Normally with an artistic movement, one is able to pin it down, it’s style, subject matter or technique; but with street art, all we have is what is publicly visible, and from there it seems to be anyone’s game. So, we are lead to ask if street art is more a philosophy than an artistic movement, and if so, what is street art’s philosophy? 

The notion of street art and graffiti (for the purposes of this article we’ll be putting them in the same bracket – though there are many other articles supposing what the differences between the two are) famously originate from the graffiti on train’s boxcars by gangs in New York from the 1920s and 30s. But the drive, the inspiration has been knocking about for years – it is the same drive and inspiration that leads children to scribble and annotate their school text books and make Crayola masterpieces on their parent’s walls. Street art is an extension of this drive, usually adopted by people who feel socially marginalized, for whatever myriad reasons humans are marginalized, and need to find a voice. They need to speak out either directly or indirectly about something, be it a literal piece of writing saying a degenerated area needs to change, or a beautiful Klimt-inspired piece (such as Swoon’s) in a area of deterioration, its contrast with its environment highlighting the environment’s need for some love.

Pop Art Sentiments?

Street art and pop art share a similar sentiment – the transformation of the every day (and equally, subverting advertising) which could be why street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and pop artist Andy Warhol became such firm friends and collaborators, feeding in to a similar ideology. The philosopher Arthur Danto wrote extensively about “the end of art,” an idea originated by the German philosopher Hegel, which views the development of the history of art as a process in which art became increasingly conscious of itself, becoming a philosophy, and therefore, coming to an end. By “an end”, Danto and Hegel did not mean art was over, but the narrative people had become accustomed to came to an end. As he said “What Warhol taught was that there is no way of telling the difference [between art and non-art] merely by looking. The eye, so prized an aesthetic organ when it was felt that the difference between art and non-art was visible, was philosophically of no use whatever when the differences proved instead to be invisible.”

“What Warhol taught was that there is no way of telling the difference [between art and non-art] merely by looking. The eye, so prized an aesthetic organ when it was felt that the difference between art and non-art was visible, was philosophically of no use whatever when the differences proved instead to be invisible.”

Street art is certainly a philosophy, if only because its illegal nature necessitates a certain mental framework to create it; however, unlike pop art, street art’s germination, and so, philosophy, was much less considered, it wasn’t trying to be or do anything except to make you look, and think twice.

But if street art is so hard to pigeonhole it’s become a philosophy, how can you define street art? And where does one draw the line between street art and public art? The philosopher Nicholas Riggle believes an artwork is only street art, “if, and only if, its creator uses the street as an artistic resource … for a work to use an artistic resource, it is necessary that the creator of the work intentionally use it in the creation of the work. In using the street, artists willingly subject their work to all of its many threats.”

Traditionally street art is recognized as graffiti or murals on shop fronts and sides of buildings etc. but as time goes on the mediums street artists use are becoming increasingly varied and increasingly considered; for example some graffiti artists hack digital road signs to display their own messages, the street artist REVS welds metal sculptures of his pseudonym to parts of whichever city he’s in, Invader glues 8-bit mosaic creations all over different cities, Stik draws enormous freehand ‘Stik people’, Banksy and Blek Le Rat often use stencils, other artists use video and laser projections, others use wallpaper, some even classify flash mobs and guerilla gardening as street art.

Street art is no longer just the distinctive style that emerged in Philadelphia and New York in the 1970s-80s and we saw represented in the documentary Style Wars; but what remains from that era is the idea of something being created in a public space with a specific attitude or, most importantly, intention. In the case of street art being distinguishable from other art, it is the intention that changes everything. As with the difference between a nude Botticelli and a Page 3 pair of breasts, the intent with which the image was created changes our perception of it. One can have “street art” that has been commissioned by commercial businesses to advertise their product, to surreptitiously work their way into the minds of the youth, to connect with those trying to disconnect from advertising. But it is no longer street art just because its use of the street is necessary for its creation, it is commercial art on the street. The difference as Keith Haring identified it, is that “[street art] celebrates humanity instead of manipulating it.”

Of street art Keith Haring said it “celebrates humanity instead of manipulating it.”

So the defining principle of street art, is not only its intrinsic use of the street in my opinion, (though Riggle is a far more qualified philosopher than I) it is the artists’ intent: the creation of a piece is of the artists own volition, the message is their own, as anything created beyond those fundamentals and the waters tend to get a little murky.

Does the piece need to be illegal?

Or at least unauthorised? Really, I think yes, but I can be a bit fanatical about the rules. It is just that street art is a deviation from annotating school text books: it is drawing genitalia on government buildings, it is drawing moustaches on advertising; it is it’s own naughty, its mischievousness that is part of street arts’ lifeblood, the streets are but a playground, a facilitator. This is why you find street artists such as Stik and KAWS and Banksy, whose
origins are in illegal street art and graffiti and who have garnered enormous amounts of success, but still regularly engage in the illegal activity, because otherwise they’re questioned as to whether they are street artists anymore by those still out their ‘graffing’ unknown and unauthorized; they must continue a narrative with the streets and the street art community in order not to fall into the bracket of ‘gallery darlings’ completely.

But as the commercialization and commodification of street art goes against its ethos, it’s anarchic intent (the punk notion of a ‘sell-out’ is still very prevalent in street art – the only art form it seems the notion of a sell-out is even remotely detestable any more) successful street artists create specific pieces for sale in galleries to appease the hungry market, and make some money; because as Blek Le Rat says, their street art is “a gift” to the public. The point is it’s free, it’s created by surprise as a present to the outside world, the general public, whether they want it or not; and the only thing the artist gets back is the knowledge that their message, their art, is being seen, and by some, appreciated.

There is a catch 22 now for popular street artists: street art is often created in “run-down” parts of town, spreading messages of hope, social inadequacies, or just putting a spot-light on unloved areas by making you look twice. But vicariously, this can have an undesired effect for local residents. Street art had once been an act of rebellion, of dissent; now however, it is often deemed as a legitimate means of regenerating a part of town, which is great for the residents, up to a point. The problem for local residents arrives when commercially successful street artists such as Banksy come to a deprived area of town to spread their message; as they are so desirable, people with money start moving to that area of town to be at a close proximity to the “cool” – a mural of Banksy’s in Bristol was famously sold “with a house attached”. Appropriate Media claims that: “Banksy… sells his lazy polemics to Hollywood movie stars for big bucks… Graffiti artists are the performing spray-can monkeys for gentrification. In collusion with property developers, they paint deprived areas bright colours to indicate the latest funky inner city area ripe for regeneration. Pushing out low income families in their wake, to be replaced by middle class metrosexuals with their urban art collections.”

And Banksy himself has received requests from residents in the neighborhoods he paints, which ask that he stop painting so they can continue to afford homes in the neighborhoods where they grew up.  A letter received by Banksy reads: “My brother and me were born here and have lived here all our lives, but these days so many yuppies and students are moving here that neither of us can afford to buy a house where we grew up anymore. Your graffities are undoubtably part of what makes these [people] think our area is cool. You’re obviously not from around here, and after you’ve driven up the house prices you’ll just move on. Do us a favor and go do your stuff somewhere else like Brixton.”

So does a street artist have to stop unauthorized and illegal works, not for the preservation of their reputation, but for the residents; for fear a horrible yuppy might arrive and buy up all the land? No. Because street art does not have to be moral, it does not have to be politically correct, it does not have to correct social injustices, it does not have to do anything other than exist in the public arena. It is a voice. It is not necessarily there to please people, and this is what we must remember, that it is just there; and past that it is up to you, the public, to decide how you feel about it (remember, according to Immanuel Kant the definition of ‘sublime’ is the feeling of displeasure followed by a feeling of pleasure.) Herein lies the difference between street art and public art, street art is traditionally created with little-to-no consideration as to whether it might annoy or offend people just by being there. Where as with a piece of public art, everything from its subject matter, its connotations, its appearance, everything down to its exact location has been pre-approved by the same bodies who dictate where and how much advertising we see on our streets.

Most of the academic work done on street art and graffiti has not been by art historians, but by anthropologists and sociologists; so it would appear the creation of street art is a very human thing; at its core, street art doesn’t have the lofty notions other forms of art, like conceptual or post-modern, might have. It is more basic – and that, is a compliment. As human beings in cities we have come to know the street as a very practical entity, it is the path that leads us from A to B, from work to home, it serves its purpose just by being there and being grey; but today, there is not a city, nay a village, without some form of street art. And so, what is the purpose, the philosophy of street art?

To lift us out of the every day, to heighten the everyday.

The piece of street art on your walk to work or the shops, becomes a part of your journey, and whether you like it or not, just by being there it transforms your journey, and ergo, your life. The theory being that the place is better off just for something having been created, for someone bringing something into existence, and so, reminding us we exist. We’ve been doing it since cave paintings, as Keith Haring said, “Drawing is still basically the same as it has been since prehistoric times. It brings together man and the world. It lives through magic.” And that, is the philosophy of street art, to bring together man and the world, with out the buffer of a governing or advertising body. To remind us, we, the individual, still exist within the amorphous mass of the everyday.