Street Art - On Canvas, in Galleries, for auction, in the Streets?

What Qualifies as Street Art?
Justin Kamp, for
Jan 11, 2021 12:43pm
photo: An early 2000s Swoon paste-up on a San Francisco public wall

The ascent of so-called street artists into the moneyed realms of the blue chip is not exactly a new phenomenon—it’s been nearly two years since KAWS skyrocketed to a new auction record of HK$116 million (US$14.8 million) with the sale of The Kaws Album (2005) at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, which was followed six months later by the record-breaking sale of Banksy’s Devolved Parliament (2009) for £9.8 million ($12.1 million). These two mononym artists could be seen as the loosely defined category’s twin princes, despite their stylistic differences—KAWS’s vibrant cartoon riffs and Banksy’s wry stencils are two of the most easily recognizable, not to mention consistently lucrative, styles in contemporary art. But as collectors the world over continue to be fascinated with “Companion” figures and Girl With Balloon prints, the exact parameters of what constitutes “street art” remain nebulous.

According to Charlotte Raybaud, head of 20th-century evening sales at Phillips in Hong Kong, the category comes with a certain amount of ambiguity baked in. “Street art is inherently hard to define,” Raybaud said. “It is difficult to categorize as sometimes it can feature graffiti, or other times more image-based work. The former oftentimes features alongside the latter, but I would say some uniting elements include the use of stencils and/or elements of reproduction, allusions to and questioning of everyday visuals or slogans, and of course its ‘street’ setting—or indeed proximity to its roots.” When highlighting street art works for potential bidders, Raybaud said she emphasizes both the above aesthetic elements as well as a piece’s conceptual underpinnings, which she said often center on themes of democratization.
Scholars of the category expressed similar views. Jaime Rojo and Steven P. Harrington, co-founders of the online street art community Brooklyn Street Art, stated that while graffiti art should be generally viewed as a distinct category due to its focus on lettering and authorial expression, the bounds of street art are more aesthetically slippery. “It may borrow heavily from advertising, branding, traditional mural making, and pop culture aesthetics or methods of creation and dissemination,” the duo said. While the category may focus more on figuration than graffiti, they said, it’s not limited to pictorial representation—conceptual, sculptural, electronic, and performance practices have been variously incorporated into the porous bounds of street art. Daniel Feral’s Feral Diagram—a riff on Alfred Barr’s similar diagram of the lineages of modernism for the Museum of Modern Art—maps the overlapping historical movements that congealed into street art’s interrelated practices, spinning a complex web of influences from Pop art and action painting to semiotics and the cut-up creations of Beat poetry.

The category’s malleable definition was underlined in graffiti historian Roger Gastman’s traveling exhibition “Beyond the Streets,” which opened in Los Angeles in 2018. The show brought works by artists such as Jenny Holzer, Guerrilla Girls, Takashi Murakami, and Shepard Fairey into conversation with one another, highlighting the various ways that popular artists have mined the stylistic core of public-facing art forms for both influence and audience. The distance between Holzer’s vagabond sloganeering and the riotous coats of aerosol borne by the subway cars of 1970s New York, Gastman seemed to posit, is one of degrees.

Despite this aesthetic omnivorousness, Rojo and Harrington remain steadfast on one point: Street art belongs on the street. “In the cases of both [street art and graffiti], the authentic original definitions would most likely require that the works were illegally done on the street in a public view,” they said. “Works made in studio specifically for the market would not accurately be described as graffiti or street art. They may be ‘graffiti-style’ or ‘street art–inspired’ works, but essentially they are fine art works.” In this view, the “street” in street art connotes not just a lineage of image-making, but an anti-authority, anti-commercial ethos—one that seemingly animates an artist like Banksy, who has objected to the removal, exhibition, and sale of his public murals.

Sharon Matt Atkins, the Brooklyn Museum’s deputy director of art, shares the Brooklyn Street Art duo’s narrow conceptual definition. “As street artists are commissioned to do murals, versus the installing of that image without permission—that is often where the roots of it have been,” Atkins said. “But now more and more, quote, unquote, ‘street artists’ are commissioned to do murals.…A public monument wouldn’t be considered street art, because it’s commissioned, it went through a review process.” In fact, Atkins, who has curated solo shows at the Brooklyn Museum by FAILE, Swoon, and JR, hesitated to describe a given artist as a “street artist” for that very reason, preferring instead to see the term as more of a descriptor of medium than as taxonomy of an artist.

“I remember having many of these conversations when I was working with Caledonia [Curry, a.k.a. Swoon] on her show—I would keep telling people, ‘Don’t refer to Swoon as a street artist,’” Atkins said. “She’s an artist who does work in the street, or has her roots in street art. I think that those are really important distinctions. With Brian [Donnelly, a.k.a. KAWS], he started out doing graffiti under the name KAWS and has also done street art. But I would never refer to him as a street artist—it’s part of his art practice.” The Brooklyn Museum’s forthcoming survey “KAWS: WHAT PARTY” seems to address this distinction head-on: It will feature the artist’s graffiti and street art works as one part of a career that spans painting, sculpture, furniture, and more.

How, then, to explain this conceptually anti-commercial category’s ballooning financial dividends? It may be a consequence of the “gentrification of graffiti,” as writer Daisy Alioto put it—an increasing palatability for the practice as a byproduct of its proximity to real estate properties branded as “authentic”—or what Raybaud described as a saturation of media focus, with artists like Banksy constantly garnering headlines. There’s also the democratic aspect of many of these artists’ practices. While Raybaud doesn’t consider collectible KAWS figurines to directly fall under the umbrella of street art, she does consider the underlying ethos of producing artwork that is broadly financially accessible to be conceptually related to the category.

Or it may be, as Rojo and Harrington contend, that the works entering the market and promoted or positioned as “street art” are not street art at all—the auction records of both KAWS and Banksy are for works painted on canvas, which fall more squarely within Rojo and Harrington’s fine art classification. Atkins maintained a similar point of view, claiming that some works of supposed “street art” on the market are products of a studio practice meant to support that artist’s work in the public realm. “Someone like JR, who’s doing these huge, large-scale installations all very much for the public realm—he also does produce print editions and such,” she said. “And the funds from those go back into fund future public projects.”

And those projects—some sanctioned, some not—bring us back to the central tensions of the category: between aesthetic boundlessness and conceptual narrowness; between private property and public visibility. The only sure rule in the discernment of street art seems to be that its limits are mutable and always being built and rebuilt according to these frictions.

Justin Kamp is an Editorial Intern at Artsy.