About Street Art and its Function Within the Urban Landscape

As members of contemporary society, we are greatly affected by our interaction with our everyday visual culture; this is to say, the things that we see everywhere everyday. Our conscious and subconscious thought is often greatly affected by the images and slogans that we encounter in our day to day lives. An urban setting such as New York City is said to be rich in visual culture because of the constant stimulation that the manmade landscape provides. In fact, one might say that there are so many things to see in New York City that one could never get bored. However (and I know as a New Yorker myself), constant stimulation often causes many who have lived in and moved around New York City to become almost apathetic to their visual environments. Whether it is because they now take for granted the environmental richness of their surroundings or because they have simply lost interest due to constant exposure, few New Yorkers seem to give pause to changes in their visual landscape (such as the erection of a new billboard or a graffitied wall).

If spaces could be categorized, international street artist Swoon claims that there are three types of space: public space, private space, and neglected space. These spaces are “not really public, maybe private, [but] undoubtedly neglected.” Clearly, “somebody owns that building, but the outer wall of that building…creates the visual space.”

Richard Burton observed in his essay, “The Arguments for Public Art,” that ordinary people in contemporary society experience a feeling that they have no claim to the spaces of daily public living. Indeed, as spaces become more internalized and therefore increasingly privatized, people tend to feel less connected to public spaces and the exterior, therefore placing more value on that which they can control, which is to say, their private and interior spaces. What remains outside becomes what Burton terms as a “margin for vagrancy,” much like the spaces outside the gates of medieval cities, where lepers congregated.

If we are to give community a functional meaning, then it must be that of “a group of people who share a sense of commonality,” i.e. who share common interests, common values, and a sense of solidarity or trust based on these ties. Art historian Eva Cockcroft recognizes this type of community as a “conscious community.” In our contemporary society, which is dominated by alienation and conflict, there are precious few examples of conscious community. In urban settings especially, I would say that most people live without any sense of rootedness or belonging. Therefore, many urban areas seem not to be conscious communities at all, but mere agglomerations of transient strangers.

It has been said that some street artists simply see urban space as an untapped format for personal artwork, while others who might feel disenfranchised want to utilize public space to not only reach a much broader audience than traditional artwork and galleries normally allow. However, I think that the universal theme of street art is the transformation of spaces into places in an attempt to directly affect the members of the community by reclaiming public spaces. It brings the community together by creating a sense of shared experience. This alone breaks the routine of urban disassociation. What was once a third space becomes a place, a landmark commonly recognized by members of its community.

Therefore, the role of street art is to transform these empty spaces into places, and to recharacterize the faceless masses of the pedestrian public into the individually recognized yet collectively termed entity of “the people.” This entails a merging of the individual with “common” interests, which results in street art becoming a personal as well as a shared experience. It is with this in mind that street artists have attempted to create a notion of community within their artwork. Inevitably, street art is controversial, for in a world of injustice, exploitation, war, and alienation, a formulation of values implies a criticism of that world and the projection of a possible alternative world. Street art becomes a form of symbolic social action and implies further social action.

Street art has the ability to evoke a set of emotions that you never thought were possible to have towards an inanimate object. I, for example, am very passionate about street art because I believe that it enriches our lives and make us crave that inexplicable “something more” for our otherwise bland landscapes, and translates into our lives for craving something more in our relationships with each other. In this sense, street artists are training us to see beyond the landscape and into the potential of our landscape. It invites us to interact and respond to our surroundings. More than this, it teaches us that anything we experience, we can truly make our own.

However, whether your views are positive or negative, I would submit that if it makes you think or feel anything at all, then street art has done its job. And if it makes you say something to someone, doubly so.

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