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Photo by Jaime Rojo of a Celso work. The same work appears in Rojo’s book “Street Art New York” but is more closely cropped than this version that appears on their website (via BrooklynStreetArt)

Imagine a gallerist bringing new art works into the gallery. She pulls her truck up to the gallery curbside, gets out, and starts taking some paintings out of the truck bed. She takes one out just as she realizes that she hasn’t unlocked the gallery doors. So, she places the artwork on the curb and sets off to unlock the gallery. This person has intentionally placed art in the street. Is it street art? Obviously not. So what makes something street art if not the art’s being intentionally placed in the street? It might even seem that street art needn’t be literally in the street at all, so long as one accepts that Blu’s MUTO and similar works are street art — as a digital video it has no literal or direct connection to the street. Street artistic status must hinge on something else. So what is it?

Cover of “Street Art New York” by Harrington & Rojo

The most promising proposal I have been able to think of is this: street art is art whose use of the street is essential to its meaning. That is to say, street art is art that uses the street, either as an artistic material or as an artistic context (or both), in such a way that any acceptable interpretation of it must refer to the way in which that use of the street gives the piece its significance. (This implies that graffiti and street art are quite different arts.) If this is right, then for an artwork to be street art it must use the street. That means that no art in a traditional gallery or art space is street art. It might have been made by a “street artist” but so what? Street artists can also make hot dogs and folk songs. It might even look a lot like the stuff we see on the streets — but it’s not street art. It is gallery art masquerading as street art. This illusion has duped many an art-buyer into paying lots of money for “street art,” but really they were just buying (often terrible) gallery art. Its being terrible gallery art does not imply that it was bad street art. In fact, it was probably very good street art — that’s why the artist was invited to make the same thing for a gallery show.

This bunny stencil by Aiko appeared on BrooklynStreetArt.com on March 2009 but is more closely cropped than this in Harrington & Rojo’s new book. (via BrooklynStreetArt)

It follows from this that to capture street art in all of its glory — either as a critic or as a documentarian or photographer — one must capture the special way that the artwork uses the street to give it the meaning it has. One must capture its specific street context, illustrate the way that it was meant to strike or interact with passer-bys, or show how its import depends on the specific community or neighborhood in which it was placed or created. There is one especially good way to ensure failure at this: pretend that the street artwork could perform the same function in a gallery, that is, pretend that there is no difference between gallery art and street art — that street art is merely art-in-the-street that does not really depend on the street in any deep way. This will force the critic or documentarian to totally ignore the work’s specific relation to the street, and it will pressure the street art photographer to suppose that the picture frame should stand in for the absent gallery art frame

An Aakash Nihalani street work photographed by Jaime Rojo. This image appears on BrooklynStreetArt.com, but another version appears in “Street Art New York” (via BrooklynStreetArt)

The majority of photographs in Street Art New York — a new book of street art images by Jaime Rojo and Steven P. Harrington, the overseers of the influential and very active street art website Brooklyn Street Art — exemplify this failing. The photographic persona in these images is a latent gallerist. The picture frame acts like a gallery frame. Their extremely tight framing eliminates nearly all artistic context — in some cases there is no clear sign that the piece is even on the street (see page 58). The images are utterly disembodied and dislocated.

On nearly every page, we are given no information — visual or linguistic — about the date, location (other than “New York City”), context, or artist intention. We don’t know whether the work we are seeing is part of a series (an important concept in street art) or whether the artist has done other similar works. The images are in no particular order (other than starting with a smattering of works by REVS, which seems appropriate), and although images are often juxtaposed for some vague reason, we are never given any explanation why. Indeed, the juxtaposition leads us to believe that the works have something in common when they could very well be totally different. Is it supposed to be obvious? The book seems to presuppose that the answer is “Yes,” or at least that it doesn’t matter. This is shown not only by the lack of information about the artworks, but also by putting images of truly awful art in the same collection with images of clearly amazing work. Compare, for example, pages 92, 124, and 144-45 with the work by Judith Supine, Dain, and C215. There is also a disappointing lack of the best work from some of the more talented artists working during the time that these photographs were taken (which is mostly, it seems to me, from 2007 through 2009). Aakash Nihalani and Dan Witz, for example, produced several very striking works, yet only some of the weakest are shown in this book (see pages 79-81).

A look inside “Street Art New York” with images of a Broken Crow/Over Under mural. (via StreetArtNewYork.com)

The view that critical attention to, and critically relevant information about, street art doesn’t matter is symptomatic of what seems to be a general trend among street art enthusiasts. There is a general disdain, it seems, for thinking about street art — street art enthusiasts tend to resist thinking about artistic value, artistic influence, artistic context, or pretty much anything related to art history and criticism. Oddly, this is clearest on the most popular and dedicated street art websites, like Brooklyn Street Art, Wooster Collective, and Flickr street art pages. Wooster Collective seems dedicated to not disclosing why they like what they like and suppressing their (negative) critical thoughts. But don’t be fooled: Wooster Collective is a highly curated collection of images selected from a vast bay of possibilities sent directly to the site with the hope of being, one day, featured there.

The closest these sites seem to come to art criticism is the occasional, and sometimes helpful, artist interview. Via their website Brooklyn Street Art, Rojo and Harrington have been especially good at this, posting informative interviews with street artist about their intentions, processes, and the meaning of their imagery. It is a shame that Rojo and Harrington did not incorporate into their book what must be a fascinating body of knowledge about street art and street artists. It seems to me that this is exactly the opportunity that the book form offers. But as it is, the book offers little that we couldn’t have easily found online, and often in better quality (several of the images in this book appear to be poorly magnified digital photographs).

The book is clearly the result of an intense dedication to and love for street art. Rojo and Harrington have done a lot to support contemporary street art practice and appreciation. But as I argued in my review of Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, such dedication can cause one to overlook the current needs of street art. Street art does not need more uncritical enthusiasts, weak “gallery shows,” naïve art-buyers, and amateur practitioners. It is time for a new phase in street art — one that takes the practice and its practitioners more seriously and subjects it to the kind of attention it deserves. But watch out, it might be critical.

Street Art New York By Steven P. Harrington and Jaime Rojo, Foreword by Carolina A. Miranda (176 pages with 200 color illustrations, Hardcover)

Nick Riggle

Nick Riggle lives in Brooklyn and is pursuing a PhD in Philosophy at New York University, where he is writing a dissertation on issues in aesthetics. In addition to contributing to Hyperallergic, Nick writes about art, philosophy, and culture...

10 replies on “Review of Street Art New York, by Rojo and Harrington”

  1. Though I commend their ability to put together and publish a book, Rojo and Harrington are amateurish street-art fans at best. Their effort (as with earlier efforts) reveal them as little more than enthusiasts with a penchant for collecting snapshots of street-art and foisting them on readers in a book devoid of context, offering no further insights into the subject than any individual can gain from walking the streets seeing this type of art-work in person.

  2. Completely agree about the majority of the ‘street art’ blogs. I’ve heard many instances of socially conscious artwork being rejected by Wooster Collective in favor of the latest designer sneakers or formulaic permissioned mural blandness, print release, vinyl toy or whatever. It’s all become so dull and predictable. There’s now also a global slew of Wooster imitators who collectively have the genre on lockdown to the point of suffocation. Many of these blogs receive kickbacks in order to promote certain content. Almost everything seems oriented toward street art as a fetishistic commodity. They are the equivalent of glossy lifestyle magazines, and just as selectively conservative. It’s saddening how the artform has become almost completely annexed like this. Anything that doesn’t fit into the value system of the bourgeois gatekeepers gets excluded. It feels like the online equivalent of when a neighbourhood gets gentrified. This stale and restrictive hegemony urgently needs to be recognised for what it is and comprehensively rejected.

  3. The satisfaction of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the poster clings through paste. Boasting is what a boy does, because he has no real effect in the world. But the tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgement of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away.

  4. Good review Nick! I was actually considering ordering a copy, but now I won’t. My knowledge of street art is lacking, so it’s my plan for the year to become more educated about it. The main thing I want to know from individual street artists is who they’re looking at, art historically speaking. If the curators of some street art sites are anti-intellectual, it makes you wonder if the artists are the same. I’d expect a great many of them to be, but I have a feeling that the best of the street artists think just as deeply as any other sort of artist about art history, painting, sculpture, etc. Have you come across any other books on street art that warrant a read?

  5. This is a really great review and raised issues about the book that I hadn’t considered. I enjoyed it for what I think the authors meant for it to be…a collection/archive of what has been out there. The problem of critical discourse and contextualization of the work (art historical and otherwise) is huge. It is something I have approached with a project that started as the New Underground Art Pavilion, but recently I have changed “Underground” to “Unleashed” because I see themes emerging that are reflected in the work of the best artists today no matter what their medium (paint, film, paper) and without regard to their canvas (street, plexiglass, cyberspace). The N.U.A. PAVILION has recently launched a series called “I Want You” of real-time behind the scenes with interesting people working in the NEW art. In August we will have an week of performance and interaction with General Howe culminating in online sales of works he is making specially for the project. As part of our week celebrating the Battle of Brooklyn in 1776, I hope to also contribute some thoughtful writings about his work. You can find images of General Howe’s street art on pages 64-65 of Brooklyn Street Art. My own view is that he is the most important artist today whose work depends on the street for its meaning. His interview posted yesterday on Brooklyn Street Art is not to be missed: http://www.brooklynstreetart.com/theblog/?p=12623

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