiti artists in his own gallery in Soho, an operation which has since expanded.

Soon, it was not only small, Banksy-approved galleries displaying graffiti as art. In May 2008, London’s Tate Modern invited six international graffiti artists to participate in an exhibition called “Street Art” by painting on the museum’s brick façade. Banksy’s work was noticeably absent; it was suggested that he was not interested in participating in the Tate’s official, Nissan-sponsored project. “Street Art” demonstrated that questions remain regarding the extent to which the art establishment has come to understand graffiti. As art critic Ben Lewis pointed out, “Even the location of the exhibition is clever: by putting the artwork on the outside of the Tate, the museum appears to be respecting the street in Street Art. At the same stroke, it’s a cunning way of avoiding the big issue of whether the work really is art in the same sense as the stuff inside.”

Reference to graffiti’s struggle for wider acceptance as an art form should not imply that all graffiti artists are aiming to have their work finally be that “stuff inside” the Tate Modern. On the contrary, Banksy’s popularity is problematic in that it has caused tension between the art industry’s interest in his profitability within the system and his own desire to remain outside of it. He is, in a sense, caught between two worlds—that of the art establishment’s critics, some of whom dismiss his artistic skill as “reasonably competent, not brilliant” and his subject matter as “agitpop…protest art with a smile on its face,” and that of the graffiti artists, some of whom think “his message is naïve” and view him as a sell-out for allowing his art to be sold for great sums of money, including to the “Hollywood glitterati.” Simultaneously, the evident marketability of Banksy’s work can be seen as a benefit to both sides: Marc Schiller of the Wooster Collective credited Banksy with having ‘create[d] a market for an entire category of art that until now has not been recognized at the level that it is now being recognized at.” One irony in this situation is that artworks such as Banksy’s, by means of their location on the street, are intended to belong to everyone. People who buy his work at auctions are essentially paying thousands of pounds for what already belonged to them, and everyone, for free, exhibiting a capitalist desire for individual ownership.

Another irony is that Banksy continues to use his artwork to criticize the very establishment that is now embracing his work. After one of his pieces was sold at auction for £100,000 in 2007, he posted a new drawing on his website. It depicted an auctioneer selling a canvas that bore a message making plain Banksy’s feelings about his own marketability: “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit.” In 2005, he attracted media attention by “infiltrating” four museums and art galleries in New York, surreptitiously hanging his own work on their walls. When he did the same in the British Museum, displaying a “chunk of ‘rock art’ depicting a stone age hunter with a shopping trolley, together with the caption crediting it to “Banksyus Maximus,'” the museum took eight days to notice, and ended up adding the work to its permanent collection. Banksy may not be successfully conveying the criticism of the art establishment he intends if such activities as the 2005 “infiltration” are accepted by museums and lauded by the media as publicity stunts.

Ultimately, his commercial success is dependent on that establishment. It has been pointed out that “history is littered with anti-establishment figures that end up embracing the establishment they rail against, particularly as they grow in popularity.” For example, Banksy’s position is reminiscent of the ironic tension between William Morris’s socialist beliefs and the fact that his hand-crafted art intended for the wider public was expensive to produce and, thus, available only to the wealthy. Banksy’s place in art history is difficult to predict; perhaps one day he will reveal his identity and succumb to the spoils of his fame. But for now, he seems to be entertained by his Art World success while remaining separate from and critical of it, having “[hijacked] the established system of art exhibition… drawing attention to its shortcomings.” In the words of art critic Walter Januszczak, “His chief achievement, and I believe it to be a mammoth one, was finding a way to operate so successfully outside the art world.” In doing so, Banksy has said, he hopes to “show that money hasn’t crushed the humanity out of everything.”

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