Out on the Street

I haven’t been very much in evidence for the past two weeks or so. In the unlikely event that anyone is wondering why, it’s because I’ve been away on a work trip. I’ve just returned from accompanying a group of over fifty Italian teenagers on a trip to Brighton and, as you can no doubt imagine, I’m knackered.

Brighton is a curious place. An ultra-hip hangout for the right-on, it also has all the traditional trappings of British seaside resorts, as well as some haunting reminders of its past as a humble fishing village. Rough sleepers bed down not far from the Royal Pavilion, once the refuge of an overindulged Prince Regent with lavish tastes. Brighton struck me – though I could well be wrong about this – as perhaps being one of the very few remaining places, certainly in the UK, where someone might just be able to live on a shoestring while pursuing a creative career of the kind that is not usually particularly lucrative. Certainly Brighton has a thriving cultural scene, and a healthy respect for the arts.

This collective creative impulse finds one of its most visible expressions in the city’s street art.

Street art

The street. It’s the place where many of us spend much of our time, and yet which is usually not shaped by us in any significant way. It’s a social place, belonging to everyone or no one at all, and an egalitarian place too: anyone can walk down any public street, just as they please. Street art, arising from its more humble parent, graffiti, takes art out of the gallery or the millionaire’s sitting room and into that shared, common space. Practised by and for everyday people, rather than an elite, it is driven by a variety of aims and ideals, but often has a strong subversive streak. The street, the wall, the world itself, become both canvas and gallery.

Street art is usually uncommissioned, frequently illegal. Created by anonymous artists using pseudonyms (by necessity, if they don’t want to be arrested), it is provocative, anarchic, political, and utterly beautiful. Street artists are often threatened with fines or even jail terms if caught, which seems odd indeed when the adverts that invade and deface our public spaces, most of them utterly devoid of artistic merit, are not just legal but judged to be entirely acceptable. The usual concerns of copyright or commercial value are, by necessity, somewhat immaterial, not least because the art in question might be scrubbed out or painted over at any time. Street art removes the middle men and gatekeepers of the art world at a swipe, and flicks a paint-stained finger at the establishment.

More street art

That, at least, was how it was.

Perhaps what has happened in recent years was predictable. Thesis followed by antithesis, followed in turn by synthesis – it’s a common pattern in human life and human interaction. Street art, which once challenged the status quo, now often seems in danger of becoming the very thing it once despised. Street artists are sometimes commissioned to create new works of art – which, some might argue, undermines the very nature of what street art is. It is packaged and sold, much like any other commodity. Banksy’s “Kissing Coppers”, once a famous sight in Brighton, has been sold for a hefty sum. (Banksy himself apparently disapproves of the removal of his art from the streets where it was created, and refuses to authenticate his works – an interesting consideration for anyone thinking of buying them.) You can pick up some street art yourself, at least if you’ve a substantial amount of money to spare. Street artist Ben Eine hit the headlines when David Cameron gave Barack Obama one of his paintings on an official visit to the US.

Those in favour of this ongoing process argue that the increased commercial value placed on street art reflects its increasing stature in the art world. Many artists, too, use the money they make from commissions to pay their bills, but continue to practise street art in its purest, non-commercial sense. Others worry that commercialisation might be a profound betrayal of what street art was originally all about. Either way, it’s ironic that a movement that once eschewed commercialism has now, depending on your point of view, either insinuated itself into, or been co-opted by, the commercialised mainstream of the art world.

Not street art

There’s another concern: will commercialisation impose a form of censorship on what artists feel able to create? Will it normalise such art? Street art is frequently a dissident art form, pushing boundaries, disputing preconceptions and societal norms; will its increasing respectability undermine its ability to challenge and to dismay? When street art is being exchanged between presidents and prime ministers, has it lost its radical edge? Or is that just the nature of the world we live in?

Banksy, as a matter of interest, has self-published some books, although you’re not likely to find them on Amazon or any of the other usual outlets. I have a haunting feeling that there’s some kind of moral to be drawn from this story, at least for self-publishers. If I weren’t too tired to think straight, I might try to draw it. If anyone would like to help me, feel free…

Says it all, really…

Images author’s own. This post is re-blogged from Authors Electric.




6 thoughts on “Out on the Street

  1. A brilliant post, Mari. Very astute to apply dialectics to the development of art. Nice to see ’em in use. Those are impressive pieces of art. I wonder if my favourite artist, Van Goth – because he painted the common people – would have done street art had he lived today? I rather think he would.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Lucinda. I share your love for Van Gogh – and imagine being able to see his paintings on the walls of your town! He had so little luck with the art establishment that he might well decide, if he lived in our time, to take his work directly to the people, so to speak. You can only hope that the people would be rather more appreciative of it than the establishment…

  2. Cogently summed up, Mari. Hard to disagree with anything you’ve said there. The one thing I would say is that although the cultural conditions in Brighton might be right for the shoestring creative, the cost of living there is such that the financial conditions are almost certainly absent.

    Here’s one possible conclusion. You point out that there were no salaried/galleried gatekeepers in street art, only the risk of arrest or fines. It’s the latter that previously governed what would or wouldn’t be painted. If self-publishers had to take similar risks, maybe only those with something to say and the means to express it would do so. I’m thinking back to samizdat. I’d expect still to find your writing out there.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Paul. You’re absolutely right – if self-publishing involved not only no potential financial rewards, but an element of actual risk, I’m certain that the number of books being so published would take a nosedive. Hopefully that would leave a core of committed and talented writers, so there would certainly be un upside to it. But, just as cold, hard financial considerations took over traditional publishing, so too they have taken over the mainstream of self-publishing. Some insist that this is an entirely good thing. I’m not altogether convinced, but we shall see…

  3. I wanted to say that a true work of art remains a true work of art no matter what monetary value is assigned to it, and regardless of who is involved in assigning that value or exchanging the art. I say that I wanted to say that, but then realized that I can define neither “true” nor “art.” If you were to ask me to defend my stance, I would need quite a lot more tea and possibly several years of contemplation and research! That admission made, I can think of at least two dangers inherent to the gentrification of street art. As higher prices are applied to the art, what was freely given and available for an entire community is removed from the community at large and displayed for a subset of select individuals. The most egregious case is that of a piece of street art landing in a private collection, but even removal from the street into a museum is problematic because museums attract a certain type of person, whereas (as you note) the public street is for and used by everyone equally – one can’t very easily self-select out of using the roads! The second danger is to the artist herself. I have never encountered any fame or money in my path as an artist, but I have seen it happen to other writers. Sometimes even a little money is enough to redirect creative passion from serving the Muse to serving the back account balance. I think that true art remains that way no matter how the world receives it, but I also believe both “true” and “art” are elusive qualities that can be corrupted or diminished by any application of either fame or money.


    PS I enjoyed your photos from the trip! And welcome home!

    1. Hello Aniko, and thanks for commenting! I agree that a work of art remains as such regardless of how much money it’s judged to be worth and regardless of where it happens to be, geographically. And of course the definition of “true art” is a subject for potentially endless discussion… I suppose my big problem with the removal of street art from its original location is that the work of art in question was devised, as you say, with the aim of being visible to anyone who happens to walk down that street – and that includes people who wouldn’t normally venture into galleries or museums. It was intended to be available free of charge. I can see why such a work might be removed into a gallery, particularly when the original location is no longer suitable for some reason, but the idea of, for example, Banksy’s sly, subversive works hanging on the walls of a millionaire is a bit much for me.

      Glad you enjoyed the photos, though they don’t really do justice to the originals!

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