Monday, 2 May 2016

Out on the Street, by Mari Biella

I haven’t been very much in evidence for the past two weeks or so. In the unlikely event that anyone is wondering why, it’s because I’ve been away on a work trip. I’ve just returned from accompanying a group of over fifty Italian teenagers on a trip to Brighton and, as you can no doubt imagine, I’m knackered.

Brighton is a curious place. An ultra-hip hangout for the right-on, it also has all the traditional trappings of British seaside resorts, as well as some haunting reminders of its past as a humble fishing village. Rough sleepers bed down not far from the Royal Pavilion, once the refuge of an overindulged Prince Regent with lavish tastes. Brighton struck me – though I could well be wrong about this – as perhaps being one of the very few remaining places, certainly in the UK, where someone might just be able to live on a shoestring while pursuing a creative career of the kind that is not usually particularly lucrative. Certainly Brighton has a thriving cultural scene, and a healthy respect for the arts.

This collective creative impulse finds one of its most visible expressions in the city’s street art.


Street art

The street. It’s the place where many of us spend much of our time, and yet which is usually not shaped by us in any significant way. It’s a social place, belonging to everyone or no one at all, and an egalitarian place too: anyone can walk down any public street, just as they please. Street art, arising from its more humble parent, graffiti, takes art out of the gallery or the millionaire’s sitting room and into that shared, common space. Practised by and for everyday people, rather than an elite, it is driven by a variety of aims and ideals, but often has a strong subversive streak. The street, the wall, the world itself, become both canvas and gallery.

Street art is usually uncommissioned, frequently illegal. Created by anonymous artists using pseudonyms (by necessity, if they don’t want to be arrested), it is provocative, anarchic, political, and utterly beautiful. Street artists are often threatened with fines or even jail terms if caught, which seems odd indeed when the adverts that invade and deface our public spaces, most of them utterly devoid of artistic merit, are not just legal but judged to be entirely acceptable. The usual concerns of copyright or commercial value are, by necessity, somewhat immaterial, not least because the art in question might be scrubbed out or painted over at any time. Street art removes the middle men and gatekeepers of the art world at a swipe, and flicks a paint-stained finger at the establishment.

More street art

That, at least, was how it was.

Perhaps what has happened in recent years was predictable. Thesis followed by antithesis, followed in turn by synthesis – it’s a common pattern in human life and human interaction. Street art, which once challenged the status quo, now often seems in danger of becoming the very thing it once despised. Street artists are sometimes commissioned to create new works of art – which, some might argue, undermines the very nature of what street art is. It is packaged and sold, much like any other commodity. Banksy’s “Kissing Coppers”, once a famous sight in Brighton, has been sold for a hefty sum. (Banksy himself apparently disapproves of the removal of his art from the streets where it was created, and refuses to authenticate his works  an interesting consideration for anyone thinking of buying them.) You can pick up some street art yourself, at least if you’ve a substantial amount of money to spare. Street artist Ben Eine hit the headlines when David Cameron gave Barack Obama one of his paintings on an official visit to the US

Those in favour of this ongoing process argue that the increased commercial value placed on street art reflects its increasing stature in the art world. Many artists, too, use the money they make from commissions to pay their bills, but continue to practise street art in its purest, non-commercial sense. Others worry that commercialisation might be a profound betrayal of what street art was originally all about. Either way, it’s ironic that a movement that once eschewed commercialism has now, depending on your point of view, either insinuated itself into, or been co-opted by, the commercialised mainstream of the art world.


Not street art

There’s another concern: will commercialisation impose a form of censorship on what artists feel able to create? Will it normalise such art? Street art is frequently a dissident art form, pushing boundaries, disputing preconceptions and societal norms; will its increasing respectability undermine its ability to challenge and to dismay? When street art is being exchanged between presidents and prime ministers, has it lost its radical edge? Or is that just the nature of the world we live in?

Banksy, as a matter of interest, has self-published some books, although you’re not likely to find them on Amazon or any of the other usual outlets. I have a haunting feeling that there’s some kind of moral to be drawn from this story, at least for self-publishers. If I weren’t too tired to think straight, I might try to draw it. If anyone would like to help me, feel free...


Says it all, really...

11 comments:

Wendy Jones said...

A fascist mating insight into a topic which is often ignored. Street art is always a contentious issue yet is strikingly beautiful if it becomes mainstream it will lose some of it's power and lesson it's intrinsic value of being free art.

Sandra Horn said...

I love your comments about Brighton, Mari. My daughter lives there, on a shoestring, as a designer-maker and half of a duo running circus workshops. It's full of such off-the-mainstream people.
Street art can be anything from amazing and thought-provoking to sad ugly rubbish (c/f books?)but I know not everyone agrees about how to judge its merits - my daughter and me, for example!

Jan Needle said...

Fascist mating! Do they do that in Brighton too? I must tell my friends and rellies wot live there.

Lydia Bennet said...

Yes, best typo ever Wendy! Thanks for an interesting and 'different' post Mari. The same thing happens in clothes, where rebellion against fashion diktats becomes designer, then high street. There is no 'quality control' for street art as such, similar situation to that insisted on by those who don't like self-pub or indie publishers. Yet some vibrant and wonderful work has emerged from this lack of regulation.

Bill Kirton said...

Great post again, Mari. The thought of Banksy's subversive insights hanging (or daubed) on the walls of Philip Green and his ilk is beyond satirical. And I, too, agree about Brighton. My daughter and family are there but I'm not sure there are enough fascists around to achieve any significant mating. (Good one, Wendy.)

Katherine Roberts said...

Some of that street art is beautiful, thanks for sharing Mari. I've only been to Brighton once (for the World Fantasy Convention plus an event in an indie children's bookshop where we all got to dress up as witches). It was Halloween so the weather wasn't great, but it felt to me like a London-playgroundish version of my own living-on-a-shoestring seaside town of Torbay, only five hours along the south coast on the train...

Mari Biella said...

Thanks for the comments, all. (And Wendy, that is surely one of the all-time classic typos!) Valerie, the comparison with fashion occurred to me too: the mainstream has a tendency to subsume the eccentric and unusual but, like Bill, I find the idea of Banksy's work hanging in a millionaire's home a bit much to stomach...

Lee said...

Art should always be subversive. Why else make it? So do I believe there is a moral for self-publishers? Yes, I do. Unfortunately, I don't see much subversiveness in evidence.

Mari Biella said...

Ah, but subversion against who or what, Lee? I must admit, that's no longer quite as clear to me as it once was...

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Mari, I agree with your sense of unease - but I think it's all part of some predictable and quite fascinating cycle. For example, I admire Tracy Emin hugely, not least because I think she always had an eye to the commercial possibilities of her 'subversive' art, and cleverly exploited the desire of millionaires to buy into authenticity! Good for her. She didn't buy into the idea that there was some virtue to be had by starving in a garret. But I don't think art or fiction should always be subversive any more than I think food should always be exciting and experimental. Often I want plain bread and butter or fish and chips (although I'd agree that it needs to be good bread and butter, fresh fish, well cooked chips!) A diet of fine dining would be exhausting. Sometimes, when I'm reading or engaging with art in some way, I want to be stimulated and dazzled, but - more often, if I'm honest - I want to be comforted, reassured, simply entertained. If we always make our art or write and publish to 'be subversive' a kind of self consciousness can enter in.

Umberto Tosi said...

Fascinating post, Mari. Thank you for bringing back memories of my days in Los Angeles - always a great street art battleground and showcase. Los Angeles was the Paris of wall art in the 1960s, with a proliferating of brilliant images by Latino and counterculture artists, always in a tense cold war with commercial interests and authorities. About 10 years ago, media-corporation ad agencies and billboard companies got the city to ban street art outright by threatening to sue the city into bankruptcy. The tide turned in 2012 when the city made wall art legal again, with certain strictures that haven't prevented another renaissance. http://mic.com/articles/128455/latino-street-artists-levi-ponce-kristy-sandoval-and-hoodsisters-lead-los-angeles-mural-renaissance#.Cb1FxaH9a