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Street art 1: The art of the streets

This article is over 16 years, 11 months old
Radical artists have used public spaces to produce work that speaks to millions. Ben Windsor and Matthew Cookson look at the history and ideas behind their art
Issue 2031
Paris was covered in political posters in 1968
Paris was covered in political posters in 1968

A basic feature of capitalism is that aspects of life that should be accessible to everyone become controlled and restricted to a privileged elite – the ruling class. Works of visual art, such as paintings or sculptures, are no exception to this general rule.

There are two key ways in which capitalism creates an artificial barrier between art and the majority of the population. The first is by cloistering artworks away in museums and galleries.

In theory, museums and galleries are meant to grant public access to art, and they succeed in this goal to a certain extent. Nevertheless, many working class people feel that these places are not meant for them and do not visit.

The solemn atmosphere of museums and galleries make them intimidating, as if they are or ought to be the preserve of the middle and upper classes.

The great Marxist art theorist John Berger described this process as part of a general trend of “mystification” of art under capitalism. Pierre Bourdieu, the French left wing sociologist, made similar observations. His research found the way people from different classes are educated guides and reinforces the way they view art.

The other key way in which capitalism prevents mass access to art is by turning artworks into luxury commodities to be bought and sold on the market.

Professional artists are forced to follow the whims of this market to survive. A tiny group of extremely rich individuals – such as the Tory advertising boss Charles Saatchi – dominate this market and thus become “arbiters of taste”.

How can politically radical artists resist these pressures? One method is to take art out of the museums and into the streets.

In theory at least, putting art on the streets can break down the elitism of galleries, reclaim public space – and make it much harder to treat art as a commodity to be bought and sold.

Consequently there has been a tradition of radical street art for the past 100 years at least that has consciously aimed at taking art to the people – and thereby rejecting many of the values associated with art under capitalism.

The past few years have seen millions of people voice their opposition to capitalism and imperialism. And at the same time we have seen a rise in street art across the world – with self-proclaimed “art terrorist” Banksy being a prominent example.

Aerofish – one of this new breed of public artists – was commissioned by Hizbollah in Lebanon earlier this year to paint on the shattered remains of the southern neighbourhoods. He also painted portraits of fallen resistance fighters in the villages of southern Lebanon.

Many of these new street artists use techniques derived from graffiti. Their work is given an extra charge by the fact that so much of our public space is defiled and colonised by adverts. Street art becomes a weapon in a war of ideas, and our streets become ideological battlegrounds between consumerism and an alternative vision of a better world.

This article takes a brief look at examples of radical street art from different points in history. While the type of art produced varies, the underlying themes of democracy and anti-capitalism are a common thread throughout.

Of course, just because art is in the streets does not automatically make it radical. Our rulers have always built statues of themselves to display in public places. These are meant to intimidate people and make us believe that their rule is only natural. The giant statues of commanders on horseback are an imposing physical reminder of class society.

But this kind of ruling class public art speaks to its mass audience in a very different way to that of radical street art. It delivers a fixed message from the rulers to the ruled. The meaning of radical street art, in contrast, is far more open to interpretation – nor does it have the stamp of authority and legitimacy.

At its best, street art shows the potential for a world where art is an integral part of our lives, a celebration of our creativity and the richness of our imagination. It points to the possibility of art for everyone, and not the preserve of a privileged section of our society.

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