Graffiti Aesthetics - I like It! What Is It?

August 31, 2014

The appeal of street art stems form various corners of mind, but also various social discourses. It may seem that we are about to propose some sort of dualism regarding the notion of beauty which is innate to every person, on the one hand, and a notion of taste we acquire from our upbringing, socialization and culture, on the other hand. This is not far from the truth, but there is no dualism. We are not talking about the notion of disinterested appeal or some sort of universal essence ascribed to a general concept of aesthetics. We need to speak of the various elements which form a complex construct of liking. Can I like something without understanding it? Can’t I just find something appealing and not “deal” with the underlining issues of why this is so? Of course! However, that doesn’t mean that these issues are non-present. It’s more likely that I have decided to disregard them. And that’s alright. Still, it is not enough to say “just because”, it is not enough to say that there is a notion of beauty lingering “somewhere” above meaning. So, rather than talking about ways of understanding the beauty of street art in terms of modernity, let us consider this – what makes a street art piece “beautiful”, what makes us like it, what compels us to love it?

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"Beauty is in the Street"

The Politics of It All

The political connotations of street art are crucial to understanding the notion of this complex phenomenon. This concerns a general understanding of the political context of existence, from ideological viewpoint and the notion of taste and style to a more wide perception of political issues. This plays a decisive role in the perception of street art. But before we turn to aesthetics, let us consider two manifestly political contexts of street art expression – one reaching decades into the past and the other which is a part of a contemporary discourse. During the students protests in Paris in 1968, a clear message saying Beauty is in the Street resided on a poster created by art students. It could be argued that this was a form of one of the earliest street art expressions. It was situated in the urban context, as well as the cultural, and it had a clear socio-political connotation. Not differently than today’s stencil, it had appeared repeatedly and still lives as a symbol… The other distinct example, in relation to contemporary political issues, concerns Banksy’s visit to the West Bank. It represents a way of using street art to convey a deeply political opinion and oppose the hegemonic discourse… This is not some simple comparison of the two situations and certainly not a way to relate one action to the other. Rather, this is a reminder of the power of symbolic resistance which influences our “ability” to (dis)like a street art piece. And, if this is one stance with such an influence, what else is there?

I Like It! But, Why?

The Ways of Perception

In his seminal text Coding-Decoding, cultural theorist Stuart Hall questioned the role of the public in perceiving media content. With a certain degree of simplification, the conclusions he had drawn concerned the active role of the public in the perceiving of messages. He had deduced three ideal-case scenarios in which the public either accepts the dominating concept of the message, opposes it completely, or accepts only a part through the process of critical reflection. If we would to transpire these cases to the pondering of the perception of street art, it could be argued that in either case the artwork has a significant impact on the subject which perceives it. After all, the arenas of existence for urban art today have become greater in numbers. It is not only the surface of the wall that is the vessel for graffiti art, but also virtual reality, video art, human body and endless iterations of social media platforms in the digital world. Today, a street art piece, especially if created by an emerging artist, must survive the machinery of public discussion, the cruelty of the market and, to a certain degree, the judgment of fellow artists and art professionals. Even if we consider the scenario of opposing the message as well as the appeal of an urban art piece, there is still the issue of interacting with it. This is reflected in the inherently postmodern nature of urban art – it is present in the world.

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Gaia and Cyrcle., Vienna, 2014

The Beauty of It All

The notion of appeal as understood in modernity has been interpreted through a different kind of deliberation. Perhaps it can be argued that the appeal of urban art resides somewhere in the space bordered by Roland Barthes’ concepts of plaisir and jouissance. We seem to be told by our friends, society and the public what exactly constitutes the object of our affection. It is the socially regulated idea and a socially sanctioned enjoyment of an artwork, or any cultural text for that matter. However, there is the other side – it is the sense of inscribing oneself into the work of art. This is the aesthetics which incorporates the artist’s drive to convey his message, almost like the notion of romanticism - presenting the artist as the hero. This is the aesthetics which carries the possibility of inscribing one’s identity and ideology into the art. It is a moment when we become the girl who is throwing the brick or the girl holding the balloons. This is an aesthetics which feels so personal and intimate, yet it is composed of elements which are not “just our own”. This is where the beauty of urban art lies.

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