Fine Art and Urban Art - Where is the line?

August 18, 2014

Fine art and urban art - even today, with great transformations concerning the cultural existence of our societies there is an almost strict divide between the notion which we refer to as “fine art”, and another which concerns the space of various arenas dominated by inspirational artistic expression. If fine art is something which resides in museums and other cultural institutions, how can one explain the presence of contemporary artwork which has found its way from an urban wall to a wall within said institutions? Is this the moment when such a piece “becomes” fine art? In the postmodern reality of present times, who or what can even be the judge of what represents a cultural institution or an art institution? These are only some of the questions which form endless discourses on supposed art classifications.

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Conor Harrington, New Mural in Walthamstow, London

The Cultural Divide

One of the first aspects of understanding the cultural notions of a society, which became present in both public and academic discourses, had concerned the difference between “high” culture and the culture of the masses. In the industrial era, when urban contexts of living were proliferating all around Europe, the questions of educating people who spent their days between factories and bed rest arose as important ones. These were not the questions of basic education, but rather ones of art and “high” culture and the availability of these notions to the working class. This prompted an important discussion on the “value” of those artistic expressions and practices which will form the notion of popular culture. Who was to say that television, film, radio or diverse popular texts couldn’t be perceived as cultural products and, what is more, popular artistic expressions. Once, Shakespeare was part of the “culture of the masses” or “popular culture”, and today resides in the pantheon of literary masterpieces. This is the key notion – cultural products, even art itself, doesn’t belong to a limited number of people who “know” what these concepts mean and who are, allegedly, the only ones who can create it. But, let us return to the world of art.

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Banksy Retrospective at Rise Gallery 2015

The Artist of Modernity Exits the Stage

Based on the notion of romanticism, modernity nurtured a belief on the pure role of art as a vessel for true knowledge. It was this noble idea which strived to oppose the forthcoming soulless human existence of the industrial era. Thus, an artist was perceived as “great creator”, a savior with heroic attributes. However, the postmodern era brought one crucial need – it was the necessity for including art into everyday life. When the first artists who were educated in “traditional” methodology and classical training got rid of their paintbrushes and started experimenting with perspective, shape, color and materials, the time came when we were not far from movements such as graffiti painting, various forms of performative art, and especially urban art. The perception of art was now embodied in the complex set of notions concerning the artist’s ideological viewpoints, the social and political relevance of the artwork, the subtext of the piece, techniques, and so on. All of this created the contemporary idea of an artist…

The Great Divide: From Fine Art to Urban Art print map home canvas prints york white michael black modern new
Pablo Picasso

Who is an Artist?

When urban art conquered the gallery spaces and the appreciation of art collectors, it was clear that a shift in the perception of contemporary art had happened. Soon enough, people who created in the context of urban spaces became acknowledged as “true” artists. Large scale murals, urban interventions, the use of stencils and especially the new space of virtual reality became the tools and platforms for a new generation of artists. Many of the pieces created through street and urban art expression found their place not only within independent galleries and festivals, but as a part of the collections of museums and other art institutions. Surely, the perfect paradigm explaining the new aspects of contemporary art could be found in Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop. It is as though the activities of Banksy and Mr. Brainwash reflected the new state of affairs. One was now acknowledged as an artist through active participation in the public discourse, assuming his place in the popular culture through symbolic power. However, there are at least two ways of acquiring this power: one is through the creative process connected to social activism and the other has its source in the value determined by the market. The differentiating of these two ways is reflected in the face of postmodernity, and it is a story for another time. One thing is certain, if we were to identify something as “fine art”, it exists today only as one of the many contemporary art discourses.

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