Art in the Streets or Safely Indoors? Graffiti and Street Art at MOCA

Graffiti and Street Art diagram by artist Daniel Feral is a creative riff
on Alfred H. Barr's 1935 map of abstract art (image source: FAD)

MOCA's Art in the Streets is running from April 17-August 8, 2011.
(image source: MOCA)
With the avalanche of end of term activity, I did not want to neglect reflecting on the very high profile and already controversial first major museum survey of graffiti and street art which opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles on April 17th. Tracing the emergence and development of a visual form previously excluded from the art historical canon as either too amateur, too political, or more within the realm of vandalism and/or popular culture, the exhibition simply titled “Art in the Streets” was met with the kind of red carpet treatment and hype already rehearsed in those infamous scenes of Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop. All the glitterati and requisite celebrities were there—just see this link for a taste—and within days it was already being reported that investment banker types were being toured around the show in organized tours. Quel surprise.

Graffiti and tagging intensified during the weeks of the MOCA
opening to no one's surprise, except the LAPD. (image source: LA Times) 
No doubt the focus on street art and graffiti (featured on my blog as well) exposes many tensions about the current state of the contemporary art world. Some would argue that it is a tell-tale sign that the last vestiges of an avant-garde or transgressive art tradition have truly passed. Can a visual art form predicated on operating outside of, and in resistance to, the structures of institutional power resist easy assimilation and commodification?  How paradoxical is it for instance that much of what is being shown in LA as “street art” is now located literally and figuratively within the context of an indoor institutional setting? And not without irony, how bizarre is it that the very visual vocabulary being celebrated at MOCA remains a criminal offense outside its protected walls? Of course this is all pretty obvious stuff, but it is worth continuing to point out the hypocrisy. For example, the LA police department only intensified efforts to prevent the tagging and street graffiti that popped up as if on cue during the week of the show’s opening. "In the last two weeks, we've seen an enormous amount of vandalism in the Little Tokyo area, near the MOCA entrance," said LAPD Officer Jack Richter. "We respect the rights to have an art exhibition but we demand the security of other people's property… as former Chief Bratton was fond of saying, if you want to be an artist, buy a canvas.”

Fairey's "Hope" poster was widely distributed
and achieved cult status during Obama's 2008 campaign
(image source: Wikipedia)
The response from the street art and graffiti community has been quite vocal, and many artists (echoing the final monologues of Banksy’s documentary) are lamenting the state of their visual form as all but dead and/or rapidly dying.  Shepard Fairey is perhaps among the most eloquent and thoughtful in his reflections, and having endured the difficulties associated with his position (he is still embroiled in a lawsuit with the Associated Press over the “fair use” of the Obama image used in his infamous 2008 poster), he has thought a great deal about the predicament in which street and graffiti art finds itself. In a recent interview with ARTINFO about the institutionalization of street art, Fairey connects the destabilization of street art’s political and social potential to the mechanisms of home-bound, Internet-based, media consumption:

  • ARTINFO:  It seems like you're utilizing a very aged aesthetic, or one of accumulation, or an aesthetic related to Russian propaganda posters. But the age factor is something I've been thinking about a lot, and I think that with the age of the Internet accelerating our daily lives that artists have become interested in aestheticizing their work in an antiquated way to state a resistance to this increasingly fast pace.

  • FAIREY: Textures have had an appeal to me before the existence of the Internet. The moment I started liking street art and graffiti I noticed the accumulation of communications on surfaces. There's this idea that there were generations of people that could make a statement that could be seen on one wall. That's something that appealed to me about outdoor work, but it was something that just by that applying my work outdoors I was able to imbue it with that sensibility. In the gallery that idea of accumulation of messages and experiences was more difficult to translate as well as what I think is the very organic and interactive appeal of those kinds of surfaces. You don't have that in the gallery as much, so I tried to create it. But it's funny you'd mention the Internet as most people are consuming their media on a 72dpi screen. The surface is not seductive in and of itself and there isn't as much of a sense of history. A lot of it is about scrolling down a blog and whatever scrolled off the end of the page is gone and old news. It's catering to a short attention span. My work has been about things making an impact on me: this art, this musician, this philosopher, this political theorist, et cetera. I like to try to represent that in a sense in both the content and references of the work and also the surface itself.

To this end, new generation of artists are attempting to find and even map the potential where links between an urban art of street surfaces can connect with the new and uncharted world of cyber-graffiti and Internet hacktivism. Artist Daniel Feral’s update to Alfred Barr’s 1935 map of the development of abstract (see image at top of post) is quite convincing in its trajectory. And even though Fairey might be nostalgic for the textures of the material world, it is clear that the future of street and graffiti art owes much of its potential growth to the world of digital media.  That said, the speculation in the street art market together with profits being made at the expense of the form’s message remains deeply troubling and might signal a backlash if valuations for the market unexpectedly fall.   “It might take a decade or it might take a summer but the Street Art market will be pushed over a cliff” writes art critic Mat Gleason in a revealing article for Huffington Post. If this is indeed the case, I wonder, what will be the lasting legacy of this most misunderstood visual art form?

A nice composite of the street and graffiti art exhibited at MOCA: