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Street Art
I have noticed that in my last two entries I mentioned street artists. This surprised me, since this is a branch of art I do not think of often, and it has little to do with the kind of photography I practice. Still, art is art, and the street artists are raising interesting questions about what art is, what it is for, and what it can do.

As I mentioned in those earlier entries, our environment is filled with images, placed in our line of sight with the intent of encouraging us to buy a certain product or vote a certain way. Some of these signs are located on the premises of the businesses they advertise, while others stand apart—some on free-standing signs or billboards, others mounted or painted directly on otherwise blank walls of unrelated buildings.

It is legitimate to ask: by what right do the businesses subject us to their visual displays? The answer, of course, is that they have paid for the right—paid the owners of the venues which host the signs. The right to display imagery seems to be bound up with property rights, and thus with wealth.

Some have challenged this idea. Graffiti and street art are done on blank urban walls. Sometimes the artists are invited by patrons or museums to beautify neighborhoods, but often they are done surreptitiously on walls of abandoned buildings or unattended retaining walls, in which the artists have no ownership or lease interest.


Herein lies the controversy. Since they have no right to the walls, they can be seen as vandalizing them. Ironically, the best of the street artists are very accomplished painters, commanding six figure prices in high end galleries. Recently British street artist Banksy’s painting of a boy using a sewing machine to make union jack bunting was cut from a London wall and subsequently appeared at an art auction in Miami, where it was expected to fetch $500,000 or more. The dealer maintains he has a clear line of ownership, although the details are not now publicly known. The item was withdrawn from the auction under the strong protest of the neighborhood where it originated, which claimed that since it was painted on the outside of the building, it had been a gift by Banksy to the community, which is demanding its return. Can it be said that if a painting appears on your building which enhances its value by half a million dollars, your building has been defaced?

slave labour

At the heart of this conflict is a disagreement about what art actually is. Is it an investment instrument, as the half million dollar price tag seems to imply, or is it an instrument of social change, as Banksy’s original title for the work—“Slave Labour”—suggests?  How much does the intent of the artist count against the intent of the seller and buyer?  Who owns these works?

High priced art has diminished political value. A painting that goes from Jasper Johns’ easel to a posh gallery, and thence to the walls of a boardroom at Goldman Sachs, has little opportunity to influence the consciousness of the man on the street. It has no need to; it is meant to be an investment. By contrast, a painting on a wall next to a sidewalk that hundreds of people walk past every day can be a potent agent of social change. That is precisely why advertisers covet such spaces.

So what happens when an artist’s talent raises the value of his guerilla art to investment portfolio levels? This is precisely what has happened to Banksy’s art. Banksy himself does not seem to benefit from the Miami auction deal, although it is impossible to be sure about this until the details of that deal are made public.  The frustration felt by an artist who feels his or her social imperative co-opted by financial success is real, however hard that may be to understand by those who pursue wealth.

ica andre

Some artists have tried to maintain separate gallery and street art careers. A few years ago street artist Shepard Fairey (creator of the iconic red white and blue Obama HOPE image) had a gallery show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.   A huge rendition of his well-known Andre the Giant stencil peered over the city from the top of the museum like a beacon. But Fairey never made it to the opening reception. On his way to the party he was arrested for “tagging”—spray painting stenciled images onto public buildings without permission. Street art.

Does an artist retain intellectual property rights to a work on a wall owned by someone else who has not given permission to use it? Are there limits to the real property rights of the owner of a wall bearing street art valued at six figures? Does the community in which such public art appears have any claim at all?

I have no answer to such questions, but I find them fascinating.