26 January 2014

Ars gratia artis

Clet Abraham shows a little bit of love for the humble line.
Glasshouse Street, London, 25th January, 2014
I think the intrinsic link between art and extreme levels of social inequality is one of the things that draws me to street art.

When I walk through galleries there is a very cynical part of me that thinks that 90% of male artists only become artists so they can paint nudey pictures of women, and that the whole art world essentially exists to enable, justify and normalise the behaviour of a few lecherous old man, and has done since the Enlightenment first enabled folks to paint stuff other then dead angry sky fathers and their imaginary friends and followers, a massive industrial conspiracy of silence and duplicitous complicity en par with the Santa Lie and the Emperor's New Clothes that is Economics.

That same cynical part of me looks at the contemporary art world and sees the ridiculous amounts being paid for pieces purely as a very public display of status, and wonders about the complicity of the artist in all of this. A quick gander at almost any contemporary collection in a name-brand museum or gallery and you are hit with one overwhelming consistency - the sheer scale of many of the pieces. Whether an installation or a massive canvas, it seems that many an artist cuts their cloth according to the means of potential buyers with titanic blank walls to fill in their gated mansions, their work having no greater purpose in life than to serve as the wallpaper of the 1%.

This is also, of course, nothing new, for the history of art is the history of capitalism, of patronage and the artist as the scruffy not-quite-house-broken lapdog of the wealthy elite. In western culture the artist exists as a profession (or a calling) because someone else is willing to pay for them not to hunt or farm their own food. There is nothing wrong or obscene about an artist being paid for their work, but if the purpose of a piece is primarily to generate revenue then it is a commodity, not art, and should be acknowledged as such, not placed on a perspex pedestal and held up as a substantive statement on human existence, for it offers no deeper insight than someone once thought it would go well with their new curtains.

This is why I like street art - not graffiti or tagging, which while I cannot deny the craft of the taggers for me always seems more about self-aggrandisement, somewhere between braggadocio or marking one's territory with spoor and stool, the statement being made is about the importance of the self and not the external, and ultimately is of less interest to me. I am drawn more to the visual statements of street art that the artist takes to the commons for all and sundry to see, to feel and to be changed by. It is not democratised art, for not all are participating, but it is art that is offered to the collective without charge or reward, save the knowledge the artist has that their work has impacted on the lives of their fellow citizenry.

This doesn't mean that street artists are all noble saints, pursuing an altruistic philosophy and striking out against the artistic-industrial complex, for many no doubt see the streets as a viral marketing opportunity to increase the value of their personal brand, with the dollar signs of Shepard Fairey or Banksy firmly in their sights. But the fact that their piece is transitory, will cease to be once weather or landlord takes their toll, adds weight to the human value of the piece.

It is that human value, that the piece is created intentionally to bring a smile or a moment of joy, to enrage and infuriate or to educate and illuminate, that there is a purpose and meaning beyond the accumulation of hollow adornment, a direct communication between the artist and the viewer through the piece, that is why street art appeals to me.

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