Is the street art movement losing its cool as more and more street artists show in galleries? You may be suprised, street art and the gallery have a longer history than you may think.
While perusing the works on display at C.A.V.E Gallery’s new exhibition “Street Art Saved My Life”, which showed work from many undisputedly talented artists like Futura, Gaia, and Swoon, I was nevertheless taken back by the high prices asked for some of the pieces - prices that ranged from the high hundreds to the high thousands – and people were more than willing to dish out the necessary cash to snatch up works by legendary street artists. I couldn’t help but think that if the exact same art had been on a wall instead of on a canvas, the city would most likely spend the exact same thousands of dollars removing it.
So, what is the effect of the move of street art from the streets to the gallery? By allowing the very same people who would gladly raze an illegal wall to buy their work on canvas, are street artists succumbing to the commercialization that seems to be increasingly pervasive in today’s society? While some artists and crews believe that the move of street art into the gallery is killing the street art movement, the new place of street art showing in galleries does not necessarily translate into the complete commercialization of graffiti.
Some street artists reject gallery exhibitions as a fallacy of real street art and see it as the death of the movement. Take, for example, a Brazilian pixacao crew who broke into Choque Cultural Gallery in 2006 and defaced not only the gallery space but the art being shown as well. These pixadores stated that they were protesting against the “marketing, institutionalization and domestication of street art by the galleries and media”. This crew is a prime example of graffiti traditionalism. Pixacao style defines itself by the danger and illegality of writing on walls. Risk taking and adventure, for them, define street art, and is a necessary element that is lost when street artists show in galleries.
Pixacao writing over an existing exhibition at Choque Cultural Gallery. Photo: Choque
The Underbelly Project is another example of street art traditionalists preserving graffiti and street art in its original state. The show’s creators Workhorse and PAC conceived the idea of a street art show that sidestepped the supposed commercialization and domestication of graffiti. The Underbelly Project is a guerilla art show that was put on only for a single night, in an unannounced, unknown location, meant only for the eyes of other urban explorers and street artists. The project attempted to create a space for street artists to share their work with each other without the commercialization of the work that is inherent in any sanctioned gallery. One-hundred and three artists from around the world joined in on this project, travelling to New York City to paint directly on the makeshift gallery walls, to participate in a show that would be 18 months in the making. Workhorse said, “There is a certain type of person that the urban art movement has bred that enjoys the adventure as much as the art. Where else do you see a creative person risking themselves legally, financially, physically and creatively?”
According to purists like Workhorse, something fundamental is lost when street art becomes a commodity to be sold rather than a mode of pure expression and communication. Some claim that the art loses its guerilla mystique when it moves into the gallery. But is street art really and truly robbed of its outlaw allure with that move? Many street artists continue to create illegally on walls in addition to showing in galleries; and the fact remains that virtually all of the street artists shown in galleries today are self-made and started in the street. In addition, a higher percentage of street artists are moving away from vandalism in exchange for true art pieces that beautify the city. Graffiti is clearly not only used for gang communication anymore.
Photo of the Underbelly Project in NYC. Photo: Fatcap
Now more than ever street artists are earning big bucks for their work off the streets and some artists are admittedly succumbing to the commercialization of street art. Perhaps the prime example of this is Banksy, who became known for his anarchistic views and anti-capitalism attitude, and who now sells his works for upwards of three-hundred-thousand dollars and who purportedly hires out ghost artists to spray his designs on illegal walls. Banksy built his empire and became wildly popular due to his ‘street cred’ that he cultivated at the beginning of his career; the hilarious catch twenty-two is that establishing a significant amount of ‘street cred’, as Banksy did, actually increases the value of an artist’s work in a gallery setting.
However, not all street artists turn their work into corporations. Take for instance, Futura, who showed at “Street Art Saved My Life”. His canvas was by far and away the smallest canvas there, but also the priciest – cashed in at $5,000. Futura is one of the oldest and most famed street artists in the show, due to his prolific career on the streets that started (illegally!) back in the early seventies. The historic aspect of one of the originators of the street art trend correlates with a raise in price. But somehow, Futura has escaped the stigma of being a sellout, although his rise to fame was punctuated by legal projects and even gallery shows (Futura’s legal career includes working with The Clash and showing in the Fun Gallery alongside artists like Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat). However, it is his originality and daring on the streets that continued throughout his entire career that allowed him to straddle the finer art world (and being able to ask thousands of dollars for a single canvas) and continue making art in the streets.
While it is true that the boost popular interest of street art is a definite cause of the increase of street artists showing in galleries, it should not be pinpointed as the sole reason for the quickening transition from street to gallery. There is a long history of street artists moving into the fine art realm. Take for example Keith Haring or Jean Michel Basquiat, who, like Futura, began their careers in the mid 70s. Both ushered in their careers first by drawing on the only spaces they had access to – New York City. Neither of these artists intended to create what is today a phenomenally large art movement, they were simply trying to express themselves in ways they knew how.
Basquiat and Warhol in front of a collaborative painting at a gallery opening. After Basquiat's initial success in galleries, he and Warhol developed a close friendship.
However, as with any new art movement worth its salt, street art quickly encountered reactions from then-current authorities – that is to say, New York City officials and big-wigs in the New York art scene. These reactions can be seen as partly responsible for ushering in street art to the galleries. While New York City was doing its best to squash the graffiti movement by cracking down on graffiti in the subways, the romanticism of such a daring and risky art form grabbed the attention of gallerists, art critics and eventually, other artists whose careers had not started on the streets. Soon after these two developments, in 1984, the well-known art dealer Sidney Janis put on a major graffiti exhibition in their hometown, NYC, which was the beginning of seeing street artists as more than simple hoodlums who wrote on the walls for lack of anything better to do. Soon, Basquiat found himself in collaboration with artists the like of Warhol, and Haring now hangs in Museums like the Beaubourg in Paris and the MOMA in NYC.
Perhaps the fact that more and more artists are turning to walls to express themselves (as Haring, Basqiuat and Futura did) rather than following the traditional art school to gallery route is why more street artists find themselves showing in galleries. In fact, the invention of graffiti has perhaps changed the face of the art world for good. After all, what is street art if not a refutation of the insular art world? Many of the street artists we see today can not or choose not to participate in an expensive art education (although that is changing too) and do not have the benefit of contacts in the fine art industry. While the vast majority of respected street artists produce what any sane person would call “good art”, they reject the notion of applying to galleries, networking and schmoozing, and having to wait years on end for a chance to show. Street art lets people see their art right now, instantaneously.
Futura's canvas at "Street Art Saved My Life", and below, some of Futura's work outside of the gallery. Photo: Brooklyn Street Art
This refusal to wait for the official art nod is ironically beginning to change parts of the art world: the more walls to an artists name, and the more ‘street cred’ he or she gains, the easier it is for them to find themselves presenting in a gallery space. All these factors – an increase in the number of artists who decide to use the street to first show their work, the changing nature of ‘graffiti’ from vandalism to art, the effect that street art has had on the traditional art process – combine to increase public and private interest in street art and street artists’ work. And what artist, street or not, wouldn’t be happy to have his or her work appreciated by a larger audience? Street artists showing in galleries and producing art for popular consumption is something that the graffiti world will have to accept.
However, showing street art in galleries doesn’t mean the death of the graffiti movement. Street art showing in galleries can be a great opportunity for both the artists and the art world – what is important is that street artists do not lose sight of the original purpose of graffiti. Continuing to promote street art on walls in the city is necessary if it is to ever translate onto gallery walls, otherwise, the edgy element is lost and street art loses its appeal and becomes just corny. By continuing to make meaningful and beautiful pieces, be it an illegal wild-style on a city wall or an insightful activist canvas in a gallery, street artists continue to keep the original spirit of graffiti alive – daring to say what others won’t and always fighting for change.
It may seem that street art is succumbing to pop-culture, but chew on this - a few guys who scribbled on walls are changing the ways that galleries function. If that’s not saying a discreet screw you to mainstream, I don’t know what is.