Has street art lost its street cred?

Ahead of the Art on the Streets Symposium at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Dr Susan Hansen explores whether the contemporary street art scene can retain its status as a symbol of rebellion in light of its increasingly mainstream success.

Banksy’s Girl and Balloon – officially Britain’s best loved artwork – recently sold at Sotheby’s for £345,000.

Street art is coming of age. No one seems remotely surprised any longer at the astronomical figures now attached to Banksy’s work, or at the increasing corporatisation and commodification of this once wild and unruly outsider urban art form. Indeed, street art now seems a reliable index of the march of gentrification rather than a radical marker of resistance and youth culture.

Image credit: Adrian Burnham

The world’s first museum of street art opened in Berlin last summer, with a second museum to follow in Amsterdam. Basquiat’s Boom for Real was the most popular show ever staged at the Barbican – and attracted an illicit (now Perspex-ed) homage by Banksy.

There are scholarly journals devoted to street art, and a burgeoning academic inter-discipline of ‘street art scholarship’. The once-niche Brooklyn Street Art blog now has an audience of over 2 million. On Wednesday 21 March, the otherwise respectable ICA will be home to a scholarly symposium on street art. Has street art lost its street cred? Is it now just another institutionalised and lucrative genre of contemporary art?

Carrie mermaid
Image credit: Carrie Reichardt

At the ICA this week, Rafael Schacter (co-curator of Street Art at the Tate Modern) asks where the radical acts of today can transpire, given the increasing corporatisation of ‘the streets’ – let alone street art. Has ‘the street’ lost its radical sense of possibility? Schacter notes that many contemporary artists now reject urban sites due to their current status as spaces of hegemonic control and surveillance, pure consumption and passivity, and asks pointedly where this leaves street art if so.

“Banksy’s favourite criminologist” Professor Alison Young will take up the fundamental question of how we think about images in the public spaces of the city. She argues for a dynamic relationship between law, art and image. Through a number of encounters with images existing on the borders of legality, and in flux, Young will consider the images we encounter at bus stops and train stations, in tunnels and on ladders; on motorway overpasses, bridges, and the walls of city streets, in situations that are more-or-less public, more-or-less legal, and more-or-less cultural. On this journey through the ‘non spaces’ of transit, she questions the ways in which we conceptualise the image in terms of genre, place, presence and law.

As a member of the Department of Psychology at Middlesex University, I will ask how we might ‘measure’ the impact of street art on contemporary urban communities. Communities often develop strong positive affective ties to works of street art, and more recently, some popular works have been granted heritage protection in recognition of the cultural value now often attached to it. Street art may help to build the level of community engagement and social capital in urban communities; high social capital facilitates a sense of community empowerment, and is a social determinant of health and mental health. Beyond the social benefits of street art to the general community, street art may also be used to positively engage with particular marginalised or vulnerable segments of the community, as a form of ecopsychosocial intervention.

Learn more about our symposium
Image credit: OllyStudio

Art on the Streets features the latest work and current thinking of fifteen internationally renowned artists, curators, and researchers working on street art, graffiti and urban contemporary art. The symposium focuses on urban art as a critical form of intervention, and as a powerful tool for addressing social issues. The symposium will also host the Unlock Book Fair, a roving international book fair devoted entirely to rare books on street art, graffiti, and forms of urban creativity.

Art on the Streets takes place on March 21, 2018 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London. It has been organised by Susan Hansen from the Visual & Creative Methods Group at Middlesex University, and Sabina Andron from the Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL.