Saturday, September 21, 2013

Contemporary Vandals

If you’re wondering where street art is heading, prepare yourself for a facepalm because pseudo-intellectual artist statements are so hip right now.

My favourite scene of the 1983 documentary Style Wars shows gallery goers making their pompous predictions about the death of graffiti as two graffiti writers boast about how much money they’re about to make as, gallery based, 'post graffiti' artists. Imagine their disappointment when the market for gallery based post-graffiti would collapse in 1984, leaving anyone whose last name wasn’t Basquiat, without a career.

Before the collapse, gallery owners like Sidney Janis, encouraged his chosen artists to adopt an attitude of superiority over graffiti writers who still painted trains. After all, they’d become ‘real artists’ and the galleries were offering to include ‘post-graffiti’ within the history of contemporary art. Writing graffiti on the street was about to become a thing of the past. It's easy to laugh at now, but why are we still falling for the same empty promises put forward by the world of contemporary art? 

Today, the trick to making the leap from street art and contemporary art is to get some real funding so you can work on a scale that’s beyond the reach of the chumps on the street. Then you reduce the skill level to a minimum (low skill suggests high concept). Finally, you write a convoluted artists statement that hints at childhood trauma and preferably mentions suburbia.

Despite being one of the world’s most technically skilled aerosol artists, Ian Strange spent two years on an epic project that followed this formula to a tee, only to attract a shrug of indifference from the world of contemporary art. A month later Adrian Doyle, an exhibitionist who lacks Ian Strange's technical gifts, would repeat the formula using a bucket of blue paint and gain enough critical attention to make Strange’s efforts look like an epic waste of time and money. Whereas Strange seems desperate to be taken seriously, Doyle gives off the impression that even he knows that he’s a bit of a joke, making Doyle far more likable despite his work displaying a similar lack of substance.

Ian Strange and Adrian Doyle
At it’s worst, contemporary art is as shallow as it seems and any street artist who dives into that puddle, hoping to gain intellectual superiority, will often come out with mud on their face. At the very least, they should expect to attract suspicion once they start telling us banal stories about their childhood in an effort to inject meaning into their otherwise empty gestures.

After all, street art and graffiti have come this far without self-indulgent artist statements. Using them now seems like a crude attempt to seek validation from the institutionalised world of contemporary art by implicitly invalidating the world of street art and graffiti.

On the same token, it might have seemed like a compliment when former MOCA directory Jeffery Deitch made his attempt, back in 2011, to include ‘street art and graffiti within the context of contemporary art history’. But what he, and others like him, are really saying is that street art and graffiti lack legitimacy without the rubber stamp of a contemporary art institution.

It’s the same trick Sidney Janis tried to pull back in 83 with ‘post-graffiti’ and it’ll never really work because the more street art and graffiti stray from actual vandalism, the less interesting they become. This might seem like a limitation but I’ll take that over the next pseudo-intellectual artist statement, any day of the week.

Update 20-11-13

I've since met Ian Strange and I'm willing to admit that there's more to his practice than this article give credit. He seemed well aware of the inherent shortcomings of contemporary art, street art and graffiti and I look forward to seeing how he navigates between those worlds in the future.


  1. Great post Peter - short and to the point.
    You're translating my thoughts exactly.