Parsing out the urban art grab bag

C215. Photo by Feral78.
C215. Photo by Feral78.

Note from RJ: A version of this essay by Christian Guémy aka C215 was recently published in French with Rue89, but we both felt it was important to publish a version in English as well. – RJ

For some time, and especially since the English artist Banksy has enjoyed worldwide success, hardly a week goes by without the media reporting an event involving the urban arts, whether it’s a gallery showing “street art,” or auctions of “graffiti,” or the setting up of an “open air museum,” or pure and simple repression of vandalism.

It’s clear that recognition by the public and the media of urban arts has arrived at its apogee, and achieved the summits of popularity. Even so, I am astonished by the absence of distinction among the various practices that make up urban art. Their reclassification into a gigantic ragbag conveniently called “street art” obscures more than it clarifies.

I’m 40 and I’ve been closely involved with urban art since 1984, which is when Sydney presented in France his cult television show “H.I.P. H.O.P.” I tried my hand at graffiti in 1989 and since then I have closely followed the progress of this kind of art. It seems that several “generations” have gone by since, each having very different ambitions and practices that deserve distinction.

The pioneers of graffiti

Graffiti has always existed. It is an anthropological phenomenon. Each one of us during childhood has carved his/her name into a tree, or drawn on the desk during class, or left a sarcastic message on the bathroom wall at school.

In the 1930’s, the French photographer Brassai was the first to become interested in this kind of inscription, which dates back to Antiquity. The Coliseum itself was marked by many traces left there by unknown people. Graffiti, in my childhood, was usually dealing with signatures, love stories, political messages, sports supports, witty sentences or poetry.

The appearance of the aerosol can in the 1960s would provide disillusioned youth of the 70s and 80s with a particularly effective tool for leaving inscriptions on the walls of ordinary streets, which up until then had not been considered an artistic canvas, other than by brand advertisers.

It is this technological innovation, the “spray can,” which contributed its glamour to the movement called “graffiti,” dominated by the “hip-hop” culture in America or even more by the “punk rock” movement in Europe.

The romantic essence of graffiti

This generation invented the codes of a newly born urban culture which would have as much impact on Western visual culture as rock ‘n’ roll had on music in the preceding decades.

Graffiti proceeds from a romantic essence. Selfless and happy anarchists, the first to use a spray can for graffiti invented an entirely different culture. The perceived quality of their interventions was founded above all on the courage linked to their performance while trespassing, being provocative in the public space and the fineness of their calligraphy, pushed to the extreme of encryption.

Their goal was to please their peers and to displease the mainstream society they intended to provoke. A tribal logic drove them to willfully appropriate the public space. This constituted a sort of response to rampant urbanization and to the rapidly changing society from which they felt excluded.

Their markings consisted of the repetitive placement of their pseudonyms which could only be decoded by their peer, and which reinforced the rest of society’s general disapproval.

These first generations, with a few exceptions for sure who immediately tried to turn it into a tricky business, never intended to make a career of their art. It was strictly limited to social contest and physical artistic performance. They intervened without authorization, for the “beauty of the gesture,” without worry of any social recognition, on the contrary: they are anonymous.

It was a lifestyle for a disillusioned generation that sought to take back the public space and challenge the notion of private property. The public and the authorities quickly labeled the art of this first graffiti generation as “vandalism” because of its damage to the property of others and its devaluation of the public good.

A heavy wave of repression followed in Europe, along with a general disapproval of this mode of artistic expression, at the end of the 1990s. The French legend Oclock once said to me, “If one day tagging is authorized, I will stop.” A perfect theory of vandalism.

Internet and the “street art” generation

Around the year 2000, a series of technological innovations appeared that opened up new areas for artists. The computer and the “home office” first of all, then another major innovation: the internet, which would radically transform global media.

The internet in effect left an open field for young artists, a “hypermediatization” which offers the possibility of short-circuiting the habitual mediators of art – the journalists, critics, curators and gallery owners – by inhabiting this new “non-place” of art, the internet.

Thus, since 2000, young people have grown up within a culture of graffiti, the codes of which they know perfectly. Many of them who dreamed of becoming artists and who received training in graphic arts schools were impregnated with this graffiti esthetic, so much so that the graphic artists of this generation have transposed these codes into their own work.

Very quickly their pretension to become professional artists led them to misappropriate (if not abscond with) the codes of graffiti in order to commercialize them.

Master artists of viral marketing

This new professionalism pushed young artists from the graffiti culture to turn to marketing; creating a voluntary self-censorship in order to sell to a maximum of people. They had to popularize the movement, essentially on the internet. The background and forms of “street art” were now generated by the demands of the internet and its new forms of cultural diffusion: social networks feeds.

The new artists in the street would borrow the forms of graffiti and transform them with the idea that their works would be distributed on the internet – by their own sites, by specialized blogs and finally by the public itself through social networking.

Starting with Banksy, many of them have now become masters of viral marketing and media manipulation on this new platform that is the internet.

No longer was the intention to shock the public or leave it unsatisfied. Now the public was sometimes made a participant by flattering its ego, for example JR with his “Inside Out” project, or Banksy and his “selfie” street installations.

The street art that anyone could photograph and pass on in their personal web pages began to feed the new social networks. Numerous amateurs would photograph street art and share it online with the illusion of participating in this seemingly liberatory movement. In actuality, they were advertising for the artists.

Everyone considers himself an artist

Even better, the greatest amateurs among the public began to feel like artists themselves by signing their own photos of “street art,” putting watermarks on them and by managing their own “street art” blogs, books and catalogs. To make an analogy with popular music, or so-called “variety,” the illusion among this fanatic public is very much like that of karaoke – each one believes himself somewhat of an artist as well, even at the end of the chain.

In order to conquer the marketplace and win public favor, this generation had to flip the concept of graffiti on its head. While graffiti sought to displease, up-and-coming street artists sought to please the greatest number of people possible.

While the artists of the graffiti scene stayed masked, those of the new “street art” scene moved forward openly, with only the façade of anonymity. The graffiti generation enjoyed their unpopularity, and the “street art” generation enjoyed their fame.

The graffiti artists intended to devalue the urban space, while street artists sought to increase its value and thus participated in the “gentrification” of the popular neighborhoods in which they operated. And while the graffiti generation did not pursue commercial ends, the street artists have rushed to commercialize, courting museum exhibitions and the most diverse honors. Very credited in France, I am unfortunately an example of this attitude myself.

So while it kept the appearance of graffiti, the graffiti itself became little by little transformed, through the compromises made with the system in place. Even so, its romantic appearance was conserved: the dress code, the tools, the graphics, the claim of provocation and the risk of illegality were all maintained for the sake of appearances and but commercial gain. Meaning was abandoned in the rush to achieve the maximum collective approval.

With the pretension to inject a formal content into graffiti, the impact was reduced so much that the “street art” generation’s supposed political messages were soon limited to unobjectionable, if not demagogic, content.

With their pretended irreverence, this generation of artists has become so close to the system they supposedly critique that the two are confused with each other. The actors of the “graffiti” scene are not deceived and detest the “street art” which they view as a degenerate commercialization of their practice, and justifiably so.

One must not be mistaken – the street art is a substitute for graffiti, and its objective is mere merchandising. To use a concise formula, street art is to graffiti what Michael Jackson is to the Black Panthers. Who’s bad?

The advent of “muralism”

Since about 2010, it can be said that the objective of popularization of the street art movement and the professionalism of its actors has been achieved, especially in Europe.

Commercialization is in full swing, and the new need for profitability among cultural institutions has led many to invest in the new goldmine that is “street art,” without seeking of course to understand or explain it. They merely desire to keep it a commodity like any other, and all commodities are equal in a certain sense.

And so we regularly witness auctions and gallery shows of “street art” are appearing everywhere, even though “street art” can only really exist in the street and “graffiti” is not a commercial product.

The mediators return

All that is of no concern to the principal actors in the market: the gallery owners, collectors, publicists or even the media. An economy has been created that is very close to the entertainment industry and the works of which, despite coming as they do from the graffiti scene or “street art,” accept the rules of the business game and now decorate bourgeois living rooms. Collectors want to buy “graffiti” or “street art”, at any price, so artists sell them something looking like “street art” or “graffiti”. Critics, gallerists, bloggers and artists are usually very good friends nowadays.

Provocation is only a pretense now. The media report on these street art events as they once reported on a concert or a new movie. Entertainment society.

“Graffiti” and “street art” have become professions like any other in France, recognized to the point that we find them “taught” in certain European art schools.

A collection of institutions, municipalities, sponsors, galleries and commercial outlets now offer the prospect of making a respectable living, especially in Paris. Festivals are flourishing, and offer to the whole new generation of artists surfaces on which to express themselves that neither the artists of the graffiti generation, nor those of the street art generation, ever knew at their beginnings. They dreamed of this.

Commissioned murals

Commissioned murals bring collective censorship. The project must be vetted beforehand, it must be politically correct for the neighborhood, and there is local political censorship. This has given birth to a new genre: “muralism.”

For the most part this involves large-scale wall paintings completed during festivals organized by communities. These are painted by ordinary muralists, always working under control and authorizations. These festivals offer no possibility of provocation or real transgression.

The creation of these paintings is quite costly – they involve renting a crane and paying the living costs of perpetually touring artists, and have made necessary the return of the mediators who were dodged by the first two generations.

Worse, to finance these painted walls, we have seen gallery owners, curators and sponsors making a comeback. More than freedom of expression, it is also artists’ independence that has disappeared with this new semi-institutional practice of what can be called “muralism.”

For my part, the rain of racist insults incited by my recent portrait of the French Justice minister Christiane Taubira, who is black woman, and who legalized gay marriage, has encouraged me to continue to involve myself more in taking an overt political stance.

The streets look better

So here we are. The walls painted on special order in the public space are permanent, and so it can be asked what is the role of modernity in all of this. It’s certainly no “return to normality,” because in the meantime the streets in our neighborhoods look better and are more pleasing than the grey concrete of my childhood.

I am getting old and want to relax. I have observed this and often paint little cats. These cats are symbols to me, representing what became graffiti – I mean street art and soon muralism – and what I became by myself coming from vandalism and political graffiti when I was a teenager. This French subjective testimony, you understand, has a self-critical value: it is in some ways my own story as much as it is a description of the history of a complex movement – a movement still shunned by the largest European contemporary art museums. One can understand why.

For my part, I should publish this text on my public Facebook page. I think it would be more effective there, diffused by good old publicity. I thank you for having read this to the end.

Nobody is perfect.

Photo by Feral78