Interviews

A Conference Considers the Philosophy of Street Art

An active graffiti and street art spot in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
An active graffiti and street art spot in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Today, a three-day conference titled Philosophy of Street Art: Art in and of the Street begins at Pratt Institute and New York University. Organized by Gregg Horowitz of Pratt, Nicholas Riggle of Lafayette College, and Christy Mag Uidhir of the University of Houston, the event will feature an artist panel (with Leon Reid IV, HOTTEA, ELBOW-TOE, and Tatyana Fazlalizadeh), two days of papers and discussions, and a keynote lecture by a leading authority on the topic, Alison Young of the University of Melbourne, who will speak about “Mainstreaming the Street: The Cultural Value of Illicit Street Art.”

I spoke to Riggle about why a group of philosophers and social scientists is interested in street art and what fascinates them about the field.

A complete schedule for the conference, which is free and open to the public, is available online.

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On Driggs Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn
On Driggs Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Hrag Vartanian: As a philosopher, what fascinates you about street art?

Nicholas Riggle: First of all, there’s just the classic philosophical question: what is it? What is street art? You might think it’s just art in the street, but that can’t be right because you can stick a painting on the sidewalk without making street art. So what is it? Does it have to be illegal or nonconsensual in some sense? Does it have to be motivated by a certain worldview or social condition? What is “the street,” anyway? Is it just a logistical space that facilitates travel by car and foot, or is it a richer sociocultural space, perhaps one that promotes public interaction? There’s also a range of questions street art raises for philosophical aesthetics. Is there anything distinctive about street art’s power as art — or does it achieve no more than can be achieved by painting, sculpture, installation, and so on? Is street art a postmodern art form, or is it something new, perhaps a distinctive response to problems that arose with modern art?

By the way, we’re not exclusively interested in street art — we’re also interested in graffiti and the distinctive questions it raises. Stepping back a bit from these specific questions about the art form, one might pose more general questions about street art and culture. I think anyone who pays attention to art senses that street art is a new and exciting practice. So why is it around now? What’s exciting about it? What is it about our cultural and technological era that makes street art so compelling to so many people? Should they be so compelled?

HV: Why hasn’t a conference like this happened until now?

NR: There have been several conferences on street art, but none with a specifically philosophical focus. Philosophers have been a little late to the party on this one. It’s not easy to definitively say why, especially given the influence of street art and graffiti on the culture — on art production, appreciation, and collection.

I would put it down to a range of factors: a lack of awareness or familiarity, a sense that it’s not as interesting as traditional art, and perhaps a bit of a “highbrow” bias or a tendency to avoid popular culture. But the antidote to all that is a sincere look at the art form, which to be sure contains some really bad art, but which also contains some of the most exciting artworks produced in this century. Of course, I know more than a few philosophers who are interested in street art but who haven’t, and probably wouldn’t, write a philosophical paper about it. I don’t quite understand why — especially since it’s so much fun.

Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Williamsburg, Brooklyn

HV: What themes did you see in the submissions you received for the conference and the papers you finally selected?

NR: My co-organizers and I were thrilled to get many, many more good submissions than we could possibly accept, and they covered a wide range of topics: whether illegality is a necessary condition for street art; whether “the street” provides a uniform audience; whether street art is a counterexample to popular ways of thinking about the nature of art; whether street art can play a distinctive role in the advancement of feminist causes; how we should think about the preservation of street art — should we treat it like ruins or as a performance? That’s a very small sample of the fascinating and challenging questions posed by the papers we received. It proved to us beyond any doubt that street art is a rich topic for philosophical discussion.

On Bedford Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn
On Bedford Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn

HV: Philosophically, do you see any differences between street art and graffiti? What differentiates them?

NR: I think they’re different art forms, but there’s room for disagreement. (I’ve argued for the distinction in an academic paper on street art). I’m hoping we will discuss the issue at the conference. My thought is that graffiti should be distinguished by its connection to a certain attitude and writing style that developed in Philadelphia and NYC in the ’70s and ’80s. As such its closest artistic relative is calligraphy. I think of street art as art that uses the street artistically. Some graffiti does that and some doesn’t, so some graffiti is street art and some isn’t. I think that’s the right conclusion, and it’s one that plays out in the street. Lots of graffiti writers hate street art, and lots of street artists ignore graffiti. Of course, lots of painters hate other painters, so maybe that doesn’t cut either way!

HV: How has your understanding of the field changed in the last decade, considering street art has increasingly converged with more conventional contemporary art and commercialization? Has it made for a more problematic topic of contemplation or a richer one?

NR: This is a great question, and something we’ll discuss a lot at the conference, especially in the artist panel discussion. Also, I’m very excited about Alison Young’s keynote lecture, which is about the mainstreaming of street art and graffiti.

My own view is that people are too quick to accept that street art is something that can be commercialized, “gallerized,” or otherwise bought, sold, and hyped up for the market, but my views about that have to do with what I think it means to use the street artistically. The street is a cultural space, one of the essential functions of which is to promote public interaction by facilitating self-expression. That’s a function that a space can have more or less, and it’s one that a space can lose. Lots of public art isn’t street art because it transforms the space from the street into an art space. Famous or hyped-up street artists are in danger of doing that to the space their art uses. Hype, fame, and mainstreaming can have an extremely pernicious effect on street art — that’s just one of the ways.

It’s a topic that’s on everyone’s mind because of things like Oxygen’s Street Art Throwdown show. (Tatyana is a judge on the show, so I’m sure she’ll have an interesting perspective on it.) I think the mainstreaming of street art and graffiti have made it an even richer topic of contemplation, but I worry that it’s had a negative effect on street art production. Just compare the NYC landscape now to the way it was 10 years ago. You were there! I can’t wait to hear what Leon Reid IV and ELBOW-TOE have to say about this.

HV: I’ve noticed a reluctance on the part of academics to embrace street art and graffiti, similar to the reluctance I’ve seen at museums to exhibiting the work. Why do you think that is? Is there something specific to the fields that threaten power structures or experts, or is it something else?

NR: Who knows?! Why don’t universities have skateparks? But seriously, I mentioned why I think philosophers haven’t paid much attention to it, though I should add that the late Arthur Danto is an exception. He wrote about graffiti in the ’80s and recognized some of its powers and limitations, though he wrote primarily in his capacity as an art critic for The Nation.

Most of the academic work on street art and graffiti has come from sociology and anthropology. The really weird thing is that art history seems especially uninterested in street art and graffiti. There are some exceptions (e.g. more than a few masters theses), but I don’t know why there aren’t more established experts in academia. Our conference is a step in the right direction. I’d be really happy if it helped street art and graffiti find a more secure place in academia.

I hope your readers will consider coming to the conference! We’re really proud that it’s free, open to the public, and contains a wide range of views on topics we’re all just beginning to explore. Come see and discuss what artists do on the street — come hear them explain what they love, what they’re thinking, and why they do what they do. And come hear some really, really smart people explain what they find so fascinating about it.

Philosophy of Street Art: Art in and of the Street takes place March 5–7 at Pratt Institute (200 Willoughby Ave, Clinton Hill, Brooklyn) and New York University (5 Washington Place, 1st floor auditorium, Greenwich Village, Manhattan).

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