It's no secret that Street Art as a promotional tool is effective. It just works. Effortlessly cool, eye-catching, memorable, brand-effective, cost-effective... need I go on? After writing about Michael Savoie's new piece for Bombay Sapphire last week, I was struck by how clever it is to make an event out of an ad. You wouldn't show up to the unveiling of a billboard would you? But the coveted mural unveiling at Smith & Elgin this week is sure to attract just about every big name in Houston's art and journalism scene. In the lead up to its unveiling, Savoie's creative process was covered by Fox. It's kind of insane when you look at this work in the context of advertising. And by insane I mean ridiculously smart.
Sure, the piece does not speak overtly of the Bombay Sapphire brand, but that's somewhat because it is part of the Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series Mural Project which seeks to promote the artists first, and the brand purely by association. But take a look at murals that are commissioned specifically as marketing tools (like, for example the Converse campaign pictured above) and it's a whole different story. There's still that creative energy, but they are a lot more brand-centric.
Let's take a quick look at the history of advertising. In the decades that preceded the tech-boom advertising was, in essence, very boring. It was fairly tightly controlled, centralized, and safe. The only exposure to advertising outside of televisions and newspapers came from the occasional billboard. With the rise of technology and of course the internet, advertising has been allowed to invade every aspect of our lives. We are bombarded with it from morning to night, whether it be the constant interruptions to your music streaming, the irritating pop-ups on your Facebook feed, or the 450 billion digital billboards that line your route to work. Street Art is arguably just another face of this change, albeit a much more attractive one. But it's different, and it's positive - and here's why.
The Journal of Advertising published a paper in 2013 as the street art movement was already gathering speed as an advertising motif, and it rightly states: “Street art has the visual and cognitive effect of commercial advertising, and many of its brand dynamics, but carries messages of enjoyment, ideological critique, and activist exhortation rather than of commercial consumption.” In other words, Street Art offers marketing execs a pretty good cover for more traditionally in your face self-promotional techniques. You look at the art - you feel cultured and happy in the knowledge that visual art is all around us, but you leave craving a PBR, what dark magic is this??
Great is what it is! I'm sure there are plenty of people moaning about the commercialization of art, or the lowering of cultural standards etc etc.. But the line between art and commercialism became blurred long before even the oldest, wrinkliest, and most dour of those people were born. This has been going on at least since the late 19th Century, when Toulouse-Lautrec was commissioned by the Moulin Rouge to design a series of posters to promote the famous Bohemian hangout (which by the way now reach 6 figures at auction). In the 1920s, Shell commissioned a poster campaign featuring the most influential artists of the time, including Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland - and so began the trend of real artists creating good quality art that - gasp - serves a purpose beyond its aesthetic attraction.
Well everyone needs to calm down, because it's clear that Street Art in advertising is an extension of something that has been going on for a lot longer than many people realize. And in the context of Street Art, selling a few pairs of sneakers is a small price to pay for promoting the movement, encouraging creativity, and beatifying our streets. Campaigns such as the Houston Zoo Gorilla Murals are producing original art while at the same time gaining coverage that would - according to one of the artists Mr. D - have cost ten times the amount to gain using traditional paid advertising. Commercialism supports the arts, the arts support commercialism. It's too late to separate the two, and if we have to be bombarded by advertising 24 hours a day, why can't it at least be beautiful?
I've had a lot of feedback since beginning my blogging journey, and it has brought an interesting point to my attention. No matter how much coverage Street Art gets in the media, the standard for assessing it remains steadfastly mediocre. It may seem counterproductive, but subjecting urban art to actual academic criticism (negative included) is a necessary step in bringing it to the same level as fine art.
Although I don't like to be negative in general, I do think that street art needs to be told off occasionally for its cliches and occasionally mediocre execution. If it is true that critical discernment can be applied to all cultural activities, Street Art included, then what is holding it back? Of course the fact that it is displayed and enjoyed outside of the conventional gallery setting is a contributing factor, but so are a lot of sculptural pieces, and let's not forget the traditional frescos of say, the Renaissance. Have they escaped criticism? Of course not, a fact that can be corroborated by anyone who has ever taken an art history class.
It really boils down to a few things in my humble opinion. Lack of access and exposure, and a good pinch of snobbery. Because legitimate critics are unwilling to do it, criticism is left to the amateurs, like me.. And even I feel a bit silly approaching Street Art in terms of line, composition, or social context as I would a painting, so what we are left with is a lot of shallow drivel, and Street Art's status as an art form is yet to be elevated to its true potential as a result.
A handful of graffiti artists have garnered recognition in major museums, so many believe that Street Art criticism is on the rise too.. but here's the problem: the Street Art in museums isn't really Street Art in the majority of cases. These are professionally trained artists creating works inspired by graffiti, and even when legitimate Street Artists exhibit, it's not exactly Street Art in its purest and most original form is it? Manipulated onto a canvas or carefully transcribed onto pristine (and more importantly sanctioned) gallery walls, it loses its edge, and the distinction between genuine street art and the legitimized Street Art has become irrevocably blurred over time as a result.
So we're left with a quandary.. inaccessibility and lack of exposure leads in turn to a lack of useful criticism, but displaying this particular art form in a gallery undermines the genre, making it unworthy of criticism in the first place. Equally problematic, moving art outside of the gallery confuses the already ridiculously confusing issue of "what qualifies as art". I don't think Andy Warhol's Brillo Boxes would have got very far if they had been stacked against the back wall of a Walmart, for example. So what chance does an unsolicited mural have in the same location? At least in a museum we feel safe in the knowledge that someone else has already established these objects as worthy of criticism. And that's the very issue: nobody of significant cultural importance has done that yet.
The hype and celebrity culture of Street Art, coupled with the illegality of it, qualifies it as a "low art form" to most academic art critics, while the six-figure sales of Banksy murals at auction certainly suggest its growing commercial appeal, further damning Street Art as a pop-culture fad. Yes, Street Art upsets a lot of the more traditional among us, but hey Michelangelo pissed a lot of people off painting naked men all over the Sistine Chapel. What is art if it doesn't divide opinions and get people talking?
So here's the solution: keep talking about it, keep looking at it, and someone for gods sake make the first step towards real, useful, and formal criticism. Art is only as important as its last write up, and remember that if nobody had bothered to write earnest evaluations of say, Paul Branca's artwork, then a cleaning lady might just have thrown it out. Oh wait....
The emergence of Street Art as a recognized genre in recent decades has brought with it fresh issues regarding copyright and ownership of art. The style lends itself to removal, vandalism, and forgery; firstly because of its somewhat below board execution, and secondly because of the fact that the works are notoriously difficult to authenticate. While many Street Artists' work here in Houston is legally commissioned, there are still many operating under the radar, and their work does not often last long...
I recently read an old post on Houston Press listing Houston's Most Gorgeous Graffiti, and was stunned to see how many of them have since been painted over. Now, Street Art by its very nature is not meant to last forever, but I did begin to wonder.. Does the artist, or anyone for that matter, have the right to preserve it? After endless legal reading (that I will spare you), I discovered that unless of course you own the "tagged" property on or the work was legally commissioned the answer is sadly no, not really.
First I need to point out that there is an important distinction between commissioned and therefore legal "Street Art", and noncommissioned and illegal "graffiti". The long and short of it is that Street Art is wholly copyrightable (although that particular version is still owned in most cases by whoever owns the wall), and graffiti is not. Instances of graffiti being removed, vandalized, or sold without the artists' permission are therefore commonplace. One of the most high profile examples of this is probably "Slave Labour", a Banksy mural that was painted on the side wall of a Poundland store in Wood Green, London in May 2012. It was mysteriously removed and later resurfaced for sale at the Fine Art Auctions, Miami for $500,000.
Here in Houston there have also been countless cases of removal, including the work of such notorious Street Artists as Ack! or the Give Up Crew. Notoriety, apparently, bears no meaning against vandalism laws...
In traditional cases, the Visual Artist's Rights Act (VARA) - a subsection of the CopyRight Act - protects artist from having their works removed, vandalized, or reproduced without consent. VARA even has a subsection which covers works on buildings, and while not all graffiti is eligible for protection (for example tags and type faces are not copyrightable) even the most illegally executed works satisfy the necessary minimum requirements in that they originated with the author, and are fixed in a tangible medium, i.e. paint on concrete. However, all of this is only really of use if the artist is willing to come forward and claim this right. A true graffiti artist is unlikely to claim authorship of noncommissioned works, unless of course they enjoy paying hefty vandalism fines.
All in all, I can't see much of a solution.. If the graffiti is welcome, then there are measures that can be taken by owners and local councils to protect it. If it is not and the artist does not own the property, they can still claim rights against its reproduction but there is very little they can do to prevent its removal. Fortunately, graffiti artists embrace the fleeting nature of their work, and I think really we ought to as well. It's as much of an art form as oil on canvas, but the two will never be one and the same, and that's what makes it so expressive and unique in my opinion. Graffiti: Here for a good time not a long time.
Let's play a game. Think of as many Street Artists as you can name. Now, how many of those artists are female? I'm pretty confident in assuming that it's either zero, or very close to that..
We are used to hearing about sexism in the world in general, and despite huge progress in gender equality in the last century, it still lingers. Fact. In a sector as ostensibly liberal as the arts, one would expect (or at least hope) that in this day and age, credit would be based on creative merit rather than the artist's ability to grow a beard.. Street Art has the added luxury of being a potentially anonymous art form, so sexism isn't an issue right?? Wrong.
In fact, the first thing I did in this post was prove that women are a massive minority in Street Art, with females achieving notoriety only as "the Female Banksy" or other such subtly undermining rubbish. Anywhere female artists are mentioned, they are subcategorized as "Female Street Artists", making a clear distinction between them and their male counterparts. Articles that are intended to empower female artists are really just part of the problem: "10 Female Street Artists" "10 Women Street Artists that are Better than Banksy".... I could go on... Yes, it's awesome that female Street Artists are starting to gain recognition, but the underlying premise of "look, women can do this just like men!" really gets my goat.
Last year, GQ Magazine published a list of the world's best Street Artists, just two of which were female (Olek and Vinie). In Street Art aliases don't often indicate gender (take UK based cbloxx as an example). It should therefore be easy for any artist to blend into the urban landscape without gender-bias, so why is Street Art still such a boys club?
I think the problem is actually twofold. One part stems from the art world as a whole, the other really comes back to Street Art as a movement, and the darker roots of this now widely appreciated genre. Back in the day, graffiti artists were traditionally men, and this was largely because of the risk involved in being out at night alone, scaling buildings, and generally breaking the law. The fact that there is a lot less risk involved in legally commissioned graffiti these days has done little to sway the gender imbalance, but why?
Perhaps Street Art becoming an accepted and (more significantly) commercially viable genre has something do do with it. If recent reports are to be believed, sexism in the commercial art world remains rampant. Just a few months ago, anonymous female art collective Pussy Galore (sorry mum, I swear that's their actual name) posted a faux-report card revealing the percentage of female vs. male artists represented in various NYC galleries. The results (although a marked improvement from the Guerrilla Girls' similar report conducted in 1986) are fairly telling, with the worst offender carrying just 5% female artists. And it's not just the galleries and buyers who are prejudiced, it comes from the artists themselves too. Who can forget the infamous 2013 Spiegel interview with artist George Baselitz, in which he declared "Women don't paint very well. It's a fact"...!
Never mind the fact that this is bigoted and ludicrous, it's also totally outdated, because things are changing around here! At the risk of sounding like one of the Women Can do it Too!! articles, I'd like to point out a few things that helped me to come to this conclusion: Cindy Sherman and Ellsworth Kelly were voted as two of the best living artists by Vanity Fair last year. Artist Cady Noland was listed as the tenth most expensive living artist in America. In the last five years, the Turner Prize has been won more times by women than by men. Compare this to say, 1985-1990 when the winners were all male, and you can almost see the tides turning. Thankfully, this shift is taking effect in the Street Art world too, with women garnering attention across the globe in this traditionally male-dominated genre. In 2011, numerous female artists made it into Complex.com's list of the Fifty Best Street Artists Right Now. Strong female artists such as Kashink were also listed as Street Artists to watch in 2014 by the same website. Yes, females may still be in the minority in a lot of cases, but I think we can finally look forward to a time when talent outweighs gender.
For a look at some of the most talented female, male, and female/male collaborative Street Artists of the moment, check out the awesome site: Women Street Artists.
GIRL POWER, Y'ALL!
Since the United States was declared independent, it has made almost a conscious effort to do things differently from the United Kingdom. Politically, economically, and socially, these are two very different nations with very different ideals. Culture and the arts, although considered of value on both sides of the pond, have long been approached somewhat contrarily by the two countries in terms of funding. Open a performance program at the Apollo theatre in London and you will see a few acknowledgements of sponsors, perhaps an advertisement or two. In contrast, the average performance program here in the US is chock full of sponsorship acknowledgements, advertisements, and thanks to various donors, partners, and contributors. This is a small discrepancy between the two countries perhaps, but it hints at a much larger issue: the difference between publicly funded and philanthropically funded cultural sectors.
First and foremost, it is important to understand that the United States and the United Kingdom are operating in very different contexts. The US has a population of 316.6 million, while the UK is home to just 64.1 million people. The federal budget for fiscal year 2015 in the United States is $3.9 trillion versus a projected £731.4 billion in the UK (less than $1.2 trillion). As an English citizen who has lived in America for nearly four years, I have often been able to observe how different the British and American economic systems are, and how this in turn impacts upon the production, marketing, and perception of the arts. America advocates minimal government expenditure and maximized privatized global capitalism, whereas the UK supports a mixed economy with an emphasis on social and cultural programs. In the UK, governmental spending often equates to around half of the GNP. While Americans argue that a privatized marketplace creates more efficiency within government, the UK insists that such an approach creates a corporate-dominated society. Such a difference in viewpoints has created somewhat of a cultural divide between the two, with each backing their own methods as the most effective. So which is the more effective model? And can lessons be learned by both sides to achieve a more efficient funding strategy in the future?
In order to properly understand the discrepancy between public spending on the arts in the US and the UK, a per capita figure is very telling. In the US, the federal government, states, and localities appropriated a combined $1.14 billion to the arts in FY2013, amounting to a total per capita investment of 6 cents per week. In FY2014, each person in England contributed 14p (22 cents) per week specifically to the arts and culture. This figure highlights the sheer lack of public funding dedicated to the cultural sector in the US. However both countries, despite their differences, have flourishing cultural sectors.
The UK funds the arts through a balance of public investments, earned income, and private sector funding. This balance provides the UK with the strength of the mixed economy that shelters arts organizations, at least partially, from financial crises in any one strand of funding and other harmful effects. England has neither the dependence on public money that is seen in other European countries, nor the dependence on philanthropic and corporate giving that is the primary feature of the US system. Although recent cuts to the arts following the 2008 recession have forced the British government to cut spending on the arts by a vast amount, experts argue that a move towards philanthropy is not in the best interest of the sector:
“Ministers claim that philanthropy is the answer, but it never was. In the US, relying on donors deadens the arts, filling their boards with the conservative-minded, failing to stimulate experiment and imagination”.
Despite this, the coalition government made it clear soon after coming to power in May 2010 that it was pursuing an agenda of encouraging private investment and philanthropy in the arts. This was marked by the launch of an initiative called 'The Big Arts Give', in conjunction with the organization Arts & Business that facilitates funding partnerships between arts organizations and businesses. However, although private investment is encouraged in the UK in the wake of spending cuts across all sectors, the latest government agenda clearly states that “it is not, and should not be, the role of philanthropists to plug the gap left by receding public subsidy of the arts and heritage... It is also unlikely that British philanthropy will ever resemble that in America, for reasons of size and culture". So although philanthropy is on the rise in the UK, it is not anticipated to be a substitute for public funding, but instead a supplementary financial resource.
The primary benefit to the UK system of funding is really for the British citizens as art consumers. Public funding results in more accessible art, with lowers ticket prices and, as is the case for the majority of larger institutions, facilitates free entry to museums. Advocates for the British funding model would argue that privatized investment in the arts results in a corporate-style sector that quickly loses sight of the real purpose behind each organization as financial need becomes the focus of day-to-day operations. A reliance on development is not only time consuming, but can be costly too. Research shows that each year nonprofits spend anywhere between $0.12 and $1.50 per dollar raised on fundraising costs. The real issue with philanthropically funded organizations therefore is with consistency, both in funds donated and fundraising practices. If philanthropic fundraising removes ties to government, it does not eliminate links to the economy as a whole. In times of economic instability, philanthropy decreases just as much, if not more, than government spending. According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, charitable giving in the US by the rich dropped by $30 billion during the recession, a decrease in 15.3%.
I don't want you to think that I am biased as a Brit though, the UK model is certainly not infallible. In 2012, after a round of 15% budget cuts (the same decrease in revenue seen in charitable giving here in the US), more than a ninth of UK arts organizations who lost their funding intended to close, and another 22% considered themselves “at risk of failure” simply because they had no plan B when it came to sustainability. Furthermore, those who support the American model would argue that an over-reliance on public money drains the economy. While UK nonprofits are tied inextricably to public spending policy, a privatized nonprofit sector can be more independent, and self-sufficiency promotes sustainability in the long term, regardless of politics. Indeed, a lack of public money is not congruent with a lack of revenue. In fact, philanthropy has, on the whole, been an effective model in the United States. While in the UK donations like Lloyd Dorman’s £10m gift (around $16m) to the National Theatre are the exception rather than the rule, the US consistently sees incredible sums of money being donated to cultural institutions. For example, in 2011 the family that owns Wal-Mart famously donated $800m to the Arkansas Museum of American Art in 2011, and this is not even the largest gift to the arts in US history. J Paul Getty, whose bequest to his California museum in 1982 would be worth $2.5bn in today’s money, still holds this record.
So what incentivizes these gifts? The answer to this is not a straightforward one. There are those that donate for personal reasons, for the love of the organization or even the art form, but the key difference between philanthropy in the US and in the UK lies in tax exempt donations, whereby individuals and corporations are encouraged to donate for tax incentives. In 1917, the US government announced that any donation given to a tax-exempt nonprofit organization qualified as a potential deduction for the tax-paying donor. In spite of the UK’s move to increase philanthropy in its arts funding strategy, it is a significant omission from the UK government's "philanthropy strategy" that it suggests no reforms to the tax or gift-aid systems to encourage contributions.
Even without tax incentives, the UK has definitely begun to embrace philanthropy as a source of revenue, and likewise a move towards the UK model in America has also been noted in recent decades. Over the past twenty-one years, total public funding for the arts by federal, state and local governments increased by 15.6%. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which distributes public money among cultural institutions has markedly increased grant-giving in recent times. This, coupled with the nation’s existing philanthropic philosophy has been extremely beneficial to the US cultural sector. This fact is illustrated perfectly by the NEA, who assert that in 2012 "every dollar that the NEA gave in grants typically generated seven to eight times more money in... earned revenue".
In spite of all this, a synthesis of UK and US models is highly unlikely, at least in the foreseeable future, and it's mainly because of the very different values of the two countries. During World War II, Britain's finance minister recommended to Winston Churchill that they cut arts funding in order to better support the war effort. Churchill's reply was, "Then what are we fighting for?" This remark resonates with the enormous difference in values between the US and the UK. In the UK, funding for the arts is a central platform for every major political party, and funding is often distributed in a decentralized way at a local level by councils making it hard to attack during budget-cut discussions. In the US, funding for the arts is unfortunately not a priority, and the centralized method of distribution makes it an easy target for cuts, while at the same time distancing the funding from the organizations in a huge way.
So while both models have their advantages and disadvantages, the most effective model perhaps would be a combination of the two. If the US could take any lesson from the UK, it would be to increase the value (and therefore the public funding) of the arts sector, and develop arts-funding models directly related to cities, towns, and regional communities. The UK in turn could learn to depend less on public money and develop funding strategies that rely more on earned income and philanthropic giving instigated by the organization’s themselves, further encouraged by tax exemptions. Either way, it's the mark of a civilized society that its citizens all have access to arts, culture and heritage, so let's make it a priority, yeah?!
In case it's not obvious, I have a bit of a penchant for urban art. Fortunately, i'm not in bad company in Houston. As little as ten years ago a campaign of public beautification in this city would have been chiefly involved with scrubbing out graffiti, bringing things back to their shiny new state of polished concrete and chrome. My how things have changed.
Now, in 2015, urban art is really coming into its own. Artists like Banksy and Blu have brought this previously disregarded genre into the public psyche, and I for one, am loving it. This was no accident, however. In fact, it's all part of a bigger movement that synthesizes graffiti and outsider art with the more socially acceptable "public art".
Generation "Z", as it is fondly known, is the forever young generation. We refuse to grow up and grow out of our habits, good or bad. A hangover of this perhaps, is the fact that the childish graffiti we once admired or even personally scrawled on walls as teenagers is having the same sort of issue. Unlike our hangovers though, this is actually a pretty fantastic issue to have.
We go to work every day and do laundry and drink coffee like grownups supposedly do, but really we're giant teenagers that have created a veritable renaissance of all things child-like and comforting: comic books, cartoons, wearing stupid t-shirts.. We call ourselves Eleanor or Edward to hide the Ellie and the Ed that just want to wear onesies and watch Spongebob, dammit. In the same vein, graffiti has grown up too, it goes to auction houses and exhibitions, it calls itself Street Art with a capital S and A, but thankfully it has lost none of the mischief and expression that we once knew and loved. Above all, it still belongs to our generation.
In the last fifteen years, Houston has seen a 49% increase in college graduates ages 24-34, with the rate of young educated people moving to the city one of the highest in the entire US. At the end of last year, it was voted one of the top 15 hottest places to live for young people by Business Insider Magazine. One of the primary reasons for this? In my humble opinion, it's the urban art movement and all its connotations of hip, young, easy coolness (is there a word less cool than "cool", sorry) that is attracting a younger crowd at long last.
As an art lover that moved here from New Orleans just a few months ago, I was ready to hate this place for its drabness. So i'll be honest, driving through town and seeing a barrage of urban art that ranges from the gorgeous work of Aerosol Warfare such as the Houston is.... mural featured on my homepage, to the graffitied tattoo studios of Midtown and Montrose, was a tremendous relief. And it's not just the usual inner-loop areas either, Adickes' We Love Houston sign (pictured) is out on the Katy Freeway, for example, and thanks to city planners Johnson's Development Corp. we are starting to see public art infiltrating the suburbs, too.
From April of this year, Johnson's are beginning their integration of art and urban development with the construction of large-scale metal sculptures by Massachusetts-based artist Dale Rogers. Four such works will go up in Fort Bend County, Montgomery County and League City communities. For a city that doesn't give its suburbs a lot of love aesthetically or culturally, this is a huge step in the right direction.
All in all, we need to keep this cycle going. Allow the young some creative freedom and more will come. Above all, don't be afraid to let our childish side show as a city, because acting young will keep us young, right?
Stay tuned for a list of the best ten public artworks in Houston to see this month, coming soon!
British-born arts blogger living in Houston, Tx. A mixture of Street Art, Fine Art, Installation, and anything weird and wonderful. Follow me if that sounds like your cup of tea.