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