Sunday, 27 January 2013


Street Art: A response to social changes and cultural forces.

Danielle Muntyan

The 21st century, specifically between 2000-10, has been shaped by the increase in mass-consumerism, mass advertising, a massive change in technology political affairs and the UK government, as well as changes overseas affecting how we live our daily lives. It has also affected the world of art. The negative changes that have shaped the past decade have caused a backlash of street artists to reflect, and show an opinion on the society, which they live in and are exposed too. This newfound form of expressionist art has responded to issues the world are exposed too, which thanks to lightening speed digital communications, has been shared globally. Developing responses and opinions on issues has re-started a phenomenon; and street art is back. Firstly I will explain the changes in the 21st century proceeding to the changes in art in social media. For this I will focus on both Banksy’s and Shepard Fairey’s work, before concluding that street art has inevitably adapted itself to the institutionalized art industry, as well as how it has impacted society and culture today.

Social networking, and increased digital technology has improved the way information is captured and shared globally. Vast advances have been made regarding the media, Internet, and communication shaping the world we live in today. Increased terrorist and illegal activities have also been taken to extreme levels in the past decade, with the 9/11 bombings, and the phone hacking scandals. Due to these social and cultural issues, security has improved, and everything we do is monitored, captured, analyzed and judged. On the contrary, we appear to be dictated by the government, democracy, and our freedom of speech is repressed to those who are willing to listen. Media conglomerates have enthralled the creative advertising world, making the environment we live in a mass-consumer driven canvas. As a nation, society attempts to direct us into living collectively with the same views, the same opinions, and the same outlook on life.

Freedom of speech is impossible, unless you think outside the box. The desire to stand up for your views against the cultural and social issues of society, fighting against the ‘system’ gives street artists a reason to paint and go against the norms and conventions of society, articulating their views and raising their voice in an institutionalized modern day culture. As Banksy once said; “A wall has always been the best place to publish your work [and] graffiti is only dangerous in the minds of three people; politicians, advertising executives and graffiti writers” (Wall and Piece, 2006, p.8). Art has never been dictated; it’s self-expression, not oppression of thoughts and opinion.

Banksy has “stood up anonymously in a western democracy and [called] for things no-one else believes in, like peace and justice and freedom” (2006, p.29), fighting through cleverly throughout pieces of street art, often showing his cheeky attitude, puns, pranks and slight aggression towards the controlling world around us. Distance has never stopped Banksy making his mark, and has taken extreme lengths to make a statement. For example, he travelled to the Israeli Segregation Wall, painted 9 separate pieces of artwork on the ‘Palestine side’, causing controversy with locals, the security, and the world. Each painting is almost a ‘window’ looking through to the other side of wall. One particular painting shows a serene beach, which is undoubtedly the opposite of the reality. His statement and irony behind the concept was clever and eye catching, and the paintings told a thousand words - "The Israeli government is building a wall surrounding the occupied Palestinian territories. It stands three times the height of the Berlin Wall and will eventually run for over 700km - the distance from London to Zurich. The wall is illegal under international law and essentially turns Palestine into the world's largest open prison" (Sam Jones, 2005, The Guardian).

The rise in world affairs over the past decade gives street artists the perfect opportunity to create a meaningful piece of art with a concept, meaning and a focused ideology behind it. The idea of being confined within “the world’s largest open-air prison” (Banksy, 2006, p.136) gives insight into the corruption of the world, and the power it holds over people. This is something that has been reflected by street artists such as Banksy and Shepard Fairey in their recent work. For example, Banksy’s ‘CCTV under one nation’ stencil tries to emphasis how ‘looked over’ we are as a nation in regards to ‘big brother’ and the power of surveillance. Recently there has been insight into the UK being “world leader in video and digital surveillance (Liberty, quoted by B.Donegan), with more CCTV cameras per citizen than any other country (Paul Lewis, 2009, quoted by B. Donegan) … There have been similar responses to earlier widely circulated figures of one camera per 14 citizens in the UK, (Ch4 News, 2008 quoted by B. Donegan) and ‘300’ being the number of times a Londoner appears on camera on a daily basis” (David Aaronovitch, 2009, quoted by B. Donegan). This shows the intensity of our leaders, and the power which politicians, the government and modern day society expose us too. This topic is something, which has been frowned upon by artists but often disregarded by those who aren’t aware of such intensive and intrusive behavior. In an official statement, Banksy clearly said "I was offended when Westminster said my painting was an advertisement. Advertising makes people feel inadequate and worthless. Graffiti doesn't do that. Graffiti doesn't emotionally blackmail you, graffiti doesn't make you feel fat and graffiti doesn't make you rush out and buy things." (Time, 2008)

Artists use their artwork as a way of exploiting the system, fighting back whilst making the public aware of such issues and mocking those who hold institutionalized power over civilians. Street Artists are the voice of the nation, being the voice of those who daren’t speak for themselves.

Shepard Fairy is another example of a street artist, who shows his audience through his work that “power exists and works against you, [but] power is not terribly efficient and it can and should be deceived”. (Wikipedia, Banksy)

Fairey came to the height of this career in 2008, with the release of his Obama ‘HOPE’ poster for the presidential election. Obama won. He has a very defined style of work, which can only be described as “Andy Warhol meets Socialist Realism” (The Norman Lear Centre, p.3, 2009). Similarly to Banksy, with unique ‘guerilla’ styles of art, Fairey’s craft is reflected through bold imagery, stencils and sticker campaigns, with hidden socialist issues reflecting current affairs.

“I’ve also made a lot of political art in the past where I was criticizing people like George W. Bush—I worked very hard in 2004 to make anti-Bush imagery. At that point, I’d had a kid, a daughter, and as the 2008 election campaign was beginning, I had a second daughter on the way. So I started to think, “This isn’t about me augmenting my existing brand of pissed-off rebellion. This is about my daughters’ future.” … I wanted to make an image that deracialized Obama, where he’s not a black man, but a nationalized man. And then, secondly, when a person is turned into a stylized or idealized icon, it means that someone has decided that the person is worthy of this treatment, and the viewer then maybe takes a step back and says, “Well, they’ve been validated by someone, so maybe I should look at them a little more closely and decide whether they’re worthy of that validation.” So my thinking was that if people took that step, then I was pretty sure that they would want Obama to be president.” (Shepard Fairey, Interview Magazine)

Shepard Fairy made the above statement in regards to his previous works, making comment on the anarchic rebellion that still remains, but overlooking that for the benefit of others and a more positive future, as well as touching on racism and not letting that effect perceptions. It is unusual to witness a rebellious street artist deferring from anti-political statements, to move the exact opposite without motive. However, a simple image with a bold statement leaves the viewer to choose what they take from the visual campaign. “The American public is generally pretty superficial, so an image like that just allows them to project whatever limited idea they have onto it.” (Shepard Fairey, Interview Magazine)

‘HOPE’ in essence is a politically enhanced version of the ‘OBEY’ campaign – a sticker campaign that by which when you buy into the propaganda of it, you fall into the hidden meaning of it; following suit with society and not making your own influenced decisions.  The campaign “pokes fun at the process by teasing the consumer with propaganda for a product which is merely more propaganda for the campaign; very reflexive,.. The propaganda and the product are the same.” (Shepard Fairey, OBEY)

These are the established morals of falling into a socialist trap, which by following the government and voting for Obama made this campaign a success, essentially proving to an entire society, they we are essentially ‘Obeying’ advertising and mass-consumerism, regardless of the topic. He is making a point about something we don’t even realize we are unconsciously doing, yet is right in front of us. Fairey’s subtler yet stark take on this view, echoes Banksy’s as previously noted, but the execution is on the contrary.

Fairey’s work is heavily based on propaganda, and the aesthetics of Russian publicity posters, which reined throughout the revolution. Political issues shown through such simple mediums, leave the message being perceived open to interpretation. Many of his pieces are centralized around the idea of war. His major show in 2007 was located in New York City, and was entitled “E Pluribus Venom”. It is said that this is taken from the Latin phrase “E Pluribus Unum”, which literally translates to “One of many” (Kellis Landrum, Neu Black, 2007). This was an early phrase used during this era that was previously adapted and placed on U.S. monies. “For Shepard Fairey, many becoming one, or a loss of power and the influence of the individual in favor of homogeny is a symptom of a society in decline. E Pluribus Venom entails a two-fold metaphor: referring to the poison in the American system and the individuals who are motivated by venom and have anger towards this system” (Kellis Landrum, Neu Black, 2007). The concept behind is show is complex, yet truthful which is reflected through the exhibited works, whilst potential viewers may have not understood the message, taking the artwork for it’s literal meaning. Banksy on the other hand focuses on stenciled art, controversial stunts, pranks and installation relative to location, concept and message. Banksy aims to shock and entertain the viewer, whilst causing stress to the target, i.e. government, public or police, whilst Fairey is much more politically correct throughout, however controversial the truth is.

Banksy’s most controversial piece however, was a piece of installation placed in Disneyland California in September 2006, whilst being filmed by Thierry Guetta. His stunt consisted of placing a life size blow up doll, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, identical to those detained in Guantanamo Bay behind the gates of the ‘Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride. The doll was placed at the side of the ride, visible to tourists and riders. Banksy’s spokeswoman made a statement regarding his lucrative intentions, and claimed “Banksy said the stunt was intended to highlight the plight of terror suspects at the controversial detention center in Cuba.” (BBC, 2006). His ideology behind the stunt worked; the park closed for 90 minutes until the installation was removed.

The vast array of Banksy’s art shows he is passionate and committed to making a clear, bold statement, regardless of the consequences. Shepard Fairey’s work proves that he also is “hardly a typical street graffiti artist working against the corporate establishment of advertising and its colonization of the street.” (The Lear Centre, p.4). His controversial and simple work has complex meanings of emotion, feeling, politics and progression of society, which are underlying the surface. Both ‘HOPE’ and ‘OBEY’ turned viral during this decade due to mass-communication, media and those who have ‘obeyed’ and therefore advertised, or even turned to art themselves. The continued escalation of the campaigns have given street art a new found credibility, in the same decade as Banksy emerged with his anarchic, rebellious and revolutionary art work, making ‘outdoor galleries’ much more interesting and real to view than galleries.

Due to the ‘hype’ around street art during 2000-10, artists were realizing that the street art phenomenon that has captured the entire world, through message, passion and even more crucially – Internet, the speed of data communication and social networking. Artists developed work more people were becoming interested in, such as installation and secret pop-up exhibitions not for the aesthetics, but for the meaning, concept, and message being delivered. Artists began changing their trade due to the ever-growing popularity and the desire for more.

In June 2009, Banksy held his first exhibition in his hometown of Bristol, at the City Museum, which validated his level of recognition and fame. Over 100 pieces of artwork, including installations were displayed. Two pieces are still shown in the museum and kept in their permanent collection, which are on show to the public. As a prankster Banksy had previous placed pieces of his own work in the Tate and Louvre to observe the reception of the viewers. The collection shown in Bristol proved his popularity as an artist even though many view perceive him as working in a technically illegal vandalistic trade. Hence his response to his own top-secret exhibition; “This is the first show I've ever done where taxpayers' money is being used to hang my pictures up rather than scrape them off.” (BBC, 2006). He also stated after observing a piece of ‘pop-art’ he had placed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, that he “took five minutes to watch what happened next. A sea of people walked up, stared and moved on looking confused and slightly cheated. I felt like a true modern artist” (Banksy, 2006, p.179). This very statement shows how museums and art galleries can transform a once looked-down upon skill, as a new fascination, which has suddenly become high culture, opposed to low culture regardless of it’s true rebellious meaning and contradiction of becoming a ‘sell out’. Becoming a sell out is something that Fairey has been accused of with his ‘OBEY’ campaign, which goes against the morals of his intentions; likewise with Banksy.

Due to the social and cultural changes regarding the influences of street art in the previous decade, “museum and gallery exhibitions and international media coverage have taken Shepard Fairey, Banksy, Swoon, and many others to levels of recognition unknown in the institutionally authorized art world” (Martin Irvine, Georgetown University, 2012) opposed to making them ‘sell outs’, which is known to be the general preconceived notion of these particular artists, due to their work being commercially used and replicated for mass-media and mass-consumerism with merchandise, books and ‘propaganda’. Having work in world-renowned galleries is proof enough that people are being to see a change in the art world, and not focus strictly on ‘fine arts’. The freedom of creativity has been praised and unleashed for critique from the academics, art critics and celebrities, who are willing to pay high prices for ‘an original Banksy’. For example, one of his more unknown words ‘Insane clown’ which is simply a stenciled image spray painting on hessian, sold at an auction house in 2009, for $320,000. In 2008, Banksy’s ‘Vandalized Phone box’ installation, sold for $550,000 at Sotheby’s in New York, whilst a defaced Damien Hurst ‘Spot Painting’ cleverly entitled ‘Keep it Spotless’ sold for $1,700,000.  

By street art now being institutionally acceptable, artists have started to bring their work from the walls outside, to walls on the inside. They have had to adapt to the ideology that street art no longer only appears on the streets outside the galleries, but on the walls within it also. Over a decade ago, street art would not be seen anywhere other than backstreet allies or known skate areas, whilst in modern day and age, it has been the most successful, yet unorthodox, yet honest medium of art there is, and it’s appreciated for that reason. Artists have had to deal with the changes in society, culture and the change in public opinion, and had to adapt to these needs of their audience whilst staying true to their beliefs, ethics and views as an artist.

In the past, post-modern movements such as Pop Art, and Hip Hop have influenced street art, whilst in the past decade, no specific art movement or music genre has shaped the industry. Street Art has shaped itself by the vast changes in society, politics, ethics, humanity, terrorism, fear, national security, fraud and the day-to-day culture and lifestyles which we live in. It has become a post-modern phenomenon, due to the vast increase in media and technology.

The ever-growing popularity of particular artists in recent years has made them pioneers of the current street art world, and they’re also responsible for shaping the future. Due to mass-consumerism and advertising, artists are creating a backlash against society and it’s ethics. Mass advertising is a medium artists will continue to fight against - “They have re-arranged the world to put [them] in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don't even start asking for theirs.” (Banksy)

Graffiti is now fought for by the public in particular areas to be saved, re-touched or preserved, with claims of enhancing the community and environment. Views are changing on street art; by becoming popular, it has managed to break the mold and the boundaries within fine art, graphic design and street art, as well as the high and low cultures associated with galleries, museums and critics. Regardless of Banksy and Fairey being called ‘sellouts’, this does not detract from the work, the praise being received due to its enormity, or the message being conveyed.

It is without a doubt that the Internet and increased interest of commercialized art and merchandise, combined with social networking, having given street art the credibility it has needed and deserved for so long to receive such recognition from fine art institutions. If it’s in one of the best galleries in the world such as The Museum of Modern Art in New York; you know something is going right. Both artists will stay true to their unique styles and work, regardless of crossing over into the institutionalized world of fine art. Street Art is becoming more recognizable as a form of quality art, opposed to being labeled ‘vandalism’ or ‘graffiti’. The truth, reality and prosperity shown through art, have made a point publically of raising awareness of issues normally dictated by leadership and commercialism, and in the past decade has proven globally that street art is not a phase, it’s a way of communicating a message to those looking for an alternative to the system; those searching for an alternate train of thought and furthermore truth, reality and rebellion. It’s here to stay; with a voice, an attitude and a passion.

3215 words.


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