Banksy most be one of the most well-known artists of our generation. Street art as a whole is quickly becoming the twenty-first century’s pop art – the Dizzy Rascal of art. In Coventry, is an exhibition dedicated to the celebrated genre – ‘Street Art: Contemporary Prints from the V&A’, at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum. What is it then that gains it its edge from other contemporary and past art, and popularity amongst a diverse group?
Street art appeals to the rebellious (a side of which everyone has,) because of the forbidden nature of the medium it has grown out of – graffiti. This is only emphasised by the genre’s leading artist Banksy being a fugitive himself, as though he has to hold his head down in shame.
The unique and refreshing core of street art is that the attention isn’t on the artists themselves, as there is only a tag to track the author’s identity, the emphasis is always the artwork. “I’m just trying to make the pictures look good; I’m not trying to make myself look good,” which Banksy recently stated after The Mail on Sunday claimed they’d discovered the name of the infamous character. The paper reported that the man, based on photo identification is the Bristolian (that we know true) Robin Gunningham. Though this information seems dubious when the mother of the thirty-four year old public school boy denied ever having a son.
What so often distinguishes Banksy’s and others’ genius is the mischievous nature, the wit of exemplar pieces, of which is only really comparable to the Dadaists, and breathes freedom to the rebel. Freedom, firstly found in expression. Much characteristic pieces of work are a comment on an aspect of society – a social or political issue – a form of propaganda, and this appeals to our democratic senses. For example, the print Gaza Strip by Blu, c. 2009, pictures a figure-of-eight racetrack in which alternating tanks and construction vehicles meet each other’s tails. The artist identifies in simple visual form the repetitive nature of destruction and rebuild in the war-ridden Middle East.
Freedom is also from the restraints of traditions in art. It is endearing in this manner because it bridges the gap between what can be perceived as the pretentious world of idealised fine art, and life as we see it – the subjects of these works of art. This highly honest form of pictorialisation, mocks idealised and superficial representation, inserting the figure reality. For example, Banksy’s painting of Van Gogh’s wilted Sunflowers; and sculptures of Venus de Milo and Apollo Belvedere as today’s familiar characters (heroic or not): an overindulging party princess, and proud extremist.
Again this is comparable to the Dadaists, who were essentially anti-artists posed as artists. These examples of street art protest against the beauty that most artists have made it their life aim to achieve a sense of, as though it is a one-sided encounter of life. Street art exalts the underdog, because in many senses it is the underdog.
Moreover the British are fascinated by all perceptions of their own culture. Is this not the reason why we gawk in front of endless hours of reality television programs? By choosing not to view the idealised, utopian, perfect, or beautiful, they present a real, if often borderline angry, view of urban life and culture. Take for example Modern Youth by Kerry Roper. A boy with a polished fresh face of a china doll, and perfectly laid hair of a child featured on a 1960s edition of Blue Peter is hooded, obliviously holds a weapon of war in his right hand almost the size of he. This exhibition exemplifies that most commentary is focussed on the bad, and the ugly – the cynical and critical – rather than the good. However, though often-blatant parody, out of such untainted observations comes thought-provoking truth.
Perhaps my favourite part of the exhibition was ‘Fresh Paint’ a look at six up-and-coming street artists. Included within this was a film entitled Nowhere Near Here by Pahnl. This is a street-level viewpoint of the city of Oxford through continuous motion long exposure shots; over which is laid an animation of a running dog, which we discover at the end is cheerfully chasing an untouchable cat.
This short film pulsates life – it embodies the joy and energy of the city. Surely this is one other reason why street art has become so popular – for so many of our population the cityscape is life. This I believe to one of the key reasons Impressionism is so enjoyed too – it represents (if in very different form) city life.
The film remains true to the subject matter of street art, though lacks some of the other characters mentioned above. However this is no disappointment. As street art becomes more popular, it also expands into a range of disciplines such as film and photography, and purposes. A genre that was once cheap and ugly vandalising, is now a professional and noteworthy art form.
Street Art: Contemporary Prints from the V&A is at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry until 16th January– free admission.