Week 8 Discussion

I've made available a book chapter coming out later this year with extensive background on street art:

Martin Irvine, "The Work on the Street: Street Art and Visual Culture" (pdf). Book chapter to appear in The Handbook of Visual Culture, ed. Barry Sandywell and Ian Heywood. London: Berg / Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. This draft for personal use only. Also thumbnail list of images cited (pdf).

Image slide show on Picasa.

--Martin Irvine

Alicia Dillon, Lian Han Week 8 Discussion

Links/ Images:

  • Jerry Saltz
    • "But fast and furious by themselves are not enough when it comes to art. There has to be an unexplained and original edge to this velocity and ferocity, an element that transforms desperation and desire into something new and compelling."
  • Art Net: Haring
    • And for an artist working in the Postmodern era -- read, here, the end of style for style's sake -- Haring went direct with his clean lines, bare figures and an ability to summon a character in a few strokes of black paint

  1. How does the placement of art a particular culture contexts imbues confirm status?
  2. How does contextualization change the way that we automatically give privilege to images?
  3. How does the context within which something is produced hinder or help actualizing this meaning?
  4. What happens when the placement shifts from museums or art books into popular culture?
  5. How does the construction of a medium (ie: the truth of the medium) informs content?

  • How did "street art" and "graffiti art" become recognized cultural categories? What are the current hierarchies and categories of all this work inside and outside the established art world?
      • Presently, a duality exists between street art in the street, and street art in the gallery space. Certainly, they function in decisively different ways.

JR created “street galleries” in Paris that he presented as the antithesis of a “formal gallery” environment. This is in direct opposition to the traditional system or model of art critique/the institutional system.
  • How does the "outside" become a privileged category "inside" the established art and media institutions?
      • One of the reasons street art is a rich site for defining fine arts practices is in the ways that one is able to observe the treatment of the same work inside/outside the gallery space. Today, street artists such as Shepard Fairey maintain a strong street, market, and gallery presence (such as the retrospective at MFA Boston).

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How does the context and meaning of Fairey’s work change based on its street vs. gallery setting? is one more legitimate in the “street art” genre than the other?

      • The street provides an arena for a more palimpsestic process-- multiple street artists are able to interact with one another, thus creating a richer dialogue between the city, the site specific space, and the piece itself.

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Perez Hilton ftw. When Banksy’s original work was cut out of the cement wall and thrown on ebay, another wheatpaste was discovered on the open hole that was boarded up with plywood. Street artists tend to be very plugged in to fellow artists, and rather than borrowing inspirations and subtlety, the response is much more instantaneous and overt.

        • Because this academic, theoretical, dialogue does not take place on the street how do these dueling dialogues, this line between art and vandalism function differently in each environment (the city/ the gallery)?

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These are two pieces by DC graffiti artist Cool Disco Dan, one, is a wall panel that has been taken out of it natural context, and placed in a gallery setting (Corcoran). The Second is a photograph of an actual tag taken in its environment. Does the quality of the tag, or the context of the work change depending on its placement? In addition, does the texture and placement of the first piece alter its intrisinic value?

    • How do the people and genres continually cross-over institutional boundaries? Multidimensional cultural categories and differentiations, cross-category sourcing for hybrid art forms.
      • Thinking about the moral, aesthetic, and theoretical questions activated by the activities that surround street art raises larger questions about how meaning is activated by institution, how object enters into conversation with commodification, and how acts of viewing are structured in within distinct environments.

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Kidult recently tagged the front of several high fashion stores in Paris, including Colette. As a super-curated fashion boutique, which has in the past recognized graffiti and street art, these pieces were buffed and cleaned within hours. What does this say about the formal settings of graffiti, and their interaction as “formal art?”

  • Can street art maintain its force once appropriated in the context of a gallery, or does space, history, and realities of the institution imprison the objects within particular realities? Can street art be readily displayed in a gallery setting, does it fully capture the essence of a piece?
      • How is street art a form of Post-Pop: beyond, after, "pop," but possible only through the cultural preconditions and new market categories assumed since Pop.
      • Pop art’s continued contribution to the Art World was opening the fine arts space to Street art is able to be recognized as a legitimate form of art. In addition, it very subtlely de-idealized art, making it acceptable and even “artistic” to monetize art pieces outside of the art object itself.
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Famed street artist turned toy and fine art mogul Kaws from Brooklyn began by altering bus stop ads, and now makes a lot of money from limited productions and releases of vinyl figurines that are consistent best sellers in the vinyl toy market.

Text Analysis:
The tension between aesthetics and politics is what street art has long been attempting to answer through its perpetual, palimpsestic history.
  • So how does the gallery space work? Especially when beginning to discuss street art, it is important to first look to how definitions of art are constructed. Here, aesthetic theory is helpful in defining what constitutes fine art. In this context (ie: fine art), all art relates to conference of status. In other words, what we call art must be confirmed (through a variety of processes), as legitimate, as real. Georget Dickie offers this analysis, commenting on his own previous definitions of Art (a follow up to his work Art and the Aesthetic):

  • “Another reason for abandoning conferred status of candidacy is the new emphasis on artifactuality. In the new version, it is the work done in creating an object against the background of the artworld which establishes that object as a workof art. Consequently, there is no need for conferring of status of any kind, whether it be of candidacy for appreciation or artifactuality. The only kind of status even envisaged by the theory now is the status of being art which is achieved by the creative use of the medium (1984:12)#.”

  • However, Dickie maintains that this theory does not in any way equate status with value. He continues, stating:

  • “The institutional theory of art is an explicit attempt to give the necessary and sufficient conditions of art..... The two views agree that “the background” of artworks plays an essential role in the making those objects art (Dickie: 1984, 25).”

  • However, if this background as described at all relates to intention Dickie yet again fails. Because appropriation takes an image and restates its meaning, the intention with which an image was originally created must not take precedent to the intention of the final product, even if this means that it is an exact duplication. (ie: Sherry Levine’s work After Walker Evans, in which she photographed seminal photographers photographs and reprinted them).

  • To restate what was discussed in __Conflating Space: Street Art 2.0__, a review of __The Phillips Collection__’s panel event featuring four street artists, __David Ellis__, __Romon Yang__, __Chris Mendoza__, and __Gaia__, and moderated by both Klaus Ottmann of the Phillips Collection (Director of the Center for the Study of Modern Art) and Martin Irvine of Georgetown University, today there is a duality surrounding the space that street art activates; particularly the role that it plays in the appropriated space of the studio versus the original space of the “street.” As such, definitions of this hybridity are often further involuted by the production, dissemination, and documentation of art through digital technologies.

  • To bring the conversation back to ethics, street art beggs the question as to how street artists personally dealt with the implications of the monetized space of the gallery, as some feel artistic acts such as street art (being a type of performance, and therefore raising the desire for instantaneity over commodification) is particularly complicated by this truth. The fact that the exhibits such as Shepard Fairey’s retrospective at MFA Boston, and Street Art 2.0 at Irvine contemporary just to name a brief few, must confront the way in which the art has been contextualized by the gallery; simply confirming the double life that street art leads.

SAARET YOSEPH: The genre of street art hits particularly close to home for me as D.C.’s (metro) graffiti is the focus of the documentary project I’m working on. These readings offered foundational insights into the enduring issues around street art -- value, aesthetics and appropriation. Both in my project and my general cultural studies pursuits, I’m concerned with gate-keeping. Who decides what’s art and what is vandalism -- How?

Basquiat’s career was emblematic of the rough division between studio space and the cityscape. In the process of my research for the documentary project, I’ve encountered graffiti writers who do their best to break into the art world through fine art or digital media. Illegal street art is eventually abandoned or treated as the mistress. The logic being that a sustainable art career means mainstream success. But, ironically, a legal writing career often means that you loose some perceived authenticity in the streets. How then do we consider the whole artist without a separate (and inconsistent) valuation of their street/studio works? In the case of Basquiat, would SAMO’s work even be acknowledged in the art world if he hadn’t received commercial success to validate it?

Additionally, visibility and access are major players in my inquiries about street art. Public art -- illegal or otherwise -- offers city-dwellers new ways to observe and engage with their space. In Prof. Irvine’s chapter, Swoon was quoted as saying “Once you start listening, the walls don't shut up.” For me, this statement gets at the dialogue that street art provokes. There’s an immediacy to the message because you don’t have to go to a museum or gallery to see it; writing on the wall that signal signs of other life. In the same way that writers interact with the city to produce art, viewers interact with that art to contribute to, as Irvine asserts, the “generative grammar of the creative process.”

Here's the director's statement from the graffiti documentary "Bomb It."

He mentions briefly that his pride re. the film comes from people unfamiliar or against graffiti who now look at street art wondering what the meaning behind it is. I think the consumers are just about as important to the dialogue on the streets as those who create it. Whether or not we see, engage, appreciate and consider street art is important because if "to exist is to be seen" (Irvine) then no one's alive unless I'm looking. The perception of street art must, therefore, be scrutinized as heavily as its production.

Zachary Allard

The Pop Art movement changed the fine art scene forever. In wake of the abstract expressionists and avante garde, Pop artists unshackled themselves from the strictures of the past. Instead of the anti-bourgeoisie, pure expressions that were meant to instruct, purify, and remain untempered by the world, Pop Art invited the dirty, middle-class, mass-produced world into the hermetic confines of fine art. Anything could now be the subject of “fine art.” In such a bold assertion, the Pop Art movement brought the world and all its messy imperfections into art.

The street artists who have emerged in the wake of the Pop Art movement have continued the progress begun by the Pop Artists. The Pop Artists brought the world into art, and the street artists brought art into the world. Pop Artists were no longer limited by conventional subject matter and techniques, and the street artists (as a form of post-Pop) are no longer limited to canvases or even legal space. Street art really was the next logical move in many ways after the Pop Art movement.

The Pop Artists brought the world of advertising and mass consumerist culture into their work. They riffed and tweaked ubiquitous images of celebrities, name brands, and icons, recontextualizing the pop culture around them into something new. However in spite of their active engagement with bourgeoisie culture, they were almost staunchly a-political as an artistic movement. Street Art shares some of those elements of recycling but, on the other hand, is almost always inherently political. First of all, any kind of art that is illegal has a political element to it. When an image, no matter how tame, is unlawful, then politics is implicit in the act. Street art is also heavily influenced by corporate images and advertising as Pop Art was. Unlike Pop Art though, Street Art does not merely “sample” or recontextualize advertising/bourgeoisie culture, it mimics it and seeks to replace and/or undermine it. Many of the street artists in the reading express this desire to “take back” the cities and public spaces from the glut of corporate shilling. So, the Street Artists have learned a different set of lessons from a bourgeoisie culture they are more actively trying to undermine. Lastly, the work of street artists is often more overtly political in its subject matter as well. Much of Banksy’s work recontextualizes charged political images and ideas (the Guantanamo doll in Disneyland for example), or the incident described in the New York Times when, “an artist replaced the silhouetted dancers in the current iPod advertisement with silhouettes of Abu Ghraib torture victims. The tag line "10,000 songs in your pocket, Mac or PC" became "10,000 volts in your pocket, guilty or innocent." The Street Artists learned the lessons of the Pop Artists and kept evolving into a clear but distinct scion.

Jess Perlman

Street art, evolving with the times - through Dan Witz’ lens

One of the mainstays of street art, even as that term continues to be defined for what it was, and now, what it is in present day, is Dan Witz. Of the generation of those bright street artists whose flame burned fast and short, Basquiat and Haring to name just a few, Witz’ street works have been around since the late ‘70s. His techniques are beautiful and measured, even in their absurdities, like this piece.


As an artist who makes his living successfully from gallery work, Witz sees the integrity of street art as something that’s entirely freeing, “freedom from the atist’s game - galleries, the career machine, all that frustrating, soul-sucking, dissatisfying bullshit. Going out on a street mission is my unsupervised playtime- no responsibility, no expectations, no need to worry about the artwork’s life outside that moment.” And yet, in today’s technologically agile world, that sentiment almost seems obsolete. With digital cameras and internet art culture booming, Witz’ works, along with his contemporaries can be seen the world over. Seen, but truly experienced? Although official internet sites, blogs, etc. can play a part in street art’s success, what does it mean to see it in disconnect? To not smell the trash that bakes in the heat of an August day in the dumpster next to the Do Not Enter sign in Brooklyn?

While “visibility” is up, perhaps one of the primary reasons for creating street art, as Swoon puts it, is to “communicate with people.” While her idea of communication was probably more personal than a pic on a website, the internet does also create a barometer for measuring the affects that street art has on its consumers. The double-edged sword of popularity, largely due to internet visibility, may, of course, lead to the end of this “in-fashion” form, but as with all phases of artistic expression, it will likely be born anew, or reappropriated by a later generation of rule breakers.

Basquiat- Beyond Pop-Art

Jessica Gesund


It seems to me that there are several ways in which Basquiat managed to take Pop-Art a step further. Through images like “Gold Marilyn Monroe” artists like Warhol, created an art that portrayed the icons of our culture, he provided us with images that were to stand for the whole artist system itself and even our whole system of consumption. According to Honnef however, this image goes beyond this, it acquires a quasi religious state, it portrays Marylin Monroe as a cultural icon: “By Placing the uninteresting photographic portrait with its forced stereotypical smile in an expansive space that surrounds it like a dignified frame and covering the whole field with gold-the color of the Heavenly Jerusalem, which lends icon their supernatural effect- Warhol idolized it”(Honnef,2004, 84). Meanwhile, according to Saltz, Basquiat, whose figures even resemble hieroglyphics at times, wanted his paintings to function “as a sacramental or talismanic object, something that had the shamanic power to change lives, protect cities or perform magic” and adds: “they are presented not as paintings so much as banners, standards and shields, things meant to be carried into battle, posted as warnings, or planted in graveyards”. This concept has been recently further explored by other street artists like Barry McGee who presents the wasted objects of mass production society as totemic objects and is concerned with the “talismanic power of letters rooted in the pictogram”. Thus they seem to be taking art further from the portraying of the icon to portraying and becoming the talismanic object


Moreover by including the copyright symbol in his work he managed to condense the idea of mass reproduction that Warhol aimed to portray through his endless reproduction of the objects which were massively reproduced on the canvas.

Street Art: A continuation of Pop?


Jean-Paul Basquiat seems to embody the transition from graffiti art to fine art. The edge and viscerality of his early work as Samo, writing poems and thought provoking phrases provided the hype and limited recognition in the art world needed to eventually display paintings in a gallery space. He also provides an interesting link to the pop-art movement of the 1960s. A close friend and sometimes collaborator with pop-art icon Andy Warhol, Basquiat seems to represent the new generation of anti-establishment art. Just as the pop-artists defied the established conventions of the art world, breaking with what Danto called the narrative of fine art, so too did Basquiat and the graffiti/street artists that were to follow him.
However, whereas pop-art was in some sense a reaction to the confining spaces of art world institutions, opening new spaces and creating new arguments for what art could be “…street artists took these arguments as already made...and ran with them out the institutional doors and into the streets” (Irvine 6). In the streets they found the life of the city, as well as the artifacts of a commercial age. Whereas artists like Warhol incorporated advertising/commercial art into their own works in a sort of tongue-in-cheek embrace, street artists have gone beyond the pop-artists’ reaction to consumer society. Warhol famously said he would like to be a business artist—a stark contrast to Swoon’s observation that she “feel[s] more at home in squalor than in the clean lines of McDonald's façade.”
While pop-artists renegotiated what was acceptable as fine art within the institutions of the art world, street artists often do not even acknowledge the existence of this world, preferring to live and work in the city, among their audience, not elevated above them. In this frame of mind, legitimacy is conferred not by institutional success, but by street-cred, daring and originality. The latter two elements were also important for the pop-artists of the 1960s and 70s, but street-cred is a new element of success, unsurprising for a genre of art created within and inspired by these living veins pumping the blood of urban life.

Space Wars

In “The Work on the Street: Street Art and Visual Culture”, Irvine argues that the term “Street art” works best when viewed “as a practice that subsumes many forms of visual culture and postmodern art movements, but played out in conflicting ways across the visibility regimes and constitutive spaces of the city and art institutions.” (Irvine, 22) It is a “community of practice with its own learned codes, rules, hierarchies of prestige, and means of communication.” (Irvine, 1) Artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, who burst forth onto the New York art scene in the early 1980s, paved the way for a post-postmodern approach to art that defines the genre today.

Street art developed out of early punk and hip-hop, and is promulgated by a rebellion against the commerciality and hegemony of modern society. It operates as a politics of gift: artists do not ask for monetary compensation for their efforts, and this is why it can be seen as an inherently anti-market practice. Artists like Swoon and Dan Witz have spoken about the tension between continuing to honor the tradition of Street art and putting food on the table (“Roundtable: Street Art”, The Morning News). On the one hand the comodification of style and aesthetics and independent spirit is inevitable and distressing; on the other, with increased commercialization has come increased awareness, a larger audience of participants and financial opportunities for artists.

One of the defining characteristics of Street art is its tendency to challenge spatial hegemonies by becoming a competitor in the contest for visible public space. (Irvine, 2) Where advertising tends to be “predatory” in its codes, Street art can function to redirect focus and thought in the current “attention economy”. Street art is also the first truly post-Internet art movement. (Irvine, 23) This has enabled it to exist at the local level - in the act of doing - as well as the global level, in the act of capturing and disseminating. (Irvine, 8) Street art is the city, which provides inspiration and whose walls become mural space; art produced in this context allows the city to be “re-imaged and re-imagined”. (Irvine, 8)

Street art challenges and contests two “regimes of visibility”: legal and governmental, and artworld or social aesthetic. (Irvine, 18) It attracts legal and governmental scrutiny because it violates current laws surrounding use of public space and because of copyright violation. AP v. Fairey is a “perfect storm” example of the inability of current copyright laws to address questions of appropriation within the new cultural milieu. Street art challenges artworlds because it operates outside of the wall of established practices and status quo. It operates intramuros and extramuros, inside and outside of, art-institutional space, on a continuum between art-institutional space and public space surrounding everyday life. (Irvine, 11)

Two Dayz in Tehran - A1one Stencilz
Tags: Two Dayz in Tehran - A1one Stencilz

The physical surface of public space is highly coveted. (Irvine, 21) Fear of the socialization of members of society through constant exposure of advertising in public space has led many street artists to undertake an explicit subversion of advertising space. (Irvine, 19) In the place of commercial advertising, these artists place other messages, codes and knowledge. Banksey, Shepard Fairey and Ron English are three examples. (Irvine, 20)


JR and his TED Prize wish “To use art to turn the world inside out”
In their discussion, Liam and Alicia briefly reference the French urban artist JR and what he calls his “sidewalk galleries”. In his recent TED Talk, JR noted that the “city is the best gallery” because instead of having to present a gallery director with a book of his art, he can “confront it directly with the public”. He likes that the “people on the street are the curator”. They can “rip it, tag it, pee on it”, and thus it truly becomes part of the community in a way that is much more fluid – osmotic, even – than containing all the art in galleries and museums. He began by posting pictures of his friends on the walls of Parisian buildings, but quickly evolved to leveraging his art in order to evoke a global hybridity and unity.
JR’s major statement projects are so powerful because they draw attention to situations and populations that the media misrepresent or which we in the western world prefer to ignore. One of the first of these was “Face to Face”, where he posted pictures of Israelis and Palestinians making similar faces next to each other. He then asked people to identify which portraits were of Israelis and which were of Palestinians; many could not.
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JR traveled to Kenya, to one of Africa’s largest slums, after the country’s post-election violence in 2008. There, he posted giant portraits of citizens’ eyes on the roofs of the houses – in vinyl, so they would stop the rain from leaking into the homes. He says that when you look at the community now, “they look back”. This project gives a voice a community of people who would probably have no other way to speak to a global stage. Thus, JR's art is indeed making big changes, not just for these people's livelihoods but also in the living rooms that are much drier than they were before he came.
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JR creates a multi-layered hybridity. Not only does he remix mediums and perceptions about urban art by pasting photographs, but his effort to find work in societies across the world - from Brazil to India to impoverished suburbs of Paris - evokes a geopolitical hybridity. In hearing about these art projects and listening to speeches like his TED talk, viewers from around the world are drawn to the places and problems he highlights. And yet, he doesn't show images of horror or violence; instead, he focuses on the character and personality of the people he meets. Without being trite, he demonstrates that we're all a lot more alike than we'd think: we all make silly faces in front of the camera, we've all endured struggles. In this way, JR yields a macrocosmic form of hybridity. JR truly believes that he is changing lives and changing the field of urban art, and it’s refreshing to see that an institution as well-respected as TED agrees with him.
--Liz Kneuer