Even before arriving at the exhibition venue, I wanted to hate it. I knew I’d hate it. The website alone is repulsive enough (don’t even get me started on the “graffiti” font), but imagine a large studio space filled with uninspired, derivative, tired and trite art (Haring and Basquiat were rolling in their graves this weekend), unapologetically braggadocious dealers (“Sorry, can’t talk. I’m closing 2 deals with some major clients right now.”), comically stereotypical faux-rich art collectors (“Here let me show you. I paid 50k for this last week!!!”), and droves of casual perusers whose first exposure to “street art” was this poor excuse of a money grab advertised to the public as “the first-ever global street art fair” that took place in West Hollywood over the weekend. That was “Street Art Fair International” in a nutshell.
I have no issue with street artists being in the gallery. Street artists are artists too, and artists must make a living somehow. If any of these artworks were painted on outdoor walls, I’d applaud these artists for revealing their artwork for public scrutiny like that. That is not the issue. However, as a street artist, you must be able to differentiate between street work and gallery work, but to pretend to bring the street into the gallery space as a ploy to sell art while the hype train is going strong is ignoble and completely deplorable, especially if you have never done an honest night’s work on the street leading up to the show. No, stenciling a few cutesy characters on a WeHo residential sidewalk with your entourage after a few shots of Jäger doesn’t count. Stenciling Where’s Waldo’s hat onto Warhol’s banana is not street art. Simply because Kanye West or Jay-Z mentioned Jean-Michel Basquiat in their rap songs doesn’t mean the three belong together on a stenciled canvas that looks like a high school art project. Blatantly ripping off contemporary street artists like Retna (@ironeyeretna) or Barry McGee (@barrymcgeeart) and selling it for $15,000 is certainly not street art.
Street art is art done in public spaces available for visual consumption by anyone and everyone. It is the most egalitarian form of expression, devoid of institutions, status, or value. Any institution, status, or value that may have been attached to it by the artist’s intention is stripped away and replaced with each viewer’s own inclinations. This art fair was anything but that. From the reach-for-the-stars price tags, the $25 admission fee to enter the exhibition, the Ferrari displayed front and center in the main studio space, to the VIP party, the whole event was purely money oriented. If there was even a semblance of originality or effort, I may have been able to swallow it but this was too bitter of a pill.
All wasn’t lost though as I was able to find some redeeming qualities. Witnessing a warm exchange of respect and appreciation between a genuine fan and an artist did give me the fuzzy feelings in my stomach. This was the last place that I was expecting to see that. Later I struck a conversation with a studio assistant to one of the artists present and he was so proud of the artwork that he had helped complete two nights before the fair opening. He was so proud. Even if the piece had no meaning to me, it was full of meaning for him that no one can deny. Now that gets me thinking, maybe the fact that the art here is so terrible is not such a bad thing. It’s not possible that I’m the only one that sees that. Any discerning new collector should be able to tell this is not real street art, which would get her to begin her own research and arrive at her own conclusions about the genre.
This event confirmed for me that the best solution that we have for pushing street art into popular consciousness in an organized manner is public mural festivals. Pow!Wow! in the United States and Nuart Festival in Norway are doing it right, giving pioneering street artists a platform on an international scale to showcase originality and talent without regard for monetary gains. I have my own gripes about this format (e.g. it’s too conducive to decorative art) and there’s undeniable shortcomings (e.g. it’s sanctioned and protected), but right now I can’t think of a better solution. It puts the art and artists on front stage, with no middleman to peddle goods to the public. There’s no apparent product being sold.
Support real street art.
I think I now know how Nas felt.