The Significance of MOCA's Art in the Streets:

The Art Establishment and Street Art

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Barry McGee, Houston Street Mural, NYC. image source: Martha Cooper

"Art is anything that takes skill." - SHARP, graffiti artist

The April 17, 2011 opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art's (MOCA) Art in the Streets (AITS) exhibition in LA marked a distinct turning point in an interesting progression of street art and graffiti's slow absorption into the fine art institution. Positioned as an illegal art retrospective, the show encompassed a variety of old-school LA legends, New York City graffiti revolutionaries, well-known street artists from across the world, and finally, the documenters that have followed the journey of the genre and art form's progression. Art in the Streets presents a unique point in history wherein one of the most comprehensive and most publicized shows on street art is seeing a larger awakening of public interest, positive art reviews and as a result, and increase in buyer and public reception for the movement. As opposed to other street art and graffiti shows that sprung up over the past 10-15 years, AITS represents a different curatorial style that places heavy emphasis on maintaining the movement's setting and progression-centric attributes. This analysis is meant to reveal the robust visual and spacial infrastructure that has aided street art's ascension, as well as analyze the genre's assimilation into the artworld, using Art in the Streets as a historical microcosm and anchoring point.

Street Art Institution

The formal art institution presents a paradoxical constraint to the street art genre. The movement is built on a foundation of democratic viewership, anti-establishment sentiments and self-reflexive, site-intensive works. In particular, a wheatpaste or mural that is put up under a bridge, within an alleyway, or on the facade of a building is a textbook example of the utilitarianism and setting specific nature of street art. In addition, the advent of art blogging and documentation further cements the works into a public sphere. Graffiti is even more of a proletariat artform. Norman Mailer cements this perspective in Faith of Graffiti, citing the importance and social distance of street art and graffiti to democratic art and display. (Mailer, 25-40)

The goal of increasing reach and coverage, combined with the steady documentation in the past 10-15 years, makes the accrued capital of a body of work available for instantenous research and recall at any point in the timeline. Bordieu’s theorization of cultural capital is particularly relevant in the discussion of art establishment and its assimilation of this movement. In this case, the “ ‘pure’ gaze is a historical invention linked to the emergence of an autonomous field of artistic production, that is, a field capable of imposing its own norms on both the production and the consumption of its products.” (Bordieu, 4) Street and graffitis' existence outside of the gallery setting provides an interesting usurpation of the art viewing process, and in the negotiation of publicity through online blogs and word of mouth, has long generated its own significance and “gaze.” In addition, the class-struggle that exists between high art and low art aesthetic value very well could have spawned the movement's adherence to activity outside the law. This is perhaps the starting point at which graffiti and lowbrow art began to simultaneously reach a wider audience, and also begin to be picked up by the artworld.

The crux of this paradox can be based on Dickie's institutional theory, which stipulates that although the content of art is driven by those within the artworld or community of practice, these individuals and institutional standards are driven by the "potential value" of a piece of art. (Dickie, 6) In the case of street art, the definitional constraints of value seem to a be a self-fulfilling prophecy. When shows like AITS are put together to showcase and the celebrate the progression of a rogue movement that began as an antithesis to the artworld, the "potential value" of prior wall murals, illegal drive-bys, train bombings, etc. is suddenly rung up and cashed out.

However, the significance of AITS is in its role as a recognizer of the unique progression of this movement, and presents an interesting turn of mentality, whereby the system is altered for the artists. While genre pioneering shows are plentiful, AITS' scope and perspective is one that street artists have never been directly indulged by through a large museum like MOCA.

“This quintessentially urban and dynamic partnership between the Brooklyn Museum and MOCA began with the 2005 Brooklyn-organized exhibition of the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the consummate American street artist of his generation; continued with the MOCA-organized ©MURAKAMI in 2007, defining critical elements of worldwide street art; and now culminates with a groundbreaking exhibition devoted entirely to street art and graffiti,” said Brooklyn Museum Director Arnold L. Lehman. “The partnership has, in itself, provided a major record of public art over the past half century.” - MOCA, Art in the Streets Press Release

Art in the Streets is a significant step in street art and graffiti's assimilation into the formal art establishment. Although this process has been going on over the past ten to fifteen years, this show is a summation of the movement's direction and future trajectory, marking a point in time when curators, artists and funders have a significant stake in the outcome of this movement.

The Significance of Setting

The freedom of setting and expression inherent in outdoor art is a direct foil to the art institution model of progression and historical context. In the latter system, works are presented within a confined space and setting, with works that differ in intended and actual meaning than when placed in an outdoor location. The exploration of space in AITS is a direct reference to attempting to break this institutional rigidity. One of the most interesting static works is by French street artist Invader, in which the artist approaches the gallery space as an omnipresent "public space" and applies his own works on the overlaying piping, rafters and extraneous spaces within the Geffen Contemporary.

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Invader, Art in the Streets installations, LA. Image source: Hypebeast

In addition, each street artist was brought in to set up new installations of murals based on the topography of the exhibit walls. While this isn't a new practice by any means, the significance lies in AITS concentration on creating site-specific works molded to each artists' space within the gallery itself. In addition, the only real reproduced or transported works are the documentation sections, featuring framed photography and video from the likes of Martha Cooper, Ed Templeton, Henry Chalfant and other famed graffiti documenters. The exhibit also features layout formats pioneered by Barry McGee's, the sort of bunched together display style that lends to the progression of a body of work, rather than the concentration on particular pieces. (Rose)

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Shepard Fairey, Art in the Streets, LA. image source: Arrested Motion

AITS also touches on this concept of Extramuros and Intramuros that Dr. Irvine discusses in his breakdown on contemporary street art. As the genre works to "de-asetheticize 'high art'.... the 'extramural' zones of non-art space and the logic of the art container are turned inside out." (Irvine, 6) The translation of this derivative remix is apparent in the layout and structure of the show. Artists are brought in to work with the setting at hand, and craft installations that embody the aspect of street art the consummate public is clamoring to see- the altered nature of a still environment. AITS also brings up this concept of space neutrality- or lack thereof. Graffiti and street art both operate under a system of openness that seeks to appropriate, remix and subversion in every direction. (Irvine, 6) In the scope of the Geffen Contemporary, space was separated into texturally unique segments, allowing artists to come in and bomb their respective sections.

Negotiating this textural space has always been one of the trademarks of the movement. The emulation of this vertical and planar negotiation of view is once again recreated in Art in the Streets, a definitive nod toward maintaining the setting-based reflexivity of the medium and also a nostalgic allusion to the graffiti and "getting-up" practices that have defined the genre.

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Banksy, Art in the Streets, LA. image source: Vandalog

Street Art Legitimacy

In the case of street art, the art institution plays a particularly interesting role both as a perceived ideological nemesis and as a method of translating legitimacy. The concept of art legitimacy and marketability is what has bolstered the capabilities of the art estalishment to prosper and flourish. As the genre (street art) and the framework (artworld) began to turn their eyes to each other, the ensuing conflict is perhaps more subjective than previously thought. The best example of this is 1998's Beautiful losers, a collective and travelling exhibit that was anchored by NYC's first flourishing "rogue" art meeting spot, Alleged Gallery. In this case, the embodiment of the punk, skater and DIY aesthetic is a driving force that isn't immediately recognizable on the surface of the work. In actuality, the beginning of this art movement, which saw the rise of artists within today's mainstream consciousness, including Shepard Fairey, Margaret Kilgallen, Barry McGee, ESPO and Harmony Korine, is an inspiring tale of the underdog, of the inner city bildungsroman and natural progression. Speaking with Dr. Irvine on his experiences representing street artists reveals a key concept in this argument, which is the cultural misconception of the "street artist." What is most decieving about this moniker is its literal non-existence. Artists are artists, no matter the setting, style or affliated movement. In the public's eye, creativity is misconstrued as anti-estalishmentariansim, and poverty as a mantra rather than reality. Historically, Shepard Fairey sold posters and screenprinted t-shirts to fund his art campaign just as Banksy's point of no return was hiding under a train for several hours. The point is that artists are artists, and that categorizing bodies of work by their genre's affliations pigeonholes street art and graffiti's true power, both inside and outside the gallery.

Beautiful Losers presents an interesting precursor due to its unique progression. In this video, Barry McGee illustrates the transformative PR capabilities of street art, and how it taps into a completely different paradigm of thought. It also challenges the power balance that the art establishment creates in the place of promotion. This is a textbook case of how a tech-driven, post-internet model affects how the artworld receives street art. At the one hand, pioneers like Barry McGee are generating accrued social capital without presenting anything that can be bought or exchanged. To a traditional artist, reach and coverage mean very little just because of the art buyer's market. On the other hand, street art and graffiti is nurtured through more pedestrian collaborations and financial endeavors. Shepard Fairey is a textbook example of this business model, literally starting at the street level and moving upward. In an interview with San Francisco Designer Benny Gold, the artist pulled out several of Barry McGee's early bottles with their signature painted portraits, describing them as his "retirement plan." The Beautiful Losers is an interesting precursor to MOCA because of the group's ability to operate and sell at their own pace, while building this concept of legitimacy through constant city bombing and paving the way for this dichotomy of indoor/outdoor duality that recently put REVOK in jail shortly after the opening of AITS.

This touches on one of the key attributes of the art establishment: money. The traditional model of art legitimacy translates into monetary gain through the accrued value provided by the "gaze" and aesthetic constructs of the artworld. In the wake of this centuries old system of gallery and individual patronage, street art and graffiti's accrued value is not measured in the same currency. As Norman Mailer argues in The Faith of Graffiti, "... the artist has as much right to print money as the financier? ... authority imprinted upon emptiness is money. And the ego is capital convertible to currency by the use of the name." (Mailer, 5) The moniker, the tag, the name becomes much more of an asset, especially within such a self-referential art form. In the democratic scene of street art, self-promotion is money-making. In AITS' case, its catalogue of names and artists reveals the social capital that artists like Banksy, Os Gemeos, RISK, REVOK and SABER have accrued through gallons of spraypaint on public walls and the public eyes that have glanced or stayed at each piece.

However, did it take Beautiful Losers or in this case, MOCA's Art in the Streets to reach this revelatory plateau? The answer is more complicated than a simple "no." The power of the art estalishment is creating an even playing field for art to viewed through a single lens. Sure, the underlying sales, promotion and fiscal properties of the system seem to be revealed more than the works oftentimes, but the idealogical principle is still at hand, and in many cases embodied through shows like AITS. Providing a class strata of works makes outdoor, renegade or illlegal pieces that much more profound and utilitarian, while the works created indoors, mimicking the artist's usual process of approaching a space, working with the space, and moving on ("getting up") exemplifies the setting-specific nature of street art and graffiti. As a tool of mainstream reception, the artworld has been instrumental in shaping the cultural capital behind art movements for generations. The post-pop aesthetic that is proliferating throughout the world is possible due to the highbrow legitimacy and sponsorship of Warhol, Lichtenstein and other purported "lowbrow" artists. The result is not only the gradual profitability of the genre, but also the value accrued from every tag, piece and buffed wall throughout the past 20 years. As Shepard Fairey stated in an interview with Smashbox prior to the show, "I think the institutions are recognizing the cultural force that this movement is, rather than the recognition of the institution making it a cultural force."

Art in the Streets @ MOCA from Smashbox Digital on Vimeo.

AITS' success lies in its attitude toward curating street art. Street Art and graffiti is perhaps one of the most self-referential and sensitive genres, in terms of constantly reaffirming its varied stances and satirical ability. In this case, Blu's mural teardown encapsulates this clash between formal and street. Blu, a fairly well-known artist out of Italy, was contracted to paint a mural on a facade of the Geffen Contemporary. In an act of faith, exhibit director Jeffrey Deitch didn't approve a sketch of the mural, and arrived in LA to see Blu's work, which involved a pattern of coffins covered in dollar bills. At a juncture where relations between the city (due to a rise in graffiti and crime) and artists were extremely tender, Deitsch made the decision to the buff the mural, both out of respect to the Veterans hospital facing the wall and to the controversial nature of the piece. In this case, the online community began to layer insults and negative comments at Deitch, who traditionally was a supporter of all graffiti across the board. However, the constructs of art once again work to bring the exhibit back into static alignment. In this case, the board of trustees, public commentary and opinion, cultural sensitivity play much stronger roles than in a case of a single artist bombing a railcar or a bridge.

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Blu's buffed mural, Art in the Streets, LA. image source: street giant

This further illustrates the concept of the art establishment seeking to put street art and graffiti on equal footing as other fine art categories. At the same time, the running of one the west coast's largest exhibits shouldn't be hampered by danger to its success and continued operation, and Deitch made a decision that, while unpopular, was the right one in advancing the show as a legitimate entity.


AITS is one of the most complex exhibits in terms of its inevitable seminality with the street art and graffiti genre, and represents a turning point for the genres' marketability and legitimacy. At the same time, the affluence of street art's rapidly rising value is a credit to the post- Internet, post-pop paradigm that has embodied each wheatpaste and tag, and each photo or video documentation thereafter. While drawing many aesthetic and theoretical elements from pop art and various other genres, the sheer depth of information and content, made possible by the Internet's ascension as the chief publicity medium, has created a highly self-referential, critical and socially relevant genre. "By 2000, street artists had formed a global urban network of knowledge and practice disseminated by proliferating websites, publications, and collective nomadic projects." (Irvine, 2) Dr. Martin Irvine's article presents the most relevant conflict in this particular study: how street art's basis in anti-estalishment and freedom of expression violates the cardinal frameworks of the art institution, art replicability and operation within set boundaries. In this context, AITS may seem to be a paradoxical exhibit of street art's ascension into the ranks of the art world.

The reception of AITS shows two possible outcomes for the progression of the movement. The curatorial and surrounding atmosphere to the show reveals an unseen middle ground that only a tactile and knowledgeable group of curators and organizers could execute. At the same time, these art collectors and artworld information gatekeepers (Jeffrey Deitsch, Aaron Rose et. al) play crucial roles in the art establishment's reception of street art. However, for once it seems the public's predilection toward to the wild, rebellious nature of the medium is relevant in the upper echelons of the financiers and decision-makers within the art establishment. As opposed to Pop's artistic ascension as a tongue-in-cheek, wolf in sheep's clothing style of pedestrian art, the more in-your-face, devil-may-care attitude that has romanticized much of the genre is still intact, breathing and evolving, through its unique assimilation into the art establishment.

Sources Cited:

Archey, Karen. "I Feel Like Holden Caulfield": Shepard Fairey on His Urge to Communicate, the MOCA Street Art Controversy, and His Thoughts on Obama 2012. posted, May 3, 2011.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. London: Routledge. 1984.

Dickie, George. The Art Circle, A Theory of Art. New York: Haven Publications.

Dickie, George (1974) Art and The Aesthetic. London: Cornell University Press.

Deitch, J. Art in the Streets. New York: Skira Rizzoli Publications, Inc. 2011.

Fairey, Shepard. "Supply and Demand." Gingko Press, 2006. Print.

Hanfling, Oswald.“The Institutional Theory: A Candidate for Appreciation?” British Journal of Aesthetics 39.2 (1999) 189-194. Print

Irvine, Martin. "The Work on The Street: Street Art and Visual Culture." Handbook of Visual Culture. Oxford: Berg, 2011. Print.

Mailer, Norman. The Faith of Graffiti. Greenwich Publishing Group.

Rose, Aaron. Beautiful Losers. Sidetrack Films: 2008. film.

Smith, Terry. What Is Contemporary Art? Chicago: University of Chicago, 2009. Print.