Inside Out

August 4, 2009

Clearly a broad question but what is the role of art and art galleries?

Today I went to a modern art gallery in which, on one floor, an employee of the gallery had been given the opportunity to curate his own exhibition. Whilst I was in the room, a group of high school students where being given an introduction to the work by a different member of staff. The room was full of graffiti. On one wall directly opposite the entrance to the room was a full size piece of ‘writing’ – classic style typography in 6 foot high letters. It was sprayed directly onto the plaster, but this was the only piece unframed. Around the rest of the room were other smaller pieces, some on poster size paper stuck onto the wall, some on post-it size paper, but mostly they were framed. I have always liked graffiti, the variations of styles, the colours, the words, the typography, the way a well sprayed picture easily rivals anything done with paint on canvas. The work in here was nowhere near the quality I have seen either outside in places like Marseilles or Barcelona, or in magazines or books like On The Run or Spraycan Art, but it was accomplished enough to be interesting to take a look at briefly. But I was far more interested in hanging about to hear how a group of 16 year old boys would have this art explained to them, and also the broader question of “what the fuck is going on?”. Why is graffiti being framed and put in galleries, and conversely, why did the National Gallery in London run a show where copies of classic paintings where printed in high quality and put up on street walls? Why is art inside out? It was all OK when the YBA’s were at it….wasn’t it?

Some time ago I listened to a great Philosophy Bites episode with Derek Matravers on what constitutes a work of art. Its clearly a huge, grey, financially motivated subject and I don’t intend to go in-depth here. Though part of what he spoke about was interesting in relation to graffiti. Matravers made the point that what ties something modern and controversial like Tracy Emin’s ‘Bed’ to the art world is that she is institutionalised as an ‘artist’: taught at an appropriate and ‘recognised’ art college, and therefore whatever she claims to be art, as an artist, makes it art. There’s a touch of Midas about this, clearly. Its certainly not a watertight argument and Matravers wasn’t arguing in its favour, but it seems to make a lot of sense. It means artworks are defined by their legacy and not by their popularity and it makes a strong case for the idea that modern art has been completely commodified: if you train to be a watchmaker then that’s what you ‘do’, and that’s what you’re paid to do. If you’re an artist, likewise. Though perhaps its always been like that – Michaelangelo was paid to paint too.

Today I was reminded of Matravers point whilst flicking through some cards in the gallery shop (more commodification). These cards were typical gallery shop fare: random collections of images from the history of art to modern day, quant though clichéd, possibly because they were pictures of art removed from context. These cards particularly so, because they were images by Banksy. Here was someone’s art photographed and reduced to the simplicity of a gift card, and after all his hard work ‘establishing’ himself. Banksy didn’t go to Goldsmiths. He doesn’t know Saatchi (well, he might now). All his hard work, having to chip away at the artworld from the outside. Having not flowed into the artworld by the correct channels and by befriending the right people, here was someone who had to personally take their work into art galleries and hang it themselves, ostensibly as a publicity stunt, but actually, because there was no other way to publicly transform from the lowly street artist to the dizzy heights of a successful artworld artist. Not only did he do that, but the work he chose to use was work which gleefully sabotaged classic paintings. Again, purported to be a ‘statement’, but actually it was his only option.

The schoolboys at the exhibition were told that “this kind of work” is “all about emotions” often created by “people your age”. And that was it. The gallery employee, though confident and experienced, really had no other way of describing the graffiti and seemed to be quietly wondering why it was in the gallery herself. So was I. She began to rely on the timeless avoidance technique of describing everything objectively instead – “the work is 12 by 12 inches and you can still see the undercoat of paint if you look at the sides”. This to me, was strikingly similar to putting works of art onto gift wrapping, cards and mugs: awkward and out of place. The very ‘non-establishment’ concept that still surrounds graffiti, perpetuated mostly by the media rather than practitioners, is completely at odds with being framed, placed in a gallery and needing explanation to the age group who created it.

To attempt to answer my own question, perhaps its galleries themselves that have become a commodity, not the art inside them. They’re like airports now, with their expensive shops, their expanses of glass and concrete, security guards watching, and their “walk here” and “do not touch” signage.


4 Responses to “Inside Out”

  1. thor Says:

    nice piece!
    I’m going to see this movie on thursday:

    artists not as part of the establishment which ties in nicely with your theme..

  2. matski Says:

    Hmm, that looks good. Let me know…

  3. lucie Says:

    great piece, i agree alot with what you’re saying about gallery space. to me banksy pieces should never be hung in galleries as the natural surrounding and context is mutated past its original purpose. Mike Ballard does paintings that seem to merge between street and graffiti art and gallery/museum distinct display art at the same time: , what do you think?

    • matski Says:

      Thanks Lucie!

      What strikes me instantly about Mike Ballard’s work is that he’s doing the same thing as Banksy; still this desire/need to relate to the art establishment by referencing art work within it. And then to also be represented by an establishment agency, like Saatchi, who seems to be the Rupert Murdoch of the art world. Why should it be that one man’s influence and wallet decides so much of what constitutes art?

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