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As people we understand we are constantly changing, both physically and metaphysically. The world around us shifts and evolves – buildings are knocked down and rebuilt, our city centres are in a permanent state of developmental flux, overall we welcome this. The seasons effortlessly shift around us, and we accept this too with grace and a sense of wonder.
Why then do we absolutely lose our minds when a little piece of street art is removed? Aren’t we strange, little creatures?
In our hometown of Manchester there was a recent spat when a portrait and tribute to David Bowie, which had been painted on a wall in the city’s Northern Quarter by street artist Akse, was then removed a year later. Although the Bowie piece had remained 9 months longer than the allocated timespan for previous pieces, it had nevertheless become something of a tourist attraction. Local anger wasn’t helped when it’s replacement was shown to become Sloth, the grotesque ogre character from 80’s movie The Goonies. After just a few days of Sloth’s appearance, and following constant abuse, artist Quebek relented and amended the ogre’s original image by painting a Ziggy Stardust lightning bolt across Sloth’s face as an acknowledgment of both the relentless heckling he had received and as a nod to the previous Bowie piece.
In New York a group of artists are in federal court fighting a property developer who whitewashed a building, that he owned, even though the building’s façade had for many years served as an aerosol-art exhibition area and the murals upon it had become the stuff of local legend. This is a very, very grey area. The law grants artists ‘moral rights’ to works of prominent stature and allows them the ability to sue for damages when their creations are destroyed, even if the artwork is technically not owned by them and owned essentially by the property owner. It’s a fascinating story and the outcome of the case could change the street art landscape forever, both physically and morally.
So why is it that we become so attached and protective of street art in our neighbourhoods but are comfortable with pretty much everything else changing and moving on? Is it the championing of the underdog street artist and a sense of anti-establishment that makes it so endearing? The subsequent removal of their work by the ‘establishment’, even if that is just property owners, brings about strong feelings of injustice and even subordination. Is it the covert, cloak and dagger danger and rebellion that street art represents, even when it has been officially commissioned? Or do we just like it when our cities and towns are brought to life and invigorated by the colour and imagination of local artists, rather than the dour, blandness of city centre planning officials? Perhaps it’s a little bit of all of this and other arguments beside.
The main overriding and exciting shift here though is that in just a mere twenty years street art has gone from being considered thoughtless vandalism to an essential and greatly valued high art form. This point is probably best highlighted by the worldwide success and phenomenon of street artists Banksy, Shephard Fairey and of course this year’s $110 million sale of a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting, a former graffiti artist.
Art by it’s very nature must be a free expression and interpretation of our experience of life and our time on this planet. There should be no rules, no laws, no precedents, but if that is what we expect of our art then we also have to then allow it to be fluid, shifting, ever-changing, moving.
Art cannot afford to stand still, if art is to continue to move us.