You’ve Been Framed: The Commodification of Graffiti Culture
By Abby Meola
The 1960s art scene is homogenous not in style, but in the goal of elevating the mundanity of everyday life to the level of high art. This principle is rooted in the long-standing high versus low art debate and the discussion on which communities can produce meaningful art. Drawing on Kant’s Theory of Aesthetics, art is a disinterested faculty that moves the viewer onward. This perspective orients art as originating in academies and salons. It also draws on Classical Greek where idealism and edification become the goals of high culture. With avant-gardism and the modernity posed by Saint-Simon, high art became revolutionized by its dialectical relation to the middle class. The attempt to circumvent convention made art about visibility, and yet modern art was not outsider art at all, but still remaining as the exclusive program that it had been since the Enlightenment.
With this objective to elevate in mind, perhaps street art is an obvious next project. With street art, art is moved from the confined space of the gallery into the public world where it becomes accessible to everybody. Street art is one possible culmination for the effort towards a populist art form. However, this assessment neglects that street art is not a new innovation, but rather a derivative form of the graffiti art created by marginalized groups for many centuries before this surge in popularity.
Much of the graffiti that was classified as degenerative art was the creation of minorities struggling to find a political voice in society. In the African-American community, in particular, street art was wrought with irony to draw attention to both the artist and the issues. In fact, throughout its history, graffiti has been a means of expression in many disenfranchised groups. While social and political protest is still a major component of contemporary graffiti projects, the street art community has recently seen the rise of a number of its prominent figures viewed worthy of institutional acclaim. With the growing popularity of street art comes the appropriation and commodification of black culture, the emergence of a group of celebrity street artists, and the perpetual question of who can produce art in the public sphere.
Graffiti vs. Street Art
Graffiti is a “spatial practice” that allows the artist an alternative expression to traditional styles, which may not suit the artists for a number of reasons (Moreau 106). Graffiti in society is not a recent practice, with examples of graffiti dating from Ancient Greece and Rome. In the early 1900s, however, graffiti gained its reputation as the mark of a growing subculture of gangs and violence. In the 1960s, graffiti molded into street art in Philadelphia, and many artists and their projects gained notoriety in and out of institutions (Mettler 252). In regard to timing, street art gained popularity because of its response to modernism. Instead of the separation of art and life, it is a deliberate integration of art into the everyday. Notable critics such as Clement Greenberg struggle immensely with this idea because of their insistence on comparing street art to the realm of institutional art. Notably, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing reflects an opposite point in his discussion of the “great masters,” as he finds a contemporary problem with trying to relate to a cultural context that is not relevant. Similarly, street art cannot be compared with any institutional art, because its environment is an intrinsic aspect of its identity. Street art dismantles what art means, because its significance relies on the fact that it exists outside of the closed community of institutions. However, the reasons that people reject the elitist art world leads to a major distinction between street art and graffiti. Street art is very loosely defined with discourse in the art community, because no exact parameters define it, or separate it from public art or graffiti. One consensus is that for a work to qualify as street art, the surroundings must be an integral part of the piece. For this reason, when street art is removed from the street in favor of the gallery, it loses all of its meaning (Riggle 245).
Artists who create street art may participate in the culture for many different reasons, including the accessibility it provides their art, or an attempt to defy law enforcement. However, most graffiti artists share a similar motivation, which is that the marginalization of their social groups prevents them from participating in both the formalized art world, and the political sphere where their voices are silenced. Some art critics argue that graffiti is not street art because it is merely people scribbling their pseudonyms illegally onto surfaces, and thus lacks the aesthetic or cultural significance to be considered art (Riggle 251). However, this ignores the reason why many graffiti artists create work, which is an attempt to insert themselves into a discussion where they find no other entrance. When images become oppressive to a particular group, one logical step is to remove all figuration and focus on the only true distinguishable trait from the masses–one’s own name.
Legally, the differentiation between street art and graffiti exists in the eyes of the property owners. If the decorated building is deemed “art,” then the work is classified as street art (Mettler 255). The graffiti culture is labeled as deviant, and thus the police force will try to quell such behavior. However, when it comes down to aesthetics, civilians and law enforcement alike find solace in street art because it fits the convention of what they think art is, and thus is a valid contribution to the urban space, drawing back on Marx’s concept of the individual and commodity.
Basquiat and Commodity
In 1926, famous Black activist W.E.B. Dubois announced to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that all art must be racial propaganda that reinforces the plight of people of color in the United States (Schur 641). From this time until the aftermath of the first Civil Rights Act, racism in the country transformed from a blatant and public spectacle, to an individual psychological battle that left many people of color without a public arena to discuss their disenfranchisement. Between this landscape of black power and the contemporary, Jean Michel Basquiat emerged as a prominent artist.
Due to this context, Basquiat required a new “visual vocabulary” in order to respond to the acceleration of white flight and the crumbling of the inner-city landscape (Schur 643). Many African-American contemporaries of Basquiat created art wrought with irony in order to understand the society which colonized their people. Basquiat himself recognized the way in which institutions package the Black experience and used these characteristics satirically to question how traits can define a class. He created art under the pseudonym SAMO, and had an iconic tag, much like other graffitists (Rodrigues 229). Both the institutional art community and the mainstream media do not allow the expression of a wide breadth of black identities, which is why Basquiat sought a certain comfort in graffiti, despite his success both in and out of the gallery.
Basquiat’s gallery piece Irony of a Negro Policeman (1981), brought the strong influence of his graffiti work while combining the irony which was evident in his work of the time. The image is a crude portrait of an officer surrounded with scribbles and repeated words such as “irony” and “irony of negro policeman.” The marks are purposefully primitive, so that the mark of the artist is very present, as it is in works of graffiti. Through his clumsy representation of the image, Basquiat draws attention to comments made about his own culture, that it is ignorant or invaluable in some way (Schur 644). This work, along with the graffiti that Basquiat produced throughout his tenure, represents the African-American identity that he finds in mainstream culture.
In some ways, Basquiat and other graffiti artists are no different from Andy Warhol and the pop movement in their approach. Warhol insisted on the repetition of mass culture leading to the dissociation of an image from its meaning. Basquiat sees this repetition in just the opposite way, as a method to give something perceived importance. Both artists gain visibility by exploring the Derridean supplement, which is to say that they theorized what was central to society, and framed discourses on the outside to make them meaningful in high culture. Like Warhol, Basquiat borrowed images, especially ubiquitous marks like the copyright symbol, for use in his work. This raised the question of who has ownership over ideas, or in the case of graffiti, space (Schur 643). He is making a comment about how he and others interact with the market economy and commenting on his own commercial success. The irony in these repetitions involves pointing out how the masses, in supporting his work, are participating in the institutional culture that oppresses his people. Rather than remove meaning from commercial icons like Warhol and Pop, Basquiat revels in the overt racialization of these images in society, and how they contribute to his fame.
Basquiat, both an icon in popular culture and a media sensation, never garnered much respect in institutions, and was even described as not deserving of any “critical acclaim,” even though his work was displayed in galleries (Schur 643). He was, however, an influential figure in both the graffiti community as he brought graffiti to the mainstream and transformed the artist’s mark into high art all while helping pioneer the return to figurative painting in the 1980s (Rodrigues 229). Since he bridged the prodigious gap between graffiti subculture and the ostentatious institutional art community of his day, he allowed a pathway for Black culture into popular culture, while simultaneously gaining public attention for graffiti and the rise of street art.
Banksy and The Celebrity Street Artist
The artist working under the pseudonym “Banksy” has become a street art sensation because of his well-defined aesthetic, mysterious nature, and focus on topically relevant themes. A native of Bristol, England, the artist travels all around the world, and draws on the pressing issues of the area, as well as the surroundings to create irreverent and politically charged pieces of street art (Mettler 253). His art revolves around topics including war, economics, and government, which are routinely blended with his own style of satire and dark humor. Banksy’s notoriety in street art has garnered him success in gallery shows (Napier 50). Despite his very recent and unconventional style, his art is considered “serious art” because of the way he is able to blend seamlessly into the gallery (Mettler 253).
One of Banksy’s more controversial works given the title Go Back to Africa (2014) is indicative of his style. The work contains five pigeons, with signs saying “Keep off our Worms,” “Migrants not Welcome,” and “Go Back to Africa.” Opposite these gray-feathered birds is a beautiful green bird of paradise, who stands alone. The work is meant to be a comment on the xenophobia surrounding the migrant and refugee crisis, that causes extensive racism and discrimination in countries like the United States and Banksy’s own England (Lachmann 229).
Given his background and upbringing, Banksy’s assessment of the migrant culture falls short of the ironic assessment that he strives for, and instead reads as a shocking imposition on the innocent passerby. His depiction of African immigrants as exotic and enticing strives to promote his ideas of an inclusive public sphere through the value of immigration. However, because of his institutional perspective, others have interpreted it as a fethishization of people of color. He often rejects his own institutional acclaim, preferring an anonymous lifestyle that allows him to comment on society without critique. Banksy is allowed to participate in institutional art because of a belief that his is more culturally valuable than other graffitists. Ultimately, despite his ability to spur public discussions, he is distinct from these other artists because of his ability to so effortlessly transition from street art into institutional space.
The popular yet potentially problematic nature of some of Banksy’s art does not stop in the streets. For example, his work Kissing Coppers (2004) was originally painted on a pub wall and was subsequently removed and sold to a gallery. This work depicts two male police officers, who are embracing and kissing passionately. Under legal jurisdiction, the pub owners lawfully had the power to remove their own wall and earned a large sum for the painting to move to the gallery context, where the plaster was displayed on a canvas (Mettler 275).
In its original context, the work was displayed in a notably homophobic area, where every person walking by would confront the work, and thus elicit positive imagery daily. For this reason, the work had the accessibility of a wide demographic of viewers, and the ability to spur conversation amongst these groups. When it was moved to the gallery, it gained the acclaim of many art critics, but the viewership became a “small and homogenous” group instead of the wide breadth that was intended (Mettler 275).
Banksy’s success both in and out of the institutional art community illuminates a greater trend of the commodification of graffiti art. His success in the gallery particularly is the ultimate Marxist commodity because it ignores any possible social context of producing art in the street, and instead values his art because of a perceived importance. He represents the dichotomy of street art, because he can find success in and out of the gallery, in order to reach masses of people. Like graffiti artists, Banksy creates his work without permission, often illegally. However, his work is not treated with the same disdain, and he rarely faces consequences as his final piece is viewed as aesthetically important. Even though his work influences the art community by opening discussions, it continues the trend initiated through Basquiat’s fame of creating a commodity out of the struggles of those who are cast out of academic art.
Public Space, Ownership and Art
With the confines of art stretching into the street, both street art and graffiti face an issue of ownership in space. Due to the implicit need for both artistic styles to exist in the public sphere, it often renders both taggers and street artists in a legal gray area, since they are marking property that does not belong to them. This issue further sets apart graffiti and street art, because the latter may be seen as a beautifying aesthetic, and the former as a degenerative mark. Political figures and law enforcement have the ability to control consumption of icons and artifacts in the street, and thus can eliminate unwanted cultural expressions and create a landscape for silencing some artists while bolstering others (Moreau 106).
Many street artists likewise have similar goals of bringing beauty to the urban environment. For example, street artist C Finley is notable for her work wallpapering dumpsters with common household prints (Riggle 246). The desired effect is to make the common spaces resemble a suburban living room. She provides commentary on the lack of identity present for people who live on the streets, all while trying to beautify the world for the homeless community. The potential problem with her work lies in her assumption that her culture has more valuable images than any subculture already present in the community. Her work raises the question of who has the right to occupy public space and determine the beauty within it.
The Bushwick Collective provides an interesting response to this problem because the Brooklyn neighborhood allows free reign for street artists to paint murals throughout a few block expanse. The completely open nature of the art space was drawn into question when a prominent mural was tagged by graffitist ZEXOR, and then promptly recovered by cartoonish smiley faces by another street artist intending to restore the work to better match the original intent of the space. Many saw the tagging by ZEXOR as vandalism, which is making a blatant claim about the value of each of the works (Lu 1).
This act could be viewed as the continuation of a war amongst street artists and graffitists for territory, but given the free nature of the Bushwick Collective, it is more indicative of a long pattern of shutting people out of institutions, and now the streets that were their artistic safe haven. In an area that is supposedly open to all artists, street art is used as a weapon of gentrification against graffiti, and taggers can only defend their work by continuing to insert their mark into the public sphere (Lu 2). Organizations such as Graffiti Hurts fund public art projects in direct opposition of graffiti artists, in order to take command of urban spaces (Moreau 109). These organizations focus on the delinquency of graffiti, but fail to recognize that the use of public space is an effort for artists to break into a restrictive art world, and not merely an attempt to be unlawful. Additionally, graffiti and street art alike rely on the ephemeral nature of the work, so artists who engage in either of these practices should be aware of potential alterations to their projects. This distinction between street art and graffiti, also seen in the work of Banksy and Basquiat, is perhaps not one that is perpetuated by the artists, but instead a reflection on the supposed value of each based on social assessments. The mobilization of public space, then, is not an attempt at competition, but a move towards a level playing ground towards valuable high art and the discourse of the outsider art.
The distinguishing factors amongst street artists and graffitists are abundant, yet most of them lie not in the actual art object but in social dividers. For instance, the median yearly salary for a street artist is nearly $20,000 higher than someone who titles themselves a graffiti artist (Lu 1). Both artist are able to thrive, but only when they are accepted into a more entrenched social culture, whether that is the institutional art community, or as a member of the vast media landscape. Subcultures, deviant careers and the institution are all separate sociological discussions, and thus fragment the graffiti world and prevent discussion about its colonization.
Banksy and Basquiat, even though they hail from different backgrounds, are able to flourish in their art conquests. However, both of their success rely on an understanding of the Black experience, and not only its acceptance, but its glorification. People like Banksy can be seen as appropriating Black culture in street art, and yet graffiti itself relies on the appropriation of public space in order to display a message. The commodity is a popular theme throughout contemporary art, but it is crucial for the future of art that trivialization is separated from artist identity, so as to allow a public space for marginalized groups to enter back into the artistic and political sphere.
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Abigail Meola is a Junior studying Communications at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. This piece was the culmination of her work in Contemporary Art under Professor Diana Bush and represents her ongoing fascination with the public’s engagement with STEAM.