Battle in Print: The street just ain't got much edge

Alan Miller, 5 November 2010

’May you live in interesting times’ – the Chinese curse – comes immediately to mind, when we see David Cameron presenting President Obama with street art canvas by Eine. Nothing represents more the ascendancy of this work – and the sense of disorientation of the ruling elite about who they are and what they represent.

Street Art, the book by Cedar Lewisohn, opens by saying graffiti writers in New York in the 70s and 80s were declaring: ‘We are here. We will not be ignored.’  This sense of being seen – so wryly captured by Richie Mirando who named himself SEEN – represented a sense of being outsiders and marginalized. However, it also valued the pure act of daubing a name as though it had some greater meaning in and of itself, somehow legitimizing or elevating oneself.

We don’t like this world; it’s nasty

While the styles and types of images, from tagging and bombing graffiti to what is now referred to as street art, have become very sophisticated, the two recurring themes are the desire to be known and seen (even if you hide your identity) – to declare I exist and I have a voice – and a sense that it is the lone ranger against the big bad world where the stupid masses are being duped by advertising and messages of consumption

But also this represents our low horizons today of what is possible, like the kids who just used to ‘bomb’ and ‘get up’ the attitude is one of a petulant teenager. So, ‘we don’t like this world; it’s nasty’ is the claim and what is regurgitated is the now all too fashionable ideas that corporates are evil, consumption is for stupid people and adverstising is a drug like hypnotizer – although not street art advertising of course…

So-called political graffiti has swallowed the pill of conventional anti-consumerism and believes itself to be challenging consensus. Yet it generally promotes mainstream sentiments, with the artist often having patronising views of ‘the masses’ – those that hobble along to work and see their illuminating pieces but still are hypnotized. This is the popular leitmotif of all of those engaged in street art and particularly those such as Shepherd Fairey (who is responsible for the famous Obama image in red white and blue), Mustufa Hulusi the ‘Ad Buster’ who treated us to the billboard at Old Street saying ‘London is a shit hole’ and of course, the world famous Banksy.

Illustrious history

Of course, people have for some time expressed the need to represent the world around them and illustrate their understanding of themselves within it. Documenters of street art always start their discussion with references to cave drawings from 15,000 years to demonstrate this. It kind of misses the point that human development has gone through several stages and that now we have museums and art galleries and architecture and places of wonder created by humanity. Also though, a quick peek at those cave drawings illustrates too that there was as yet no sense of cynicism and irony in the need to acquire food and to procreate.

It’s well recorded that in ancient Egypt graffiti appeared in a variety of places, as it did in Rome. It was often bawdy, as in the Roman graffito, ‘Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!’ At another tavern, Restitutus says: ‘Take off your tunic, please, and show us your hairy private.’ Some were even more banal, saying simply, ‘Satura was here on September 3rd’. Indeed, if we look at such scribblings, they come into stark contrast with ancient Greek art, such as Myron’s Discus Thrower. The bombers and taggers who kicked off the graffiti fashion internationally are not so distant from these early incarnations, daubing the streets around them with little regard for aesthetic or anything else.

In the 18th century, toilet graffiti was published and Thomas Rowlandson’s launch of the popular Dr Syntax series in 1812 explored it while investigating ‘scratchings’ of messages on windows. So too, William Hogarth’s ‘A Rake’s progress’ (1735) depicts the walls of Bedlam with graffiti on. Hogarth’s illustrations of prisons and city life in ‘modern moral subjects’ was an attempt to add a British stamp to principles of art, morality and society. In the nineteenth century, Grandville shared the common French view that the street was important to the people, as did the Italian Futurists and later on George Brassai who faithfully covered graffiti photographically.

However, the idea that simply being on the street renders something valuable is philistine and silly. Either it is of political value,which means it needs to engage in the arena of politics, to attempt to change the world through a motivating set of ideas and principles; or it is art, which reflects the world but does not change it. A third option of course is that it’s neither and simply vandalism. Today, while there is a formal view that it’s illegal, it has become increasingly difficult for the elite to apply this idea coherently, since right and wrong are troubled concepts for them and holding the line seems impossible. While in Singapore, Iran and parts of Latin America one can run into severe problems if caught. Yet generally there has been a big sea change in outlook, illustrated clearly when David Cameron gave Obama his Eine piece.

The streets were, however, historically a place used of course in communicating messages to the people. The Russian Revolution spawned a huge expansion of art for the masses – with Soviet posters becoming key propaganda tools. They encapsualted much of the ambition, aspriation and conviction that citizens were active agents in shaping their world and went on to influence every area of advertising, graphic design and visual art used in the twentieth century.

The influences that shaped many of the original graffiti artists, such as Lee Quinones, known simply as Lee, are of course images that we have all been privy to – the WPA – Works Progress Administration set up by Franklin D Roosevelt adorned many murals and often dealt with complex issues of race as well as promoting productivity and endeavour. Later, these and other images such as Diego Rivera’s murals were drawn on by some in their landscapes but usually in a dystopian, anti-progress and anti-modernist perspective.

More than a message

The posters daubed in Vichy France by the Resistance were more than just simply a message – there was a broader context and it signified where one stood on the battlegrounds of the big ideas and movements impacting the world. They also however represented the defeat of the Left.

Similarly, the wall murals that emerged in the sixties in Ireland and elsewhere were actively born out of a struggle and connected politically to the local community, but also to internationalist ideals. They have since been simply used by the former leaders of the Republican communities to promote their own interests. The mass movements in the sixties for civil rights and anti-war protest made an impact on the whole world, as well as political changesfelt across music, fashion, adverstising and graphic design. The Situationists and the Provos shared many of the assumptions that the intelligentsia had in the interwar period of the 1920s and 30sm who became horrified with the carnage of the Great War and repulsed by technology and industry.

These latter day Romantics now had come to see labour and the ruling class had merged into one big, grey middle-class. This boring bourgeoisie was living in a catatonic state, its creativity burnt out by TV they believed. ‘It is impossible to have the slightest confidence in that dependent, servile bunch of roaches and lice’ concluded Roel Van Duyn, one of their leaders. The only solution to this problem they believed lay with the artists, dropouts, streetkids and beatniks, all of whom shared a non-involvement with capitalist society. It was Provo’s task to awaken their latent instincts for subversion and to turn them on to anarchist action. These agitprop sentiments and the graffiti of Dr Rat and Dadaist situations went on to heavily influence punk as well as both the anti globalisation movement and the Street Artists and ‘adjammers’ such as San Francisco’s Billboard Liberation Front.

The experiments with typeface, posters and art in punk merged later on with Hip Hop – the appeal though of railing against the system, without changing it was solidified in this period. The Exploited’s ‘fuck the system’ says it all. Even though there were big trade union disputes, the sentiment that one was not of the faceless mob was popular culturally – being ‘different’ and outside was now cool.

Society is doomed…?

Today of course, the sense that society is doomed, that humans are mad, bad and dangerous – a kind of pestilence or bacteria on the waning Mother Earth - has become popular. Street artists such as Banksy, who can be quite humorous at times, betray a contempt for ordinary people as though they are too dumb to see what is happening around them.

Unfortunately, while we see ad agencies and fashion companies appropriate just one art style easily and celebs adorning themselves with graffiti inspired tattoos, the idea there is a well of radical political graffiti is a myth. It is thoroughly conservative. Its assumptions are shared in boardrooms and by heads of Government across the globe – we’ve been consuming too much, we need to tighten our belts, there may be too many of us, we should recycle not innovate, technology is problematic and science can be risky.

In Exit Through the Gift Shop, the new film about Banksy and others, we are told that ‘street art was to become the biggest counter cultural movement since punk’.  Well actually, it was simply a continuation of the same themes. How naughty and rad of them to use the old raving game for the press launch and send texts at 6am to attend the press screening in Waterloo. History repeating itself as tragedy then farce springs to mind. In his piece for The Simpsons, Banksy is back in true form depicting sweat shops and barbed wire surrounding Fox HQ. Today, none of this is challenging or radical, but rather the mainstream outlook.

While a few of the street artists reach enormous sums at auction and private galleries, they share remarkably close ideas with those that run society and are gatekeepers to our institutions. For all the swaggering there is not so much that separates them. Yes we live in a Surveillance Obsessed Society and Yes ASBOs are a problem – but the content of graffiti and street art offers little in the sphere of something to truly challenge. More a petulant ‘qe don’t like it’.

Perhaps, the really radical and truly inspirational aspiration would be to excite a new generation to study the best of art and stand on the shoulders of our cultural giants and not go all gooey-eyed at the ‘cutting edge street’.

Adults should be able to hold the line, argue for what is greatest in civilization, that heavily contested word today that is likely to get sneered at if mentioned. It is going to be up to us to put forward an inspiring view about what our cities should look like, how they are planned, who gets what and how. The street right now just ain’t got much edge.


Alan Miller, co-director, NY Salon; co-founder, London’s Truman Brewery and Vibe Bar; member, London Regional Council, Arts Council England.

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