People that don’t know art at least know Banksy. Worse yet, people that don’t know art love Banksy, just as people that don’t know music love Coldplay. But (and don’t kill me, world) it is not inherently deplorable to love either Banksy or Coldplay — even when the phrase “sell-out” is bandied around both parties.
For a while now, the beloved bane of pseudo art critics everywhere (read: fauxhemian art students with questionable facial hair) is the commercialization of street art. They bemoan the institutionalization and domestication (and other “-ations”) of street art by the media. Graffiti’s “Fuck Corporate!” attitude is fast becoming corporate. While street art may have been the Occupy Wall Street of the art world, it is the same joke of a movement Occupy Wall Street has become in the real world.
Banksy, once a beloved British vagrant full of anti-capitalist and anarchist ideals, is now reduced to those balloon girl decals on the back of tween girls’ MacBook Pros. He’s a sell-out, they say. And so is Shepard Fairey. His Andre the Giant OBEY sticker campaign has metastasized into the OBEY clothing line sold at UrbanOutfitters everywhere. Fauxreel is a sell-out for partnering up with Vespa in 2008 to post hundreds of his characteristic “photograffiti” wheatpaste ads for an undisclosed sum. Now, all three graffiti giants have gallery shows in prestigious museums and works sold by Sotheby’s for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But is it “selling out” when a street artist makes a buck from his work? Perhaps, profitability is only the next natural step. The hilarious catch-22 of street art is that the more one becomes the visual voice of the voiceless, the more street cred one gains, and therefore the more value one’s work will garner in the gallery setting. Street artists elevate art precisely by degrading it — they put it on the streets for public access, creating a social commentary for the public. Some purists like artist Workhorse believe something fundamental is lost when street art becomes a commodity to be sold rather than a mode of pure expression. However, street art does not have to lose its guerilla mystique when it moves to the gallery. Instead, what street art gains is a new nature, one that has since evolved from its revolutionary origins as a voice of the dispossessed.
In fact, upon closer inspection, it seems some of the world’s best contemporary artists started on the streets. Take for example Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat. In the ’70s, they ushered in their careers first by drawing on the only spaces they had access to — the walls of New York City. When they moved their work from the brick walls outside the MOMA to the white walls inside MOMA, no one accused Haring and Basquiat of selling out. And you know why? It is not selling out. Corporations and galleries and mass-produced apparel do not mean the death of street art. So why is it that Haring could open up a pop shop for his printable and wearable works but Banksy couldn’t cash in as well? When veteran street artist Futura collaborated with The Clash, fuss about his artistic integrity was everywhere, but no one seemed to remember all the times Warhol collaborated with The Velvet Underground. Warhol never lost his street cred and neither should Futura or Banksy.
The true movement of street art is something altogether separate from what has been publicized. Street art is not succumbing to pop culture; pop culture is succumbing to street art. A few guys who started scribbling on walls are changing the way galleries function. They have raised the public consciousness of their politically charged work from a few passersby to a worldwide audience. They’re eschewing the mainstream even as they become mainstream. They continue to say “Fuck corporate!” as they invade corporate, and they make bank while doing so. In fact, they make enough bank to continue saying what they’re saying and doing what they’re doing, and that’s all we wanted from them in the first place, isn’t it?