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Painting the Town: The Controversy Over Street Art

Arts & Culture | October 21, 2013

“Art in the Streets,” an exhibit recently featured in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, was one of the first major artistic surveys of graffiti and murals in the United States. Art lovers praised the bright, colorful, and obscure work from the streets. However, some critics, such as those who opposed the exhibit traveling to the Brooklyn Museum, felt that the display encouraged vandalism. While the community that visits high-end art museums (and thus would be exposed to the exhibit’s message) is unlikely to overlap much with the community most likely to commit acts of vandalism, the issue is still important to consider. Ultimately, the “Art in the Streets” exhibit did not end up traveling to the Brooklyn Museum, and the cancellation was explained by financial hardships on the museum’s end. Despite this, in the world of graffiti, political pressures must always be taken into account.

Property makes for a very controversial canvas. A street artist rarely produces commissioned work, so the resulting artwork is bound to affect the property owner’s life, whether she likes the piece or not. There’s a reason why graffiti is illegal; taxpayers have the right to keeping their property free of defacement.

However, one could argue that street art is not defacement, but in fact an aesthetic enhancement of property. Street artists emphasize the difference between graffiti and street art, pointing out the stark contrast between gang members tagging to mark territory, and actual artwork on the street. While there may be a definitive way to tell the difference between careless tagging and a meaningful mural that makes a poignant socio-political statement, there is a point where the viewer of the work must determine the distinction between “good” graffiti and “bad” graffiti.

Graffiti opponents argue that because aesthetic tastes vary, the property owner and the public should have a say in which art is posted on its walls. So is street art a form of vandalism or does its value as a progressive art movement hold precedence over its illegality? In order to answer this question, it’s key to consider whether or not the valuable aspects of street art can be expressed through any other form of art. Concerns about street art’s effect on property owners are justified, but more formal exhibits and community outreach efforts could hold the key to compromise. Street art’s uniqueness, earns it a legitimate place in the art world, controversy and all.

Street art’s distinction comes in its connection with the audience. Through this connection, it establishes a constant public dialogue.  The “gallery” of street art is the setting of everyday life.  Street art is especially powerful in poorer communities that may not have the time or financial resources to visit a galleries or art exhibitions. The form also enables a diversity of artists:  a street artist does not need to attend art school or exercise networking skills in order to showcase her work. In this way, street art expands the audience for all art.

Street artists can play with space much more than other artists are able to. Murals and graffiti are in constant artistic conversation with their physical locations.  For example, an underground exhibition that opened this past summer in New York drew from over 100 street artists in an abandoned subway tunnel. This exhibition explored the idea of art in its own right, hidden from the rest of the art world. Famous street artists such as Bansky, Shepard Fairey, and JR have shown that the implications of space in street art lend themselves well to socio-political commentary. These spaces are frequented every day by a wide variety of people, helping to spread the political message, and reminding the people of their own power to initiate change.

However the question of infringement of community rights still lingers, regardless of the important value of street art as a form of expression. There are ways to reconcile this problem. More formal exhibitions of street art, like “Art in the Streets,” could educate the community about the value of street art as an artistic medium, while inspiring artists to create pieces that are more significant than territory markers.

That being said, while street art exhibitions may help to alleviate the problem of property rights violations, they take away some of the valuable aspects of art. Namely, the accessibility of artwork, and the location in an open, public space. Community outreach efforts, such as the annual Living Walls conference in Atlanta, designed to positively change the urban landscape of Atlanta while engaging the community in positive dialogue, seem to exemplify a healthy symbiotic relationship between the community and the street artist.

Though community outreach efforts could be the start of a healthy compromise between street artists and the public, these efforts also detract from the original message of street art. Street art is not valuable in spite of its illegality, but rather because of it. The fact that street art is illegal highlights the elements of it that remind us what art is in its fundamental form. From movements stemming from impressionism to surrealism, the principal driving force of art has always been rebellion and departure from social convention. There is no better way to depart from the formal social constraint of law than to break it. The illegality of street art also reminds its audience that the purpose of art is not simply decorative. More often than not, art is meant to make people feel uncomfortable and question their surroundings. Street art shouts at you, jeers at you, and makes you look at it without consent. It is this state of generative uneasiness that street art produces that reminds us that what we feel, and not the aesthetic nature of what we look at, is most important in appreciating artwork.

The value of street art and the right of street artists to encroach on others’ property will always be hotly contested. However, street art occupies a certain niche in the art world that would be difficult to fill with any other form of expression. If we question the value of street art we must also question the value of art in general—an issue that cannot be settled with a property dispute. Controversy and street art go hand in hand because of this perpetual reassessment of the value of art. This controversy may hinder art’s proliferation, but at the same time, it will always drive its progress.