“The paradox of culture is that it both needs and rejects administration, which makes for an uncomfortable coexistence, and there are those who feel that administrative systems and culture are, and should remain, mutually exclusive.” –Andrea Carson
In the art world, there are systems, metanarratives, structures and rules. Then there are those who break the rules. The gallery, as an art institution, is viewed as a housing station for presenting, revealing, documenting and exhibiting fine art. A tension is created when this system is challenged. Not all art is intended to be placed in a gallery. Some artists find this method of displaying artwork hindering to their intent. Graffiti art, for example, is troubled by this dichotomy. This tension can be explored through the work itself, the artists who produce it, and the exhibition techniques used outside the gallery. One should inquire as to why these works are not, or cannot be, effectively displayed in a gallery. This poses questions as to why a gallery is still the standard type of exhibition space if it is not able to encompass all forms of art. Perhaps the gallery can be construed as selective. It has the ability to shape what is and what is not canonized. It also has the authority to determine merit by the means of including or excluding work. This causes tension between the traditional painters and sculptors who are embraced in a gallery setting, and the site-specific artists who, throughout history, have had to rely on different forms of documentation to give credibility their work. The only way some of these artists could be situated in a gallery would be through the representation of a photograph. If art is moving in new directions, and has existed outside of the gallery for many years now, why is the gallery setting still the standard norm for the exhibition in terms of the visual arts?
Before one can discuss this tension between gallery and site-specific work, one must look to the most basic form of juxtaposition between these two entities: the fact that one is public and the other is private space. In the book entitled, Public Space and Democracy, editors Marcel Henaff and Tracy B. Strong argue a space is private when:
This definition can apply to the gallery space. A gallery, both public and privately owned, implies requirements upon entering such as a monetary fee or adequate attire. Your actions are governed once inside in terms of what you can eat, what you can touch and where you can walk. Although not always owned by a single individual, here the corporate figure acts as the individual who possesses the space.
In juxtaposition, Henaff and Strong stipulate that there are also certain components that define a space as public. They claim that, “In public space, human beings engage in a particular type of interaction,” and that, “From the beginning, public space was associated with theatre.” Public space functions as a stage for one to reveal his or herself to others. This can suggest a correlation between artist as performer, and viewer as audience. For this to be successful however, they call on the notion of sight. They give an example of how a friend might ask, upon returning from the theatre, what one saw and not what he or she smelled or ate.
The simplest way to classify the space is by visually assessing the information around you. Sight allows one to determine if one exists in a public or private space in any moment of time. Even though many art practices include sound, smell, and touch, the term ‘visual’ arts itself places such importance on the act of looking. A gallery can determine what will enter our sight, whereas, a work on a street corner will be influenced by many other surroundings, most that are out of the artist’s control. A gallery can condition one to believe what he or she views on a gallery wall represents exceptional merit. With the notion of sight, one is triggered to question who is actively viewing the work, who the work is for, and how its placement within either private or public space impacts this. These are all questions that one must be aware of when considering the subject of graffiti art and its relation to the gallery.
Anne Norton, Professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, presents some interesting thoughts on sight and vision in her publication Writing Property and Power. She argues that, “the sense most recognized as a dimension of power and authority is the sense of sight.” Because sight is such a strong informative device, the direction one’s eyes travel and what catches one’s gaze is granted power over what falls into the background. Norton claims that sight is power, and what attains our sight gains this power. Within a city there are many visual sources competing for our eye, whether they be advertising, traffic lights or store signs, one’s gaze is affected by the most powerful or most prominent cues. In this, “we see who is permitted to be visible in the city and who must be concealed.” Therefore one can argue that what one sees is permitted to be there, which makes a comment on graffiti and its impermanence in some cases.
Some graffiti can be viewed as vandalism and is often covered up, painted over or removed once discovered. This forces one to question its validity in the city as something that would maintain the power to hold a gaze. By concealing this information and covering up the graffiti through the initiation of laws, the government is in some way conditioning our vision of the city. This act of removing graffiti from city walls could imply that the social norm disagrees with it being there. Therefore, it is of less merit than posters, billboards or advertisements of perhaps less artistic or aesthetic value. Recontextualizing graffiti by placing it within the walls of the museum contradicts this suggested ideology that graffiti is vandalism and awards it a higher regard in culture or society. There are certain entities that govern the visible within the city. However, there are also similar systems that determine what is to exist within the gallery.
Graffiti can commit three types of offences: ones that relate to aesthetics, property rights and speech. Many feel the language is offensive and obtrusive. Some believe it makes the streets of their home town look dilapidated. This in turn, could cause property values to decrease. Although graffiti can be given a tainted view, many forms of graffiti art and artists are being celebrated. Norton makes a clever connection here with the relation of graffiti art as being the visual equivalent of rap music . What was once seen as underground street culture is now making its way into the mainstream and is even recognized by some art institutions. Rap music’s acceptance by institutions such as the Grammys can be related to graffiti’s acceptance by the art world into gallery situations. Graffiti art is not as separated from the fine art world as many would believe. To support this claim, one may have to be convinced that there are different types of graffiti that exist within the subculture, and not all of them are considered low forms of art.
Graffiti art is not a new form of art by any means. As a species, humans have always been interested in reacting to their environment. This is often revealed through the actions of inscribing and mark making that dates back to the cave paintings. Ancient Egyptian art also illustrates a desire to make a personal indentation on a surface. However, this connection to history may be irrelevant to some. Professor Tim Cresswell argues this relation to cave art is only an attempt made by the art world to contextualize graffiti art, allowing it a specific relevance to art history and, therefore, granting it more importance in the gallery or the system if art history. There seems to be a pressure from some to force graffiti art into the art world by implying these historical influences. Certain artists throughout history, however, have affirmed this connection. Paul Klee is influenced by primitive art, Brassai photographed Parisian forms of graffiti, Cy Tombly’s work is akin to mark making reminiscent of arbitrary ‘squiggles’, and Jean Dubuffet produces work in relation to the ‘art brut’ attitude.
More recent beginnings of graffiti art can be traced back to the streets of Philadelphia and New York City in the 1960’s. At this time, cultural geographers were examining graffiti in terms of urban identity politics, territoriality and indiscretion. Later in the 1980’s the line between vandalism and fine art was becoming less distinct. Artists such as Jean Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Tony Schafrazi were injected into the gallery system and celebrated as successful art makers as opposed to street writers. The academic journal, Cultural Geographies, defines graffiti today in terms of: gender, race, identity, politics, gangs, territoriality, communication, urban decline, de-industrialization, resistance of authority, exploring public spaces, expressions of ideologies, and as a “conceptual tool for reading, writing and re-imagining the city.” This definition allows graffiti to exist simultaneously within street culture as well as the realm of conceptual art. As time progresses it is more difficult for one to separate the definition of graffiti from one extreme to the other.
Once one has grasped the definition of graffiti and its historical time line, one needs to be informed as to what graffiti and its culture encompasses. As present within the art world, graffiti culture also has its own set of hierarchies. There are differences in terms of style, mark making, and writing that determine the merit of the work and, respectively, the artist. It is vital to note that not all graffiti art exists at the same level. Even those that are active in graffiti subculture agree that there is some work that is destructive and obtrusive, and other work that is conceptual and overwhelming with aesthetic superiority. The lowest form of graffiti is “tagging.” Tagging is the haphazard type of signature or mark placed in/on a public space. A “buffer” represents the antithesis of the graffiti artist. A buffer is employed to cover graffiti with the best match of colour to the original wall that the work was painted on. A graffiti “writer” is considered to embody the highest form of graffiti art. This term should only be reserved for the best street artists. This system is best explained by art writer Jonathon Jones:
Due to the fact that these different hierarchies have now been recognized, the art world is starting to respond.
The term “post graffiti” has been circulating the art world for some time. In his article, Placing Post-Graffiti: The Journey of the Peckham Rock, Luke Dickens defines the emerging ‘post graffiti’ aesthetic as, “the intersections between contemporary forms of urban inscription, art and the city.” To give an example of an artist who completely represents this terminology he cites Banksy, the self-proclaimed ‘art terrorist”. Dickens claims that this term is:
This new terminology allows one to grasp that the art form came from one system but is evolving into a new context - one that is more inclusive of the elite art world. Post-graffiti does not only differ from graffiti in its definition, but also how in it appears to the eye. It does not just expand beyond the spray can and traditional spray techniques but it, “revolt[s] against generic styles.” Dickens is excited by the fact that post-graffiti artists are, “breaking the unwritten graffiti rules to create new graphic forms and images outside 3-D and wildstyle lettering.” Banksy is an ideal example of this evolution.
The shift from street graffiti to the work of Banksy is not a gradual one. Bansky differs from the norm and elevates himself by several means. For example, no one knows the true identity of Banksy. He will wear masks and paint at night creating a mystic quality to his identity. Even his name and birth-place are debatable. The only thing the public knows of him is that his work started to appear around 1993 on trains and walls around Bristol, United Kingdom. He separates himself from other graffiti artists by using an advanced stencil style. He has developed characters that are recurring in his work, such as the rat. Dickens even goes so far as to call these characters “actors” at some level, which relates to the argument previously made claiming public space as a type of theatre.
Banksy’s work often carries undertones of political messages or remarks about the art institution. He even traveled to Louisiana to create site-specific works on damaged homes after the event of Hurricane Katrina. His conceptual subject matter is not the only element that relates Banksy to the artists that are more traditionally incorporated into the art world. Bansky also has a studio that he works in to create prepatory drawings and practice his techniques. He also produces work on canvas that he sells for profit. His art sales have reached such monumental amounts that they often attract audiences filled with Hollywood celebrities such Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Christina Aguilera. His works sell for almost half a million American dollars.
However, graffiti art is not his only practice. Banksy often creates pieces as interventions within a space that often targets the art institution. For example, on the wall of the National Film Theatre in London he spray painted the words “boring”. He also stenciled the phrase “mind the tat” on the steps of the Tate Britain. He left a stuffed rat with sunglasses and a spray can on display at the National History Museum. Dickens suggests that his practice is, “a critique of the undemocratic, elite nature of the art establishment,” which he describes as, “a rest home for the over-privileged, the pretentious, and the weak.” In this sense, one may look at his practice as a way for him to seek popularity and make a name for himself.
The artist as a celebrity is a repeated ideal that dates all the way back to figures like Yves Klein and Andy Warhol. These artists created a self centered notion, and without their names, their art work would have not reached the level of fame that it has today. Dickens states that, “Banksy attempt[s] to directly engage with urban audiences through ‘readable’ iconographic inscriptions – using critical, intriguing and often humorous graphics – in order to challenge their visual understandings and appreciations of the city.” This ultimately proves that he is the ideal representation of an artist embodying the post-graffiti aesthetic. Once one has recognized that this new term relates more to fine arts than just street culture alone, a space will have to be created in which to house such works.
These spaces are being created and organized for artists like Banksy. As previously mentioned, artists started to be incorporated into elite galleries in the 1980s. However in Winnipeg, although not the typical upscale New York City gallery, there is an outlet for graffiti artists to exist between this high-end art exhibition space and the street. The space is called the Graffiti Gallery and it was founded in 1998. This gallery was able to fill a void in the arts and cultural worlds. It was able to bring together the artists with curators, gallery directors and university professors under one roof each time an exhibit was opened. A resident of Winnipeg, artist and academic Clyff Eyland relates the type of groups exhibited here, such as “Two-Sicks”, to older collectives present in Fluxus and Dada, because they create an “all-media-any-venue art.”
Even in this instance there seems to be an inclination to justify or relate graffiti to what occurred in the past. Institutions such as the Graffiti Gallery in Winnipeg blur the lines between high art and street culture. Some works are exhibited and go unnoticed on the streets for months and others are collected and purchased by art lovers. There is a fascinating ambiguity between who is considered the artist and who is considered the street writer. This is an exemplary merging of urban culture into fine arts. The Graffiti Gallery is not the only institution to embark on this. As stated by Andrea Carson, writer on contemporary art, architecture and design, “Creative Time in Manhattan and Locus+ in Newcastle… encourage the old model of public art to evolve into a more participatory endeavor, one that respects the artist as conceiver and director.” Carson expresses her frustration with those who continue to taint graffiti art in a negative light. She states that, “It is easy to be critical, but disparaging attitudes cause us to overlook the opportunity implicit in the times of change…” These institutions arrange non-traditional means of exhibition outside of the gallery. Bus shelters, empty buildings, and public streets have all been sites where one would normally witness graffiti, however, now it is rented out by these organizations that consider these acts to be legal. This type of exhibition could be interpreted as extending the gallery walls to exist in different parts of the city. A bus shelter for example, becomes part of a gallery/exhibition system when rented out by these institutions and utilized as a space for the display of artwork. Carson sees these institutions as a sort of middle man or what she terms a “facilitator” because to utilize these spaces legally requires funding, often from a party separate from the artist.
Locus+ is definitely acting as a facilitator in Carson’s definition of the word. On their website they state:
Locus+ touches upon something that the Winnipeg Graffiti Gallery may not. They distinctly recognize the fact that gallery/exhibition spaces need to adapt to how people read images today. They argue that because of the rapid pace of media culture, galleries are starting to respond by changing their exhibitions very quickly and by only displaying a small portion of their permanent collection because the public gets tired of seeing the same thing repeatedly. Once again, the importance of sight comes into play. The gallery claims, “the demands of the mainstream institutions hold artists back from their natural instincts to subversion,” and they do what they can to provide an outlet for artists so that they are not inhibited by these constrictions.
Institutions like Locus+ and the Winnipeg Graffiti Gallery are aware of the constrictions that a traditional gallery places on site-specific work. A few local curators from museums in London, Ontario may have differing opinions. Museum London’s Head of Exhibitions and Collections, Melanie Townsend, and colleague Ihor Holubizky, the Museum’s Curator of Art, share some interesting opinions on the subject. They were posed with the questions: From a curator’s perspective, what are your opinions concerning graffiti art? And should it be considered fine art or street culture? They answered:
In relation to the gallery system they pose an interesting question of how the term graffiti is used. Does it pertain to work that is made with spray paint in any circumstance, or does being in a gallery inherently change its formula? Townsend goes on to say:
Here one can relate back to Carson’s definition of the facilitator as taking on the persona of the “middle man”. Banksy does not utilize institutions like Locus+ and the Graffiti Gallery. It is possible that he may wish to make a comment about the system. It is also likely that perhaps he just wants to work on his own terms without relying on the use of others’ time or money. Townsend sums up her argument best when she states:
Jason Paul Schiedel of Forest City Gallery was a bit more embracing towards graffiti art. This may be because this particular gallery is an artist run centre and therefore they do not enforce the same strict legalities or regulations that a larger public gallery does. When asked about his opinions on non-traditional methods of exhibiting art, as seen in instances like Locus+ he responded that, “non-traditional ways are okay, but it is better to pervert traditional ways. For one it's easier. And then you get it two ways.” When asked if he would like the opportunity to exhibit a graffiti artist he answered, “I welcome the opportunity to exhibit artists of outstanding talent no matter how they practice it. Art is living, and I would invite the liveliest.” This differs from the non-committal response Townsend gave that referred more to the rules and regulations of time constrictions and work production that would have to be regarded before any artist could be exhibited. It seems here that even in traditionally run exhibition spaces such as public museums and galleries, curators are generally open to the experience of exhibiting a graffiti artist. While some are more open than others, this is probably due to the type of gallery they curate as well as the mandates that these specific institutions are governed by.
When given an in depth analysis of graffiti art and trying to evaluate its origins, hierarchy, artists and the interaction with public and private spaces, one can conclude that the practice is not as removed from the mainstream art world as many tend to presume. The work still relies on visual reading. There is an interaction with work and viewer in a determined space and there are systems in place to exhibit these types of works. Some artists practice in a studio and some practice in the streets. A lot of graffiti art is conceptual and motivated by social or political thematics. Some artists even accept commissions and sell their work for profit.
Do artists like Banksy pervert the system, critique the system, or create a system of their own? It is hard to come to definitive conclusions when dealing with a part of the art world which evolves forever in a state of transformation. Through institutions like Locus+, there is a strong movement towards accepting these specific forms of art as fine art instead of purely as street culture. However, as Melanie Townsend has briefly touched upon, a major problem arises concerning the issue of what happens to graffiti art upon entering the gallery or the art historical cannon. Does it have the same meaning, allure, and context as it would when placed outside the gallery walls in the public sphere, where it remains untouched by the framework of the institution?
I truly believe artists like Banksy have a significant importance in the world of contemporary art. He is able to utilize both systems of high art and street culture in a successful manner. Although Banksy holds a great deal of street credibility, his work still catches the attention of the foremost contemporary art critics and writers. If I could only know one more thing about this artist, I would ask him where he wishes to belong within the system. Banksy undoubtedly blurs lines between belonging to the subculture of graffiti and holding a position within the elite institution. His identity within the art world suggests an inevitable tension as he does not fully belong to either side. Banksy is a figure that remains in a constant state of transition between the street and the gallery. I believe this is a tension that will always be present in the medium of graffiti art.
1. Andrea Carson, “Artangel,” Border Crossings 24.1 (2005): 32.
2. Marcel Henaff and Tracy B. Strong, Introduction. Public Space and Democracy By Marcel Henaff and Tracy B. Strong. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001): 2-3.
3. Ibid, 5
4. Ibid, 5
5. Anne Norton, “Writing Property and Power,” Public Space and Democracy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001) 190.
6. Ibid, 190
7. Ibid, 192
8. Ibid, 195
9. Luke Dickens, “Placing post-graffiti: the journey of the Peckham Rock,” Cultural Geographies 15 (2008): 480.
10. Dickens 480 (Tim Cresswell is a human geographer at the Department of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the author of four books on the role of space and mobility in cultural life.)
11. Cliff Eyland, “26/Two-sicks/too-six.. In 1975, before all the members of the art collective 26 except Fred Thomas were born, Lawrence Alloway was already wondering how it was that graffiti art, street stuff done mostly by lower-class Latin kids in New York City, was gaining acceptance in high-end galleries,” Border Crossings. 23.4 (2004): 18.
12. Dickens, 471
13. Eyland, 18
14. Dickens, 472
15. Eyland, 18
16. Ibid, 18
17. Ibid, 18 (Jonathan Jones writes on art for the Guardian and is on the jury for the 2009 Turner prize)
18. Dickens, 471
19. Ibid, 472-73
20. Ibid, 473
21. Ibid, 473-74
22. Lauren Collins, “Banksy Was Here,” The New Yorker 14 May 2007. 26 Jan. 2009. <http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/05/14/070514fa_fact_collins> (accessed).
23. Dickens, 474
24. Janae Houghton, “The painter painted: Melbourne loses its treasured Banksy,” The Age 14 Dec. 2008. 26 Jan. 2009. < http://www.theage.com.au/national/the-painter-painted-melbourne-loses-its-treasured-banksy-20081213-6xzy.html> (accessed).
25. Dickens, 476
26. Ibid, 474
27. Graffiti Art Programming, 2009. Graffiti Art Programming Inc. 26 Jan 2009. <http://www.graffitigallery.ca/index.html> (accessed).
28. Eyland, 21
29. Carson, 32
30. Ibid, 32
31. Ibid, 33
32. Locus+. Arts Council England. 26 Jan. 2009. <http://www.locusplus.org.uk/index2.html> (accessed).
33. Jon Bewley and Simon Herbert, Locus+, London: Black Dog Publishing Limited, 2000: 22.
34. Bewley, 24.
35. Melanie Townsend, “Re: Curatorial Questions,” E-mail to the author. 22 Jan 2009.
38. Jason Paul Schiedel, “Re: Curatorial Questions,” E-mail to the author. 22 Jan 2009.
Bewley, Jon and Simon Herbert. Locus+. London: Black Dog Publishing Limited, 2000.
Carson, Andrea. “Artangel.” Border Crossings 24.1 (2005): 26-33.
Collins, Lauren. “Banksy Was Here.” The New Yorker 14 May 2007. 26 Jan. 2009. <http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/05/14/070514fa_fact_collins> (January 2009)
Dickens, Luke. “Placing post-graffiti: the journey of the Peckham Rock.” Cultural Geographies 15 (2008): 471-496.
Eyland, Cliff. “26/Two-sicks/too-six..” Border Crossings 23.4 (2004): 16-27.
Graffiti Art Programming, 2009. Graffiti Art Programming Inc. 26 Jan 2009. <http://www.graffitigallery.ca/index.html> (January 2009)
Henaff, Marcel and Tracy B. Strong. Introduction. Public Space and Democracy. By Marcel Henaff and Tracy B. Strong. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001: 1-31.
Houghton, Janae. “The painter painted: Melbourne loses its treasured Banksy.” The Age 14 Dec. 2008. 26 Jan. 2009. < http://www.theage.com.au/national/the-painter-painted-melbourne-loses-its-treasured-banksy-20081213-6xzy.html> (January 2009)
Locus+. Arts Council England. 26 Jan. 2009. <http://www.locusplus.org.uk/index2.html>
Norton, Anne. “Writing Property and Power.” Public Space and Democracy. Ed. Marcel Henaff and Tracy B. Strong. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001: 189-200.
Schiedel, Jason Paul. “Re: Curatorial Questions.” E-mail to the author. 22 Jan 2009.
Townsend, Melanie. “Re: Curatorial Questions.” E-mail to the author. 22 Jan 2009.