BANKSY’s ‘Cans Festival’ is the latest urban art show attracting the ire of the establishment art critics. Despite not being the first, but because he’s been the one with the most identifiable name, BANKSY has always been subject to lazy journalistic sniping.
I don’t have a problem when the criticism comes from quarters that just object to graffiti per se. When they view all graffiti, whether carefully planned and executed or just quick tagging, as an offence of aesthetic destruction upon our carefully built and lovingly maintained urban environments. That’s a choice that the individual is entitled to take, much in the same way that I object to all the oversized corporate street advertising that my senses are assailed with on a daily basis.
The criticism of today’s street artists that winds me up most is generally that coming from the establishment broadsheet art critics. It’s usually un-researched (probably because there hasn’t been a personal invite to a private view to schmooze and drink free wine), generally lazy (with no irony this is one of the main accusations they lay at the door of the artists) and, more often than not, demonstrably written from a position of ignorance of the urban art scene. Even if a criticism makes no direct reference to established contemporary ‘fine’ art, the critical definitions are couched in the same language so as to reinforce the authority of the ONE TRUE WAY of reading art; the contemporary broadsheet critic’s way.
It is easy to attack ‘urban’ work as ‘simplistic’ if you don’t agree with the message, but that’s because you can read the message so directly. The flip side of this tends to leave the critical quarter assigning depths of profundity to contemporary fine art that even the responsible artists fail to comprehend after the event, and this is because much contemporary conceptualism or installation work is not directly or easily accessible (and neither is much of it meant to be). This isn’t necessarily wrong; there isn’t one way to make art. But neither should there be one method of criticism – I don’t complain that Mahler’s music doesn’t make me want to dance.
For a lazy critic urban work is easier to read than much of the pseudo-philosophy wheeled out to assail the senses of the public-gallery audience usually held to be the apex of contemporary art. Because urban art is readily accessible to a public not readily versed in postmodernist or poststructuralist theory, because it undermines the critic’s position as interpreter (or original author) of meaning and (until recently) because it has been outside of the financial circus of contemporary art the critics have shied away.
It is this last point that is already changing the previous establishment disregard for graffiti and other urban art. Now that this once renegade art form has found an audience ready to pay establishment art prices, many private galleries can no longer afford to ignore it. They are catering to a growing audience who buy aerosol stencilled work on a brick wall as readily as oil paint on canvas. An audience that has a desire for art that doesn’t stand above them, like a naked emperor, with its air of supposed intellectual superiority. An audience that know (like the artists) that art will never change the world, but that can take comfort in the fact that someone feels the same way as them about current issues.
Today the people that look to graffiti and other politicised art are aspirational of change in the same way as the agitprop of the Paris art students of 1968; only in the eyes of a critic, scrabbling for an ‘angle’ for an article, could it ever be a competition.
Mark Wallinger appropriated BANKSY’s work for his Turner Prize victory in 2007 where he was praised for his ‘bold political statement’ – never an accolade given to BANKSY by the critical establishment.
Now that Damien Hirst is collecting British urban artists (where previously the audience was considered art-ignorant) I’m sure we’ll soon see a critical about turn.
Street work (Brest, France)