Droppin’ Knowledge: Cashing in on Urban Culture
In the past 30 years, an exponential increase in the public acceptance of graffiti has occurred. But even more than the public, the galleriests, curators and critics are becoming increasingly open to the idea of harnessing graffiti. Though on the city streets men in suits and high-brow gallery owners may be ignorant or disapproving to the daunting task of painting a ledge, they seem more and more inclined to pay a graffiti writer to paint an office or lobby mural (with proper recommendation of course). With this incline of interest in the artists of our streets, an incline of shows revolving around urban, graffiti and street art is also apparent. These shows are not just renegade interventions with anarchic undertones as most were in the ‘80s and ‘90s – some are even modernist white cube exhibitions with receptions and catalogues. The graffiti scene is culturally relevant, relational, and indisputably a part of modern society making it an obvious step in the development of artistic culture. Museums, galleries and art institutions of all kinds have noticed this opportunity for intense connection and cultural relevance with a popularized subculture. The promotional advantages are endless for both company and artist – which art institutions have known and continued to tap into. Culture makes the art, and the art makes the culture (profit).
Cultural capitalization, as explained by Chin-Tao Wu in his work Embracing the Enterprise Culture: Art Institutions Since the 1980’s is the beating heart of the art market. Opening with a bold and extremely accurate quote by Chase Manhattan Bank “With the Government giving less to art and education, somebody’s got to give more. And that somebody is America’s corporations” (122) Wu tackles the troubling advantages and disadvantages of sponsorship. In 2013, Facebook’s Atlanta office commissioned graffiti artist Greg Mike to paint a large outdoor mural, spelling out Facebook in his “Larry Loudmouf” character letters. The mural is now accompanied by a putting-green space for Facebook employees and their clients to unwind in. What this commission entails is more than just a mural, Facebook has done extremely well with staying culturally relevant and continues to do so with socially engaging art in their office spaces and subsequently showing this off through social media. Facebook gains cultural affirmation by associating with a popular and talented graffiti artist, and Greg Mike continues to make enough money to write graffiti, legally or not. Graffiti is a craft oriented art, using found material as canvases and often stolen paint, this is an essential paradox that many corporations have not thought about, or at least do not publicly admit to – when handing an artist a cheque, more often than not that cheque is going towards art supplies and materials to continue making art, and for graffiti artists, this means playing the system against itself.
An interesting shift in power occurs when institutions work with graffiti artists, as both have an upper-hand in finances from working with each other, the upper-class is now associating themselves with a very low-class art form. Graffiti in this sense is autonomous, but only by excluding the privileged. The art speaks to the lower and lower middle classes, often poking fun at political or retail tycoons (who now want to own their work) with anti-establishment mentalities, rebellion and respect within their own subculture. In the opposite sphere of say, the biennial scene or high-art market players who are involved with themselves only, graffiti is both socio-political and autonomous. It is relational art that comes from within the culture, produced for the culture, and as corporations and institutions begin to engage with this they benefit by affirming their stance in a youth absorbed world. As Nicolas Bourriaud explains “Art that takes its theoretical horizon on the sphere of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an autonomous and private symbolic space” (160) is relational aesthetics – graffiti fits this role, providing a dialogue from one sphere to another. On the other hand, although graffiti artists are subject to incarceration for their work, they do remain anonymous, their pseudonyms and character roles provide a safe buffer for their socio-political acts, a mask that acts both as anti-hero, and occasionally seen as the coward.
As more institutions begin to support the relentless trend of graffiti, there is a chance of dooming the artistic form. Perhaps art dies once it is shown, but it is only then given a chance to be appreciated. This is an idea graffiti artists invest in – walls are buffed, billboards are re-designed and bricks are power washed. Their work is temporary and temporal. When placed in a gallery or museum, the artist is given a chance to thrive, but also dismiss the ideals of their subculture. Hanging a work in a gallery that is funded by a corporation, entering a contest sponsored by money tycoons and designing logos for brands are all submissive to the anti-establishment culture that graffiti came from. It can be argued that it is an engaging opportunity for both institution and artist, or a step backwards away from the morals they both preach.