A man stands five feet away from a painting extravagantly mounted on a bleak white wall. His Italian craft wing tips go well with his thin scarf and the thick-brimmed glasses that frame his crinkled eyes. He surveys the painting, stroking his salt and pepper goatee. After several minutes he gives a slight nod and lets out a slow “ahhh.”
As he moves aside to view the next piece, a child steps up to the place he was standing. At first glance the child squints her eyes, as if to try and see the painting in another light. She steps away after a few seconds, exclaiming furiously, “That’s not art!” leaving behind the white canvas bearing a single brown brushstroke.
A few blocks down the street in a foggy alleyway, an exasperated grandmother gawks in disbelief. The side of her family-owned coffee shop drips with the new image of a male and female in a close embrace, both wearing gas masks. In the same moment a teenage boy receives congrats from his comrades as he stows an empty spray paint can in his backpack. “There’s no way they can ignore this one,” one of them says as they slap him on the back.
What is art? I believe the best way to recognize art is to determine what the piece in question is trying to accomplish. People create art under the context of so many different things: to make a statement, earn money, for self-expression, to meet a standard—the list goes on. Why then are we as a society so inclined to give all art a label?
Street art, more commonly known as graffiti, is one of the most critiqued forms of art of our generation. A decade ago graffiti was known as vandalism. Now street artists have been able to make a name for themselves in the industry like never before. Take Shepard Fairey, for example: he started out as a simple graffiti artist in Los Angeles, and is now the brains and creativity behind the Barack Obama “Obey” campaign. The design for the pop art- style poster was the basis behind Obama’s fresh appeal to the youth of America. Some street art pieces are sold for thousands in the high-end art market all over the world. There isn’t an art critic today who hasn’t had the name Banksy crop up in their reviews.
Street art has only found this glory and social appreciation in the past decade, but why? I think it’s because the illicit and dangerous nature of the act has been romanticized. The idea that some one has risked it all to express their beliefs makes the artwork that much more valuable. There is no room for bullshit either. Street artists need to get in and out as fast as possible, leaving their works fluff-free. They don’t have the opportunity to edit, fine-tune, or tweak their work for days. The audience of a street artist receives raw honesty, and that is why the craft appeals so widely.
This is another reason street art has always walked the moral line. Who is it that separates artworks from being vandalism or just that, artworks? In Halifax, someone caught committing an act of vandalism will receive disciplinary action. Street artists and street art critics rush to document newly found works on film, as authorities rush to paint over works the morning after they are displayed. But once and a while unique cases come up where street art receives public recognition. In those cases the graffiti is actually celebrated by the media.
These celebrations come up all around the world. Leake Street in London, England is a 300-metre-long tunnel covered in graffiti. Not an inch of concrete can be seen through the spray paint. Whatever the legal position the city may take, the creation of graffiti in this tunnel has been tolerated— and undisturbed— for the past six years.
No doubt, a spray-painted line through a store window would receive the same reaction as a single brushstroke on a canvas in a prestigious gallery. The way we perceive art is a reflection of its value, and everyone’s values will be different. Perhaps, then, it’s appropriate to close this article with the age-old saying: “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”