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Art & Terminology: What is the Street Art movement?

As this museum is called Street Art Museum Amsterdam, you might be asking yourself the obvious question: what exactly is street art? And in what relation does it stand to graffiti or classical art in the open space? The truth is, since street art is so young and still changing, there is still no general accepted definition, but we do find some differences between the concepts.

Picture 1. Artistic graffiti by Pez (who also has artworks in our collection) in Brick Lane, London. Photo by Duncan.

First of all the question arises of how an art movement is defined. From the beginning it is a difficult one, because what defines art? Obviously there are some restrictions on what art is, but as Pop Art and Dadaism came along, questions were raised: can anything be art? As meaning is arbitrary to the object, dependent on the subjective view of it, meaning is also relative. This belief of meaning being arbitrary, relative and subjective was the essence of the Dadaist movement; that included visual art, literature, poetry, performance art and music. Most of the art was intentionally annoying and provocative to its audience (Locher 1999). Now Dada has become a formerly recognised art movement, but Dada did not conform to solely one art form. In this case street art is comparable: it uses different kinds of visual and textual art forms. Street art does include unconventional formats, like posters, stencils, paste-ups, stickers, woody’s, yarn and more. For many art movements, the artists are involved in defining the movement. For De Stijl, Theo van Doesburg stated the ideas and visions of the artists through a magazine. Through this the artists themselves set the boundaries through which the movement became defined. The Pop Art movement went through a similar process, starting off with a group of painters, sculptors, writers and architects, gathering together and criticising the traditional view of fine arts; focusing on popular art. Together they found a new way of making art that became the pillar for the Pop Art movement. With the street art movement, the beginning is more difficult to pinpoint, because it originated from graffiti. Where graffiti has a more fixed set of rules and aesthetics, street art is far more loosely defined.

Street art in general is an important counterculture movement that can be found all over the world. In contrast to graffiti the focus within street art lies more on the artistic approach of the maker. The line between graffiti and street art is not always clear. Within graffiti there has been originally a major focus on the writing of a name, commonly known as a ‘tag’. Professor and street art enthusiast James Daichendt distinguishes graffiti writing, artistic graffiti writing, artistic graffiti and street art (Stay up, Daichendt). Where graffiti writing focuses on the name and is typically done with a marker, aerosol paint or scratches into a surface, artistic graffiti writing pays more attention to the design and composition. Wildstyle pieces are part of artistic graffiti writing. Artistic graffiti (picture 1) has a main characteristic visual imagery: it could be abstract, figurative or realistic. The line between artistic graffiti and street art is blurred, but according to Daichendt artistic graffiti sticks to the graffiti based techniques and materials when creating imagery. Street art differs in this sense, because it is based upon a range of other techniques as well.

Both street art and artistic graffiti are sometimes akin to muralism. Muralism is an act that has been carried out since the prehistory, and literally means the painting of (big) walls. With muralism, the whole of the wall is painted, so it does differ from graffiti pieces take up part of a wall. In the beginning of the 20th Century, before the Mexican Revolution, a tradition of muralism was created in Mexico. A lot of public murals were painted by figures like Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco (picture 2). The murals contained strong social and political messages, creating debate in public spaces. This was a tradition long before the term street art was first used, though today murals in public spaces can come under the term street art.

Picture 2. Mexican Mural by Diego Rivera in National Palace, Mexico City. Photo by Jen Wilton.

In the defining the movement of street art, we might be looking at the concept itself. Just like graffiti, street art started to appear on the streets. It was – and still is for a big part – an illegal act of art. In graffiti the writers and artist are self-taught, or taught by peers. Within street art we see both self-taught artists, or artists with a background in art school who turned to street art. Because the art is in the streets and public spaces, it is open for everybody. As the XPO magazine nicely expresses about the street art of Banksy: “There is no language or cultural barrier for the viewer, no university degree in art history required or complicated theory to understand the work. Bam, it grabs you just like that!”

But as street art is out in the open, the complexity lies in the fact that not all art in public space can be called street art, and not all street art has to be out on the streets per se. The movement of street art has been growing for the last decade and all over the world, street art can also be found in museums. Here in Amsterdam only in the last couple of months there have been several exhibitions on street art of Banksy, inside museum walls. And for classical art in outside spaces, such as sculptures, monuments or even architecture, you cannot really say that they are part of street art. This more classical art is in contrast to street art, officially registered and maintained and commissioned as part of preselection by the governmental bodies.

What do you think defines the movement? What is the main difference with classical art in public space? Is it the fact that street art comes from an illegal background? That it is based on the idea that anyone, with the right idea and devotion can make art?

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