Humans have been making unsanctioned art for thousands of years. Even as they were commissioned to make fancy temple statues and beautiful textiles, they were carving graffiti in the public baths and making stealth installations. Art, as they say, is gonna art, and it’s gonna art wherever it wants, however it wants, depending on the preferences of the individual artist. Some people work with the media they have, others prefer less structured media and environments, some enjoy the thrill of creating art in an illicit space where art is not, strictly speaking, allowed, defying not just the law in a technical sense but also social expectations.
Visit any city and you can see street art on display — graffiti, elaborate stencils, murals, installations. Some is carefully cultivated and put forward with the approval of the city, as for example Cupid’s Span in San Francisco, the massive statue along the Embarcadero. Or the numerous murals that cities pay for and maintain, the sidewalk art, the fountains, the other assorted works of public art. And many are quite beautiful, not just adding grace and joy to the city, but also creating art that’s accessible for everyone. You don’t need to pay a fee to view it, you don’t need to wait for a museum to open, you can just go visit it any time you feel like. You can touch it, you can picnic beneath it, you can talk to people about it, you can take pictures of it. It’s tactile and very emergent and real, creating a space that invites people to engage directly with it.
This same kind of accessibility is also true of unsanctioned street art, though, whether it be a canny installation, a billboard modification, a rogue mural, graffiti, stenciling, postering, stickering, wall art, or any number of other things. Street art often involves the creative reuse of abandoned media and substrates, sometimes because artists can’t afford anything else, sometimes because they like working in those media — thus the popularity of graffiti. Spray paint is relatively inexpensive, but the level of artistry and skill required to produce massive works is considerable. Far from being a nuisance, it’s a striking example of artistic focus and creativity.
Some kinds of public art are valued more than others, though. The sanitized official versions are considered acceptable, and while people may debate their attractiveness — I’ve seen some truly hideous corporate and public art in my day — they’re allowed to occupy public space on the grounds that someone said they’re allowed to be there. When works are not put forth with official blessing, however, they’re undesirable unless they meet specific aesthetic grounds, and even then, there’s an expectation that they should be tameable — as for example when people cut murals out of walls and move them into art galleries, taking them away from the public and into the private eye, removing that sense of immediacy and context by taking them out of their situation and sometimes selling them for rather a lot of money.
The fact that street art can only be allowed to exist when it’s the right sort of art, or when it can be brought into a gilded cage, speaks to a society that classifies not just different kinds of art in distinct categories, but also, by extension, the people who consume them. Street and public art are for the people, and while those of all classes can create and consume them, they often speak to the lower and working class experience, exploring issues relevant to their lives in a setting they can actually engage with. Few factory workers have hours that allow them to go to museums, let alone wages that would permit such trips. Exhausted teachers trudging home from another day at an underfunded and overcrowded school can’t detour to check out a new sculpture installation in the botanic garden. These people can, however, see what people have done to brighten up their neighbourhoods, to create a culture, to spur dialogue, to comment back and forth — to walk through the same neighbourhood day after day is to see the art evolve in an ongoing conversation that’s fascinating and wonderful to observe.
Establishment and the authorities, however, view this kind of free form art as very threatening, and their work to suppress it speaks to their contempt of the people who are making and consuming it. When cities paint over walls just because they think graffiti looks ‘ugly,’ they’re destroying works of art and they’re also ruining the fabric of a conversation that may have been running for weeks, months, years — passersby who keep watch on a wall of graffiti will notice that it slowly evolves as people tag and tag back and create new things and people drop in and out of the conversation. This is art, a raw, immediate, visceral, and apparently terrifying art.
What would the world be like if we could just let street art be and allow people to express themselves and participate in their communities at their own means and abilities? Something dire, evidently, given the fervor with which cities aggressively pursue graffiti, billboard modifications, and other works of art, like they’re poisons about to rear up and destroy the urban landscape. Art, though, is for everyone, not just those who can afford it or who can get official blessing. I don’t love every single piece of art on earth, but I acknowledge its right to exist and I’m glad that it does, from soaring works of modern art at museums all over the world to dirty graffiti in Pompeii.
Image: Madrid Street Art, Enric Archivell, Flickr