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Street Art and Ethics - the Drama of Decision Making in Heritage Field

Reinwardt Academie, Master of Museology

Drama of Decision Making in the Heritage Field

Ethically Addressing Street Art in Museums - Amsterdam as a Case Study

Author: Vitória Ramirez Zanquetta

Profs: Christian Ernsten and Riemer Knopp


2.2. The Musealization of the Anarchic

The recognition of street art as an art form happened in a very contemporary way, very much attached to the development of internet and social medias, which allowed for the pieces and artists to gain worldwide visibility, generating free floating signifiers (Ross: 34). The art movement, that use to have local impact, has now gained the status of global, post-photographic, post-Internet, and post-medium; it is intentionally ephemeral but nowadays documented almost obsessively with digital photography for the web, constantly appropriating and remixing imagery, styles, and techniques from all possible sources (Irvine: 1).

Art galleries and museums still hold cultural authority to categorize something as art (Baumann, 2007), providing legitimation to artists and art movements, but it can be considered that the legitimation of street art followed a different path, coming from the popular culture which stimulated the creation of an ‘alternative market’ where street art is monetized (through tours, selling of prints, incorporation in advertisement campaigns, production of private murals, etc.). In the past five years, following this trend and the existent public of street art, many ‘street art’ museums were created. The emergence of these museums can be directly connected with the commodification of the subculture, a contemporary phenomenon that impacts many counter movements, such as feminism and LGBT rights. This phenomenon is explored by David Harvey (2002) in “The art of rent: globalization, monopoly and the commodification of culture”:

“The shameless commodification and commercialization of everything is, after all, one of the hallmarks of our times”

But which are the consequences of this process for the art movement? Many authors stress the damage to the art form or even a total disruption with its original character when placing it inside museums and art galleries. Costa (2007: 181) argues that street art loses its political and interventionist power when placed in art institutions, arguing that street art cannot be named as such in those environments, since it does not preserve its ‘marginal’ character. These appointments raise some questions: does ‘street art’ fits in museums just when it is not street art anymore? Can cultural institutions, responsible for safeguarding heritage, contemplate the art form in its totality, protecting not only the materiality of the art, but also its intangible dymension?

In recent years, scholars have called for further attention to more-than-representational approaches in the field of heritage studies, stressing the importance of human interaction with heritage and the physical environment, focusing on the personal, emotional, social and embodied doing of heritage rather than its material representation (Nomeikaite, 2016: 44). Street art relates directly with these new views on heritage and approaching the movement and the art pieces as ‘beyond representational’ could be extremely beneficial for its preservation, avoiding museums and other cultural institutions to reduce the art in order to fit it into the white cubes of contemporary art museums.

Heritage is something alive and therefore always subject to change, and street art as heritage has its changes completely connected to the city’s landscape, which are fast and constant. For Wylie (2005), landscape is lived and practiced, never fixed or static, it is something always in the making. The mutable characteristic of the art form, its ephemerality, is what makes it so connect to contemporaneity and valuable in the contemporary art history. The removal of a street art piece has the power to reveal added meanings that surround it, it can create atmospheric experiences that are “affective, characterized by intensities of feelings that are co-constituted by people and their spatial and material environment” (Hillary & Sumartojo: 202).

Image 1 - One of Banksy’s piece protected by a $1,500 for bulletproof and glare-free glass

The ephemerality of the art form is something that challenges the idea of preserving its tangibility. The pieces, in many cases, end up being ‘adopted’ by the community that attaches to it feelings and values, and the idea that the art might be damaged or eventually vanished start to be a concern. This recognition by the society leads to the need for preservation, which can generate in loco strategies, like the cover of the work with protective varnish or, in more extreme cases, bulletproof glass, as seen in the image above. As another example of the growing social demand for the preservation of street art pieces was seen in March 2018, when it was witnessed the first court case to rule in favor of protecting street art with an unprecedented decision.

“Ruling that graffiti — a typically transient form of art — was of sufficient stature to be protected by the law, a federal judge in Brooklyn awarded a judgment of $6.7 million (…) to 21 graffiti artists whose works were destroyed in 2013 at the 5Pointz complex in Long Island City, Queens. In November, a landmark trial came to a close in Federal District Court in Brooklyn when a civil jury decided that Jerry Wolkoff, a real estate developer who owned 5Pointz, broke the law when he whitewashed dozens of swirling murals at the complex, obliterating what a lawyer for the artists had called “the world’s largest open-air aerosol museum.” Though Mr. Wolkoff’s lawyers had argued that the buildings were his to treat as he pleased, the jury found he violated the Visual Artists Rights Act, or V.A.R.A., which has been used to protect public art of “recognized stature” created on someone’s else property.” - New York Times

In the context of Amsterdam there are also some developments regarding the ‘legal acceptance’ of the art form, going into the direction of its preservation. It is in process the creation of a new position in the municipality, the ‘stadscurator’, or city curator, a initiative proposal was submitted by GroenLinks on 27 June 2016. This new function is being proposed based on the idea that the city needs an art ambassador, someone who can protect and map art in public space, a ‘specialist’ that will be consulted before a piece of street art is removed from the city space. It is still not defined the competences that will be attributed to the position, some discussions have been organized about the future of city curator, but later developments suggests that it won’t be the competence of one person, as initially suggested, but a council involving different professionals.

This proposition used as justification some harming incidents involving street art pieces that are considered relevant by the municipality. As an example, the accidental removal of a mural depicting the ex-mayor of Amsterdam Van der Laan, made by the collective Kamp Seedorf. The removal caused a big commotion in the local residents, which led the Amsterdam Museum to request to the art collective a new version of the piece, that is now part of their collection and displayed inside the museum as part of the history of the city.

These cases are examples of the growing value of the art form, not only in the art market or as a marketing tool, but also for the communities and city developers. It is still not clear how these new initiatives, like the ‘street art curator’, will impact the ethics of the art movement, taking into consideration that the protection of street art, nonetheless, may be perceived as a danger to the authenticity of its traditions related to illegality, anti-commercialism and transience (Merrill: 387). Furthermore, the idea of a city curator, that stipulates the permanence or not of the illegal pieces gives the impression of a top down decision making. The involvement of street artists, heritage experts and other initiatives already engaged with the subject, like the three museums that will be further explored here as case studies, could help in the development of a cohesive plan to the future of street art in Amsterdam.

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