Today I briefly met a street artist. I meet street artists all of the time due to the company I work for, which is a popular paint brand with street artists. I already knew of the street artists work and they said it was a small world. They asked for any feedback like criticism or the like. I found it striking that when it comes to any formal regards to street art I have no criticism except when a work looks like a shampoo commercial. Most of my criticism has been about conceptual matters rather than formal matters. Why is that? Well street art is quite beautiful for one. It is easy on the eye. It is popular as well because it is normally eye candy. My main criticism is its vacuous nature.
I have always compared graffiti and street art because they are such polar opposites. Graffiti is ugly and looks mindless yet it is conceptually more interesting than street art. In what way you may ask? Well graffiti is based on an economy of means. This doesn’t mean it is simply cheap and nasty. It means it is adjustable to a lower scale of economic means. Street art in comparison is a commercial enterprise. Isn’t that a better outcome than simply defacing public property? It always depends on who you ask. Yet if graffiti is just about teen rebellion and these days sad old losers trying to invigorate their lives isn’t it a waste of time?
This opens a bigger can of worms. The old slave and master paradigm. Larger corporate interests and an economy steeped in financial progress. Developers beautifying for greater financial gain and late capitalism gone mad. You can’t say the street artists are at fault for following the money. Isn’t that what you are supposed to do in a rigged economy. Follow the money? What if you don’t have a choice? We all have to work and isn’t it better getting paid to do what you love? Just because you do graffiti doesn’t make what you do a genuine expression of rebellion. That would be my other criticism of graffiti. It is also quite vacuous. The more it screams rebellion the more it seems staged.
The more graffiti looks like a sticker that has no point than its virtuosity. So in the end what am I trying to say? The graffiti on the sides of tired old buildings in purely functional landscapes can be a relief from a world centred around financial gain and the tedium of function itself. Dysfunctional expression that taps into branding and unknowingly and sometimes knowingly parodies branding is the most interesting part of graffiti. This doesn’t mean that street art is the bad guy for following the money trail but it means that the economy of means can upend the mean economy. An economy proudly touting its winners and losers as winners and losers isn’t something to be celebrated. So let the celebrations begin. Just watch out for the losers trying to spoil the party. Or at best let people know that it isn’t really about winning or losing but tagging their financial tally in either social media or tagging the streets in a tally on social media. Either way there will be expressions of joy or dismay at the state of the world.