Monday, January 31, 2011

Berlin street art tour

What makes street art so fascinating?

The process of creating street art is intriguing.  There's an allure to the illegality of the act:  the artist works disguised in darkness, and there's always the potential for chase, capture, and punishment by the law.  There's excitement in the physicality: the artist places himself in mortal danger by scaling ladders and walls and dares gravity by walking ledges and roofs.  There's an edge provided by competition: each artist wants to one-up the others by tagging a higher, more unreachable, more impossible canvas.  There's sympathy for anarchy: private property is rendered public, and the artist pierces social convention for the sake of statement.  And there's a tickle to street art's inherent irony: the artist searches for fame, but is often anonymous, his fame a kind of secret fame.  

There's controversy.  That street art is simply vandalism is a widely held view.  And the truth is that there's a very fine line. We should distinguish between creating a stenciled graphic in order to make some greater point about a societal issue and spray painting one's name in neon in order to mark territory like a pissing dog.   We should distinguish between the social effect of painting a mural on the wall of a store and the social effect of having gone into that store and shoplifted $50 worth of spray paint cans with which to paint the mural.  We should distinguish between acts of destruction and acts of creation.  It is always easier to destroy than to create, unless you're talking about a mess.  The argument about whether street art is even art can only be won by street artists producing good art.

Finally, street art is interesting because while street artists often shoots the finger at capitalism, they employ branding techniques just like any corporate marketer.  The street artist creates a brand and seeks to spread awareness of this brand (the artist's name/style) by advertising (creating public art) in various media (walls, billboards, trains).  The joke is that while the street artist's style becomes recognizable due to repetition, while the artist has accomplished the process of selling a product, the artist has no product to sell.  The street artist, in effect, brands mystery.  The viewer of the art is left to wonder who took the time and risk to produce it, and why, since the artist can't profit from it.  Why should we do things that are hard and dangerous but don't necessarily enrich us?  That, my friends, is a good question to ask of ourselves, and for that reason if no other, street art is of value to society.   

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