Graffiti, Abstract Expressionism, & Fabulous Auction Returns//

It is so weird how graffiti can cause such a visceral response amongst people. The other day I found myself defending tattoos and graffiti as artistic/lifestyle choice. It’s important to note that I don’t happen to have a tattoo and that I’ve never actually done any graffiti; but I have always been interested in the counter culture associated with them. I think it is to art what good girls are to bad boys as a dating phenomenon. As I debated whether it was sordid or just the byproduct of an intensely artistic lifestyle, I began to claim that it could be an opportunity for creative genius. Insisting that in many cases, so-called “graffiti” has provided an outlet for talented fine artists, I started talking about historical influences that have lead to the medium. Later that day I read a news story that described the tremendous success of Banksy’s surprise show in England. After finishing, I was sent another article about Dash Snow by a friend from high school. Naturally I assumed that it was fait and that god was willing me to put some historical perspective on the whole phenomenon. Artists like Banksy and Snow have had a massive appeal and people always question me about them. Here’s an abridged history of graffiti as fine art. And don’t worry, I didn’t chart this back to Paleolithic cave paintings in France, although that alone is an interesting consideration. This one focuses on the 20th century. ;)

The idea that graffiti could be a medium for fine art has significant art historical roots. Several movements were absolutely essential to its development and acceptance. The first, called Dada, dates back to the early part of the 20th century. During this time artists challenged the establishment by putting their own spin on surrealism and added a dash of extra absurdity. Disillusioned because of the First World War, people like Kurt Schwitters, see right, decided to take an un-academic approach to art. Two things followed: trash began to reign supreme and the phrase “What’s so great about that, it looks like something my kid could create?” was born. Ok, maybe the latter didn’t actually happen, but I know it’s something that a few people are thinking. The real result was the use of cast-off materials to create collages that had a distinctly urban feel and the appearance of hasty creation. Everyday objects were being repurposed and made into fine art. Today, this would be a distinctly un-absurd idea, but at the time it was revolutionary.

Later, another generation of artists known as Abstract Expressionists would take hold of some of this ideology, translating it to large, color-ridden canvases filled with gestural strokes. The artist who was the absolute epitome of Abstract Expressionism was of course Jackson Pollock, see left. Interestingly, Pollock also utilized a variety of unorthodox materials. Known for using house and commercial paints, he feverishly painted monumental canvases that people often insisted were a sort of visual assault.

The late 1950s welcomed a new type of controversial art. Artists such as Robert Rauschenberg were using gestural strokes and incorporating discarded objects like those immortalized by Schwitters. In contrast, Rauschenberg's contribution would have a more notorious approach. Violent in nature, Rauschenberg paid homage to political issues, city life, and even homosexuality. This is evidenced in his work, Bed from 1955, see right. The scale and medium were also noteworthy; Rauschenberg’s work walks the line between sculpture, painting, and installation. The idea of invading public spaces was on the immediate horizon.

Just as quick execution, unconventional materials, the plight of the inner-city, and untraditional painting techniques were coming full circle, another piece of the puzzle necessary for a graffiti aesthetic was about to surface. By the 1960s artists were thinking on a monumental scale. Richard Serra and Robert Smithson began constructing huge site-specific works. These pieces were purposefully imposing and forced nature and mankind to (usually) accept and adapt to the artist’s work. Richard Serra has long been considered one of the forefather’s of this movement. He encountered severe public discontent in the case of his Tilted Arc, a site-specific sculpture meant for the Federal Plaza in New York, see left. Serra, in an effort to demonstrate his aesthetic, constructed the arc that bisected a walkway utilized by pedestrians on their way to work. The result forced walkers to take a longer, more inconvenient route. Eventually the work was taken down due to public complaint. Serra countered this decision by utilizing his contractual right to disassemble the sculpture following its removal from the premises. Publicly stating that the sculpture was intended to be site-specific it could not be moved to another location. The actions by site-specific artists such as Serra further solidified the idea that an artist should confront the viewer, and could create an unexpected invasion of public space.
These historical developments would eventually provide the necessary elements that allowed artists such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, see right, to succeed. Armed with a knowledge of the urban atmosphere, an abstractly-gestural style, quick execution, un-orthodox materials, politically charged content, and a willingness to use public space as a canvas, Haring and Basquiat are now universally accepted artists. Their work, as well as their lifestyle is echoed in a new generation of artists represented by Banksy and Snow. Both of these artists explore the urban plight and alternative lifestyles that Haring and Basquiat gave a voice.

Still not a believer? Consider that Banksy is regularly commanding six figures at auction and that Snow has a solid presence in the Saatchi gallery and collection. And that’s not even mentioning the acceptance received by Haring and Basquiat, who alone prove that graffiti can be a legitimate and challenging form of fine art.
Here's two Banksy images:

And one by Dash Snow:

Extra credit reading & looking:
Dash Snow at the Saatchi Gallery:
Article about Dash Snow that I was sent:

Article about Banksy: