Street art at the Tate: bland, boring and no sign of Banksy anywhere

If you’ve read my About Me page, then you’ll know that I love street art. Monday is the last day of the Tate Modern’s iconic street exhibition, so last week, I decided to catch the exhibition while I still had the chance.

Whilst I acknowledge that the presence of a street art exhibition at the Tate is a milestone in allowing graffiti to be recognised as a genuinely credible art form, I can’t help but feel that the exhibition missed the point. Whilst it may have made urban art more accessible to a new audience, it failed to capture all that is fascinating and unique about street art.

Association with left-wing politics

Although urban street art has been popularised by British graffiti artist, Banksy (the Keyser Söze of the art world), it’s a global art form that’s long shared an intimate bond with socialism, radical politics, and the anti-war movement. Most recently, Orwell’s most famous works, (the visionary dystopian novel 1984 and the satirical allegory, Animal Farm) were reissued with visually stunning book covers designed by guerrilla street artist, Shepard Fairey.

Shepard Fairey, most famous for the iconic Obey campaign, recently created this limited edition print to show his support for Presidential candidate, Barack Obama. Not only did the print sell out in minutes, but also support from such a popular cultural figure did wonders for Obama’s campaign. As Fairey explained on his website:

”I believe with great conviction that Barack Obama should be the next President. I have been paying close attention to him since the Democratic convention in 2004. I feel that he is more a statesman than a politician. He was against the war when it was an unpopular position (and Hillary was for the war at that time), Obama is for energy and environmental conservation. He is for healthcare reform…”

Whilst the exhibition at the Tate (which also included an urban walking tour) mostly focused on Madrid street art, the lack of political messages meant that the exhibition failed to capture the revolutionary spirit at the heart of the guerrilla street art movement.

In addition, given that Banksy has popularised the art form and brought it to the mainstream, an exhibition where his work isn’t mentioned (at all) seems somewhat incomplete. Whilst the exhibition’s curators argue that they wanted to bring a more international flavour to the Tate, I suspect that the noticeable absence of arguably the world’s most famous anonymous artist may have been more to do with the anti-establishment nature of street art.

Anti-establishment art doesn’t have corporate sponsors

A particularly salient point to note about the Tate street art exhibition is that it’s sponsored by Nissan, ironic given the anti-capitalist nature of the movement.

The work of James Cauty, for example, is unlikely to ever receive a sponsorship from Disney, despite featuring its most iconic star in a variety of different guises. 🙂 And, this piece from Banksy probably won’t do any favours for the marketing department of a certain American fast food chain.  😉

The epitome of freedom of expression

In 2005, Banksy sneaked into four New York museums to hang his own work. That’s the point about street art.  It doesn’t need permission. It exemplifies all that is beautiful about freedom of expression. And, it democratises art, rather than limiting it to a small, privileged elite, who may or may not get the chance within their lifetime to display their work to the general public.

In some ways, Web 2.0 shares many of the characteristics of street art, which rather aptly explains my fascination with both. Like street art, the social web has democratised information, through bloggery, and other forms of user-generated content.

Moving on from this, the internet has been instrumental in popularising street art and bringing it into the spotlight. Sites such as Wooster Collective, Art of the State, and Streetsy, as well as blogs dedicated to individual art projects (such as the Little People blog) have propelled the movement to spectacular new heights.

An exhibition that doesn’t capture the evocative soul of street art is short-sighted, bland and ultimately, “not so street.” Street art has long been dismissed as “graffiti” and criticised for its lack of credibility as an art form. Whilst displaying this art at the Tate is an important step in helping to give street art the respect it deserves, as this blog post points out:

“What does it mean to just choose a few street artists and paste work onto the side of an art institution? If it already exists outside on sides of buildings what makes this so special?”

…Although (it) gives street art the respect it deserves, it also tells us that it still isn’t as valued as other modern and contemporary art practices, by denying it the space inside the museum.

It is only as valid as its increase of visitors and sponsorship money. A friend answered my questions by saying, “They’ve had to bring the street art to the middle classes, so they can feel cool. Or they can feel cool by slating it.”

I conclude that this was a wasted opportunity by the Tate.”

In summary, urban art is about radical freedom of expression: anywhere, any place, any time. The essence of street art lies in the fact that it’s subversive, it’s controversial and most importantly, it’s not pretentious.

Displaying street art in a museum perhaps defeats its core purpose and message. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves whether such art forms belong in the Tate at all. Even if it’s possible to institutionalise street art, perhaps this exhibition could have been better executed.

Could it be that the Tate missed a genuinely exciting opportunity to bring underground art to an increasingly enthusiastic public?


One comment

  1. evolution · August 26, 2008

    To add, Banksy’s work has been hung in the Tate; it’s just he hung it there when he wanted: on his terms, without permission, without corporate sponsorship and without a curator 🙂

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