02 May, 2009

Urban art? Keep it on the street

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Graffiti has officially upgraded to street art and it has the price tags to prove it. But who actually buys it, asks Ruth Jamieson

Last week Inkie’s charity auction of street art raised over £35,000 for Great Ormond Street hospital. Elsewhere in the capital, the Andipa’s Banksy exhibition is asking punters to cough up anywhere between £4,000 to £1m for a work. Where the former is wisely cashing in on a still-increasing trend for a good cause, the latter is merely cashing in on those not wise enough to know better.

By definition, street art is produced for outdoor, shared spaces – its public context a crucial element of the work. Icons of social control like policemen, the monarchy and CCTV are the butt of visual one-liners. They’re a cute – but ineffectual – two fingers to the authorities, reminding the Man that the space belongs to the people as well as to him.

Rather obvious, but mildly amusing street art leitmotifs of the Queen in a gas mask, a policeman lobbing flowers, rats carrying briefcases, are all very well on a street corner, but why would you want to take one home? What’s the point? There is no need to visually “reclaim” that space: it’s your home. Ideas that are intended to be understood in the time it takes to walk around a street corner are surely too superficial for your living room wall. You’re hardly going to learn more about art and life by gazing at yet another take on a Che Guevara portrait, are you? So, who is driving the commoditisation of what is essentially graffiti? And why? It may have graduated to street art – with the price tags to prove it – but let’s take a look at who’s buying it …

1. The boy-man. He’s 40-plus but he rides a skateboard to work, knows his XX Teens from his The xx, and has decks in his bedroom. He’s blissfully unaware that if you can afford to pay the silly sums commanded by street art, you are officially too rich to be street. He and his mates buy up Banksys the same way their mums bought Monet tea towels.

2. The corporate banker. Whoever said you can’t buy cool was probably under-investing. After a hard week doing his bit to melt the economy, Mr Young Banker heads to London’s last uber-club, Fabric, to pick up a beautiful young thing to unwind with. In the darkness of their sweaty environs, they don’t notice he’s “a suit”, but in the cool, hard light of his Old Street apartment they may. But, whack a bit of D*Face in the bathroom, hang some Pure Evil above the bed and the cool credentials are apparently safe.

3. The canny restauranteur. He’s hoping to distract trendy diners from substandard grub. The menu says organic. The walls say “you may be paying £25 for a posh fishfinger sandwich but you are still Jenny from the block because look, there’s an actual bit of the block hanging from the walls”. Complete the look with ironic takeaway carton crockery and music loud enough to drown out dissenters’ cries of “a 14-year-old with an Asbo can spray paint better than that”.

4. Bitter speculators. Those that missed out on the first wave of this (non-) subversive-graffiti-turned-nest-egg thing. I was at a party in 2000 where they gave away Banksys. Foolishly I declined, not wanting the hassle of taking it home on the tube. Idiot. I try not to think about how much it might be worth today. Investors have watched the value of a Banksy rise with his celebrity and, not wanting to miss out again, are putting their money where the urban art is. We recommend they look to artists such as Massive Attack’s 3D, who paints post-apocalyptic portraits and Goldie – yes the musician – who mixes stencil work with energetic scrawl and paint dribbles. There’s also Eine, who subverts children’s book imagery to comment on CCTV (an anti-CCTV attitude comes fitted as standard with street artists, by the way. Supposedly because they believe in freedom. Presumably also because it hinders them in their work) and Agent Provocateur, a stencil man who specialises in macabre clowns with a nihilistic, doom-driven palette.

5. Ex-subversives.
You’re no longer a member of the Socialist Workers Party; you’re a member of a wine club instead. You don’t even live in the city any more, having made a run for the countryside as soon as Jack and Emily hit school age. But, in your heart, and on your mantelpiece, you’ll always be one of the people. When your new cheese and wine chums come around, the street art on the walls not only illustrates your subversive roots but demonstrates your moral and political superiority. Everyone is too polite to point out that you may love Banksy’s One Nation Under CCTV mural, but you also have a camera installed to watch over the BMW in your driveway.

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