Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Between Street Art and Public Art - let's call it Community Art maybe?

So I'm no expert on Street Art but one of the very first ideas in the philosophical reflection on Street Art is that Street Art and Public Art are not the same thing. There was recently a conference on the philosophy of Street Art, and a philosopher I like Christy Mag Uighir has been posting a lot about reflections on Street Art. I'd like to summarize a few of her ideas, and then add one tentative one of my own - that there seems to be a real space in my community for art that is in between traditional Street Art and traditional Public Art.

Mural by Keith Haring in Barcelona
The idea of taking art out of the galleries, museums and places of the rich, and into places not usually associated with art is an old one. Indeed, the high art vs folk art distinction has always traded on these tensions to some extent, with plenty of 20th century artists intentionally playing with the possibilities. Take this basic idea, move it into urban contexts, add some graffiti, and it starts getting called Street Art in the 1980s, with artists like Keith Haring, or Jean Basquiat, or more recently Banksy, becoming classic examples. Street Art often had strong political, activist tones, often a strong sense of subversion. The sense that the art was illicit, dangerous to actually perform, and subject to official opposition and reprisals if the artist was caught was definitely part of the aesthetic. Themes of poverty, and racial and sexual minorities have been important parts of the style since the 80s, when black folk and queer folk often felt they had no access to more traditional art worlds. Traditional graffiti is the most iconic form, but there have been lots of others for decades, stencil art, murals, “lock on” street sculptures, etc.

Statue of Max Ehremann, a piece of clear Public Art in Terre Haute
“Public Art” is an old idea, but the current phrase has a lot to do with the New Deal policies of the 1930s, and the American experience of publicly funded art since then. Since the 1970s, “Public Art” has largely been about getting funding at the local level to spend money on site-specific sculptures and installations that will be aimed at the public. The results are often displayed, “on the streets” as it were, but have official imprimatur, with committees gathering funding and commissioning artists to create the installations. These are, in a sense, the modern descendants of the architecture of monuments and public fountains and such.

At the most basic level, Street Art, whether visual graffiti art or busking or poetry stenciled in alleyways is about making art even where and when it is not allowed, and Public Art is about obtaining sanction and funding, and being involved in the bureaucracy of site design and zoning and such to gain legitimate permission to put art somewhere public. Illegality, or at least some sort of illicitness, is at the heart of the style, and probably is central to the definition of Street Art, whereas, some sense of being officially sponsored, is at the heart of the style, and probably is central to the definition of Public Art. All well and good, and well explored by thinkers and artists before me, one more side track, before we get to my claim.

Christy Mag Uidhir makes a distinction between Street Art (form) and Street Art (content).

Street Art (Form)—Art in some Street Medium

Works having certain formal, compositional, material conditions mediated by certain contexts or relations (spatial, legal, social, cultural, communal, political, racial, proprietary, self-referential, etc.) necessary for the making and appreciation of works of that form: e.g., Performance Art, Conceptual Art, Installation Art, ...Street Art

Street Art (Content)—Art about the Street

Works having certain contents, specifically those within the narrow class of contents identified by reference to, relevance for, comment on those issues, contexts, relations, and environments considered saliently Street: e.g., Political Art, Feminist Art, Religious Art, ...Street Art”

So, for example, Sassafras Lowery's novel “Roving Pack” about homeless queer and trans teens, or the anthology she edited “Kicked out” about teens being kicked out of their homes, are surely examples of Street Art (content), in that they are manifestly about life on the streets, and all of the dodgy legality, underclassness, subversion and such that goes with that, but they are just as surely NOT Street Art (form), in that their forms are traditional novel, and published anthology of writings, neither of which are particularly “street.” We could easily enough make the same distinction with regards to Public Art. The mosaics by the banks of the Wabash in Fairbanks Park here in Terre Haute, are clearly Public Art (form), as small scale permanent installation/monuments on public land, but their content is largely about local biology. Myke Flaherty's “Excuse Me, Terre Haute” is clearly Public Art (content), it's a song about public life, that he was trying to get to become the official city song, but he never succeeded, and the form is pretty standard studio re-mix music.

The thing is, when I try to think of examples of Street Art and Public Art in my own large town/small city of Terre Haute, I can think of several clear examples of each, but lots and lots of examples, that appear to be in between the two extremes - art that is aimed at the populace at large, but is neither clearly illegal or illicit, nor clearly sponsored by official channels.

Take street music. If a street musician attempts to busk anywhere downtown or on campus, under normal conditions, day or night, they get hustled away by the cops and maybe fined (Street Art - form).  If they would like to play on Saturday mornings at the Farmer's Market, they have to schedule ahead of time with the market mistress, but are allowed (Public art – form). Similarly, big events downtown that get permits (like the Blueberry Festival, or Downtown Block Party, or Straussenfest) often schedule musicians (still Public Art - form).  But occasionally, a busking musician will set up near the entrance to the Baesler's Supermarket during the day. I've seen at least 4 different ones, including one I sorta know. The police won't hassle them as long as they are on Baesler's property rather than the city sidewalk, and Baesler's itself neither sponsors them, nor asks them to leave as long as they aren't causing a problem. Their activity is neither sponsored nor illicit.

Or consider graffiti; Terre Haute has plenty of graffiti of the tagging variety. And some occasionally clearly has artistic goals rather than merely being tagging, and so seems like Street Art.  Some of it is clearly local, others cases are on the sides of the railroad cars Terre 
Haute is famous for.  Up in 12 points, one night last in Sept someone graffitied the heck out of the old corner store, except that it was clearly artistic in style and abstract in form with no clear message. Well, when the “graffiti buster” task force went to clear it up, the owner objected and admitted that HE had done it tohis own building claiming it's not graffiti “it's art … I mean there are some things going on here but if you look down Lafayette you see empty building after empty building. But I own this building, it’s my canvas,”  - So uhm, is it Street Art when the rightful owner does it to their own building? Surely not. Is it Public Art, when a public task force tries to eliminates it, but then backs off? Surely not. We need some middle category.

My own main yearly artistic project, seems like another in-between case, helping with Subterreanean – a localist poetry, art, literature 'zine, put together by volunteers once a year. The cities other three literary mags are all sponsored by the English departments of three of the local colleges, and are given away free at the yearly launch party and sold for tiny amounts the rest of the year. In a sense they are Public Art literature, certainly at least the one paid for by the public university is. Ours likewise is given away at the launch party, and sold for a tiny amount the rest of the year, but the closest we have to a sponsoring organization is “th' poetry asylum.” We are neither licit nor illicit, neither sponsored nor opposed, neither Street Art nor Public Art, but with ties to both worlds.

There are several other local examples that seem to me to be in the grey areas between Public Art and Street Art. Eames Demetrios made an installation, that imitates the style of public historical plaques, but for a fantastic setting. And the one in Terre Haute is in a back alley downtown, a location more natural for Street Art, than Public Art or private art. There are culinary activities in our town that are neither legal nor illegal, (such as the milk share we run) or of regularly disputed legality (such as the perennial fights between the local health dept. and the Farmer's Market about exactly what the Health dept. has the authority to forbid and what it cannot, it's odd to think that Candice's relishes might be somewhere between Street Art and Public Art, but I think it is so). Or the tables and walls at Coffee Grounds, where generations have added graffiti and carvings with knife and pen, but the management seems to carefully walk the middle ground of neither promoting nor removing the graffiti … Or George's Cafe were doodled place-mats are occasionally taped to the wall, and a quick scan shows kid art, college student doodling, and art student apprentice-fine art haphazardly mixed, along with greasy spoon standards and Lebanese cuisine … 

I don't really have a good term for this hazy middle ground, the best I've come up with so far is Community Art, but that certainly has problems. And I see why it hasn't been the focus of much philosophical reflection. Without sponsorship from public money or real private money or the gallery system, this style of art is inherently amateur.  Without the edginess of real illicitness, or the population densities of the deeply urban setting, neither fame nor "subvertising" success are particularly likely. In essence the territory is a form of contemporary folk art, except that unlike say quilting, or painting Warhammer miniatures, part of the point of the art is to be public. Mag Uighir mentions an argument that yarnbombing isn't really Street Art "the unavailability of its materials within urban areas, the insufficiently destructive or permanent nature of its application, the identity of its practitioners (educated, upper middle class white women), the de facto legality of its practice (low risk of arrest and prosecution), etc." OK, but yarnbombing is at least another great example of what I am calling Community Art.  Just as we could make a distinction between form and content for Street Art or Public Art (probably not a perfect or hard and fast one, but at least a clarifying communication one), we can make a similar distinction for Community Art.  Some art is about life in community, that is neither as opposed as street life, nor as supported as public life, and that might take more familiar forms.  But some art takes it's form from community life, and might comment on community life or might comment on something else.

Community Art in my sense is at the intersection of amateur Public Art and low-risk Street Art.  It is where we have the bits of art designed for public consumption, but without money or officialdom as prime motivators.  It is motivated instead I suspect by, well a spirit of community, or of wanting our shared spaces to be enjoyable despite our lackluster means.  It is where the middle class and the middle poor meet in an art world between Fine art and Guerrilla Art, at some visual equivalent of the neighborhood barbecue or local pizza joint ...  It is the open mic nights and community gardens and take-one-leave-one library boxes.  All the sorts of things that didn't exist in some towns I've lived in, and existed in spades in other towns I've lived in.  Maybe I'm over-glorifying the mundane here, but I think that there really is a space, a weird sort of middle art, between Street Art and Public Art, a sort of moderate subversiveness for which my words fail, but my hopes continually come back to ...

Anyway, that's the idea I'm throwing into this philosophy of art debate, any thought?


  1. Hey BP!

    I think one way to capture certain informative distinctions between Street Art and Public Art is to look at target audiences. For example, consider graffiti (tags, throw-ups, etc.). In standard cases, the target audience is presumably not the public at large nor even the community members but rather other graffiti artists. I think this becomes especially clear when considering graffiti tags, which are often so overtly and heavily stylized that no one other than those already immersed within graffiti culture can in fact read them. While the public may nevertheless be able to appreciate the aesthetic/artistic features of the graffiti tag, its essential signatory nature remains unavailable to them. However, this is no more a communicative failure on the part of the graffiti artist than would my inability to understand Flemish constitute a communicative failure on the part of the Flemish speakers whose conversation I happened to overhear.

  2. I don't doubt you're right on tagging ... But there are plenty of other cases of street art that don't want to aim at everybody, but do want to aim at anyone who would be here, now, paying attention - many street musicians, many cases of graffiti poetry, etc. Similarly our city definitely has Public Art sculptures, that are funded as Public Art, listed as Public Art in the ArtSpaces website of Public Art in the area, but are "so overtly and heavily stylized that no one other than those already immersed within" Public Art sculpture culture can in fact make sense of them. They seem to be sculptures aimed at other sculptors and art funding committees. Then there are other examples that are more accessible, and seem to be aimed at the communities they are placed in. So I think for both Public Art and Street Art, some examples are aimed at very narrow target audiences, and some examples are aimed at much broader (if geographically localized) target audiences. I think that's true of this middle ground style I'm hypothesizing too. Although I could be wrong ... .