Evacuated from my Lower Manhattan apartment and hiding from Hurricane Irene, I find myself thinking about anonymous street art and what it means to art-viewing practices. Different from traditional art and even graffiti, the anonymous works that are found on construction walls, corners of the street and shop grates pose a difficult yet exciting problem for the street art or historian enthusiast that comes across them.
Often hilarious, poignant or just plain bad, these anonymous street art works — whether wheat-pasted, spray-painted, hand-painted or a combination of all three — may project a purity of artistic expression, singularly representing art for art’s sake. On the other hand, they may lack a point whatsoever.
In thinking about the impact of anonymous street art, I have a lot of varied and maybe even contradictory thoughts, which may come out as a jumbled mess. Like anonymous street art itself, no conclusion can truly be made or question answered. Rather thoughts just pop in your head as you wander down a street and come across a beautiful piece of art near some bags of garbage.
First, what exactly is anonymous street art? I’m still trying to wrestle with the exact definition. When I google “anonymous street art,” I get articles on Banksy. Is Banksy really anonymous? Nobody knows his (assuming it’s one person) real identity yet, he’s become enough of a celebrity that many argue that his work, which was first created illegally, should be protected or preserved. Clearly, Banksy is not anonymous in the sense we are talking about. The style of his art seems to be his identity and his signature. Many street artists have followed this same route. Both Keith Haring’s subway drawings to Shepard Fairey’s OBEY were anonymous until they were discovered.
So the question remains, at what point does a street artist stop being anonymous? Is all street art anonymous until it becomes more popular? It seems impossible to truly define what is anonymous street art.
But maybe that’s not the point.
When coming across an anonymous piece of street art, I always get a certain surge of excitement, finding something new that I don’t have any proof anyone else has seen. Without the artist’s identity, the work seems mysterious as if it just appeared there by itself. As a frequent museum and art gallery goer where the work is so connected to identity, viewing anonymous street art is an almost freeing experience.
As an art history student, I was taught to memorize the artist’s name, title of the work and date. For art history, the identity of the artist is integral to understanding the work and how the artist’s work progresses over their life or in relation to the different art historical movements.
I was never really sure why all of those facts mattered to art-viewing anyway. Did I really know more about art because I could spout “Salvador Dali, ‘The Persistence of Memory’ (1931)” on an exam, only to forget it the moment I walked out of class. I couldn’t even count the amount of hours I’ve had to spend memorizing pointless facts about art when in reality, the most important part of art is looking at the work.
One of the reasons that anonymous street art appeals to me is the backlash against the art historical viewing process. Spending enough time in art history programs, I know that many indoctrinated art history students would have a tough time processing these anonymous street works. Barring the fact that street art is still widely ignored by universities, the anonymity of the artist would surely baffle both the professors and the students.
Imagine if all of art history was taught without the identity of the artist. Suddenly, all of art would be open to wider interpretations without being stuck in a meaningless cycle of artistic movements and personalities. Anonymous street art radically poses the question of how much an artist’s identity really matters to art-viewing.
Besides the mostly conservative art history field, anonymous street art also makes a huge break with graffiti culture, where the name is everything. From the earliest graffiti in New York during the 1970s, with the multitude of tags such as TAKI 183, graffiti has been about asserting the writer’s identity. On the trains during the 1970s and 1980s, the graffiti writers were concerned with propelling their graffiti names, pseudonyms chosen sometimes only for their aesthetic detail, all-around-town. Whether you can easily read the wild-style lettering, you can always identify the graffiti writer since his name is literally the artwork.
Separate from both legal art and graffiti, anonymous street art sets up a complex relationship with the viewer who wants to both appreciate the work and find out who the artist is. But in the end, does it matter if the artist’s name is known? What do we get from a name? There are those who may obsessively try to figure out who did the work and where they come from. For me, I could care less. When I come across a piece of street art that inspires me, I look at it, smile, maybe take a picture and walk on.
Perhaps this is a freer form of art-viewing than the highly structured, audiotape guide-tailored museum visit. In the streets looking at a piece of art, I have no idea where the artist came from, his or her relation to other artists or their monetary value. I only look at the work, which even though it often gets lost in the business and social status of the art world, is the most important part.
While I’m not saying anonymous street art is better than art where the artist’s identity is known. Some of this anonymous street art can seem pointless, but it does set up an important relationship with the viewer that throws normalized art-viewing into question. And shouldn’t that be the goal of art, particularly contemporary art, anyway?