Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Death of the Author in Street Art

You are an artist.  You have a painting you want to share, but fear it would lose impact if shared exclusively on the Internet (you do not want to shrink your design to iPhone dimensions).  If you want to share your painting with a broad audience, there are a few options:
            A). Fight the market for gallery space
            B). Fight vandalism laws and risk exhibiting your painting in a public space.
            If you choose A, your success might depend on your name—your relevance and talent are important, but there are hundreds of artists who want your gallery space who are just as relevant and talented as you are.  They could be from anywhere in the world.  They could have never stepped foot in your gallery—they might be dead---but their names are known, and this can be enough to secure them space.[1]
Still, there are ways of getting your painting into a gallery.  Your drawing professor in art school might know a curator, in which case you are fortunate to have the combined  $180,000 to pay for 4 years of tuition, room and board at the art school. You are also a minority. According to the U.S. News World Report, tuitions of the top art schools in the United States range from $22,270 (Tyler School of Art) to $32,858 (Rhode Island School of Design) per year. The median yearly household income for Americans is $50,211 (2). 
For many, art school--and all the professional connections it secures--is not an affordable luxury.  Hence the appeal of option B.  Though often dismissed as punk graffiti, alleyways and bathroom stalls can offer more accurate pictures of a culture than galleries, especially because so much of what is left in these places is left unsigned.   This erases any preconceived notions the viewer might have based on the artist’s name.  In Death of the Author, Roland Barthes says of anonymous texts:

“We know that a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single "theological" meaning (the "message" of the Author-God), but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture.”  (1)

  Barthes is a true sociologist.  In this passage, he suggests that authors—and artists---do not go about their business in sterilized bubbles.  Their work is a direct result of the conventions their culture has established based on age, race, sex, education level, and a million other factors.  Like the texts Barnes describes, street art functions in “a space of many dimensions.”  The fact that it is often anonymous strengthens its legitamity as a cultural artifact, a “tissue of citations”.  The artist could be anybody: They could be your mother, brother, or neighbor---they could have been you.   The intimacy this creates is disarming, and can strengthen the aesthetic or poetic experience of the viewer who might feel distanced by the cold sophistication that is so often the stereotype of galleries in America.  For instance, to be a street artist, you do not have to be a college graduate.  You do not need to know somebody or knows somebody.  What get you noticed are priceless attributes: Courage, and a flippant regard for authority.
 In his essay, Barthes suggests the goal of a text should be “to reach, through a preexisting impersonality” any reader or viewer. (1) An unsigned image presents this very “impersonality.”  Graffiti is art in the now.  It is experienced for a moment (a lot of street art is designed to look good from a moving car or train) before vanishing again, traceless. If it is successful, it will leave an impression without the intrusion of the artist, whose biography can be found only when diligently sought out.
Here are two unsigned street poems:

We do not know if the author is a man or a woman.  We do not know their race, how old they are, or if they went to college.  We have no idea where the poems come from, and so focus on their content—and context.  The poems share a theme of neon grief, the strange loneliness that comes with being surrounded by bright lights in a city of unknowns.  They are appropriately located in busy, well-lit urban areas, and are stylistically similar, taking up spaces traditionally reserved for adverts.  Coming across the poems in the same city, it is safe to assume they have the same writer.  In this way, says Barthes, “the modern writer (scriptor) is born simultaneously with his text.” (1) Coming across the poems, we, the readers, assign them personality and meaning.  There is no artist---no history, biography, or tradition to guide us. The “message” of the poems depends on us.  
            It is in the spirit of giving credit where credit is due that I reveal the name of the writer: Robert Montgomery, who, according to his website, “works in a poetic and melancholy post-structuralist tradition.” (3) Montgomery is known for hijacking advertising spaces and using them as platforms for his poems, which are almost always left unsigned.  He has made himself easily available for interviews, but speaks only of his work—his biography is avoided with careful precision.
Not all street artists are so willing to reveal their identities.  Banksy, by now well known, was determinedly elusive in the 80s, when his images first appeared on Bristol walls.  Since then, Banksy’s work has turned up on walls from London to Los Angeles—as well as in galleries and auctions. 
I want to talk about Banksy because he is an unusual case: A street artist who, despite all efforts to maintain anonymous  (Banksy is a street name) lost control of his reputation when a culture, seemingly at random, decided that his work was worth selling, and was therefore valuable.  Banksy did not try to sell his paintings.  People scrapped his images from walls, plastered them on canvas, and sold them on their own accord.  In his essay, Barnes stresses  “the necessity of substituting language itself for the man who hitherto was supposed to own it.” The culture separated Banksy from his art, and it is the culture, not Banksy, who owns his images. 

      Keep It Spotless, a 2007 Banksy piece that sold for $1,870, 000

                The Rude Lord, a 2006 Banksy sold for $658,025

The Rude Lord, pictured above, was first exhibited in Barley Legal, an anti-art show put together by Banksy in the Hunter Street warehouse in Los Angeles.  By putting his work in a warehouse—a neutral, unpretentious space—and by not charging admission, Banksy was able to draw a considerable crowd (needless to say, the artist was absent from his own show).  That The Rude Lord, a painting made in the spirit of lowbrow fun, sold for more than half a million dollars is a testament to the power viewers can bring to an image. Roland Barthes would attest: “The true locus of writing is in its reading.”  The same goes for art.  To this day, Banksy only appears in interviews with his face hidden, voice electronically altered. Yet his paintings continue to sell.  If the artist is anonymous, the culture is free to make of him what they will—and because art is, for better or worse, married to the laws of economics, we have chosen to make Banksy a commodity.  
“A text,” says Barthes, “consists of multiple writings, issuing from several cultures and entering into dialogue with each other.”  (1) What makes street art truly open to the viewer is it’s interactive nature. A viewer can add to it, much in the way that comments are added to Internet threads.  Because street art is wholly uncensored, these comments can range from profound to obscene to completely ridiculous.  Here is some graffiti I photographed in an alley behind the Castle Arcade in Cardiff, Wales:

I noticed a name scribbled on one of the St. David prints:


            Who is Becky?  Becky is whoever I want her to be.  Because I know a Becky, I am imagining a girl with short blonde hair who likes David Bowie, and who could take better care of her teeth.  Reading the name Becky, not every one will think of the Becky I know.  Deciphering Becky as anything other than a name is useless.  Everyone will think she is someone different; Barthes would call her an “open text.”  With street art, it is often impossible to “close the meaning”; texts seem to dangle as open-ended questions.  Here is some graffiti I photographed by the railroad tracks in my hometown of Indiana, Pennsylvania:

It is strange how a specific name can be anonymous.  I don’t know the Chris the artist is referring to, but have, in my head, a concept of who I think he or she is. 

 I do not know what the writer of this intended, but I interpret it as a beautiful statement on the syllabic disintegration within language.  Or it could be a waste of paint. 
            “The unity of a text is not in its origin, it is in its destination,” says Barthes.  “…this destination can no longer be personal: the reader is a man without history, without biography, without psychology; he is only that someone who holds gathered into a single field all the paths of which the text is constituted.” (1) If, as an artist, you share your design anonymously in a public space, you are erasing your biography. Because there is an intimidating pretense in galleries (supposed “high” art) that does not exist on the street, your viewer is, more than ever, liable to relate with you: To make a direct and honest connection with your work.  Your viewer could be a child or a very old man.  They could be homeless.
            They could be you.

Word Count: 1,650

Works Cited:

Primary Text:
1.  Barthes,Roland, ‘The Death of the Author’, in The Routledge Critical and Cultural Theory Reader, ed. Neil Badmington and Julia Thomas (London and New York: Routledge, 2008), pp. 121-125.

Secondary Text:

2.   "Income." - U.S. Census Bureau. U.S. Census Bureau, 15 Mar. 2012. Web. 13 May 2012. <>.


[1] Monet never went to Pittsburgh, but a section of his water lilies hang in the Carnegie Museum of Art on Craig Street

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