From Basquiat to Banksy: street art and urbanism
When Kristen Visbal’s ‘Fearless Girl’ statue was unveiled on the eve of International Women’s Day in front of Wall Street’s ‘Charging Bull’, it was initially hailed as a feminist subversion of financial power. Yet the picture became more complicated when the Bull’s sculptor, Arturo Di Modica, demanded the new installation be taken down for misrepresenting the meaning of his original. Di Modica’s original piece had been a genuine piece of guerrilla art – installed overnight without a permit to protest the 1987 Stock Market crash – whereas ‘Fearless Girl had been sponsored by a multi-trillion dollar wealth management company to promote its ‘Gender Diversity Index’ fund and endorsed by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. In response, artist Alex Gardega added a ‘Pissing Pug’ sculpture to protest the ‘advertising/promotion in the guise of art’: although he quickly removed it following accusations of misogyny.
The affair seemed to capture many of the issues surrounding public art. Artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring made graffiti, once viewed purely as vandalism, into a legitimate area of contemporary art. But there has also been a live debate over whether respectability dilutes street art’s rebellious roots. That debate has become intensified in recent years by both the growing appetite amongst public bodies for public art and tensions over what is acceptable in public space. Sam Durant and Sir Anthony Gormley have both faced criticism this year for public art works that have been accused of glamourising suicide. Conversely, Banksy’s recent works from Gaza to Dover have attracted as much attention over ownership disputes as their supposedly controversial content.
Is street art simply a form of creative expression which uses the urban landscape as its canvas, or does it rely on a subversive, quasi-legal edge? With the ‘guerilla’element taken out, does it remain a work of art or simply vandalism? Does putting art in a public space, rather than arts institutions, inevitably limit its claim to artistic freedom and expression? Does it provide a challenge to a growing sense of sanitised public space, or has it itself become a form of approved ‘artwashing’?