Lee, “Lion’s Den” (1980), Lower East Side, Manhattan, photo by Martha Cooper (image via LA MOCA)

Los Angeles — There is apparently something about institutional street art shows that move museum folk towards declarations of firstness.

In 2008, Street Art at the Tate Modern was announced as “the first major public museum display of Street Art in London,” while just last winter Hugh Davies, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, glowed that he was “really proud” to be “the first (American) museum to do an international street art show of this scale and scope.” Art In The Streets, the latest and of course much buzzed exhibition opening today at Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art is billed by MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch as — surprise surprise — “the first exhibition to position the work … from street culture in the context of contemporary art history.”

The justification for Deitch and MOCA’s claim turns on the debut establishment of a historical context for this often elusive phenomenon, tracing its roots back to old-schoolers such as Cornbread and Taki 183 as well as Fab 5 Freddy, Kenny Scharf, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Art in the Streets takes these godfathers and attempts to unite them with the later-generation players that have risen to fame in the last ten years, figures such as JR, Barry McGee, Shepard Fairey and others.

The jury is still out on the extent to which all of this fits neatly into one seamless narrative. Nevertheless, the show does pull off a feel of history. In fact, the exhibition itself is probably best described as one part art show one part natural history museum display (complete with animatronic taggers). Deitch, along with co-curators Roger Gastman and Aaron Rose (and what must have been an army of preparators) have built out large sections of MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary to recreate the environments in which the movement is said to have developed; things like trash-filled New York alleys in the eighties, cramped bedrooms littered with tag-sketches or even the fabled FUN Gallery where some of the movement’s most notables had their first solo shows. Driving home the historical aspect of the show, an illustrative timeline runs on the walls throughout, laying out the movement’s pivitol moments (Deitch Projects unsurprisingly features prominently under 1996).

Yet Gastman, in an interview with LA Weekly, seemed to contradict the show’s historical dimension, asserting:

The common misconception here is that this show is a complete history or an LA graf show … It’s neither of those things. It’s 30 to 40 artists who raised the profile of an entire movement with high artistic merit … The participating artists were very supportive once they understood this intent …

This quote from Gastman brings up an important point, because if the show is not a history, then, even in all its grandeur, it is suddenly not so urgent. Viva La Revolución: A Dialogue With the Urban Landscape — the major San Diego show that took place some 100 miles from MOCA and which closed January 2011 — featured twenty artists, almost all of which are represented in the MOCA show. The Viva show discussed many of the same themes and presented many of the same brands of works as are on display in Art in the Streets, if only on a slightly smaller scale. The point is that for anyone who saw the Viva show (and for the historical record), everything about Art in the Streets that is not “historical” is somehow not so compelling, or at least not a “first,” because it is all so close in time, space, and content to Viva La Revolución.

Os Gêmeos, “Untitled” (2009) in São Paulo, photo by Ignacio Aronovich/Lost Art. (image via LA MOCA) (click to enlarge)

That’s not to say that Art in the Streets is not an impressive show. Aside from the large-scale builds and grandiose historical reproductions, you can expect to see the contemporary stars of the field doing their thing to great effect. Os Gêmeos, for example, is a clear stand out, dominating large walls with their trademark caricatured faces, some of which cover a hoard of makeshift speaker-boxes with wires feeding into a band set up.

In general, the artists on display are all doing what they do best. The question becomes, what exactly is that thing they do? And what is MOCA doing to package and present the whole thing? Are the artists partaking in a great and loudly trumpeted historicization under the direction of Deitch and other museum directors, many of whom on a certain level represent the kind of space which consitutes the movement’s implicit target? Are they ironically flaunting the institutional egoism that could be seen as infecting the entire enterprise? Or is it an important step in the validation of an artistic mode that has often been brushed aside?

It is a complicated situation, one that becomes more complicated with each new ‘first’ major museum street art show. Standing on one of the open upper floors of the Geffen Contemporary and looking down at the maze of temporary rooms, installations and corporate sponsored (Nike) skate ramps, it is hard to tell with any certainty just who the joke is on.

Art in the Streets at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art (152 North Central Avenue, Los Angeles) opens April 17 and continues till August 8, 2011.

Benjamin A. Snyder is a freelance writer based in San Diego, California.