Smizz’s verdict: Street Art at the Tate is not so Street.

What does it mean for the Tate to endorse Street Art and the Street for art?


            Street Art has, for as long as it has existed, been frowned upon by institutions, the critics disdain it’s integrity and art professors grit their teeth at the students who go to art school and practice street art for their work. 

            The only place street art has had a dominant place in academia is its relation to the social world in humanities; The crime relevance to society and how the media has taken this sub-culture and taken its soul for advertising purposes.


This media trend also relates and somewhat explains the art worlds new acceptance with this art form.

The historical context of the graffiti movement is that it evolved from a masculine working class subculture, firstly in New York then Philadelphia and other poverty-stricken areas in the USA, in the early decade of the 70s.  This movement was the representation of mans desire and need for communication. Through New York boroughs and their surroundings USA cities artists where expressing their artwork in such a manner that it turned the conventional art world upside down.  The art was thrust into everyday life where it circled around on trains and passers by saw names and identities sprayed on walls. Most however was hidden in abandoned buildings and transit tunnels, avoiding the restrictive confines of a gallery or museum.  The works of these artists, and often their lives, were and are temporarily, disappearing quickly, noticed by few.

It is important to note that graffiti was also used by political activists to make statements whilst gangs used it mark territory. This need to gain status from marking territory comes from societal issues. Functionalist theories circled America in the early 1950s. Delinquency was perceived as nonconformity to socially accepted goals and values.  In this framework, society is seen as a consensual system where middle class values are universally embraced but denied gratification by the constraints of working class background.  In the working class background, the individual fails to fulfil mainstream goals, uses reaction formation to invert them, deny their value and pursue a deviant career instead.  The delinquent subculture is seen to be non-utilitarian, malicious and negativistic and tending to be outlined in three types of deviant subcultures; the criminal, conflict and retreatist.  The second represents, again, the violent frustration that is felt when a working class individual is denied access to societies legitimate opportunities. But many of the social conflicts found in Marxian power struggles are conveyed in a paradigm that pits a Durkheim-defined egoistic counter-culture against an altruistic dominant culture.

 The result of this power struggle, twenty-five years later, is an anomic collective that accepts graffiti as an art form, but continues to refer to members of the graffiti culture in denigrating terms, with connotations of delinquency and vandalism.

However, overtime the media has recently stolen this often-illegal form of artwork. Graffiti artwork now appears in numerous advertising campaigns and has acquired legitimacy as a result of this.  Paradoxically, it is being used to support a capitalist ideology, the very thing it was designed to rebel against.

Throwing street art, a more middle class version of graffiti, into the mix of the bullish art world has become an easy task of the past 3 years with this sudden consumer increase with the advertising media.

I toddled to the Tate Modern in hope of an ‘exhibition’ of street art. Remembering that by exhibition I am referring to its definition of, “the showing of art works in a public place”. Walking across the bridge to the gallery there was huge works of street art that flanked outside walls of the building. The talent of the artists – who include Faile, JR, Nunca, Os Gemeos, Sixeart and the much-admired Blu – cannot be faulted but the method of display feels lazy, with all the works displayed on one side of the museum (to maximise the view when crossing over the Millennium Bridge presumably) where they compete with one another for attention. I took note and continued inside the building looking to the signs that pointed to what exhibition is on what floor. There was no Street Art exhibition floor, but Street and Studio – a completely different exhibition (apparently “an urban history of photography”) at a hideous £10 price. No thanks. I wonder around, check out the bookshop and the free floor of modern painting. And continued on.

I realised onwards that the Tate’s version of a street art exhibition is merely on the outside of the building and nothing else.

Don’t get me wrong; I applaud the idea behind this ‘exhibition’. It’s refreshing to finally see the Tate use the Façade of the outer building, exploring the idea of conceptual existential architecture and its relation to the street and ultimately the people. To finally see them use their relationship with the environment outside of the albeit conventional white cube space.

The transition from street to a gallery is not an easy one, as we have seen from previous examples such as Banksy at the White Cube.  This problem manifests itself from its own origins. For one, people’s understanding of Street Art is limited. The media and critics lump artists together to define a movement where as they are nothing a like. You would never dump an Ad Reinhardt Black painting next to Picasso’s Weaping Woman, or Omer Fast’s The Casting 2007 with Mathew Barney’s Craymaster 3. It’s not logical and it certainly would be straining to make a connection to a world in common with the spectator. The politics of the street are harder than one would assume. Site-specific practices are harder than those, which exist solely for gallery existence. Your audience is bigger, its placement and timing is key. it’s ephemeral in certain respects; you post the flyer or paint the wall, it gets taken down, defaced, or just dissolves in the rain and wind. That’s all it needs to do. Here today, gone tomorrow. The artist remains.

When a curator of a high market institution such as the Tate Modern has to make a decision on how to define Street Art in an exhibiting space, all they see is a bunch of artists that are either self-taught or working class whose only connection they have is that they all use the street as their medium. Clearly for them, the best context and the most easiest option would be to just have it on the wall outside. The result is that the experience is disappointing and boring. 

I think of the “Ill communication 2” exhibition at Urbis, Manchester (Urbis’s programme of changing exhibitions focuses on the culture of the modern city, covering contemporary art, music, fashion and photography as well as family-oriented shows) four years previous to the Tate.  Urbis’s choice of artists worked well and like all good curation, helped stimulate a sort of narrative throughout the exhibition. From Swoon, with a paper installation of characters from Manchester, to Fakso an Italian photographer who takes pictures of graffiti artists in action and not graffiti. Urbis even had one piece on the outside façade of their building too, however ultimately this was just one piece. The rest of the exhibition was delightfully illustrated inside in many different ways other than just hanging or painted on a wall. This enabled us as spectators to appreciate Street Art a lot more for what is it, an opportunity to glimpse obliquity in the guise of modern, city dwelling utopians.

Surely a more interesting use of these talents might have been possible – a more subtle display method. Perhaps the use of both the façade, the bridge and the inside of the building, so that the work would feel more of a discovery? Which is, after all, a significant element of the pleasure of this kind of work.

Until now a contemporary artist’s typical trajectory consisted of art school followed by gallery shows leading, ideally, to purchase by influential collectors and public institutions with accompanying media adoration and invites to cool parties. But just as MySpace bands rocked the music industry, blogs scooped the newspapers and YouTube proved far more entertaining than TV, Street Art appears to be the art world’s first taste of internet-fuelled people power. The hyper-individualism of the uffable cool is both the life and death of Street Art.  The artist Banksy for most street artists is a cringe worthy reference. Street art got its recognition and helped some of the artists make money from advertisement comissions, where-as Banksy got them the opening to the Art world. Great, right? The gift is also the curse. No street artist can escape the eclipse of their work and careers being compared to Banksy, who in all honestly is just a big sell out and an egotistical artist whose techniques are not new.

His recognition is from his Middle Class private school background, network connections with another media spin doctor artist Damien Hirst who got Banksy the real taste of artworld fame with their show in 2006 In the darkest hour there may be light at the Serpentine. The tretrogy continues.

Clearily backing the ideology that street art’s rise is fueled by a capitalistic endevoeaur which makes it irristable to the marketised artworld and its instititions is that this exhibition was sponsored by Nissan QASHQAI. Since they cunningly used street art in their marketing plan last year. This is, yet another, exhibition which would do Bourriaud proud with a capitalistic spin of the Relational Aesthetics.

The absence of any other forms of street art, such as sculpture or new media (video projections) reveals the lack of consideration and knowledge, and even expertise’s in this field.  However, these absences say more than the whole exhibition does.

The exhibition confirms the home truth that when it comes to artworld, unless it’s sell-able, or profitable, it is at lesser worth (not literally, but onotologically). This hyper-individualism, upon which so much of the artworld relies, is part of a capitalistic strategy used to produce money, sex, power and  of course exclusivity. Street Art, typically, subscribes to an alternative that is more open, and non-exclusive , and strives to be honest about the human costs created as a result of the production of art, and about the existence of underlying power structures within all of our relationships. To be in a  team, a trio, a collective, a collection is a very special act. To be in a team that wants to better the world, to make a positive difference, to use their own talents to help others, or just doing something just for the pure funness of it, and not just as a career boosting object is a rare phenomenon and should be celebrated, and taught and re-lived and be an inspiration to not just artists but all people.

At the end of bridge as I leave the view of Tate Modern, I turn around and the thought of, ”  What does it mean to just choose a few street artists and paste work onto the side of an art institution? If it already exists outside on sides of buildings what makes this so special?”

It produces some of the most banal directives and although gives Street Art the respect it deserves, it also tells us that it still isn’t as valued as other modern and contemporary art practices, by denying it the space inside the museum. It is only as valid as it’s increase of visitors and sponsorship money. A friend answered my questions by saying, ” They’ve had to bring the street art to the middle classes, so they can feel cool. Or they can feel cool by slating it.”

I conclude that this was a wasted opportunity by the Tate. Perhaps to prove the point, in addition to his work at Tate, JR has been busy wallpapering other parts of London, with more impressive results. Alongside another piece on the Truman Brewery, he has covered Partizan‘s offices on the corner of Lexington Street, as shown below.

Published by smizz

Artist → Re-evaluating life→ Rad Oncology graduate + public health worker→ @lab4living PhD-er → Want 2 make a positive difference → Rule-Breaker → LIVE DRAWZ! → councillor! → Loves cities → rides fixie → adventures → wanna be ramen master → <3 Tokyo + NYC

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