Within the social structures of society which try to impose themselves as dominant, there is a space for resisting the hegemonic aspirations of said structures. This is the plain of cultural context, and especially the space of everyday possibilities of social activism. This is the space where art can transform the symbolic universe into the source of creative process. This kind of practice has been present throughout the history of urban art, tracing its beginnings in the graffiti movement of the 1970s. What is more, it could be argued that contemporary art, and especially different iterations of urban art expression, are almost exclusively expressed in the form of resistance. But, what does this mean?
Resistance: Style and Ritual
The notion of style doesn’t simply refer to the visual and aesthetic aspect of a persons identity or the object of his or her work. Rather, it is a specific practice. What does this exactly mean? If we look at the ways of expressing one’s identity, when choosing a certain set of symbolic values which are represented to the world, an individual is already an actor or player, his or her style already appears as a particular performance. A notable example of this are certainly the youth subcultures which emerged on the urban scene in the 1970s and 1980s, first in Europe and shortly after in the United States. The spark which ignited the presence of these groups in the public discourse were the events of cultural revolutions in 1968 and 1969. When creating a public image, the youths actually tried to take the only power which was at the grasp of their hands – a symbolical one. This inherently prompted the set of specific rituals which were in close correlation with their identities and style. This is why the notion of style explicitly means a form of activism, and this is something that is embedded in the nature of street art and urban art. So, let us consider the meaning of these stances within the arena of urban art.
The Next Step of Resisting
Certainly, part of the style of some of the artists, such as Invader, resides in the concealing of identity. This is the result of an artist’s desire to steer the attention toward his or her artwork. However, the notion of style which concerns the artwork itself is a more interesting concept to dwell upon. It could be argued that the differentia specifica of urban art resides in the symbolic structure of the artwork, rendering the social impact of a particular piece to be the crucial element of the art itself. This is what defines urban art as a postmodern phenomenon par exellance. Thus, the social activism in itself carries the message of resisting, and the symbolic resistance stands as an opposition in front of the dominant ideology, or, rather, the power of mainstream. All of this represents the field of inspiration for urban artists, the reason why Banksy takes his work to the West Bank, or why Saber wages war on those who wish to destroy the art of graffiti. Finally, the questions of how all of this influences the market value or how can one differentiate the essential social activism from hollow “resistance” in a form of a popular hype, is another story (soon to follow) Let us return to the matter at hand and ask ourselves: What is the actual meaning of symbolic resistance?
To understand the notion of symbolic resistance, one must suspend, even for just a moment, the Kantian notion of disinterested appeal. The appreciation of urban art comes from not only understanding its immediate role in the public discourse, but also engaging and interacting with the art. This is the moment when the concept of symbolic resistance reaches its full potential. In the space between the spectator (public) and an urban intervention, the symbolic resistance of urban art is formed as a creative reaction to a certain ideological matrix which tries to impose itself intrusively on a community. Thus, the symbolic resistance of urban art takes up the crucial contemporary role of defying the hegemonic structures of today.
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