"Wild Style" mural by Zephyr, Revolt, Sharp
April 17 - August 8, 2011, at The Museum of Contemporary Art [MOCA], Downtown Los Angeles
by Jeanne Willette
The existential question haunting “Art in the Streets” is: once street art is removed from is natural context and enters the museum, is it still “Street Art?” By definition, street art is outsider art, art made by those artists who by virtue of their lack of art school or other bona fides are relegated to the outer banks of the art world and take it to the streets. Street art has an audience totally different from that within the confines of the museum - everyone versus the elite. Street art has used public walls and halls like bulletin boards and the artists address anyone who passes by, posting messages and speaking in visual codes. Once a museum corrals art from the streets, names it “Street Art,” and confines it to the galleries; once the museum consecrates the marginal and re-places them in the center, does the very meaning and spirit of the art dissipate?
"Wild Style" mural by Zephyr, Revolt, Sharp; performers directed by Charlie Ahearn, photo by Martha Cooper, 1983.
Certainly, it is an admirable exercise to pay homage to one of the strongest artistic forces of the past thirty years, and it is a genuine service to bring generations of street artists together. But given the recent brush with censorship that came about with the painting out of Blu’s mural, the museum’s apparent open-mindedness may have been compromised. One of the dangers of an encompassing exhibition is the tendency to dump very different artists into the same space without making important distinctions, such as among skateboard artists, taggers, graffiti and street artists. Historically, trained artists, such as Jean Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, used the outlaw reputations of the eighties graffiti artists to promote their careers in the galleries of SoHo. Their lesser-known colleagues, Fab 5 Freddy and RAMMELLZEE, were left in the dust and eventually became historical figures in a “movement.” “Art in the Streets” brings these old colleagues, living and dead, together as historical fathers.
Borrowing from that legacy of self-consciousness, contemporary artists today display a certain savvy that separates them from those who remain nameless, are called vandals, and are arrested as criminals. In the rare case of Banksy street art is a marketing tool, and his style has become a brand, his invisible persona an image. Shepherd Fairey is an appropriator of older styles, techniques and found images. He is the artist of the mash-up, the universal language of the 21st century. The recent TED Prize winner, JR, is a political artist and activist who calls attention to the unsolved problems of his time. In contrast to the early graffiti artists who competed to devise unique tags and signature recognized only by the initiated, today’s street artist, like Blu, deploys public spaces as an open-air museum, with an eye, one suspects, to curators and dealers.
Street art is deeply rooted in the alienated anger of the young and socially connected to the Punks and the Goths. There was something racist and classist about the smooth movement of certain artists off the streets and into the galleries, where the energy of dissidents could be contained. One could argue that to be authentic, street art must be a purely public phenomenon. If the streets are public, then they belong to us all, therefore the sidewalks and bridges are the places were expression can be free, where things that need to be said can be uttered. It is inevitable that the art establishment will want to co-opt a form of art making that is always personal, always fresh and always elusive. The film “Beautiful Losers” defined street art as made by “dumb bored kids,” losers, who are currently featured in this very ambitious historical exhibition as anti-heroes.