Much contemporary art is disappointing–street art especially. Even if you manage to find a piece you really like–or, if you’re lucky, one that is really worth liking–it gets buffed, weathered beyond recognition, hyped beyond reason, or it simply disappears. And like all art, its digital web ghost doesn’t replace the real thing. It’s really gone forever. And that’s disappointing, even if you knew it would happen all along. Still, some deaths are better than others.
When the New Museum for Contemporary Art’s new building opened to the public in December 2007, it was adorned with Ugo Rondinone’s enlivening “Hell, Yes!” (2001). As the New Museum describes Rondinone’s body of work, “it explores notions of emotional and psychic profundity found in the most banal elements of everyday life.” His work, then, attempts to transfigure or highlight the banal elements of daily life. It thereby highlights features that we wouldn’t normally appreciate. This is not exactly a new idea, but perhaps Rondinone does it in new ways. When the context forces one to apply the concept art to a Brillo pad shipping box, a toilet, or whatever, one will most certainly attend to features otherwise ignored in practice. Look how curvy and shiny the toilet is! Just like Brancusi! You’d say that in a museum before you said it in a public bathroom.
According to the New Museum, Rondinone’s “Hell, Yes!” celebrates the museum’s history as “the home of socially committed contemporary art.” How does “Hell, Yes!” achieve this? Your guess is as good as mine. Here’s mine: Rondinone is considered to be a “socially committed” artist; placing his work on the front of the museum gives it a quality it would otherwise lack – now it expresses the museum’s commitment to such work, namely, work that is “socially committed”. (An analogy: a rich person puts a flashy Warhol in his living room. Before, the painting expressed whatever it expressed. Now, it is also a status symbol – it symbolizes the rich man’s wealth.)
There’s a more pressing question about the New Museum’s claim: How is this contemporary art museum, in these times, the home of socially committed contemporary art? Again, your guess is as good as mine. But here I’m at a loss for guesses. One might suspect that whoever wrote this (and whoever endorses it) fails to appreciate street art and its commitment to social commentary; they therefore fail to appreciate a vast swath of contemporary art practice. This seems odd for a contemporary art institution that fancies itself the home of socially committed art. Yet again, it doesn’t.
Shortly after the New Museum opened, an anonymous black (colorless) stencil seemed to capture these sentiments perfectly. The simplicity of the stencil’s form is striking, but no less so than the complexity of its meaning. It was placed at the base of a street light post just across the street from the New Museum, on the northwest corner of Bowery and Prince.
Clearly a comment on “Hell, Yes!”, the anonymous “Hell, No!” stencil rejects Rondinone’s ambition to bring the “everyday” into the artworld. Street art, by contrast, brings art into the everyday, into the streets. By rejecting Rondinone’s piece, the stencil rejects the notion that a museum could be the home of socially committed art. A better home is the open public space of the society to which the art is committed. By using the street to say this, the stencil embodies its own message – it beautifully exemplifies the very qualities it promotes.
As I was walking down Bowery last weekend, I decided to check in on the stencil. I was shocked to see that something was obscuring it: a sticker. I tried to pull it off, but it was one of those obnoxious cheap paper stickers that leave a sticky paper residue. The stencil was destroyed, defaced by a cartoonish sticker.
It would be delightfully ironic, in a way, if the sticker were yet another corporate advertisement; understandable, if it belonged to an unknowing local band. As it happens, however, the sticker belongs to another street artist: the experienced Londoner Ronzo. And it’s not exactly Ronzo’s street art – it’s a sticker with a couple of characteristic images accompanied by his website’s URL. So what destroyed the beloved stencil was a message very different from that of “Hell, No!” Ronzo’s message is: Check me out! Come to my website!
So, I went to his website. What I found were various images of Ronzo’s street art, pictures of the “cute” cement sculptures he places in cities around the world. I even learned that I could buy the very toys with which Ronzo adorns the street. Right there on the website! Add 10 to my shopping cart for 1000 Pounds. This is quite a strategy: exploit the unique setting of street art to lure someone to your website. If you like what you saw on the streets, you can buy your very own. Get a T-shirt while you’re shopping!
If you really want to support this strategy make your way over to OBEY. Shepard Fairey has mastered this technique (in part by creating the context he exploits). It’s somewhat odd, if you think about it, that these people think they’re making street art. Here are the OBEY people attempting, pathetically, to explain what Fairey is up to:
“It is easy to see that in Shepard’s world the line between fine art, commercial art and street art have all [sic] been blurred to form the distinct style that is synonymous to [sic] OBEY.”[source]
Correct the grammar and you’re still left with nonsense. The style of an artwork is the way it is (or appears to be) made. The style of an artist, by extension, is the characteristic way an artist makes art. Commercial art can be done in the same style as street or gallery art (e.g., mass stenciling for film promotion); street art can be done in the style of some gallery art (e.g., MOMO’s abstract pieces); and gallery art can be done in the style of some commercial art [e.g., Warhol’s “Brillo Box” (1964)]. But one cannot create a style by offending distinctions between these categories of art. Street art is at odds with commercial and gallery art. Fairey has the resources to make very impressive ads in the style of street art, but it’s not street art. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too. Even if you’re really good at baking.
Street art is able to make claims that museum and commercial art cannot; the “Hell, No!” stencil carries a message that is well worth considering, and for that reason, preserving. What a shame that this stencil is now obscured by yet another advertisement.
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