Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Art in the streets

Street art has exploded – it pervades our back alleys, surrounds our bus-stops, covers up billboards, competes with advertising, and generally serves as wallpaper for most cities.

We are used to visual noise surrounding us when we are out and about – a glut of graffiti, big billboards, local flyers envelop our entire visual field. We have learned to see through the eye pollution. But, recently, eye candy is slowly replacing the visual garbage: clever, witty, ironic, sarcastic, humorous, and interesting new art is popping up in unexpected nooks and crannies of cities all around the world. Beautiful, clever and inspiring, this new trend has more popularity and appeal with the ordinary public than most contemporary art.

But, what is street art? A far cry from mere graffiti – turf wars on walls, expressions of angry, gang-members attempting a visual territory take-over. No, street art is more socially acceptable than graffiti, but neither officially sanctioned like public art nor institutionally condoned like its more traditional artistic cousins in carefully housed in museums. Somewhere in between these two extremes, street art has emerged, occupying some metaphysically suspect grey area between illegal activity and bona fide art.

stahl_dull
‘Dull’ by Geoff Stahl, via Flickr. Used with permission.

But, this grey area of street art includes a wildly diverse set of artistically practices, including all manner of maverick works — space invader mosaics, yarn-bombed army tanks, delicate doilies for chain-link fences, and massive sculptures literally carved onto the sides of highrises, to name just a few. What could possibly unite this motley crew? Simply appealing to the traditional resources of art theory and history, viz., visual features or artistic medium will not do. Philosophers of art, fortunately, have a broader set of conceptual tools at their disposal.

Street artists engage in activism in a unique way: by moving their art out of the museum and into ordinary life, street artists do not merely comment about the state of the world; they intervene and change our world with their works. Inserting art directly into the real world (not the artworld) allows street artists to actively construct a different world to inhabit. Street art is designed to cross the boundary between art and an actual act of protest – that is its point!

Suggested Posing Spot by Geoff Stahl
‘Suggested Posing Spot’ by Geoff Stahl, via Flickr. Used with permission.

This activism is made possible because of its aconsensual methods of production. No matter what style, medium, or political agenda, all street art is made without consent of the property owner. This aconsensuality transforms the art-making process into an act of political and social protest. It is the umbrella concept under which the diverse facets of street art come together into a single, unified group that does justice to the social, political, intersectional, environmental and legal aspects of street art.

Street art is a sign of the times – where consumerism has become a forced way of life, where the artworld’s institutional pressures suffocate emerging artists, and where marginalised artists struggle to make their voice heard, street art represents an unexpected opportunity to opt out of the artworld system altogether. But these artists are not going underground; they are taking to the streets! There, they have the freedom to create their own art, in their own style, on their own terms. Street art presents a new alternative path for artists – one that allows them a chance for authentic expression, an opportunity to develop a set of alternative customs, traditions and norms that operate alongside, but definitely far away from, the “official” code articulated in art schools. The street is a logical escape from it all.

Street artists are placing their bets on a new artistic practice, a new medium for art-making – one that ignores the institutional structures of the artworld, and rejects their role as arbiters of artistic excellence. Taking art to the streets allows artists to redefine the criteria by which to be assessed: where an artist’s pedigree does not factor into an artwork’s evaluation, where the audience, not art critics, are the final arbiters of taste, and where other artists provide immediate and direct feedback in the form of responses to the work. The streets offer an even playing field, full of neutral, ordinary viewers and the opportunity for direct feedback from one’s peers. The streets provide an opportunity to make artistic statements, to invent artistic practices and to explore new media that are radically free from the restrictions, rules, and pressures facing artists working within the traditional artworld institutions. Street artists bring the power of art to the streets.

Featured image credit: ‘Shh!’ by Geoff Stahl, via Flickr, used with permission.

Recent Comments

  1. Justin W.

    I’m glad that street art is getting philosophical attention, yet I must take issue with two related points. The first is the suggestion that street art is some kind of new development (“recently”). Think of Keith Haring or Jean-Michael Basquiat’s work in the late 70s/early 80s, for just a couple of examples. The second is the contrast between graffiti and street art, which I find rather suspect. There are clearly works of graffiti that qualify as instances of street art. I can’t help but think that the main difference between the two is just the demographics of the intended audience, and that doesn’t seem like the right kind of criteria upon which to make the distinction.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *