This week will celebrate the end of street art as a viable form of visual expression. The Tate Modern in London is having a show of ‘graffiti’ on the walls outside of it’s building. But there is something else happening here that needs a closer look.
Graffiti is a form of visual expression employed by those who would not normally have any impact on their environment. These artists do not have access to the media, to the corporate infrastructures that dictate the whims and fancies of the contemporary art world. Instead, by taking a can in your hand you can say whatever you want to anyone with eyes. Place your paint in the right location and a million people might walk by and have a look. More viewers in a single day than any Picasso.
But what is happening at the Tate and being called graffiti is nothing more than ‘mural art’, something that is not new in anyway but goes back hundreds if not thousands of years. The key to the difference between mural art and graffiti is permission.
Graffiti is the act of unlicensed street art. It is a form of terrorism, an act of defiance, an individual insurrection of creative expression. When an artist is asked to do this (regardless of by who), to paint on a wall with permission there is no longer the threat of being caught, of getting in trouble, thus the soul of the work is reduced to mere advertising.
The seemingly open arms of the contemporary art world to graffiti is just a commercial speculation on its long term value. Many visual artists who have been embraced by the contemporary fine art establishment started as graffiti artists.
Jean Michel Basquiat, Max Schreck, Keith Haring, they all started as graffiti artists but were slowly eaten by the art world. This next bunch is no different. What may separate Banksy from his peers is his (at least vocal) opposition to the sale of his street pieces and his resistance to the art establishments typical forms of artist/gallery relationship.
There is still, and will always be, this form of terroristic artistic expression. But when you are saying what they want you to say, painting what they asked you to paint, you are no longer making graffiti but painting commercial murals. You have lost the meaning of the work, the risk being gone it has taken the soul of the act with it in exchange for money.