There exists a generation of artists who as students were continually bombarded with the rhetoric of French philosophers and conceptualists from the 1970s and 1980s. There was a lot of talk of signifiers and the nature of a surface reality, even the implosion of meaning. This was at a time when Urban Art was almost in its infancy, and wouldn’t receive serious criticism let alone praise for at least another decade.
Living in a vibrant artistic community I have found that many artists who would describe their work as “urban” in influence share a similar opinion towards the change in direction for both creatives and art consumers.
One local artist is quoted as stating “In my final year at university I was told by the head of my course, which focused primarily on conceptual art, to ignore the opinions of an uninformed public, a public who had taken the time to come and see a small exhibition featuring my and my fellow students’ artwork.
As the years passed by it has become apparent to me that I, as I am sure many many generations before mine, have experienced a collapse in faith. Not of a spiritual bent, but one steered by the tenets of perception and the contrivance of objectivity, which in it self is a subjective choice.”
Urban arts has brought the fine arts market to the attention of a whole new audience, primarily younger, city-based, many being of a creative bent themselves. The phenomenon of trading art between urban artists is just one cited example of a classless and more liberal artistic “economy”. I use that word cautiously however as this cultural practice refers as much to the place and position of art in society as much as monetary value. Much of urban art originating from the streets, made by the people for the people, with no social, economic or political leverage involved.
For those who need more clarification of the essence of urban art, the term “urban” essentially refers to “the city” and all the cultural and physical references that living within it entails. However the truth is that as urban art has risen in the public consciousness it has come to represent far more than mere city life, the scope of imagery in this most contemporary of genres may have evolved from literal urban environments, graffiti style tagging, and socially progressive slogans but has duly evolved in complexity into something far more surreal, and in some aspects iconographically metaphysical.
Banksy is no doubt the most famous proponent for urbanism within the arts, his iconic imagery having been seen on the streets of cities across the globe, his antics within the arts system such as hanging works in national galleries and painting tranquil landscapes along Israeli/Palestinian border defenses have brought him much attention. Yet in the present day, with at least a decade of solid public recognition behind it, the urban arts movement, if it can be named as such has since extended in all manner of styles, purposes, mediums and messages.
There are those such as Shepard Fairey of OBEY who have distinctly built a following with sentiments more akin to the Arts and Crafts movement of the late C19th and early C20th. Elaborate woodcut-style prints, ornately bordered, simply high contrasting, thickly outlined images that serve as much as highly emotive interior design as they do political gesture.
With no doubt the advancement of social networking and arts representation online, more and more artists are beginning to challenge the assumptions of both what exactly urban art is and what it can represent. One of the later arrivals in the urban arts scene is Paul Baines. Tending to “target” media celebrities, political leaders, and corporations, infamously known for his portrayal of Barack Obama in “Black Christ”. Other proponents of urban, street and graffiti art worth a mention are Jef Aerosol, who’s art is very much akin to the early work of Banksy. D*Face who has a passion for skulls, deeming to deface (hence the name) a series of cultural icons including Disney characters and Marilyn Monroe with 19th century illustrated skulls. FAKE, famous for his hummingbird spray can and part of E. London’s Wonderland Collective. Sickboy who creates iconic Indian temples in print and vinyl in the corporate colours of the McDonald’s fast food franchise. Luke Insect who’s work leans towards a more traditional genre, surrealist painting and figurative study. C215 who also leans towards figurative study and has a unique style akin to the “digital maps” offered by vector software, deconstructing forms into abstract shapes. Sweet Toof known for his large lipped, smiling grotesques which are commonly seen dotted around London.
Urban art has indeed itself managed, through the origins of its environment and process begun to dismantle the efficacy of the notion of hyperrealism. The surface is now untrustworthy, its appeal is tainted by the collective conscious’ memory of past failures, disappointments and to a degree lies.
Suspicion, be it of governance, the financiers, or celebrity endorsement, historical truth, the equitability of consumerism or capitalism, and even the proliferation of truth itself has left the public with an ever deepening suspicion of almost all things manifest. Be it the nature of power or the true cost of never ending urban expansion and over population, to more existential matters such as the essence of existence and the nature of being. This questions jar the mindset of a generation of potential “managers” of society, their tradition mouthpiece the media has been stunted by the explosion in user contributed video reportage and the power of social networking to proliferate opinion.
The advertising executives, Hollywood, corporate heads and governmental leaders have all done their best to incorporate this “outsider” philosophy, the acceptance of disenfranchisement, at least to a degree, and a more muted presentation of factual substance rather than a glossy and fabricated hyperreal montage of exaggeration blended with outright fantasy. For instance laws have been introduced to reduce the amount of airbrushing involved in the fashion and beauty media, a response to everything from marked relationship between their products and the rise in bulimia and anorexia within teenagers. As the economy collapses more and more advertising and indeed corporate branding in general has learned to downplay the lives of the rich and famous, an impossible perfection of beauty, a fantastical landscape, or product that by implication has almost mystical properties, and instead had to deal with the ugly truth.
This is in essence why Urban Art, including graffiti, street art, and modern day illustration, painting and print, and to some degree 3d art, has literally unravelled the “futorologisms” of a once artistic elite. The art market has been slain by recent economic disasters, those who have purchased contemporary art at the height of the market have lost fortunes to the downturn in demand. Leaving the urban artist community’s ethics intact. They are working, within and for society, to change society. They are, for the main part, not the toast of high society, but rather an integral part of it, working more effectively than any politician to disseminate public opinion on a wide variety of pressing matters, in a more novel, more creative, more challenging way than ever thought possible.