Conservative Bristol


By Jacqui |  Published on Monday, January 23, 2012.

Bristol street art may be protected from now on according to a register established by the mayor’s office. Let’s take a look.

Here’s a piece of news that has made a lot of the players in the street art movement talk. The idea came from a Bristol municipal advisor, Steve Comer, who declared, “Public art has become an important part of our lives in Bristol and, where possible, should be protected.” This initiative appeared after some cleaning employees accidentally removed many of Banksy’s works, the city’s street art pioneer.

This mistake raised many protests from the inhabitants, who are accustomed now to living with the various projects of the city’s enfant terrible.

So a question naturally arises: can street art be a part of the cultural patrimony of a city, of a country?

Can it also have access to the property protection enjoyed by works in a museum? 

It is clear that the status of street art has changed in these past few years, becoming the most popular artistic movement and the closest to society. It’s not just considered an act of vandalism anymore since it's a new source of revenue in the art market and for galleries. Now à la mode, street art attracts crowds through its artistic demonstrations and its continually growing number of artists.

If street art is slowly but surely gaining a place in society, can it then benefit from some protection in the city?

Street art can, in effect, constitute an open-air museum that’s accessible to everyone. It’s enough to just walk around and let your eyes wander. Take for example Banksy’s book “Wall and Piece” where he lists the places that he put his stencils so that the readers can, if they want, go there and look…a little bit like a guided visit.

Let’s return to the Steve Comer’s proposition, which specifies that each work should be classified according to its value in a register available to the city’s cleaning companies. These companies should then consult the list of artworks to see whether they can or cannot power-wash away the stuff they find on a city wall or support.

This proposition is thus selective, something that poses a problem for the foundation of the street art movement and, more globally, the urban arts. The very essence of the street art movement is, in effect, to be free, ephemeral, and against all standards whether they be social or aesthetic. It’s a way to communicate, to carry a message, and everyone is entitled to it.

So then does this proposition go against all the principles of street art?

How will the artworks in Bristol be selected? Will there be a return to the times of the 19th century Salons where the painters presented their works in front of high society and art connoisseurs?  At the time, if a work of art wasn’t liked and thus rejected, it would go into the “Salon of the Refused.”

Will it be the same for street art? The works of Banksy, Blek le Rat, Jef Aerosol and many others will become untouchable while the work of other lesser-known artists will be condemned to remain in vacant lands…

In reality, this proposition could completely change everything. It’s both in contradiction to the function of street art and also the proof that an artistic conscience is being born around this movement. Graffiti and street art are still a part of the street and are still accessible to everyone (what’s simpler than walking in the street?). This recent turn of events risks changing the order of things.

Let’s look at the extreme case scenario: stealing pieces of a wall is already common, like what happened with Banksy last year, so will the city then have to employ people to watch over the works? Frankly, in the 30-40 years of existence graffiti (and later street art) couldn’t expect such consideration…

To relativize things a bit, we can think that this decision is, for the time being, unique to the city of Bristol, who owes its title the “capital of street art” in part to Banksy; the wish to protect his works would  be legitimate. Also notable, the See No Evil project financed by the city.

What to do then so that the graffiti and street art pieces become full-fledged artworks without breaking one of the fundamental rules: staying temporary?

It’s really about finding a balance between the art that is sold and the nature of street art that is created and later destroyed. Now the question is to what lengths the proponents of this proposition will go. Street art in the grip of institutionalism - an issue to keep an eye on.

Original French text by Marie

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