For as long as there have been blank spaces, people have been writing on them—as far back as 32,000 years ago, in fact. Since then cave walls and rock formations have become buildings, subway cars, and sidewalks, but the need to express and leave one’s mark continues, particularly in urban areas. The question is: Is street art “art” or is it illegal graffiti?
According to The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, it’s both. (But if you ask the LAPD who arrested the infamous French street artist “Invader” for tagging the exhibit building itself and another nearby building in Little Tokyo, they’d probably say otherwise.)
Showing at The Geffen Contemporary now through August 8, 2011, is a collection of paintings, mixed-media sculpture, and interactive installations by 50 contemporary global artists who attempt to capture the spirit of the streets of Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, London, and Sao Paulo. Special emphasis is given to the emergence of “cholo” graffiti and Dogtown skateboard culture born in Los Angeles.
Of more popular note are two exhibit areas featuring several pieces from the street art genre’s largest commercial successes to date: Banksy and Shepard Fairey. Those unfamiliar with street art may know the incognito “contrarian commentarian” known as Banksy from this year’s Academy Award-nominated documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, which he directed and starred in, albeit sitting in the shadows. Fairey is best known for his “Obey” posters and stylized Obama “Hope” campaign poster, and has work showing in several prominent museums, including the Smithsonian, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Museum of Modern Art (NY).
As with its other larger exhibits, The Geffen Contemporary rarely disappoints. Art in the Streets showcases quite a bit of variety from room to room, and the crowd is as mixed as the pieces shown. Yet, this exhibit is unique in that it is controversial, spawning a variety of questions whose answers differ depending on whom you ask: Is street art “art”? Is there a difference between graffiti and other forms of street art? Does street art belong in galleries? Does it become an acceptable art form if it can be monetized? Does the exhibit send a wrong message to teens and young adults that It’s OK to vandalize property? Does it encourage gang activity? Is it an acceptable democratic medium of dissent in an era of widespread feelings of political and economic impotence?
No matter how you answer those questions, there is a palpable contradiction between street art’s reflection of life in poorer urban areas and the commercialization of those messages in The Geffen Contemporary’s gallery spaces for the enjoyment of an art-buying crowd who may have never experienced that lifestyle firsthand. Two particular installations in this exhibit are re-creations of life-size ghetto buildings and alleys that very clearly expose this disagreement: When scenes of poverty are brought inside a gallery, it somehow attempts to elevate them to “art,” despite the fact that gallery patrons could find live replicas a few miles south of the exhibit.
Nonetheless, Art in the Streets is an interesting exhibit worth checking out. Perhaps 32,000 years from now, pieces like these will serve as anthropologic descriptors of urban life in this age.