The Real Power of Street Art aka Join the Revolution.
This series of articles, like Street Art itself, sets out to explore those grand historical narratives, that until recently contemporary art has been in retreat from, themes exploring issues of politics, justice, power, history & capitalism, a word that we hear less and less of in art as it is replaced with the ideology of a visual culture in cahoot with neoliberal economics.
Paradoxically, street art at its best, lets call it “Critical Street Art”, is a recognition that culture is not always a medium of power, but also a mode of resistance to it. Something those financing the fashionable shift to a banal monolithic muralism, marketed as “Street Art”, would do well to remember.
What started as a peripheral trend for a material and artistic use of public space by self-taught artists armed with cans, markers, stencils, paste-ups and stickers, has quickly developed into a truly global democratic and egalitarian movement of visual art practice capable of rocking governments. Whilst contemporary art was slowly slipping into a self-induced VIP coma of extreme fetishised consumerism, the disruptive and subversive potential that street art offered became more and more relevant to a public starved of both political and visual representation.
While curators of covertly commercial multi-million euro Art Biennale’s, at the apogee of their power and privilege, conceived of exhibitions exploring the nature of borders and boundaries (& canapés), the likes of Bahia Shehab in Egypt, and unwittingly a 14yr old Naief Abazid in Daraa, Syria, were busy breaking them, both taking the single most direct route to the public (and power), by spraying work directly on the walls of their respective cities, one contributed to the overthrow of a violent dictator, the other, inspired by artist’s acts in Egypt and Tunisia, inadvertently sparked a war whose reverberations are still being felt around the globe today. Transgressions will be punished, Naief’s simple “It’s your turn, Doctor Bashar al-Assad”, sprayed under his school principle’s window led to his torture and imprisonment, 22 other boys would be arrested in connection with the graffiti, at least three of them are now known to be dead. Less than half remain in Syria.
Images in public space have the power to change the world, they can alter the way we conceive and construct our own reality. At the hands of urban planners they have the potential to shape space into place creating a new form of gentrified urbanism, murals, fake grass, bike lanes and deckchairs anyone, and that’s fine. But they also offer us another opportunity, something more, the opportunity to shape and change ourselves, the spaces and places we inhabit being inextricably attached to us, we combine with them and they begin to define who we are.
So what sort of self do we want to be and can critical street art in public space help us to become that person?
I think it can.
Critical Street Art has the capacity to shift our perception and priorities, from a state sanctioned, corporate or academic mandated way of being and seeing, to one of individual “wokeness”, at the very least, a wokeness to the absolute impoverished visual terrain we’re currently offered, dominated as it is by a combination of commodity advertising and an architecture designed to express an aesthetic of power. In this singular monolithic and heavily “legislated” city; transgressions will of course be punished, but it’s transgressions we now desperately need.
Our art institutions are for the most no better, designed as they are to contain and control an entire field of incredibly fluid creative human expression, an impossible task of course, but perhaps not if you then declare yourselves as the ones to define what excellence and quality in art actually is, then develop vast bureaucracies and an inexplicable language that requires a PHD in lexical semantics to unravel the meaning ascribed to the work. The only people now excluded from the debate of what constitutes excellence in art, are those that the artwork was originally intended for, the public. Unlike contemporary art, whose hermetic lexicon seems to have been deliberately designed to exclude, street art discourse is one of openness and inclusion, of community, of sharing and gift economies. It is part and parcel of a burgeoning open source movement that has a desire to communicate to and engage with ALL citizens.
Those locked out of art discourse, by whatever means, the borderline, the disenfranchised, the poor, the white collar, the blue collar, witches, strangers, pirates, punks, pinstripers, comic artists, graffiti writers, outsiders and yes, street artists, amongst many many others, are regularly informed that their art is “low brow”, somehow beneath, under, sub-cultural, subversive and always implied, substandard. This criticism is delivered with the mythic maxim that only our art is good for you, come on in they say, this is legitimate, quality, filtered and mediated, and we may eventually submit, only to be met by the inexplicable, feeding off the carrion of a bastardised Marxist critical theory in a frenetic crucible of hypocricy & consumerism designed to separate you from your money. As Banksy once famously noted, Exit through the Giftshop.
Many of our art institutions forget that their task is to give expression to the collective mind of the people, and looking at my social media feeds, and the contents of this magazine, the collective mind of the people is demanding something else, something more, something at least authentic. A surfeit of 1990’s MFA curators are still prioritising their own theoretical reveries without understanding that we’re aware we are occupying a space where our relationship to both place and artwork is exclusive, legislated and to a certain extent contractual. As opposed to Street Art, which is of course free, inclusive and organic. The institution pays lip service to inclusion but regularly excludes those whose art and politics aim to undermine the structure within which such inclusion occurs. And again, for a few decades at least, transgressions will be punished, this time by exclusion, from the art press, from funding, from the “artworld”.
Street Art enfranchises, it places art anywhere but the white walled havens of the institution attended by an art viewing elite comfortable with its complicit relationship to neo-liberalism in the form of the commercial art fair, investment-growth potential and mega-corporate sponsored events and exhibitions. And I don’t use that “elite” word lightly, knowing how it can be twisted to serve populist right wing rhetoric. But anyone who has ever found themselves with the time, energy, resources and not least, VIP invite to the vernisage on a regular basis, should regard themselves as part of a privileged elite, winners in the lottery of cultural life.
Street Art at its most powerful, and there are many who would like to see the word “street” removed from this term, but that’s another story, can reconfigure the city as a place where citizens play an active role in the construction, revision and imagination of our world, including our art institutions. It can show us new ways to inhabit and configure the city whilst offering access to those cities within cities within cities. Those dark alleys of alienation inhabited by the “other”, the artist.
Critical Street Art has the potential to erase boundaries, turning walls into doors, citizens into artists and activists with agency. So forget seal clapping that monolithic tower block mural, grab some cardboard, a can and a craft knife, photocopy some paste-ups and take to the streets, join the revolution.
Originally published in Juxtapoz Magazine Oct 2017